My so-called famous classmate

An exclusive excerpt from former Salon editor Chris Colin's acclaimed new book on being young in the '90s, "What Really Happened to the Class of '93: Start-ups, Dropouts, and Other Navigations Through an Untidy Decade."

Published June 1, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Editor's note:In the year and a half leading up to his 10-year reunion, journalist Chris Colin (a former Salon editor) tracked down former classmates from his northern Virginia public high school and asked them to pull back the curtains on their lives. Sometimes what he discovered was a full swath of American history -- the last decade's great and awful milestones as experienced by ordinary and once-teenage people. Other times he stumbled upon something more intimate in scale: frank and arresting accounts of how people fall in and out of love, or steady their nerves on hills in Kosovo, or fall on their knees before God, or find that biology had handed them the wrong gender, or give up on life altogether.

Each profile in the book begins with the subject in question describing his or her persona in high school; this is followed by other classmates' recollections, and then by the story itself. The book is full of characters recognizable to any former adolescent --- the teen mom, the discipline case, the first love, etc. --- but the one below, as the school's own minor celebrity, is recognizable by name alone.
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June 1, 2004 |

Chris Sununu: "There was a period where every time I'd go to school, [the media] were just outside the driveway with telescopic lenses."

Wes Black: "We had kind of a similar background, having grown up around politics. My dad [longtime Republican strategist Charlie Black] knew his dad. We were friends, but we weren't super tight. The first time I met him, freshman year, I was like, 'Hey, my dad knows your dad.' And he had his guard up -- he goes, 'You're full of shit!'

"Friends of ours would come up to him and spread their arms like an airplane, make airplane noises. He'd get pissed off. He was probably a little embarrassed about the whole [scandal involving his father]. I think that hurt him. He was a good person."

Rebecca (Gray) Lamey: "I went head-to-head with Chris constantly. Usually what ended up happening was, he always had all the guys on his side, and I always had all the girls on my side. Something about him -- there were a lot of guys laughing and applauding him that wouldn't have normally. One argument I remember was about the differences between the sexes. He and I ended up getting pretty heated. He was going on about how if he took a woman to prom, and rented a limo, and bought her dinner, he'd better get reimbursed for it at the end of the night. I said, 'You'd expect her to put out just because you spent money on her?' And he said, 'Yes, definitely.'

"He was one of those people actively speaking out against the change in the handbook [forbidding harassment of fellow students because of sexual orientation]. I heard him saying something about how that [clause] was stupid ... I always thought he was a rich, preppie, snotty asshole. It never occurred to him that things could be any way other than the way he thought. When we'd argue, he'd never concede a single thing."

Wayne Steward: "He was your typical straight guy's guy. Our lockers were near each other. We disagreed on stuff, but at no point did I ever have a really nasty interaction with him. At no point did he ever come up to me and say something overtly prejudiced. Then again, I was already out, you know? What, you're going to walk down the hall and call me faggot? I'd just turn around and say, 'I know!'"

Vanya (Seaman) Wright: "Freshman year I went to Karen Taggart's birthday party -- everyone was invited. It was at a mall, and we were trying to get seated at a restaurant there and we couldn't get in. We walked around and around for 45 minutes. Then Chris mumbled, 'I never have to wait for a table when I'm with my dad.' We went back and changed the name to Sununu and got right in -- though maybe they were going to let us in then anyway."

John Helmantoler: "I really liked Chris. He was a great guy. He was friendly. At the same time, I wouldn't say he was closed off, but he definitely had a core, smaller set of friends. The one time I ever saw him cut loose, it was the end of the night at this party at Wes'. Sununu and I were the last men standing -- everyone else was passed out -- and we were on the back porch smoking cigars. We were like, 'Ooh, let's break shit!' We grabbed a bunch of bottles and ran through the neighborhood smashing them. It was a good connection.

"Politically, his reputation was that of a Rush Limbaugh/Fox News type. That was definitely an accurate portrayal of him. He was definitely of that 'intolerant' camp -- I suppose I was, too -- though it's a bad word. He was of that party line -- 'What the hell's going on? We're making these people heroes and martyrs for coming out of the closet!' In our defense, we hadn't seen this before. It's usually not until college that you start seeing this stuff, and for us it was happening in high school.

"One other thing: He was very loyal. I remember running into him on a ski trip and he was with his girlfriend, who was not a world-class skier. [My friends and I] went down the easy slopes a few times with them, but then we tried to get him to ditch the girl for a while and do the black diamonds. But he wouldn't even consider it. He was a nice, nice guy."

To tell the story of Chris Sununu's life since high school graduation -- the life of a tall, gregarious engineer, with a soft, handsome face and twinkly eyes -- fairly or unfairly, one must begin with Chris' father.

Yes, that Sununu.

Elected governor of New Hampshire in 1983, John Sununu was named chief of staff to the first President Bush six years later, after proving instrumental in the 1988 primaries. Under Bush, Sununu was known for his fabled intellect -- as the Atlantic Monthly once reported, his IQ rose from 170 to 176 to 180 as the fable grew over the years -- and for his conviction that global warming was a myth, and for his long list of enemies; half of all references to the man contain "abrasive" at least once in the sentence.

But what made Sununu famous changed overnight in April 1991, our sophomore year of high school, when it surfaced that he had been making inappropriate use of government aircraft during his time at the White House. The apparent extravagance ultimately cost taxpayers over a half million dollars: It was widely reported that Sununu flew to two dental appointments, a stamp convention and a ski resort; still, he claimed 73 of the 77 flights were official or political business. Sununu ultimately reimbursed the government $47,044, with help from the Republican Party, according to the Associated Press.

"Air Sununu" had Americans far and near shaking their heads over the temerity of their president's chief of staff. For weeks it was not uncommon to see Sununu on the front page of the Washington Post. Critics complained later that the paper had it in for him, but as far as the chief of staff's son was concerned, the damage was done.

Now, at a café in Oakland, Calif., Chris mentions the gaggle of journalists who once camped out in front of his family's house. "I remember I had this piece-of-junk car that my brother had had in Boston when he went to school there. [He'd kept it] in his back lot, and he came out one day and there was a bullet hole in it. Anyway, years later, I now own this car in Virginia. Finally, my mom started telling me to park my car sideways so they wouldn't have pictures of bullet holes and get the wrong idea! It was a mess. At first it was interesting, then it was really annoying. [The media spotlight] lasted a good year. The cameras outside the house were only there for maybe a month, six weeks."

School offered Chris no protection from harassment -- an ironic predicament for someone remembered as an opponent of our famous anti-harassment clause. Charlotte Opal recalls a local radio station playing a parody song, to the tune of the old Steve Miller Band hit "Fly Like an Eagle," called "Fly Like Sununu." ("I want to fly like Sununu, to the sea/ Fly like Sununu, let the Air Force carry me.") She can't confirm the rumor that another student sang the song to Chris in chemistry class and reduced him to tears. John Helmantoler remembers John Doyle asking Chris if he could spare any airplane peanuts. According to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, John Sununu was the subject of 76 late-night talk-show jokes in 1991, edging out Clarence Thomas (72) and Ted Kennedy (70). Only Bush Senior, Saddam Hussein and Dan Quayle got more laughs that year. "I won't say he flew a lot," Sen. Bob Dole allegedly remarked at one point, "but he won't start a cabinet meeting until the seat backs and tray tables are locked into the upright position."

In December 1991, Sununu was asked to resign. (For years the story had it that the president sent his son, George W., in with the hatchet. The New York Times reported later that W. only reprimanded him.) According to the Colorado Springs Independent, Vice President Quayle noted his departure with an incontrovertible assertion: "This isn't a man who is leaving with his head between his legs."

"That was a different time," Chris says now with a casual flick of the wrist. "That's what kind of put this whole shell on me. I kind of closed up."

Chris Sununu, contrary to his high school reputation, is a sweetheart. Our first meeting is an unambiguously lovely time. It starts in daylight and we part ways after dark -- and then only because I'm out of tape. He has a frequent and easygoing smile. He has a friendly and endearingly high voice. He does not, despite what some tell me, say "faggot" at any point.

Because of his father or not, Chris' is a name that comes up in a lot of conversations with my high school classmates -- no small feat in a group of more than 400. Almost unanimously among them, he is remembered as a ferocious conservative, one who opposed gay rights legislation, who raged at the mildest environmentalist notions, and who was not to be gotten started on feminism. If tolerance became the issue du jour for us, jour after jour, Chris is recalled as its most stalwart antagonist.

This doesn't make it so. Sununu, as many called him, was two things: a living, breathing student -- argumentative, quiet, friendly, obnoxious, confident, or shy, depending on who's describing him -- and a vigorous but inanimate legend. The legend of Chris reflected not his own personality but the one bystanders constructed for him. ("Why did they think I would say that?" is a common refrain of his upon hearing words rumored to have come from his mouth. "I never said anything like that!") To be misunderstood is hardly rare in high school, but seldom is the condition amplified via telephoto lens.

Those who knew Chris liked him; those who knew only his reputation, or who tangled with him from afar -- these people kept their distance over the years. Distance is a passive arrangement in high school. The gods of adolescence divide their dominion according to social, political and cultural calculations that are beyond us. We students simply receive the grid. The grid, in return, keeps things simple. Cocky Republicans don't mingle with pretentious liberals, and vice versa, and so forth.

After the disclaimer that he is, in fact, very fond of the first George Bush ("I'm partly biased. My dad worked for him, I had a little bit of a personal connection with him. But I think he did a great job"), Chris tells me a story that illustrates the corner he often occupied at Jefferson.

"We were going through this whole [election] thing senior year, in our government class, and someone had to get up there and pretend they were George Bush and debate these issues. And everyone said, 'OK, Chris, you do it.' And I said, 'No! I'm not doing this!' And they said, 'Yeah, yeah, you have to.' And in the end I got railroaded! And I felt like, Why me?! This stupid stigma! I didn't have a passion for politics -- I had grown pretty cold to it. I read and listened and took everything in, but I tried to keep most of it inside. Because I kept feeling like I had to keep fighting that impression people had of me."

Years of fighting seems to have tenderized him, if anything. He's low-key, gentle -- nowhere near abrasive, certainly. Only very politely does he inquire, a couple beers into our first conversation, how, perchance, one might have found his number. The son of a former White House chief of staff and New Hampshire governor -- and now the younger brother of a New Hampshire senator -- he tries to keep his general accessibility limited. The Internet, I tell him. Chris nods and sips his beer and smiles gently like a man who knows he will always, always, be tracked. If it's not reporters, it's friends. If in high school he was something of a pet store mynah bird -- everyone who walked by tried to make him talk -- the pestering continued even after he flew the coop.

The double ghosts of pigeonholing and misattribution, real or imagined, still haunt Chris. When we first sit down to talk, I get the sense I'm lucky he responded to my calls -- just a few months earlier, he played possum to at least one interview request during his brother John's 2002 Senate campaign.

"Sure enough, my brother called me a couple days into it and said, 'Hey, I talked to [this woman] from the Concord Monitor, she said you didn't return her call.' I said, 'No, of course not, why would I?' 'Well, they were doing this whole piece about me -- it was a great piece, you should read it!'

"I grew very callous to that type of media in high school. My dad was all over the newspapers for a while, and I learned, 'I gotta grow a hard shell and not let this bother me -- I don't give a rat's ass what they say.'"

Chris concedes that his suspicion of the media might be "a bit unwarranted," but this is more a reflection of his own rhetorical generosity than any faith in the journalistic arts. Even Chris' most reviled enemies are patiently praised for their few virtues when he talks about them, and it's not grudging praise. "Clinton was an excellent statesman ... and brilliant," he says, thoughtfully, of the president he just finished calling sleazy and despicable. California, a fickle and tree-huggy state whose fiscal disasters are "unbelievable," is also recognized as the one with the potential to be "the greatest in the union." This sounds a bit like moral relativism at first -- worthy of Clinton himself, actually -- but over time it becomes clear that Chris is in no way a waffler. No, he's something else, every bit as elaborate: the son of a famously inflexible politician, and then the son of a man forced -- railroaded -- out of Washington by an equally inflexible media. Somewhere along the way, Chris began looking at things from more than one angle.

Other strategies took hold. Escape from the shadow of his father, and from his own reputation -- whatever it was -- began in 12th grade, soon after his mandatory Bush channeling. Chris' interests began shifting away from national politics and more toward foreign affairs, particularly the Palestinian-Israeli crisis. Chris himself is of Palestinian and Lebanese descent, but the more immediate draw for him seems to be the complexity of the region. "Lebanon, Syria ... I find that whole area really interesting, because I feel I'll never understand it," he says.

After TJ, Chris buried himself in abstruseness even further, majoring in environmental engineering at MIT (which his father had attended and where he later earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering). "I didn't know what kind of engineering to get into," Chris says, "so I did what my roommate was doing. It sounded like fun. I liked being outdoors." He graduated after four and a half years. ("I wasn't the best student in the world," he offers by way of explanation. "I'd say I enjoyed Boston.")

College was also when he met his wife, Valerie, who attended a small women's school nearby ("not Wellesley" is her description). She began noticing Chris from afar after she met friends of his at fraternity parties.

"My first impression of him was that he was unapproachable and intimidating," she recalls. (Valerie herself is not these things, incidentally. She is warm and inviting and not unreceptive to such abstract conversations as what makes your husband tick. Answer: "I don't know. What makes anyone tick? Loyalty, maybe?") Over time, and still from afar, Valerie deduced a little more about her crush. "Amidst all these schmoozy player types, Chris was different. At [fraternity parties] he couldn't stand drunk girls. He wouldn't talk to them."

It was a summer day in one of the frat houses when Valerie walked in on Chris doing a very un-Sununu thing, at least as far as his high school reputation went: He was painting. Sort of. If I understand Valerie's description, he had a projector set up and was throwing images of different classic rock albums up against a wall, which he would then trace over with a brush. It was a pure and quiet moment of homage, and that was when she knew.

Chris, for his part, remembers one of the first things that touched him about Valerie: "After we started seeing each other, she was like, 'What does your dad do?' And I thought that was great. Thank goodness. I don't want you to know! Not that politics is a bad thing, but..."

Chris graduated with an engineering degree and a firm commitment to not being an engineer. He went to film school at NYU -- for two months. He didn't want to pursue the lifestyle many of his classmates there seemed destined for. ("Bumming around from film project to film project with no real focus" is how he describes it.) Anyhow, Chris didn't like the art-house movies NYU leaned on its students to make. He now occupied an uncomfortable position. He called his best friend Steve and commenced Plan B.

On a summer day, Chris and Steve caught a bus from Massachusetts to Bangor, Maine, and then hitched rides to Mount Katahdin and climbed out of the car. Then, with some difficulty, they walked to the state of Georgia. The Appalachian Trail is more than 2,200 miles long, and Chris and Steve spent five months covering it. Chris calls it his life-changing event.

The planning alone lasted months. They carried a pot, two cups, a burner, a stove, a pan, dry clothes, water and food for the whole trip. They packed no tent, just slept in lean-tos or wrapped themselves in a tarp. They learned about misery via hip problems and shin splints and blisters and loneliness and mice. The mice scurried around the lean-tos and scared Chris, who's afraid of them. Ten percent of those who begin the trek don't make it. A good many relationships and marriages dissolve. "Fuck you," Chris and Steve told each other periodically. Chris' most irritating habit if you're walking next to him for five months? "I'm a little parental. Cautious. I give too much advice probably." But they knew how to maintain their friendship: "People have to be as accepting of each other as possible," he explains. In keeping with the long-held tradition of trading one's real name for a trail name, Chris, fresh out of film school, became Fade Out. "When you're out there, you're not part of your old life," he says. "It's a separation from the rest of the world. It's a new life."

Chris had begun dating Valerie, so now they dated remotely. He sent postcards and made calls from pay phones. He kept a daily journal. "Don't ever do this again," he wrote in a number of places. Why did he walk 2,200 miles, never accept a ride along the way, do the thing backwards (most hikers go south to north) and resist the constant urge to quit? "It was a way to get my head straight in terms of what I want to do," he says. By Georgia he knew. He didn't want to become an "80-hour-a-week worker, like so many people our age," but he also didn't want to become "a floater, a two-bit guy without a steady job" -- a common inclination among those who complete the hike and want more and more adventures. What Chris wanted was a life in the middle.

Chris came back to Valerie. He'd decided he wanted a life with her, too. They packed their bags and drove to San Francisco for an adventure of their own. Soon they were married. Valerie took a job as a teacher in Marin County, and Chris began work as an environmental engineer for an Oakland firm. "It gets me outside," he says -- specifically, it gets him wading in sewage, tapping toxic plumes, or sampling groundwater, wondering idly whether hepatitis is afoot. His task at these venues is to devise affordable cleanup solutions. "I never would've pegged you for an environmentalist," I say. "Oh no," Chris replies, waving a finger. "Don't use that word."

But even without that word, it's clear that his life since high school -- film school, the Appalachian Trail, California, engineering -- constitutes a tremendous migration from the Chris Sununu people thought they knew at Jefferson. "It's not permanent," he says of this life he's made in San Francisco -- the Sununus will return to New England -- but for now it's a respite.

What to make of this nice person, this non-monster? Could Chris really have stood for bigotry years ago, as so many classmates tell me? Nothing in his current behavior lends itself even remotely to that idea. Not because friendliness and passionate conservatism are mutually exclusive, but because Chris' particular brand of openness gives the distinct impression of acceptance. He explains it this way: That bigot never existed in the first place.

"I was fairly conservative, but I always thought I got a bad rap. A lot of times it was very mean-spirited -- things I didn't want to be associated with. Like that gay guy who came out, Wayne, I didn't know him from a hole in the wall. And I immediately got associated with this group of people that didn't like Wayne Steward and couldn't believe he was gay. And I remember being in high school thinking, 'What do I care that he's gay?' And I knew Wayne didn't like me -- I found out down the road. I heard different stories, that people didn't like me, and people were really offended by me, and I thought, I never said anything. I never did anything -- they just associated me with that."

Because of my dad -- that's the part of the sentence always left unsaid. Chris refers only obliquely to his father, or at least his father the politician. Same for the other John Sununu in his life -- his brother -- who's now in the position of sending more indirect fire Chris' way. The National Stonewall Democrats claim "Sununu opposes all non-discrimination and hate crime laws that include sexual orientation. He has continually refused to sign a pledge that states he will not fire his own staff based on their sexual orientation." The League of Conservation Voters, meanwhile, blasted the former congressman as having one of the worst voting records in Congress when it comes to clean air and water. Sununu's spokeswoman, Barbara Riley, replied that her boss had been misrepresented; a pattern begins to take shape in this family.

And indeed Chris does still catch hell: "Valerie took my name, and all of a sudden people were like 'Do you know who you married?! Do you know what his father does?! Do you know what his father did?! Do you know his brother's in the Senate?! They're really Republican! You're married to a Republican!'"

Ugliness happens when 1,600 people are crammed into a building, and when a single person is crammed into adolescence. Later, the ugliness must be either processed or disinherited -- the choice, I suspect, determines the course of one's high school reunion. It's perhaps no surprise that Chris recalls nothing beyond innocent, if heated, in-class debates when I press him about high school. Did he do anything that people might have construed as homophobic? No. When I mention Lesley, who claims to have been his archrival, and to have often gone head-to-head with him, he just barely recalls her. "She had a baby in high school? I don't think I forgot, I just don't think I knew her that well."

I'm aware of two scenarios in which an adult may deny unpleasant stories about his or her past. In the first, the unpleasant stories present some inconvenience -- perhaps the adult has since matured, or else the society around him has matured and left him in the cold. ("Everything's different now," classmate John Helmantoler says, illustrating the latter in his own case. "I may have a vice president at my office who's gay, but I'm not going to walk into his office and call him a fag.") In the second scenario, the unpleasant stories were never true in the first place.

This is what I'm learning: American high school is an unsorted heap. American high school reunions are a rooting around in the heap. The nature of my class's ongoing quarry is ideological, owing I suppose to our idiosyncrasies and to the decade around us. We search out unseemly ideas, either because unseemly ideas are taking the world in the wrong direction or because they substitute for relationships we'd rather not pursue. Fag, certain people hissed in high school, and sometimes other types of slur were insinuated, too. Bigot, certain people hiss now. Lesley looks back and accuses Chris and other Republicans of homophobia. Brian looks back and accuses an entire class of misrepresenting him. Lorraine looks back and accuses me and other whites of racism. I look back and essentially write a book's worth of accusations, albeit couched as journalism. All this digging around for the hidden truth -- is this the maintenance of an open society or the stirrings of its closure? I don't know the answer, and so with Chris, as with every other classmate I find, I decide the best that can be done is the thing we never did in high school: hang out.

Dessert party, chez Sununu. In a fit of hayseed paranoia, my girlfriend Amy and I Google "dessert party" in advance -- is this some traditional Republican sacrifice we hadn't heard about? Turns out "dessert party" is a party where guests bring dessert. Still, the tendrils of young American conservatism promise to be illuminating. It's one thing for a scion of power to put on a show for an interview, I decide, and quite another to keep the facade up for the duration of multiple strudels.

The tendrils prove limited on this particular Saturday night. Just half a dozen of us show up, and the stereo never gets louder than elevator music. We mill around in what will soon be Chris' ex-apartment, in San Francisco's tony Pacific Heights neighborhood. Chris and Valerie put in two good years on the left coast and in April they will head back to New England, where all New Englanders eventually return. This is something of a warm-up for the goodbye party.

The circle of friends here -- all couples -- have a distinct generationless look about them, which is to say they're dressed conspicuously normally. As with Chris, their outward appearances betray no particular culture: neither military, skater, hippie, geek, jock, freak nor frat. They are casually preppy and friendly, just as likely to know about thread count as German motors, not afraid to call a good beer "a tasty beverage." The men of Chris' orbit are firm-handshakers yet not macho, the women fairly reserved but not submissive. Amy and I make small talk about vacations until the chocolate liqueur kicks in.

"I think Chris is one of the most complex guys I've ever met," a friendly architect named Noah tells me once I've explained my high school reunion project. Chris himself is just a few feet away, and I watch for the pricking up of ears, but they don't budge. Noah continues. "To have a past like that and to never mention it, even to keep it at arm's length, that's got to mean something" -- here Noah makes a face that says don't ask me what it means -- "we'll be playing basketball and it'll come out that he's hung out with Magic Johnson, or Madonna. And he just seems unfazed by it."

I don't know. People who seem unfazed seem to be the first ones you find mumbling under the overpass a couple years later. Then again, Chris really does seem to have things sorted out. I think of Lesley, whose dynamism and idealism have sometimes taken a backseat to bad luck. Chris, by comparison, appears to be just plain happy, and surrounded by an amiable cadre of dessert eaters. Of course, he didn't raise a son at 16, injure his back, or receive a creepy call luring him off to a dead-end street. But he also went to great lengths distancing himself from the person so many people thought they understood a decade ago.

There is an unwritten letter in Chris' head, he tells me in one of our conversations. I have a version of this letter in my own, and I suspect it's not entirely uncommon. Chris', were it ever to reach paper, would go out to just a few people he's known in his life, "mostly from college, some from high school." "'Hey, sorry about all that!'" Chris says, reading from the imaginary missive. "'Hope that's all under the carpet now.' I just don't want to go to my grave with people thinking I'm a dick."

The dessert party fades out before too late (though not before I'm promised the blue ribbon for my key lime pie, I should point out). By 10:30 we're watching photos of Chris and Valerie's recent Hawaii trip pop up on a computer screen and then cycle away. The photos are generic vacation photos -- a romantic one here, a nature shot there, here a funny face --and by rights we should be bored. But the documents of someone's private life keep a fellow nailed to his seat when the private life is so hard-won. "I could never go into politics -- no privacy," Chris told me at one point, but of course he is in politics, and has never had a choice. But he also has a trail name he can answer to, and can wander off into Appalachia with his wife whenever he likes.

By Salon Staff

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