For more about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chapters in her serialized memoir. The Post will publish a new segment each week.
If there was anything my mother hated, it was a mopey girl lounging on the couch with a magazine or book, sighing and pointedly not helping with housework. So she signed me up for a four-hour summer class at Woodland Junior High on Global Citizenship. The class was led by two serious young men who spent a lot of time boasting that they regarded us not as students and teachers but as equals; we were all partners in this amazing learning experience. They were do-gooders: they encouraged us to spend the afternoons with them as they canvassed for Fair Housing, knocking on doors and trying to explain to puzzled housewives that they should display the blue and white Fair Housing sticker on their front door to show that they would happily rent to black people. No one in our neighborhood rented out rooms in their home, and there was a dearth of black people to rent to. Our teachers gave us all Fair Housing stickers for our own doors; my mother immediately tossed it in the trash, muttering something about uppity Negros.
What were we supposed to learn in this summer class? To this day I have no idea.
From eight to ten, we played a weird model UN game. We were broken up into countries by lot. Each country had a round table with a small flag stuck in the middle and six to eight kids sitting around it, squabbling about who got to be President and who Minister of War. I was Ambassador to the UN and made regular trips to the big square table at the front of the room that proudly displayed a large blue and white flag that stood for unity and peaceful intentions.
Each country started with the same population and resources, it was up to us to decide whether we wanted to grow wheat, mine coal, trade with other countries, build cities, raise taxes, hold elections, or invade a neighboring country. The first few weeks of this were mildly entertaining; there were kids from other junior highs so there were new boys to yearn for. The rules were extremely complicated and required continuous hashing out and interventions by the teachers to resolve. Every day at ten we had to fill out mimeographed forms indicating what we as a nation had accomplished. The teachers took these forms and spent hours correlating them with the help of an overstuffed binder filled with the different formulae and outcomes for this very weird role-playing game. Each morning at eight, there were typed sheets waiting for us on our table, telling us if our country was deep in debt, had an unhappy populace, raised enough wheat to trade for iron, or had captured a foreign capital. This game, meant to teach us peaceful co-existence, was like Esperanto, well-intentioned but impossible to learn and pretty boring.
We soon figured out that the most fun we could have was declaring war on each other. Speeches were made, bombs were dropped, ploughshares hammered into swords. Funny insults were traded between countries, under the disapproving eyes of the two young teachers. The next day the papers on our tables told the sad tale that we had destroyed the earth. We got a short, head-shaking lecture on how we were not following the spirit of the game, striving for world peace and a better life for our people, and were a disappointment to both teachers. Thankfully, this was not real life, the world would be resurrected, and the game could start over again. The second round, we wasted no time in even glancing at our agricultural outputs, called up the atomic bombs immediately, and ended the world in a matter of days. At that point, one of the teachers broke down completely, tore the papers up, and announced that the class was over.
I wasn’t sad about the end of the stupid game, but by blowing up the earth twice, we had also killed off the second part of the class. From ten to twelve, the teachers huddled together over the binder and each country’s scrawled mimeographed sheet while we kids sat in a darkened classroom and watched movies, movies I had never heard of, that had definitely never made it to the Norshor or Granada theaters. Whoever selected the movies did a hell of a job. We saw Japanese movies: Yojimbo and The Seven Samurai. Italian movies: Juliet of the Spirits, Woman in the Dunes, Rocco and his Brothers. We saw The Seventh Seal, Nothing But a Man, and for some reason, The Good Earth, I guess as a nod to China. The movies were shown in a darkened classroom, one of the teachers appearing half way through to change the reel. At noon (or later, if it was a Kurosawa film) I would emerge blinking into the bright summer sunshine, more determined than ever to find a way out of Duluth and into the world. I felt as if I were stranded on an island, craning my neck and squinting over at another land close enough for me to almost make out its wonders, but impossible to swim to.
While my mornings were filled with world destruction and foreign films, my afternoons were gloriously unstructured. Cindy and I were still close, though she was spending more and more time practicing cheerleading, determined to make the East High junior varsity squad. She wanted me to try out with her, but I was too proud of my proto-hippie identity and too aware of my physical shortcomings to even consider a future as an East High Greyhound cheerleader.
At this point my father showed an unprecedented interest in my social life. “You should be friends with Mary Ann Stuart” he ruled, and drove me over to Northland Country Club himself to spend time with Mary Ann, the golf pro’s daughter. My dad must have owed him money. Mary Ann had been another shadowy figure in my life, appearing for a week or two in the summer around the Northland pool from her home in Clearwater, Florida, where she lived with her mother. But this summer she was to spend the entire time with her father, in a small rustic cabin on the country club grounds. Summer days are long in Duluth, and Mary Ann’s dad was out on the golf course from seven in the morning to seven at night. Mary Ann and I had the unheard of luxury of an entire house to ourselves. Put two 14-year-old girls in an empty house and they will have a single goal. The first thing Mary Ann said to me was, “Let’s go find some boys.” Mary Ann threw a cotton button-up shirt on over her bikini top and cut-off jean shorts, a look I copied every day that summer.
This was the official girl’s outfit at the Deeps, the best place to find boys, boys who were swimming and tanning and showing off. On a sunny day in Duluth, when the thermometer hit 75, the Deeps at Lester River were a teen wonderland, boys and girls, half-naked, checking each other out, arranged by the dozens on both banks, or waiting to make one of the Deeps’ death-defying leaps.
Despite everyone knowing someone’s second cousin who had cracked his head open on a discarded refrigerator lurking at the bottom of the Deeps, teenage boys ventured higher and higher dives, clinging one-handed to birch saplings before flinging themselves off the jutting cliffs. I was scared of the refrigerator, a white ghost just visible beneath the tannin-dark water, and stuck to the lower jumps well away from the Frigidaire. But one time in a desperate effort to get a boy to notice me, I worked up the nerve to launch myself off the 40-foot-high railway bridge spanning the Lester River downstream from the Deeps. My courage sprang from my near-sightedness; Mary Ann held my glasses so I couldn’t see how far below the river was. The impact tore my sandals apart and I had to walk back to Mary Ann’s shaking and barefoot.
Besides death from misadventure, the Deeps was also famous for smoking, beer drinking, necking, and even petting. Good girls from nice families, Cotillion girls, did not go to the Deeps; I knew better than to ever let slip to my parents that I spent almost every day there. And if I had not been in the company of Mary Ann Stuart, I would never have been brave enough to venture to the Deeps. Cindy was horrified at my daring.
But Mary Ann knew how to talk to boys, who talked back to her large breasts. I had heard Northland Country Club pool mothers cluck about Mary Ann’s “early development,” and she continued to develop. I learned from Mary Ann what you really needed to get a boyfriend and it was not a winning personality or a cute dress or Yardley lip gloss. My breasts were barely big enough to justify wearing a bikini top, but I benefited from the halo effect given off by Mary Ann’s Playmate-worthy chest.
Boys would wave and call out “Mary Ann!” before they made their terrifying leaps into the river. Boys would offer Mary Ann Tareyton or Old Gold cigarettes and Mary Ann would smoke them. Boys would ask Mary Ann about life in exotic Florida. I would stand to the side and try to look interesting.
Sometimes Mary Ann would pretend to be mad at one of her suitors, and I at least got to talk to a boy, even if all he wanted was to know was how to get Mary Ann to pay attention to him again. Mary Ann would spot us whispering together and say later, “I think he likes you,” and I would sigh, wishing it were so.
Mary Ann finally made her selection from the worthy contenders: Dave Arsenault, tall for his age, a Cathedral High football and hockey player, and a famous Deeps diver. By the beginning of July he had achieved a nut brown tan, which set off his dreamy white-toothed smile and his thatch of dark hair, just long enough to be cool, and soon to be cut down to a crew cut by his football coach.
As the sun dropped between the trees on the other side of the river, Mary Ann said, “Dave, you want to come over to my house?” Dave did, and he and Mary Ann vanished into her room, while I lounged on the creaky, dusty couch, paging through old golfing magazines before giving up and going home.
And just like that, Mary Ann and Dave were boyfriend and girlfriend, and I was the third wheel. This was an unacceptable situation to Mary Ann; she ordered Dave to find a boy for me. She was a real friend.
I ended up with Steve LaFlamme, another Cathedral High hockey player and a knock-off version of Dave Arsenault, but still way too cute for a girl of my middling looks, a girl with smaller than average breasts who wore weird glasses. Steve just ambled back to Mary Ann’s house one afternoon with us; when Mary Ann and Dave disappeared into her bedroom, Steve sat down next to me on that saggy, scratchy sofa. I watched, terrified, as his head loomed in closer and closer to mine, until our faces were smashed together. Oh my god I’m being kissed, what is he doing with his tongue, it feels huge, I can’t wait to tell Cindy, where is my own tongue suppose to go? I disentangled myself to take off my glasses, which were digging into the side of my head, and thinking that now Steve would get to admire my true beauty. Steve took one look, screwed his eyes shut, and went back in for the kill.
By the time Dave emerged from Mary Ann’s bedroom, collected Steve, and waved goodbye, my lower face was achy and sore. I didn’t care. My first kiss and was what we did necking or making out? Did this mean he was my boyfriend? I guess I liked him, even though he never actually talked to me, outside of asking, “You’re going to East?” I wasn’t sure he knew my last name so how was he going to call me? Dave called Mary Ann every evening.
That night I mentally kicked Napoleon Solo, Mick Jagger, and Robert Plant out of bed and fell asleep imagining Steve telling me how much he liked me, Steve kissing me, Steve reaching over the table at Somebody’s House to hold my hand, Steve kissing me, Steve and I frolicking in the pools at the Deeps, Steve kissing me…