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North Country Girl: Chapter 26 — The London Inn

Published: November 15, 2017

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.

 

At fifteen, I was expected to stay at home on school nights, but I was never cut off from my gang. From the second my homework was done, I monopolized the phone, calling one girlfriend after another. The small occurrences at East High that day were fodder for hours of discussion. I started out in the breakfast nook on the wall phone (no one ever used the Princess phone, dusty and neglected on my parents’ bedside table), perched on one of the uncomfortable white wrought iron chairs my mother thought were “so French!” I cradled the handset between my head and shoulder, twisting the plastic-covered coiled telephone wire until it was completely bent out of shape. I eventually stretched the phone line out to its maximum distance so I could lie on the carpeted floor of the dining room, yakking and yakking until my mom turned out the lights, my baby sister tottered over to sit on my head, or my dad came roaring in: “Get off the goddam phone!”

Phone

The kitchen phone. (Pexels.com)

Video of the London Inn in 1970. [Note: video contains repeated use of a vulgar hand gesture.]

Doug Figge, in his role as designated boyfriend, dutifully called every evening he wasn’t working; our phone conversation lasted about three minutes as Doug didn’t have a whole lot to say. Even if he had, I would have been more interested in the doings of natives in Borneo than what went on in the strange, foreign realm of Central High.

The good fairies had granted my two most heartfelt wishes: to be popular and to have a boyfriend. Wish one turned out to be all unicorns and sparkles and rainbows, but the fairy who granted wish two must still have been in training.

It felt right; Doug ticked an item off my list as if he were a school supply: pencils, three-ring binder, protractor, boyfriend. But when Doug kissed me there was none of the earth-shaking passion Forever Amber and Peyton Place and James Bond movies and even Romeo and Juliet had promised. I felt more lust for Roger Daltrey or James Coburn as Our Man Flint than I did for my flesh and blood boyfriend. Yet the Duluth teen code required that Saturday nights were for romance: boyfriend and girlfriend, two by two, and if you weren’t part of a couple, then you were expected to be out on a date, looking for love.

James Coburn

James Coburn in The Californians.

But Friday night was Girls Night, and I would only have stayed home if my feet were nailed to the floor. I lived for those Fridays; surrounded by that bevy of funny, big-hearted girls, I knew that we could do anything, rule the world, stay forever young, and always, always be friends.

Doug’s boss at the Canal Park Drive-In insisted that he work at least one weekend night, frying up onion and green pepper rings, mushrooms, and potato puffs and adding another layer of grease to his hair and face. I didn’t especially look forward to our Saturday dates and I dreaded those weeks he was off Friday night; from Monday to Thursday we would have the same phone conversation:

Onion Rings

Onion rings. (Jonathunder, Wikimedia Commons)

“So we going out Friday?”

Why didn’t he realize by now that Friday was Girls Night? What did he think had happened that would make me change my mind?

“Friday is when I hang out with my friends,” I sighed.

“I have to work Saturday. If we don’t go out Friday, I won’t see you this weekend. Aren’t you my girlfriend? Don’t you want to be with me?”

Doug thought it was preposterous that any girl would prefer to spend time with other girls when she had a boyfriend, even though “going out” meant nothing more than hours grappling with him in the back seat of his car, while he insistently played “Touch Me” by the Doors on his 8-track and pressed his rock-hard crotch against me.  I understood that was what a boyfriend did. I didn’t have to like it.

On Fridays I wanted to be part of the gang, surrounded by my girls, hanging out by the lake or playing Spades in Paula River’s basement, laughing and drinking and smoking (except for me). That was heaven enough.

Suddenly a whole new world of Friday nights opened up for us. Our natural leader, Nancy, was also the oldest; in January she turned sixteen and passed her driver’s test on the first go with an almost perfect score. Her parents, having been worn down by two previous teen-age kids, meekly passed on the battered white sedan that had survived both her older brother and sister, a car known since time immemorial as The White Delight.

The White Delight was our clown car. It was amazing how many girls we could squash in: four in the front and at least five in the back and not a single seat belt. From up in my bedroom I’d hear freedom’s call, the beeping horn of The White Delight, dash out of my house, throw open the car door, and find a lap. I was the smallest so never rated a seat of my own, much less the glorious and shouted for shotgun seat.

Nancy excelled at driving as she did everything else, guided by some mysterious force. She could putter down busy Superior Street at thirty miles an hour without ever looking through the front windshield, as there was always at least one fascinating conversation going on that was more important than the upcoming stoplight. Nancy’s head swiveled and her long brown ponytail bobbed from side to side while five or six of us girls talked and hooted and screamed, yet she never had a single accident, not even a fender bender.

Street

Superior Street in Duluth. (Knight Foundation / Wikimedia Commons)

Betsy turned sixteen, got her license, then Debbie, then the rest of my gang of girls. We slipped the surly bounds of earth, liberated by a driver’s license and the use of the family car. I dreamt of the day when I could drive my friends around in my mom’s big green Chrysler New Yorker. But I was a year younger than everyone else and so always a passenger in somebody else’s car as we headed out in a convoy on Friday evenings. (On Saturdays, those of us who were in-between boyfriends or whose boyfriends were working could fit into a single car, on the lookout for boys and trouble.)

Our first stop was always the London Inn Drive-In. I had been to the London Inn a million times as a kid. Intimidated by the throngs of teen-agers, I would wait in the car for my mother to come out with sacks full of hot burgers (ketchup only for my sister and me) and fries. My job was to hold the flimsy cardboard container of soda pop and keep the cups from spilling, which I managed about a third of the time.

Making your first entrance into the London Inn in a car full of kids was Duluth’s rite of passage: you are now officially a teen-ager. It was the gathering of the clans, a frenzied mating of wild animals, a not-so-secret clubhouse, and Woodstock, all in a half-acre parking lot. On weekend nights there were hundreds of kids, carloads of boys, carloads of girls, with a few couples checking in before heading out to park and neck. In all kinds of weather, we perched on the hood and trunk of The White Delight, smoking (except me) and talking and looking sideways at the boys in the car next to us. Ninety percent of the time we didn’t order so much as a coke.

Video of the London Inn in 1970. [Note: video contains repeated use of a vulgar hand gesture.]

Like everything in Duluth, the London Inn held on to its quaint innocence, its Gidget-like quality. While the owner of the London Inn didn’t seem to mind the swarms of teenagers who constantly surrounded his little business, he drew the line at drinking and fighting. If you got caught doing either, you were banned forever from the London Inn, so basically your life was over, you might as well head off to the Army or the convent.

As often happens when eighty-five teen-age boys convene in one space, looks were traded, names were called, and push came to shove. At that point the hotheads’ pals jumped on their backs and yelled, “Not here! Not here!” Usually that was the end of the scuffle. The combatants gave each other one last dirty look and separated with their pride intact, assuring their friends, “I could have taken him.” Once in a while, arrangements were made to meet elsewhere to settle things, as if the scruffy boys in black leather jackets were gentlemen discussing pistols at dawn.

Our gang’s lovely blonde Paula had a boyfriend, Craig, who was insanely jealous, a young brooding Othello, only paler. I hope he didn’t go on to murder his wife and kids. To make matters worse, Paula was an accomplished coquette. Flirting came as naturally to her as breathing. I marveled at her ability to look a boy in the face while talking to him, brushing her platinum hair out of her eyes, as adorable as a kitten.

If Paula did as much as accept a cigarette from another boy, word would mysteriously and instantly get back to Craig. There would be a squeal of tires into the London Inn parking lot and Craig would jump out, furious, bursting with testosterone, and ready to fight for his woman and defend his manhood. He’d find the guilty party, pull him out of his car, and offer to beat him to a pulp. Somewhere else, of course.

We all swooned. Craig was very handsome and we were stupid girls who thought the willingness to knock the crap out of someone was the ultimate proof of True Love. Paula swooned most of all but always hurried over to assure Craig that nothing had happened, she and that boy had only been talking about, um, school. Paula kissed and cosseted Craig, and they headed off for an hour alone in his car. Only once did we travel en masse up to the empty parking lot of the Super Value grocery store, to watch Craig punch a rival soundly in the nose, dropping him to the asphalt, and breaking his own hand in the process.

My gang’s objective every Friday night was to find a place where we could do some serious drinking. We never considered flouting the London Inn’s ban on liquor. That parking lot was our holy ground. The London Inn was HQ, where we swapped rumors of who was having a party, who had absent parents and an empty house, where in the woods or by the lake could we find a bonfire and a keg of beer. Word went around from car to car, and we headed out to get drunk, already passing bottles of Boone’s Farm Apple Wine from the front seat to the back in The White Delight.

If the party was a flop, with no cute boys or a limited amount of booze or parents who unexpectedly and horribly came home too early, it was back to the London Inn.

When we had exhausted all of our options for drinking, we headed over to Rick Amundson’s, whose house was on Hawthorne Road, catty-corner from mine. After five kids Rick’s parents had given up and permanently ceded the basement over to Rick and basically the entire sophomore class of East. The basement had its own separate entrance, down rickety steps that descend from their back yard, and Rick had glued up ratty squares of mismatched carpet on all four walls and the ceiling in an effort to soundproof the room. But inevitably there were too many kids and too much noise and it was too late, and Mr. Amundson came down thundering down in his slippers and robe and chased everyone out. Back to the London Inn we went, returning to the mothership, until the toll of curfew when all of us teen-age Cinderellas had to leave the ball or be grounded the next weekend. I tumbled out of The White Delight, stumbled into my dark, quiet house, crept up the stairs to my room, brushed the remaining puke out of my teeth, lay down, and tried to will the bed swirlies away. I rose ten hours later, fresh and happy and starving; the gift of youth.

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  • Janet Jones

    Growing up in So Cal, we had Bob’s Big Boy and the golf course, and the Zody’s parking lot and the (dry) LA River, the places had different names, but the stories seemed the same somehow. These chapters conjure up both great memories and an OMG, how did we ever survive?

  • David Monson

    Crazy video- seem to remember mostly jocks at the London Road Inn tho, so didn’t go there much. Freaks and hippies hung out more at Leif Ericson park (on the nice days anyway), maybe over to Joe Huie’s or Synder Drugs when cold. And what was that place on Michigan Ave. almost under the Lake Street bridge…had rock bands there once in a while….. Did they also publish the Banana Republic ‘zine? Created a big stir for printing “f***”. Remember going to a packed house hearing (city hall?) as someone wanted to bring obscenity charges against them as they were corrupting the good children of Duluth!

  • Judy

    Wonderful weave of Northland memories, Gay! I would love to see this in book form to share with my grandchildren.

  • Wow Gay, you spin me round (like a record) with this chapter! I love the picture of the red classic mid-1900’s kitchen phone. We had that phone & the regular model in my folk’s bedroom.

    Glad you survived Doug and his playing ‘Touch Me’. ‘Hello, I Love You’ had to have been another favorite; they’re still two of my mine. Naughty, naughty. I loved reading about Nancy and The White Delight. I’m figuring that was maybe an old Buick Electra or Olds 98 4 door sedan? Her driving skills are astonishing!

    Did you ever get your mom’s green Chrysler New Yorker? Both my younger sister and I got to borrow my dad’s blue-green ’68 Chrysler Newport in the mid-late ’70s after he’d moved on to a newer car.

    Mark Ryan, you did a remarkable job of naming names in the London Inn video! As a vintage car guy, I paid a lot more attention to those—-for sure. I noticed a ’64 Cutlass, ’67 Camaro, ’66 Caprice, ’63 Catalina, ’60 Biscayne and a ’65-’68 Mustang.

    I still like women like Paula, but they can’t have baggage like Craig; oh no. Glad to hear you enjoyed some Boone’s Farm Apple Wine. Bad girls though, if you were passing around that open bottle while driving!

  • Gay, I’ve enjoyed reading your memoir. I don’t think we knew each other but we certainly hung out in the same places in Duluth. Thanks for linking to my London Inn video on Youtube.

    One of your commenters, Eileen Monahan, wondered who was pictured in the video. Here’s a list of those I still remember. I may have mangled some of the name spellings. I don’t know that her brother Mike is pictured (I guessed he was the guy flapping his arms with Mike Green but I’m not sure of that) but Mouse Montera is definitely in there. Here’s the list:

    Person Pictured in LONDON INN video

    1. Steve Johnson
    2. Kevin Meagher
    3. Tom Metnor (on motorcycle)
    4. Mike Warren and Eddy Meyer
    5. John “Winger” Wingness
    6. Steve Johnson moves out of frame to reveal Mark Ryan
    7. Jim Stebe (in silhouette)
    8. Doug Melnotti and John Wingness, Mary Westin (back to camera) and Kathy Osbakken
    9. Mike Arkulary
    10. Mike Green (with plastic finger), Mike Monahan? and unknown
    11. Scott Minko (yellow shirt)
    12. Tom Mernicke
    13. Darby Meagher
    14. John ‘Mouse” Montera (in his blue Mustang) pan to Keith Gilbertson
    15. Mike Radke (left) and Roger Swor
    16. Steve Johnson (headphones)
    17. “Whitey” the Cop with Mike Warren
    18. Hank Swor and son, Roger
    19. Betsy? ________
    20. Steve Johnson (for the 4th time)
    21. Dan McGuckin (combing hair) and unknowns in car – maybe Cindy Wolf
    22. Tommy Plante
    23. Keith Gilbertson
    24. Kenny Brown (double fingers)
    25. Jim Sund
    26. Gil Merry
    27, Mark Ryan
    28. Gil Merry (with partially seen L-R: Steve Watters, Mark Ryan, and Myron Anderson)
    29. “Corky” (Inn employee at the dumpster)

    Also, the recipe for the London Inn onion rings can be found in the explanation paragraph of the video (click on SHOW MORE).

  • Don Wicklune

    I loved the story. Lived in Duluth the first 21 years of my life. Large onion rings, extra crisp was my usual order at the Inn. You described it perfectly, but with the the description of Rick’s basement, I realized we must have met.

  • Eileen Monahan

    I loved the London Inn and have been on a 50 year hunt for onion rings like theirs and have never found any that come close. Great article and you “right on.” Do you remember who the guys were in the finger video? If so, I am wondering if one of the was “mouse” montera and I thought I saw my brother Michael Monahan?? If I am right, please let me know. Great Article!

  • Mike Cohen

    Loved the video. Lots of shots of the kids who were too cool to hang out with me. :)

  • Lisa Peterson Smith

    Thanks for the memories, Gay. I always enjoy reading your stories. They remind me of my days in Duluth.