North Country Girl: Chapter 17: Life in a Boy’s Dorm

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. 

I never became one of the popular or cool girls at Woodland Junior High, although thanks to my shopaholic mother’s inability to stay out of department stores, I was voted Best Dressed. I was not doomed to friendlessness though; history repeated itself when I was scooped up by another pale blonde with an outré home life.

When I was in sixth grade, Congdon had offered weekly violin, viola, or cello lessons, complete with an instrument to take home, to any student who wanted them. (Someone must have noticed the complete lack of arts in the curriculum.) My mother pushed me to take violin, and I gave in, daydreaming of playing on stage, dressed in the figure-hugging black sequined dress, “Solo in the Spotlight” from my Barbie collection, accompanied by a very handsome man at a grand piano, although the image of a long-haired Bugs Bunny at the Steinway kept intruding. Every Wednesday, I brought my violin to school, lied to the saint of a violin teacher about how much I had practiced that week, and screeched out an unchanging set of scales and simple tunes.

At Woodland Junior High, seventh and eighth grade students were required to take a music class: orchestra, band, choir, or for the hopelessly tin-eared, music appreciation class, where I probably should have been. But my year of sawing out “Twinkle Twinkle” earned me a place in the last row of second violins, where I shared a music stand with Wendy Miller. We immediately bonded over our lowly status in Orchestra and our hatred of the teacher/conductor, Mr. Peleski, who constantly stopped in the middle of a piece, tapping his stand furiously with his baton, to single us out and with good reason. If Wendy and I were not ruining the music, we were hiding behind our music stand, whispering.

Like my old pal Becky Sweet, Wendy was a transplant, a rarity in a place where it seemed everyone grew up, went to school, got a job, married, and started their own families without ever leaving Duluth. People lived next door to their grandparents, or grew up in the same house their parents had been born in. Everyone knew everyone else (“Now do you mean the Andersons who live on Arrowhead Road or the Andersons who go to Sacred Heart?”)  Meeting two girls in two years who were newcomers to Duluth was almost astronomically improbable.

Wendy was from International Falls, a town known (even in the Icebox City, Duluth) as being way too cold, even though Wendy confessed to feeling a tingle of pride every time she saw Frostbite Falls on “Rocky and Bullwinkle.”  International Falls was even better known for being permeated with the unholy stink from its huge paper factory, the reason for the town’s existence.

Vintage post card of International Falls.
Vintage post card of International Falls.

Wendy’s father had worked at this factory. That was all the information I ever got out of Wendy. I had been raised not to ask personal questions, and at twelve, I was too young to go immediately into the heat-seeking confessional mode with a new friend. Everyone had two parents, just like everyone had two arms and two legs. I would never ask anyone “What happened to your arm?”  A misplaced parent was just too embarrassing to talk about, so I never knew whether Wendy’s father was dead or still back in International Falls, inhaling paper fumes.

Wendy’s mom was that rare creature I thought existed only on TV:  a working mother. The two of them had moved to Duluth because Wendy’s mom had gotten a job as a dorm mother at the University. My new best friend lived in a boy’s dormitory.

How anybody thought it was a good idea to have a youngish, not unattractive single mom and her pre-teen daughter live with fifty eighteen-year-old guys, even in those days of innocence, is baffling.

The first week of school, I told my mother I was going the next afternoon to my new friend Wendy’s and her mother would drive me home. “Her mother works for the college,” I said, knowing instinctively to leave out her mother’s actual job title and the lack of a father.

Wendy and I lugged our textbooks and homework (no backpacks, and evidently we were all too stupid to even put our shit in a bag) up the hill from Woodland Junior High to the uninspired modern mediocrity that was the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Most of the old gothic red stone buildings had been torn down and replaced by flat-topped white or red brick ones; the campus looked as if it were made of Legos. One of the long narrow buildings, which resembled a motel gone incognito, was the home of my new best friend.

Wendy and her mother lived in a tiny two-bedroom apartment at the front of the dorm. I was enchanted. It looked like my old Barbie Dream House! The couch was attached to the wall and the TV sat on a built-in shelf. The kitchen was just one side of the living room, with fridge, stove, and dishwasher, all slightly smaller than normal, lined up in a neat row. Wendy’s bedroom was just a bit wider than the space taken up by the two single beds. And there were boys everywhere: hanging around outside, cruising down the dorm halls, sprawled on the dorm mother’s sofa.

These spotty farm boys (most of the students in the dorms came from towns ever smaller than Duluth) were Olympians to Wendy and me, who looked upon even ninth grade boys as being as unobtainable as Illya Kuriakan or Napoleon Solo, our beau ideals from our favorite TV show, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (thankfully Wendy preferred Illya).  These freshmen were a separate species, not boys, but not grown-ups either.

Not one of those college boys took any notice at all of the two glasses-wearing, flat-chested, giggly girls who were always around. If we had caught the eye of even the homeliest, most acned boy, things could have gone horribly wrong.

Wendy’s mom was required to be at the dorm almost all of the time, but her actual duties, other than sewing on a button, or giving instructions on the use of an iron, were non-existent. The freshman boys got up to nothing worse that drinking near-beer semi-secretively and smoking cigarettes openly in their rooms, but I guess the dorm mom was there to provide a semblance of adult supervision, locking up the front door at midnight (latecomers just rapped on dorm room windows till someone let them in).

The dorm boys all looked and acted pretty much the same. I kept learning their names and then immediately forgetting them. Except for one.

Let’s call him Joe. Joe was different because he had a drum kit in his dorm room. I never saw it as Wendy and I were strictly forbidden to go back into the boys’ rooms, or even into the hallway, but I imagine it as one big drum, one little, and two cymbals, a “My First Drum Kit.” Over and over, a vaguely familiar drum track with a six-count bang bang bang in the middle echoed down the dorm hallway. A few weeks into the school year, the dorm boys were saying that Joe was the drummer on “I Fought the Law.”  The Bobby Fuller Band were not the Beatles or The Rolling Stones. I may have been able to find a photo of the Bobby Fuller Band in a teen fan magazine, if I ever bought one; even if the band had appeared on Hullabaloo” or “Shindig!” the camera would never have lingered on the drummer. Joe could be the drummer for Gary and the Pacemakers, for all we knew; after all, he did have drums.

The drum set I envisioned. (Nick Nunns, Creative Commons)

A few days later Wendy gave me the news that Joe had admitted that he was the drummer on “I Fought the Law,” wowing everyone on campus. Someone famous was in Duluth and we knew him! Rosy-faced girls began to hang around outside the dorm, gloved hands shoved in coat pockets, necks craned, hoping for a glimpse of the rock ‘n’ roll guy. He gave an interview to the “Bulldog,” the UMD newspaper, about his other life as a member of a band, when he wasn’t studying plant biology or geography. Alongside the interview ran his photo, sticks in the air as ready as a sixgun.

Then Joe cracked. He contacted Channel 6, one of our three TV stations, told them that he was the drummer for the Bobby Fuller Band, and offered to play his drums live on their station. At the appointed times, I sat cross-egged in front of my television, thrilled by my brush with fame. Our kitchen phone cord was stretched from a coil to a taut line, so Wendy and I could talk; she told me there were so many guys smashed around the TV in her living room you couldn’t move. A voice announced, “Ladies and gentleman, Joe from the Bobby Fuller Band!” The camera turned on Joe, in black and white, sweating and shaking. There were no drums. Joe stammered out that he had to come clean. He wasn’t the drummer from The Bobby Fuller Band. He had made it all up. He just really, really, liked that song.

Wendy had hung up from her end. I turned off the TV and walked away and never saw Joe again.

My former best friend, Becky Sweet, was obsessed with George Harrison and sex; I don’t think she knew the name of a single boy in our sixth grade class. My new best friend, Wendy, was obsessed with boys and getting a boyfriend. I was twelve, a year younger than Wendy, but my own hormones were starting to percolate. I was literally fertile grounds. Whenever I found even a slightly suggestive scene in a book, I would read it over and over again, imagining myself as the character, whether her clothes were being gently removed or if she was being gang-raped. I relied on books, my oldest and best friends, to tell me about sex, which seemed equally horrifying and thrilling. I wondered, what did it feel like to have a boy touch your breast? What did a penis actually look like? And most important, why didn’t any of my books tell me how to get a boy to like you?

Wendy was convinced that the first steps to winning a boyfriend were cute clothes and lip gloss. My mother, who would have picked out clothes for a potted cactus, agreed. Mom was thrilled that I was finally taking an interest in what she bought for me, instead of sulking while she pawed through dresses in Glass Block’s Junior Department, hoping we would get ice cream at Bridgeman’s when this ordeal was over, while Lani ran amok in the store, knocking down racks of clothing.

Glass Block. (Duluth Public Library)

I still hadn’t gotten through my straight-A-student brain that seventh grade boys had no appreciation for teen fashion. Wendy and I and our cute clothes held zero appeal for them. But I found almost all of the boys fascinating. They were new. I hadn’t spent years in elementary school with them. I had never seen them pick their nose and eat it, or cheat on a spelling test. These boys hadn’t pushed me off a swing or thrown a dodgeball right at my face.

Some of these Woodland boys were mini-hoodlums, who got into daily after-school fights at “The Hill,” a grassy mound behind the parking lot, fights that were pointedly ignored by teachers headed for their cars. I lurked at the farthest back of the crowd, not knowing the contestants or their beefs. These fights were usually shoving and name-calling, and ended in minutes with a split lip, bloody nose, or black eye. Girls either followed the winner or tried to console the loser. I would file away the new curse words I learned and head over to Wendy’s to lie about how close I had been to the fight.

Some of these boys were jocks in the making, playing all four junior varsity sports and growing muscles and confidence. Groups of jocks always hovered around the popular girls’ table in the cafeteria, a table ruled over by Colleen Finuchin. Wendy and I could do nothing but look on with awe. Every few weeks, Colleen would invite some girl who was not a member of her clique to sit at her table. The poor sap would be so happy, surrounded by cute boys, soaking in popularity. Until the inevitable day would arise: the sap would show up at Colleen’s table, lunch tray in hand, and find her spot taken by a new grinning sucker. “Sorry, there’s no room,” Colleen would say, and turn to whisper something in her new best friend’s ear while the exile turned red and trembled before turning away in shame, wondering what sin she had committed to be banished. Wendy and I were so low in seventh grade status that we were never invited to sit at Colleen’s table. I like to think that we would have been smart enough to say no.

The clutch of smart, nerdy boys was the only pool where I had a chance of fishing for a boyfriend. I had an entrée into this group: there were a few boys I knew from that wonderful fifth grade enrichment program. They squinted at me and said, “Oh yeah. Gay. You read that Greek myth wrapped in a bed sheet.” I could talk to Bart Schneider or Tom Hoff without feeling that I needed to pee, but neither they nor any of their geeky pals asked me to a junior high afternoon football game or offered to buy me a sundae at Bridgeman’s,