The Fork in the Road

January 1, 1971 found me in Minnesota, domiciled with brother Bill, what I had been waiting for those 16 years. It was exciting as hell: weather which made sense, diminished population, lakes, no more stinking Sunday School, a chance to grow properly and to learn. It was just like replacing Euclid's parallel postulate and crafting an entirely different geometry. A new set of axioms, that's what it was!

Welcoming me was a winter always dreamed of. Five foot high drifts of snow, whistling winds, and an air temperature one night of 38 degrees below zero. Minnesota winters were definitely in my DNA, a noteworthy improvement over the paltry freezing rains of my hometown. I still recollect hoofing it that first winter to the Red Owl for tobacco, or to Ma Faroh's to shop illegally for Ripple (she was nearly blind and incapable of carding, even if so inclined) or the food co-op in the basement of the Security Apartments, feet getting soaked to the skin in substandard holey shoes, fingers clenched to keep them from freezing, ears burning. It was perfect.

My first abode here was a riot. Since Bill worked at City Hall in the Planning Department, realtors were always schmoozing him, hoping he'd grease the skids on their various shady schemes or perhaps provide them with inside information. As such, the head of a large real estate agency in town (a baldy with the most ill-begotten toupee imaginable--it looked like a dead animal) plied Bill, who was still living in temporary digs, with an opening at the new apartment complex across the river. The catch was, this was to be available only to married couples. "No problem," replied Bill earlier in the fall. "I'll be getting married at the start of the new year."

And so Bill, Aldo and I moved in, no distaff presence in evidence. Aldo was a 120 pound Alaskan malamute. The "no pet" rule and a long-haired juvenile delinquent in lieu of a wife were quietly passed over by the greedy realtor anxious to curry favor at City Hall. The neighbors of the adjoining apartments, however, were far from well-pleased. We had no curtains and continually promenaded about in our briefs to the chagrin of those families with delicate sensibilities. Moreover we had no furniture, save two mattresses and a pair of Hauenstein beer crates upon which to sit. A big empty room was all the neighbors could see.

One by one, they took pity and started offering us castoff furnishings. Before long we were well outfitted with chairs, sofas, dressers, even a television set so we could start watching Horror Incorporated on Saturday nights. It was great fun living there.

There was a momentary hiccup in getting me enrolled at the new high school. It seems that Mervale, the principal (a dead ringer for J. Edgar Hoover, incidentally) had caught wind of my so-called reputation from down south, and attempted to deny my entrance. A rather brusque phone call from the newly elected Minnesota Secretary of State, Arlen Erdahl, disabused him of that notion pronto. Bill met Erdahl, previously a State Representative, as part of his work for the City and the two had become friendly. From that day, the pugilistic principal kept a healthy distance from me, but glared no end whenever I passed by his office. 

Due to the difference in academic requirements between my previous school and here, I was well ahead of the game and needed but two more courses to graduate, one in English and the other in social studies. Thus, I could bail out at noon, leaving the rest of the day free to loiter at the Readmore on Front Street (an excellent bookstore by anyone's standards) and the lovely old Carnegie library on Broad Street.

It was quite exciting to start at a new school, with all sorts of new people to observe and make friends with. I loved every minute of it. My very first day, I witnessed a hell of a girl-fight in the hallway on the second floor, featuring tons of rolling about, blouses ripped (appealing to my prurient interests)  and hair pulled. It took substantial effort on the part of my homeroom teacher and a few other faculty members to separate the wildcats. It was as though Itchy Archer had tagged along in the great migration.

The set-to impressed me.

During study hall, we seniors were granted the privilege of hanging out in the so-called Student Lounge. This was really little more than a portion of the cafeteria; the decor consisted of long brown Masonite tables, plastic chairs and a few vending machines. Naturally, I gravitated to the grouping of hippies there.

I've never been particularly shy, so jumped right in to introduce myself. The two hippie chicks were cliquish and apart from rolling their eyes in an affected manner whenever I spoke, ignored me from the get-go. On the other hand, Rog-Baby, Bonehead, Al and Arden were most welcoming, and soon we joined in on all sorts of laughter.

Another guy, Mike, caught my attention early on. He seemed quite diffident, and joined us, but just barely, always at the end of the table setting, a symbolic extra couple feet away. I made it a point to engage him at once, and soon the two of us were a team, pretty much ignoring the social stratification which infected even the hippy table. He never questioned me and I extended him the same courtesy.

I found Mike eccentric and fascinating. One day, he plopped his dime into the vending machine to purchase a pint of milk. As we chatted, he pried opened the triangular spout of the cardboard container, and proceeded to sip. After a moment he stopped dead in his tracks. Handing me the carton, Mike queried, "Do you think this milk's okay?"

I took a sniff and gasped in disgust, then peered in the opening to see the watery pale yellow curds sloshing about. "Mike, this is totally soured."

"I thought so," he replied. Taking the milk carton back, he proceeded to continue drinking the foul liquid. With a look of genuine surprise, I sputtered, "Why the hell are you drinking that shit? It's completely curdled!"

To which Mike responded, "Well, I paid for it, didn't I?"

On to English class with Mr. Haugen. I loved this guy and think he took an interest in me as a curious outsider. He always gave the impression he knew I was a hell-raiser, but found amusement in it since I threw myself into the classwork with genuine zeal. A wooden leg altering his gait substantially, always dressed to the nines, slicked back hair and what most took as a stern demeanor under no-nonsense spectacles, Mr. Haugen equally interested me. We hit it off at once.

One day in class all of the students took turns reading various passages aloud from some journal. When the next hunk got to the guy sitting in front of me, the action really slowed down. This little guy with hair so blond it was white was really struggling; reading was clearly next to impossible for him, the pained enunciation seeming more like that which might come from a third grader. As he plodded along, sounding out each word with deliberation, the guy eventually came upon the phrase "martial arts" in the piece. I had been half dozing waiting for him to conclude but jerked to full alertness when it came out "marital arts."

No one else in class noticed anything out of place. I looked down at the floor to conceal the slight smile coming to my lips. Just then my eye caught Mr. Haugen's, and he winked the subtlest of winks in my direction, the tiniest trace of the Cheshire cat in him. We both had caught the spicy nature of this malapropism and shared a private silent titter. 

It goes without saying I've always wanted to engage in the marital arts myself, but without the misery of matrimony clouding the issue.

Near the end of the term, Mr. Haugen announced that for a final project we would be writing a term paper some five or ten pages in length. Man, you should have heard the groaning! This made me chortle, for at my previous school we were constantly writing, indeed had learned the ins and outs of library research, footnoting, citing and so forth in junior high. This exercise should have been trivial, but my classmates behaved as though it was life without parole.

I had my paper done pronto. Thanks to Bill's professional contacts, the research went swimmingly. For in fact, his office lay just across the hall from the City Attorney (a genuine cut-up with a penchant for exotic literature, as I recall). I found his huge legal tomes indispensable as I crafted the term paper. The title of my little opus was, A Comparison of the Sodomy Statutes of Iowa and Minnesota. Mr. Haugen quite liked it. I'm telling you, there was more to that guy than met the eye.

A final thing about this English class. One three-week module within it was devoted to elementary propaganda analysis. I found the subject absolutely fascinating, and to this day continue to employ much of what I learned there, even remembering the somewhat colorful designations of the various ploys. In the end, it still amazes me that my two most worthwhile educational experiences in high school took place in English classes, one in Iowa, one in Minnesota. In the former case, I was introduced to Sinclair Lewis, in the latter, a deeper appreciation of the miracle of language. Both lie at the core of what I fancy important.

Without the safety of The Gang, there were not many pranks available here, but I did the best I could solo. Academics provided a relatively harmless alternative, though not exactly what high school is supposed to be for. And if nothing else, I made some fine friends, a couple who would later become roommates.

One of the few times Mervale ever spoke to me, he acidly spewed, "Of course, since you've only attended one semester, there's no way we can permit the diploma to show you graduated from here." My riposte sent him packing, chagrin written all over his features: "I wouldn't have it any other way."

Immediately upon graduation (with the previous as my alma mater), I headed to college without a break. There was still that business of Viet Nam to fret about, but otherwise I was home, at last. And ready for the Age of Aquarius to begin in earnest.

Next installment: The Great Detective

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