Friday, September 08, 2006

Being Led Astray By Gail Jennings

Gail Jennings was my first college roommate. We both had these odd backgrounds -- I had spent the last two years of high school living with my great-aunt, and her father had died the year before at the age of 90 (as I remember, he was up mending the roof and fell off, which impressed the hell out of me). I was studying Arabic and she was studying Russian. And you should have listened to us as we practiced our pronunciation at the same time! My, the unusual sounds that came from that room late at night.

We hit it off immediately. I'm sure, that if she were to tell you about those days, I was the one who led her astray, but since the things I suggested we do (sneak break into one of the men's dorms [which happened to be locked] before dawn to watch the sunrise from the roof [above the eighth story] because we started too late to get up in the hills in time, for instance) just seemed like good ideas to me. It was the stuff that seemed like good ideas to Gail that I'm talking about.

You need a little background here. We were entering freshmen in the fall of 1960. The prior spring, the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) hearings had been held in San Francisco and the Daily Californian had written some stories about them, and about students being washed down the stairs by fire hoses when they went to demonstrate, that caused the powers that be to object. In those days, the University stood in loco parentis to students, and the regents simply started censoring the paper. At which point, the editorial staff printed the "We Quit" issue (printing copies of the front page on their shirts as well), walked off, and started their own paper, the Independent Californian. (On the masthead: Valid Student Journalism.) At that point, Gail and I joined the staff of the new paper, becoming cub reporters caught up in the movement. We may have been the only students to join at this point; we were certainly the only ones I can remember who didn't have We Quit shirts. The IC only lasted three weeks. We had to find stories, write them, edit them, put the paper to bed, and get up and sell the paper the next day. While it was exciting for Gail and me, the older students were having problems trying to do all this and study for mid-terms and the ROTC members (translation, all the men, since it was mandatory at that time) were getting told that they would never get security clearance if they continued (and who knew if someday you might want it?). So, our editor, Dan Silver, called us together and we closed. Had a party at his apartment afterwards, and many of us either went back to or, like me, joined the Daily Californian.

As I said, mid-terms were upon us. One night Gail and I were studying late, mangling the sounds of Russian and Arabic at each other, and we got goofy. You know how you do, pulling an all-nighter. Gail wrote a story about how I married Dan Silver (on whom I had such a crush -- he was brilliant! 19, the editor of the paper, and a senior majoring in my very own major, anthropology) and we had 26 kids named after famous anthropologists and mythical beings (my personal favorites, named 17, 18, and 19 because they were born during the years I had severe post-partum depression and so only numbered them) and taught in one of the temporary buildings (quonset huts put up during WWII and still there the last time I looked in the 70s) on the Berkeley campus. She even illustrated it, and one picture I remember showed Dan and me taking the kids to school in a buckboard pulled by four battered VW bugs and . . . It was really very funny. But then -- she decided she was going to mail it to Dan. Panic! I was able to talk her out of it only by allowing her to mail him something. We were eating stick pretzels and I decided she could mail him a pretzel.


Thus was born The Independent Pretzel (Valid Student Nourishment). We published on post cards. All issues had the masthead. The first issue had one pretzel taped on. On the fourth, they spelled out H I. We kept it up, adding one a day, until the post cards were full. Two days before we ran out of room, the Pelican (the UC Berkeley humor magazine) came out with a brief mention that "Dan Silver has been receiving obscene pretzels in the mail." I was sitting waiting for class to begin when I read that. Of course, that night we had to fill the beak of the Pelican's pelican statue with pretzels. (No, I don't know who the guy is but that is the very Pelican's pelican itself! In front of the building that housed the magazine offices.)

The night that we mailed the third pretzel, we just continued walking and talking until we realized that it was 4 a.m., we were way beyond our 10 p.m. lock out, the street we were on was absolutely empty, and there was a police car pulling up. The officer wanted to know where we had been at that time of night and Gail told him we had been visiting my aunt (who lived in another town, for pity's sake!) and when he asked for her address, she gave Dan Silver's! I was standing there picturing this policeman knocking on Dan's door at 4 a.m. with us in tow and trying to figure out how I was going to explain this to a young man who may have known only vaguely who we were, when Gail got the same mental image I was getting and blurted out, " I lied! It's just a big lie! We've just been walking and talking. Her aunt lives in Modesto!" So, of course then the officer wanted to know why Gail had felt compelled to lie to him. "I was afraid you'd think we were prostitutes, being out this late." Laugh! I thought that poor cop would pee his pants! It turns out, as you may already know, that prostitutes don't walk empty streets at 4 a.m.

On another of our all-night walks, we were rescued from thugs in a car by garbage collectors and rode their route with them for two hours, until we arrived at our dorm. Two of the nicest men I've ever met, perfectly happy to take us with them to safety. And how it frustrated those idiots in the car, who kept circling and circling just sure we'd get out of the truck and they could grab us!

We used to study at the Kroeber Anthropology Library. At the foot of the circular staircase, there was a sarcophagus. (Not too much like this one. I lucked out with the pelican; couldn't expect the same fortune twice.) One night Gail decided to find out what it felt like to lay on top of it, so down the stairs we went and up the tomb she went, at which point she realized that there were a couple of male grad students at the top of the stairs looking down at her. Off she rolled, and I did not try that, thank you anyway.

The next night on the way over we took a detour to the roof of one of the more historic buildings and while there, we threw a length of board into Strawberry Creek. (No, I won't tell you why we did these things because I don't know why we did these things. I don't think I ever knew why we did these things.) Then we went down and Gail fished it out (she had the most amazing collection of souvenirs from expeditions like this). So, there we were in the library, Gail carrying this dripping piece of wood, and I looked down and said, "That's not the same board, it's covered in algae." and she answered, "I have an uncle named Algie" and of course we both got a fit of the giggles and people looked up and I heard a male voice say, "My God! That's the girl I was telling you about, the one who was laying on the sarcophagus last night!" I have never been back to that library since.

This poster is titled "Women Walking Over the World" which is exactly what Gail and I were. I think that we lived our friendship on our feet. So many of the memories I have of her are of late or all night walks. Walks where we solved the problems of the world, and where I learned how very differently someone who is very much like me can think and see the world. One of our early all-night walks through Berkeley neighborhoods brought us to an area with oddly shaped trees that for some reason made Gail think of Morlocks, something that would not have occurred to me, but which I could see once she had pointed it out.

(In those days, women's dorms were locked at 10 p.m. and if you were not in, you were "locked out" which could lead to expulsion. How odd that it never occurred to anyone that when a woman was locked out she might then spend the night elsewhere! Gale and I lived in one building of a complex that had the dining hall in another, so we just walked all night, turning up for breakfast as though we had come from our room. Since we were good students, never caught doing the things we did, and didn't boy around, no one ever thought to check and see where we were coming from.)

We hiked in the hills around the UC Berkeley campus and strolled through Bay Area towns and meandered through parks and zoos and museums. We explored the nooks and crannies of the campus buildings, discovering such arcane treasures as a large globe marked with the Confederate States and peppered with shot. We were university students at a time when only very rich students had cars and we went everywhere. If we needed to, we took buses. And then we walked some more.

One bright spring Saturday towards the end of our freshman year, we took a bus to San Francisco prepared to walk across the Golden Gate to Sausalito. The wind was blowing wildly, causing the bridge to sway. As we crossed we sang the Tom Lehrer version of My Darling Clementine, giving great power and drama to the refrain:
Clementine, can't you tell, from the howls of me
This love of mine comes to you from the bowels of me?

which seemed absolutely delightful to us, particularly when we punctuated it with wolf howls. When we reached the center of the bridge, we poured the small bottle of wine we had brought along for the purpose as a libation into the bay, followed by a cigarette. We had intended to drop that lit, but the wind was blowing too hard for me to keep a match going.

We quite fell in love with Sausalito, which in 1961 was all art galleries, book stores, coffee houses, and house boats clustered around the bay. I fell in love with it enough to go into the local newspaper and see if they were hiring for the summer. Since I had received a byline on my very first piece for the Daily Californian, I was sure I was up to it. The editor was a very nice gentleman who managed to turn me down without making me feel stupid for just dropping in and applying on a whim.

We only roomed together for one semester. We had been unable to get into a campus dorm, but lived in University approved housing. (As women students, we were not easily allowed to live out of University approved housing at any age, as I discovered when I returned to school at 23, with two babies.) Towards the end of the semester, there was a fire in the house, and although no one was hurt and nothing was destroyed, the fire department closed it and we were unable to find housing together in the spring. Gail found a room in campus housing and I moved into the Baptist Student Center, which sounds odd for a nice little atheist girl, but wasn't when you realized that the BSC didn't have lock out! After that, Gail had to sneak in and out, but since I didn't, we could return to my place and Nanette (my roommate) was always willing to let Gail sleep on the floor.

From then on, at least four days a week, and often seven, we would meet early in the morning and walk up above the town to watch the sunrise together. One morning when I was walking to pick up Gail a cop stopped his patrol car and asked if he could take my picture to show his wife, since she didn't believe him that at exactly 4:13 every morning he passed this young girl walking along and singing ("If I Had a Hammer" as I recall). He posed me so we could see the clock on the campanile, to verify the time, and then he shared his thermos of coffee with me. Often after that, his wife would pack something for him to share with me when we met. As I think of that, a couple of things amaze me. One that a police officer was out patrolling alone. The other that his wife's reaction to our becoming friends was to pack me coffee and muffins! What an innocent time that was.


I've already told you about the morning that we got a late start and couldn't make it up the hill in time, and so broke into one of the men's eight story dorms so we could watch the sunrise from the roof; we were a touch concerned that we might meet some student on his way to the bathroom and so be caught, but the adventure passed without a hitch.

One fine night at the very end of our freshman year, I had news to impart to Gail. I had managed a major rite of passage that evening, and so we denuded a church flower garden and used the blooms to decorate the car of the young gentleman involved. Wayne Alley was appropriately amused and pleased by my tribute.

And the next spring, we both dropped out and became beatnik/hippies. I moved to San Francisco to starve in an attic and write the great American novel (neither of which I did) and Gale went to Europe. I know we maintained contact for a while, because I remember writing to her when I got my divorce. I think she was back in California by then. I went back to school and graduated, then went to College of Notre Dame and earned my Montessori certificate, moved to Fairbanks and taught. Eventually, I took my maiden name back. What Gail did, I don't know.

We were supposed to graduate in 1964; I actually did in '68. I don't know if Gail ever went back or if she went back, where and when she graduated. I've changed my last name since we lost contact, she may have done so as well. How do you find someone when there are so many unknown variables? When Julie found Kate for me, she knew the high school she attended and the last name she had when she was there. But, I don't remember what high school Gail went to.

12 comments:

saz said...

Does Gale read your blog? Too funny and makes me think of the things KRISTINE made me do....which is why she doesn't know about my blog.

Maya's Granny said...

I wish I knew where Gale is. I would love for her to read my blog. I would love to read her blog.

J said...

I'll take you to that library, if you want. ;)

Maya's Granny said...

J - OK. I think it might be safe now.

kenju said...

You make me wish I hadn't lived at home while I was in college...LOL

Staying out all night created much bigger problems for me, I can assure you. Some police might have been preferable to my mother.

Ally Bean said...

You remember your college experiences so clearly. Are sure you really went to college? I mean they always say that if you rememberr the '60's you weren't really there!

Maya's Granny said...

Kenju, I assure you, the police were preferable to my mother when it came to taking all-night walks, too.

Ally, well, I do remember them pretty darned well, and I was definitely there! I have this remarkable memory for narrative and I think it comes from all of the stories my parents read to me when I was little. And that my grandparents and great-grandparents told me. My life was awash in story, and that's how I remember it and that's how I learn.

claude said...

So funny! I really had a great time reading this post.
Those were the days... Thanks for telling the story.

Ginnie said...

Now 'fess up. Who led who astray? You had a lot more going on in your college years than I did! What fun & crazy remembrances.

Maya's Granny said...

Well now, Ginnie, I did say that if she were telling about those days she would say I was the one who led her astray, and she would. I led her up a tall building and over a bridge and into hippiedom, after all. And other things that escape my mind at the moment.

I did have a lot going on in my college years, didn't I? Life was such an adventure I just had to get out there and experience it. Or course, we could make the simple act of going to the library to study an event that got two freshmen noticed by grad students.

saz said...

Darn it - you need to try and find her!

Maya's Granny said...

You're right. I do. She was a treasure and I miss her.

The problem is that we both dropped out of college, and although I returned and graduated, I don't know if she did. We should have graduated in 1964, I did in '68. If she did, when did she? When we dropped out, I went to San Francisco and she went to Europe. And, women change their last names.

I shall have to check this out on classmates.com, which is how Julie found Kate for me.