March, 1973: my sophomore year. The dorms close for a week, so I pack my suitcase and catch a ride to St. Peter. My spring break will consist of sleeping in, eating home-cooked meals, and connecting with old friends from high school. Since all of my money goes for tuition, room, and board, a tropical escape is out of the question.
When I meet up with two high school friends, though, we mope about what we can’t have.
“It seems like everyone I know from college is going to Florida,” says Laura.
“Ditto,” says Barb.
“I wish I could go some place warm,” I say.
“You know what we should do?” says Laura. “We should just get in the car and go!”
We both look at Barb, the only one of us with a car.
“Where would we go?” asks Barb.
“South, of course.”
Since none of us is known for spontaneity or daring adventure, this is a “break” from reality, if nothing else. We quickly pack bags and pile into Barb’s 1960 Ford Falcon, a hand-me-down from some generous relative, and head south on Highway 169. We are dreadfully unprepared with little cash, no food, not even a road map. The tires on the Ford are probably original, the body is pocked with rust blisters, but the interior is comfortable.
For the first 50 miles, constant chatter keeps us occupied. Then Laura asks, “Hey, where are we going?”
After a brief discussion we decide to keep driving south until we’re tired, find a place to stay, and make that place our destination.
As we cross the Iowa border someone remembers, “Hey, the drinking age in Iowa is 19!”
“That’s right. Let’s find a place to stay.”
We continue on 169 until we arrive in Algona, Iowa, a town even smaller than the home town we’d left. We pull up to the State Hotel and go inside.
“One night?” the woman asks. “That’ll be $14.”
Fourteen bucks! Did she think we were made of money? She sensed our dilemma and adjusted.
“I can probably give it to you for $11.50.”
We pool our change and pay in cash. (No one had a credit card.)
We go to our room, change clothes, freshen up, and decide to explore beautiful downtown Algona. Mainly we are looking for a bar. (None of us has ever gone into a bar unchaperoned before.)
About a block down the street we find a little tavern and go inside, our Minnesota driver’s licenses ready.
Picture a small neighborhood bar late in the afternoon on a Monday: A few locals (all men), seated at the bar, the bartender absent-mindedly wiping water spots off a glass, a haze of cigarette smoke hanging in the air, friendly conversation buzzing – until three 19-year-old college co-eds from Minnesota enter. Conversation stops and all eyes follow us to an empty table. We are immediately self-conscious but try desperately to look relaxed as we chatter and laugh, pull out our chairs, and sit.
The bartender takes our order, doesn’t even ask for our ID’s, and leaves to get our beers. (Beer is the cheapest drink you can order, right?) We ignore the stares and try to carry on a conversation while we wait. I remember a half-empty pack of Virginia Slims in my purse and decide smoking will help me look cool and nonchalant. (In my lifetime, I think I purchased one pack of cigarettes. This was it. And soon you’ll know why I never purchased another.)
I very deliberately tap the cigarette pack on the back to get one to pop out. I casually grab the cigarette between my fingers, continue talking, and casually place the cigarette in my mouth. I let it bob around between my lips as I talk. (It wouldn’t be casual to be in a hurry to light up.)
I pull out a book of matches, casually open the book, continue to talk, yank loose a match, and strike – purposefully – so that the head bursts into flame. Still talking, the cigarette still loosely bobbing between my lips, I attempt to light the cigarette, very casually, not even looking at the cigarette.
Suddenly my hair is in flames, and before I can answer my own question (How am I casually going to put this fire out?) I am beating myself in the head with the palm of my hand.
The aroma of burnt hair fills the air, the three co-eds from Minnesota drink up and leave without making eye contact with anyone.
I can’t say that I remember much else about our spring break. We did visit the Grotto in West Bend the next day but then had to drive home, since we couldn’t afford another tank of gas.
I casually threw away the rest of the cigarettes in my purse and never looked back.