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Kathleen Murphy column: Serial memoir offers an unfiltered look at growing up in Duluth

Gay Haubner (center with glasses) at a Duluth wedding in the mid-1960s when she was 14 years old. Photo courtesy Gay Haubner.1 / 3
Gay Haubner grew up at 411 Lakeview Ave. in Duluth. She published a memoir about her childhood, “North Country Girl,” online with The Saturday Evening Post. Submitted photo2 / 3
A page from the Duluth East High School yearbook, circa 1971, features the Open Mind club. Gay Haubner is second from the right in the front row. Photo courtesy Gay Haubner3 / 3

"I lived, and I have all my limbs," Gay Haubner said when asked if she had any regrets in life. Her answer seemed appropriate for someone who, in her late 50s, visited her childhood home of Duluth and jumped off the Lester River Bridge. "It did my heart good," she said.

Haubner grew up in Duluth, graduating from East High School in 1971. Her family moved away shortly after she left for college, so she never returned except for the occasional visit. Fortunately for her Duluth readers, Haubner is a retired writer who still remembers her childhood hometown with fondness. She shares her experiences growing up in Duluth in her memoir, "North Country Girl." It was released a chapter every week by "The Saturday Evening Post."

Gay HaubnerSweet but sometimes shocking, Haubner's tale of growing up in Duluth in the 1960s feels familiar — at times painfully so. It was a time when adults "had children and then immediately forgot about them, until they were required to all be someplace, like dinner, or Sunday Mass, or high school graduation," Haubner said in her memoir. She recollects exploring Duluth first as a young child, in the woods and around the neighborhood, then as a teenager with her friends before the cellphone era.

"We always managed to find each other," she said. When she was younger, other kids "sniffed me out by my kid smell, a melange of Cheerios, Crayolas and new doll." As a teenager, friends found each other by word of mouth, often gathering at the London Inn, a drive-thru restaurant remembered not only as a place to hang out, but also for its onion rings. It was located on the 1500 block of London Road — approximately where China Cafe is located now.

Haubner makes a point in her memoir to recount the good as well as the bad. Drug use, sex, and teenage escapades played a predominant role in the chapters covering her teenage years. Rather than pretending it didn't happen, Haubner embraces it and encourages everyone to remember their childhood as it was rather than as they'd like to remember it. "After all," she said, "if I'm not going to be truthful about my bad decisions and naivete, then what's the point of telling the story?"

Haubner has no regrets about any of it. She remembers Duluth as an insulated pocket, where children felt safe to roam and parents felt safe allowing them to do so. "It was really hard to think 'What could go wrong?' when I grew up in such a safe environment," Haubner said. She also came of age in the late '60s, a time when social norms were rapidly changing and experimentation was encouraged — not only in Duluth, but across the nation. "The feeling of safety I experienced as a child allowed me to take risks later in life. Sometimes it was good, sometimes bad, but no matter what I felt it would all be okay. That's Duluth."

People who grew up in 1960s Duluth aren't the only ones who will enjoy Haubner's memoir, though many of the landmarks and incidents she writes about are specific to that time. She begins with some of her earliest, 5-year-old memories when her family first settled in Duluth's Woodland neighborhood, then later Congdon.

Teachers at Congdon Elementary School were still primarily of the "graying spinster ilk," and movies and television were still targeted toward adults. Saturday morning cartoons on one of Duluth's two television stations were still a child's prime television time, and once-a-year Disney movies released at the NorShor Theater were a special event. Haubner masterfully regales her audience with memories of growing up in Duluth, almost daring the reader to remember for themselves when their own parents brought them to the Pickwick at Christmas-time and allowed them one or two stolen sips of their Tom and Jerry.

As Haubner grows up in her narrative, she sweeps the reader along with tales almost everyone can relate to — the horror of swimming lessons at the Woodland pool during middle school gym class, the thrill surrounding the first rock concert at the newly built Arena down at the harbor (anyone else see — or even remember — Herman's Hermits?), and the timeless Duluth tradition of swimming with friends at The Deeps. She even beckons the reader to follow her to her first job as a salad girl at the now-closed Bellows restaurant on London Road, making it feel like a personal memory.

Her memoir continues into her college and young adult years, though she no longer lives in Duluth. Throughout the 1970s, Haubner moves from the University of Minnesota to the beaches of Mexico and the skyscrapers of Chicago, before finally landing in New York City. She finds a job with "Viva" — the sister magazine to "Penthouse" — before moving on to Penthouse itself. Chapter 61 of her memoir hilariously recounts the time her editor had her fill in for one of the Penthouse Pets, only to be derailed by a rainstorm and Haubner's lack of backup makeup.

In 2012, Haubner and her husband retired to Costa Rica, where she has spent her time swimming in the ocean and remembering and recording her life story. The serial is due to end in October, but the Post will archive and make available every chapter. She is shopping a book proposal now and hopes to soon see "North Country Girl" in print.

Kathleen Murphy

Kathleen Murphy is a freelance journalist who lives in Duluth.

London Inn Drive-in Onion Rings

Feeling nostalgic and ambitious? Here's the Inn's ring recipe.

4 jumbo onions

3 cups flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 egg

3 teaspoons Lawry's seasoned salt

1 teaspoon celery salt

1 teaspoon garlic salt

1 teaspoon onion salt

1 pint milk

Peel and slice onions into ½- inch thickness. Pop out centers and rings. Put all batter ingredients in mixer bowl and blend thoroughly. (Batter is thicker than pancake mix.) Coat onion slices well. Fry rings until golden brown, salt with Lawry's seasoned salt.

Source: Huck Andresen