During the summer of 1964, I was employed as a student research assistant in the U of M anthropology lab, and so it was particularly convenient for me to reside right there on campus. I occupied a room in the far west side of the men’s residence, or what later became known as Taché Hall.
My room was located in the basement directly opposite from where the Arthur V. Mauro Student Residence stands today. The floor of my room was below ground level, which may explain the thriving colony of silverfish that was always there if I needed company. Running parallel to the building, right outside my window, was a sidewalk. And in some respects, this was a perfect setup for girl-watching.
I say that in part because it just so happened that an ingenious piece of feminine outerwear was in high fashion that summer. It was called the “miniskirt,” and it was so skimpy that it was hard to tell whether the girls wearing it were on the inside trying to get out or on the outside trying to get in.
Thinking about it now, I’m not sure why so many women were using that sidewalk at the time. Summer school was in full swing, but Mary Speechly Hall was still under construction, so they weren’t going to and from there. Maybe there was a parking lot or something just down the way. In any event, our below-grade domicile was eye level with the girls’ legs as they walked past our window.
Enthusiast though I was, I frankly didn’t have much time for this distraction. Whatever else competed for my attention, I was still on my professor’s payroll from nine to five, five days a week, and my job description was silent on the matter of abbreviated feminine apparel and the good things that went with it. All in all, though, it was a very good summer.
Wonderland by night
In the 1965-66 academic year I had access round-the-clock to a laboratory that happened to be located in the basement of the Education Building. That is to say, I not only had a key to the lab once I was inside the building — I also had a key to the entire building. Since I did almost all of my studying in the lab, this was a very convenient arrangement indeed, as I could come and go as I pleased 24/7.
And it gets better: I was a resident of Taché Hall, and so of course I had continuous access as well to my living quarters morning, noon and night. Hence, I had this little empire right there on campus, in which I could freely shuttle to and fro’ as the spirit moved me.
Upon occasion, however, this otherwise ideal set-up proved to be something of a liability, given my quirky personality. I was constantly distracted by my studies, and for most of the time my head was off somewhere in deep space. As a result, I was chronically absent-minded and generally went through my routines without paying much attention to what I was doing.
One of the things I frequently did was work in the lab until about 1 a.m. — in February, for example. After plugging away for seven hours or so I would put on my coat, exit the building and trudge across campus to the dorm in -30 C. Thank God the rez was located south of the education building and the wind was at my back.
Ah, there she is — dear old Taché. To avoid disturbing my roommate, I’d quietly let myself into the room, quietly undress and quietly slide under the covers of my bed. Then I’d lie there for a minute or so and quietly wonder to myself if I locked the door to the education building upon leaving.
Come to think of it, no, I don’t rightly recall having properly locked the door to the ed building when I left — my mind was somewhere north of Mars at the time and I wasn’t paying attention. Geez, what if some bad people got in through the doors I left ajar and trashed the entire building, thanks to me? What if they were pyromaniacs and burned the place down, all because I left the barn door open? Or worse yet, what if a night watchman found the door unsecured, raised hell about it to the dean of education and I ended up losing the keys to my kingdom? Well, I’d better do something pronto.
So I’d quietly slide out of bed, quietly put my clothes back on, and quietly leave the room. I’d hoof it back across the frosty campus, this time with my face into the wind. I’d arrive at the doors to the Education Building, give them a good hard pull and, sure enough, they were fully locked. Whew. So I’d turn around and haul my sorry butt back to Taché, quietly let myself back into my room, quietly undress, quietly etc., etc. . . .
I don’t know how many times I put myself through that nocturnal spot of bother in the winter of ‘65-66, but I’m quite sure it was more than once. I wonder what his conclusion would have been if I’d related my little story to a shrink. Would he have applauded me for having an unusually robust, mature sense of responsibility toward university property? Or would he have written me off as a hopeless paranoiac and thrown me out of his office with explicit instructions never to come back?
All I know is, 45 years later I can quietly slide into bed in my domicile in suburban Winnipeg on a frigid February night, content in the knowledge that the education building at the U of M never got looted, plundered, vandalized, blown up or burned down on my account.
Mrs. McKinnon and me
I have long considered the Taché/Speechly/Pembina Hall complex a masterpiece of social planning and architectural engineering. In the early days, the men’s and women’s dorms were separate, but the close juxtaposition of the two, connected by an enclosed corridor and a shared dining room, made for ready communication between the two populations (read “genders”). This was especially convenient for couples who struck up a romantic relationship, a not uncommon development under the circumstances.
On the main floor of Speechly, right at the end of the connecting corridor with Pembina Hall, was a fishbowl-like office occupied by Mrs. M.V. McKinnon, the director of women’s residence. Mrs. McKinnon was a dignified elderly lady who was no doubt hand-picked for the job.
In one of my years at Taché I had a girlfriend in Speechly. It was my custom to walk her “home” from a movie or dance in the Taché Auditorium, or whatever it was we were up to in the dark recesses of Pembina Hall, and kiss her good night where the end of the corridor adjoined Speechly — in other words, right outside of Mrs. McKinnon’s office.
Even though the walls of her work area were entirely of glass, Mrs. McKinnon usually wasn’t witness to our parting rituals, because they took place long after she had vacated her station for the day. On one occasion, however, two things happened all at once — she was working late (something I didn’t notice in timely fashion), and my good-night peck on the cheek quickly evolved into something a tad more . . . elaborate — right there in front of Mrs McKinnon. Her ladyship took grave exception to the outpouring of affection being played out in front of her, and it wasn’t long before I heard a loud rapping on the glass wall behind me.
I turned to see the director of women’s residence vigorously waving an arm back and forth, and I quickly realized that she wasn’t batting at flies. Rather, she was instructing us to take our act elsewhere, in consideration of which my girlfriend sheepishly withdrew to the Speechly elevator and up to her room. Likewise, I slunk down the corridor and back to the comforting bosom of Mother Taché.
Parenthetically, the 1964 Brown and Gold yearbook describes Mrs. McKinnon thusly: “24 hours a day, seven days a week, Mrs. McKinnon is available to guide and help the 200 girls that are in residence. She finds her work very rewarding, and enjoys especially being in contact with youth.” Well, most of the time, maybe. Her silent but animated cease-and-desist order left me with the distinct impression that her “contact with youth” that evening was less than “enjoyable” for her. Like good Queen Victoria, she was not amused. In all fairness I really don’t think she had a problem with young love — she just wasn’t particularly interested in seeing it blossom on her doorstep.
Anyway, our up-close relationship notwithstanding, my girlfriend was a virtuous little creature who was utterly mortified by our having aroused Mrs. McKinnon’s displeasure the way we did. When I met up with her the next day (my girlfriend I mean, not Mrs. McKinnon), she did the only thing she could do: she blamed it all on me. Thankfully, she was as forgiving as she was virtuous, and her upset with Bad Man José was short-lived.
One thing for sure — our late-evening signing-off ceremonies were thereafter conducted well clear of Mrs. McKinnon’s office.