The House of SAW

The House of SAW was a college approved private housing residence on the campus of Wisconsin State University – Oshkosh (now UW- Oshkosh) where I lived with a dozen other undergraduate students. The time was the mid 1960’s. The Vietnam War. The sexual revolution. The War on Drugs would soon be declared.

UW-Oshkosh was a heavy fraternity and sorority campus but we wanted no part of that. We were feminist women, immensely annoyed when referred to as “girls.” One thing led to another until, during one of our many after bar-time discussions, we formally became The House of SAW. SAW meaning Several Available Women. Within a week we had a name, a wooden plaque nailed above our front door and a sweat shirt with our banner stenciled across the front. We thought our mockery, as a form of flattery, was pretty radical.

sweatshirtThe House of SAW, by today’s student housing standards, could only be called a dump! An old two story house on Algoma Boulevard just three blocks from campus at this party school known back then as ‘Little Madison.” The house parents lived in an apartment on the first floor and we girls, oops women, lived on the second. The main hallway led to the back of the house and their apartment; the open staircase led to the upstairs bedrooms. No doors separating the two floors.

houseThere were six bedrooms with bunk beds, one room had two sets and only one room was a single. My bedroom which I’m pretty sure had previously been a closet, was off the kitchen and my dresser was out in the hallway. There was less than one foot between the edge of my bed and the make-shift door. If I sat up in my top bunk I’d hit my head on the dormer. I slept there until someone left and then I could upgrade to the lower bunk or the next available room down the hall.

I wasn’t quick to grab the next available room when a vacancy occurred. Being so close to the kitchen meant I never missed any house drama or wasn’t forgotten when a last minute social opportunity popped up. Whether it was a card game, general gossip or the latest news on the boyfriend back home who was suddenly not calling, I  was where all the action was.

We only had one bathroom. No shower. Just a tub. We hung our towels on pegs behind the door in our rooms. I have no idea where I hung mine since I had no door, only a wicker, hanging partition. At least I’d escaped the cliché of beads.

kitchen-2The kitchen had two old refrigerators. Crude wooden crates were nailed to the walls where each girl, oops, woman, had one assigned shelf for canned goods and dishes. We put our name on anything we stuck into the refrigerator.  Now and then we’d have a community meal. I recall lots of Spam, casseroles and hot dogs. Bon Appetite!

kitchen-1I also remember holiday meals; Julia Child would have been aghast at our baked hot dish and store bought garlic bread. This tiny kitchen couldn’t accommodate the entire house at one time so late comers pulled their desk chair in and sat on the edges. The gift exchange was frugal since most of us were on tight budgets and supporting ourselves with part time or work-study jobs.

The landlord who lived out west came home each summer to make repairs. We wanna-be feminists were too naïve to grasp the implications that we depended on a man to clean our bathroom, our refrigerators and scrub our kitchen floor. I cringe with embarrassment recalling how we gleefully waited for Ralph to arrive and spruce up the place each year.

I’d love to have heard the kitchen table talk of our house parents, a young married couple with two small children, trying to make sense of us as they furtively checked the rules in the house parent manual.  Yes, indeed. That’s how it was.  House parents. Rules. Even a curfew.

That’s much different from today. In fact I, as a freshman, had to get permission from the college to live in private housing due to my financial limitations. I know my parents were worried that these world-wise upperclassmen would lead me astray. Oh what they didn’t know!

We, the women of the House of SAW, had a very active social life.  In keeping with our name, we launched a crusade to be available only for dates. Real dates. Not pick-ups or meet-ups. But all we needed was that one cute guy from the Union to suggest meeting at the Loft or the Rail and we were suddenly not so revolutionary after all.

Men who arrived for those seldom, real dates had to stand down in the foyer and holler up the stairway to get someone’s attention. No men were allowed on the second floor and it’s amazing how we honored that rule. Lots of making out in the downstairs hallway though.

Some of the memorable things we did included sheepshead study breaks. After supper, we’d hit the books for a while then take a break at 8:00 for a half hour of taking tricks. Several of the girls, oops women, were hard core and anyone whose played sheepshead knows how brutal that can be.

Between that and our goal to go out 69 nights in a row, it’s easy to see how I ended up on academic probation after my first semester. Since I was paying my own way, luckily my grades were mailed to me. So, my parents didn’t know anything about that either!

Most of our social life involved going to bars. This was Wisconsin, after all, and 18 was the legal age for beer. We hitchhiked to the Rail and the Loft, our two favorite beer bars out on the edge of town. We also stopped regularly at My Brother’s Place, a 21 bar conveniently located on our way home from class. The bartenders seemed not at all surprised when we showed up on our real 21st birthday, acting like the last year hadn’t happened, announcing we were there for our first legal shot and a beer.

Hard to believe how we managed our busy social lives in those heady times before cellphones, texting and answering machines. Our only phone was a white, wall- mounted model with a very long cord. Located out in the hallway, at the top of the open staircase, most phone conversations were completed while sitting at the top step. Only Jeanie and Maggie could have a truly private call since they were close enough to be able to carry the receiver into their rooms and shut the door.

The phone was answered by whoever happened to be awake or in the kitchen.  A yell down the hall alerted the lucky resident and if they weren’t around, a message was scrawled on the note pad hanging from the phone. Arrival of the monthly bill began a major operation of identifying long distance calls and dividing the basic charges.   Janette, whose name was on the bill, became more frantic as the due date approached.

loftThe House of SAW and our antics were always a vivid memory so I was excited when in 1989 we gathered for our one and only House of SAW reunion. Seven of us traveled back to Oshkosh and spent the weekend visiting familiar places. The Rail was still there. The Loft was too but it’s now an AA meeting place. I’m not sure what to think of that!

 

 

toastThen five of us smiled brightly as we posed for a toast and a picture at the location of the House of SAW. It’s now a parking lot.

I hadn’t thought about all this for a very long time until when, in the early 1990’s, I helped my niece move into her dorm room at UWM. Her anxiety that she’d have to share her suite with two other girls was amazing. I was surprised when her mother paid the extra fee for a private room as soon as one became available.

All I could think was look what she’s missing! The closeness and the excitement of what I experienced far outweighed the comfort today’s students expect. And those times set the stage for the many wonderful girlfriend relationships I’ve developed over the years. I wouldn’t have given it up for anything.

Betty, with whom I shared one year at the House SAW is still my friend to this day. That’s amazing. And it’s also amazing how our recollections differ. But there’s one thing on which we do agree. Though the House of SAW is now a parking lot, in our memory, it will forever be that stately mansion where a group of young women learned about themselves, ventured for the first time into the adult world and had a whole lot of fun.

 

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