Sips of the Seventies
In the ravine outside my window I usually see a deer, or twelve. Newly spotless fawns. Big black-nosed does. Twice now an eight-point buck. But every single day a dray, or if you prefer, a scurry, of squirrels prowls my yard looking for buckeyes or walnuts or a seasonal assortment of acorns. Fresh or buried, a veritable feast.
Beside me here at my desk is my new favorite mug, white ceramic with a simple message in black type: “It’s decorative gourd season, motherfuckers” from McSweeney’s. It’s steaming with honey crisp apple cider made locally and seasoned with a dash of cinnamon, peeled from a tree somewhere in Vietnam and shipped, at great cost no doubt, to Chicago. It is impossible to drink hot apple cider without a crust of cinnamon floating on the top, and it is impossible to drink hot apple cider without thinking of Maybelle Hamm.
Mrs. Hamm, none of us ever called her Maybelle, was a French woman somehow transplanted to Greencastle, Indiana, where she owned and operated a dark and cozy coffeehouse called The Fluttering Duck. She lived in the building, too, her home behind a mysterious cloth-curtained doorway. She served coffee and snacks, but it was the hot cider that stuck with you, a golden concoction eternally simmering in a glass carafe. When she poured, you could see swirls of cloves and cinnamon sticks on the bottom, once in a while a lemon seed. Some swore she never washed the pot, just added more. No matter. It was the early 70s, and The Duck was a refuge for those of us who wanted a quality DePauw University liberal arts education without the cashmere-sweatered conservatism of the sorority/fraternity crowd.
The Duck was the place to be heard, whether in a political discussion or to try out your latest composition on the small raised stage. I spent a lot of time there: in class, performing my songs and covering Joni Mitchell, Cat Stephens and James Taylor with a cup of hot cider on a wooden stool beside me, on stage in Elaine May’s Adaptation, watching my future husband watch his roommate perform in Jules Feiffer’s Feiffer’s People, or interviewing artists and not-to-be seen officials for the university newspaper.
The Vietnam War wasn’t over, and a lottery draft sent friends from The Duck to Canada, or home to await the inevitable letters from Uncle Sam. We argued for our version democracy and freedom of expression and freedom from anything we didn’t like, appreciating those professors who’d schedule their classes in the big tables in the back. Sociology professor Saad Ibrahim, who’d later spend years as a political prisoner in Egypt, held some of his classes there. It wasn’t unusual to find a 6 or 8 member history or philosophy or sociology class huddled around a table littered with ashtrays and coffee cups, someone poking the air with the chewed stem of a pipe for emphasis. We debated ethics, the morality of war, the existence of God, and the future. Though all of this, Mrs. Hamm was a bystander, a gracious host, a quiet presence who gave us a safe place to navigate the minefield that led to adulthood and independence in the early 70s.
The Fluttering Duck sat on a prime piece of real estate the University wanted, but Mrs. Hamm wasn’t interested in selling. Before the end of the decade, however, The Fluttering Duck burned to the ground. The University built a hotel on the site, then a conference center. Today the huge round wooden sign, The Fluttering Duck in yellow paint, its red-bonneted duck still serving up a blue pot of tea, hangs at the entrance of the conference center’s sports bar they named after Mrs. Hamm’s coffeehouse. How ‘bout those Colts? Or Bears.
In my yard there are no bears, but the squirrels still scurry. It’s supposed to be spring, but I need a sweatshirt to sit on the deck, and some of my daffodils succumbed to a killing frost. But in here, with my mug of cider, I had a few minutes of warmth. Sips of the seventies.