Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Hornets vs. Cougars, 1980 (a short story)

In 1981, due to an aging population, the city of Edina, Minnesota merged its two high schools - Edina East and Edina West - into one school. The previous year, the city held an election in which residents would vote on which of the two old school's nicknames - Hornets or Cougars - would be used at the new school. I've written a fictional account (with some real people from my past thrown in) about the effect of the Hornets-Cougars debate on the people of Edina.

Hornets vs. Cougars, 1980

Mach speaks first. “It’s got to be Hornets. Hornets is tradition. The west side got the school. At least let’s keep the name.”

Patti shakes her head, clears her throat so what comes out won’t be a mumble. “Cougars is so much better than Hornets. It’s not even close. Cougars is sleek.”

“You think a Cougar is sleek? Have you seen a Hornet flit?”

“No. I can’t say I have.”

“Look, the point isn’t sleekness. It’s tradition. It’s fairness. They got the high school!”

“They?” Patti interrupts so loudly she couldn’t mumble if she tried. “They? You live on the west side. You are ‘they.’ I’m east side!”

“And I’m trying to protect your east Edina history, your tradition, your way of life.”

“Way of life? Mach, it’s a high school nickname we’re talking about. And we’re in college. Who cares?”

“Well, you do. You’re arguing with me. You’re planning on voting, aren’t you?”

“Yes. But ‘way of life’? Come on!”

“Look, first, it’s the high school and then it’s Hornets being taken away and then Edina is suddenly merging with Minneapolis and we totally lose our identity. Or worse, the high school merges with Eden Fucking Prairie in a westward migration. We’ve got to nip this in the bud?”

“Nip this in the bud? Dude, you’re 19. No one our age says that.”

Mach takes this as a challenge. “And I’m alone among our generation in protecting history, looking back as we look forward.”

“You’re ridiculous.”

Mach claims to be royalty. Actual Thai royalty. A prince. He’s boasted of a castle in Soi Ratchawithi that would dwarf the seven-bedroom west Edina mansion he lives in with his family when he’s not down at St. Olaf studying finance. Patti was the only one in their high school set – the smart-as-a-whip theater crowd – who believed in her heart that Mach was not a prince, that his parents were just garishly wealthy. Patti figured that when you’re that rich and you’re the only Thai immigrant in your high school class, well, you could get away with a few lies when you swarm into town at 15, lies like claiming a future throne that won’t exist.

Yes, Mach is lying.

Patti’s family has been in Edina since the 1920’s, setting up camp in a small-for-Edina Victorian house, blocks from the Minneapolis border to the east. She wavers on calling herself a lesbian. These days, she is. Last spring, she was part of the next-to-last graduating class of Edina East High School. The Hornets.

When Mach first arrived in Minnesota, in his freshmen year, he went to Edina West, home of the Cougars. For part of his junior year, he transferred to East for their good theater program and to make life more difficult for his family. He spent his senior year back at West, for reasons he’s never shared with Patti.

In September, Mach and Patti matriculated to St. Olaf and Carleton Colleges, respectively. Both colleges are located in Northfield, Minnesota. It was as if the duality of their high school life had been transplanted to a farm town in the south, 35 miles away but all the same.

Today, they’re back in Edina for the long Thanksgiving weekend. It’s Friday morning. They’re having breakfast at the Ediner, a newly opened ‘50s-style restaurant in the Galleria mall. In one week, all permanent residents of Edina will vote on which high school nickname to bestow upon the city’s newly merged high school, Edina High. The declining school-age population necessitated the merger of Edina East and Edina West. The city's post-war expansion slowed and its residents got older, as people do.

A man seated alone at the next booth – in his 40s, blonde, conservative-looking – first eyed the short-haired punk rock girl and the flamboyantly-sweatered Thai prince with suspicion, but when he overhears their conversation, he eagerly gets involved. “Excuse me. Don’t mean to interrupt but it HAS to be Hornets. I agree with you, sir,” he says, looking at Mach with a forced look of almost religious sincerity.

“Thank you,” Mach says, a little too loud for Patti’s liking.

“Brad Paulson. Edina High. Class of ’51. The first graduating class. The school they now call East. The school they're tearing down. Before there was even an Edina West. When all we had was that square brick structure on France. When we were PROUD to be Hornets. That monstrosity on the west side has no right calling itself the one true high school of this city. But I guess it has better facilities for you kids. That’s what they say.”

It was as if Brad Paulson was saving himself for just this moment. He continues. “So be it. Kids need space, they need computers and what not, they need wide hallways, they’ve got to have the newest gymnasia. But at least keep the name Hornets, for God’s sake! For the rest of us.”

Patti can’t believe her ears. He said ‘gymnasia.’

Someone in the kitchen applauds. Brad Paulson is loud.

Mach joins in the applause for two claps. “That’s what I’m trying to tell her.”

“It’s not 1951 anymore. It’s the eighties.”

“What’s so eighties about Hornets?” Brad asks.

“It’s sleek” is all Patti can come up with. Patti likes sleek. Her hair, jittery bangs swept to one side, could be described as sleek. The way she drives? Sleek. Her skin, her clothes, her mental acuity – all of it sleek, cougar-like, feline.

“Don’t mind her, Mr. Paulson. My name is Mach. This is Patti. She lives on Arden and 50th and she doesn’t want to keep Hornets.”

Brad is stunned. “But that’s east side!”

“Don’t tell people where I live.”

“A hornet is sleek too, Patti” Brad says innocently, in an attempt to make Patti certain he wouldn’t lurk around 50th and Arden, lying in wait for her, for the sake of tradition. She doesn’t like that he said her name.

“I was trying to tell her that Hornets are sleek too. They flit about from branch to bush.”

“Do you know why they called us Hornets when the school opened in ’49?”

“No, tell us” Mach says, eagerly, just as the waitress arrives with his omelet and Patti’s French toast.

Patti rolls her eyes and begins buttering the French toast, each stacked slice getting half a pat of butter. She eschews syrup.

Brad holds his coffee stiffly in his meaty hand, leaning over the booth so much that Patti feels her space is invaded. “Well, it was just a few years after WW2. The Green Hornet comic book and radio show were very big then. It wasn’t on TV but it was in the movies. All of us kids loved the Green Hornet. He was smart. And tough. And crafty. And yeah he was sleek. He was everything American at a time when Americans were all over the world fighting. They wanted something that would make us kids proud, a nickname that everyone liked, something that looked nifty on a sweatshirt. And when they announced that it was Hornets, all us kids were happy. I was in the 8th grade. I came home, screaming to my Mom. 'I’m a Hornet.' 'I’m a Hornet.'”

Patti now realizes that Brad Paulson has much more at stake with the Hornets-Cougars election than she or Mach. She just wants to finish her breakfast, gossip about high school friends with Mach. Actually she wants to get out of here. She sees enough of Mach down at college. She wants to be alone, in her old bedroom, reading her old books – her Nancy Drews and Edith Whartons. She wants the shades open so the November sun makes the 20-degree weather a little more tolerable. Winter is coming and sunlight is at a premium. Sure, Mach is soaking Brad’s story up. But Patti suspects Mach is getting all worked up over the nickname vote to have something to tell his rich friends back in Thailand or Europe or wherever. A story about the simple folk of the American Midwest. Or maybe he’s biding his time until his parents die and he gets the fortune and can open up his own high school, in a depressed district of Bangkok. He can call the school’s team the Hornets or whatever the hell he wants.

Brad realizes he’s bothering Patti. He thanks them for their time, for listening to his “trip down memory lane.” He walks with a limp to the cashier to pay his bill. Patti feels guilty for being sort of rude. The guilt fades quickly.

“Now are you convinced, Patti?”

“No. I still like Cougars. In fact, I LOVE Cougars.”

“You’re canceling out my vote.”

“And you’re canceling out mine.”


“This way, we don’t have to send in the absentee ballots. Our votes mean nothing. I just saved your royal family 15 cents.”

“That was cold.”


A few minutes of awkward eating silence pass, followed by a few minutes of formal conversation discussing their plans for the rest of the weekend. Soon, Patti is back at her family house, in the old part of town, the east side. In her room, she reads The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion and thinks about growing her hair out, to Nancy Drew length. After a nap, she eats dinner with her parents and younger brother. Her parents bring up the Hornets-Cougars vote. Her mother says that everyone at church is voting for Hornets. Her father insists that Cougars doesn’t have a chance. Patti listens but doesn’t speak. When her brother asks which name she’s voting for, Patti says “Cougars” quietly and stares at her chicken and rice. She doesn’t look up at her family to gauge their reaction. No one says a word for thirty seconds.

“It’s because they’re sleek.”

“I see,” says her father.

“Cougars are beautiful creatures.”

“That makes sense,” says her mother.

Her brother, the one person who has the most at stake in this debate because he's about to start high school, says "Either way is fine."

One week later, the election is held. Hornets wins in a landslide. Mach thrusts the front page of the Edina Sun (which he’d had his Mom sent to him via overnight mail) in Patti’s face when she opens her dorm room door.

“You see. Tradition!”

“In 20 years, everyone will be sorry they didn’t pick Cougars.”

“Did you vote?”


“Neither did I. I forgot."

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