[The story you are about to read is true. The names have been changed to protect the innocent. This is a story about college life in the 1980s. For reference, I attended the University of Nebraska-Lincoln from 1980-1987 where I crammed a four-year Art degree into seven years. Have minors in math, physics, film studies and maybe computer science. Not sure if I got that last one.]
Like many parents I have had the opportunity to go on college tours with my children. I have seen what’s available at food services at the University of Nebraska Lincoln, along with a few other schools.
There’s an enormous variety of food available. Pizzas, hamburgers, salads, pasta - you can get about anything you want. There are foods for vegans and the lactose-intolerant. You can make your own waffles, have bacon, eggs, cereal, or oatmeal for breakfast (as examples, there is much more). For lunch and dinner there are “World’s Fare” whose selection includes “Cheesy Crab Pasta Dish”, “Confetti Rice”, “Tomato Ravioli Soup”, “Vegetarian Nuggets”, “Fried Catfish”, “Greek Chicken & Pasta Bake”. The variety available is mind boggling. You can go online and look at what is available at Harper Dining Services and be amazed at the food selection (note that they are closed at the time of this writing, but just put in an earlier date, say, October 19, 2019 and you can see full menus).
Note that there are “made to order” sub sandwiches every day for lunch and dinner.
This is not how dining services operated “back in the day”. Back then you had one main menu item available for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. If you didn’t like what was available, you could make yourself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or have cold cereal if it were breakfast. There were no “chefs” and no “made to order” anything. You grabbed a tray, got in a single file line and picked your food items. The people serving the food were generally nice and frequently students.
The food was okay most of the time - perhaps I say that because we didn’t have high expectations - although it was monotonous. Then there were the meats. Some referred to them as “utility meats”, while others preferred the more terrifying term “mystery meats”. “Mystery meat” seemed a better fit to me. There were times when you’d look at a piece of what was called chicken and wonder if it were poultry or believe in the rumors they were feeding us chopped up freshmen as there were frequent stories of disappearances, especially over at Abel Hall where the absolute worst of the freshmen lived.
The “utility meat” phrase fit when it came to the roast beef. A friend worked in food service and he related to me they were taught how to lay the roast beef in a certain way on the plate so that it didn’t show the oily film you’d see if you were to turn it over. I flipped it over only once after that and sure enough, there was a shimmer of an oil slick. I quickly flipped it back over. That was the meal of the day. I didn’t have much choice, so I told myself I preferred not to know and ate it anyway.
I heard that food service cooks went to a national convention where they had sessions on how to cook massive amounts of green beans to just the right consistency of mush. There was no argument about “soft” or “crunchy” but there were arguments about the proper level of mush.
The worst of all was the monotony, the lack of variety. There were places to eat right off campus, but if you didn’t have any money they weren’t a real option.
All of this was why “Hoagie Day” was so special.
On Hoagie Day you were allowed to make your own hoagie sandwiches from a selection of a variety of bread, meat and cheeses. It was a buffet-style setting instead of being forced down a single file line like cattle.
There was ham, roast beef, and chicken. There were at least two bread varieties - white and wheat. And then there were the cheeses - White American (omg, the jokes off this alone), Orange American, and…. No that was it. There was no gouda or provolone available; those were for rich people who lived in exotic lands, not dormies. There might have been Swiss, but remember that this is the era of Velveeta and “government cheese”, so the competition wasn’t very high. You had two spreads available, margarine and mayonaise. Iceberg Lettuce - not four different kinds of lettuce - and tomatoes were available as additional filler.
One key to the joy of Hoagie Day was you could make as many as you wanted. You could stuff yourself to the gills. Unfortunately, you could not make hoagies and take them with you. There was a severe restriction on taking food out of the dining area, punishable by a fine, then public flogging, then excommunication from the University of Nebraska. Nobody worried about the restriction because the food wasn’t worth stealing.
The restriction seemed very unfair. As college students we were paying for this food and it was obvious that whatever wasn’t used would be thrown out. Or, as rumor had it, the food services people would take cheese home, get nude, and stick it all over their bodies while laughing about hungry dormies stuck in their rooms with nothing.
We didn’t exactly have nothing. Most dormies had an electric popcorn popper. Rich kids had microwave ovens and you were lucky if you were paired with someone who had one and let you use it. Hot plates were forbidden. There’s the old joke about the dorms, “you can have all the sex you want, but no hot plates.”
Nearly everyone had a dorm refrigerator. That refrigerator would have been much better were it full of stolen hoagie sandwiches. Physics 213 was hard enough when you were hungry. Imagine how much better your grades would be were you able to have a ham and cheese sandwich while reading quantum mechanics.
The concept of “stolen hoagie sandwiches” is where the plot was hatched. That simple observation between engineering students with someone wondering how we could steal a boatload of hoagies. We devised a plan. A number of people on our dorm floor would get together and go to dining services with empty backpacks. The gist of the plan was to make as many hoagie sandwiches as possible, stuff them in our backpacks, then get them out of dining services area and safely back to our dorm.
We all had to go together. 23 of us from my dorm floor out of 60 decided to go. Some - Benny, Marty, Norm, Tom, Mitch - I knew pretty well. The rest I knew a bit. We went together into the dining area and sat in groups at different tables situated around the room. One group would make a diversion. They would talk loudly, have a mock argument. Another told jokes and everyone laughed loudly. These diversions distracted the food service guards. Did I not mention the guards? Of course there were guards. How else do you think they’d ever catch people sneaking food out of dining services?
Anyway, during the diversions the guys at the hoagie making layout would make as many hoagies as possible, wrap them in napkins and stuff them into their empty bookbags. Then they’d take three pair of soiled underwear and place them on top to disguise the scent and fool the hoagie-sniffing dogs.
We all got up to leave at a pre-designated time. This part of the plot was to overwhelm the security checkpoint. We knew they’d inspect our bags, but be disgusted at the soiled underwear. If a guard asked about the underwear, we were instructed to say, “I’m an engineering major”, because everyone knows engineering students are smart about math and physics, but completely oblivious in social skills.
Everything was fine until Benny got nervous and tried to run. The hoagie-sniffing dogs were German Shepherds. He’d never told us he’d had an incident with a German Shepherd when he was young. He got about ten feet when he was beaned in the head by an aluminum napkin holder by Gelda, the woman who ran the food service line. If you went to college in the 80s you knew her. She’s the same in every dining service on every campus. She had one hairnet and it was as old as she was. She smoked cigarettes while she was serving the food. You could see the ashes sometimes in your mac & cheese. That wasn’t pepper, buddy. We knew she had a wicked arm. That was part of the intelligence report. One of the guys had seen her mash a student square in the head 30 yards away for making a joke about her meatloaf.
When Benny hit the deck, others started to panic. Four freshmen started to run. That’s when they were cut down the by the machine guns. Machine guns? That wasn’t in the intelligence. Somebody screwed up. Machine gun nests, well disguised, were now raking across the exit area. Everyone started to run. It was pandemonium. We had given strict orders no one was to stop and help a fallen comrade. I looked back as I was running and saw Mitch pause for a moment as Norm was on the ground, pleading with him, screaming, “take the hoagies” and reaching out with his backpack. Mitch paused just long enough for the machine gunners to find him. He was torn to pieces with chunks of blood, meat, tomato, and American cheese flying all over the place.
I thought of hot ham and cheese and continued on.
We lost Marty to the minefield. We lost a couple others but I didn’t know their names. I always liked Marty. He was a good guy even though he was a poly-sci major.
I made it to the exit. Once you hit the exit, you were free with your hoagies. They couldn’t touch you. I met with the other survivors back on Schramm Six. There were 10 of us left. 10 out of 23. It was a botched operation, but we netted about 70 hoagies. Was it worth the cost? I don’t know. My grades were better for a short time. I tell myself most of the lost were freshmen. They were expendable. They might have been naive young kids but they knew what they were in for.
I still have dreams about it. I see Mitch being torn to pieces. I wake up screaming.
I go downstairs and make myself a hot ham and cheese with mustard on rye. Then everything becomes right with the world.