Every week, The Friendship Files features a conversation between The Atlantic’s Julie Beck and two or more friends, exploring the history and significance of their relationship.
This week she talks with a group of friends who met in their early 20s on Cape Cod in the summer of 1971. They lived crammed together in a house festooned with owl decorations, and the Owl House became the center of their social lives. The Owl House Gang, as they call themselves, tell the story of how one crazy summer led to a lifelong friendship.
Linda Eichenfeldt, 68, a realtor who lives in Warwick, Rhode Island Windsor Green, 70, a photographer who lives in Sonoma, California Dianne Marino, 70, a retired TV producer who lives in New York City Debbie Mourey, 67, a digital marketer who lives in Corvallis, Oregon Gary Olson, 68, a retired pharmacist who lives in Charlestown, Massachusetts Jimmy Woodman, 68, a retired counselor for at-risk youth who lives in Venus, Florida
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Julie Beck: What led you all to Cape Cod in 1971, and how did you end up in the same house?
Jimmy Woodman: Gary and I grew up in the same little town: Sterling, Massachusetts.
Gary Olson: After school was out, Jimmy says one day, “What are you doing this summer?” I said, "I don't know." He said, “Well, I'm going to the Cape. Want to come?” I said, “Sure.” We had no job, no place to live. We get down there and get a job flipping hamburgers and serving ice cream—real skillful-type job.
Gary: We went to [see] a place with some real-estate lady. She shows us this room that's about the size of my dining room now. It's got two beds, some little kitchen thing with a hot plate, and a tiny bathroom. I think, This is ridiculous. We can't possibly stay here. Then the lady says, “Well, you'll also be sharing it with several young girls that are living in the house.” Jimmy and I both looked at each other, and we just said, “We'll take it.” It’s the best decision I ever made in my life, and I made it in about one second.
Windsor Green: I had been [on Cape Cod] the year before with my girlfriend from high school. Linda; Mary Jane, who is no longer with us; and another woman named Becky lived right across the driveway, so we got to know each other that way in 1970. They called me up [the next year] and said, "Hey, you want to come back to the Cape? We met these really cool sisters.”
Debbie Mourey: Dianne and I are sisters, and the way we got there was [through] our friend Mary Jane. She had this head of hair that was long and curly … She was positively magnetic. The glue, the linchpin between all of us, is Mary Jane. The other person who's not on the call —who is with us in spirit —is Windsor’s sister, Breezy.
Beck: Gary and Jimmy were in a separate apartment and then you all were in the main house, is that correct?
Windsor: Yeah. Four of us were in a two-bedroom house and then there was another side apartment like Gary and Jimmy’s that the owner's daughter lived in. We didn't connect with her much.
Linda Eichenfeld: I actually didn't live at the Owl House. I came and visited.
Beck: Can you describe the house to me? Why is it called the Owl House, and why are you the Owl House Gang?
Debbie: The house was this little tiny shoebox place. Dianne and I had one room, and then the two other sisters, Windsor and Breezy, were in the other bedroom. The landlord loved owls. Everywhere in this house was some kind of owl figurine. Everywhere you looked there was an owl. It was known as the Owl House. So we started laughing about being owls and hooting and all of that. I haven't heard one single hoot yet, so I'm disappointed.
Dianne Marino: Hoo! Hoo!
Debbie: Thank you very much.
Dianne: I remember there were owl ashtrays, owl hand towels, photograph prints … There were owls everywhere.
Jimmy: You couldn't walk anywhere for more than two seconds without finding an owl sitting on some shelf or mantle or whatever. It was amazing.
Beck: How did you all get close after you moved in?
Jimmy: Once we all moved in, we were pretty close to begin with—like three inches of wall away from everybody. It was close quarters, but it was comfy. I've never been with a group of people that was so easy to talk to.
Debbie: Surrounding the house, it wasn't like a yard; it was a Cape Cod yard. There were pine trees and pine needles on the ground. There was a semicircular driveway. People would come visit and their cars would be in the driveway. Like [our other friend] Fred with his gold Jaguar XK-E convertible. He would look like a Viking, with blonde hair and a big red beard, as he drove up in it. Gary had a cool sports car, too. Dianne worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken. I just remember buckets and buckets of chicken in the refrigerator, and we lived on that.
Dianne: I'd bring home the leftovers. They wouldn't let you [sell] the stuff that nobody bought that day, so I'd bring it home.
Debbie: We were broke, all of us, and working various jobs. But somebody could always come over and get chicken out of the refrigerator. Every day seemed like a party to me. The house was a magnet for all kinds of people to come and be with us, because it was such a special place. There was a little pot smoking in there and maybe a few other things. It was a little Big Chill–ish.
Dianne: We were sober and straight at some point during that summer.
Debbie: Oh, yeah. We all went to work. It was 1971, so we know all the things that had happened—the 1969 moon launch, the Kennedy assassination, the Vietnam War. We were completely aware of all these things, and yet we were just so in the moment of being with each other.
Beck: This sounds like a teen coming-of-age movie or something. What memories of that summer have stuck with you over the years?
Dianne: I was telling Deb yesterday that I vaguely remember skinny-dipping some place that summer. I said, "Did we skinny-dip?" She said, "Yeah, I think we did, in the pond."
Jim: Gary, we must’ve had something awfully important to do to miss the skinny-dipping party. I don't remember it. Must have been something really important.
Dianne: I've also been listening to Spotify and a lot of the old music is coming up. I’m remembering a lot of James Taylor and stuff from those times.
Beck: What else would you listen to?
Windsor: Carole King. Johnny Winter. Some really hardcore rock and roll, too. We had a record player.
Beck: Living all crammed together like that, was there ever any conflict?
Gary: I can't remember anything. I really can't. It was the first time in my life that I had made friends that were female, and it was very different. I shared more with Debbie than I ever did with anybody. I was sort of damaged goods.
Beck: How do you mean?
Gary: Twelve years of my life, I had like a Leave It to Beaver life. It was about as perfect as it was ever going to get. Then one day I went to school and my mother just dropped dead. She had a stroke and I never got to say goodbye. Then, not even two years later, my father shoots himself. I had grief with anger under the surface. I was haunted for a long time. That gang there ... Nobody judged. Just listened and just let me talk. Man, that helped a lot.
Debbie: [My and Dianne’s] parents were alcoholics, both of them. I was talking to Jimmy yesterday and he said, "[The Owl House] was the first time that I could completely be myself." Right, Jim?
Jimmy: No one’s judging you. You could say anything and it was okay. When you arrived back at the Owl House, you knew there were friends there, that you were welcome. If you needed to vent or unload, there was a party already there for you or whatever you might need at that time.
Debbie: It’s that sense of family that I don't think I ever had before. I was 100 percent accepted for exactly who I was. I didn't have to be anything else. In my family, being the child of alcoholics, I was always expected to be taking care of people and things. I felt like if I didn't take care of everyone, something terrible was going to happen. Then here’s this summer, and now suddenly everything is easy. Food is easy, friends are easy, fun is easy.
Beck: Did any of you ever date, or was it always just friends?
Windsor: Just friends.
Dianne: Just friends.
Gary: Jimmy and I at one point were sitting in our little shack there, saying how much we love these people. It just didn't make sense that they would be love interests, or sexual interests. We were in a time where there was free love, free sex, free everything.
Jimmy: But you and I did say to each other, ”We do not want to jeopardize these unbelievable friendships that we have developed here by trying to date one of the lady Owls.”
Beck: Did any of you swipe an owl when you left, as a souvenir?
Gary: I did.
Dianne: You did?
Gary: I took this little ceramic one that looks like a salt shaker I used to stare at sometimes. A lot of times we were under the influence of different things and I would just stare at it for hours.
Beck: Do you still have it?
Gary: I don't.
Debbie: Gary, you maybe don't remember, but at our first or second reunion you came over to me and you gave me this little ceramic owl, which I still have. You pressed it into my hand, saying, “Thank you for everything you did for me back then.” I'm thinking to myself, Did I give him good drugs? What did I do? I don't know what you're talking about. He just said, "You were so wonderful to me and I want you to have this.” And I still have it.
Beck: How much did you keep in touch after that summer? When did you start having reunions?
Windsor: I think the first time we really came together, our friend Mary Jane was getting married. I was invited and I decided that all the Owls were going to go to Mary Jane's wedding. I forgot to tell her. We all showed up at Mary Jane's wedding. She didn't know we were coming. Her mom was pissed because they had to put out another table for us. We all reconnected at that wedding. It was very fun.
Jimmy: We were wedding crashers before the movie came out.
Beck: How often have you gotten together since then?
Windsor: At 25 years, we got together at Mary Jane's house in Rhode Island. I had had cancer that year and I was just like, Okay, what's important to me? It was the Owl House. So I pulled it together. We decided to do every five years [after that]. We pretty much did it. We went to the Cape a couple of times; we went to Rhode Island; we went to Massachusetts. Then we decided we better do it every three years, because you don't know. We’ve got two years until 50 years, so we’ve got to start planning now.
The last reunion was in New Hampshire. We went to Lake Winnipesaukee. Then I got a phone call from Mary Jane’s neighbor two days after I got home, who said, "MJ had a major stroke, and she has passed away."
Debbie: MJ arranged that whole thing. And she had never arranged a reunion before. She’s the one that got that house in New Hampshire. It was almost like she knew she was going.
Windsor: It was only two years after the previous reunion. I was like, “MJ, it's expensive to fly back there.” She goes, “No. You have to come up.” We did. We all made it, thank goodness.
Dianne: She passed away in 2013. She was 62 going on 63.
Beck: Who’s the other person from your group who passed?
Windsor: That's my sister, Breezy. She was 16 when she came to the Cape. She was a pretty amazing person. She built her house by herself. Cut down the redwood trees and milled the wood by herself. It took 15 years. She'd always be out there with a chainsaw. She was extremely independent. She was walking her dog and got hit by a hit-and-run driver. That was two years ago now. It was a tough time.
Debbie: Breezy had a smile that would light up a place. She was just so electric.
Beck: How did that summer or this group of friends shape your life going forward?
Debbie: There’s something extraordinarily magical about what happened that holds us together. I've never experienced it before or since. I wrote a poem for one of our reunions. It was called “The Summer of Love.”
Gary: I second that. I never replicated that again.
Jimmy: I second and third that. It's like another family that I can call at any time. I feel like I can call any of you at any time and you would lend me your ear. That's a really good feeling. You don't get that with many people in life, really.
Linda: You feel grounded in the freedom that you have with all these friends.
Windsor: These are my oldest, oldest friends. And they’re old.
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