Sunday, November 09, 2003

Of all the things I've lost, I miss my mind the most.

I began thinking the other day, a proposition dangerous in and of itself, about things that used to be. At one point I wrote about things that didn’t used to be, like the compact disc player and the IBM PC, and I started thinking of all of those things that I grew up with that no longer exist… here is a list of some of those.

The first thing that came to mind was Styrofoam fast food containers. Whenever you went to your local burger joint, the hamburger came to you in a Styrofoam container similar to those you currently receive as a to-go box at a sit-down restaurant. The irony of that last statement is that the burger containers were done away with for ecological reasons. The containers were filling up landfills (we called ‘em trash dumps when I was growing up) and someone figured out they take hundreds of years to decompose. Under public pressure, the major chains eventually started using more Earth-friendly materials.

Why I miss them: Styrofoam burger containers are the perfect container in which to dump an order of French fries with ketchup on the side. It was the ideal serving container. Your burger rested comfortably in the bottom portion and, once the container was opened, the fries could be contained in the top portion. The beauty of the container was that you could put your ketchup in a corner of the container and the foam wouldn’t absorb any of it. You could savor every drop that came out of the little packet (that you didn’t even have to ask for – they just gave it to you).

Speaking of French fries, I really miss the fries that McDonald’s used to make. These were the pinnacle of French fries: Always golden brown, always crispy and always salted. According to some sources their crispiness was achieved by soaking the potatoes in a sugar water solution prior to freezing them for shipment to the restaurants. Of course, the increase in health consciousness got rid of the sugar and the salt – but left the fat from frying, go fig.

Side note while we’re on the subject of French fries: Why is it that when you ask for ketchup and salt you get ten packages of salt and two packages of ketchup for super-size fries?

Next on the list is trading card bubble gum. Back in the day when trading cards were just that – not part of a game – you used to get a plank of bubble gum with every pack of cards. The gum was about as thick as a standard piece of chewing gum, about twice as wide, and about a third longer. This stuff was specially formulated, or aged, perhaps, so that it wouldn’t melt, soften or bend during shipment. It was pink, like bubble gum should be, but was coated in a powdery substance, that we always assumed was sugar, that kept it dry which kept it from sticking to the cards. I don’t know how, or why, we ever chewed this stuff but it was pretty much the second most exciting part of getting a pack of trading cards – the first was finding a rare card.

I also remember soda can pull tabs. These things were a lawsuit waiting to happen. These days, you pop the tab and it pushes a section of the top into the can. The whole thing stays intact. Back in the day, pulling the tab released the pressure by creating a small opening at the apex of a teardrop-shaped section of the top. In order to open the can, you had to pull the ring and physically separate the teardrop-shaped tab from the can. The drawbacks? First, the tabs were sharp – not a good thing in the hands of a child. What ultimately took them off the market were the beer-swilling idiots who would pop the top then drop it into the can prior to consuming the liquid. Often enough, these Darwin award candidates would swallow the tab and choke to death.

While we’re talking about beer, does anyone remember Billy beer? Somehow Billy Carter, the brother of former President Jimmy Carter, started marketing his own brand of beer. The only reason anyone paid attention was because he was the brother of the President. From what I understand, the beer wasn’t that good and the only people who supported Billy’s efforts were beer can collectors, who knew billy beer was just a flash in the pan, and those that couldn’t afford cheap beer.

The idea of cheap beer leads me into thinking about generic products. Generic products were like off-brand or store-brand products in that they were less expensive but they went far beyond that. From beer to cigarettes to canned goods, generic products were labeled with white labels with nothing more than the product name (i.e. “beer” or “green beans”) and a UPC symbol.

Here’s the rest of the list:

Audio pagers - These little gems work on the same principle as modern pagers. A radio signal reaches them and they beep. Of course, this was before the advent of LCD technology (odd that I’m talking about this while working on a laptop… which uses an LCD for the display). Instead of displaying a number or text message (there was nothing on which to display a number or message), the caller would talk and the audio message would be transmitted to the pager. This could be disconcerting, especially if you’re concentrating intensely on something when they go off.

Let me set the scene for you. It’s Halloween. I’m home by myself. Unbeknownst to me, my mother has left her pager on the charging stand with the power on. I found a horror movie on cable and decided to really get into it by turning out all of the lights and moving a chair in direct line with the television. I’m about an hour and a half into the movie (Halloween, I think it was) – right as a major plot point is occurring. The killer is on the loose, several people have already died, the phones are out of order, the lights have been smashed except for one or two that cling to life giving off flickers and sparks. I lean forward in my chair, inching forward, caught up in the intensity of the movie.

Have you ever seen that cartoon where the mouse sneaks up behind the cat, blows up a paper bag and pops it? Do you remember what happens to the cat?

I lean forward in my chair, inching forward, caught up in the intensity of the movie...


I became the cat.

I finally relaxed enough to come off the ceiling when the voice came over the pager asking my mother to call the lab… It was a good thing I had just gone to the bathroom.

Penny candy – That’s right, kids. You could buy candy for a penny a piece. Mostly it was bubble gum, usually out of a gumball machine but sometimes from the counter in bulk but they were a penny each. This, to a child, was the reason pennies were made. The value of a dollar was 100 pieces of gum.

Dick & Jane books – For millions of American children, this is how we learned to read. They were simple stories of Dick, Jane and their dog, Spot. See Dick. See Jane. See Dick and Jane. See Spot. See Spot chew on Dick’s shoe… Bad Spot. No biscuit.

Tab – These days you have diet Pepsi, diet Coke, diet Dr. Pepper, diet Sprite, diet root beer, and even diet Shasta. Before all of these choices you had… Tab. Tab was it. If you wanted a sugar free cola, you drank Tab. And God saw that it was Tab and said that it was Tab and it was AWFUL!

On the flip side, there was Jolt cola. In the early/mid eighties, before the health nuts decided that caffeine and sugar were really bad things, someone came up with a cola for the college student in all of us. Jolt cola was advertised as having all of the sugar and twice the caffeine as regular cola. A six-pack of this stuff could give a comatose person the jitters. [side note: while putting together the links for this entry I discovered Jolt is still around.]

Stretch ArmstrongStretch Armstrong was a… I hesitate to say doll… he was a toy that looked like a bodybuilder. The hook was that he was made of rubber and filled with some sort of gel and he stretched. He stretched a long way. He would eventually, as many a young male child discovered, break.

Tonka trucks made of metal – Yes, you heard me right, Tonka trucks used to be made of metal. Good, old-fashioned, American sheet metal. There were no safety concerns that caused the change to heavy plastic. It was a simple decision of economics. I used to have a very large Tonka dump truck that I used to ride down our driveway. I eventually sold it in a garage sale and either some kid is still playing with it or it’s been added to a collection.

8-track tapes – Thank God these are extinct. Although, 8-tracks are responsible for auto-reverse technology in cassette decks. The width of the tape was divided into four sections of two tracks (left and right) each. Each alternating section was recorded in reverse of the previous. You could change sections but there was no fast-forward or rewind.

Finally, there’s canned motor oil. Oil didn’t always come packaged in a convenient, re-sealable, easy-pour plastic bottle. It used to be packaged in a round can made of coated paper with a metal top and base. You could use a standard can opener – the pointy kind that punches a hole, not the kind that cuts the top off - (which is becoming an extinct product in and of itself) but that tended to be very messy when trying to pour. To make it easier to pour, you could buy an oil spout. These were metal spouts, about 6-8 inches long, that had a pointy bit on the back end that you would slam into the top of the can to open it.

Trust me, the plastic ones are much easier.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this trip down memory lane, or history lesson depending on your perspective. Stay tuned because you never know when another bizarre idea will hit me.

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