When life gets your kite stuck in a tree, maybe it's time to move on to a sweeter pursuit. Actually, this kite wasn’t ours, but I snapped the picture as we were going for a walk. On the way back to our car, we passed an old-fashioned candy store that was still open. Of course, the kids insisted.
Seeing some of the labels in this store brought back memories of my youth, long before my teeth were rotten. Most were memories, but some were newer.
First, these chocolate bars greeted me near the door. They looked fairly current. These might make a good gift for just the right person. But aside from gifts, a candy store should provide escapism, not politics. Leave your baggage at the door. The kids had run further into the store, so I kept on walking past the political chocolate.
Ah, swirls of my youth. There’s no finer visual image in all of candyland than one of these swirly lollipop suckers. How many times did I beg my parents for one of these? I only remember being able to try them a couple of times as a kid. Each time, frankly, they were disappointing. How could any flavor come close to the visual promise of a swirly pop? It’s still sugar and food coloring with a little carnuba wax and flavoring, just like most candy. But they look so pretty, so noble, so pulchritudinous.
On the right, I steal a quick glance at the fresh candy counter. The truffles look amazing. I’m not a chocoholic, though. My wife might get one. And besides, these retro candy labels are awakening my sense of nostalgia.
Charleston Chew? As a boy, I managed to eat a fair number of those. They’re long, they’re chewy, and you may know the secret: don’t eat them right away, but pop them in a freezer until they’re rock hard. Then they break into yummy pieces. Vanilla, chocolate, strawberry…all of them with some marshmallowy background that was really quite pleasing. This is a good candy. If my kids asked me for one of these, I might approve.
What’s this? Did you know Mary Jane candy once contained marijuana, just like Coca-Cola contained coca leaves (the source for cocaine)? The latter is true (look it up), but I'm only joking about Mary Jane. She’s a molasses and peanut butter gal, innocent of any wrongdoing. This is some seriously retro stuff. I don’t even think we had Mary Jane candy when I was a kid. Looking it up online, I see that it’s been around since 1914, which is some true longevity (for the nitpicksters, my source there is Wikipedia.com).
Speaking of retro, here are some cigarette packs that are really just candy in a box. And nearby, I see the feminine therapy aisle. Anti-Aging, PMS, and Hot Flash Mints. This must be when they spent more time innovating with the boxes than with the mints, largely selling this candy for its value as a funny gift. Somewhere on the package must be a disclaimer, though I’m willing to bet they are at least as effective as a placebo in curing their targeted ailments. They may even work on bad breath.
My wife is getting a few gifts in the store, but no gags. As for the kids, the expectation is implicit when we first walk in: each is scrambling around trying to decide on one item that Mom & Dad will let them buy. If they hadn’t been good enough to deserve a treat, we wouldn’t have come in. And they know they’re on the clock making their selections.
I pass the retro marshmallow and cluster sections. Rocky Road, Valomilk, Cherry and Googoo clusters. This is my kind of candy. If I’m not going with fruit flavors, then I like something that’s gooey or crunchy with a thin layer of chocolate.
But then I almost cry when I see the Mike & Ike’s. Not just the rasta colored ones or the faux-tropical flavors, but grape. I prepare myself to kneel on the ground as a wave of memory hits me.
Flashback: I’m 11 years old and waiting for my Little League baseball game, running in cleats behind the backstop while the previous game finishes. I hear the ding of an aluminum bat and a flop in the grass nearby and there it is! The ball drops just in front of me, right near the path.
I see four other kids racing for it, but I’m closer and I beat them to it. I hold the ball in my hand with a triumphant salute as if I’ve just caught a Willie Mays home run ball. But no, that ball is worth far more, because some zit-faced kid named Robbie hit it. And my Little League reused its balls.
With a trail of other kids, all waiting to see what I’d get, I stride right up to the snack shack and present my trophy to the mom who is volunteering there. She takes the ball and offers me its price in sugar: I can take any candy I want. Mike & Ike’s! I didn’t even know they had grape back then. There were the rasta (red, green, and yellow) Mike & Ike’s and there were the Hot Tamale ripoffs. I loved them both. And I think they gave me enough candy that day to share with some other kids.
Now, I grow older and balder again as I realize I’m standing in a candy store. Not just Mike & Ike’s, but the Red Hot section approaches. I see Hot Tamales, which are a spicy cinnamon version of Mike & Ike’s. And there’s a whole cinnamon section that quickly devolves into pain.
Why is it that people like to use candy to challenge their pain threshold? There is the spicy stuff and the sour stuff. When I was a kid, Pop Rocks were fun and were about as sour as anything. But that was kid stuff. Today, there are seriously sour and spicy candies that are sold only for their punishing value for adults.
The sourest of them actually can leave someone with a bleeding tongue, as you can see in Furious Pete’s famous video from a few years ago. Warning: it’s graphic content, since his tongue gets bloody. He later said he got 15 million views and did not make a single dollar from it (but it made him famous because he was one of the first to do these kids of videos).
Here’s the hard stuff: Jawbreakers. Ah yes, how well I remember sticking one in a paper bag and borrowing a hammer to smash it into a thousand pieces. What an utterly impractical size, shape, and density for anything that’s meant to be consumed. But the old jawbreaker is a classic. Beautiful, aren’t they?
One of my kids comes up. She has chosen a swirly lollipop and wants my permission. Sure, but just remember they always look more exciting than they taste. She likes the fact that lollipops last for a long time. (Dad's note: That shows long term thinking.)
I ask her sister whether she’s chosen anything. She tells me she's leaning towards taffy. Ah, these are my children indeed. The younger one is about to make that classic mistake of going for the swirly lolly, thinking it tastes as good as it looks, a path which I also tread as a youngster. She needs to learn that lesson herself, not hear it from me. Now, her older sister is zeroing in on the taffy.
Saltwater taffy is right up there as one of my favorite treats. Do you know the story of how this confection came about? Someone in New Jersey was making taffy candy, which involves pulling and stretching the sugar. Either there was a flood or the tide came in. The sweet became a little salty and really good. I’m a big fan of saltwater taffy and all its flavors. My older daughter fills a small bag with a few choice selections.
I’m satisfied. These kids are on the right path. They have money to get one item each, and my wife is still in there, so I’ll let them finish up without me. I make for the door. On the way, I see the jelly bean dispensers. And then, I have one more quick glance at the fresh counter. Mmmm, cake pops. I actually had not seen a cake pop until I reached adulthood, so I’m not sure they qualify as retro. Some themes appear near the door: Zelda, Hello Kitty, and some takeout containers. Nothing I need.
Out on the sidewalk, I notice that the hippy thread store next to the park has a nice tie-dye flag. It shows the dark lord of Star Wars going all psycho-delic. Apparently, enough sugar and food coloring can raise even Darth Vader from his monochromatic depths and into the light.
In the end, I realize that I’ve just left a world-class candy store without buying a single thing to eat. I’ll leave those smiles for the kids. For those of us with rotten teeth, the journey and the sounds of laughter are sweet enough. And if the dark side calls, I might steal one of those taffies after the kids go to bed.
All photos by the author, except for Truffles (public domain), Hot Tamales (they got a better picture of it than I did: Creative Commons via Flickr.com by JeepersMedia), the YouTube video by Furious Pete which includes its source link, and the cake pops (public domain). Author's images taken with Samsung Galaxy S7.