Willy Wonka Grape
My pre-middle school days were always characterized by a what-do-you-know?, does-fire-really burn?, and maybe-later-not-now philosophy. In short, I was stubborn. Saturday mornings, in certain stretches of youth, were spent viewing cartoons, such as “Bugs Bunny,” “The Road Runner,” and “Daffy Duck.” My only other activity of this laidback day, aside from seeing as many cartoons as my parents would allow, was to assist my father on his many trips to Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina, to corner the right sofa, love seat, or dining room set. Needless to say, these outings were not my area of expertise, and it had a lot more to do with interest than age. Most kids my age, let’s face it, were indulging in the new fall cartoon line-up on their network of choice (of three existing). The cartoons were easily a half-day investment. If you missed any of these shows, you would be reduced to silence in all relevant classroom conversations come Monday morning. One Saturday, my father entered my bedroom and became very adamant about his plans.
“Up, right now. Not later but now,” my father implored with a tone of urgency. “How do you think we are going to get to the sales with you stretched out in the bed like this?” he queried.
“Okay, okay!” I responded as I stood up, yawned, and started changing for yet another humdrum outing at the local flea markets. It was too early for the response “Yes, sir.” There would be cheese toast and a mug of coffee awaiting me, enough to tide me over until lunch, which we could maybe get at the Eagle’s dime store lunch counter just down the street from the flea markets. The heated honey buns at Eagle’s were divine at any time of day. We didn’t have time for those, though. I could tell. Dad was a man on a mission.
What Dad failed to realize was that it would take a great deal to pique an eight-year-old’s interest in furniture. He was fighting forces beyond his control. For one thing, these varnished relics of the past featured no Batman, no Robin, no Steve Austin, and no Evel Knievel. Besides, who would give a boy a silly name like Duncan Fife? Another name that I heard from time to time was Lazyboy, and it seemed to characterize every single person involved in the selling and reselling of certain chairs aptly named recliners. At one booth, a friendly person behind the counter greeted me with a warm hello and a “My, how you have grown since last year. What are they feeding you out in the country? You are drinking that fresh milk?” I just smiled and shyly looked away. Who were these people? Did they know me?
On this day, Dad had given me freedom to roam the whole flea market while he went to pursue his business. Small-town North Carolina loves its flea markets—all of the junk one might possibly need, or not need, for one-twentieth of the price. Several tables featured items which looked like playthings from the land of misfit toys in the Christmas show “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” There were plenty of diamonds in the rough if you took the time to discover them. The Stretch Armstrong, for example, had never been taken out of its box. Many people at these events swore by the phrase “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.” The only thing I could find of moderate interest was a record player with a 45 rpm of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” and an Etch-a-Sketch with a damaged dial. Suddenly, Dad approached me with that look on his face, the you-won’t believe-the-bargain-I-found look, which usually inspired several ungrateful comments from my mother, such as “We don’t even own an x, and you bought a y?”, “They saw you coming,” or even “There’s a sucker born every minute.” He balanced three barstools on each arm, insisting that they match our brown wall paint in the den. He rushed up to the operator of the booth, pulled out his wallet, and slapped down one-hundred dollars in twenties. Then he looked over at me, knowing that I had indulged him an hour in this museum of mundane home life. He was bent on doing me a favor.
“I know you want the gum, so go ahead and put it on the counter. You can get it!” he said.
“Thank you, Pop. This is yummy stuff—sour grape.” I had seen commercials for Willy Wonka Grape gum while watching cartoons. It had to be as tasty as advertised, and I had never tried it.
We loaded the barstools into the truck and tied them together to prevent movement. It wasn’t a bad trip, and I could still salvage a few of the cartoons. My father, for whatever reason, did not want me chewing the gum until later. He gave the green light when I returned to the cartoons later that afternoon. He labored as best he could to explain the barstools to my mother. She went on and on about how we would have to buy a bar now. She offered a solution: Judy Smith had an old bar in her attic. Wonder what she wants for it? She might take fifty bucks for it! I bet you could get it for a song. She’s your cousin. As they turned their thoughts over about the barstools and the bar they as yet did not own, I decided to start on a second piece of Willy Wonka Grape. It would easily fuse with the first piece and create a big blob of chewing fun, never losing its flavor and getting rejuvenated with each added piece. Who could stop me? This was my free will after all. The topic of barstools had taken me out of the spotlight as my parents considered whether a bar could be rationalized. Being a young kid, I was not one to weigh in on barstools. However, the idea of a barstool I found somewhat interesting. It might change dining in our house forever. His mind on other things, Dad never asked, “How many pieces do you have left?” He was too busy with his barstools.
I had created this proud blob of artificially-flavored grape chewing satisfaction and had taken on the flavor-loss gods and won the battle. Before dinner, I submerged this blob in a glass of water, half-filled. The gum would keep until I needed it again. We ate Mom’s famous spaghetti for dinner and discussed a Saturday of great finds at the flea market. Later, Mom inquired as to whether dad bought me anything at the flea market.
“Just a pack of Willy Wonka Grape. It’s delicious!” I replied.
She seemed happy for me. I guess deep down inside she knew that a little boy’s heart was with the cartoons on a Saturday morning, but she still enjoyed seeing me have fun with my father. There was a small part of her that sympathized with me. The flea market business could wait, and whoever said I had to make it my hobby? Varnish, ladder back, Duncan Fife, loveseat, dye, velvet, and vinyl were words which were usually lost on a young boy, to say nothing of suede or velour. On the other hand, Tonka, Batmobile, and “Bugs Bunny” were direct hits. They were real stepping stones on the great path to manhood.
I, of course, returned to my grape blob shortly after dinner and figured I would add a piece or two. As we approached bedtime, I continued to chew—in reality smack—this blob of Willy Wonka Grape. It was my project, and I very stubbornly chewed ad infinitum.
Dad cautioned me from the den, “Take the gum out of your mouth now. You might choke! I wish I hadn’t bought it. You don’t ever listen to me.”
“Okay, Dad” I replied. However, I very obstinately continued to chew the grape creation. My blob was so big that it worked the very muscles of my tired jaws. This was no ordinary gum. It was no ordinary blob. It was a flavor-enhanced chewers’ dream. As I chewed laboriously in bed, I could feel myself get sleepy. I started to drift off. Was I headed to the land of Willy Wonka Grape bliss? I imagined tasty pieces of grape gum coming off an assembly line.
I somehow managed to sleep through the night, realizing that I had disobeyed both my father and mother where the gum was concerned. I was a bit groggy in bed. The gum was nowhere to be found. I was very concerned about where the gum might be. I did not even so much as smell it. I knew that I had not eaten it in my sleep. It was much too large for that. Only the wrappers remained of this five-pack of grape gum.
Meanwhile, the scent of Mom’s waffles wafted in the morning air, just like they did almost every Sunday.
In her welcoming way, she said, “Come and get the first stack of pancakes, Marshall!” It was time to start a new day. I decided to join the family at the table for breakfast, and I had really worked up an appetite.
As I rose up from the bed, however, there was a force working against me. My first instinct was to panic. Maybe burglars had broken into the house and tied me up.
“It’s got me! It’s got me! It won’t let me go! Mom! Dad!” I yelled from bed. Had my creation betrayed me? I was immobile.
“What’s the matter?” inquired Mom, smiling, as I attempted to rise once more. “Have mercy! Would you look at his hair?” she continued. “Go get me the scissors! Now! We can cut him out, I believe.” she estimated to Dad.
The purple blob had gone into attack mode as I slept. It stuck to my hair, bonding immediately with the fitted sheet, in several places. There was no way to escape except by scissors. Hair, gum, and sheet had become one. In fifteen minutes Mom had officially released me from bondage. The sheet would have to be thrown out. No more gum would there be for me. It was off to the land of meat and vegetables. I had tempted the gum fates and learned a very valuable lesson about obeying people who were hoping to develop me into a good listener one day. One must listen to antique-chasing parents when they are trying to impart useful wisdom and guidance. Never lie to a parent or anyone else. Willy Wonka Grape gum is not what it’s cracked up to be. After losing its flavor, it is of no value whatsoever. My grandmother shortly thereafter introduced me to Lifesavers, and I made a point of steering clear of gum—any kind of gum—for at least a decade. It was probably time to recognize that my father had been right about a few things. It was just so hard to put absolute trust in a man who did not respect the cartoons with the same veneration which I, a mere third-grader, had. I even got the dictionary out just to define a few of the terms which I had heard articulated at these flea markets. I discovered that a loveseat was a piece of furniture designed to seat two people comfortably. I even began to ask my father what some of these words meant. Maybe, I would open up to this furniture lexicon one day, and surely it was best for me that I know these terms since I had to make these trips with Dad. The knowledge might one day prove useful. Even as I sit now, I am surrounded by a chair and matching ottoman, a coffee table, a sofa in cloth, and several ladder back chairs. The recliner from which I write is bedecked in dark burgundy leather.
Marshall Lancaster is the English Department Chairman at St. Vincent Pallotti High School in Laurel, Maryland, where he teaches AP, British, and World Literature. Before moving to the D.C. area for graduate work in Medieval Studies at the Catholic University of America, Lancaster earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in English at UNC-Chapel Hill and Appalachian State University, respectively.