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The Blueberry Blues

When did the world become safe for chain stores
but not for childhood?

 

On a recent Sunday morning, my wife — bless her — made blueberry pancakes. Now, regular readers will recall that ordinarily I'm the chef around the house. But certain foods, especially those related to breakfast — pancakes, oatmeal, egg-and-chorizo burritos — remain my wife's domain. I like pancakes, but I love about blueberry pancakes, as I do about pretty much anything with blueberries in it. Even though these were made with frozen blueberries — which, happily, I recalled seeing in the freezer underneath some enchiladas originally cooked during the Carter administration — the pancakes were wonderful. The blueberries — as they always do — gave me a little twinge of childhood nostalgia.

Honestly, blueberries — at least the purplish little ball bearings we get at Albertson's for, what?, something like a buck a berry — are far from the most flavorful fruits. Even among berries, the gourmand in me would have to rate higher both blackberries and raspberries (if you can eat them in the nanosecond between bringing them home from the store and the berries turning fuzzy). And it's not that I have fond memories of eating blueberries fresh off the bush at Grandma Fryxell's farm or anything like that; Grandma Fryxell didn't have a farm, and I didn't have that kind of Timmy and Lassie childhood. But my mom liked blueberries, and I do remember eating them with her, doused in cream and a little sugar (the blueberries, that is, not my mom).

Anyway, those Sunday-morning blueberry pancakes unleashed a flood of memories. Well, maybe not a flood exactly, but a steady trickle. If Marcel Proust had gone to the International House of Pancakes instead of eating a madeleine, I'm sure that Remembrance of Things Past would have been a much more manageable read. Much like Proust and his famous cookie, the blueberry pancakes swept me back into temps perdu — lost time.

Specifically, I recollected a time before our mid-sized town in South Dakota, Sioux Falls, had even an International House of Pancakes. On occasional special weekends, my dad would drive us all the way across town to the Pancake House — a non-chain pancake restaurant of the sort that thrived before IHOP's global hegemony reached every nook and cranny of America. I'd order blueberry pancakes, of course, and carefully section them for application of each of the gloriously varied syrup options that were as essential to the Pancake House's appeal as, well, the pancakes. Maybe more so. I'd particularly savor the blueberry syrup, of course, and the viscously sweet apricot syrup. (Not so much the maple — this was when maple syrup meant Mrs. Butterworth's, not some expensive extract from trees in Vermont. I don't think Mrs. Butterworth had ever been to Vermont, much less tapped a real maple tree.)

This reminiscence got us to talking, over the breakfast table, about our relatively franchise-free childhoods, both of us having grown up in Sioux Falls. We had a Dairy Queen and an A&W Root Beer, where kids' drinks came in shot-glass-sized mugs you got to keep. We had a McDonald's, but no power on earth could have gotten my finicky parents under the Golden Arches. (In my mom's immortal words, "We don't do that.") Later, we'd get a Kentucky Fried Chicken outpost. But that was about it, and this was before the invasion of those interchangeable eateries with musical instruments and other pawnshop decor hanging from the walls.

 

The Dairy Queen, my wife recalled, was close enough to her family's house that she could walk to it. That memory launched us into a reverie about walking to stores and such when we were kids — and a startled realization of how impossible, how downright unsafe that sounds today.

My friends and I used to walk maybe six blocks — alongside, though never crossing, one of the busier streets in town — to what we fondly called "the little store" (at one time that may in fact have been its name, The Little Store). There we'd spend our hard-hoarded pennies and nickels on Black Jack Gum and candy "lips" and, of all things, candy cigarettes. (Heck, most of our parents smoked, so why not get some practice?)

I tried to think how old I must have been. This was from our house on Jefferson Avenue, before we moved to another presidential street, Lincoln, so I couldn't have been more than seven years old.

That sounds like child-abuse today — letting a six- or seven-year-old wander the streets. Today you wouldn't expect a kid that young to go more than a block or two before being accosted by some sex pervert, sold meth and shot by gang bangers. And that's if you're lucky and the poor kid doesn't get abducted first.

It makes the early 1960s, at least in mid-sized, Midwestern America, seem like some sort of fantasyland.

But it wasn't just the Midwest. The summer I was nine, I think it was, my parents spent at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, a town very much like Sioux Falls only with 120 percent humidity and none of my friends. In the mornings and early afternoons, while they were off at classes, I was what today we'd call a "latchkey kid," I guess. Every Tuesday, when the new comic books came in, I'd walk I don't know how many blocks to a couple of neighborhood drugstores to catch up on the latest adventures of the Legion of Super Heroes.

All by myself. Through the streets of a relatively (to me) strange town.

What were my parents thinking? Were they trying to get me abducted by meth-addled sex-fiend religious cultists?

 

But of course this was before anybody figured out how to make meth, in the halcyon days when you could still buy something for your stuffy nose without being treated like a criminal. I'm sure there were sex fiends and religious cultists aplenty back in the early 1960s, but somehow they didn't yet prowl the streets of places like Sioux Falls, SD, or Lexington, Ky.

Bad people were as yet restricted to the big cities, where we could tsk-tsk at their errant ways in the public-service announcements that played on Sunday mornings before the cartoons and "Three Stooges" reruns. (To this day, I still can't hear the song "Downtown" without thinking of one of those black-and-white do-gooder ads, for which the song served as a heavily ironic soundtrack.)

Remember, before you retroactively commence child-abandonment charges against my parents, that this was an era when the newspaper was delivered by kids. They rode their bikes through the early-morning streets (or, in our evening-newspaper town, the rapidly dwindling twilight and subzero temperatures), hurling the daily news onto doorsteps and front lawns and sometimes into bushes or onto rooftops with the velocity if not always the accuracy of my Dodgers hero, Sandy Koufax. Nobody thought this was unsafe. Indeed, if you were a boy and didn't have a paper route, your parents must have been spoiling you rotten. (Happily spoiled, I didn't have a paper route until, well, now, when I deliver Desert Exposures.)

Not until a September Sunday morning in 1982, when a 12-year-old boy named Johnny Gosch vanished while delivering the Des Moines Register, did adults begin to question whether the world was still safe for boys on their bikes to deliver the news. Less than two years later, another Des Moines newsboy, Eugene Martin, was also — presumably — kidnapped, just in case we didn't get the point the first time that the world I'd grown up in was gone.

Today, adults deliver the newspapers, tossing them from their car windows before gunning the engine and sputtering off to the next stop. Let 12-year-old boys do it? Are you crazy? Next you'll suggest letting your kid walk to the store by himself, or go alone to get an ice cream cone.

 

I don't know what happened to make the world unsafe for childhood. Today's kids stay safely inside playing videogames, zapping predators that are merely digital. The kids themselves fatten up on high-fructose corn syrup until it's a wonder they don't sprout tassels. Not to worry, though, because when mom and dad get home they're both too frazzled to cook dinner, but at least now they have a chain restaurant to rely on. Not in the mood for a Mega McDoodle Burger? How about a fancy sit-down meal at that place with the trombones and umbrellas on the wall?

No, I'm not blaming McDonald's or Applebee's or even Nintendo for the decline of civilization. It just seems that in our transition to an MTV-paced, franchised and supersized "lifestyle," something got lost. When I was growing up, we didn't even have "lifestyles" — just lives.

The "little store" my friends and I used to frequent got lost along the way, too. I doubt that sales of Black Jack Gum and candy lips ever amounted to much of its profit margin, anyway. Besides, now my hometown has 7-11s on every other street corner. Who needs a "little store" when you can shop at a big chain store? Last I looked, the place I used to walk to, pennies tightly clutched in my hand, had become a dry cleaners.

The Pancake House across town where my parents used to take me is long gone, too. There's a new IHOP, though, not far from my old house — a few blocks away from the street where I learned to drive. The street was unpaved back then, of course, and not a multilane thoroughfare between shopping malls and "power centers." There's also an Original Pancake House, even closer to my folks' old house. A kid could even walk there — but of course that wouldn't be safe. And, despite the name, it's not "original" at all — just one of nearly 100 flapjack franchises from coast to coast.

It's probably just a sign of my cranky old age — next I'll be going on and on about walking 10 miles to school every day in a blizzard — but not even the blueberries taste as good these days as I remember them from childhood. My mom would serve us each a bowlful of bulging berries, pour half-and-half on them until the white cream just began to peek above the lowest visible layer of blue, then sprinkle the berries with sugar.

Maybe it's just that I no longer eat my blueberries swimming in cream. Got to watch the cholesterol, you know — I'm not as young as I used to be.

None of us is, I guess.

 

David A. Fryxell walks to work as editor of Desert Exposure

 

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