Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wonder Bread and Recess

Today for lunch, I ate a peanut butter and jam sandwich. When I was a kid, my mom bought loaves of Wonder Bread. The wrapping alone-- primary colored dots covering the bag-- was enough to convince you the bread was going to be delicious. The white, soft bread was marred only by the tougher crusts around the edge. In truth, it was probably the only part that had any flavor, but I still envied the kids whose moms cut off their crusts, allowing them to savor the fluffy goodness without crusty distraction.

I remember fourth grade lunches. We’d get to play outside on the play ground for recess. At the time, we lived in Napa, California, back in the early 70s before it was the swanky community it is now. But it was at this playground, at an elementary school nestled in our small neighborhood, where I learned to play Four Square and Tetherball. Four Square was a game involving a big, red rubber playground ball, four large squares painted on the asphalt and lots of complicated rules, which somehow I managed to learn. We also played a lot of Tetherball—a game with a big pole and a long rope with a ball attached to its end. The idea was to hit the ball past your opponent until it wrapped all the way around the pole and you were the triumphant winner, all while being careful to avoid being slapped on the side of your face by the ball.

I don’t think Tetherball exists on playgrounds anymore. The long rope and potential head whomps probably were set-ups for litigating parents whose little ones were the hapless victims of an errant ball or rope. But back then we lived on the edge: riding see saws and deliberately jumping off them while our partner was still high in the air so they’d come crashing down on their bottoms with a thump, or spinning so fast on the merry-go-rounds the centrifugal force flung us off into the dirt in a laughing  heap. (We didn’t wear bike helmets back then either.)

Playgrounds were the hot bed of school fads. At recess, kids couldn’t wait to show off their latest Duncan brand yoyos, or clackers with the brightly colored glass marbles, or the latest Guinness Book of World Records. Some years, Chinese jump ropes were popular. Groups of girls would stand around forming complicated weavings with the stretchy rope and their feet. Other years, a string was all we needed to demonstrate our talent for forming cats’ cradles and other complex finger designs. We also chose partners and played ornate clapping games with each other, entertaining ourselves with our expertise for entire recesses. Miss Mary Mack, Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black. This little rhyme troubled meWhy did Miss Mary always wear black? Was she some strange recluse?

One year, I got the latest Guinness Book of World Records, hardback edition, for Christmas. I took it to school and for two weeks I was the glorious center of attention while we thumbed through the pages to find the world’s tallest man or the biggest rubber band ball in the world or the woman with the longest fingernails. (I still remember being particularly fascinated and simultaneously horrified viewing her winding and curling fingernails.)

Picking out each year’s lunch box was a big deal with our annual back-to-school shopping. Sometimes we’d have to reuse the previous year’s box, but if last year’s version was too dented up, (yes, they were metal back then), we’d get a new one. As big a deal as this was, I don’t remember many of my boxes except a Partridge Family one I had at some point. David Cassidy, Susan Dey and rambunctious Danny Bonaduce and their super-cool travel bus adorned its lid. The lunchbox came with a matching thermos that fit snugly inside the box, complete with a lid that could be used as a cup. Thermoses were made of glass back then and when they broke, which the inevitably did, you could shake the thermos and hear the glass—it sounded like sand stuck in the walls of the container.

By high school, lunches were reduced to a showcase of insecurity with kids vying to be at “cool” tables and the cafeteria food nondescript--a rotating menu of doughy pizza squares, iceberg salads and mushy spaghetti.

As I munch my PB&J today, I will have a glass of milk in honor of all the pints of lukewarm milk and chocolate milk I consumed over the years. Although my sandwich now is made with homemade bread and all-natural peanut butter, I’ll pretend its Wonder Bread and Jiff (the choosy mother’s peanut butter). I’ll even eat a slightly over-ripe banana just to complete the culinary flashback. And afterwards? I might just go to a playground and climb on the monkey bars and not wash away my milk mustache!