We had a great time celebrating Cary’s birthday yesterday. Just before our guests arrived I finally broke down and took some Tramadol for my hips and hands (why does taking narcotic-style painkillers always seem like such a moral defeat?). Well, I’m glad I did, anyway. It took the sharp edges off the hand-and-hip pain and allowed me to enjoy the rest of the day much more than I would have otherwise.
My lasagna, which I only make about once every five years or so (it’s just way too calorific and full of bad carbs for more often than that), came out spicy, savory, cheesy and delicious. I used a mixture of ground beef and sweet Italian sausage in it, but as I was eating I realized that I like my vegetarian spinach lasagna better.
Does this mean I’m an old hippy? Or is it just that I’m finally growing up?
Maybe both? When it was time for our root beer floats for dessert, I dug right into thefoamy scoop of vanilla ice cream, devoured it in about five spoonfuls, and then settled back happily to sip and savor the cold root-beer-cream mixture left in the glass.
What a surprise! It was so sweet it was horrible. Absolutely noxious. I couldn’t finish it. Which got me thinking, of course. Why had I’d loved root beer floats so much when I was a kid?
When I examined my misty old memory of them, I discovered that it’s about far more than a sweet confection. In fact, the memory is a whole tableau:
Time: 1962-ish. A sizzling hot Friday or Saturday evening in the California summer, probably around 7 p.m. Dad and Mom would pile my little sister and I into the back seat of our Chevy Impala for an evening at the drive-in movies.
But first, we always stopped at the A&W Root Beer place for dinner. A carhop would come and take our order, then return a few minutes later with a tray full of hamburgers and French fries. The tray had props on the bottom and little hooks on the side so it could be hung from Dad’s rolled-down window, and he’d pass the food back to us while Mom made sure we had plenty of napkins and admonished us sternly to be careful and not drop anything on the upholstery.
The burgers were hot off the grill, juicy and flavorful; the thick, golden fries crispy outside and fluffy inside, always served up still smoking hot from the deep fryer and liberally sprinkled with salt. We’d fill tiny paper boats with ketchup from a squeeze bottle and dip them as we ate.
And somehow, just as we finished our hamburgers and fries, the carhop would be back. This time, though, she had a tray of root beer floats.
A&W served up their invention – root beer poured over a couple of scoops of ice cream – in a tall, thick, frosty beer mug. Just imagine the contrast in sensations: there we were, sitting inside an un-air-conditioned car with windows hand-cranked all the way down, a full day’s worth of California summer heat radiating off the asphalt and cement, baking the weedy, dry vacant lots and making the air almost too hot to breathe. The fireball sun would be starting to set, but it was so intense you couldn’t really look at it.
And then suddenly, into my small, sweaty, grubby hands a treat is delivered that’s so shockingly cold it’s bright. My fingers always froze to the mug for a few moments when I’d take hold of it; I loved that. I’d scratch drawings into the frosted glass with a fingernail and use my fingertips to melt the frost and fill them in. The chill was gloriously sensuous; I’d hold the glass near my face and bask in the cool air around it.
And then, of course, I’d use that long orange spoon to eat the root-beery ice cream and drink the creamy root beer with a straw. I was a skinny little thing back then – I was maybe seven years old – but I always finished the whole mug.
And when we were done, we went to the drive-in. Dad would park, the front of the car tipped up a bit, take the speaker off the short pole he’d parked next to, and hang it on his window. We’d listen to the radio music. It was always silly stuff like “Hello Muddah, Hello Fahddah” – a song that would get my sister and me hysterical with laughter. Mom and Dad laughed too, but I think it was more at us than at that stupid song.
As the sun started sliding lower and twilight descended, pictures of smiling popcorn boxes, hot dogs, Cokes and bags of fries would dance, ghostly, across on the giant outdoor movie screen. It was time for Dad and I to get goodies from the snack-bar.
I remember it as a very long walk. I hoped I would never have to try to find our car by myself, because I knew I’d never be able to, there were so many of them! Off we’d go, hand-in-hand, walking up and over the little asphalt-covered drive-in-movie hills to the dirty little snack bar at the back of the lot. With the sun nearly set, it was finally starting to cool off. I remember the air as feeling so nice, even though it smelled of exhaust. But mostly, I remember being proud because I got to help my Daddy carry the goodies.
By the time we got back to the car, loaded down with bags of popcorn, candy and cups full of soda pop, the movie was starting and the magic about to begin.
From the back seat of that silver-blue Impala I watched, enthralled, delightful Tom and Jerry cartoons and then Bambi, or Snow White, or Sleeping Beauty. I got to see Sinbad the Sailor and swing through the jungle with Tarzan and Cheetah …
… and when the movie was over Dad drove us home, all the windows still open to the soft, summer night, Mom dozing in the passenger seat and his two little daughters drowsing in the back amid a small blizzard of candy wrappers and waxed paper cups, and the air was cool and fragrant and smelled of mown lawns and barbecues.
Well. No wonder the root beer float I had yesterday was such a disappointment. No way it could ever live up to that cherished, 47-year-old memory.
Here’s wishing everyone a lovely and peaceful Sunday.