Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Finding Magnolias

When I was a young teenager in the early 1960s my mother took my brothers and me on a walking tour of downtown Los Angeles, where she had grown up. We went into an old-fashioned candy store and browsed. Her eyes lit up when she saw a type of candy she loved but hadn’t seen for many years.

We bought a few boxes of them. I remembered that they were small sugar balls with flavored liquid inside, and I also recalled their strange name: magnolias. As years and then decades passed, I occasionally searched for them and asked about them in various candy stores. In every case, no one who sold candy had ever even heard of them. Eventually I stopped asking.

Early in 2008, I thought about searching for them on the internet and discovered an article about them! Someone had found magnolias, had bought a crateful, and then raved about them online. Fortunately she also provided contact information. I immediately called Startup Candy Company in Provo, Utah and spoke to Jon Startup, the fifth generation owner of the company. (Yep, Startup is really the family surname.)

“Yes,” he said—not only did he sell magnolias but the founder of their company had invented the candy in 1876. Startup Candy Company was and always had been the only source of magnolias. He claimed also that his great-great-grandfather had invented the candy bar in the middle nineteenth century, and that at one time Startup Candy was the largest candy manufacturer in the nation. The Great Depression had nearly caused them to go out of business, but the firm had managed barely to survive. Jon now runs the company—a fairly small, family operation since the 1930s; Jon answers the phone himself. He did say that every now and then someone calls up, as I did, with a story that he or she had been looking for magnolias for thirty or forty years. “Oh, so you’re one of those!” he said when I explained the background to my search. I ordered a box and after it arrived, I enjoyed it so much that I immediately decided to put a post about magnolias up on my blog. It’s taken several months, but here it is!

The little can is a facsimile of those sold across the nation in huge quantities a century ago. The one ounce can is pictured, but magnolias can be purchased in a ten ounce box too. Startup’s website says that magnolias were also known as Perfume Candies. Magnolias were the forerunner of breath mints. They come in assorted floral flavors and have a liquid center. White - Carnation, Pink - Rose, Orange - Jasmine, Yellow - Cachou, Green - Pear Blossom, Blue & Purple - Violet. The artwork on the 1 ounce tin is a reproduction of a package from the early 1900s.

Maybe some of the readers of this blog will order some magnolias; whether or not you actually like this candy, it is a rare and historic confection! Here’s their website.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Evidence That God Loves Me

Back about 1964 and 1965 the Mattel toy company put out some guns called “shootin shells”. You can find some photographs here . The guns came with “bullets” that looked real (check the photo about halfway down the page on the link above). The “lead” was a gray plastic gismo that you could push into the shell until it clicked and stuck. The shell had a spring inside it affixed to the end. You could load these bullets into the attractive revolver. Pull the trigger and the hammer would smack the end of the shell. The spring inside would fling the gray plastic bullet head a few feet.

Mattel also sold sheets of “stickem” caps to put on the end of the bullets to make a rather wimpy little “bang”. A stickem cap was a circle of green paper about a quarter of an inch in diameter with a little mound of gunpowder in the middle. A good concussion would make it “pop”.

A friend of mine named Glen and I took these Mattel “shootin’ shell” guns and turned them into apparatus that would be the envy of most teenage boys of the time. We discarded the contemptible gray plastic bullet heads, and with needlenose pliers yanked out the springs from the inside of the brass cartridges. Then we drilled a small hole in the back of the resultant empty casing and put a stickem cap on its smooth and inviting flat end with the mound of gunpowder placed carefully over the hole we’d drilled. Then we poured a suitable amount of gunpowder into the shell (acquired by patiently opening up fifty or so caps and depositing the few grains of gunpowder each provided into a growing pile), and then pushed a small wad of paper into the casing and rammed it tight with a construction nail that had a proper-sized flat head.

Put them headless bullets into your Mattel “shootin’ shell” gun and you just ached for some smart aleck to provide you with the leanest excuse for pulling out your iron and sending some flaming paper flying his way with a boom that could set dogs barking for several streets around. Lacking some unsuspecting kid toodling about the neighborhood waiting for us to shoot him, we staged gunfights while we stood on opposite sides of the road as cars approached. Once we got chased by some busybody driver who had an overdeveloped sense of community service or something.

We also took some gunpowder, painstakingly acquired by the method described above, and grew a pile on a piece of wax paper about three or four inches square, put a bolt or a marble over the pile, and then twisted the wax paper into a teardrop shape. These made highly satisfactory bombs for throwing. The intensity of the explosion was, of course, directly proportional to the amount of gunpowder used and the weight of the bolt or size of the marble employed.

I remember when Glen and I were out somewhere and saw a girl we both knew. Peacefully, casually, almost aimlessly, she was riding her bike. Our eyes bulged at the providential opportunity that had been afforded us. We hastily dug into our pockets as we both yelled her name: “Hey, Cindy!” Forty feet away, she stopped her bike and turned toward us, an innocent and unsuspecting smile spread across her countenance, as we hurled two or three bombs apiece. One or two seconds passed—that sweetly delicious but all-too-brief span of time in which you know that an unforgettable, thrilling moment is about to precipitate, while your oblivious and na├»ve victim hangs suspended in time, puzzling just what it is that she has done to earn the wide but somewhat lopsided grins on your faces—and then small clouds of gray smoke erupted from the ground on all sides of the girl, micro-seconds apart, accompanied by dearly satisfying eardrum-shattering detonations. Cindy’s eyes opened wide and popped out like hard-boiled eggs as if she’d been hit hard in the back. Panic-stricken, the unfortunate lass dropped her bike and fled.

It is a miracle that neither we nor our victims were crippled, defingered, disfigured, or blinded, or that none of us now has wattled epidermis, the lasting result of hundreds of inextricable microscopic shards of marble glass that had sprayed into our adolescent bodies. Considering the idiotic chances we took with these homemade explosives, I now consider my good health and complete anatomy as strong evidence that God loves me.

Once, however, as I was cramming a wad of paper into a “shootin’ shell” with a large nail, the explosive detonated. Glen and I, sitting at his dining room table, looked around for the nail until I found it firmly driven about half an inch into the end of my left index finger. Just as we saw it and started laughing, his mother’s voice wafted from the back of the house: “You boys be careful out there!”

“We will,” responded Glen with a smirk.

NOTE: The author of this blog disavows any responsibility if some idiot reads this material and then tries to duplicate or excel the lunacy herein described. Don’t try this at home or anywhere else. It’s stupid. I used to be crazy and foolhardy, but I’m smart now and usually know better. “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16, quoted by Jesus himself in Matthew 4:7).