Column: The power of a stick of gum


Someone offered me a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum the other day, and it brought back an old memory. It was 1943. We were deep in the grips of a world war, and a lot of things we were used to having in abundance were suddenly unavailable.

We had ration books, which were our only paths to buying daily necessities. Meat was rationed. So was sugar. My parents waited all day at the ration board to receive extra sugar coupons for canning. Our Victory gardens provided vegetables that couldn’t be found in the local grocery. We canned everything and hoped it would be enough.

Gasoline was rationed to just a few gallons a month. Many folks stopped driving altogether and put their cars up on blocks for the duration. Oil was scarce and tires weren’t available at all. Just about everything was diverted to the war effort.

Some things weren’t rationed. They just didn’t exist. Among these was Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. Chewing gum required a special ingredient that came from a distant land that was besieged by the enemy. All the gum that was made was sent to the front.

I was in the second grade that year, and the mother of one of my classmates invited me to go see a stage production of the Grimm fairy tale “Rumpelstiltskin.” I was thrilled, of course, because my mother had recently read the story to me. I wanted to see if straw could actually be spun into gold.

On the day of the performance the woman and her son drove to our house and picked me up. At the theater we walked into the most amazing place I had ever seen. I had been in a movie theater once when my folks took me to see Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but it was nothing like this. The walls were hung with pictures of actors and actresses. Everything was a rich, deep red: the carpet, the velvet seats, the heavy curtains onstage.

As we settled into our seats, just before the house lights dimmed and the curtain rose, the lady offered me a stick of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum. I was mesmerized. I had never tasted anything like it.

On the ride home after the play, I thanked the lady – not for the play – but for the gum. She told me her husband gave it to her when he was home on furlough from the army before going overseas.

We had a school project later, writing letters to servicemen. I wrote mine to my classmate’s father thanking him for a stick of gum. I don’t know if he ever got it.