Monday, January 23, 2006

Screaming Yellow Zonkers

In 1969 my Mom, a widowed art teacher raising two small boys on a limited income, taught painting classes out of a small studio room in our attic. Her students— various ladies from the neighborhood— learned how to paint mushrooms onto small blocks of wood using shades of avocado green and harvest gold.

Occasionally, I was asked to model while she demonstrated portrait painting. I usually found it hard to sit still for longer than 90 seconds, so mostly I planted fake vomit, and rubber dog poop around the studio for her students to find.

Mildred Puckett, a doctor’s wife— tall, fun, with a great sense of humor and a contagious laugh— was one of her students. One night Mrs. Puckett showed up with a black cardboard box and asked me if I had ever eaten Screaming Yellow Zonkers. “No, ma’am,” I said.

“Well try these,” she said. I did, and I was hooked.

Screaming Yellow Zonkers are my all-time favorite snack food. They hit the market in 1969, two years removed from the Summer of Love, and smack dab in the middle of the psychedelic era. A counter-culture snack aimed directly at the stoner crowd with a bad case of the munchies.

At eight-years old, I didn’t know what the munchies were, Mrs. Puckett probably didn’t either, but I knew that the Screaming Yellow Zonkers’ box filled with light butter-toffee-glazed popcorn tasted good.

For years I thought that Screaming Yellow Zonkers had been discontinued. Last week I learned that they are still being produced by Lincoln Snacks, the same company that manufactures Fiddle Faddle and Poppycock. I Googled “Screaming Yellow Zonkers” and found an outfit that would mail-order a few boxes to me.

The box was black. It still is. Actually, Screaming Yellow Zonkers were the first food ever to be packaged in a black box. The font on the box is pure vintage 1969. Best of all, Screaming Yellow Zonkers still taste great.

In 1969, there were two things I wanted to be when I grew up: An astronaut, and a hippie. When I learned that being a hippie took a lot less math and training, I decided to move in that direction. While most kids wanted a new bike, I wanted sideburns and a moustache. I actually ordered a pair of lamb-chop sideburns and a Dennis Hopper-style moustache from the back of an Archies comic book. I wore them to school and made it through three periods of the third grade before my teacher sent me, my sideburns, and my box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers to the principal’s office.

The counter culture intrigued me. I didn’t know where Haight-Ashbury was, but I knew it was a long way away from Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Being eight-years old, and learning that mail-order sideburns were not the solution, I figured Screaming Yellow Zonkers were the closest I could get to hippiedom.

I would retreat to my room, crank up Iron Butterfly’s In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, turn on the black light, light some incense, and eat handfuls of Screaming Yellow Zonkers. Move over, Peter Fonda.

While the country was turning on and dropping out, I was doing my part. Little did I know that for the next few years, the closest I was going to get to being “turned on” to anything, would be the offer of Screaming Yellow Zonkers by Mrs. Puckett.

Alas, the obstacles of becoming the world’s first, and youngest, hippie astronaut.

Somewhere out there, my principal, Mr. Russell, is probably still locked in his office, strobe light on, In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida blaring over the school sound system, wearing the confiscated fake sideburns and moustache, dancing wildly, and eating my box of Screaming Yellow Zonkers.

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