The first stick of chewing gum I ever placed on my tongue, folding it back and forth so its shape resembled a piece of peppermint ribbon candy, occurred when we came to America. I did not know what chewing gum was, although there was a Latvian word for it: koslajama gumija - chewable rubber.
My parents, like most Latvians, disapproved of chewing gum. They associated it with Chicago gangsters, laziness, sloppiness of dress, poor oral hygiene and lack of breeding. And of course, to them it seemed chewing gum was a national American pastime.
In the early '50s, everywhere they looked, people chewed gum. It was bad enough that children, walking down the sidewalk, their cheeks bloated with wads of gum, blew pink bubbles that stuck to their noses and chins, but to see adults vigorously and unselfconsciously chewing and snapping gum as they talked to each other was embarrassment so acute it required looking away.
Then, too, chewing gum was a pointless activity. A piece of candy was at least something edible, whereas gum had no redeeming qualities. First, it was dangerous, for to swallow it was to "clog up one's digestive system." No one knew for certain what happened in the stomach or intestine, but I could easily imagine a mountain of gum sitting at the entryway to the bowel, obstructing the passage of pork chops and potatoes. Or the gum might somehow stretch out into hundreds of threadlike tentacles which, like a spider's web that catches and kills flies, would somehow cause unexpected death.
The worst offense, of course, was that there was no really elegant way to chew gum. The endless, mindless working of the jaw suggested cow-like or monkey-like behavior that was unacceptable. If I discreetly sucked out the flavor and then discarded it without getting my fingers sticky, Mother might pretend she had not noticed my transgression.
Needless to say, my parents did not buy me gum. Fortunately, my uncle often gave me a quarter for playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" on the piano, and I promptly spent it on a Saturday afternoon cowboy movie and an occasional package of gum. I enjoyed chewing gum, but I did not chew in public. This limited me to the privacy of the darkened movie theater or the untraveled streets and alleys where I rode my bike.
Curious and systematic, I sampled every flavor of gum there was. Bubble gum was out. For one thing, its color was an unnatural pink which suggested inedible plastic beach balls. It was also overpoweringly sweet, and once the sugar was gone, the gum seemed to swell in size and became hard and tough. To chew it was as hard as pumping a bike uphill. My jaw wearied from the effort. Nevertheless, the thrill of blowing huge bubbles was hard to resist, so, although I never spent my own money for it, if someone gave me a piece, I didn't refuse.
Doublemint and Spearmint lost their tanginess quickly and then lay like slugs in my dry mouth. The licorice of Blackjack tasted like medicine. Nor did I like the teeth-hurting sweetness of Juicy Fruit. Redmans Clove burned my tongue and mouth.
Beeman's Teaberry, however, was perfect. I liked the name "teaberry" for it suggested both chamomile tea and berries. The packaging, too, was pretty; the pink wrapper, the discrete cluster of three small red berries at each end. The gum was redolent of everything that pleased me. It exuded a mild aroma of apple blossom, and I liked its soft, almost milky texture, as if it were coated with a faint dusting of edible powder.
I chewed slowly, moving the gum leisurely from one side of my jaw to the other, pleased that it never felt stiff or tough between my teeth, and when the flavor was gone, I played with it in my mouth, rolling it into a ball with my tongue or pressing it flat up against my palate.
Often, as if it were a secret treasure or source of comfort, I kept a stick in my desk at school. When I had nothing better to do, I lifted the top of my desk and stuck my head in until my nose touched the narrow groove that held my pencils and the stick of Teaberry. The perfume of the gum combined with the scent of freshly sharpened pencils excited my senses.
I felt at one with my desk and I loved school. Here I was free in a way I could not be at home. Here I was encouraged to raise my hand, ask questions, even argue if I wished. And, if I dared, here I could take my wad of used gum, stick it to the bottom of my desk for safekeeping, and feel somehow vindicated.
n Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada Community College.