Ruminating About Gum

Posted on August 12, 2012

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I don’t remember the first time I was allowed to chew gum. It’s one of those milestones in life that nobody bothers to record. Your mother might write down when you finally said a real word, or managed to tie your own shoes, but there’s never any mention of the gum-chewing accomplishment. And that’s a mystery, because it takes some skill, as well as intelligence and concentration, to keep chomping away at something and avoid swallowing it.

So how do we make the transition? On Thursday we’re too young to chew gum, because there’s a danger that we might choke, and on Friday everyone’s okay with it. Maybe the big people just stop paying attention. Or maybe there’s some traumatic event going on, or it’s game seven of the World Series, and it goes unnoticed that you have twelve sticks of Juicy Fruit in your mouth.

We were never permitted to chew gum in school — in class or out on the playground, and certainly never in church. I was once almost nabbed by a priest, who asked if I was chewing gum in the confession booth, a violation that would have seemed unthinkable if I hadn’t actually been doing it. Chewing gum in God’s home was a sign of disrespect bordering on blasphemy. You might as well have taken one of those new-fangled magic markers and drawn fake eyeglasses on the statue of Saint Anthony. So, I lied.

“No, Father,” I answered, “I don’t even like it,” while deftly tucking the forbidden Fruit Stripe gum into a far corner of my mouth. I had learned this trick from an older boy, who was sure that sooner or later it would help me stay out of serious trouble. It seemed to work, but then it also created a sizable dilemma, because I immediately knew that lying to the priest was a much bigger sin. There was no commandment that said, Thou shalt not chew gum, although you’d have thought otherwise, judging by the way everyone tended to react to it. In fact, when the Old Testament was written, gum didn’t exist yet. I suppose Moses could have slipped it in anyway, if he’d wanted to, but it would’ve just confused everybody even more, kind of like our third-grade response to Thou shalt not commit adultery. None of us had any idea what the word meant, but that didn’t stop us from pretending that we did. Here’s the definition a classmate and I concocted sometime in 1964:

“It means you shouldn’t act like an adult before you are one, because you end up doing things you aren’t supposed to do, and that’s called adultery.”

According to historians, it was the ancient Greeks who invented chewing gum, which they called mastiche. This hideous resin, exuded from the bark of the mastic tree, was also used to make varnish. I can’t imagine what that tasted like, but I also wonder if it had some toxic chemical ingredient that entered the bloodstream and made its way to the brain, causing an altered mental state. This may explain why the Greeks spent so much of their lives lounging around, sitting on boulders and watching plays outdoors during lightning storms, or looking for hidden pictures in the night sky, or asking if a goat really existed.

There wasn’t much to do in those days, and people were always searching for something to chew on, just to help them stay awake during chariot races and barbarian invasions. Over the centuries, they  discovered many suitable substances, but it was still mostly tree sap and beeswax.

Then around 1860, someone figured out that they could make money selling flavored gum, and an industry was born. By the time I paid my first visit to a candy store, bubble gum was being sold two-for-a-penny and wrapped in waxy comic strips that looked as though they’d been drawn underwater. There were also bubble gum cigars, sacks of chewable gold nuggets, and gum hidden inside lollipops. And, of course, gumball machines were everywhere, like short tax collectors waiting to drain our pockets of pennies and nickels. The flavor of gum lasted about ninety seconds, and so we required more and more of the stuff to maintain the desired effect.

I don’t know if it was the actual gum the nuns objected to, or the way we chewed it. More than one teacher described the sight as similar to watching cows eat. Not one of us had ever been outside the Bronx, and so our familiarity with farm animals of any type was limited. No doubt we’d all seen cows on television, but had somehow failed to notice how they chewed. Anyway, the nuns confiscated our gum on a regular basis, along with candy, baseball cards, comic books, slingshots, and pea-shooters. Those items, and others, were usually stashed deep inside our desks. Hardened gum could be found adhered to the bottom of every chair and table in the school. Most terrifying, though, was getting caught actively chewing in class and being summoned to the front of the room. We would have to remove the gum, still warm and sticky, and place it into the nun’s outstretched hand, even as we withered under her scorching glare. All of the sisters had taken vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but it was still hard to comprehend how they didn’t draw the line at wet chewing gum.

My earliest encounter with bubble gum probably involved the brittle, pink, wafer-thin slab included in packs of trading cards. Opening the pack and slipping the gum into the mouth was a smooth and automatic motion that served to enhance the discovery of a Mickey Mantle or Whitey Ford baseball card, which I guess was something like the experience the ancient Greeks had when they calculated the area of a circle, or when they contemplated the essence of reality, all while popping in a fresh piece of bark.

I eventually graduated to sticks of gum, individually wrapped in packs of five. Sometimes I would unwrap and remove one. Then I’d refold the rectangle of aluminum foil, pressing it flat with my fingernail to make it look new and unopened. I’d slide the foil back into the paper sleeve, then offer it to an unsuspecting family member. I can’t tell you how many times I pulled this trick on parents, aunts, uncles, and my older brothers, and they never seemed to catch on. Always, they would open the empty wrapper and be completely surprised that there was no gum inside. It was pretty funny for the first few hundred times, but after a while I began to worry that maybe my family wasn’t very smart.

Would Plato or Socrates have fallen for such nonsense? Did the early Greeks even play tricks? Or were they too busy inventing geometry and trying to figure out how to eat artichokes? Did they blow bubbles with mastiche, and if so, did it get stuck in their beards? Did they ever leave the gum in their pocket on laundry day, or find some in a jacket they hadn’t worn since last spring? Did they have trouble throwing away a chewed piece because it wouldn’t come off their fingers?

I mostly wonder where it all began. Who was the first person to chew gum? Those ancient people were careful about preserving historic events. They could recount epic battles and long voyages. They could explain how to find the third side of a right triangle, and the very meaning of life. But no one bothered to remember that first mastiche chewer, just as no one ever claimed to be that person. Was his mother proud of his accomplishment? Did anyone even recognize this important milestone? Whoever he was, he changed the world. Maybe he was in school at the time, or out on the playground. More likely, he was praying in the Temple of Zeus, and had the gum tucked into a far corner of his mouth. At least that’s what I prefer to believe.

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