The American Way

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Sean Dietrich

By SEAN DIETRICH

I was a kid. My father and I walked into the filling station. The bell above the door dinged.

Daddy was filthy from working under a car. He was always working under cars. He came from a generation of men who were born with Sears, Roebuck & Co. ratcheting wrenches in their hands. These were men who changed their own motor oil, who worked harder on off-days than they did on weekdays.

Old man Peavler stood behind the counter. He was built like a fireplug with ears. He, too, worked on cars all day. Except he did it for a living, so he hated it.

Daddy roamed the aisles looking for lunch among Mister Peavler’s fine curation of top-shelf junk food. In the background, a transistor radio played the poetry of Willie Hugh Nelson.

My father approached the ancient cooler, located beneath the Alberto Vargas calendar my mother warned me not to look at under threat of eternal hellfire.

The white words on the fire-engine-red cooler said DRINK COCA-COLA — ICE COLD. My father removed the sensuous hour-glass bottle, dripping with condensation. Then he grabbed a plastic sleeve of salt peanuts from the shelf.

We approached the counter.

“Howdy,” said old man Peavler. Only it came out more like “Haddy,” because that is how real people talk.

Old man Peaveler looked at our items, did some mental math and told us how much we owed by rounding up to the nearest buck. The old man’s cash register hadn’t worked since Herbert Hoover was in the White House.

We exited the store and sat on the curb in the all-consuming sunlight. There, my father and I counted cars. For this is what people did before Olive Gardens and Best Buys ruled the world.

Daddy used his belt buckle to pop open his Coke. He used his teeth to tear open the peanuts. Then he carefully dumped the nuts into the mouth of the bottle.

He handed the bottle to me.

“Here,” he said. “This is something my daddy used to do. Try it.”

I tentatively took a sip. It was a peculiar flavor, Coke and peanuts. Salty. Sweet. Fizzy. With subtle roasted hints of Dothan, Alabama. I’ve been an advocate for mixing peanuts in Coke ever since.

Which is why when I was invited to give a presentation to Mrs. Welch’s eighth-grade English class, I knew exactly what I was going to present.

I arrived at the school late. I jogged across the parking lot, carrying a box of 31 glass bottles of Coca-Cola with 31 sleeves of Planters peanuts. I schlepped the heavy items into the school office and signed in.

The receptionist looked and me oddly and — this is a direct quote — she said, “You’re giving these kids caffeine?”

She had a point. Because eighth graders are an interesting lot. They aren’t children per se, and they aren’t adults. They are life-sized puberty demonstrations.

Eighth-graders only think about one thing, and this “one thing” is immediately evident when you walk into their classroom, because the classroom is entirely illuminated by spontaneous electrical arcs of raw hormonal energy.

I enlisted two students named Ben and Amanda to distribute Cokes and peanuts. One diabetic young man received a Coke Zero.

I went through a brief introductory spiel, explaining the cultural practice of adding peanuts to Coke. It’s a regional thing. A cherished convention. A practice so emblematically American that it’s Rockwellian.

The tradition started in the early 1920s when shelled peanuts began showing up in mercantiles and general stores across the Bible Belt. Blue-collar men, covered in grease, would dump peanuts into their Cokes to avoid eating with soiled hands. These men passed this habit onto their sons.

But this is where history gets sad.

Because my generation let the practice die. Most young people have never heard of adding peanuts to Coke, and that’s our fault. I have a hard time forgiving my peers for that.

My grandfather’s generation gave us the radio, the airplane, the refrigerator, the Model T, the electric toaster and victory over Hitler. My generation gave the world E! Entertainment television.

I aimed to even the score.

The students poured peanuts into their bottles. Messes were made. Bottles erupted on desks like Mount Saint Soft Drink. Everyone started to giggle. Then the class looked at me with hideously confused faces when I suggested they drink this concoction.

“Gross!” said one spokeskid.

“No way,” said another.

“Class,” Mrs. Welch reminded everyone, “Mister Dietrich has gone to a lot of trouble and spent his OWN MONEY on these Cokes.”

I sincerely appreciated her support, although I couldn’t help but notice that when I added peanuts to her personal soft drink, her face went pale and she covered her mouth.

Still, the kids were good sports. They tried it. And here were the remarks I received:

“It was good,” said Michael.

“Salty and sugary,” said Blake. “All that carbonation. I’d do it again.”

“It was actually okay,” said Kera.

“Didn’t think I’d like it,” said Mark. “But it’s kinda the same idea as chocolate and peanut butter, only kinda not.”

“Honestly,” said Brady. “It made me feel like a really old fart inside.”

Everyone’s a wise crack.

And then there was Deshawn. Ah, Deshawn.

“That was nasty,” Deshawn said between retching gags. “The worst stuff I ever…” Gag. “Can I be excused, Mrs. Welch…?” Gag. “I seriously feel like I’m gonna…” Gag. “…gonna puke all over Mister Dietrich.” Gag.

So all in all, it was a pretty good day. Which is why I went directly home and seriously considered changing my own motor oil.

You were missed, Daddy.

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