The Real Thing


Our Daily Correspondent

The Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Melizabethi123, via Wikimedia Commons

The Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Melizabethi123, via Wikimedia Commons

On this day in 1886, Georgia pharmacist John Pemberton placed his first advertisement for Coca-Cola, in The Atlanta Journal. The rest, as we say, is history. Painful history, in my case.

I don’t think my parents had anything special against Coke; we didn’t have it in the house, but then, we didn’t tend to have junk food around. We snacked on carrot sticks and yogurt; maple candy was a major treat. But I remember my dad drinking Coke on especially hot days, and I know “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” was part of his repertoire. For her part, my mom would reminisce about trying her first Coke—while, thrillingly, listening to Freddy “Boom-Boom” Cannon sing “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans”—when her paternal grandmother came for a visit from Arkansas. Coke still felt like freedom for her, the taste of the forbidden.

But for me, Coke for some reason became the enemy. I had always received positive reinforcement for being “unconventional” and hoeing my own row—what could be a better bugbear (I imagine my thinking went) than a soda that was not merely an agent of tooth decay, but an opiate of the masses. In my mind, Coke was somehow tied up with everything I had dutifully internalized as “bad”: Sesame Street (which utilized advertising-style camera techniques and allegedly shortened attention spans), Amelia Bedelia (unchallenging), Cabbage Patch dolls (hideous), and sticker books (middlebrow). I wanted so badly to please.

Coke became my issue. What my parents had probably intended as merely a sop to oral hygiene quickly became, in my eager little hands, a self-righteous moral crusade. I shunned Coca-Cola with the zeal of a nineteenth century temperance advocate, and my sense of superiority was inviolate.

I became John Brown–like in my maddened conviction. At the age of eight, I formed, with a neighbor and my five-year-old brother, a club called the Coke-Haters (pronounced Coke-ader) Society. Because my neighbor was a year older, she was president; I was veep. My brother, who could not write, was secretary. The meetings, of which there were two, involved defiantly drinking juice and reciting our pledge:

I will never drink Coke.
This is what the first Coke-ater spoke.
As long as I am a member,
This is what I will always remember.

And then, one day, an opportunity for greatness arose: our suburban village’s annual Memorial Day Parade. We decided to make a float promoting our message, and there began a barrage of papier mâché-ing and painting and one serious fight in which the president said about something, “Why don’t you cry about it, baby?” and of course I did exactly that, and ran home, and she had to come apologize after dinner. The float, once completed, was a magnificent thing: a Coke can the size of an old diaper holder, spewing bubble wrap carbonation and sporting a striped straw made from a pool noodle. The can was covered, on both sides, with large black paper X’s. I remember being slightly sorry to see the beautiful can so defaced, but we needed to get our point across.

The morning of the parade, we loaded the float into a red wagon and started down the hill toward Main Street. (If memory serves, no one had investigated either the parade’s starting location or its starting time; we were blithely sure we could join at any point and, given our just cause, be welcomed with open arms.) As the crowd thickened and we began to encounter people we knew, I saw the president’s resolve begin to waver. She looked furtive and uncomfortable. Finally, we came face to face with a group of other children.

“I’m not doing this, it’s stupid!” she said. “You pull the stupid float!”

“I can’t!” I said. “You’re this club’s president, and the president pulls the float!”

“Fine!” she returned. “You’re promoted!” And ducked into the crowd, leaving me holding the wagon’s handle.

I pulled the wagon determinedly forward and stationed myself on a corner, my parents observing from a distance. When a group of VFW oldsters came into view, I dragged my wagon into the fray and started to march, chanting,

Coca-Cola is an awful drink!
All the kids pour it down the sink!
Tastes like vinegar, looks like ink!
Coca-Cola is an awful drink!

I marched and I marched. It was probably just down Warburton and up a portion of Main, but it felt like forever. By the end, my voice was hoarse, my hands shaking, but I was triumphant. I had gotten our message across.

Not long after, the ex-president was seen, by me, drinking a Coke at the pool. And not long after that, to my chagrin, I was forced to break the oath, too. I was prone, in those days, to migraines that left me on my knees in front of my classroom’s miniature toilet and led to a call home. A new school nurse started dosing me with Coke syrup to settle my stomach, and even recommended my mother buy a bottle. The unfamiliar taste, magnified to the hundredth power in its evil-looking concentrate, soon became associated with the blinding pain of headaches—and the inevitable sickness it failed to prevent.

But, humiliating though the episode was, I guess it did some good. Or, at least, positively impressed at least one grownup. I’ve only recently learned that during my stand, the mayor approached my dad and praised what she mistakenly believed was my contribution to the nascent War on Drugs.