Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Popcorn Night

[Hope it's okay to repost this here. Y'all should know that The New Fray has become my proofreading/editing venue for this place. If I'm not mistaken, it used to be the other way around. {Hi, august!}]

When I was growing up, my dad made popcorn for his entire family every Friday and Sunday night, where "his entire family" consisted of anywhere from 7 to 2 to 17 or so (in-laws/grandkids) people at any given time. Popcorn Night wasn't for sitting around visiting with each other. No. That's what the dinner table was for. Popcorn Night was for eating popcorn and watching television as a family.

We moved around a lot because the company dad worked for transferred him on a fairly regular basis. They did this, turns out, because he was very good at what he did. I'm not surprised.

I first remember eating popcorn when I was 7. Dad would come down the stairs into the basement with a giant bowl of popcorn. I'm not exaggerating; that bowl was huge. And old. My mom's mom had used it when she canned tomatoes every Autumn, and it held at least, like, a dozen mason jars. Probably more. (Both my mom and dad had grown up on small family farms in very rural Iowa.) He'd march over to his favorite chair, which had the best view of the TV, and each of us in turn would scoop out a bowl of popping corn. Limit 2 scoops per child per night.

We'd each have one of those plastic cereal bowls that have come to be such an endearment to me when I think of him. And we were each given a Dixie cup (please tell me you remember those) for our pop (not "soda"), which was Pepsi more times than not. By the time I was 8, we were each getting our own bottle of Pepsi. My brothers and sister still give me no end of grief (you may or may not recall that I'm the youngest of 5) on account of my not having had to endure the anxiety and all-out fear of trying to make a Dixie cup of Pepsi last 3 hours. As they tell it, it might as well have been a post-1938 Jewish ghetto in Poland, trading a kernel here for a splash or 2 there. Deals were being made, fates altered, history revised, alliances crumbled. It was like an episode of Lost written by Sean O'Casey and directed by Steven Soderbergh.

When I was 10, my dad decided to take me on as an apprentice popcorn maker. Each Friday and Sunday night for several weeks, he showed me how much oil to put in the popper, a vintage Whirley Popper knockoff, meaning it was not as tall but was bigger around. I'd try to compare it to something else, but when he pulled it out from the lower cupboard, it was exactly what it was, namely, what dad used to make popcorn. You gave it no more thought than that.

He taught me when the oil was hot enough to add the corn. He let the corn sit in the hot oil for probably half a minute, then he'd place the lid with the spinning blade over it and start turning the knob, getting a feel for the kernels. He taught me to spin the blade not too fast and not too slow, but to do so with deliberation and confidence. When you could spin it no more on account of all the bursting kernels, he'd lift the whole contraption off the burner, a glorified frying pan whose contents had lifted the lid 3 inches from the pot, hold it for 3 beats, then dump the booty into the awaiting gianormous cauldron of cornness.

The Whirley was placed back on the burner, redhot at high, more oil was added, and then, at the appropriate time, more popcorn. But this time the spinning began almost immediately after the corn was added since the oil got hot much faster than the first time, and the popper got so heated up you had to rest a thumb over a pot holder to protect your spinning hand. Spin. Spin. Spin... Lift, shake dump, shake. Done.

On one of the back burners, a very small sauce pan that held a stick of butter was standing by. After the second popper was safely in the canning vat, the front popping burner was turned off. The butter was melted over the slowly cooling burner, stirred with a knife to prevent burning. At the perfect moment the newly melted stick of butter was drizzled over the popcorn, which was then generously salted, and the butter knife was used to stir up the popcorn. My first day as his apprentice, he gave me the job, since I paid such good attention during my first lesson, of bringing nature's bounty down the stairs for my awaiting (read here: "You'd think these people hadn't eaten in a week") family, who greeted me with, "Hoorays!" and other cheers, some of which might have been actually sincere.

After 3 weeks, he let me do everything, under his watchful eye of course, and he didn't say a word. I got everything right. So after 4 weeks, it was time for my first "solo flight".

Let's just say it went pretty damn well.

And then we moved. Again.

From age 7 to 10, popcorn night saw Dallas, 60 Minutes, The Wonderful World Of Disney, CBS Sunday Night At The Movies, among others. As each year went by there were fewer and fewer folks eating popcorn and watching TV on those Friday and Sunday nights. That whole dating thing and college bullshit. But I was still the Journeyman Popcorn Maker, because dad would always be the Popcorn Master. The shows on popcorn night gradually morphed into Murder She Wrote, Miami Vice, and, because dad would occasionally move a popcorn night from Fridays to Thursdays, in order to accommodate my brothers' rapidly growing social obligations, and drug habits, Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Family Ties and Night Court joined the corn cannon.

Then we moved. Again. My junior year of high school. (Having to move your junior year of high school is a whole 'nother post in and of itself, so I'll spare you the predictable teenage angst until later. You're welcome.)

By the time we moved and I was just about to turn 17, everyone was married and out of the house. And dad had been transferred far enough away from his other kids that visits were less frequent. It was just me and mom and dad. I kept to myself and purposefully didn't make many friends in order to avoid any connections. And I was so pissed at my dad for ripping me away from my friends whom I'd known for almost 6 years. Really pissed. He felt terrible about it. He really did. My mom suggested that I live with a friend back from where we moved to finish school. My dad did indeed consider it, but ultimately he thought it best that we remain together as a family. I was so pissed. He felt so bad. I knew how bad he felt, and it pissed me off even more. And I was a real shit to him.

We were still able to watch obsessively Miami Vice and Crime Story together. And maybe the occasional movie on the newfangled VCR. But none of that meant that I was no longer pissed off at him. And I passive-aggressively made him make the popcorn. Fuck that shit. I don't even want to be here and you expect me to make the popcorn? Jesus cornpopping Christ!

We lived there for just under 2 years and moved, again, after I graduated. Dad had been transferred close enough to his kids that visits were frequent. Then I went off to college.

Summers saw me back home, mostly just the three of us on popcorn night, but occasionally a brother would show up with a kid or 2. I asked dad if I could make the popcorn one Friday night soon after I'd completed my freshmen year, and he said, "Are you sure you remember how?" "Yeah, I think I got it, thanks."

Those few summers witnessed The Simpsons tear TV as we knew it a new one. I stayed in most Sundays but missed most Fridays. But more often than not dad instituted what became known as Popcorn Weekend, i.e., popcorn Friday night through Sunday night. And sometimes even on Thursday night as well! Which meant that Walker, Texas Ranger's smashing Saturday debut as a Popcorn Night staple brought the house down, literally. And don't even get me started on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

I guess my offer to make the popcorn on Sundays that summer was some sort of lame-assed apology to my dad for acting like such a dick the years before. I don't know.

And then one day, my mom came home with something called "microwave popcorn". That was the end. Gone were the days of my dad or I marching downstairs or into the living room with a massive tub of popcorn, though by this time one popper would usually do. Although on account of the dog, who was quite a genius at catching kernels, a second was often "accidentally" popped. (I swear you could give that idiotic shepherd/husky mix some Roger Clemens-level chin music, and he wouldn't miss a beat. If he'd been a hitter he would've been George Brett.) Gone were the days of carefully drizzling butter atop a white mountain of perfectly crunchy snowpuffs. Gone were the salt shaker, the small sauce pan, the knife. Microwave popcorn was pretty good. But it was immediate, or at least appeared so. In all honesty it wouldn't have taken that much longer to make it by hand. But with this new invention, you could throw it in the microwave, set it to 3:44 during a commercial break, and wait for the ding. But it just wasn't the same. Individual Pepsis in those cool bottles gave way to 2-liter plastic bottles of Dr. Pepper and 7-Up in tall glasses filled with crushed ice. Not a bad trade, really, but you can't tell me those individual bottles didn't taste better. You just can't. Add the fact that we actually started calling it by its proper name, namely, "Dr. Pepper" instead of "pop", and I don't think it's hard for anyone to imagine just how difficult this whole transition bit was going to be on each and every individual involved, popcorn-wise.

The last time I made popcorn for my dad, it was the Summer of 2000, just under 2 years before he died, suddenly and untimely at the age of 63. Orville Redenbacher Butter Flavored. Thinking back upon it, those Friday and Sunday night rituals were a constant in a confusing blur of growth, adaptation and change. A touchstone for me and my family in much the same way as Field Of Dreams suggests baseball was for America. I know, I know: Very cliche-esque, not to mention pedantic. But it was one of the few things that remained the same while all around me people were moving away and my personal scenery changed like a carousel with a thousand-mile diameter. Unending auto-evolution, and popcorn. Odd to be grounded by a snack. Unless it becomes so much more meaningful, pertinent, melancholy and beautiful the further I get from it. The care with which dad made popcorn makes me respect him for the father he was to all his kids, and the great though stoic affection he held for each of us as individuals as we matured into young men and women he could truly be proud of, in the strictest and most loving sense, insofar as the kid of a farmer can even show affection. I marvel at his sacrifice, his dedication.

If my dad's life had a thesis statement, it would be this: All my kids will go to college, and they won't have to pay for it, they won't have to have a job until the summers, and their college experience will be a perfect combination of study, athletics, and keggers. (I amended that last part. But I'm pretty sure he'd approve.)

I just wish that the night I'd made him the last popcorn I'd make for him that I would've taken the trouble to dig out that old Whirley knockoff. I take comfort knowing that my dad knew I forgave him; but I get even more solace knowing that he knew I knew there was nothing to forgive him for. As a family of 3 for all intents and purposes for those 2 years as I approached 18, I'd become closer to my parents than ever before. And I wouldn't trade 1 minute of that for an entire year away from them just to be with friends I'd forget about after my first college semester. And, finally, I get no end of maudlin-tinged peace of mind knowing that I told him exactly that while he still breathed.

If only I would've dug out that old popper. Memories aren't perfect. But for me, this one is close enough. It's been over 6 years since he died. But when the long days of summer spawn in me a desire to grow tomatoes and rake the yard, I can't help but think of him with that giant bowl of popcorn on his lap giving his color commentary on whether Walker will be able to save that one lawyer lady from her kidnappers, or something, and stuff just backs up on me a tad. But it does so in the best, healthiest sense, I think. Thanks for listening. (Note to self: Call mom tonight.)