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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

The Piney Woods Challenge

June 7, 2009

Yesterday I drove a carload of kids— under the age of 12— on a seven-hour trek that ended in Arkansas’ Ouachita National Forrest so they could attend summer camp.

Early on, the van was relatively calm. Most surprising, the van was quiet. I think it’s because my wife packed the snacks. The kids were munching on pita chips, cheese crackers, and bottled water. I stopped for gas in some small town an hour from our destination and the kids went inside by themselves to get their own snacks— ice cream and candy bars.

I learned two things: 1.) Even though they might claim to have the capacity, kids have NO clue how to take care of themselves. 2.) Left on their own, they would die from sugar poisoning and daily overdoses of chocolate and corn chips.

The van instantly became raucous. The sugar fueled their madness as arguments began to break out between warring factions of the middle seat versus the way-back seat. Things were being thrown, toys were getting broken, and strange odors began to materialize. The tranquility that had enveloped the van moments earlier was a distant memory.

I thought back to my youth. Water didn’t come in bottles and pita was never chipped. I mainlined sugar through any source available— soft drinks, punch, Kool-Aid, my grandfather used to make glasses of homemade lemonade, which contained probably a half of a cup of sugar.

When snack time came at the park, I bought candy bars (chocolate and sugar), cotton candy (spun sugar), Orange soda (liquid sugar), hard candy (hard sugar), and those large plastic straws filled with — you guessed it— colored sugar.

I rarely drank iced tea in my youth, but when I did, it was loaded with sugar. Sweet and Low, Equal, and Splenda were nowhere to be found. My mom had some little saccharin pills in a bottle, but I used those as ammunition for my slingshot— not because I was creative when it came to ammo— but because I was so hyped up on sugar at the time, my judgment was clouded and it seemed like a good idea. Artificial sugar? Ha! We used it to kill birds.

My son eats healthy, grown-up cereals like Special K and Kashi. I ate sugary cereal when I was a kid, and if the Frosted Flakes didn’t taste sweet enough, I poured on more sugar until there was a layer of thick sugary sludge in the bottom of the bowl (which always made the second bowl of cereal even tastier).

I was the poster child for hyperactivity. I spent most of my days babbling on, twitching involuntarily, and bouncing off of the walls in the classroom. “Robert, finish your Cap’n Crunch, chocolate milk, and sweet rolls. You’re going to be late for school.”

 “Mrs. St. John, Robert won’t sit still in class.”

“He’ll be fine, just give him a few Twinkies and some chocolate milk. That’ll settle him down.”

I stayed in trouble. I ate sugary stuff all day long, never skipped dessert, and smuggled cookies into my bedroom late at night. With the money I made mowing lawns, I bought whole cases of Sour Apple Jolly Rancher candies.

My youth was filled with sugar-fueled moments that didn’t turn out well. Most notably there was The Piney Woods Challenge. I remember that event like it was yesterday (probably because I had a carload of screaming kids yesterday). In my mind’s eye, I can see my brother and mother in the front seat of the old yellow Plymouth. I was in the backseat— which smelled like our wet Cocker Spaniel— eating miniature Milky Way bars and drinking Mountain Dew. I was jabbering a mile a minute and my mother, who was at the end of her rope, issued a challenge: “If you can be totally still and completely quiet until we get to Jackson, I will give you five dollars.”

We were passing the Piney Woods School at the time. It would be 25 minutes, at the most. Twenty-five minutes of silence for five dollars. I said, “O.K. you’ve got a deal,” and then took another swig of my soft drink. Five dollars was a ton of money in 1969.

I sat on my hands and looked out the window with my lips drawn in and my mouth closed tightly. I concentrated on the five dollars while I twitched involuntarily. The pressure mounted as the car drove on. The pounding in my head grew louder. Be still. I wanted to tell someone about it. Be quiet. I wiggled and squirmed. Five dollars. Five dollars. Finally, I could take it no longer. Somewhere around Star, Mississippi, I screamed, “Where are my Jolly Ranchers? And began jumping up and down on the back seat.

I didn’t make it five miles. I did my best, but I failed. My brother, whom I think had been pulling for me said, “That’s alright Robert. Cheer up, you’ll get it next time. Here, have my Snickers and Orange Crush.”

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