A little sip of heaven's just a memory

Opinion Column

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Photo by Jim Hendricks

It's always a little sad when an era ends.

This one is bringing up some favorite memories, even with its finality. Last week, the last 6-and-a-half-ounce Coca-Cola bottle rolled off the production line in Winona, Minn., the last bottler in America to refill the returnable bottles.

It's not that I was likely to get my hands on one, since the diminutive Cokes were only sold in four Minnesota counties. But there was some small comfort in knowing that something from childhood that I thought had been lost long ago had managed to hang in there, even if I only learned about it as it ended.

Growing up in the sweltering heat of Southwest Georgia, there wasn't anything better than one of those small, green-tinted bottles of Co-Coler, as we usually called it, particularly when it was chilled just right, as it was at my granddaddy's grocery store.

When you walked in through the double-screen front doors of the block building where my grandparents sold everything from pork chops to pork rinds, just to your right was a drink cooler loaded with Cokes, Pepsis, RCs, Nehis, 7-Ups, Sprites ... just about any mix of sugar, water and fizz you could imagine.

Folks, it always seemed, lined up as either a Coke guy or a Pepsi guy. I was firmly in the Coke camp. I occasionally strayed into the realm of 7-Ups and orange or grape Nehis, but I never could bring myself to pick a Pepsi over an honest-to-goodness Co-Coler, particularly one that was perfectly chilled.

How you knew you had your Coke chilled just right was when you opened the top of the drink cooler, you had to reach way down to the bottom to find just the right one. It would be sitting in the near freezing water in the bottom of its rack, and when you pulled it out and examined it, there would be a wonderful tell-tale crust of ice that was just forming inside the bottle.

And what you did then was you popped the top off the bottle, got your dog and y'all went and founds yourselves a good shady spot, one where you could lean back on a tree trunk and rub your dog's head while you savored every drop for 6 and one-half glorious ounces.

There may have been times when life has been better than that, but it ranks right up there with the best -- a little piece of heaven.

Those glass bottles also created the first brush with entrepreneurship among my circle of friends. The fellows up in Minnesota were paying 20 cents a bottle for returns, which would have been a king's ransom compared to the nickel a bottle we got back then. Streets in downtown Newton might not have been litter free in the 1960s, but it was rare to find a tossed aside drink bottle on a roadway if any of us had been by that day.

Still, progress reared its ugly head, first with bottle caps lined with plastic instead of cork like the good Lord intended. And they started with the 10-ounce Cokes -- which never tasted the same -- and cans and then those obscene plastic bottles. And somebody went and replaced the sugar with corn syrup and, later on, somebody decided the whole formula stunk and came out with New Coke. Few heresies were greater than that one, which, thankfully, was reversed.

As I got older, I started running from sugar like a scalded dog and switched to Diet Coke sweetened with Splenda, but I've never forgotten the simple pleasures of those days. And nothing -- absolutely nothing -- went better with a real Co-Coler than when my uncle would go to my granddaddy's meat counter and cut us off a couple of big chunks of baloney and hoop cheese, open a loaf of light bread and some mustard, and make us sandwiches. Throw in a bag of Tom's Potato Chips and it was veritable feast, the likes of which would have been the envy of royalty, had they only known what was really good.

I do take solace, however, in knowing I still have a bottle of Co-Coler from way-back-when stashed away, still perfectly sealed. And I don't know when exactly it'll be, but a time will come when I will decide it's appropriate and I will chill that bottle of Co-Coler perfectly and I will make myself a sliced hunk of baloney and a chunk of hoop cheese with mustard sandwich on two slices of the freshest, softest white bread I can find.

And then I'm going to get my dog and go look for a shady tree.

It might not be heaven. But it'll be pretty darn close.

Email Jim Hendricks at jim.hendricks@albanyherald.com.