published Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

Kennedy: My trip back to the future

My 12-year-old son will soon be a teenager, and I can feel change coming. The little boy who called me "gaggy" until he was 4 now walks 10 feet in front of me in public, creating a parent-free zone in his personal space.

I still get a "how-was-your-day-Daddy" greeting every evening and a hug at bedtime. He also brings me coffee in the mornings. His spirit is still sweet, but these tender moments are no longer for public display.

The brain of a 12-year-old boy is an unruly place, if I remember correctly, governed by random thoughts about girls, sports and snacks.

Lately, I've tried to remember what it felt like to be 12 years old so I can perhaps be a better dad. This is hard to do when you're 55 and your own brain only wants to focus on the upcoming NFL draft and beef jerky. (The male brain is nothing if not tenacious about sports and snacks.)

I was born in 1958. As an experiment, this week I tried to trick my brain into remembering 1970, the year I turned 12.

It was easy to dig up memories. I looked around for things that reminded me of growing up in the 1960s. I drank Sun Drop (a Middle Tennessee soda and gateway drink to Red Bull), ate Vienna sausages, gambled a few dollars, browsed for souvenirs at Stuckey's and watched "Gilligan's Island."

Here's what I discovered:

• The 1960s-era snacks were easily the best memory triggers. Still, I stared at the can of Vienna sausages for 24 hours before gathering the courage to dig in. The label says "America's Favorite" and then repeats the slogan in Spanish. In 1970, I'm pretty sure we didn't have bilingual sausages.

I forgot that you have to dig into the can to break the logjam of tightly-packed Vienna sausages -- or, as we uncultured Middle Tennesseans used to call them, "vigh-E-ners."

"Not bad," I thought to myself as my teeth sank into the salty meat mush. I immediately began craving Van Camp's pork and beans.

The Sun Drop, a Middle Tennessee citrus drink (think Mountain Dew with a kick), simultaneously opened up my sinuses and made my eyes dance. I recommend a serving a day of Sun Drop for medicinal purposes.

Suddenly, I remembered, at 12, how food cravings lasted from dawn to bedtime.

• Last Sunday, I bought a $10, scratch-off lottery game card. In the display case at a convenience store, it was filed under No. 11, my lucky number. It promised to deliver prizes worth up to $1 million.

When I was a kid, we would "match" quarters (calling odd or even with the coins hidden under our thumbs). Later, in high school, we graduated to floating dollar bill (same game, bigger stakes). I don't remember ever being "up" or "down" more than a few dollars, but it always made me uncomfortable to lose money. As a result, I've never had any desire to gamble as an adult.

"How often do you buy these?" my son said as he scratched off the numbers.

"This is the first one I ever bought," I said, honestly.

Note to self: At age 12, experimenting doesn't necessarily lead to a life of ruin.

• On a weekend soccer trip, my older son and I stopped at a Stuckey's store.

"Why are we stopping here?" he asked.

"Because it's a place I remember from the 1960s," I said, cryptically.

We went inside and browsed. The place seemed small and smelled like popcorn. In some ways it seemed like a time capsule, with its quaint hamburger grill and shelves of nut-filled candies.

The souvenirs seemed to be from another time, too. There was a cheap "Indian Archery" set, some plastic "hillbilly teeth" and a "red-neck" goblet, a canning jar with a glass stem. I wonder if hillbilly teeth are still funny outside the South. I thought about my son's mouthful of orthodontics and decided: Probably not.

When I was 12, making fun of regional and ethnic groups was the norm. I'm glad things have changed.

• On Tuesday night, the boys and I tuned into MeTV (Comcast Channel 225), to watch "Gilligan's Island."

They looked at me, dumbfounded, as I sang the title sequence: "If not for the courage of the fearless crew, the Minnow would be lost. The Minnow would be lost."

My younger son, age 5, quickly grew bored with Gilligan.

"Dad, if you give me a banana, a needle and a piece of thread, I can do a magic trick," he said hopefully.

"Shush," I said. "Can't you see we're watching Gilligan?"

My older son was quiet, perhaps falling under the spell of Ginger and Mary Ann, I thought. (For the record: Ginger looked prettier than I remembered; Mary Ann, not so much.)

What did I learn from all this mental "time travel"?

I think I learned that things you encounter when you're 12 stay with you -- in vivid sensory detail -- for a lifetime.

My takeaway for myself and other parents: Relax, but be watchful. Life is long, but memories last forever.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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