When I turned ten in April of 1958, I thought I was pretty wise to the ways of the world, especially when it came to adults, girls, trading marbles and baseball cards, and the perils of borrowing money to so-called friends. But I was in for a rude awakening.
It was the first day of summer vacation, and some friends and I were celebrating three months of freedom from homework and teachers with Twinkies and bottles of icy cold Royal Crown Cola at Raasch’s little brick store on White Bear Avenue and Third Street on Saint Paul’s East Side. As we took long, slow swigs and savored that legendary Hostess cream filling, my brother Tom opened a piece of Bazooka bubble gum and showed me the prize being offered on the “Bazooka Joe” comic.
“Wow!” I gasped. “It’s a set of genuine walkie-talkies for only fifty comics and fifty cents! Just think of the fun we can have with them!”
“That stuff is junk,” Kenny Jones smirked. “I sent for a pair of x-ray glasses and everything was blurry.”
Undeterred by other horror stories about “valuable” Bazooka prizes that broke or didn’t work, Tom and I, like knights on a quest for the Holy Grail, made a solemn pledge that we wouldn’t rest until those walkie-talkies were in our hands.
From that day on, Tom and I maintained a constant presence at Raasch’s, searching for “Bazooka Joe” comics around the store, along the street, and even in the trash barrels, much to the chagrin of Mrs. Raasch, the store’s stern matron, who gave us steely glares through her wire-rimmed glasses.
We also became adept at mooching comics off other kids, not to mention spending every penny we made from redeeming pop bottles on those thick little squares of bubble gum, which left our jaws sore and Mom and Dad in an uproar, since we didn’t have dental insurance.
Our noble mission soon earned us the nickname Bazooka Brothers (although Mrs. Raasch may have privately called us something else) and lots of encouragement, even from some cross-street rivals at Sheridan grade school (we went to St. Pascal’s). But there was also taunting from naysayers like snooty Viola and tough guy Bill.
As our cigar box slowly filled with comics, Grandpa Hjalmer Peterson said he would gladly give us the fifty cents, as long as we cut his grass, washed his car, and straightened up the garage. It was a sweltering day, and I remember thinking that Hjalmer, who would never be mistaken for a spendthrift, got a sweet deal from his grandsons, even at twice the money.
Despite times when we felt like Sisyphus trying to push that huge boulder up a hill, Tom and I never gave up until the moment finally arrived when we stuffed fifty “Bazooka Joe” comics, some dirty and taped together, and two quarters into an envelope and mailed it off to Brooklyn, New York.
After such an arduous undertaking, it was nice to get back to a more normal life of baseball, bike riding, chasing rabbits in the woods, and discussing Elvis, Mickey Mantle, and our favorite episodes of The Adventures of Superman and The Lone Ranger. We also checked the mailbox at least ten times a day, including Sundays.
It was a full seven weeks before a small package arrived. With little decorum, we ripped it open. And there was our Holy Grail: two tin cans connected by a short string. All that work, all those great expectations, for two tin cans.
“What a rotten deal,” we groaned in disbelief. “What a crummy, rotten deal.”
Devastated and disillusioned, we went from being the cavalier Bazooka Brothers to the Brothers Grim. How could Bazooka Joe betray us like this?
The neighborhood was soon abuzz with news of our misfortune. Good friend Terry Truhler said we should hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit, and Jennifer Lynch, the only girl I ever let take a swig of my RC Cola, declared, “You guys got hornswoggled.” Even Mrs. Raasch was sympathetic, calling us “you poor boys” and urging us to demand a refund.
But in the end, Tom and I simply vowed to never have anything to do with those crooks at Bazooka or their bubble gum. We became loyal chewers of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit. Besides, that thin strip of gum was much easier on the jaw muscles.
And so, on this summer of our discontent, we learned some harsh truths: Life isn’t always fair and you should beware of things that seem too good to be true.
Telling the story of the Bazooka bubble gum fraud always evokes smiles and memories of a very special time in our lives. And even after all these years, I still feel a twinge of anger over the way Tom and I were hornswoggled.
In 2012, Bazooka Candy Brands announced they would no longer include the “Bazooka Joe” comic with their gum. But I know two brothers who did not mourn the demise of that little piece of waxed paper.