KOOL-AID BABY*

By: James F. O’Neil

It has happened again: One of those moments of memory revival when I do something that really conjures up picture-visions, feelings, tastes, and a sense of time gone by.           

Something simple I do, like mixing a pitcher of Kool-Aid or some other popular non-sugared drink, brings me into the memory world–here, the world of my childhood.       

Pour Kool-Aid There I was, pouring the colored powder into the two-quart pitcher.  As the green crystals and powder took their time getting to the bottom of the plastic container, I saw in my mind’s eye my mother, walking toward me, wearing her light-green smock with large pockets.            

I was waiting for her as she came from the Kool-Aid factory in Chicago, on the Southwest Side.  My vivid image of her now makes me remember a warm summer afternoon (she must have worked an early shift), the car my dad and I sat in waiting for her, and her gait, with her hands in her pockets.           

When I saw her, among the other women wearing hairnets, coming out the employees’ door, like those women workers in World War II, finishing their shift in some defense factory–in full-body coveralls–I left the car and ran towards her.  (This now occurs in filmed-slow-motion.)  A big hug, maybe a kiss (probably not in front of all those women), and a question:  “Watcha got in your pockets.”  We kept walking, her telling me about which line she worked that day: Cherry, Grape, Lemon-Lime, Orange, Raspberry, or Strawberry.  (I never liked orange.  Don’t know why, since I always enjoyed Creamsicles in orange flavor.)  She had colored powder on her smock, and her hair sparkled colored-crystal.           

I liked her job.           

That factory provided work for her, money for us to live on, and free Kool-Aid.  I cannot recall the exact dates of her work at this factory (in the 1950’s), but I know I was not a baby, as my title might imply.  Yet I remember one younger brother who also partook of the flavored powder.  We were children, with tastes.           

There is an expression “working for peanuts.”  My mom worked many jobs: making gaskets for bombsights, working at the Federal Reserve Bank (no free samples ever there), working in a cardboard factory making boxes, and the Kool-Aid Factory.  Of all, my remembrance of colored powders brings good feelings and positive memories.  She never suffered cuts, bruises, slivers, or smashed fingers or toes.  She brought home the money–and brought home color and flavor into our lives.  Much better than peanuts…

Postscript.  In 2004, the former Kool-Aid factory on the city’s Southwest Side was scheduled to be razed and replaced with a housing development.  Now known as Marquette Village, near Marquette Park, I know the soil must contain memories and crystals, with Kraft Foods Inc. manufacturing Kool-Aid, with a dose of Good Seasons salad dressing mixes–and maybe some drops and bits of Open Pit barbecue sauce.  My remembrance of things past?  “Kool-Aid, Kool-Aid, Tastes Great!  Wish We Had Some, Can’t Wait”–and, “A five-cent package makes two full quarts.”  How great was that!?

*I remember Tom Wolfe’s great book, The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, published in 1968.  When writing this memoir, I could not get that title out of my mind–yet I always referred to it with the “Baby” added to the title.  Don’t know why.  Perhaps I have just been a “Kool-Aid Baby.”

© James F. O’Neil  26 May 2013

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