Bubblegum and comic books

By John Toth

I was standing around with a bunch of other kids in the third-grade classroom, trying to get a glimpse of something we had never seen before.

One of the kids brought to school some round things and a booklet with colorful drawings.
It was 1964, and I was attending grade school in Budapest, Hungary, where I was born nine years earlier.

The kid’s dad was some sort of Communist Party official and went to one of the Western countries as part of his job. He returned with these trinkets, which we were all trying to see.

The booklet was a comic book in German. We had no clue what it said, but were admiring all the color. It was from the West. We didn’t see too many things from the West.

The little round things were bubblegum, but we didn’t know. None of us had ever seen bubblegum before.

One of my friends asked if he could have one. The owner would not part with his treasures, but made a deal with him. If my friend swallowed a small pebble, he would receive one piece of this supposed gum as a reward.

He did it, and got the prize. I wouldn’t, and was left wondering what it really was, or how it tasted.
I didn’t run into either one of these items again until two years later, when I was taken from the country by my mother, who decided to escape to greener pastures.

Back in those days, the Communist countries were fenced in, much like North Korea is today. There was no way out for the common citizen except to escape. Most people decided to stay put and make the best of a bad situation. Some people almost escaped, but were electrocuted by the high-voltage fence or machine-gunned down.

And there were those of us who made it.

Two years after this show-and-tell classroom experience, I found out for myself what exactly the little round things were, while living in Vienna, Austria. I lived there for almost two years before immigrating to the United States.

I spotted them at a bus stop, inside a vending machine. I asked my mother for one schilling and got a half dozen of the mysterious gumballs.

They must be candy, my mother said. I think it’s gum, I said. She was skeptical. “I’ve never seen gum like that.”

I gave her two pieces, and we began for the first time ever in our lives to chew bubble gum. I was 10. She was 40. She remained skeptical that it was gum.

Then I discovered comic books – lots of them.

That’s how I learned German for the most part – by reading comic books. I read a dozen at a time. We bought used ones for cheap. They were new to me. I was immersed in the pages. The characters came alive in my mind. It was 3-D, HD, and everything else in my head, as I devoured each page – while chewing bubblegum.

It’s amazing how little things like comic books and bubblegum tend to stand out among all the information crowded in this “older” head of mine. Maybe because of the foreshadowing in that classroom in 1964 when I would not swallow the pebble.

My mother and I discovered other great new things as we embarked on our new lives. I, for one, discovered that every time I moved to a another country I had to learn a new language.

She discovered that the more she worked, the more money she made. That was a new concept to her.
We made two more discoveries early on – chicken and banana.

That precious chicken that we rarely ate behind the Iron Curtain and only on special occasions, was cheap and aplenty in the West. We also rarely got to eat bananas, maybe on Christmas.

There are many more things that stand out, but none as special as bubblegum and comic books. Through my young eyes, they represented the good life, Americana.

“I don’t think you eat these, Mom. It’s gum.”

She swallowed it.

“You’re right,” she said. She had chewed (and swallowed) bubblegum for the first and last time in her life.