Unbridled Imagination at the Local Red Owl

August 19, 2013 § 5 Comments

Colorful creatures constructed of plastic and steel like the ones in the photo below invoke memories of Red Owl, the primary supermarket my family shopped at back in the 1970s.

Photo by Michelle Weber

Photo by Michelle Weber

Each trip piqued my five-year-old curiosity and imagination. My brother and I weren’t allowed much sugar, especially in the form sold to our demographic during Saturday morning cartoons. I often wondered what it would be like to actually pull a fantastic prize out of a sugar cereal box — zip cars, cartoon figurines, decoder rings, stencils, and other useless junk that I thought would change my life. Or at least alter the course of my otherwise tedious day.

Instead I could only gaze longingly at the animated packaging promising hours of joy and amazement. Basically, a box of Boo Berry was kind of like that doggy in the window — I couldn’t bring it home, but at least I could look.

(By the way, what was up with Sugar Bear? He was like the ursine Dean Martin, hawking sugar coating like it was bourbon, corrupting tots with his sultry voice and heavy-lidded eyes. Shameful. But I digress.)

Don't trust this bear, kids

Don’t trust this bear, kids

While I longed desperately to break into one of those cereal boxes, I was even more intrigued by the store’s conveyor belt. Once our groceries were sacked and paid for, the bag boys placed them in gray plastic bins on the conveyance.

My brother and I would watch in wonder as our bin slid down to the basement and out of sight. I wanted to follow our groceries, discover what magic journey our food went on before arriving outdoors, returned to street level and ready for transfer to our cozy car on a sub-zero winter day.

I don’t recall what sort of world I imagined in the bowels of the building. It couldn’t have been too vibrant, as everything from the belt to the bins to the grocery bags held dull and muted colors, but something told me it was akin to Santa’s workshop. Little elves checking our purchases, ensuring everything was fresh and in its proper bag. Maybe throwing in a surprise or two. But sadly, we never arrived home to find Hershey bars or comic books stashed underneath the lettuce.

While I was always left imagining what excitement awaited those lucky enough to have parents who bought them sugar cereals or secretly sat them in a bin destined for the Red Owl basement, I was easily appeased by the real highlight at the outset of each grocery shopping expedition — a galloping metal horse.

For a nickel, my brother and I would ride the magnificent beast staged at the Red Owl entrance. Unlike the photograph above, it was just one animal, dull and gray like the conveyor belt, mounted on a solid black stand. But I thought he was splendid in his plainness. Plus he rocked back and forth, which I always preferred to spinning rides because those often led to projectile vomiting.

I don’t remember my parents ever turning down a request for a ride, which made up for the lack of sugar in our systems. Of course, five cents only bought you so much time. The bucking bronco eventually ran out of horsepower, the final slow seconds signifying the party’s bitter end.

But the sadness at the ride’s conclusion soon abated, for there were cereal boxes and a conveyor belt inside, waiting to spark my unbridled imagination during what has unfortunately grown into a mundane errand in adulthood.

Who doesn't like Red Owl?

Who doesn’t like Red Owl?

Written for the WordPress Weekly Writing Challenge.

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