This is the story of how the sale of condoms over the counter made Life Savers the most successful and profitable candy brand of the 1950s.
In 1957, when a 15 or 16-year-old boy would go into a pharmacy to purchase a box of condoms, it was the most tension-provoking, frightening purchase a young man could make.
On one side were his raging hormones.
On the other side was the church, The Legion of Decency (a powerful Catholic group), his family, society, censorship, and a quietly repressive political climate that sanctimonious politicians used to win votes.
It was a world of shame and guilt.
Naturally, in the 1950s, against all odds, the raging hormones always won and our hero went shopping for protection.
Unlike the giant CVS and Walgreen's and Duane Reade megastores of today, pharmacies those days were tiny stores and there was a good chance that the proprietor knew your parents on a first-name basis.
So one would slink into a pharmacy when the owner was out or having dinner. Then you would go from aisle to aisle pretending that you were going to buy aspirin. Or Bengay or Vicks – any item in the store other than a box of condoms.
You checked the other customers. Was it your mom's best friend . . . a teacher from your high school . . . your local priest?
With your head down, staring at the floor, you would make it to the front of the store where the condoms were kept behind the counter.
You would look at the floor and mumble, "I would like a box of mumble . . . mumble . . . mumble."
A voice from behind the counter would say "WHAT?" You then would look up into the beautiful eyes of the a girl from your school who sat four seats away from you in your social studies class and this was her part-time after-school job.
She would greet you by name. "What would you like?" she would say in a voice so loud you know your mother sitting in her living room a mile away could hear.
Panic . . . panic . . . pure unadulterated panic.
"I would like er . . . er . . . er . . . I would like er . . . er . . . er . . .A PACK OF LIFE SAVERS . . . That's what I would like, a pack of Life Savers."
There they were, brilliantly placed near the cash register. I bought hundreds . . . thousands of packs of Life Savers. I was responsible for a full share point of their national sales. Every boy I knew from that time has the same story. No young man in the United States ever went into a store to buy Life Savers but we all came out frustrated with a pack of Life Savers and a case of guilt.
Sexual thoughts and hang-ups in Brooklyn started for a boy with his first kiss. It was the fuse that ignited the hormone tinderbox.
I remember as if it were yesterday. It was summer. I was 12-years-old. I was the most awkward child ever put on this earth. I was at the age of twelve close to 6 feet tall and weighed 96 pounds.
I took my date (her name was Rose) to the Kingsway Theater on Kings Highway in Brooklyn.
Nervous? There wasn't a pore in my body that wasn't flooded. My armpits needed leaders and gutters. My body felt like it had a temperature of 106 degrees. My hands and feet felt 70 degrees colder.
I was also nauseous because in preparation for this first "date," I had brushed my teeth about 20 times and was in danger of dying from an overdose of Colgate toothpaste.
Rose thought I was the strong, silent type. Actually, I couldn't talk because I had a mouth full of Life Savers. I had consumed two packs of Wintergreen Life Savers from the minute I had picked her up at home. So every time I let out a breath I smelled like a walking Airwick bottle.
The movie was called Pagan Love Song starring Esther Williams.
We sat in the balcony and I was too shy to put my arm around Rose so I put it around her seat instead. The movie was almost two hours long and Esther Williams spent most of those two hours swimming.
I spent the two hours in pain. My arm had cramped up in this awkward position and then it went to sleep. It was dead. Useless.
I think I cut off the circulation and to this day I can't throw a baseball 10-feet and I blame it all on that seat in the Kingsway Theater.
At one point I realized that I couldn't move my arm . . . I had no control over it and probably would never be able to move it again. I wondered if it would have to be amputated. This made me giggle hysterically to myself.
Unfortunately, I had this thought during a love scene between Esther Williams and Howard Keel.
Rose then said her first word of the afternoon to me: "Shuuuussssssh."
Finally, during the scene where Esther Williams was swimming underwater (and I think singing at the same time), I decided to try to kiss Rose. My dead right arm, which I had counted on for foreplay and balance, was useless.
So I had to try to move my body and sort of lurch at the same time. It put me off-balance and, even though I was aiming for her lips, I missed and sort of kissed her on the bridge of her nose and on her right eye.
She sort of summed up what my sex life was going to be like forever when she said, "Stop that. We're going to miss the good part of the movie."
I may have been 12, but being thrown over for Esther Williams didn't do much for my sense of self-esteem.
It was then I decided to retrieve my right arm, but in order to do that I had to reach over Rose's head with my left hand and pick up my dead right arm and swing it over her head. I didn't do that as well as I should have. My hands were dripping wet with perspiration and I wound up dropping the arm and accidentally hitting her in the top of the head with my dead arm.
"What's wrong with you?" she said, thereby becoming the first person to ask a question that I've been asked many times since.
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