Saturday I drank a glass bottle coke. As I tipped the bottle back, the glass against my lips, the sun on my face, the taste of the sugar laden soda slammed me into the past – what seems like a simpler time, a bygone era…
Riding in the back of my uncle’s pick-up, sitting astride crated glass bottles, I felt like the king of the world. – and in a small way, I was just that.
During the summers of my preteen adolescence, in a time before plastic bottles or aluminum cans, soft drinks – or soda as ‘dem Yankees called it – was sold in 12 oz., glass, returnable bottles. Packaged in wooden crates and trucked to various vending machine locations up and down the Grand Strand – these bottles of effervescent liquid could be bought for 20 cents and kept tourists refreshed and coins in the pockets of motel owners. We were the latter.
My family owned and operated two motels and a half-dozen vending machines. Empty bottles were in abundance throughout the strand and the empty crates racked next to the machines would fill rapidly with not only the bottles from coke brands that we sold, but other brands, as well. It was one of my jobs, as a lad of 11 or so, to sort through the crates of empties and separate the non-coke brand bottles from the rest. That meant things like RC Cola, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, Fresca, Mt Dew and 7-Up (to mention a few) needed to be gathered together and crated. The goal, which made me an eager and willing worker, was to transport these to the local market, Chapin Company, and claim the reward of about 2 cents per bottle.
Sorting these bottles into crates and loading them into the back of my Uncle’s 1969 Chevy El-Camino was the work. The fun began when I climbed into the back, found my seat on top of the crates and rode happily, summer’s hot breeze blowing my face, through Ocean Boulevard traffic into town. My uncle always split the money from the returns with me and bought me a Coke and pack of Lance’s salted peanuts for the ride home, peanuts that were always poured into the neck of the bottle and consumed with the coke.
So much of that moment in my childhood is gone, lost to progress, safety precautions and the churning wheels of capitalism. Returnable glass bottles gave way to aluminum cans and then to plastic bottles. 12 oz. drinks that were once a treat for us, have been replaced by our daily consumption of bottomless Big-Gulps and 2 Liter bottles. Traffic laws now prevent the transport of people (much less children) in open pick-up beds and 15 cents won’t buy you water.
Still, the memory I cherish is more about the life I had – sun and fun, a supportive family, the experience of moving and being in the world, and working hard for a reward - than it is about prices or regulations. My nostalgia for the past doesn't cause me to long for a return to it, but begs the question…Where do my kids and grand-kids find these grounding, memory making moments in their lives? Ahhh…that’s refreshing.
NOTE: If you want to read more about the bottle industry history and learn why we occasionally found cigarette butts in the bottom of those recycled bottles (yes. gross), read a comprehensive history of the bottling industry here.