VanHaren: The Bazooka-like power of olfactory memory

By: 

Roger VanHaren

Marilyn and I volunteered to be part of the Beaver Dam Eye Study over 30 years ago. Since that time we have participated in several follow-up tests, as have many other city and town of Beaver Dam people in our age bracket. And in the last several years, our sons have also been included in the study. Interestingly, the study, which started out to study eyes, has evolved into considerably more than just an eye study. In the last several follow-ups, we have had our carotid arteries checked by ultrasound and have been tested for our senses of hearing and smell as well.

This is not going to be a commentary about the eye study – although that could make an interesting story because the Eye Study has gotten a lot of national recognition. A granddaughter of some good friends is a pre-med student at Emory University in Atlanta, and she was recently introduced to this now world-famous study.

No, this is about bubble gum. How do they connect? Well, I’ll tell you.

I recently read an article (I don’t remember where!) that said that a psychological study of tastes and smells that bring back memories found that one of the most frequently identified items was Bazooka Bubble Gum. Well, the last time I took the eye study battery of tests, one of the smells I had to identify was bubble gum!

I haven’t chewed a piece of bubble gum (of any brand) for quite a few years, but when I smelled that bubble gum, I identified it as Bazooka. Not bubble gum — Bazooka. Another one of those childhood memories.

It was shortly after World War II ended, and I was in maybe second or third grade, when I first saw Topps Bazooka Bubble Gum at the little Makoski’s Store on Maple Street — the place where we bought penny candy on our way home from school. I liked it a lot. Bazooka had a very distinctive taste, and it made nice big bubbles (which were easy to peel off your face when the bubble burst). Bazooka also had a distinctive red, white, and blue logo and packaging, which for me is a familiar part of “Americana.”

A few years after the gum first came out — maybe by the time I was in seventh or eighth grade, Bazooka started including, inside the wrapper, a popular series of Bazooka Joe comics to add extra interest for us, the “consumers.” Before Bazooka Joe, there had been other comics in the packages, but Bazooka Joe became very popular. Lots of kids collected them.

When I was a kid, I often wondered about the name. Why call it “Bazooka”? As a kid, I never tried to look it up. I probably didn’t have the resources to do it then anyway (good excuse?). I recently looked it up on the internet. Did you know that Bazooka bubble gum was named after a humorous musical instrument Bob Burns, an entertainer in the 1930s, put together from two gas pipes and a funnel? (By the way, this contraption also gave its name to the armor-piercing weapon developed during the war.)

Another thing that I remember about bubble gum from my younger days, was the “hobby” which some of my girl classmates practiced. They’d use the bubble gum wrappers (and “regular” gum wrappers, too) to weave decorative bracelets and necklaces.

Remember how the insides of the wrappers had a powdery coating? Guys used to lick the wrappers, but the girls would leave the powder on the wrappers and their bracelets and necklaces would smell like gum. A kind of aura of bubble-gum-ness surrounded them! We weren’t allowed to chew gum in school, but I could always smell it. Sally Wusterbarth sat behind me (alphabetical, you know), and she had a distinctly Bazooka aroma.

Other good smells live in my memory, too, like the way our house smelled when Mom was baking bread, but Bazooka seems to be very pleasantly prominent. How do our brains do that?

Contact Roger VanHaren at rjmavh@gmail.com.