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THE LICORICE OF POLITICS | An Essay by Phillip Sterling

NONFICTION
Bumper sticker from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum's Digital Collection, Photos from Phillip Sterling's personal collection
THE LICORICE OF POLITICS
Phillip Sterling
Date of publication: 
November 18, 2013


The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.

—John F. Kennedy, 1960

I had little concern for politics in 1960. And for good reason: national events were just another vegetable in the servings of topics around our dinner table, where three or four youth (depending on what day of the week it was) would be lobbying for attention to what-happened-to-me-in-school-today. While we celebrated my tenth birthday the week after John F. Kennedy’s narrow election was confirmed, most adults at the time assumed someone my age had little interest (or even comprehension) of the magnitude of what was already taking place in Cuba by the time General Eisenhower turned over the throttle of government to the young PT 109 commander. Yet in a nation of rapidly expanding accessiblity to media, it was impossible, even for someone more familiar with Hardy Boys than Warren G. Harding, to be completely oblivious to the cold front of bureaucratic change. Surely something other than wind tussled Robert Frost as he recited “The Gift Outright” at Kennedy’s inauguration — something like electricity, a charge of promise and power — like atomic power — which, when harnessed for its beneficial properties, would surely help lift into space the Conestoga wagon of the New Frontier.

Even as a near ten-year-old, I sensed something in the blustery, celebratory air of Robert Frost’s gifting — a chilly apprehension, a fear that the future was known only to itself and that in the absence of certainty was the poem of all that could go wrong. It was a kind of excitement tempered by post-war ambiguity, a feeling that I got not so much from the news items I’d pasted in my fifth-grade current events folder as from my involvement in the youth choir at the First Presbyterian Church in Northville, Michigan, during the seminal months of the Nixon-Kennedy campaign.

I joined the choir early in 1960, halfway through the fourth-grade. My reasons for mounting such a bus mid-journey were numerous, but they included the fact that we had moved from Bloomfield Hills to Northville late in the summer before, and it had taken much of the fall for my mother to formally un-tithe her commitment to the Kirk In The Hills and formally transfer her membership. It was nearly Advent before we were considered part of the regular congregation in Northville, and so it was not until rehearsals for the Christmas Eve pageant that I began to feel comfortable with the other youth in the church. By Epiphany, however, I had come to realize, as I squirmed in the stiff-backed pews between my two writhing, intolerable brothers (lined up, as we often were, by order of age), that there may be benefits to sitting in front of the sanctuary — like padded chairs. Besides, if I sang in the youth choir during the first service, satisfying my mother’s insistence that we “participate in church,” I could then attend Sunday School with kids my age, instead of sitting through the boring, communion-lengthy second service, which was the one preferred by my late-sleeping older siblings. So when the call for additional youth choir members was sounded, I joined the robe-winged ranks of the near-angelic.

At first, I enjoyed youth choir, though not because I fancied myself a particularly good singer or even a devout Presbyterian. Prior to 1960, I’d dismissed church-going as something akin to politics, which had all the attraction of abstract art, like the paintings I’d seen on the cover of Life magazine, done by elephants. Yet the more involved I became, the more I enjoyed it, and the more I came to appreciate its subtle possibilities. For the first time, I was sharing in an activity stimulated by opportunity, if not pleasure. It made me feel good about myself; it gave me purpose. Suddenly my life — not unlike (I imagined) the lives of many Americans at the time — began to bloom with promise, and, if it all somehow paralleled the springtime surge of Kennedy’s presidential campaign, so much the better.

Choir practice was held once a week after school. Because I was nearly ten, and Northville at the time held the small-town mystique of being a safe, quiet, conservative environment — a great place to raise kids, which was my parents’ argument for moving there in the first place — I was allowed to walk by myself from the elementary school on North Center Street to the First Presbyterian Church on Main Street. A route which led me past The Sweet Shop, Woolworth’s, Rexall Drugstore, and the Cloverdale Dairy ice cream parlor. And since school got out about 3 p.m. and choir practice didn’t begin until 4:30 — and since my mother’s guilt for not being able to transport me provided me with supplemental allowance (she was student-teaching in the Novi school district and so did not get home in time) — I was free to spend an hour or so dawdling at confectionary establishments, liberating my desires.

Occasionally I would buy chocolate. I have always loved chocolate — Nestlé’s bars, M & M’s, Brach’s bridge mix, even the hard chunks of solid generic chocolate the saleswomen at Woolworth’s would thwack off with a small hammer-like tool, weigh on silver-bowled confectioner’s scales, and tilt into small white bags. I love the rich, sweet, oily way chocolate lingers in my mouth, the velvety coating it leaves in the back of my throat (Full disclosure: To this day, I find it difficult to pass through check-outs at Walmart or Meijer without hustling a few Midnight Milky Ways onto the conveyor belt). It is surely an addiction, though I’d argue that it is less one of cocoa bean chemistry and more of genetics and consumer affluence. My mother, whose sweet tooth eventually evolved into dentures, saw to it that our house was seldom without candy, of which chocolate was only one type. Yet, despite my chocophilia, during those weekly walks across the village of Northville in 1960, I was more likely to buy long thin strings of licorice — by the white paper bagful — which I’d untangle and then braid or knot into a dozen forms before I’d shove the whole wad into my mouth.

Black licorice especially. Unlike chocolate, which had proven its upscale status by appearing in etched candy dishes on my mother’s coffee table — those that didn’t hold spiced gumdrops or cellophane-wrapped ice-blue mints — there was something devilishly protestant about black licorice. Something even un-Presbyterian. Not only did it taint my teeth with a delinquent, tobacco-like stain, it also left in my mouth a somewhat unsavory smell that I’m sure advertised to my fellow choristers what I had done. (Nor was I averse to eating a little during choir practice itself.) I was convinced there was something roguish about black licorice, something sacrilegious, in spite of — or maybe because of — its glorious and gritty taste. It was bitter-sweet. For a boy on the verge of adolescence, licorice was as risky as cigarettes. Still, as long as I had my own allowance and was allowed to amble through the village of Northville unescorted on my way to choir practice, I was free to buy it. And simply because I was able to gave me reason enough to become a regular customer at The Sweet Shop every Thursday afternoon on my way to choir. (Oh what liberties our Great Country fosters!)

Black licorice has a taste like nothing else. When it’s fresh, the thin strings swing loosely, like overcooked spaghetti, and soften pleasantly in the mouth. Its flavor is both caramel and tangy, like a good smoked cheese. Or like an ice cream float made with Vernors ginger ale and orange sherbet. Of course, when licorice is stale, it’s harsh and salty, and it leaves a nasty aftertaste, not unlike (I imagine) chewing asphalt or roofing tar. The strands break apart and lodge uncomfortably between the teeth. Half-chewed pieces gag in the throat.

And yet...how often does one’s addiction appear more like a good friend than the playground bully? Even in spite of the numerous times that I bought black licorice which turned out rancid — for, among the vast varieties of candy, licorice in particular has a tendency toward staleness — disappointment seldom softened my desire. The following week I’d again be found pointing through my reflection in the glass displays at the candy store to the pasta of black licorice that nestled there, a fistful of quarters in my sweaty palm.

Truth be told, my inability to recognize black licorice’s tendency toward staleness stemmed in large part from trying to please Julie Cousins, the only girl who paid any attention to me at the time and (some relatives would argue) my real reason for joining choir in the first place. Julie was one of the few people I’d ever willingly shared licorice with. She honestly seemed to like me, and as I was moving toward adolescence in 1960, the year I began to discover an interest in girls, it was important that someone like Julie paid attention in return. We became friends — choir friends, licorice friends, Sunday School friends — though I seldom spoke to her outside of church. Nor did I see her more than once or twice during the summer between fourth and fifth grades, since my family spent much of the time my grandmother’s cottage up north. It was a typical pre-adolescent infatuation, a one-sided adoration from afar, and I was perfectly happy with that, excited as much by the promise as by the practice. In that respect, Julie represented to me more a form of religion than of politics, and so, much like James Joyce’s narrator in “Araby,” I “bore my chalice safely through a throng of foes.” In my naivety, I even assumed it would last forever.

But my assumption proved false. One cool Sunday in October, when the sanctuary was filled with the fragrance of apple cider and pumpkin doughnuts — not to mention the leafy smoke of presidential campaign fires — I was not only unsettled by the power-mongering of the nascent women’s movement but was jarred into political awareness as well.

It happened shortly after the first service. Upon disentangling myself from the red robe and gold collar of the youth choir’s morning plumage, I went to Sunday school in the basement of the church as usual, only to find the classroom door shut and locked. At first, I suspected an innocent prank. I knew that the other kids from choir had already gone into their classrooms, and none of the kids my age were in the hall. Giggles coming from behind the closed door confirmed my suspicions. I knocked.

“Who’s there?” said a rough voice, deep in intentional disguise.

“Phillip,” I said.

“What do you want?”

“I want in. Where’s Mr. K.?” As our teacher was not known to put up with such shenanigans, I’d already assumed that he hadn’t yet arrived. At the same time, given the logic of adults saddled with the religious education of a dozen or so sugar-fed pre-adolescents, I was afraid that when he did come, if I was the one caught in the hall, I’d be the one in trouble.

“Let me in, please,” I said.
There were brief murmurings. Then a voice said, “Friend or foe?”

“Friend,” I said, hopefully.

“Prove it,” said a different voice. It was followed by more whispering.

“How?”

“Who do you want for president?” said Julie, the words throaty and muffled. The whispering stopped. The silence behind the door was eager for my response.

Frankly, I didn’t know what to say. Up until then, I had had no real political preferences. To a boy of nearly-ten, what was happening in the rest of the world seemed remote to what was happening in the cul-de-sac of Woodland Farms subdivision. Still, I knew I had to say something. I didn’t want Julie — or anyone else who may have been behind the door — to think bad of me. I was, after all, on the launch pad of adolescence. So I weighed the possibilities. On the one hand, a lot of people liked John Kennedy. He was handsome and energetic; he had children nearly my age. On the other hand, I’d heard members of my family say that “Good looks don’t make a good president,” — not to mention the fact that Kennedy was not only a Democrat but a Catholic. Eisenhower, in contrast, had seemed to be a well-respected leader, the General (for goodness sakes!) under whom my father had served in Europe, and wasn’t his Vice President deemed honorable? In a staunchly Republican congregation, the odds were on status quo.

“Richard Nixon,” I said.

“YUCK!” came the reply. And then — too late — it occurred to me. I was talking to a group of Gidget-worshippers, who no doubt preferred Elvis to Sinatra and would barely be able to identify the movie scores of Henry Mancini. They would vote for good looks.

I had blundered into politics.

“I mean John Kennedy,” I said quickly. But the door didn’t open. And for the next ten minutes or so, no matter how I tried to convince the unyielding partisan mob of my true political persuasions, I got nowhere. I begged and pleaded, I bartered licorice — all to no avail. By the time tardy Mr. K. arrived, I had not only given up on getting back into the good graces of the fifth-grade girls, but I’d also pledged myself to a lifetime of political apathy. And it was just as well. Julie seldom spoke to me after that.

~

We moved north in 1961, which helped soothe my recovery from the love-bashing. Yet despite the limited technological advances in electronic media at the time — we lived down the road from my grandmother’s cottage on Platte Lake, in Benzie County, barely within reach of the Traverse City television broadcasts — it was difficult to keep my apolitical pledge. I felt the tension in the air during the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, even if I didn’t completely understand why the voices on the radio sounded so strained, so intense. And I can remember watching “the drained faces of Negro school-children rise like balloons” — as the poet Robert Lowell apparently also had — which appeared as nothing more than shadowy gray confrontations on the one TV channel we did manage to get. I remember Khrushchev banging his shoe in the ads for U.S. Savings Bonds. But only vaguely do I recall the Berlin blockade and subsequent rise of the Iron Curtain, since at Honor Elementary School our current events consisted more of U.S. satellites and the March of Dimes.

I think I can remember my sister, a college student during the Kennedy years, talking about whether or not to join the Peace Corps. But I can’t any longer be sure. The voice I hear comes from a capricious memory, which is more than likely tempered by consequence and disbelief.

I may simply have been breathing in the same smog of disappointment that the American public began to scent in the air as Kennedy’s administration cranked to full production. What positive accomplishments had been served in the course of the first Hundred Days had had a gravy of rhetoric and rumor. So as the media played loud, quick, catchy tunes of Broadway musicals, I think most Americans suspected that the instruments were being blown with the cold breath of uncertainty as the United States jockeyed into world dominance.

Either that, or I was still reeling from Julie Cousins.

Admittedly, much of my attention was focused on more domestic affairs. The winters of ‘61 and ‘62 were the worst that our region of Michigan had had in years, which meant they were glorious for boys who dug bomb shelters in the snow that our father piled to the gutters by shoveling off the roof of the garage so it wouldn’t collapse. During the summer, I learned to water ski. I camped with the Boy Scouts in the unspoiled woods of Senator Hart’s future National Lakeshore. I learned how to whittle; I learned first aid. I planted a garden. By seventh grade, I was in love again, this time with Carol and Cathy White, the twins, who I also admired from a distance because I had convinced myself that I didn’t know which one I liked better. It appeared that despite the well-advertised and flamboyant threats of Castro and Khrushchev, my life would continue, like modernized auto assembly lines, to roll out effortlessly ahead of me. And because of our rural location, with the closest candy store a healthy bike ride away, I lost my addiction to licorice.

~

We moved again in the fall of 1963. My mother, upon completion of her degree and teacher certification, accepted a job with the Traverse City Public Schools, and so, on the blue threshold of my early teens I was able to make another fresh start, this time in junior high.

Suddenly I was in unfamiliar territory. It wasn’t just another school; it was a new environment. The frontier was more hostile than I’d experienced before. Up until then, I’d been able to adapt readily to the role of new-kid-in-school. But Traverse City Junior High was big—bigger than any school I had attended thus far. And it included ninth grade, which tipped socialization untenably toward teenager activities. Boys jockeyed aggressively for girls’ attention, and the school administration encouraged such behavior. The small size of the cafeteria required lunch hour to be divided into thirds; we were assigned twenty minutes to eat. During the other periods, the vice principal would act as disk jockey and play music over the PA in the gymnasium so students who weren’t eating could dance if they wanted to — to rock and roll!

Bittersweet. Perhaps it was just my age, on the cusp of “teens,” the transition to adolescence. Or perhaps it was Traverse City’s long history of strong school alliance and old family genealogy, given its distance from the downstate cities with comparably-sized schools, which closed to newcomers the doors of hallway friendships (or cliques). Perhaps it was simply a kind of immaturity, my closest sibling models of “teenager” having consisted of a wallflowerish sister (already off to college) and a geeky, reclusive brother. Or perhaps it was just something in the autumn air. But whatever the reason, I felt alien, unsure of myself.

And yet...there was the Kennedy administration — a future smiling beyond the narrow halls of Traverse City Junior High. A taste of stability and confidence. “Youthful” confidence, it had been called. A promise of the moon, for goodness sake! In the glitter of handsome optimism, I could see the hints of happier days ahead. For one thing, I finally had a bedroom of my own, to which I could confine myself (if necessary) from the jousts of sibling rivalry. And for my thirteenth birthday, I was given what I had asked for: a portable stereo phonograph, with a drop-down turntable and speakers that could be unhooked and separated to a distance of “almost six feet.”

By November, then, I had assimilated fairly well (I thought) to the culture of junior high. I’d made a few friends, if only because we rode the school bus together or were in the same troop in Scouts (friends that claimed more knowledge than I with gender jostling or rock music and who were therefore more than willing to involve me in their confidences). I’d also become quite adept at dealing with awkward social circumstances in the same way that I’d learned to garner attention at our rambunctious, family-of-eight Sunday dinners — I joked, and teased, and clowned. “A future comic,” my father once remarked.

Sadly, it all came to an end in Spanish 1. We were in the middle of oral recitation — muddling through our unison count to twenty (“catorce...quince... dieciséis...diecisiete...”)—when the vice principal came to the door and asked to speak to Mrs. Cowie in the hall. She immediately charged Kathy C. (Teacher’s Pet!) with responsibility for leading us through the numbers again, correctly, and then left the room. Kathy did her best — uno, dos, tres — but the lesson soon became punctuated by inattention. It was, after all, Friday, and we’d just come from lunch period, where students had been dancing to “Limbo Rock” or drumming “Wipe Out” with pencils on their books. Not to mention that the third-level classroom was stifling, unseasonably warm. Some students simply turned away from Kathy’s lead; others followed reluctantly, or with undue tenor. I muffed Spanish in my best Donald Duck voice.

When Mrs. Cowie finally returned, she was physically shaken, and, to our surprise, said nothing about our childish behavior. Instead, she took a moment to compose herself and then announced that the President had been shot. As a senior faculty member and coordinator of the foreign language classes, she’d been asked to inform the other teachers. The rest of the period, she said, would be a study hall, monitored by Kathy, and that she trusted us as “mature eighth graders” to behave appropriately.

No sooner had the door closed behind Mrs. Cowie than shades of a Spanish insurrection broke out. Kathy, and one or two of the other more mature girls, began to cry. The rest of us reacted in typical junior high fashion. We laughed and threw papers. We took candy and gum out of our desks and passed it around. We wondered out loud if we’d get to go home early.

“Hey, Kathy,” I shouted, over the hubbub. “How do you say ‘dead-as-a-doornail’ in Spanish?”

“It’s muerto-something, isn’t it?” said Bobby, the first in our class to let his hair grow over his collar, which had prompted his lawyer-father to argue the dress code policy with the School Board. “Like in Dia de los Muertos. Remember at Halloween, when The Cow brought in those skeleton cookies?”

“Oh yeah,” I said, flipping through the barely-thumbed glossary of my Spanish book. “But what’s the word for doornail...”

I was being cute, I thought, funny. I was reacting as any shy, new kid looking for attention would act under the pressure of confusion — I masked my apprehension and fear in obnoxiousness.

So I cracked a lot of jokes over the next few days — as the President’s head slumped in Jackie’s lap dozens of times on TV; as Oswald was captured by Dallas police and then shot by Jack Ruby; as John, Jr., saluted his father’s coffin at the funeral. And then it became tedious—all those images replayed and replayed, the individual frames of film, the trajectory of a bullet (or two or three), spread out in a special Collector’s issue of Life magazine. The jokes grew stale. Then not funny at all. Suddenly, the world wasn’t what I thought it would be. It was small and uncomfortable; it brought misery and sadness into our living room. I began to consider how uncertain our lives really are, and how superficial. How promise can be lost in a shot.

For the rest of that school year I had an awful taste in my mouth — as though a piece of black licorice were stuck stubbornly in my teeth. I didn’t any longer anticipate the joys and pleasures of childhood, as I did in Northville when I used to walk to choir. Instead, I felt slightly betrayed, like when I was locked out of the Sunday school classroom by Julie and the others.

To this day I blame President Kennedy — if not Kennedy himself, then his death, the death of all the dreams and ideals that his administration led us to believe in, as all adolescents are led by advertising and rhetoric — the moony promises of a New Frontier, a secure and comfortable frontier, where human beings live in prosperity and happiness. It was more than a promise of freshness, of future; we were promised a “better” future.

Alas! It was simply the same licorice in new packaging. As it is every election year. And while there may be claims of a guarantee — the refund of my purchase price if I’m not completely satisfied — many of the companies that made those claims have closed their doors for good.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Phillip Sterling was born and raised in Michigan, and except for brief forays out-of-state (or country) for education or employment opportunities, he has called Michigan his home. He is Professor Emeritus at Ferris State University, where for the better part of twenty-six years he taught American Literature and writing. His most recent book is In Which Brief Stories Are Told, a collection of short fiction published by Wayne State University Press as part of the Made in Michigan Series. He is also the author of the poetry collection Mutual Shores and is included in Poetry in Michigan/Michigan in Poetry, both published by New Issues Press.

Of his essay, Sterling remarks: “Fifty years later and I can still taste the sweet promises and bitter disappointments of adolescence, both personally and politically. I voted for the first time in 1972, when I was—finally!—twenty-one. Of course, the legal voting age had been lowered to eighteen the year before, signed into law by the very same Richard Nixon who had lost to Kennedy in 1960. Surely, a good number of the 60% of the “popular” vote which re-elected Nixon in 1972 were, in my mind, naive youngsters voting for popularity...I voted for McGovern.

It’s easy to place blame, of course, when things don’t turn out the way we’d like, especially if we’re actively involved—in politics, in community, in personal relationships. We can simply turn to the things we do find pleasurable—what we’re told will give us pleasure. We can take our Hybrid Ford with the bumper sticker that says I voted for [the other guy] down to the mall and buy all the candy we can afford.

I’ve worked on a version of this essay for decades, pulling it out every four years or so, hoping I could conclude on a more positive note. Yet the excitement generated by Obama’s first election—and the many ways it paralleled John Kennedy’s—has again brought taste of licorice to my mouth.”