When I was a child, there stood a house at the top of our street that served as a general dealer’s. Several vending machines were mounted on the wall to the right of the bay window of the shop: one that sold cigarettes, and two that dispensed chewing gum, or chungum as we would say it (and I still do).
The brands of chewing gum that were sold through these machines were PK and Beech Nut, and my friends and I went through a brief phase of buying from them. This may have been because we wanted to demonstrate that our puny arms were strong enough to operate the turn knob that released the gum, or it could have been a desire to show that we were sufficiently grown-up to reach the coin slot, although some needed a bit of a bunk-up. Either way, our little gang shoved lots of pennies into these mechanical merchandisers, as we sought our regular chickle-fix. For a few weeks we strutted about with our jaws in a state of near perpetual motion, and our breath minty fresh. Alex Ferguson had nothing on us.
The Beech Nut machine was our favourite, because it had a trick up its sleeve. There was an arrow stamped onto the flat surface of the knob that was turned to free the packs of gum, and when this arrow pointed towards the buyer, the machine would give up double the quantity of gum: two packs for the price of one.
When the machine was due to cough up a double bubble portion, a sudden lack of enthusiasm swept over those of us in the gum queue. Nobody wanted to be the one to leave the next person with a double helping. After it became clear that prompts of after you were only going to fall on deaf ears, some kids nonchalantly strolled about, trying to give the impression that they weren’t interested in buying gum at all. Meanwhile, the more robust of our number stood against the wall by the machine, arms folded, waiting to pounce. Here’s a typical example of how the situation would unfold.
There was a Mexican standoff under the baking sun. Suspicious glances were exchanged through narrowed eyes and one boy licked his wind-dried lips. An older boy, almost an adolescent, swept his hair back with his hand. A bead of sweat ran down his temple, crossing a pulsing vein. He blinked. An empty crisp packet that floated by on the breeze distracted no-one, as the stock-still group waited.
Then, movement: someone cracked.
A boy stepped forward and raised his coin to the slot. The others stood firm, suspecting a bluff, but the coin went in and the knob was turned. As the one who had weakened walked away, unwrapping his gum and muttering something about how childish the whole thing was, a free-for-all broke out, with tiny penny-clutching fists jostling and fighting in an attempt to make sure their coin was next to pass through the slot. Finally, after much pushing and pulling, one of the taller boys managed to shove his coin in and he reaped the spoils.
As the victor triumphantly paraded up and down outside the shop, holding a pack of gum aloft in each hand and trumpeting a Sousa march through tensed lips, the rest joined the one who had weakened in dismissing the whole episode as childish. Everyone had to make do with standard portions.
This chewing gum phase didn’t last very long, but not too many years later I regularly returned to the same spot, where I used the cigarette vending machine. The only thing that came free with those was a cough.