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Cold Snap December 2, 2015 11:32

As a kid, I don’t remember begging for much. Even at Christmas. I wanted stuff. And I asked for stuff. Every December I’d make a list of things I wanted for Christmas based entirely on the contents of the Sears Wish Book. For those of you too young for this reference, the Wish Book was Sears Christmas catalog. It was about an inch to an inch and a half thick. It arrived on your doorstep around Thanksgiving. And everyone got it. Everyone. In Colorado, at least, there were several things that were automatic after you were born. You received a birth certificate, a social security number, inoculations for Rubella and Polio, and a chip that was implanted in your forehead that would radio your location to Sears so you could receive your Sears Wish Book on time. If you were lost in the Rockies around the end of November a peppermint helicopter would drop a German shepherd into the snow and she would bring you your Sears Wish Book held gently in her jaws.

I, like millions of other children, was convinced it came from Santa Claus.

After receiving it, we (and by “we,” I mean all the children of Colorado) would fight over it with our siblings, and spend every waking minute of the next four weeks pouring over it, memorizing the page number and description of every item we wanted so we could list it for our parents and more importantly recite it in person for Santa Claus when we met him at the mall. For us, Santa materialized outside Lakeside Shopping Center inside a gigantic fiberglass mountain, complete with artificial snow and Christmas Music. It was outdoors in the blistering cold, and you waited in a long line that stretched around the base of the mountain. Eventually you shuffled inside, into a tunnel of sorts. It was a welcome shelter from the cold wind.

The tunnel was sculpted to look like the sort of place a little Yeti might have felt at home were it not crowded with kids and their parents in winter jackets. The tunnel was dark at first, and full of whispers – kids rehearsing their lists like so many tiny monks mumbling scripture as they shuffle to their quarters. The tunnel may have been out of the wind, but it was still cold, and the breath rising from these little monks filled the chamber with an eerie fog. A fog of wishes. Desires for trains, dolls, slot-car racers; the contents of the Sears Wish Book.

Adding to the eerie atmosphere were periodic windows set into the sides of the tunnel - icy fluorescent aquariums that captured scenes of elves at work. These weird little motorized dioramas featured papier-mâché elves who toiled to make the things we love at Christmas. They had cheery faces and hand-sewn clothes that hid steel bones and oiled metal joints. Each window featured a different activity and passing them one by one gave the same pleasure as passing the windows at the Natural history museum that housed stuffed walrus, polar bears and wolves. Here in this mountain tunnel, greasy little elves slowly hammered toys, cut down Christmas trees, painted ornaments, made candy. I remember one particular elf, my favorite, dressed in a green cloth outfit that turned a crank, eternally stretching a gob of dusty pink taffy.

If you made it to the mountain’s center you had to face Santa himself, sitting in an actual throne of gold in an otherwise undecorated chamber. Maybe it was decorated but I just didn’t register as much in there as I was so focused on the impending sitting where I would have to recite my list. I don’t remember it as being very happy in there. Tense was more like it. There were always some helpers – girls dressed not unlike the trapped window elves only with the small dusty pants replaced with stiff felt skirts trimmed in white fur. These living elves controlled movement here at the mountain’s core. When your turn came you were pushed forward, lifted to Santa Claus’s lap, you recited the list as quickly as possible, were lifted down, given a cellophane-wrapped candy cane from a silver bin, and ushered back into the cold.

The list I recited always ended with the most important present - an Alpha present that my parents and Santa were made to understand was the most important present. Should funds be short, other things on my list should be sacrificed so that the alpha present would arrive under the tree.

I still remember several of them. The Strange Change Machine, Astro Light, the giant 32-inch Eagle One spaceship from TV’s Space 1999, Ghost Gun, the unrelated Green Ghost game, the deluxe Cookie Monster hand puppet, a Daisy BB gun. The Strange Change Machine is so odd and amazing that to this day I still find it difficult to describe to people. The Ghost Gun projected ghosts on your wall, and allowed you to ‘shoot’ them by punching holes in the paper strip they were printed on. The Astro-Light was a system of bent acrylic rods and spheres that fit into a grid of holes drilled into a relatively large base that housed a light bulb and color wheel; when you plugged the rods into the base they lit up and transmitted their light to other pieces as you built futuristic sculptures and cities. The Green Ghost game is easy to find on eBay and featured a large glow-in-the-dark ghost that spun, its finger pointing at a number that would direct you around a board with plastic haunted houses, black plastic doors and black plastic keys that uncovered cardboard chambers beneath the board filled with rubber-band snakes, feather bats, and plastic bones.

Years later I would recognize that most of my Alpha gifts either glowed, and/or were used in the dark. I also came to recognize that they were odd. I knew this on the first day back to school after Christmas break, when we compared Christmas stories with other kids in our class.

This happened on the playground, where we gathered in the morning and waited to be let into our classroom. We waited outside no matter what the weather or situation. 100 degrees or 100 below, rain, sun, snow, blizzard, rabid raccoons, atomic bomb scare, guy wandering the playground dressed as a clown pushing a wheelbarrow and snipping kids heads off with rusted hedge trimmers; you waited outside. In the cold months kids pressed together near the door so we could get inside fast when the time came. You entertained yourself by carefully scooping plates of ice off the tops of puddles, holding them aloft and declaring in your best British archaeologist voice, that you had just uncovered priceless hieroglyphics before pretending to sneeze and dropping the ice sheet artifacts on the ground where they shattered into a million shards. It never got old. The bigger the plate of ice the bigger the laughs. Sometimes you’d trip, sometimes you’d toss them to a fellow idiot archaeologist, sometimes you’d use an icicle to point at them, they always smashed. To this day if I see a frozen puddle of water I’ll scoop off the top plate and declare it a hieroglyphic before sneezing and putting my forehead straight through it. Any kid between two and seventy-two who sees this will laugh and blow milk out of their nose and then go to find their own ice sheet to fumble and destroy.

But on the first day back after Christmas we weren’t shattering artifacts, we were comparing Christmas morning stories. And this is when I realized I was different.

Happy chatter outside Mrs. Weidman’s fourth-grade door.

“I got a football.”

“I got Hot Wheels.”

“I got an Easy-Bake oven.”

“I got an Astro Light.”

Everyone falls silent.

“A what?”

“Astro Light. You know, ‘building with light’?”

“I don’t know what that is.”

“Sears Wish Book. You know. Page 47, item C. Ass… Trow… Light?”

Concerned looks.

Then from the back – “I got the official Denver Broncos football helmet.”

Calm chatter resumes.

This is where I was different. I had an eye for the unusual. The unpopular. And this is where the begging comes in.

You see, I never begged for any of those Christmas presents. Just put them on a list, read them to Santa Claus, and hoped. But around 1977, I begged for something. And it wasn’t a toy. It was food. 

At least it said it was food.

Now I’m not sure where to stop and mention this but I’ve decided to tell you now: if you aren’t from the vicinity of Denver, you probably won’t know what I’m talking about. If you are from Denver chances are you don’t know what I’m talking about. As an adult I talked about this thing, told the tale of this food, for years, and never got a glimmer of recognition. Even in this time of the internet where you can find anything I’ve found barely any trace or a mention of it.

But I have uncovered a trace. And what I learned was that it was a futuristic frozen dessert that was the brainchild of scientists working at Procter & Gamble. This futuristic dessert would be test marketed in one place – Denver. That’s why no one I know in California ever heard of it. I’ll give you a couple links at the end and you can begin your own research.

It was summertime. I came in from riding my gold spider bike with the gold-flecked banana seat and three-foot sissy bar and saw it on TV. An advertisement for a new dessert. A dessert unlike anything ever seen before. It was tasty. It was cold. It was futuristic. It was “Ready in a snap,” and it made itself!

Cold Snap. That’s what it was called. Cold Snap.

It was easy to remember because a lady snapped her beautiful fingers in the commercial at the same time they said, “It’s ready in a snap.”

It came in different colors and different flavors. Its closest living relatives inside the grocery store would have been a tub of ice cream and a package of instant pudding. It was a sort of space-age ice cream that came in a box. 

According to the commercial, you opened up a series of packages, pouches, and poured the powders into a mixing bowl in a precise sequence. I think you may have added milk. Yes, I’m pretty sure you added either milk or water. Then you opened up the last pouch. And that’s where the future-ish bit came in.

The last pouch held a sort of clear-ish gel that, when added to the other mixture, started a reaction. The powders and liquid began to change, evolve. Grow! That was a huge selling point. It went from something the size of a softball to filling a small mixing bowl. According to the commercial it would roughly double in size. You placed your bowl into the freezer and left it for an hour or so to finish its work in dark privacy. After dinner you opened up the freezer door you had… a dessert! A colorful, happy blob of Cold Snap just waiting to be spooned into littler bowls and distributed to your family. Delicious, cold, satisfying and delightful. Everyone in the family gathered around and laughed and pointed and screamed in delight as they ate spoonful after creamy spoonful of Cold Snap.

At least that’s what happened on the commercial.

I wanted that. Not only the delicious stuff itself, but to be one of the first to experience the future of dessert. Our house didn’t have air conditioning and our yard didn’t have a sprinkler system, but we could be pioneers in this. This was like a jet-pack of flavor that I could bring to my family, carrying us all into the stratosphere of kitchen fun and togetherness.

So I begged.

I’m sure it was ugly, and demeaning. But I needed the Cold Snap. I’ll skip ahead.

My parents relented, and I went with them to the grocery store to find it. We did. I don’t remember where it was stocked. It was in a box so it wasn’t in the freezer, but it was still a frozen dessert - this may have been one of the problems. Once found, there were choices. I picked the box that indicated the Cold Snap that would be closest to purple when it had completed its transformation. I believe I picked strawberry, if that was a flavor they offered. I remember the finished product was pink, so I’m reverse-deciding it was strawberry. We bought one box. The kit. It came home with us. What I didn’t know at the time was it would be my last chance to buy it.

I don’t remember how long it took before we made it – a few days, a few hours? I’m guessing not long. First I made ready a space in the freezer to receive the bowl. Our refrigerator was the sort with the freezer door on top. I remember being told by my grandparents what a wonder that freezer compartment was. “It’s self defrosting,” they would say. I wasn’t sure what that meant but they described the horror and drudgery of having to chip ice out of the compartment of older models of refrigerators.

In previous decades your refrigerator freezer would slowly make its own ice from the moisture that was naturally present in the air. It started as a happy white frost that decorated the inside of the freezer chamber, making it seem like a little neighborhood that a mouse might want to go Christmas shopping with his mousewife on the first frost of the year. Gradually that frost thickened, molecule by molecule, till there was a little coating of clear ice over every surface of the freezer - even the walls and roof, and now it seemed like a place a mouse might want to take his mousewife ice skating. At this point the freezer door might resist a little when you pulled on it, making a little ripping sound as it popped open. And so on, till the freezer was almost completely filled by ice. If you left that door closed too long it wouldn’t open at all, and you’d have to pull the plug on the refrigerator, let it warm up for many many hours, since the thing is insulated, and eventually rip the freezer door open to find that you were staring at a cross-section of a glacier. Had the small mouse and mousewife been in there they would now be hazily visible, suspended in the center of the block, his small pipe still clenched in his teeth and her scarf trailing backwards. They would be holding hands in death, and it would take many more hours of chipping at the block with butter knives and spoons to retrieve their bodies for burial.

The “chipping out the freezer” story was one I heard many times. It must have been awful. Ice flying, melting all over the kitchen floor. A hodgepodge of mixing bowls used to collect the melting shards before the started sliding under the refrigerator. And all the while your milk and eggs going bad because the entire refrigerator was now shut off. It was a race against time to free the freezer chamber of its ice block and plug the whole thing back in again, just so you could repeat the process a few months later.

I heard this story almost every time that freezer door was opened. And I remembered it now as I cleared a place for the Cold Snap. I had let my family know not to worry about dessert on this evening, that I would have it covered. I would be making Cold Snap for everyone.

I gathered the supplies I would need. One large mixing bowl, the packets of powders laid out in precise order, spoons, milk (or water) carefully measured. And the final packet, much heavier than the rest and made of pleasing silvery plastic foil, something that a space suit might have been made of. That was the one I was most interested in. That one was from the labs of Procter & Gamble.

I poured the first powder. By now, because I’d made such a big deal of this, everyone in the family had gathered: Frank, Dorothy, and my grandmother who used to chip ice from her freezer. Second packet opened, the flavor packet. I poured and mixed the dry ingredients. Strawberry-smelling dust wafted in the sunlight of our happy, now futuristic kitchen. Milk (or water, wish I could remember) poured in and mixed thoroughly. Perfect. Actually, my grandfather hadn’t come in. He was in the living room, relatively disinterested. He would arrive soon enough.

Now for the silver packet. I carefully snipped the pouch open as close to the seam as possible, lest I waste a molecule of the… catalyst. That’s what it was, a catalyst. It would start the dessert’s transformation.

It was like unusually heavy Vaseline. Vaseline with an extra atom added somehow. I squeegeed it out of the pouch with my fingers, and it plopped into the bowl in one oblong blob like a little space-angel had gone poop. I was hoping it would react like in the commercial.

I didn’t need to wait. The reaction was instantaneous. Even before I’d picked up the mixing spoon the Cold Snap had begun to expand. I mixed vigorously.

“Oooh! Look!”

“It’s growing!”

“It’s… wait, is it supposed to do that?”

With only two revolutions of the mixing spoon the reaction had kicked in - powerfully. The Cold Snap doubled in size. Then tripled. I thought the bowl I had chosen was going to be too big. It wasn’t. The Cold Snap filled the bowl to the rim and kept growing.


“Get another bowl!” someone cried. I don’t remember who. Drawers were being pulled open, their contents spilled over the kitchen floor as another bowl was located and rushed to the scene. We poured half of the Cold Snap into this second bowl. But it didn’t stop. Now we had two bowls that were filling themselves. I hadn’t even mixed the gel thoroughly – that bothered me. So I stirred each bowl a couple times each. Stupid. The reaction sped up. The large and medium bowls began to overflow.

My sister screamed.

“Get another bowl!”

We had another mixing bowl but couldn’t find it. We ripped open cupboards and got cereal bowls, coffee cups, divided the Cold Snap into them. Now we had five containers of a pink blob that was now seeming less friendly than it had appeared in the commercial. Little drops that had splashed onto the counter and floor were growing individually from the size of a pea to the size of shooter marbles. Every part of this stuff seemed to have a mind of its own, a purpose, a mission. I scooped up the drops and put them back in the bowl, I didn’t want to lose a precious drop of the Cold Snap. I wasn’t thinking straight.

“It’s not stopping!”

“What the hell is going on?” My grandfather had arrived.

“It’s Cold Snap,” I screamed. “It’s our dessert!”

“Put it in the freezer!”

“No, the box says we’re supposed to wait for five minutes.”

“We don’t have five minutes.”

All containers were breached. You couldn’t see the handles on the coffee mugs. It was flowing out onto the counter. Everyone picked up the bowls, mugs, and ran for the freezer. There wasn’t room for it all. I snatched out the ice cube trays to make more space. Our time was running out, the blob was running down everyone’s arms, dripping onto the floor. The Cold Snap seemed less like something that needed chilling and more like something that needed killing.

“Get them in. Make it stop!”

Somehow, I shoved all the containers into the freezer. The last thing I saw as I slammed the door was the Cold Snap, continuing to grow.

It hadn’t gone down the way it had in the commercial. There were no smiling faces, no golden retriever barking happily as a beautiful mother whisked a single small mixing bowl of larval Cold Snap into a freezer. We were sticky, shaken, frightened. We stood in a semi-circle staring at the freezer door. Would it hold?

Despite this I clung to the dream. I spoke up cheerily. “It will be a dessert by tonight!”

Looking back I think it’s a little strange no one opened the door to check on it. Maybe we were frightened. Maybe we hoped it would reverse itself. Maybe we wanted to forget about it. But I didn’t. After all, making it was only half the fun.

We finished dinner and I ran to the freezer door to fling it open and distribute the space-age bounty. But the door wouldn’t open. My grandfather, who used to pick up Model T’s to impress girls, couldn’t open it. We pulled the refrigerator plug and waited. Finally, with his foot against the refrigerator my grandfather ripped the freezer door open.

We were looking at a cross-section of a pink glacier. The reaction hadn’t stopped till the compartment had been filled completely. There was no bowl to be pulled out – the bowl and mugs and containers of normal ice cream had all been swallowed up.

And that’s how it ended. Not at all like the family on TV. We weren’t a family from the future. We looked like a family from the dust bowl with our sad eyes, each standing in line in our own kitchen as my grandmother chipped the Cold Snap out of the freezer with a butter knife and a spoon. With every few chops a chunk of Cold Snap would break free, the first person in line would catch it in their bowl and go to the back of the line to eat it as they shuffled forward to get another chunk. It was still oddly precious, and we did this longer that we should have.

It was good. Melted in your mouth. You worried a little what would happen when it got warm inside you. Eventually my grandmother burrowed deep enough to find a corner of the original mixing bowl. After a half hour of this we all called it quits and got down to the business of trying to get the remainder of the sticky stuff out of the freezer. It was a hellish job, chunks flying everywhere, melting on the floor. We didn’t use a hair dryer for fear it would come back to life.

Decades later as you pulled a tub of normal, earthly ice cream from the freezer you might find a little blob of Cold Snap clinging to it. It was still in there somewhere. Waiting.

Next trip to the grocery store it was gone, never to return. Had some family not been as lucky as us? Had the grape flavor been stronger than the strawberry?

Five years later when I saw John Carpenter’s The Thing, I thought of the Cold Snap.

Though by then I’d learned that no one else would know what it was.