TGIF: When it’s hot, a cold sarsaparilla might hit the spot

Brownwood Bulletin
Gene Deason

I decided to fill my drink cup with a bit more soda before we left the restaurant where my wife and I had enjoyed lunch. We try to limit our intake of carbonated beverages, but occasionally we splurge.

The drink machine was one of those new-fangled contraptions with just two spouts, one for ice and the other for the soft drink you select from images on a circular display. In my Just one sip, and I knew immediately it was not the traditional caramel-colored soda I expected. The dispenser confirmed that I had served myself a type of cherry-flavored drink. It was also labeled “zero sugar,” today’s coded terminology for “diet.” I’ve never been a fan of artificial sweeteners.

But wait a minute. This actually wasn’t so bad. The cherry flavoring was unobtrusive, and it alone was enough to disguise the telltale taste of the artificial sweetener.

I’ve read those warnings about the possible dangers of artificial sweeteners, but since they’re almost unavoidable, I partake in moderation. Besides, I have a birthday this month, and with the years mounting, I’ve been trying to eat more sensibly. Hard to believe, but true.

So, a fruity-flavored, calorie-free soft drink might be what I’ll answer if asked what I want for my birthday. Well, it might be, except for the fact that I’ve already bought some for myself.

At the grocery store a week later, I spotted a one-liter bottle of that particular soda and put it in the basket. My wife asked if I had picked up the wrong thing, with a facial expression that communicated her distaste. I told her I wanted to try it, because it might be something with no calories that I’d enjoy. OK, she said, just don’t expect her to drink it.

Good enough.

I was puzzled. Why I was attracted to this flavor? It came to me after a few days.

=When I was in elementary school, the drugstore that our family patronized had a soda fountain complete with the handles that poured out portions of fizzy water and various syrups. Whenever we went to fill prescriptions, my parents would treat me to something to drink while we waited. I usually got a Nehi grape soda — or a Royal Crown cola, also known as “RC,” if I wasn’t feeling adventurous. During one visit, the man at the counter asked if I wanted to try a “sarsaparilla.”

I didn’t know what a “sarsaparilla” was, and in later years, I decided our friendly soda jerk didn’t know either. Whatever it was, I liked it, but I’ve never been able to duplicate it. What the rest of the world knows as “sarsaparilla” is not the beverage I was served.

Now, I have a clue. What he mixed up, after several pumps of various levers, must have basically been a cherry cola or a cherry Dr Pepper.

Now in Brownwood, an accidental selection at the self-serve soft drink dispenser took me back to a summer many decades past, when a kid was sitting at the drugstore’s counter with his Dad and Mom.

So, now I sit at our kitchen table, sipping some sugar-free cherry soda while writing this column and thinking about my late parents, who were married 72 years ago today, July 16, 1949.

Summer — and July especially — is a busy time for “red-letter days” in my extended family. My wife and I celebrated our wedding anniversary this week, my sister and her husband have their anniversary later this month, and two others have birthdays as well. Best wishes go to my sister, brother-in-law, their younger son, my wife, and me.

Some of us wish these celebrations could pass quietly. We appreciate that the good Lord has granted us another year, but we are the type of people who would rather not be the center of attention. It’s not like birthdays are some unique event. Let’s have a show of hands: who among us has a birthday this year?

Alas, there’s no way to dodge it. If you’re on Facebook, you probably filled out a form when you signed up, and now it’s a social media challenge to delete it. Each day, you’re shamed into wishing people you barely know “happy birthday,” which creates all sorts of obligations to thank them — and reciprocate. To do that, you must be watching for notifications about when their birthdays roll around.

My wish for my birthday? Perhaps you’ll allow me to grow older with no ballyhoo.

If that’s not possible, I would really like some no-calorie beef enchiladas.

Gene Deason is editor emeritus of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column “TGIF” appears on Fridays. He may be contacted at