Tulsa Flashback: McDonald’s, Happy Meals, and the Playground of Pain

  McDonald’s was the pivotal food-purveyance establishment where all the young uns developed life-long addictions to fried, processed, protein-void food that would ensure we would grow up to line the pockets of the healthcare industry. (We didn’t know squat about “healthy eating” back then. When you were hungry, you ate what you could get your hands on, and that was the end of any critical analysis whatsoever. Screw label-reading. And pass the salt. Because at McDonald’s they salted everything, even the air, and we walked out of there with the burning tongues to prove it.)

  Of course, nearly every town of a respectable size had a McDonald’s at one point or another, so this experience is not unique to Tulsa. Nor was it unique to Broken Arrow, where my family moved just before I started the second grade, in 1972. (Yes, ladies and gentleman, as a young lad I was ripped away from the exotic, bustling metropolis of Tulsa and forced to dwell in a house on a gravel road in the middle of nowhere. The only positive side to this rude adjustment was that the gravel road meant I had an ample supply of rocks to throw at someone, should the need arise. And it did.)

If your McDonald’s location happened to be one of the fancy new ones, then there would be an enticing playground constructed in front of the store. (If your parents dragged you to one of the older-school locations, where they just had minimalist picnic tables and no slide, then your parents clearly didn’t love you as much as good parents should.) The playgrounds served a two-fold purpose. One, it allowed the children, who already had more metabolism than they knew what to do with, to run violently amuck for hours on end, further increasing their appetite and thusly increasing sales within the store. This is Product-Movement 101.

I should point out that these original playgrounds (not the child-proofed versions that came later, when over-protective people sanitized the equipment into blandness in order to avoid lawsuits) were rife with danger. You could break a bone quicker than a parent could say “don’t do that”. Still, we weren’t over-coddled back then, and we had resiliency. If you chose to do something dumbass, like leap off the top of the Mayor McCheese jungle gym without bothering to see what was below you, and subsequently sliced your leg open on Captain Crook’s sword, you sucked it up and kept going. (You might have to use some napkins to soak up the blood, as napkins were plentiful back then and you didn’t have to beg for them at the counter or pay a surcharge, but you did what you had to do. And then you raced off to throw your sister at a pack of those creepy round jaw-breaker characters that later had starring roles in the Pac-Man games.)

Second, whilst the urchins were destroying civilization and screaming as much as possible, the parents had a few minutes to collect their thoughts, strategize about the strenuous task of placing an order for the entire family, and wonder why they had ever thought it was a good idea to even have that family. I’m sure the drive to McDonald’s with a pack of energized offspring could cause the parents to become reflective and despondent, what with the hyperactive kids bouncing off the doors and ceiling with the intensity of those little plastic balls in the hopper during Bingo Night at Our Lady of St. Margarita’s.

Eventually, everyone had to go inside and mill around in the ordering area. This was another moment fraught with tension and suspense. The parents had to deal with ensuring that they got enough food for the unruly tribe without having to skip a car payment. The children were invested in wondering which free prize they might get with their Happy Meal. This was always a critical moment, because if you opened the box and found a repeat of something you already had, you would have to live with the shame and disappointment until the next time you could convince your parents to go back to the Land of Deadly Playgrounds and Over-Abundant Salt Licks. It was even more annoying when one of your siblings got the very treasure you desired, because you knew they were going lord it over you for the rest of the weekend, to the point of you seriously contemplating sibling-cide.

Actually, the better prizes were bestowed upon the kiddies before the Happy Meal was created by the Marketing Team, which happened in 1979. (I looked it up on the Internet; it’s not like I scribbled such a development in my diary.) Before someone decided that we needed happiness in a box, the prizes were more centered around something the child might actually want. It was not until later that the prizes were tucked into a flimsy cardboard container, and the prizes became increasingly worthless as they morphed into publicity tools for the latest movie blockbuster.

The best of those pre-Happy Meal treasures, in my nerdy little opinion, were those plastic watches that weren’t really watches. Instead, the place where you could normally determine the time, if the damn thing had any actual value, would open up, revealing a nifty storage facility. It didn’t hold much (because kids are meant to have limited ownership of the important things in life, that’s how you keep them under control) but it could hold four or five quarters. And that was about the amount you needed in those days to pay your own way at a fast food joint, with change left over, and this was an excellent bargaining tool to use when trying to convince your still-rattled parents that it was time for another trek to McDonald’s.

Me: “Can we go to McDonald’s? I don’t have the green watch yet.”

Mom, with that hairdo that meant she had experienced an especially trying day at work, and if I had any sense whatsoever I would leave her alone: “Can I set my purse down first? Maybe go to the bathroom? And we just went to McDonald’s last Friday.”

Me: “But that was days ago. Decades. We need to go today so I can complete my collection.”

Mom, briefly pausing to stop one of my siblings from doing something incredibly stupid with an electrical outlet, whilst I did nothing to prevent the possible carnage because I already had too many siblings and would relish a reduction in the family voting bloc: “Collection? What are you talking about? Is this something for school?”

Me, shuddering at the thought of the immense density of parents: “My watch collection from McDonald’s. I want them all and I don’t have the green one.”

Mom, having finally rescued one of her offspring from the evils of alternating current that coursed through our doomed household, and fully focusing on me: “You do realize that those are not real watches. Why do you need them?”

Me, frustrated with the ineptitude of people over the age of 12. “Because I want the whole collection. I don’t have the green one. All my friends have the green one.” (What part of this was not clear? God.)

Mom, going for the tough-love angle, because who really had time for this: “I wasn’t aware that you had friends. And I don’t have the money.  I just had to pay for that thing your sister did.”

Me, grimacing at the thought that one of my sisters had once again done something insipid that quashed my dreams and life goals, but also realizing that I needed a better bargaining stance: “I can pay for my own meal. Look, I have the quarters.” I began pawing at the yellow fake-watch on my arm, with its delightful but essentially pointless hidden chamber of secrets, and the stupid little hatch wouldn’t open. Damn the underpaid, underage worker who probably made this thing. I struggled and sweated, but the plastic latch wouldn’t budge.

Mom, wanting to run away and slam her bedroom door but unable to ignore the possible medical implications of what might be transpiring: “What are you doing? Are you okay? Do you need your asthma inhaler?”

Me, grunting and clawing and finally succeeding in getting the hatch open, only to discover that the hatch was no longer connected to the fake-watch, rendering the contraption useless, and my prized quarters were now flying across the room in one of those inverse reactions where what you need to happen is not what happened at all: “Ohhh….”

One of the errant quarters sailed an admirable distance and smacked into the forehead of a non-admirable sister who had just pranced into the kitchen, prepared to spill the beans on yet another sibling who was currently doing something that they shouldn’t in the backyard. Said sister, showing great adaptability in a fluid situation, quickly changed her tune from “I’m here to report an indiscretion” to “My utter innocence has been unjustly maligned by the wicked ways of the oldest sibling who is not all that you think he is.” Wailing ensued.

Mom: “See what you’ve done? She’s probably blind.”

Me: “She’s fine. Can we go to McDonald’s now?”


Originally published in “Bonnywood Manor” on 05/16/14. Some of you may have read this one more recently than that, as it has been featured in the banner bar at the top of the page for roughly half a century. Once I post this new incarnation, I will be changing that banner bar, which means some of you will get a sense that something is different here at Bonnywood Manor but you may not be able to put your finger on it. Unless you read this. Photo Source: Slyly borrowed from an article in the UK Daily Mail. Ongoing Pain Source: I’m still bitter about that green watch…


33 replies »

      • That’s what we found. 😉
        I checked out ‘Broken Arrow’, expecting to find it lost behind a mesa, somewhere in the badlands. It’s just a suburb of Tulsa! I don’t know how big it was then , but now, it’s got over 11,000 residents. That’s more than my entire county. The road beside my house was gravel till after I moved out.
        It’s still a great story! 😎 🌯

        Liked by 1 person

  1. I remember McDonald’s coming to Omaha in the 1960s. I remember the neon sign at that store proclaiming they (meaning across the US) had sold 1 million burgers. Suddenly I feel old, but not hungry. Haven’t been to a McDonald’s for many, many years, and the last time was at the insistence of my niece from—are you ready for this—Broken Arrow..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. ARG I wish I knew how to insert pictures in the comment section. The BEST happy meal toys were the Muppet babies and the transformers…the hamburger and fries that would turn into a weird looking dinosaur or Megatron. I still have them somewhere. And remember when you could buy like REAL drinking glasses and collect them all? We had all the Muppet glasses too! I need some French fries now. The saltier the better.

    Liked by 4 people

  3. Stumbling over this post is why I originally followed your blog. The purported change means that recycling days for social media and yeah yeah self indulgent anger issue politcial posturing and recaptioning will be reduced and all of that talent and wonderful, poignantly dysfunctional stories that could tumble out of the dusty roads of Broken Arrow will adorn these pages? Edit like a mofo and let your heart out of the closet and you’re Steinbeck. Some of us are waiting. Great post. Again.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. BWAHAHAHHA!! (particularly the trips down Memory Lane when you envisioned siblingcide). What memories this invokes. I actually (literally) tried to kill my youngest brother once, but to be fair, he tried to kill me first. The third child (the middle child) had to pull us apart and when that didn’t work, call Ma at work. She came home and dragged me off with her to fold laundry at the old folk’s home where she was employed. I’ve never regarded those places the same since and the smell of them is horrifying to this day. We had Dee Burgers here (which became Hardees, which became Carl’s Jrs. It’s an American evolution story…. McDs didn’t really catch on because Dee Burgers had a monopoly and a cuter clown (first btw) than McDs. I still find clowns creepy and freaky; and I do believe this phobia was engendered by an encounter with the McD’s clown. I don’t know WHO was in the suit, but the vibe was Stephen King IT level scary..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, yes, the phone call to Ma at work. Looking back now, we must have called Mom 700 times every afternoon when we were in elementary school. How she retained her sanity and didn’t sell us to the first buyer is a tribute to her stamina. She would put up with our mess up to a certain point, and it was very clear when we had reached that point because she would get very quiet, take a deep breath, and then sternly let us know that matters would be dealt with as soon as she got home. We would then race out the door to go play at the other end of the block to make sure we were not there when she arrived, delaying the retribution as long as possible…


  5. You probably won’t believe this, most people don’t, but my parents rarely took us out to eat and when they did, it was never fast food. The first time I ate at McDonald’s, I was in high school and with friends. Weird right? They thought so too.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well, then, yet another shade in your personal coloring book. My parents weren’t excessive about it, as the money situation wouldn’t allow such a thing, but we usually went to at least one place every weekend, usually fast food. And such outings often went awry in some way, because some of us (not me, of course) could be little hellions and there would be proclamations of “never again!”, curtailments that usually only lasted until the next weekend, when Mom would once again opt out of cooking a meal for the hellions and we would all pile in the family car. Those who ignore history…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ahhh, back in the day when Big Macs were only $1.25, hamburgers 59 cents and 69 cents for cheeseburgers. It was also when they had the best fries in the universe… before every fast food place had to make a switch to “healthy” oil. I would dream about turning 16 just so I could go get a big bag of fries to eat while cruising Main Street. (I had great goals, lol). I’ll just say I never got that bag of fries to cruise Main with… they switched oil before I ever had a chance, 😁. Fun memories Brian!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Paula! I remember turning 16, getting a job, and cashing my first paycheck. I then went and purchased my first meal with my own hard-earned money, at a restaurant called “Apples” just down the street from my job, as apparently I couldn’t wait to spend my fortune. I ordered a chicken sandwich, some fries, and then I splurged on a pineapple shake, feeling all decadent and worldly. I can still see my little geek self sitting there, naive but happy, slurping contentedly on that shake…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Interesting how times change, now only 1 in 5 millennials have ever tried a
    Big Mac. The last McDonalds commercial we saw didn’t even have food in
    it… It was a glorified coca-cola commercial with the M logo at the end.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Here in France we call it MacDoh as I am sure you know. It is entirely due to the French that Ronald embraced the salad. When the pioneers MacDonald’s men were speccing out France and approaching councils to embrace them they were sternly told that sans salade the concept could not work. So the invented hi-cal salads and the rest is history. Here in Grenoble we have MacDohs aplenty of course but back home in le Cantal (think Broken Arrow and some for a reference to the cosmopolitan centile that the département sits on) MacDoh is quite literally advertised with HUGE bill posters for quite literally 3 miles. When we were married, my stepson and youngest daughter (who bonded gratifyingly like brother and sister from the outset of our relationship) stayed in the lovely town of Murat before taking the train 3 days later to fly back to England with me. When the same daughter came to visit, we went to Murat. She pointed to the sign advertising MacDoh and asked where it is in town. Oh, it’s not here, it’s in Saint Flour, I said. It transpired that the pair had spent three days trudging the streets and outskirts and hamlets in a vain quest of a fat-laden burger … it did their fitness no end of good 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    • I had no idea about The Salad Thing. I do remember, several decades ago when McDonald’s first paraded out the salads, a lot of folks were mystified and a little frightened? What is is this? Why? Are we being punished? It’s nice to finally learn that it was not some form of divine retribution. (Many Oklahomans still firmly believe in the Old Testament, not that touchy-feel mess in the New Testament.)

      As for the Great Quest for a McDonald’s in a Foreign Land, I’m not sure if you’ve read my books (please forgive me if we have fully discussed this), but one of the chapters in “Screaming in Paris” details the painful evening in Paris wherein our entourage rebelled and insisted that we dine at McDoh. It was my last great hope for my family, dashed…

      Liked by 1 person

      • My husband is arriving today complete with Kindle so that I may read your books. Poor bugger … I’ve been nagging for two months and as it is my birthday month (note, who does just one day when one can hog the limelight for a whole month) he had has finally succumbed. He has one of his own and I just want equality. That is all I ask for. So on my birthday I shall be alone but happy propped up on many cushions reading your books. Ah, me – such joy 😊

        Liked by 1 person

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