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?”

Previously published in “Bonnywood Manor”. Very slight changes made for this post. Photo Source: Slyly borrowed from an article in the UK Daily Mail. Ongoing Pain Source: I’m still bitter about that green watch…

42 replies »

  1. St. Margarita’s??! So that’s where all the salt came from. 🙂
    An insightful and memory-evoking piece. I would raise a comparison to The Black Donnelleys, but I’m not sure it translates into American. 😳

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I recall the the sheer NOISE of the kids ricocheting around and in and off ladders, the slides and those urine slick teeter-totters in the McUrchins maimground. It was enough to make your ears bleed. And did.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Granted, the volume was higher in social situations involving urchins before we started narcotizing them into submission. (“Here, son, take this little pill and then go play Pong on your Atari.”) But I think kids were actually nicer, then. (Not all, of course, but most.) There’s some serious meanness going down on today’s playground. Of course, the social structure WILL change when you give a three-year-old a laptop with Internet access…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. I remember real graphic violence. Real punches to the head that felt painfully real. Now kids can joylessly bloodlettingly reset the the game and go back to destroying the universe from scratch. And when they drag their Game-inflamed knuckles out into the real world what will they have learnt and how will they react? ‘Where’s my console? Where’s my Control?’ Oops, dark turn.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. We all fell into the societal dreamworld of fast foods, quick family meals to help the working wife better work with her children and husband. Your opening grabs, and your shared memories are reminders of where we all have been and how much we’ve been programmed.


  4. Bring slightly younger than dirt, the McDonalds of my childhood had neither playgrounds nor Happy Meals. We ate our greasy salt laden food sans entertainment and toy…. after walking up hill both ways.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, I was on that same hill with you. But I may have given you directions to the crappy location so I could go to the good one and not have to fight you over whose turn it was on the slide. My bad… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • There’s NEVER a need to go to McDs, unless you’ve been on a road trip and a pit stop is not desired but required. But If you do spend a penny and then $5 on the Special Deal Of The Day, nix the ‘McChicken. Odds on you’ll be stalled in the next roadside McD bathroom you can drag yourself into. Tulsa. Talk about ‘just passing through.’
      (This helpful information brought to you by Burger King Inc.)

      Liked by 1 person

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

    I didn’t knew you could go blind from getting hit on the forehead by money, I thought injuries to the eyes and cancer was responsible for it, given how I suffered a cancer and lost my eyes.

    This recount makes me appreciate that I didn’t grew up in a large family. I probably would have given up to my anger a long time ago, and still would be suffering in some boarding school or another, even after graduating and completing the college.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, no one actually went blind, although it’s fair to say that some folks did not see the truth in the situation… 😉

      Growing up in a large family is definitely a challenge, with some folks getting lost in the crowd. But we all have our challenges, and we just do what we have to do, right?

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I remember when they opened the first Hardee’s. I believe it was around 1964. Hamburgers were 15 cents.
    A friend of mine would stop every day and buy one. I couldn’t even afford the quarter they charged for lunch, so I never got one. Boy…our home town had hit the big time! (To this day, I have never had a fast food hamburger.)
    I can’t speak to McDonalds and the whole experience. Never saw one as a youth, and didn’t frequent them with children. (Bad mom.)
    I do remember when Burger King had those little stuffed, floppy reindeer. I wanted one of them so bad! I finally whined long and loud enough that the ex stopped, just so I would shut up. I got the baby one, wearing red flannel long Johns…named Rodney. He would make his appearance every Christmas. I still have him.
    I didn’t know about the toys…watches that were given out.
    You have some good, hilarious memories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So you DO know what it’s like to covet the little trinkets that some companies offer, hoping to lure in the parents via the children. I often had these obsessions as a wee bairn, yearning to collect the entire set of whatever it was. Sometimes the obsessions made no sense. There was a period when one of the major gas-station chains (I can no longer remember which one) was giving out stickers with all the the then-current football players on every team in the NFL. They also gave out this huge book wherein you could slap those stickers.

      I don’t even like football, never have. But I simply HAD to fill up that sticker book or my life had no meaning. I was constantly begging everyone around me to fill up their cars at these stations, just so I could get another cache of stickers that I could go through, tossing the repeats and hoping to find one of the rare ones. My father finally got sick of my whining and refused to get gas at that chain, so I cajoled my grandfather into being my point man. There were several Saturdays where we simply drove around town, with him getting only a gallon or two of gas at each station, just enough to qualify for the free stickers.

      I never did fill that stupid book (there were HUNDREDS of players) but I got very close. As with most children, my obsession abruptly ended one day and I moved on to something else that would drive my relatives crazy… 😉

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sort of. I was an adult when I lusted after the reindeer. I only knew about them from advertisements.
        We didn’t go to fast food joints.
        I do remember some service stations giving out a free glass with the purchase of a certain amount of gas…and I remember being able to buy dishes and encyclopedias at the grocery store, and the dishes were pretty nice (for people who lived off of 10cans of tomato soup for $1. Those bowls came in handy.) LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  7. What a great post. I am laughing hard here, because I remember well this much darker version of the playground, ripe with the likely chance that anybody might “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 . . .” So well put.


    • Thanks, Stacey. I love doing nostalgia pieces, looking back at what we once were, poking gentle fun at how things used to be, when we could get so passionate about the smallest things, easily contented in our limited view of the world. Granted, I often infuse my stories with a little more drama than actually took place, but what’s the fun of looking back if you can’t make it more than it was? 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  8. I feel so left out. We only went to McDonalds once in a blue moon when I was a kid, because both of my parents thought it was unhealthy. (I mean, of course, that was the point. No liver or lina beans there.) And – believe it or not, I never, ever had a happy meal. No prizes for me. I’m jealous of you, though you never got your coveted green watch.

    Love this post. It brought back some great memories of kid times even though in didn’t get there often. I did get to go sometimes. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! As I’m sure you know, I scribble about all kinds of things, but the reflections on my younger days and past experiences give me the most pleasure. I like breaking the amber on those memories and seeing what I can make of them now…


    • Right? In my childhood, we would run out the door on a Saturday morning and spend all day creating fun out of absolutely nothing. (And yes, projectile rocks were often used in our impromptu adventures.) Imagination fueled us, and away we went…


    • Okay, your mention of the pineapple ring triggered memories of a fast-food restaurant that I used to love during my later teen years. It was called “Apples”, which never made any sense to me as there was nothing apple-based on the menu. But they did have a Luau Burger, which included a pineapple ring. In fact, they had a lot of unusual options on said menu, which was a culture shock to (then) small-town and very conservative Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. And this is probably why the restaurant only lasted a few years before it became an Arby’s or some such…

      Liked by 1 person

    • You have a very good point. I’m not sure why I didn’t take that route. Then again, lying to your parents (as all children do) is a very nuanced art. You can’t do it too often or the believability factor declines. Perhaps I had bigger fish to fry concerning an impending and well-planned fib… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yep, McDonald’s was a special treat, almost to the point that it was considered “fine dining” in our small town. The only other establishment that could compete was a run-down Dairy Queen. (The building was falling apart, but their food was still unhealthy and delicious.)

      Bit of trivia, said town of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma also featured one of the first Walmarts, as we were not that far from (as the crow flies) Bentonville, Arkansas, where that whole Walmart mess started. Visiting said shiny Walmart was considered “fine shopping”, as they had much more to offer than the Ben Franklin Five & Dime on Main Street or the feed store over at the Farmer’s Co-Op. (Also located on Main Street, but further down on the less fancy end of the two blocks composing said street.)

      If you wanted to expand your life options any further than that, you had to pile in a car and drive to nearby Tulsa. And trust, once I was able to drive, that’s all I ever did. Sometimes, nothing says “hometown” like leaving it behind…

      Liked by 2 people

  9. I’m laughing because right before the pandemic this was 100% my life. I took my kid to use the play place so he could run and blow off steam while I got work done on my computer and decompressed 😅. I miss those days!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I suspect my parents took us to McDonald’s for the same reason (albeit 150 years ago), hoping that we would wear ourselves out on the deadly attractions in the play area and would therefore go to bed at a decent hour so they could go do adult things. For the same general reason, this is why we also went to drive-in movie theaters that had those playgrounds right under the giant screen. Methodology: Arrive early, long enough before sunset that the wee urchins had plenty of time to slide the slide and swing the swings, with the intention of depleting our energy so we would fall asleep during the first, more family-friendly feature presentation and then they could watch the usually racier second feature without us asking why the people on the screen were naked and breathing heavily…

      Liked by 1 person

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