Coca-Cola is more than a beverage, it is the personification of pop culture, my youth and America all poured into a bottle. More precisely, a Mexican Coca-Cola using that original cane sugar formula packaged in that familiar contour glass bottle. Everything about drinking a bottle of Mexican Coca-Cola is a delicious effervescent blanket of Americana and youthful nostalgia. Thank you, Mexico, thank you sugar cane farmers, and thank you Costco (except Costco in Indianapolis, where this delicious variant is absent – WTF?). Thank you for taking me back to my youth.

In my youth, I went with my mom to the Kroger in the Green Meadows Shopping Center in Greenfield, Indiana. Grocery shopping was not any more fun than it is now minus two exceptions. First, the cereal aisle, with its cornucopia of sugary choices. Calvin, from Calvin & Hobbes, eating his chocolate frosted sugar bombs was me. If me was eating Honey Nut Cheerios with a sandy beach of sugar at the bottom of every bowl. The best part was scooping out the milk-infused sugar at the end of every bowl, it took me several spoonfuls. It was the perfect nutritional supplement to Saturday morning cartoons. The cereal aisle also offered the prize in the cereal box. The coveted box of Kellogg’s C-3POs was on display ready for my eager embrace. Would it be a cut out mask of C-3PO? Or better still one of Chewbacca?

The second highlight of grocery shopping was the bottle return. Every visit to the grocery involved bringing back the cardboard carriers of empty Coke bottles. In the back of the Kroger was a window where you dropped your empty Coke bottles on a conveyor that slid them down into a collection area for returned glass bottles. Launching a carrier on the conveyor generated sounds of glass bottles clacking together as they vibrated down the rollers and then came gently crashing into the dozens of other empty carriers of glass beverages. The entire experience of grocery shopping meant I got to slide the Coke carrier down the conveyor, maybe picked up that Chewbacca mask (spoiler: it was C-3PO) and went home with new bottles of Coke.

Mexican Coca-Cola is a Delorean ride to the 1980’s. You can feel the nostalgia in your Adidas track suit listening to mixed tapes with such diverse tracks as Quiet Riot’s “Cum on Feel the Noize”, Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It”, or Joan Jett & The Blackhearts “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” In a world of plastic twist caps and aluminum cans, the crown cork bottle cap is a pop culture time machine. Grabbing an old school bottle opener, bending the crown cap back with the instantly recognizable aural synthesis of gas release and metal crunching. The pour is existential, the gentle gas reaction and the crescendo of fizz as the foam builds, dissipates, and builds with the last drop. An aroma of vanilla and subtle nutmeg as the effervescent mist tickles your nose. The bitter sweetness of that refreshing first sip makes up for getting jabbed by Soda Popinski, as you frantically pound the B and A buttons realizing that you’re not making it to Bald Bull this time.

Coca-Cola is also America. Freedom in a bottle, something that may make little sense if you have never been away from home. No, I do not mean that time you went to Toronto – I mean really far from home. It may be difficult to understand if you’ve never served in uniform in a distance land or channeled J. Peterman with an expedition to Burma. So, this may help. Imagine you are Owen Wilson, but not the cowboy hat wearing Owen Wilson from The Royal Tenenbaums (because Luke Wilson was the better Wilson, owning the role of The Baumer with his Fila Bjorn Borg headband) the Behind Enemy Lines Owen Wilson.

You are in a foreign country all alone, the locals are not friendly or if they seem friendly, they do so with an air of contempt for your American citizenship. You have been up for hours, are tired, sweaty, wearing the same flight suit all week. You are trying to get back home, running for your life away from an assassin named Sasha, who’s bonafides is the 1984 Winter Olympics Biathlon in Sarajevo. After what seems like days of running and evading you come across Elvis in a Ford pickup truck. Hitching a ride in the back, a sense of relief comes over you, and the weight of how tired and thirsty you are finally hits you. You hope for some water but are rewarded with a bottle of Coca-Cola. Suddenly, you feel rejuvenated and as you quench your thirst, for a moment, you are back home in America.

Behind Enemy Lines (2001) - 20th Century StudiosBehind Enemy Lines (2001) - 20th Century Studios

Yes, that is what it is like. We had been on the road for a week, crisscrossing around Africa. It was just the six of us flying about in a metal airplane, American sovereign soil, to be defended by our four-man security team if need be. The ten of us were an island unto ourselves, the only Americans around, perhaps in the whole country. We had landed somewhere on the edge of the Sahara Desert, I do not recall the place, but it was Lawrence of Arabia hot.

The moment we shut down the engines, the cockpit began to bake, and the sweat began to pour. It was well over 115 degrees outside, no clouds, just the nuclear fusion reactor in the sky. I was tired, not from poor sleep, but from the cumulative effects of flying all week. The fatigue was not very noticeable as the excitement of flying in places I had never been before kept my energy levels up. I recall being rather thirsty, probably due to all the sweating. I had some water that helped with the hydration, but it was lukewarm, no relief from the baking cockpit. I had been away from America for a while, no one spoke English or if they did it was broken at best. Aside from the language barrier was the cultural, geographic, culinary and zoological reminders that I was not in America – America was 6,000 miles away. That feeling Owen Wilson had of being alone, I had that feeling at that moment sitting there on the ground on the edge of the Sahara.

About that time our navigator walks back up on the flight deck. Mikey had a plastic bag in his hand and a smile on his face. Now this was not unusual for Mikey, he was a fun guy, I loved traveling around the world with him. Mikey was sarcastic, ate exclusively at Subway, and liked calling me “Junior” (a testament to my youthful appearance). It did not matter if we were stuck in MOPP (mission oriented protective posture) gear or sweating under an African sun – he could find a reason to smile or at least make a sarcastic comment.

This time, there was more to his smile, and he reached in and pulled out a bottle of Coca-Cola. Mikey handed it to me, it was ice cold, perspiration dripped down the side of the bottle over my hand. I wiped the side of the bottle and spread the cold dew across my face. I marveled at it for a moment, what was a bottle of Coca-Cola doing way out here in the middle of nowhere Africa? A cold bottle of Coke to boot! Nothing was cold in Africa. Without answering my question, I cracked open the cap and took a whiff of that effervescence and took a slow, long sip. It was the most delicious Coca-Cola I have ever had in my entire life. In that moment that bottle of Coke took me back, for a small time slice – I was back home, I was no longer alone in the middle of Africa. I was Owen Wilson in a flight suit in the back of a truck with Elvis and Ice Cube.

Coca-Cola is Americana, pop culture and my youth wrapped in an effervescence cocktail of bitter sweetness with notes of vanilla and nutmeg. Can you taste the nostalgia?

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Ackerman, Andy, dir. Seinfeld. Season 8, episode 1, “The Foundation.” Aired September 19, 1996, on NBC.

Anderson, Wes, dir. The Royal Tenenbaums. 2001; Burbank, CA: Buena Vista, 2013. Blu-ray Disc, 1080p HD.

Moore, John, dir. Behind Enemy Lines. 2001; Beverly Hills, CA: 20^th^ Century Fox, 2012. Blu-ray Disc, 1080p HD.

Lean, David, dir. Lawrence of Arabia. 1962; Culver City, CA: Sony Pictures, 2020. Ultra HD Blu-ray Disc, 4k UHD.

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