If you grew up in the 1980s and early 90s like I did, chances are you probably participated in the single greatest literacy campaign this side of Six Flags’s “600 Minute” program! As you’re probably aware, Pizza Hut’s “BOOK IT!” campaign was formulated to get kids to read by exchanging 6 books read (of a nominal length) for what equated to a stack of platinum coins for an 8-year-old in 1991: a Pizza Hut personal pan pizza. It was the height of hedonistic decadence for a pre-Clinton-era child coming along in the not-yet-suburban landscape of west Cobb County, Georgia–the ability to choose any pizza on the menu and have it all to yourself. Even the ritual of it had a certain mystique that I can play back in my head like it happened just the other night.
My father worked overnights at a plastic bag factory in Marietta. The first night he had off after getting my Book It! certificate was Pizza night. My parents and I would pile into the 1989 Ford Mustang that we had and ride for what seemed like an hour through the dark and the rain (it rained more often back then, or so it seems). In reality, it was only about 6 miles with a travel time of roughly 15 minutes to the Pizza Hut in Marietta’s deteriorating Westside. I don’t think I was old enough to notice how sketchy the neighbourhood was at the time, or maybe I simply didn’t care (because pizza). Pops grumbled about heartburn and cholesterol, but I think he and mom both endured it for the sake of reading.
The rain would be at a relatively light, but steady shower by the time we arrived at the Hut. We’d park as close as possible and dash to the door, which was faster said than done when you’re in the back seat of a sports car even at my small size. Inside, the warmth of the ovens and the heady smell of pizza power instantly dried the rain-soaked jackets and jeans we came in wearing. Back then, a hostess seated you and orders were made at the table, like a “real” pizzeria. On the way to the table, I would catch a glimpse of the trio of arcade cabinets in the lobby to see if there was anything new (not that it mattered, I would play anything).
I remember the checkerboard tablecloths and the low-hanging red stained-glass lamps over the tables. I remember the rain tapping at the window and the headlights flashing by along Powder Springs Road. I remember the shining Big Star sign across the road on top of the hill. I remember the neon green fire engines of nearby Marietta Station 4. I remember thinking that green firetrucks were weird. I remember Pops looking at those engines, too, with a romanticism and longing. I remember Mom nudging him just a little with a “Keep going, Benjie, you’ll get there.” They still loved each other then. They were still making it work.
The hostess came to take our order; she was our waitress now. It wasn’t a Friday, so the place wasn’t busy. I presented my Book It! certificate: “One supreme personal pan pizza, please” I would squeak. I was shy, but precocious. My over-sized glasses and bucktoothed smile complemented my awkward demeanor.
“What would you like to drink?”
“Is Pepsi okay?”
“Do you have Dr. Pepper?”
At some point after our orders were taken, Pops would slide a dollar bill over the table to me. “Here, buddy, go get a high score on one of those blinker machines over there.” The machines were 50 cents per play, the standard price for a few years now, but continues were only a quarter. I had to make a decision: P.O.W. or Ikari Warriors? I studied the looping attract screens, read the instructions printed on the cabinet, and mimed the controls. Video games were serious business; if I didn’t claim a spot on the high score table, I might as well not even mention going to Pizza Hut because of the ire it might draw from one of my more affluent classmates! I chose P.O.W.
It ate my quarter.
Dejected, I turned to my second choice. I played Ikari Warriors as far as I could on one credit, which was about halfway through the first stage. On a whim, I turned to the Ms. Pac-Man cocktail table in the corner. I discovered I was good at it. There were not bombs or tanks to drive, but there was something refreshing about that old game that I took with me back to the table and I carry to this day. Don’t knock the classics. They may not be as fancy or as sophisticated, but sometimes–just sometimes–the old ways are the best ways.
Quarters spent, I would come back to the table. Our pizzas would show up a few minutes later. I piled crushed red pepper and Parmesan cheese on the small circle of flavour before me. My parents looked on in confusion and disgust.
“He gets is from Daddy,” my mother would proclaim. My Popie taught me the value of pepper and spice in proper cooking. I might have taken it a bit too literally back then, but I still judge a pizzeria based on whether or not those two little jars are sitting on the table. And the lighting. And the tablecloths. Pizza Hut may not have been the best pizzeria around, but it was my pizzeria. That greasy, buttery crust piled with peppers and olives was the best damned pizza in Creation. The fact that I got it just for reading–that, my friends, is what makes memories.