I finally catch up to the Wienermobile

My rendezvous with destiny came on a Thursday last month, shortly before 3 p.m. I had just taken my family to the airport. They were off on a short excursion to visit friends, and I was wondering how I would spend my free time all alone.

Feeling at loose ends, I decided to stop off at my neighborhood supermarket on the way home. Food shopping always perks me up. And then, as I pulled into the parking lot, something happened that changed me, forever. For only the second time in my life, I had a close encounter. But not with a UFO.

This object was known to me, and to kids all over America. It was the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.

This vehicle has enjoyed iconic status in American pop culture for decades, but to actually see it up close and personal is a rare event. My previous encounter took place in the early 1960s, at a grocery store in the San Francisco Bay Area. Back then, when space-age technology was a popular motif in media and advertising, the Wienermobile seemed very futuristic, like something the Jetsons would have been riding around in.

Now, in the post-space-age era of aging baby boomers, it could easily pass for a custom-designed Winnebago. Time flies, but the Wienermobile seems to have maintained its comfortable niche in our national consciousness.

It travels around without a lot of advance publicity. My neighborhood market had, in fact, put up a banner ahead of time announcing the visit, but I never saw it. And none of the other people who began milling around with me had any inkling the Wienermobile was coming, either.

By an incredible coincidence, I had arrived at the exact moment the event was scheduled to begin. Two Oscar Mayer representatives, a young man and woman who appeared to be in their early 20s, emerged from the vehicle, and set up a few simple props for our enjoyment. The man called himself Big Dog Dave. After leading us in the Oscar Mayer Hot Dog theme song, he declared me the most enthusiastic singer, and gave me the honor of going first. That meant I had a Polaroid picture taken of me, standing beside the Wienermobile, and then I was allowed to spin the prize wheel.

As a kid, I did at one time have an Oscar Mayer wiener whistle, but somewhere during my wayward adolescent years, it got lost or, more terrible to contemplate, thrown away. I've have always had a nagging desire to get another one, and now that moment had arrived. The young woman, Sweet Pickle Stacie, helped me spin the wheel, and made sure it stopped in the right place, so I got my new red whistle. And that's when I experienced a brief letdown.

Not to sound ungrateful, but the new wiener whistles just aren't as nice as they were 40 years ago. Back then, giveaway items were mostly made In Japan.

Now, of course, they're all made in China, and it's a lower-quality plastic, and, well, you get my drift. I should point out here that all of this activity occurred while I was dressed very shabbily, in clothes that I mainly wear while working in the yard. I even had a baseball cap pulled down over greasy hair that poked out over my ears.

The morning had been very busy as I helped the rest of my family pack up for their trip, and I hadn't even had time to take a shower. Big Dog Dave and Sweet Pickle Stacie probably thought I was a friendly drifter on a long downward slide, so I told them I was a journalist, and said I wanted to go home, clean myself up, and come back to ask them a few questions. They cheerily agreed. I have a feeling the people who drive the Wienermobile get a lot of strange requests on their travels.

When I returned about an hour later, wearing clean clothes, my dissatisfaction with the plastic whistle had grown considerably. But I have never used my position in the media to ask for special treatment. The protocol of the prize wheel was obvious: One spin, one prize, no going back for a second spin. And really, how low down could it possibly be for a grown man to say, "Excuse me, but since I'm a media personality, could I please have another free toy?"

As I stood pondering my dilemma, however, an elderly woman spun the prize wheel and won a beanbag version of the Wienermobile. Then she asked Stacie if she could also have a whistle.

"Wait," I said instantly, stepping forward, "I'll trade you my whistle for your beanbag." And so we swapped, and I must say the beanbag version of the Wienermobile is wonderful. It brought instant closure to my nagging desire for a souvenir to replace the long-lost red whistle. The woman who traded with me seemed just a tad regretful.

"I was going to give that to an 83-year-old man," she told me, "so I hope you enjoy it."

"Madam," I said immediately and sincerely, "someday this will be owned by an 83-year-old man, and I plan to be that person." I wasn't kidding.

The beanbag Wienermobile is now safely tucked away in a secret spot with my baseball cards, political buttons, and other priceless personal heirlooms. The warm inner glow of satisfaction has not yet begun to cool. For me, Thursday, Aug. 2, 2001, will forever be remembered as my Hot Dog Day Afternoon.

Giant foodstuffs have been on the road since 1918

The first Oscar Mayer Wienermobile rolled onto Chicago streets 65 years ago. But the 13-foot-long 'wienie on wheels' was not America's first product car. The pioneer was likely the Pep-O-Mint Lifesavers truck. It made its debut in 1918, followed by vehicles shaped like pickles, cans of vegetable juice, and even vacuum cleaners. After nearly disappearing in the 1970s, product vehicles are on the road in force today, including two Hershey's Kissmobiles, a Mr. Peanut roadster, a pair of Meow Mix cats, and a giant can of Spam - not to mention six 27-foot-long, 11-foot high Wienermobiles.

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