Thoughts to chew on: The Gum Challenge, goaded, and gloating

Wayne Johnson
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Over the past months in The Voice, I’ve written stories of my various death-defying occupations, such as forklift driver, assembly line worker, paperboy, at my various places of employment, advancing in my chosen career of never doing the same thing twice or even once, for that matter. Here is yet another tale of life-threatening work-place mayhem for your reading pleasure, or to relieve your constipation.

The Great Chewing Gum Challenge, as it came to be known, took place when I was a draftsman at the GTE-owned Automatic Electric Company in Northlake. It was a huge factory and office facility, with 6,000 employees on the day shift alone. The large second floor office where I worked was the eight-hour-a-day home to 500 draftsmen, sorry, draftspersons, and 250 engineers. An aisle running through the middle of the office separated the two groups. We draftspeople were further divided into groups of about 25, each with a supervisor and a secretary sheltered in a cubicle with frosted glass serving as the top third of the walls. The drafting tables over which we toiled were set up side by side in rows of five.

As with any group of younger human-types, there’s always a joker human who delights in messing with fellow human employees trying to actually work. One afternoon our resident joker, Bob, leaned over the top of my slightly elevated board, presumably to discuss an intricate design detail. Instead, he spit out a big wad of chewing gum right into the middle of my drawing. I told him thanks, then I headed to the nearest vending machine, bought a pack of gum, chewed the whole thing, went to Bob’s board and spit it out on his drawing. He returned with a two-pack-sized gum wad and spit it on my drawing. Lenny, the guy next to me, became intrigued with our escalating class act and chimed in, wondering how many pieces of gum an average, normal person could chew at once. We three thought this would be a good time to find out, so in lieu of average, normal persons, we decided to try it ourselves.

We emptied the vending machine of gum, went back to our tables, and began unwrapping and chewing. Curiosity got the best of others in our drafting group and they began to watch. The first dropout of the challenge was Lenny at 23 sticks. Bob and I forged ahead, but we were running out of gum, so Lenny collected donated change from those in the group and hurried off to other vending machines.

Bob wimped out at 36, which made me the winner. But he and Lenny rallied onlookers to goad me on to discover how many sticks I could chew. By now news of the event had spread to adjacent groups and even to some of the engineers across the great divide. Bob made up a sign and each time I stuffed another five sticks in my mouth, held the sign high over his head with my current total, and turned so everyone could see.

Somewhere in the 70s, our supervisor and secretary finally poked their heads over their cubicle wall. I thought I was a dead man, but they leaned on the glass and watched. Cold sweat beads formed on my forehead when I forced my aching jaw to chew each new stick I stuffed in my mouth. When Bob held up the sign with 90, he started a “Chew it, chew it” chant among the spectators. Supervisors of the groups on each side of ours emerged from their cubicles to watch.

As I pushed in stick number 93, the whole humongous glob began a slow descent down my throat. Desperately not wanting to choke, I shook my head and signaled with a wave of my hand, “No more.” With some scattered applause, the spectators returned to their tasks and left me to try and get the huge softball sized gum wad out of my stretched-to-the-max mouth. Using two hands, I struggled to get the gray mass past my teeth. When I finally did, it landed with a loud thud in my wastebasket. Too late, I thought I should have dumped it on Bob’s board.

That night, I couldn’t eat supper. It was before the days of anything sugarless and the gum’s syrupy sweetness made me queasy. Feelings of nausea carried over to the next day, as did my sore jaw. Thinking that 93 sticks of chewed gum might have a shot at a Guinness record, I checked. The world record for chewing the most sticks of gum at one time was 150. I wondered: What average, normal human could have a mouth that big? It could only have been my ex-wife.

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