To this day, I cannot stand the glutinous, faux-fruit taste and slippery lack of texture of Jello desserts. There was a time though when I couldn't get enough of the stuff. I never really liked Jello, even then, but I was hopelessly addicted to the brightly coloured prizes found in each Jello dessert pack - each, part of one of two series of 1.5 inch plastic discs known by kids in the know as “Car Wheels” and “Airplane Coins”. So I slurped the dancing, half-sugar, half-rendered horse-hoof goop by the bowlful so that my mother would feel the need to load up on more to keep her kids happy.
The “Car Wheels" set came first and I was very excited about collecting them, but not really hooked on them as I would soon find myself. The set numbered 200 and they were colour coded by the decade of the car's production. Fun, but not much more fun to collect than NHL hockey cards or “Civil War” cards. Then came the set to end all sets - 200 perfect little “coins” divided into 8 sub-sets of 25 each - Pioneers, Trainers, Bombers, Fighters, Airliners, Transports, Bushplanes and something called “Others” which covered flying cars, hovercraft and weird aircraft. The entire collection was only available in Canada and featured nearly two dozen iconic Canadian aircraft such as the Avro Arrow, Silver Dart (the first powered heavier-than-air aircraft to fly in Canada), CF-100, Norseman, Beaver, Caribou, Canuck, Northstar and many more. More than half the aircraft were types that were operated by Canadians in Canada or by RCN and RCAF personnel during wartime - from the Siskin to the Expiditor to the Bomarc - they were all there. This was truly my introduction to the pantheon of Canadian aviation history. Each coin was a plastic disc with a circular piece of cardboard inserted on one side displaying a beautiful and very colourful illustration of an aircraft - each was numbered so that you could put them in order and keep track of them. Each, when held in the hand, could summon up dreams of flying and adventure like no other talisman available to a baby-boomer child fixated on all things flying.
My mother was an unwitting accomplice in my life of addiction and crime. When she returned from the grocery store, I always offered "Why don't you take a rest Mom, while I put away the groceries?” What a good boy. What a devious little addict was closer to the truth. I would set upon the brown paper bags like a ravenous sled dog on a frozen haunch of caribou, ripping them open so that I could get to the gold as quickly as possible. If there were Jello packets, I would scoop them up and hide them behind the toaster or under the sink until I could shelve the rest of the groceries. This was to stop my older brother from getting to them first. He didn't really care that much for the airplane coins, but used them as a form of currency - getting me to shovel the driveway by myself, make his lunch or to punch my sisters. All these I would do for an airplane coin. An addiction is a disease. What could I do?
I even considered a life of crime to reach my goal of the full set of 200 - the unachievable motherload that was the dream of every addict. At school I daydreamed of doing a grab and dash at the local grocery store, running pell mell through the automatic doors with armloads of Jello packets - across the parking lot and on down to a nearby PCB-ridden trucking company wreck yard where I would rip them open searching for the perfect high. But I was a good boy. So I just cheated on my elementary school tests instead. My accomplice was Ronny Lalande.
Ronny Lalande was a sort of bad-boy greaser come goofball who lived in the back row of my Grade 8 classroom. From there he would dispense rude comments, winks and armpit farts to the delight of the girls and the scowls of Mr. Forsey our tyrannical but committed Grade 8 teacher. Ronny was as dumb as a hockey puck, but he had a leather jacket, a switchblade, a head dripping with Watkins' hair pomade and a way with the ladies - the 12 year old kind. Whatever Ronny wanted you to do, you did. He somehow knew about my addiction and made me an offer I couldn't refuse - literally... I couldn't refuse it or Ronny would “clean my clock” as he was fond of saying. The deal was that he would give me an airplane coin for each correct answer I secreted to him during classroom multiple choice tests. I would look over at him and he would be looking down at his test, but pointing with his forefinger at a particular question on a page from the test. I would then scan my paper for the same question and signal the correct answer by showing one finger on my hand which I held on the top of my thigh if the answer was “A”, two fingers if it was “B” and so on.
It worked like a charm and the coins started rolling in. Rolling in a bit too well I started to think. Perhaps Ronny was filling HIS pockets with Jello boxes at the store or maybe he was rolling other aero-geeks like me in the schoolyard - either way, I could see a spiral of crime sucking him and me into a vortex of illegal activity that led straight to the confessional, then to reform school and ultimately to Hell. So, after about three tests, I met Ronny down at the St. Leo's schoolyard and in a squeaking voice told him it was over. I should have known that once you are a made-man, it's never over - unless of course you have a beautiful Wyatt Earp Colt 45 “Buntline Special” cap gun stuck in your belt. Ronny snatched it out of my waistline (something I had back then) and pointed it at me like it was loaded with silver bullets. “This”, he said, waggling the barrel, “ is mine now. And if you blab, I will come for your entire stupid airplane coin collection and clean your clock at the same time.” Then he sneered and, walking away with my prized Buntline, spat one final word back over his shoulder like the massive loogies he loved to deposit in the schoolyard - “Dork!”.
I thought I got away fairly easy, but to this day, I still feel like a dork, such was his power over me in those days before I grew to six foot four inches and 240 pounds. I like to think Ronny spent the rest of his life behind bars or living toothless and alone above the Chateau Lafayette House Tavern in the Byward Market, eating beans from a can, but I never saw him again after that year.
The coins were also available inside 10-cent bags of Hostess Potato Chips (which were about the size of a family-size bag nowadays) and I was eating so many heavily-salted, deep-fried and transfat-infested potato chips that I was developing a juvenile ulcer of some sort. Luckily all the gut-coating cherry Jello I was wolfing down had a sort of pepto-bismalic soothing effect and slowed the erosion of my stomach lining. I hid the bags around the house like an alcoholic hiding mickeys of Four Aces bourbon.
James A. Hornick, the historical consultant to Jello on the coins set was well versed in Canadian aviation history for nearly every important Canadian type was featured along with many types flown in Canada but manufactured elsewhere. Above are just some of the aircraft featured that were designed or manufactured in Canada. As well, the illustrator Don Watt was not only prolific but very talented.
I never did get the complete set, for General Foods discontinued the practice after a year or so. Lucky for me I guess. Sometime in my 40s I ran across a complete set of the coins in their “poker-chip” carrying case and bought them. I looked at them for a few days then simply put them on a shelf (with the Jello and chips) and forgot about them until now.
Today, 45 years sober since quitting “Airplane Coins” cold turkey, I am now surrounded by the spectacular real-life aircraft of Vintage Wings of Canada and it occurred to me that our collection of 17 historic aircraft includes 11 that were featured as coins of The Great Canadian Jello Desserts and Hostess Potato Chips Airplane Coin Collection. If I was in the same way an addicted collector of baseball or hockey cards, then perhaps the equivalent today would be to be personal buddies of Willie Mays, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, Terry Sawchuk, Chico Maki, Stan Makita, Eric Nesterenko and Elmer “Moose” Vasco all at the same time.
The aircraft in our hangar are in much better shape than those guys (the ones still alive that is)