Necco Magic

Items required for Necco Magic:

Summer nights.
Central New York State’s Finger Lakes.
Specifically, Lake Keuka, shaped like a Y.
A foray to Penn Yan or another town, to buy supplies.
The green Studebaker.
A little childish audacity.
The parents, whose supplies-buying trip in the Studebaker was their first summer delight.

Our parents were running away from us for an hour or so. We needed audacity to face their gleeful guilt, and ask them to bring back Necco wafers.

In the summer night, our thin summer pyjamas looking ghostly in the dark, we’d grope under our pillows, to find the Necco wafers we’d put there after our parents brought them back.

Magic time.

First, a skill: Opening the roll at the top, so the thin transluscent paper didn’t tear to spill wafers over bed and floor. Then, a mystery: finding white wafers, which were almost impossible to distinguish from other light colors in the dark. Then, an accomplishment: snapping them so they sparked — they had to be fresh (dry, untasted, and unlicked), held the right way (possible only if they were unchipped, unbroken), and the right pressure had to be applied to crack them halfway across. This produced a tiny spark of light in the deep summer night.

And eating them. The white ones had a harsh mint-like flavor that seemed to corrode the tender skin of our upper palates. The others were more mellow, and much enjoyed, especially the orange and chocolate flavors. The licorice were to be avoided, but since they looked like chocolate in the dark, we never escaped their sharp vegetal taste.

We’d start each summer believing we’d only dreamed of white wafers that could spark. If we had fresh wafers and luck (not every roll had white wafers amongst the others), the dream would become real for a moment or two. The usual maximim of Necco wafer rolls per child per summer was one. If we were lucky, and more came our way, we’d just eat them. When the first tiny sparks flashed and disappeared into the summer night, the myth and magic disappeared with them. Thereafter, Necco wafers lived with us in the everyday world as candies, and nothing more.

Back home, as we moved through the seasons after summer, the myth of the sparking white Necco wafers would grow from summer-end’s nothing to something. In late summer and the autumn, Necco wafers didn’t exist. By Christmas time, fleeting thoughts of dark nights with round white disks and tiny sparks might shimmer their way into our minds. By springtime, the visions were more substantial and exciting. And when summer started, the magic would be fully alive again.

Necco wafers never sparked, back home. Our parents’ explanation was the Necco wafers purchased downstate were made in a different factory. Perhaps the downstate Necco rolls were simply stale, spending their existence sitting quietly in the candy racks while other, fancier, pricier candies were steadily paid for and eaten by the more affluent families in the downstate counties — until dreamers like us bought them at last.

The summmertime magic of Necco wafers became a family secret. It was our own discovery, or so we thought then. There was no way to prove the myth was not a myth, because Necco wafers never sparked, back home. The Necco secret could only be shared with the closest of pals, who might believe us on our word alone. I only told one other person outside the family that Necco wafers were sometimes made of magic. The magic worked only if we were lucky and careful and skillful, and it lasted for only a few moments of our first summer nights in a rented bungalow, perched on a steep wooded slope above pretty Y-shaped Lake Keuka…

…and that brings to mind the year when the toilet didn’t flush! Our bungalow that year was perhaps 60 feet above lake level, and there wasn’t enough water pressure to allow the toilet to flush properly.

Our legs grew very strong, and we became work-hardened, and the soles of our feet became splinter-chafed, as we climbed down and up, down and up, six zigzagging flights of open board stairs to the lake, our buckets in hand, to lift lake water to the house to use for flushing the toilet. A week or more into our stay, after the problem had been fixed by a plumber, I guess by repairing a pump, I remember missing those treks. That was real work, and we didn’t have enough if it, usually. It seemed grown-up stuff to me, serious and survival-related. Those days of lifting water by hand to make sure family hygiene was preserved, became part of my ethos. I took hard work and service and stoicism as my secret friends. And I became very skilled at flushing toilets with buckets of water.

view of Lake Keuka from the shore
P.S. While setting up the links in this post, I found that the white Necco wafers were flavored with cinnamon (elaichi)– no wonder they stung our mouths. And it’s the pink wafers, which are flavored with wintergreen, that actually spark. So much for the accuracy of childhood memories, and night vision! Without knowing what was happening, we’d been able to tell white Necco wafers from pink ones, in that downstate dark that’s not so dark, due to the ambient light from its population centers. And we’d been cracking the white wafers, that don’t spark, while eating up the pink ones, that do. No wonder Necco wafers never sparked, back home.