There are certain moments in your life where your mettle is tested. Dealing with a bully. A car accident. Asking a gorgeous girl out on a date. But at eight years old, such challenges are not really there. That’s not to say, however, there aren’t tests, that there aren’t things to prove indeed at an early age you’re a man. I was raised in a small town where nothing really happened, so I didn’t have to grow up too fast and therefore my early test of manhood was a seemingly innocent one: the Atomic FireBall.
A small, jawbreaker-sized red ball of candy, the Atomic FireBall has the heat of an entire box of red hots, taking the flavor of sinnamon to maximum levels of tolerance. Pop one in your mouth and there is an instant heat, which make your entire face feel warm and actually sweat a little. Keep the FireBall in your mouth and it lets up a little, but that’s because I think the makers obviously know that people eating Atomic FireBalls do their best to suck on them all the way to their cores.
That was the endurance challenge for us in the third grade, when we would ride our bikes up to Thornhill’s drug store on the corner of Main Street and Gillette Avenue to purchase them for ten cents from the jars of “penny” candy that were set up near the main counter. It was the type of thing that seemed held over from another time. Then again, it was. Created in 1954, the Atomic FireBall had been setting mouths aflame for more than thirty years by the time my friends and I came along. Thornhill’s had been on that corner for even longer; in fact, it was such an institution that it actually had the very first number in Sayville, 589-0001. Many of its customers were on a first-name basis with the pharmacist, something that is truly rare nowadays (the only thing I can tell you about my pharmacist at Target is that he looks like Jeremy Piven) and up until the time I outgrew childhood ear infections and allergies, they were still using glass apothecary bottles that you returned after finishing the prescription.
Thornhill’s was oddly laid out because it was a narrow building, almost like a rowhouse. Its neon sign said that it sold Rexall drugs and candy, but because the sign was so old, the “Drugs Rx Candy” looked like “Drugs = Candy.” I guess at some point in life that may have wound up being the case, but when I was eight, Thornhills was about as far as I was allowed to go on my bike, and so my friends and I would scrounge up what spare change we could and blow our minds with sugar. Some of us would even take on the Atomic FireBall.
I’m sure that the store’s owner price the FireBall at a dime because that’s what he had to do in order to make money; however, what that did for us was make the candy more alluring. Most of Thornhill’s candy cost a nickel, and since I usually brought a quarter with me to buy candy I knew that I could get five York Peppermint Patties and that even one Atomic FireBall meant less candy. Plunking down ten cents in that situation was an investment, a real commitment, a throwing down of the gauntlet to the Atomic FireBall challenge.
Taking one of those suckers out of its wrapper and popping it in your mouth was usually done in tandem; you wanted other people to see you eat an Atomic FireBall or else it wouldn’t really count. Furthermore, you wound up playing chicken with one another to see who could hold out the longest, and when someone did take it out of his mouth, he first held it up to show that he was no longer sucking on a bright red jawbreaker but a little pink ball, then showed his tongue, which had turned a deep reddish purple. Every once in a while, someone would be able to bit through an Atomic FireBall and show that it was comprised of a small core around which were layers of candy. I am not sure if the layers alternated between hot and cold or hot and sweet, but it definitely was a cool dissection.
For reasons I’m not sure of, it took me a while to actually eat my very first Atomic FireBall. My parents didn’t forbid candy, and they certainly had no problem with me heading to Thornhill’s after a Saturday Little League game. Maybe I didn’t feel worthy of such expensive candy or maybe I wanted to get more for my money. Honestly, though, I was probably scared. I mean, eating an Atomic FireBall looked tough and I was by no means a tough kid. So I would sit there and watch in awe, eating my Peppermint Patties or Reese’s mini peanut butter cups while my friends held their contest of champions. The winner was always nonchalant, saying that the raw cheek where he’d held the ball and the way it stripped his tongue of an entire layer of skin was “nothing.” Like so many things in my childhood that I was scared of, when I finally worked up the courage to take on the Atomic FireBall, I realized that it really was nothing.
Over the years, the Atomic FireBall would be replaced by other, tougher tests of mettle and once I was allowed to ride past town (and later on, when I actually had a car) I rarely, if ever, stopped at Thornhill’s. In fact, it’s safe to say that I hadn’t been inside the store in nearly two decades. And sadly, I never will again. After 90 years or so of business, Thornhill’s closed its doors this week. I haven’t been able to ascertain why, although I think it’s probably due to the fact that Sayville has a CVS, Eckerd, and a Wallgreens all within a mile or two of one another and that sort of big-store competition becomes hard to compete with after a while. And as much as I know that life, and the world, will go on without it, I cannot help but stop to recognize such childhood milestones and the place that made them possible.