There was a time in my life when I was a starving college student. As a matter of fact, I was a starving anthropology student, a position which pretty much guaranteed that I would be a starving anthropology professional some day. My concentration within the anthropology field was archeology, and specifically the prehistoric archeology of the Southeastern United States. My involvement with prehistoric archeology led to my intimate involvement with a 17 year old can of Red Bird Imitation Vienna Sausages.
If you majored in archeology, our department required that you participate in a summer field school. This field school was divided into two parts: the first six weeks was devoted to systematically walking in acres of plowed bean fields looking for signs of prehistoric occupation, and the second half involved a major excavation at a prehistoric site, preferably one that was in danger of being lost through construction, earth movement, etc. I happily spent the summer first walking blisters on my feet as we trekked miles through the beanfields every day, then excavating in sweltering 90-degree weather at a prehistoric Indian site.
I made a number of friends at this field school, but one in particular who is quite involved in this tale. Now Claude didn't look like your typical outcast anthropology student. With his long curly blond hair, his blue eyes, his summer-beach tan, and his bulging biceps, he looked more like a California surfer dude stranded in the backwoods of the Deep South than what he actually was: a highly intelligent, talented and very amusing guy. As we were both from back-woods country schools and had similar bookish tastes, we got along famously throughout the summer.
Claude and I had something else in common: voracious appetites. Now many of the people we lived with during this summer had rather discriminating tastes, enjoying fine wine, foreign movies and books by authors no one had ever heard of. Claude and I liked beer, Star Trek, and sci-fi books. We ate foods that often had the other students looking at us somewhat aghast —things like bologna sandwiches, sardines, potted meat, and Vienna sausages. During the noon lunch break we'd happily devour two or three potted meat sandwiches each while the other students looked on in horrified amusement.
One day I forgot to pack a meal, so during lunch I had nothing to eat. Claude obligingly gave me a can of his Prairie Farm Vienna Sausages and a lukewarm Coke. When I popped the sausage can, the sausages lay packed in something that looked like axle grease. I had to fish them out with a knife, strip the grease off with my fingers and chomp them down, all the while washing the whole mess down with gulps of tepid Coke. When I was almost finished, I happened to look up and noticed that everyone was looking at me with expressions ranging from amusement to complete disgust. I offered my can to a skinny, prissy girl we called Bat Mite. "Have a viennie sausage, Bat Mite?" I asked courteously.
She shuddered. "Ugh. No thank you. I couldn't eat that junk if I was starving."
Claude elbowed me jokingly in the ribs. "Not everybody has discriminating tastes like we do, Basil."
I nodded. "Yeah, I know." I wiped my fingers on a handful of leaves and tossed them to the ground. "Thanks for feeding me, dude. I'll pay you back soon."
Fast forward a couple of years. Claude is happily cohabitating with a female member of the anthropology department, and this year they're hosting the yearly anthro Christmas party. Before heading for their house I dropped by Kroger to pick up a case of beer. As I was walking through the aisles drunkenly snapping my fingers to the elevator music, I passed into the canned meats section. Hmmm, I thought, I never did pay Claude back for those viennies. I'll get him a can now.
I looked around and found a can of Red Bird Imitation Vienna Sausages. I wondered what the heck an imitation viennie sausage was —probably packed in pig tallow or something — but decided this would be a fine gift for the party.
Early the next morning as the party was in its terminal stages I brought out the viennie sausages and drunkenly proclaimed my life-long debt to Claude for feeding me. He held the can up to his red-veined, bleary eyes. "Imitation viennies? They're not even good enough to qualify as the real thing? What are they, the sweepings off the floor?"
I belched wetly. "I dunno. Nothin' but the best for my old buddy." I threw an arm around his neck. "C'mon, let's chow down. Let's eat these bad boys."
"No way, dude." He staggered off, dragging me along with him. "I ain't drunk enough to eat those things yet. Less' go to the kitchen and get some real food."
I forgot about the viennie sausages until the following Christmas, when they turned up on my desk in the anthro department where Claude and I both worked as student workers. They were beautifully wrapped in colorful Christmas wrapping, and as I looked admiringly at the can, I was already planning when I could return them.
And so it went. During birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and what-have-you, the viennies would be exchanged from one to the other. All this while, the paper label around the can faded until the writing and the picture of the redbird were illegible and the can began to bulge dangerously at the top. We began to joke about them being a radioactive threat to mankind.
At one time, the viennies rode in the glove compartment of my truck for over 5 years. By this time the can was so grime-covered that it was impossible to tell what it was. A play-dough kangaroo I'd stuck in my glove compartment had melted all over the can, giving it a sticky, disgusting appearance. Although we had to handle the can gingerly, we continued to swap it every year.
One Christmas several years ago I presented the can to Claude with a pretty blue bow tied around it. The following year when I was due to get it back, Claude related this story to me:
Well, I pulled the can off the top of my refrigerator where it had been all year, and as I was holding it the damned top blew off and chunks of green viennie sausage went everywhere —and all over my hands. Man, I ran into the bathroom like my ass was on fire and scoured my hands with hot water and bacterial soap." He shuddered slightly. "It smelled like a pigs corpse that had been rolled around in baby shit."
And so, after 17 years the saga of the Red Bird Imitation Vienna Sausages came to an end. I was sorry in a strange way: it was a ritual between us that we both enjoyed. However, unbeknownst to Claude, I had something in the works. Several years ago, long after I had left the anthropology department, I volunteered to work with Claude's survey group (he's an archeologist with the department now) looking for prehistoric sites. As a joke, I brought along a can of Bryans Pork Brains in Gravy for my lunch, and even though I didn't have the guts to actually open them up, I kept them. They are sitting on a shelf in my office right now, not 10 feet from where I'm typing this. Come next Christmas, Claude is gonna get a surprise for his birthday...