Growing up in my household, a bottle of Rolaids was on every table. They were popped like candy after every meal, they were to be found loose in Mom's purse, in the pockets of Dad's trousers, in the glove compartments of the family cars, and hiding in the furniture cushions. When vacuuming one could hear the distinctive crunch of a tablet being ground up by the beater bar, sucked loose from its hiding place in the shag carpet. (Most people have problems with bobby pins and Lego bricks when vacuuming. Not us Clarks.) My friends and I used to throw them at each other, and once I even found an undissolved tablet at the bottom of the pool, which Dad must have dropped while sunbathing. Naked Rolaids, roaming free, even lurked in dresser drawers. I've written somewhere here that if the Clarks had a heraldic crest, the family colors would be avocado and harvest gold. Well, Rolaids tablets would be on the crest, too. (A pity we didn't have a brass door knocker fashioned in the similitude of a Rolaids tablet.)
Fat was the main component of every Clark meal. Mom brought home doughnuts for breakfast (I'd eat six or eight), we went out for burgers for lunch, and dinner was invariably accompanied by a Sara Lee cake or some other frozen pastry - when we didn't dine out, that is. No doubt about it, we Clarks were a top-of-the-nutrition-triangle bunch.
Mom's favorite meal out was spaghetti and sausage. Without fail, an hour or two after dinner we would hear the heartrending bellow that accompanied her gastric distress. As for me, I reveled in steak with a baked potato dripping in butter (I also slathered heaps of butter onto the roll for good measure), which was served with coffee and concluded with the biggest dessert I could order. In retrospect, then, it should come as no surprise that I suffered from indigestion from an early age, despite my youthful metabolism. I remember feeling that familiar pain in my chest while drawing comic books once, when I was eleven. I thought, "Cool! I have something in common with Tony (Iron Man) Stark. If he doesn't get recharged he feels pains in his chest from the shrapnel near his heart!" Realizing I had something in common with a super hero I'd then run off to the fridge for some ice cream or whole milk to douse the fire.
Once, my high school biology teacher had us make a list of everything we had eaten in a week. She then read a summary of these teenager diets to the class and provided analysis. For me, her comment was, "I'm surprised you're not dead!"
When I was in the Marines I developed something I called "the Indigestion Special," which was a midnight trip to Jack-In-The-Box for onion rings, a hot lemon turnover and a big cup of coffee - with a Rolaids chaser. The subsequent stomach acid and gas enabled me to belch out the initial verse of the Marines Hymn. After awhile, I could order an IS by name from the girls who worked the late shift.
For years I thought there were some foods, like bananas and tomato sauce, that I couldn't eat. However, when I put myself on a strict low fat diet, guess what? Indigestion rarely happened, and when it did, it was always preceded by the injudicious feeding of a high fat food. What's more, I lost a lot of weight and, according to my wife, stopped snoring. Bananas and tomato sauce could be consumed with no ill effects. So fats are the problem, and I now know something my parents didn't. (If somebody had suggested they go on a low fat diet, they would have stared with incomprehension, and had another cookie.) Doing something based on this knowledge is, of course, another matter.
Allow me a bit of philosophy regarding indigestion. Nowadays we have Zantac and Pepcid AC and other acid preventatives, but I don't use them. These, to me, run counter to the Law of the Harvest ("So as ye sow, so shall ye reap"). I'm sure these medicines are a boon to many Americans with genuine gastric problems caused by no fault of their own, but I question the wisdom of fixing the symptoms while leaving the problem unaddressed. I know when I've been nutritionally a bad boy: my chest hurts. Undoing God's natural laws concerning indigestion is just asking for it, in my opinion.
In my medicine cabinet we keep Wal-Mart knock-off antacid tablets. They're cheaper, and they work just as well as Rolaids. Sometimes we experiment. For awhile I used to buy store-brand liquid antacid. I found this had substantial gross-out potential as I occasionally drank a quantity direct from the blue bottle, bypassing the spoon. (Why dirty it?) "That's disgusting!," said my ten year-old boy, looking on in disbelief. (Being a Scouter, I realize the value of being able to gross out the youth at will.) The liquid antacid fell out of favor one evening when I vigorously shook the bottle preparatory to drinking some, not realizing the cap wasn't fully screwed on. I flung antacid all over my wife's new oak kitchen cabinets - she was still laboriously removing it from the cracks five years later when we sold the house - and went back to the more idiot-proof tablet form.
Last night, my son tried a couple of the Shopper's Food Warehouse brand tablets. "Hey, these are tasty," he commented, thoughtfully. (He also runs into trouble occasionally. I wonder if the fat-intolerance problem isn't genetic.) My children benefit by the wonderful, zingy, fruity taste of modern, flavored antacid tablets. Back in Avocado Memories days we only had the original flavor Rolaids that tasted like chalk or plaster of Paris.
So there it was and is - an antacid-based lifestyle. God Bless America, Land of Plenty!
Times change, and so does my philosophy about heartburn. Awhile back, during a checkup, I got into a conversation with my physician about the chronic heartburn I have had ever since I was ten or so; I was 46 at the time. He told me that it was a good idea to get an endoscopic exam since I've had this problem for 35 years. (Endoscopic exam: they sedate you and stick a hose with a camera down your throat to take photos.) The idea is to look for a condition known as "Barett's Esophagus," which happens to be one of the fastest-growing diseases among white American males my age. So... we did that, and upon examining the photos he asked, 1) Did you know you once had an ulcer? (No.) And, 2) Did you know you once had a hiatial hernia? (Also no.)
I am, however, happy to report that - mirabile dictu! - I do not have Barett's Esophagus. In fact, I have Wes Clark's esophagus. (Ha! A little gastroenterology joke, there.)
The result of this is that I was prescribed with Nexium, Prilosec or Prevacid. No big difference in effect for me. Since he did this, Prilosec has been granted "over the counter" status by an ever-diligent FDA, and Prilosec OTC is now available. This stuff has dramatically improved the quality of my life!
I am happy to say that with my daily regimen of popping one pill every morning I haven't had heartburn in more than a year. What a revelation! And you can believe I do an ongoing thorough lab testing: pizza, bacon cheeseburgers, onion rings, etc. The only thing I've found that can occasionally overwhelm a Prilosec OTC is the power of the Krispy Kreme. (And then, only when I've made a glutton out of myself and had, say, three.) Now that I can eat almost anything without fear of heartburn the challenge is, of course, to not eat the kinds of things that used to give it to me so often. Sadly, I am only human, however.
When I first wrote this article, I asked, "I wonder if the fat-intolerance problem isn't genetic." It is. My daughter Julie has the same sorts of indigestion problems I have and is also a daily Prilosec OTC user. But at least she's not making heartrending bellows like her Grandma used to.
By the way, Rolaids is a registered trademark of Pfizer, Inc. And that great image above came from a DVD screen capture of a 1962 episode of The Naked City, which came with optional commercials (what fun!).
As it turns out, yes, I do, in fact, have the pre-cancerous condition known as Barett's Esophagus. I was diagnosed with it in my fifties. But it's controlled via Omeprazole. So my risk of cancer is the same as the general population's.