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Sweetened Condensed Milk

In an unusual blast of artic air late in February we got iced in here in Dallas. I could not drive down (or up) my driveway for two days. Iced in.

On the second day we ran out of milk and could not leave to get any. Judy rummaged around the pantry and came up with a can of Borden’s sweetened condensed milk. A faint salivation came to me upon gazing on this innocuous little can that was going to see us through a day without milk. It was a memory, imbedded in my past somewhere way down deep.

I knew exactly what to do with it. You poke two holes on opposite sides of the top of the can. One hole is larger than the “air” hole on the other side because of the viscosity of the contents. I poured a sludgy tablespoon or so into my tea that morning. The memories started clanging louder.

I looked around. No one was in the kitchen. I upended the can and took a quick and guilty suck, and swallowed. Wow! It was heaven…again.

As long as I can remember we used to pack a can of sweetened condensed milk on our hikes. At some point (for some it was much, much earlier in the hike than for others) we would get tuckered and be in need of a boost. Out would come the can, two holes on either side, and we would sip away. Or glug, as the case may be. 

Once opened you had to be a little careful. You either had to do the whole thing in or stuff a little TP in the hole so that it would not spill out as you hiked along. I have cleaned up my backpack several times from a sticky mess from being a bit careless with repacking my opened can of sweetened condensed milk.

Later the next day, back in Dallas, the roads cleared enough to get out and get some groceries, and some milk. That evening, rummaging around in the fridge before I sat down to read, my eyes spotted the can, still nearly full. My eyes dilated. Memories kicked in again. If I did not do something with this can now it would just go to waste, right?

I took it in to the living room, propped up my feet, opened my book (World on Fire, by Amy Chua—excellent) and proceeded to up-end that can of sweetened condensed milk. In the next ten minutes or so I glugged, slurped and sucked my way through the rest of it.

I can tell you it was bliss. There was an initial, slight niggly feeling of guilt that I was going a little too fast, and that I should try to make it last a bit longer, but the feeling faded away quickly.

I lost interest in reading as I savored each moment as the soft, super-sweet memory-candy hit my palate. I leaned back, tipped that sucker up and reveled in memories of not so long ago. At one point I had to sit up in a more up-right position because I was giggling. What started me chuckling was remembering a particular hike when I was in the 9th grade—the first WNHS (Woodstock Natural History Society) hike I was ever on.

This hike was really kind of an expedition and took place the week following going-down-day, 1964. It was to Dodi Tal, a remote lake a couple of ranges to the north of us, at the base of Bandar Punch, the 20,000 foot mountain directly to the north of Landour, where we lived. The lake, at 10,000 feet or so, was rather unique, the only one like it I know of at that altitude in our area. The first thing we had to do was get permission because for the previous ten years or so no foreigners were permitted to hike back into this area because it was felt it was too close to the border. A sensitive area. Someone (I think it was Bob Fleming, our biology teacher) got us the necessary permits. Then we had to line up the vehicles that would take us through Tehri and then up the valley the other side of Nag Tiba to the village of Uttarkashi, where the motor road ended. From there we would walk.  We were a group of around 20 or so.

I was not feeling well when we left Uttarkashi and it took me most of the day to make it to Agora, a little village with a Dak Bungalow where some of us spent the night. A number tried to make it all the way and a number succeeded (my brother, Gordy, ended up spending the night bivouacked on the trail). I, meanwhile, enjoyed the Shepherd’s Pie that Dr. Petersen made that evening for those of us who only got as far as Agora. And then the next day the rest of us made it all the way to the cabin alongside the lake and enjoyed a fine meal of trout—this lake was brimming with them. There were also numerous Monal pheasants in the area. Mr. Fleming was the first person I had seen who could actually hit something when it was flying. Not only were these birds beautifully iridescent they were also good eating. 

Wait wait, I am getting to the point. It was on the way back. We got back down to Uttarkashi. We had conquered. We were victors. We were heroes. And then the fuel pump on the Petersen’s car went out. This was an old American sedan, late forties (or early fifties), a blue Plymouth–one of those with big front fenders. And there were, of course, no mechanics around. The hood was up. Dr. Peterson could hardly see the road. The lot fell to Pete Peterson (son of) to sit on the front fender and as the car was rolling, to slowly pour gasoline down the open carb. .One of the other guys on the hike was Jim Ginn, whose nickname was “Blue” because by the time he was a junior his beard had come in so thick it was nearly blue. His job was to make sure Dr. Peterson did not drive off the road because the hood was up.

This was all a bit tricky. The roads were unpaved and uneven. The car was moving. Pete did not have a seat belt on. Pete did not even have a seat–he had a perch. And he had a very volatile liquid he was pouring down a relatively small hole and there were wires nearby that were designed to send a spark. The possibilities were exciting. I am not sure they really thought through all the implications of what they did, but it seemed to work. With, I might add, considerable lurching.

By night they made it to Rajpur. Everyone was very tired. And, as a bed-time treat Ginn decided to have a swig of….yes, sweetened condensed milk. The only problem was he was very very tired. As he balanced that can on his lips, laying there in his sleeping bag, he was simply overcome. And he slept well. In the morning his beard and face, and most of the inside of his sleeping bag was coated with what used to be his can of sweetened condensed milk. 

Ah yes. Sweet memories.

Now, go, without guilt of any sort, and get ye to a store and buy a can of the stuff. You will LOVE it.