Banana slugs and wind-up teeth

Memory has reasons that reason knows not (although sometimes reason can figure them out after the fact). Years ago I tried to recall the name of a place in my hometown that I remembered fondly for its cheese steak sandwiches. My mind suggested “Sweetwater?” The Yellow Pages answered, “Bitter Creek.”

Last night, as I made my shopping list for stocking-stuffers for my family, in particular for my two young grandchildren, I had a vague recollection of a company that sold silly gifts for science geeks. I knew of this place because twenty-some years ago, a friend bought her daughter (who was studying neuroscience) a gelatin brain mold and her son a large plastic banana slug from their catalog. (People gave her son slugs the way people give me bears; I don’t know why.) At any rate, I thought the company might have something nice for little kids too, but I couldn’t remember its name.

I googled “jello brain mold,” but that was no help because apparently you can buy them at Walmart these days. So I set my mind to try to remember. As I went about my evening, eventually the name Wilbur floated into consciousness. Wasn’t there someplace called Wilbur something? Wilbur Bell? No, it was Willmann-Bell! A flash of optimism: was this the company? But no, as my memory dredged up further details, I recalled that this place sold astronomy books. (It still does; I found the web site and felt an unaccountable but very strong longing for a CD containing the contents of the U.S. Naval Observatory’s annual almanac for 1800 to 2050. Best forget about Willmann-Bell again.)

I resigned myself to never recovering the name of the company, and I went to sleep. My loyal, nonlinear brain was apparently still working on the problem, though, because this morning as I brushed my teeth, I thought, “Was it Archie something?” A host of Archies and Archibalds swam quickly to the surface of my mind: Archie Miller, Archibald Cox, Archibald MacLeish. (I thought of Archibald Wheeler, although I couldn’t say offhand who he was; it turns out Archibald is the middle name of physicist John Wheeler, a fact that I didn’t remember knowing.) Shooing these Archies aside, my mind went on to ask, “Was it Archie McPhee?”

And indeed it was. The company is alive and well online. It’s actually not so much science-oriented as silliness-oriented; it’s the home of the wind-up lederhosen, the yodeling pickle, and the world’s largest underpants. However, it sells the classic gag gift of wind-up teeth, which chatter like a set of animate dentures. I’m pretty sure I gave my sons a set of wind-up teeth that had feet, many years ago. I’m buying one now, sans feet, for each of my grandchildren. I hope their parents forgive me.