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Free Inside!: The treasures inside the cereal box



Even sitting down, I was lethal with scissors, so I'm sure my mom must have cut the Jackson 5 flexi-disc "Sugar Daddy" from the back of the Alpha-Bits cereal box.

I played it a few times on my burnt orange-and-cream-colored portable Zenith turntable and, I'm ashamed to admit this, but I was really into Neil Diamond's "Cherry Cherry" at the time, so I tossed MJ and family onto the pile of other cereal box ephemera, which eventually included a Tony the Tiger iron-on jeans patch (to be affixed on my right butt cheek); the Freakies magnet collection (to affix the calendar of church holy days to the refrigerator); and the Frankenberry paint kit (to decorate monster portraits to then affix to the bedroom door).

Before the era of litigation and hydrogenated corn syrup, kids' cereals were packed with real sugar—Sugar Jets, Sugar Crisp, Super Sugar Crisp, Sugar Frosted Flakes, Sugar Pops, Sugar Smacks (now fortified with eight vitamins and heroin!)—and wonderful, colorful, made-in-the U.S.-of-A. toys, otherwise known as choking hazards.

Frugal, if not particularly health-conscious, my parents required us to finish one box of cereal before embarking on the next. That meant I missed out on the Count Chocula bike spinner—I saw it advertised once in the cereal aisle and never again—and the Trix Rabbit Secret Wrist Band—thwarting my dreams of forming a Trix Rabbit Secret Society.

Quisp, labeled the "Quazy Energy Cereal," and Quake, the "Vitamin Powered Sugary Cereal," were among my favorites. The former featured a Quopter, a projectile on which you pulled a string and a rotor zipped into the air, puncturing your best friend's cornea.

My Indy colleague J.P. Trostle had an idyllic childhood, or it sounds idyllic to me, living directly across the tracks from the Quaker Oats plant in Pennsylvania, which made Quisp, Quake and other sugar-smothered cereals.

"Directly behind this was the Ralston Purina tower. My brother and I didn't understand why we had to send off our box tops for the big toys when they were right there within sight," he told me. "The grocery stores in our small town carried all the cereals from both companies, and we insisted my mother buy multiple boxes so we could collect every single plastic widget we saw on the back of the box. We even got cereals we didn't like, just to get the toys."

(That's how I felt about Boo Berry, but I needed that damn Boo Hooter.)

Getting at the toys without first eating all the cereal was the challenge. My brother and I ate cauldrons of cereal for breakfast and maybe a small tub for a mid-evening snack. But consuming even those generous amounts delayed our toy gratification by at least a day, so we resorted to trinket exhumation.

If you had the misfortune of being born post-sugar, post-toy-induced-facial-scars, buy a 40-year-old box of cereal online or, say, from Big Lots, and follow these time-tested instructions for extracting the prize:

1. Plunge arm deep inside the box as if artificially inseminating a cow.

2. With fingers that are covered in dirt, tears and viruses from last week's 24-hour barf-a-thon, fish around for the toy.

3. Retrieve the toy, spilling copious amounts of frosted flakes, fruity marshmallows or chocolate puffs on the table.

Parents: Future bowls of cereal will now smell like your kid's arm.

Kids: Your arm will now smell vaguely grain-like, and depending on the brand of cereal, with notes of fruit punch.

4. If the trinket spelunking trip fails, pour the entire bag, which was so small it barely held the cereal inside the box, into a bowl. Retrieve the toy.

5. Repour the cereal into the bag inside the box.

6. Sweep cereal off floor or call the dog to eat it.

7. Play with toy. Fight over it. Lose it.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Sugar! Injury! Free inside!"

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