My 1950s world had no big-box stores. And when September arrived and school resumed, we didn’t head for the mall, either. Instead, it seems that there was one, and only one, true back-to-school ritual that my friends and I consider to be the most memorable.  

Unlike today, when supply lists and fully stocked store shelves are on display in early July, we normally shopped closer to the day school began. Modern marketing — with aisle after aisle of brightly colored folders, paper clips, sparkling colored markers and illuminated athletic shoes — is a sight we Baby Boomers would have marveled at. Rewind, please.

When the first wave of Boomers began swelling Oak Cliff elementary school classrooms in the mid 1950s, shopping for supplies was a treasured event. However, stores had only one, or perhaps 1¼, aisles to choose from. Not a lot of options, just the basics: Big Mo pencils, Big Chief Tablets, a big pink eraser (lots of bigs in those days), a box of Crayola crayons and a package of both manila and colored construction paper. Music tablets, blunt-tipped scissors, and a cigar box were the standard. And oh, yes, a box of Kleenex. (We can’t forget all those runny little noses during winter and spring.)
For elementary students, book satchels (in lieu of today’s backpacks) provided the feeling of academia — that we were “real” students, and most everyone carried a lunch box. Let’s see. There was the Looney Tunes variety, the Disney line, and the ever popular Roy Rogers and Dale Evans boxes. Then, around 1954, good old Davy Crockett burst on the scene, and no all-American boy (or girl) would be caught dead without Davy staring back across the lunchroom table.

And the No. 1 destination for this annual shopping event? Your neighborhood Skillern’s Drug Store. With locations throughout Oak Cliff, Skillern’s was brilliant to remain open at night during back-to-school shopping time when most businesses closed regularly at 5:30 p.m. And Skillern’s had the one magnet that garnered almost all the business and put other stores in the shade: the “Big Shake” coupon.
A “Big Shake” was your choice of vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry — a milkshake free at the store’s soda fountain counter — and it was a hit with everyone. Just ask any Cliffite from those days, and you’ll get the same answer: the “Big Shake.” (Yes, another big.)

But for some, it was more than just enjoying the shake. It was the entire process of obtaining the shake.

Bob Johnston, Adamson class of ’59, says he managed to parcel out his purchases, buying just enough each time to qualify for a coupon. When his little sister entered first grade, he commandeered even more coupons from her, keeping the fountain staff at the Jefferson Street Skillern’s plenty busy.

Ditto Glenn Straus, also Adamson ’59, but without the sister.

According to Straus, someone demonstrated the fine art of tearing off the first inch or so of the straw wrapper, “dipping the other end in your shake, and blowing the straw covering straight up so it stuck to the ceiling.”

“This was frowned on by the soda jerks,” Straus says, “so you had to be very careful to do this while they weren’t looking.”

Goodness! All this talk about “Big Shakes” has made me both nostalgic and hungry. I think a quick trip to Hunky’s to check out my ice cream options is in order.

And, since it’s September, if I arrive with my book satchel and Davy Crockett lunch kit, I wonder if they just might honor one of my old “Big Shake” coupons?

Hey, now that I think of it, the Hunky’s ceiling would make a great target.