An old green delivery truck was parked and roped off in front of the Dr Pepper Museum. Across the back of the truck, the slogan read, “Drink Dr Pepper Good for Life!” Inside, the museum was decorated with soda bottles and soda cans and clocks pointing to 10:00, 2:00, and 4:00, all celebrating the “home of the nation’s oldest major soft drink.”
But at 10 AM, no one was partaking of an original recipe carbonated beverage. The museum was empty.
I walked in and was immediately greeted with an audible gasp from the cashier.
“Don! Don! It’s her! It’s Gracelyn!”
I froze in my steps. My jaw dropped.
The elderly lady, who had a streak of purple in her beautiful white hair, who was probably a surrogate grandmother to countless college students, rushed around the counter and greeted me with a hug.
Southern hospitality at its finest.
Were every last nerve in my body not completely fried, frayed, and frazzled, I probably would have returned the hug like a reasonably normal human being. Instead, I just stood there, stiff as a board, completely confounded by how Grandma Pepper knew my name.
“Don! Did you hear me? Gracelyn’s here! She made it! She figured it out!”
Placing one hand gently on my back and guiding me with the other hand on my elbow, Grandma Pepper led me to a booth.
“Here, now, sit down, dear. Can I get you anything? Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? It is so good to meet you!”
I opened my mouth and heard myself say, “How in the world did you know my name?” Even though I knew the obvious answer was Dad. Even though I was starving. Even though a 10 o’clock Dr Pepper sounded fantastic.
“Well, sweetie, that’s a little bit of a story.”
This is the story Grandma Pepper, whose real name is Lottie after the famous Baptist missionary, told me.
Several months ago, the museum received a package and attached letter in the mail. The letter was addressed to the soda shop, so Grandma Pepper opened it. It was a short, handwritten note with my picture inside and a check for $100.
Dear Dr Pepper Friends,
I have less than a year to live and am trying to plan one final adventure for my daughter, Gracelyn. Her picture is enclosed in hopes that she figures out the clue I sent her and takes the trip to come see you. Should she grace your doors with her brilliance, please give her the attached package. I hope this check is sufficient to cover your trouble, along with any snack or souvenir she might desire.
Sic Em Bears,
At that exact moment, Don walked into the room carrying a medium, flat-rate USPS Priority Mail box. I think both Don and Grandma Pepper were more excited and anxious for me to open it than I was. Don handed me the box, which was surprisingly light for its size. Dad’s fine penmanship was on the top of the package, with his Springfield, Missouri home listed in the return address. The postmarked date was almost exactly nine months ago.
My hands started shaking as I tried to peel the clear cellophane tape along the edges. I couldn’t get a grip. Don handed me a pocketknife, “This’ll help.”
I opened the box which was thoroughly stuffed with bubble wrap. Bubble wrap is a fantastic stress relief and simple joy of life. I squeezed a couple of sheets and chuckled at the plethora of pops. I searched through the bubble wrap until I found an envelope — not a surprise — and discovered a second, smaller, square package. The second package was wrapped in custom-made gift wrapping paper: a tessellation of my dad’s face hundreds upon hundreds of times. He was making a ridiculously cheesy face, which made me laugh a little more.
Clue Number Two
Archibald “Moonlight” Graham
Along with the one-phrase clue were five $100 bills.
Don and Grandma Pepper just stared at me.
My dad is so, so weird.
I carefully ripped through Dad’s papered face. An eyeball was staring back at me. Not a real eye, mind you — not that I would have been completely surprised — but a plastic case containing a baseball decorated like the one-eyed character from the movie Monsters, Inc.
Voiced by Billy Crystal.
“I loved dodgeball. Of course, I was the ball.”
A movie about a girl trying to find her way in an unfamiliar world. She was an artist, too.
“Why did your dad send you here to get a piece of paper with a name on it and a baseball that looks like a green monster?” Don asked.
And that was the moment I knew I needed to go to Boston.
“A two-movie clue number two. Very creative, Dad.”
Dad and I loved to watch movies together. There were some mornings we communicated completely in quotes from movies, sort of a creative way of feeling boundaries and testing moods. Sometimes, he would set up a table in front of the TV and proclaim “Dinner and a Movie” night. There were rules to “Dinner and a Movie” night. We rarely watched movies just for entertainment’s sake. We watched movies to expand imaginations and stir resolve. We kept a journal with all the movies we watched together, along with our ratings based on five questions.
- How did you feel once the movie finished?
- Would you watch it again?
- What was your favorite scene and why?
- Who was your favorite character and why?
- What did you learn from this movie?
Dad liked almost anything. Animated. Sci-fi. Western. Rom-com. Independent with subtitles. Almost everything, but horror.
“If you want something that will scare your socks off and give you bad dreams, just watch the news.”
There were those few movies he singled out as the worst of cinematic failures.
“Beetlejuice was beyond terrible. Avatar was too predictable. Out of Africa was painfully boring. But the worst movie, in my relatively expert opinion, was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. It completely destroyed that franchise. Seriously, aliens is the best you can do?”
We had an official Top 10 Movies list posted on the refrigerator that we updated for decades. Once a year, Dad would take it down and replace it with a clean handwritten copy. The most recent iteration, in no particular order, included:
Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium
Dead Poets Society
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
All Harry Potter movies
Men In Black
We Bought a Zoo
The Princess Bride
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Singin’ in the Rain
Dad had a prepared response for anyone who perused the list and commented on the number of movies listed.
“I teach English for a reason.”