Bicycle and beer bottle caps: All a boy needs
When I was a kid the ingredients for a perfect day were a bicycle, a Hardy Boys book and some bottle caps.
Although I could get by with just the bike and the book.
The bottle caps were sort of a bonus — akin to getting two hits in a Little League game and then heading straight to Dairy Queen for a butterscotch sundae.
(As a light-hitting infielder, such a feat was about as rare for me as a Willamette Valley blizzard.)
The era of the bottle cap, at least as an attraction for a kid with time to burn, ended so far as I can tell somewhere around the Reagan administration, but whether its demise was gradual or sudden I can’t say.
I am writing here specifically of beer bottle caps.
Soda used to come in glass bottles, too — an eight-pack of 16-ounce Pepsi bottles weighed as much as a healthy Schnauzer — but beer caps were the ones we coveted most.
I hunted caps with my older brother, Michael, and several of my friends.
We grew up in Stayton, a town which in the 1970s and early ’80s had a population of about 4,500. It was a typical small farming town — not so dissimilar from Baker City except it hardly ever snowed — and was ideal for kids on bikes because there were lots of sidewalks and, except for a handful of streets, not much traffic.
I have no recollection as to why we started collecting bottle caps but I suspect TV had something to do with it.
(TV had something to do with pretty much everything in those days, when the only computer most kids ever saw was a calculator, and phones had cords that kept them confined to the house, like a dog prone to biting pedestrians.)
That period was the heyday of TV commercials for the Northwest beers Olympia and Rainier.
Both brewers created cultural icons with their TV spots.
Olympia’s secret, you might recall, was that it was brewed with artesian spring water. “It’s the water” was the Tumwater, Wash., brewery’s slogan.
But then some clever ad writer came up with the idea of the Artesians, a mysterious race of gnome-like creatures.
The Artesians — or at least references to them, as I don’t recall they were ever actually shown — were a fixture of Oly commercials for years. A man who lived at the end of our block had a bumper sticker with the Artesians catch-phrase — “I seen ’em!” — on the rusty rear bumper of his faded blue Chevy two-wheel drive pickup.
Rainier employed a different concept — beer bottles that had legs and ran about.
There was a series of ads — some of which still show up on “funniest commercials” specials — depicting herds of Rainier bottles standing in pastures, or a few scampering across a forest highway at night, rather like Sasquatches.
Anyway we were well-versed in local beer marketing culture, and I think this must have prompted us to start searching streets, sidewalks and parking lots for bottle caps.
Although I never kept any sort of inventory I’m certain that we found hundreds of caps during the few years when we were actively looking for them.
We never did anything with the caps, so far as I can recall, never built a beer cap Parthenon or something the way kids do with popsicle sticks.
And of course the bottle caps had no monetary value.
Yet we never tired of the hunt.
I retain few vivid memories of that time but one of the clearer ones is pedaling slowly along a sidewalk and peering at the angle where the curb and the street meet, that little cove where bottle caps tossed from a passing car often ended up due to the dictates of geometry and trajectory.
I remember how excited I was when I glimpsed the telltale gleam of metal reflecting the sun, and the moment of anticipation before I got close enough to see the brand.
Sometimes that moment ended with disappointment as I saw the familiar logo of Coke or Sprite or Hires Root Beer.
But more often than not the cap was from a beer bottle.
After a while we got so we could recognize certain brands from a fair distance. The big red “R” for Rainier was especially conspicuous.
A coveted prize was a Rainier cap with a pictorial puzzle on the underside. Some were confounding, others pretty easy even for kids.
(An example: The word “no” + a picture of a clock face + picture of a light bulb + letter “k” + “the” + picture of a wrapped gift = “No time like the present.”)
I have no training in demographics but I could have written a treatise on the beer preferences of Stayton residents based on our cap collecting.
A healthy majority of the caps were from a quartet of regional brews.
Besides Rainier and Oly there were:
• Henry Weinhard’s — ornate, intertwined “W” and “H” inside an eagle with wings spread
• Blitz — simple white letters on red background; also made at the Weinhard brewery
Less common, but not truly rare, were national brands such as Budweiser (Bud Light didn’t come around until 1982), Stroh’s, Schlitz, Pabst Blue Ribbon and Heidelberg.
You couldn’t buy Coors in Oregon in those days, although we sometimes heard adults talk about the brand as though it were mythical. I don’t recall that we ever found a Coors cap.
Beer bottles have never gone away — indeed the glass bottle is the favored storage vessel for the myriad craft brews introduced over the past 20 years or so.
And certainly there was plenty of canned beer when I was a kid.
But it seems to me that bottle caps are much less common on our sidewalks and streets than they used to be.
Perhaps we are, collectively, less inclined to litter.
But I’m skeptical of that.
I didn’t do any exhaustive research on the topic of beer bottles but I did come across a story by MarketWatch that reported bottles as making up 36.5 percent of American beer sales in 2012, down from 41.9 percent in 2006. The article didn’t go back farther.
Although I haven’t searched for bottle caps for a long while I do walk around town pretty often, and it seems to me that bottle caps, regardless of the type of beverage, are scarce.
This strikes me as passing strange, if only because I can’t imagine kids today going out looking for bottle caps.
If I had grown up in the era of iPods, smartphones and Kindles, I probably never would have developed such a keen eye for the Rainier “R” either.
Jayson Jacoby is editor