On Father’s Day, I purchased a box of Cracker Jacks for my 12-year-old daughter. She was excited by the fact that the box said there was a surprise inside.Well… She opened up her “surprise” and stared at it in complete bewilderment.“Daddy, exactly what IS this thing?”I looked at it for a second, and I said, “It says it’s a ‘pencil topper'.”“What do you do with it?”“Well, according to the, ahem, ‘instructions,’ you stick it on the top of your pencil.”“Why?” She asked, as she stared down at the little slip of paper with a hole cut in each end. “Why would anyone even want to do that?”And I was forced to look into her disappointed little eyes and say, “I don’t have any idea, Sweet pea. I really don’t.”She looked a bit confused by the whole matter, and I could tell that she was mildly frustrated. Not because she isn’t perfect in every way, because she IS perfect in every way. She never asks for anything. She is always satisfied, and she is the single most generous and loving child I have ever seen.No. She was confused by the logic of it, the very idea of it. After all, it was supposed to be a surprise, and she was pretty sure that they didn’t mean that as: “SURPRISE! IT’S A PIECE OF USELESS PAPER!!!”“That’s kind of like finding a gum wrapper in your Cracker Jacks as a surprise,” she says.“Well, if THAT had been the case, then at least we could wrap some gum with it, couldn’t we?”She laughed a little bit at that.Good! Let’s see how she likes this (as I fire up the old satellite dish in my head, allowing it to scan the heavens for any and all information which may prove to be relevant to the issue at hand.)And for some unknown reason, I start to say, In my very best Andy Griffith voice, “Maaaaan, times sho’ have changed since I was a youngin. They sho’ nuff’ have! Why, I can remember a time when finding a little piece of paper like ‘at in a box of Cracker Jacks would have been viewed as some kind of mistake. Yes sir, times sho’ have changed!”“What kind of prizes did they have when you were little, daddy?"“Well, I’ll tell ya, darlin,’ you know the very first electric train set I ever owned? Well, I Pulled it straight out of a Cracker Jack box! It came complete with extra track and all. It had all sorts of little bells and whistles on it, and it came with this here special oil, and if you drabbed a little of that special oil down the smokestack, why that train would smoke up a room."“Gosh, Pa!” she says, sounding just like Opie Taylor, and giggling uncontrollably.“Oh, and that’s not all we would fish out of them Cracker Jack boxes. You know what else you might find?”“What, pa?”“Pets! Actual pets! Why, I remember this one time I opened a box and I pulled out the cutest little gerbil you ever saw! Came complete with a little gerbil village and all.”“What did you name that gerbil, pa?”“Why, I named that little feller Rrrrrrr (and I almost said, 'Richard Gere') Robert Van Winkel!"She’s laughing pretty hard now, as she asks me, “why, pa?”“Well, Mr. Robert Van Winkel (think ‘Richard Gere’) was one of the finest gerbil wranglers of the past century. He used to rustle up the gerbils up along the Rio Grande river, back when the gerbil herds still roamed free and wild in North America. Legend also has it that he was a pretty hardy injun fighter. Why, Mr. Van Winkel (really, think Richard Gere) once insulted the entire Hindu nation all by his ownself. Stood right up there and insulted them and didn’t flinch once!”“Ha ha ha ha… Those are the wrong kind of Indians, pa."“Well, maybe I’m a bit spotty on the geography after all of these many months, but you get the gist. Mr. Robert Van Winkel was a man of honor and integrity! And do you know the oddest thing about that gerbil?"“What pa?”“He wouldn’t eat Cracker Jacks, He was strictly a Fiddle Faddle man... Where was I? Oh, that’s right. I was telling you about the livestock that they used to put in boxes of Cracker Jacks. We learned early on to look for the boxes that might have little air holes poked in ‘em, or for the ones that might be shakin’ back and forth a little. You know like something was pacin’ around inside. Well, this one morning, me and my friend, Billy Ray... have I mentioned Billy Ray before, Billy Ray Cyrus?”“Ha ha ha… No, you haven’t, pa!"“Well, me and Billy Ray, we showed up down at the general store bright and early with our nickels clutched in our hands. Did I mention that Cracker Jacks only cost a nickel back then? It’s true! Well, we showed up bright and early and dogged if we don’t both notice that same box in the same instant, just a shakin’ to beat the band! Well, the footrace was on. See, that’s how we settled things back then. We held footraces. That’s why they’re called the good ol’ days, I reckon, lots of footraces and whatnot. But your pa bested ol’ Billy Ray Cyrus that morning, and he had to watch as I loaded that shakin’ box of Cracker Jacks into a truck and carted it home. Let me tell you, I only had that box top about halfway off when guess what sprang out of there and started runnin’ around the backyard?”“What, pa?"“A pony! Already saddled up and everything!”“HAHAHAHAHA… Daddy, stop! My cheeks are starting to hurt! HAHAHAHA. What did you name him, pa?”“William Jennings Bryan Dorn!"“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA…WHAT? Why did you name him THAT, pa? HAHAHAHAHA!”“Well, I didn’t really. You see, that was already his name. It said so. Right there.”“Where, pa?”“On the door.”“What door, pa?"“Why, the door to his barn, of course! And let me tell you that it took most of the rest of that afternoon to shovel all of them Cracker Jacks out of that box and drag that barn out! See, we took better care of one another back in the good ol’ days. And I suppose Mr. Jack himself thought about how wrong it would be to pack a pony into a Cracker Jack box and send him off without a warm place to sleep."“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! YOU ARE SOOOOOOOOOOO SILLY, DADDY! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!"“Well, all I know is that we would pull all manner of surprises out of those Cracker Jack boxes. They actually started out smaller, and I remember the surprises getting’ bigger as the years passed. The first prize of any real significance that I can remember was when my friend, Billy Ray, opened a box of Cracker jacks and out fell a monopoly set. Let me tell you, he was the envy of the neighborhood until the next day, when I discovered a marble chess set in mine. Oh, and one summer I collected 71 Schwinn bicycles—every one from a box of Cracker Jacks! Of course, some assembly was required, but I mainly gave ‘em away all summer long. I used to ride one and carry another, just so I could hand it to some kid without a bike. It made me feel like Elvis Presley giving away Cadillacs: ‘Here kid, have a bike… Thank ewe. Thank ewe very much!’”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! ELVIS HAS LEFT THE BICYCLE, PA!”“No sir, things was somewhat different back in the good ol’ days! But I 'spect even you youngins have some kind of similar notion to fall back on. I think you call it ‘back in the day’.”“Ha ha ha… Funny, pa! “Back in the day!”“Yeah, back in the day is pretty much the same concept. Not that I want to get all up in your grill and raise the roof, and whatnot.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”(That’s right. From Andy Griffith to Elvis to Shrek, and back, in the blink of an eye, and she loves every bit of it!)“You see, the only thing truly different about ‘back in the day’ and ‘the good ol’ days’ is that someone saw fit to stipulate the attachment of ‘good ol’ to one of ‘em. Which reminds me of something else about the good ol’ days. Did you know that when you bought a box of Cracker Jacks back in the good ol’ days, why, Cracker Jacks might not even be the tastiest treat that you would find inside?”“Really, pa?“Yep. Many’s the time we would bust open a box and find a couple of pizzas and a gallon of ice cream in there. Then we would just roll up under some shade tree and eat and eat and eat, until we was just as fat as ticks. See, back in the good ol’ days, times were often pretty tough, financially speakin', and my pa would have to scrape to make ends meet. Why, sometimes we would be down to our last couple of carrots, or maybe an onion or two, and he would have to round up his last two nickels and head for the general store. It’s the same store we still shop at, you know, that Kroger off the interstate?”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”“Same feller still runs it, too. I think you’ve seen him—a rather obese man with spectacles? He tends to sweat a lot?”“HAHAHAHAHA… DADDY STOP!"“Okay.”“NOOOOOOOOOOOO. Don’t ever stop!"“I won’t.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! Daddy, you crack me up. You're so silly!”“I see. Well, anyway, my pa was a proud man. And whenever he got down to them last two onions and them last two nickels, he knew he had to get him some Cracker Jacks before his family succumbed to starvation and whatnot.”“HA HA HA… OHHHHHH MAN! HAHAHAHAHA!!!!”“So, that meant he had to fire up the old two-seater and head on into town. Have I ever told you about the two-seater?”“No, pa. What’s a two-seater?"“Only the finest, sportiest ride around! You see, basically, it was a mule that was draggin’ an ox behind it—hence the name 'two-seater.' That was one of my pa’s prized possessions, and he would climb aboard that sweet ride of his and glide on into town dressed in his Sunday best. Unless it was Wednesday, then he would probably be dressed in his Thursday run-of the-mill, depending, of course, on what his plans were for the rest of the day. And he would be waving at the passersby. And by ‘passersby,’ I mean people who were walking and passing him because the two-seater, well, no one ever accused her of being the fastest ride on the road.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! OH DADDY, MY RIBS ACHE! HAHAHAHA! YOU’RE NUTS!”“Well sir, my pa would pull into that general store and park under the big neon Kroger sign, and then he would walk just as proud as any man alive, strut right into that store, place his last two nickels on the counter and, with head held high, announce to the proprietor, or perhaps some part-time cashier, 'give me two boxes of your finest Cracker Jacks, I got a family to feed!'"“Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh daddy! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!! I can’t take much more!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!”“He would spend the better part of the next two hours loadin' those boxes into the two-seater, and then he would begin the long journey home.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA… HOW FAR AWAY DID HE LIVE FROM THE STORE, PA?”“Oh, I’d reckon about 160 yards or so.”“HAHAHAHAHAHA!"“And when he would get home we would all gather ‘round and open those boxes. Why, we could stock our whole pantry off of the prizes we found inside. Problem was, every now and again, we would find another pinball machine, or a surfboard, or a chemistry set, or maybe a Rolex watch or two. But we still found us plenty of smoked hams and watermelon! Yes sir, we surely did. Why, I remember a Thanksgiving one year when things looked pretty bleak for us. The pantry was empty, and there were no more nickels. We were down to fishin’ for pennies from underneath the sofa cushions. But this was Thanksgiving, so we was gonna need 15 cents instead of our usual 10. Well, guess what?”“Tee hee, hee. What?”“We only found 14 pennies under that sofa cushion, and my pa, bein’ the proud man that he was, had to make a decision. Well, he loaded us all up in that old two-seater, and we headed in the direction of the general store. 'Keep your eyes on the ground in case we luck up on another penny,' he shouted over the roar of those engines. And if there would have been a penny, we couldn’t have missed it ‘cause we was movin’ slow enough to count the ants”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”“After several hours of travel we arrived at our destination.”“HAHAHAHAHA! 160 YARDS AWAY, PA?”“Yep. And it must’ve taken every bit of resolve my Pa could muster to go up into that general store, with his hat in his hand, and ask that proprietor, or part-time cashier, if he could please have 3 boxes of Cracker Jacks for 14 cents. Well, that old general store proprietor’s head looked from us to my pa and back to us again, and I guess he took pity on us and our hungry faces and whatnot, looking out from beneath all of the pinball machines, Rolex watches and Schwinn bicycles strapped to that two-seater.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA... DADDY YOU'RE CRAZY!!!!!"“I think that general store proprietor's heart grew three sizes that day. Right there in Kroger.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!”“That ol’ proprietor turned to my Pa and said, “Mister I don’t want no trouble from the likes of you hill-folk. Go ahead and take your 3 boxes and we’ll forget the penny this time.”“HILL-FOLK! TOO FUNNY DADDY. WAY TOO FUNNY!!!!”“My Pa thanked him kindly for his sincere generosity, and proceeded to load those boxes up. Of course, bear in mind that we still didn’t know what was inside. After all, it was a surprise. It always is. So, we were all kind of nervous after we got home and my Pa took a knife to carve open those boxes. We held our breath in anticipation until we actually saw it."“Saw what, Pa?”“FULL...TURKEY...DINNER! With all the fixin’s. There was turkey and gravy and stuffing and mashed ‘taters and more gravy and corn on the cob and a couple of mice."“AAAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!....”“And I’m savin’the best for last: homemade punkin’ pie!! With tubs of whipped cream!!! Mmmmmmmmmmmm. Mmmmmmmmmm. Man, you wanna talk about a feast? It was like we were Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving when Tonto met The Lone Ranger!”“OHHHH! HAHAHAHAHA!!! HAHAHAHA!”“Yep. Sometimes I can swear that, pffffft, pfffffft, I’m still pickin' out pieces of that turkey dinner from between my teeth. Pffffffft.”“EEEEWWWWWWWWWW!!!!”“Funny thing about them good ol’ days. See, no one ever actually told us that’s what they were until we had all moved on into the future. It’s like somebody just glanced back over their shoulder and said, 'oh by the way, those were the good ol’ days back there, folks. Sorry we didn’t inform you of that a little sooner. Maybe you could have spent a lot less time being miserable if you had only known that they were the good ol’ days when you was all livin’ smack dab right in the middle of ‘em.' But one thing I do know for sure is that them Cracker Jacks was much different than they are today. There was popcorn as big as a man’s fist and peanuts the size of cantaloupes.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!”“Why, a feller could easily bust a tooth out just eatin’‘em. In fact, the grown-ups was always tellin’ ya to chew your Cracker Jacks twice, just to make sure. And those prizes! I heard a story one time that a feller up in Raleigh found a Buick Roadmaster in a box!”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!! A CAR PA?"“Yes, sir! There wasn’t no pieces of paper as prizes back there in the good ol’ days, princess. Not unless it was the occasional million-dollar bill that ol’ Jack, himself, would sometimes slip in there. You know, for the more demandin’ kids who like to shop for themselves and whatnot—pick out their own colors and such.”“HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!”"But as far as just some little scraps of paper that have absolutely no value (as I glance back over at the ‘pencil topper’) what...so… um…ever. Hmmmmmmmmmmm. Well, well, well..."(I continue to stare at it, mocking me.)(I’m always the last one to get it…)“WHAT’S THE MATTER, PA?” (She’s still giggling uncontrollably and trying to catch her breath, as happy as a little clam...when...less than 10 minutes ago she was...Hmmmmm.)“Oh, I don’t expect anything’s the matter, sweet pea.” (Andy’s about to nail it down for me—the way he always does—the wisest man on television).“See, I was just realizin’ something. The way I got it figured, we managed to fish a mighty fine surprise out of that ol’ Cracker Jack box, after all. Wouldn’t you agree?"“YESSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!!!”(...as she leaps up out of her chair and grabs me around the neck.)“That was the funniest prize to ever come out of a Cracker Jack box, Daddy! I love you sooooooooooo much! Happy Father’s day!!!"“I love you, too, baby girl! And, hey, I was just cipherin’ on something else. All of those people who talk about it bein’ the good ol’ days, well, they must have been a tad confused, don’t you think?”“Why, daddy?”“Well, it appears to me that there couldn’t have been anything good about any days that didn’t include YOU. Now, let’s go round up Aunt Bee, and you try to stay out of mischief, okay? Did I ever tell you about the day I found you in a box of Cracker Jacks?”(We whistled the theme song as we left the room.)(Throughout the rest of that day, I would catch her starting to giggle over and over again. Or she would just look at me, shake her head and say something like, "hill-folk” or “160 yards” or “give me 2 boxes of your finest Cracker Jacks. I got a family to feed,” and she would just lose it, throw her head back and laugh to beat the band. My baby girl was thinking about her story, her surprise story dredged up from the depths of what appeared, at first, to be a very disappointing box of Cracker Jacks. But I knew that I was thinking about it even more than she was. And when she was finally all tucked in and sleeping peacefully that night. I went back to that room where it had all started earlier in the day. I walked over to the table and picked up the ‘pencil topper’ in order to inspect it more closely. It really was just a little piece of paper with a notch cut into either end... but there was something else—something I had failed to notice because I had barely paid it any attention, whatsoever. There were little cartoon ants painted up and down the sides, and they appeared to be crawling all over a segment of cartoon pencil.)“Well, I’ll be damned,” I said to myself, “Little cartoon ants marching out of a pencil. That pretty much sums your whole life up right there, doesn’t it, Sonny Jim?”Hmmmm...“I should have looked at this thing a little more closely,” I thought out loud.“Nope,” replied the little satellite dish in my head. “That would have ruined everything.”(Now, I have to be very careful, or this little treasure could get accidentally thrown away. So, I scoop it up like it’s one of those random million-dollar bills that ol’ Jack sometimes slips into a box. I carry it into my bedroom, and I carefully place it in an envelope. I seal the envelope, and I write on it: “The Golden Ticket, Father’s Day, 2007." I place the envelope between the pages of a copy of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” and I go to bed.