My childhood fascination with truancy wasn’t particularly unusual, I don’t think, though I may have come to it a little sooner than most. I was in just the sixth grade, living in the US Virgin Islands, when I discovered the pure thrill and joy of skipping school. Each day, I would take a ferry from St. John to St. Thomas, before boarding a bus to take me to the other side of the island to go to school. The whole trip took about 45 minutes each way, almost completely unsupervised by the prying eyes of adults.
I don’t remember the exact moment when I discovered that, when hopping off the open-air bus, I could walk away from the giant stone Catholic school I attended, instead of towards it. I could just as easily walk in the complete opposite direction, I realized, and have at least eight hours to spend exactly as I pleased, which in the islands meant swimming in hotel swimming pools, charging poolside drink service to imaginary room numbers, swimming off the ferry terminal docks in the crystal blue Caribbean waters, or trying (only mostly unsuccessfully) to sneak onto cruise ships.
I think I initially started skipping school just because there were so many other things to do on that small island, so many more fascinating ways to spend my time. Skipping school didn’t even particularly feel like lying; I got on the bus, rode to school, played in the tropical sun all day instead of going to Social Studies, and then rode home. My parents understandably assumed I had been at school all day, and I didn’t take it upon myself to correct their assumptions. It didn’t even matter that I got caught almost as a matter of routine; there were so many holes in the entire structure, that it was easy for me to slip through the cracks over and over again.
When we moved to Los Angeles when I turned 14, things were a little different. In South Pasadena, kids roaming around town during school hours usually caught someone’s attention, not least of all the police vans that used to patrol the streets rounding up the handfuls of kids that had decided against attending school that day. In California in the early nineties, most of those kids were up to no good, tagging gibberish on freeway overpasses and shoplifting L.A. Raiders sneakers in their gigantic puffy coats. I like to think that my intentions were more innocent; I was usually just in Old Town, selling my older brother’s used CDs to Penny Lane and using the money to pump into a Street Fighter II cabinet at the pleasantly seedy Pak-Mann arcade, or to finance whatever mildly criminal enterprise I was up to at the time.
When we returned to Maine in my Junior year of high school, and I reunited with the friends I had grown up with, the pattern continued. Skipping school in Maine was a little different, although no less thrilling. Unlike my early days as a truant in St. Thomas, there was little to actually do once you’d skipped school in Thomaston. We’d take a few laps around Rockland, usually stopping in for McMuffins and light vandalism at the local McDonald’s. From there, we would pile into a friend’s car and head off to either Brunswick or Augusta, the largest nearby towns, to shop in Army/Navy stores and to browse through the racks of the nearest record stores. Record stores? What am I, sixty?
This isn’t a story about record stores, though. It’s not even really a story about truancy (you can blame my inability to tell a coherent story on what essentially turned out to be a sixth grade education). No, this is a story about roadside convenience stores, specifically as they existed in the mid-1990s in midcoast Maine.
Convenience stores were major players in our lives back then. With little else to do to break up our skipped school-day trip from Thomaston to Augusta, the stops were many. In those days, there wasn’t just the endless string of Irving stations and Cumberland Farms that exist now. Back then, particularly on the interior route along Route 17, most of the roadside stops were small mom-and-pop establishments. Gas stations that always had a grubby, too-warm Italian sandwich station in the back corner. The kinds of places where the air hung heavy with the smell of chemically-flavored amaretto coffee and cigarette smoke. The kinds of places that would risk selling tobacco to minors, if it meant a few extra bucks in the register for the day. And for that matter, the kinds of places that augmented their brand-name inventory with a few homemade snacks, venison jerky that was dried in a trailer out back, or cream horns that were so packed with powdered sugar and shortening that the combination would make your teeth itch for the rest of the afternoon.
One of my favorite stores was a place called Peasley’s, a sprawling, warehouse-sized truck stop just outside of Augusta with dirty floors and every kind of roadside convenience food my 16-year-old brain could imagine: slowly spinning warmers, their top racks filled with doughy pizzas covered with pounds of cheap mozzarella cheese, their lower racks piled high with pre-cooked, individually-wrapped cheeseburgers. Huge bins of beef jerky with hand-lettered cardboard signs imploring customers to “PLEASE use TONGUES,” row upon row of ice cold soda, and an enormous sandwich station. Next to the counter, mingling among tins of pina colada Skoal and scratch tickets, were baskets overflowing with no-bake cookies, homemade coffee cakes, and my favorite snack of the day, peanut butter buckeyes.
Peanut butter buckeyes are dead simple to make. In fact, they’re made with just three or four ingredients: Creamy peanut butter, powdered sugar, melted chocolate, and in our recipe, graham crackers to add a little extra texture. They’re little grenades of sweetness that will have you talking more loudly for the rest of the day, as the absurd amounts of fat and sugar hit your bloodstream, giving your hands just the slightest tremble. They’re certainly not a Maine dish, having originated somewhere in Ohio, but they always seemed to be available at Peasley’s. And I would always get at least two.
It’s getting harder and harder to find homemade candy at roadside markets here in Maine, now that health code regulations are presumably more stringent, and people have gotten so darned fussy about e. coli contamination. Even my beloved Peasley’s seems to be just barely hanging on, these days; the hot dog rollers are all turned off, and the nacho cheese dispenser sits empty. But to this day, anytime I stop there and I see a basket of buckeyes, I buy one. They always remind me of those days when the biggest decision I had to make was whether or not to bother going to Algebra, those days when I had nothing to do but seek out those small adventures during school hours.
Peanut Butter Buckeyes
Makes 24 candies; Adapted from a recipe by Bon Appetit
- 12 graham crackers
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1 cup peanut butter
- 12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
In a food processor, pulse graham crackers and powdered sugar into fine crumbs. Add peanut butter, and pulse until incorporated in to a dry, crumbly dough.
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Using your hands, shape dough into 24 balls, then place in freezer for a half an hour to set.
In a microwave-safe bowl, heat chocolate chips in 15 second intervals, stirring after each burst, until chocolate chips are melted and smooth. Dip chilled peanut butter balls into melted chocolate, leaving a bit of the peanut butter exposed. Use a fork to fish them out of the bowl, then return to parchment-lined baking sheet. When all peanut butter balls have been dipped, return to freezer to set, then store in refrigerator.