This year, Mr. Peanut, that smiling peanut-shaped humanoid decorating food packages that contain Planters Peanuts, turns 100 years old.
To you, he might be a bland little cartoon character exuding cheerfulness and enthusiasm. To me, he’s a terrifying villain of childhood nightmares.
When I was very young, Mr. Peanut wasn’t simply a tiny drawing on a piece of paper. He was an adult-size living creature. He cavorted on the sidewalk near a tiny nut shop in Woonsocket, R. I.’s downtown where my parents sometimes shopped.
I had never actually met Mr. Peanut. I had never even walked close to him. Inside that stuffy suit, unable to bend at the waist, there was probably a kindly gentleman, maybe even another child’s loving grandfather, trying to entice customers to visit the nut shop.
Someone could have told me all that, but it would have been irrelevant. To me, he was a giant peanut with human arms and legs – creepy, unnatural, a monster.
I remember one day when the four of us strolled down that street. My father was in the lead, holding my hand. My mother held onto my younger sister. He and I were playing our hand-squeezing game: I’d squeeze his, he’d squeeze mine a little harder, I’d squeeze harder, and we’d escalate until, inevitably, I couldn’t squeeze any harder and I’d quit. That was the point: Your father is supposed to be stronger than you, and you can take comfort in that.
But that comfort was no comfort when it came to Mr. Peanut.
We were playing the squeezing game, carefree and happy, until – bam – through the gaps between shoppers who bustled around us, I spied, standing on the sidewalk half a block away, Mr. Peanut. Panic!
A hasty, hushed conversation ensued between my parents. Should we force her to face her fear and walk right by Mr. Peanut? Or help her avoid the cause until she outgrows the fear?
They crossed the street.
Grasping my father’s hand, I mustered the courage to walk, heart racing, past that horrifying Mr. Peanut, feeling just a bit safer with the wide, busy street between us.
Decades later, I have nearly outgrown my fear of Mr. Peanut. When I heard about his centennial, I decided to see what he’s been up to all these years.
His image has been updated several times.
When he roamed Rhode Island terrorizing little children, he sported a thin rakish moustache which, along with his ever-present monocle, probably contributed to the creepiness. And what exactly did his right eye look like, hidden under that blank monocle? One could only imagine.
Today, Mr. Peanut has lost the moustache. He has gained an eyeball. He began to talk in 2010, not that I’m interested in anything he has to say. After decades of parading around in the nude, he wears a suit jacket. And, horror of horrors, now he has teeth!
What if, instead of crossing the street that long-ago day, my parents had forced me to walk close to Mr. Peanut, or even talk with him. I’d probably still be having nightmares.
Because I still think he’s creepy.