On the way to school the other day, my ten-year-old, seatbelt clicked and settled into the back of the car beside his overstuffed backpack, asked me a serious question. “Mom,” he said. “If gummy bears were lifesize and fighting in a war under terrible conditions, and if they could regenerate, would they sacrifice their limbs so their fellow soldiers could eat?”
Obviously my first thought was: what?
But I am the lucky mom two clever and creative sons, so this was not the first time I’d been asked a question for which I couldn’t possibly fathom an answer. I moved quickly on to my next thought: What have I done wrong as a parent that this child would ask such a warped question? It must be his dad’s fault.
My son began to drum on his backpack, indicating that he was losing patience. That’s when I realized he wanted an actual answer, so I blurted out the first one I could come up with. “Yes,” I said, decisively. “I believe gummy bears would be heroic enough to do that.” Fortunately, we reached the school before he could ask a follow-up question.
My husband hadn’t left for work yet by the time I got back home, so I decided to put the question to him, expecting to share a laugh about the strange things our kiddos come up with sometimes. Instead, without skipping a beat he said, “No. It would be unwise in a situation of deprivation because the gummy bears wouldn’t have the energy they’d need to regenerate. They wouldn’t be much use in battle without arms, now would they?”
I recognized immediately that this was a more thoughtful answer than the one I had given. Also that it really is his fault our sons are a little warped. Still, the question stayed with me, because even though his answer made a lot of sense, I couldn’t make it fit with the image of the Gummy Bear.
The first Gummi Bears were made by German confectioner Hans Riegel, a couple years after he set up shop in his kitchen to create the simple hard candies his wife then delivered to customers by bicycle. By 1922, the two-person candy operation was struggling and Hans came up with a great idea to save it. Gelatin-based candies were just starting to really hit the spot for European customers with products like gumdrops, Jujubes and Chuckles. Riegel decided to create his own chewy, fruity version in the shape of cute little bears.
The bears were a hit and by 1939, the small candy-making operation, renamed Haribo, had grown to employ four hundred people and produce ten tons of gummy bears each day. Today the same company, still owned and operated by members of the Riegel family, produces enough gummi bears each year to circle the earth four times if laid out head to jiggly toe.
Haribo had some pretty lean years, too. During World War II, Han Riegel died, leaving the company in the hands of his two sons who both wound up prisoners of war. By the time they were released, the company was down to thirty employees and couldn’t produce enough bears to circle the earth even once.
Fortunately, the Riegel brothers turned out to have pretty good heads for business and, if the theme song of Disney’s 1985 cartoon, The Adventures of the Gummi Bears, can be believed, gummies are pretty bouncy. The brothers soon turned the company around and were employing more people than ever, pushing their way into markets across Europe with a slightly squashier and friendlier looking bear.
By 1980, the bears had made it to America and though there are now several companies that have latched on to Hans Riegel’s brilliant idea, the world still has plenty of Haribo loyalists. And why not? Because these gummi bears, though brought low by the horrors of war, managed to fight their way back, to continue putting smiles on faces the world over.
So yes, I do still think that a sentient, life-size gummi bear, if faced with the awful privations of war, would do all it could to bring joy to those around it, even if that wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Gummi bears, after all, are known for being tasty and chewy and for making people happy. They are not particularly known for their wisdom.
Next question, please!