Brett Nichols knows that life as a master bubble gum blower does not hand you happiness on a cloud of pink fame and sweet glory. There is a price to pay for making it into the "Guinness Book of Records" after blowing a 17-inch bubble.
"It's like being a gunfighter," says the towheaded and blue-eyed Nichols, who at 15 has a wad of self-confidence bigger even than the three pieces of bubble gum he's chewing. "Everywhere you go, someone wants to challenge you." b
Even back home in Marietta, Ga., there are hazards -- the teachers who have no understanding of the art; the long-haired girl in biology class who sits in front of him and threatens instant death if the stuff ends up anywhere close to her; the well-meaning friends who send pencils and other missiles into a beautifully blown bubble, depositing perfection in a classmate's lap.
Such problems disappear, however, like shadows at high noon, when compared to the threat posed by one Susan Montgomery of California. Nicholas won his title in 1978 and had been innocently resting on his laurels when the Montgomery menace blew a 19 1/4-inch bubble last year and took the record away from him. In the beginning, Nichols was prepared to accept the blow with Warholian grace and resignation -- "I figured I'd had my fame for the day and that was it" -- but that was before the Bubble Yum chewing gum company called and asked him to tour the country for them, forever blowing bubbles.
So now the champ is crossing the nation accompanied by a young woman carrying a pair of red cardboard calipers ready to measue any bubbles blown along the way in the hopes of reclaiming the title. (The measurement is "taken on a horizontal rather than a vertical basis to eliminate any elongation due to gravity," according to Guinness.)
The calipers are, he says, a necessary precaution. "I was in Atlanta once doing a TV show," he says, "and after it was over I blew this bubble that had to be at least 19 inches and there was no way to measure it and I thought -- and here a wail in the key of true frustration enters his voice -- 'Where are they when you need them?'"
So far Nichols has done "little old rinky dink TV stations" and soon he'll be making his debut in Baltimore on the Captain Chesapeake show, of which he says, "if this guy runs around in bright orange hair and a big red nose, I'm gonna be in big trouble." As Nichols points out, "it beats spending the summer working in a fast-food joint."
But that is not the goal. The goal is Susan Montgomery and her record. Unfortunately rumor has it that Susan may be married now and what with the possible name change that institution sometimes involves, it may be hard to locate her when Nichols arrives in L.A., where she is reportedly living. Hopefully, he says, she'll be woman enough to accept his challenge once he issues it on the airwaves.
Nichols remembers well the sticky taste of triumph. He earned the record his first time out at a contest, held at the local shopping center. "I got there late because my dad said I had to wash his car before he'd drive me down there. There were hundreds of kids there, but I thought, if they could do it I could do it."
Nichols watched the reigning champ, imitated his technique -- three pieces of gum blown in a sitting position with the head bent down to avoid seeing the world through pink-colored corneas. He made one improvement on the kid's technique. "That guy blew with these short panting breaths -- but that can really make you dizzy if you start to hyperventilate." Nichols took long steady deep breaths, breathing out slowly with all the concentration he could muster. At first, he wasn't aware of the sensation he was creating.
"It was a double-tiered mall and we were on the lower level," Nichols remembers. "Since I had my head down, all I could see were a lot of little feet. Everything else was all pink. Finally I snuck a glance, and all these people were hanging from the guardrails, looking down and watching me."
Nichlos' friend, who was watching nearby, was so awed he ignored Nichols' frantic signals to get the lady with the calipers until it was almost too late. Finally she arrived and after the bubble had passed beyond the 16-inch mark, the last marking on the measuring device, Nichols started laughing and yes, his bubble burst. Still, he'd won "a quick 300 bucks" and the kind of instant fame that seems particularly appropriate to the fertile fields of the suburban shopping center, where the American Dream is still given plenty of double-tiered space in which to graze.
In the summer, Nichols tends to spend a lot of time at the shopping center.
By car it's only 10 minutes from his home and most of his friends have their licences now. "You get a Coke at the McDonald's and sit on a bench and watch the people go by. You just go in and goof off. It's something to do on weekends." It's good place to blow bubbles as well, he says. "You can attract a lot of attention that way. People will just stand around and watch."
A place that was not so hot for bubble blowing was New York, where Bubble Yum, recently ran a challenge contest and where Nichols basically Blew it, or, more accurately, did not blow it to any record lengths. A mere 11 inches -- big enough to win the contest, but not big enough to cause Susan Montgomery any loss of sleep. One observer told Nichols he had scared off his only real competition by flexing his jaw muscles in an intimidating fashion. But the champ was not, by his own admission, "concerntrating well enough. I was watching this guy with a beard blowing a bubble," he says. "It was kind of distracting."
Still, 15 little kids asked for Nichols' autograph and he did win a trophy.
"It's really hideous," Nichols says with fascination."It's a 12-inch pink plastic bubble held up by silver calipers on a wooden base. You should see some of the reactons you get when you're walking around with something like that."
With the competition sure to crop up younger and better-winded every year, Nichols has made provisional plans for his future. His father is a commercial airlines pilot, and Nichols is going to sign up for flying lessons the day he turns 16. "I really love to fly," he says, blue eyes shining. besides, he adds, a lot of pilots chew gum while their gaining altitude, to keep their ears from popping while they're changing elevation.