COUNTRY FRIED/Margot Ford McMillen

The Sody Wars

My friend -- call him Nathan Gnasher -- teaches at a college -- call it Hope Island U. -- where the Trustees signed a deal with a soft drink manufacturer. The idea is that SodyCo gives a lot of money -- Nathan thinks it's in the range of $10,000 per year for five years -- and the institution gives SodyCo the exclusive right to sell sodies on campus.

Suddenly the place is awash with huge, red SODYCO signs. "I'm getting used to seeing it in the snack bar and the dining hall," Nathan e-mails, "and it seems appropriate on the recycling cans."

I don't know a lot about corporate culture, but it looks like "Follow the Special Bucket," one of our favorite animal games on the farm. After a calf or piggy is trained, you can lead all but the smartest ones wherever you want -- into a new pasture, a stock trailer, even up the ramp at the locker plant.

Explanation follows:

Young animals come to the world with an instinct for self-preservation. Distrustful and afraid of new things, they're difficult to manipulate. But if you're going to have young animals around, you need a way to manage them.

Some folks choose electric cattle prods and gated pens made with metal bars. Those are expensive. If we were going to get one, we'd wait for a neighbor to go under and we'd buy it used.

Luckily, there is a cheaper, quieter method of animal control. We call it "Follow the Bucket." It's quick, it's fun, and all you need to play is a special bucket -- I prefer a shiny red one -- filled with some kind of treat.

The first few days, you just leave the special bucket somewhere noticeable. If there are bucket-trained animals around, the new one will see them go to it. Even if none of them have ever seen a bucket before, though, you can bet that one will discover it and dive in, smacking its lips enthusiastically. This makes the others envious.

After the youngsters learned that the bucket holds something tasty, you can quickly overcome their protective shyness. They'll follow at a safe distance and when you put the bucket down, they'll come. These animals become lifelong bucket followers. After a while, I don't think they even see the people in charge.

Explanation ended.

There is a danger in thinking that animals and humans are the same. But there's a bigger danger in thinking we have nothing in common. Reread the paragraphs between "Explanation follows" and "Explanation ended", replacing the word "bucket" with "logo" and "animal" with the name of your favorite teenager.

Dozens of places of higher education have signed agreements with SodyCo. Even high schools and elementary schools have "adopted" soft drinks so they can pay the computer bills and the staff without raising taxes.

Back in March, Georgia high schooler Mike Cameron shocked his school principal when Mike tore off his Coke shirt in front of Coke executives to reveal a Pepsi logo. The Coke executives were at school to bestow $500 to the school for its part in dealing out Coke discount cards. To a cash-strapped school, it made sense to put kids on the streets for corporate America. Cameron wrecked the photo op and was suspended for a day.

After hearing about Coke's education program, Pepsico chief Roger Enrico said he'd use $1,000,000 of his salary to create a scholarship endowment. This puts Pepsi ahead as the sody-wisdom leader.

But logo mania isn't just in the schools. Mike Cameron might have gotten his inspiration from gold medalist Claudia Poll, the Costa Rican who offended the International Olympics Committee when she wore her Pepsi shirt to the Coke-sponsored Olympics. Hello, IOC, pick up the clue phone. If we want to see logos, we'll watch Nascar.

In fact, beverage logos are everywhere -- have you noticed? Passing through some tiny Ozark towns last week, we saw sody machines in front of every business, and a banner in front of a medical clinic that announced "Free Screening" next to the logo of a soft drink. Screening for what? Rotted teeth? Osteoporosis? Diabetes? Hyperactivity? It was almost tempting to go in and check it out, but we didn't.

And, the used-to-be-local festival in our town -- the Karst Frolic -- has signed with the big boys to sell $2 beer and $1 soda off trucks with shiny logos. You can still chow down on our hometown treat -- mutton sandwiches with deep-fried dill pickles -- but you can't wash it down with the appropriate sugary sun tea, unless you bring your own.

This is a tragedy. The best unofficial benefit to the Frolic was the Band Club booth where you could see your banker or the kid's history teacher in an apron pouring two or three paper cups of sun tea too full, then juggling them over to the counter without spilling. It set things square -- and the money went to band uniforms.

But, there's hope. As shown by the little rebellions of Mike Cameron and Claudia Poll and college kids who fill water bottles in their dorms and carry them all day long, there's a pitfall when corporations play "Follow the Bucket." Buckets, overused, lose their ability to lead. If they're seen daily, the calves remember that following the bucket occasionally takes them to the trailer or to the vet.

The other day, my friend Nathan got a memo from high up, instructing him that if he plans to invite students to the Department picnic, he must serve SodyCo drinks. "What an outrage!" Nathan wailed over the internet and you could almost hear him punching the mouse button "SEND!" "This is madness!"

Nathan wants to give students some food for thought, so at his house he makes a point of serving only things he's grown or bought from a neighbor. Eat at Nathan's and enjoy dandelion omelets, wild mushroom stir-fry or home-grown vegetable soup. Beverages range from mint tea to mulberry juice. No coffee, sody, tea, or alcohol. His parties break up early, but his students get the idea.

Coke officials claim that every American drinks 200 cups of their beverage every year. But, they say, as long as we still say "it's time for a coffee break," or "I wouldn't do that for all the tea in China," or enjoy clean water from drinking fountains, there's more market.

"What an outrage," wails Nathan, "This is madness."

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo.

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