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WOSTER: Pitching woo and other bygone customs

I don't shop often, so I don't know where to find these things today, but back in my youth Valentine's Day was incomplete without little candy hearts with mushy sayings.

I remember them being a bit larger than a pea, if peas grew in the shape of hearts. They came in various pastel colors, and a growing boy could probably eat 600 of them and go into sugar shock before he ever started to feel full. That's all they were, little sugar bombs. Some enterprising soul had the notion of writing catchy slogans on them, and a Valentine's Day tradition came to be.

The slogans on the pieces of candy were simple enough, things like "Be mine'' and "Oh, you kid'' and "Pitch woo.'' I liked that last one a lot, probably because I had no idea in third grade what it meant. It didn't sound as mushy as the other things written on the candy.

I learned some years later that it meant "sparking'' or "courting'' or any of a number of other indirect phrases people once used to describe dating. A source I read said the phrase is obsolete, but the urban dictionary (and how much more hip can a person get than the urban dictionary) says it means "To exhibit your game. To woo a hottie.'' That's apparently what Merle Haggard was talking about in "Okie from Muskogee'' when he sang, "We like holding hands and pitching woo.'' Old-fashioned, but not Roman sandals and beads.

I seldom ate those sugary hearts. They were convenient for dumping into the envelopes that contained the valentines my teacher and my mother conspired to force me to prepare and distribute to my classmates — yes, even the girls — on Valentine's Day. Remember how we had to decorate shoeboxes and cut a slit in the top so the other kids could slip their valentines into your shoebox? I'll never forget.

I'd rather have been force-marched out the school door and down the street to the middle of the highway bridge to leap into the Missouri River than to have been forced to make and distribute valentines in class. I didn't get that choice. Even today, I'm pretty scarred from that classroom custom. Sometimes when I see a shoebox, I get the shivers. That's the only bad part about visiting DSW when we travel to Denver. It's a warehouse of shoeboxes.

I'm not even sure why we had the tradition of trading valentines back in grade school. I understand why Valentine's Day is a big deal today. It sells a lot of cards and candy and flowers. I saw on the Sunday news program that one candy store in New York City has 2 million visitors a year. That's on the level of Mount Rushmore's visitor numbers, and I wouldn't doubt half of those candy-store visitors show up on Valentine's Day. That's also about how many shoppers are crowded in the greeting-card aisles when I'm trying to find a simple card for Nancy.

When I searched for the meaning of "pitch woo,'' I learned that Valentine's Day may stretch all the way back to the third century. A Roman emperor, Claudius II, had it in for either a priest or a bishop named Valentine, or maybe he had it in for both of them. When an emperor had it in for you in those days, it rarely ended well. Still, an angry ruler from the ancient world seems a strange reason to be passing out cards and candy today. We humans have our quirks.

Chicago remembers Valentine's Day for the 1929 slayings of seven members of the North Side Gang, apparently by the Capone Gang. Again, that hardly seems the basis for a feast day dedicated to love and candy and, you know, pitching woo. In fact, it has the makings of a weird Monty Python film, if you ask me.

Nobody asks me things like that, though, not when Valentine's Day nears. They ask, "What did you get Nancy for Valentine's Day?'' And if I answer, "A card and a handful of sugar-candy hearts with slogans on them,'' they think I'm the strange one.