I was maybe 5 years old when I had my first encounter with an ice cream truck.
It was a late 70s model Chevy Step-Van, rolling through our neighborhood like the U.S.S. Wisconsin. The music on the truck’s loudspeaker was a slow rendition of “Pop Goes the Weasel.”
The guy behind the wheel was Mister Jimmy. Jimmy always wore a white peaked cap, he had a five o’clock shadow, and he smelled like unfiltered Camels. He bought the ice cream truck after he’d made parole.
Mister Jimmy was a mythical hero within kiddom. To us children, Mister Jimmy was somewhere on par with Superman, Captain Kangaroo, and Charles Bronson.
Which is why whenever the ice cream truck came around it was a national event. Your entire life stopped.
“ICE CREAM!” one of your friends would shout.
It didn’t matter what you were busy doing. It didn’t matter whether you were cleaning your cap guns, damming the creek, or climbing the branches of a 65-foot oak, studying the complex physics of falling spit.
When you heard the ice-cream man music box playing, you dropped what you were doing and followed the noise unto salvation.
My chubby legs carried me across an open field where I joined two million kids who were all chasing the truck. One boy was clutching the bumper, his body dragging on the pavement like a rag doll. Little girls were openly weeping like it was a Donny Osmond concert.
The large vehicle finally pulled over, and We the People rejoiced.
All across the neighborhood you could see boys and girls emerging from homes, joining the multitude of seekers.
The ice cream truck was the only attraction in our world which could draw the children like gnats to a pile of organic fertilizer.
Mister Jimmy would pull to the curb, slide open the service window, and say, “Alright now! One at a time! No pushing! Quit kicking! Gimme some air!”
We’d form a chaotic horde around his window, howling in mob-like tones, grasping, clawing, hoping to touch the hem of his garment.
When he was ready, he’d shake a smoke from the carton, click his lighter shut, then shout, “Who’s first?”
And it was open season.
You only had a fraction of a moment to decide what you wanted from The List, which was about nine miles long, with items most kids had never heard of. Many of the children suffered clinical panic attacks simply by trying to choose from the menu.
There were Fla-Vor-Ice Freeze Pops, snowcones, red-white-and-blue Firecrackers, Screwballs, Fuddy-Duddys, Strawberry Shortcake bars, Candy Center Crunches, Bubble Plays, Chipwiches, ice cream sandwiches, Oreo cookie sandwiches, King Cones, Choco Tacos, Chocolate Eclairs, Bubblegum Swirls, Creamsicles, Crunch Bars, Drumsticks, Fudgesicles, Klondike Bars, Lick-A-Colors, Pink Panthers, Tweety Bird Bars, Homewreckers, Mortgage Makers, Seam Splitters, Double-D Snowballs, and the almighty sherbet push-up pops.
Kids practically threw their pocket change at Mister Jimmy. It’s a wonder the man never lost an eye.
Then, children would sprint away from the truck, tearing wrappers from their sacraments. In mere moments there would be ice cream oozing down everyone’s chins.
Often, there was some unfortunate kid standing on the sidelines who couldn’t afford to buy anything. Sometimes, you were that unlucky kid. Other times, that poor soul was someone else.
One summer, the unlucky kid was Charles Powers, whose father was out of work when the mill closed. Charles was watching silently while other kids stuffed their faces with frozen lactose.
My father usually gave me extra change to buy two push-up pops. One for me and one for Charles. Whereupon Charles, and I would sit on the steps in the baking sunlight, licking our melting sherbet, but wearing most of it.
Charles always seemed to enjoy his frozen treats more than the other kids.
I was thinking about all this yesterday when my wife and I drove past an ice cream truck downtown.
“Ice cream,” said my wife in a half whisper.
Primal instinct took over. Soon, we were standing in a line of mostly adults. There were business professionals, soccer moms, retail workers, people in fast-food uniforms, construction workers, Carmelite nuns, and one member of the police department.
“What’re you gonna get?” my wife asked.
I was still reading the list. “I don’t know.”
My brain was short circuiting. The menu had changed considerably over the last quarter century.
When it was our turn to order, my wife ordered the ice-cream sandwich, and I went with the sherbet push-up pop because it’s hard to beat a classic. The two of us ate without exchanging a single word.
Wherever you are, Charles Powers, look me up. I bought extras.