Ice cream turned the tide

WHEN I heard that our carrier was to make an unscheduled stop at Palma on the island of Majorca, I was very excited. For one thing I figured that the merchants wouldn't have a chance to raise their prices to the level enjoyed by those of the typical ``fleet's landing'' locations frequented by the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. But more substantially, I believed we would get to see a port unspoiled by the excesses associated with a port used to catering to sailors trying to ``let off steam.'' I was not disappointed. I had a whole day to walk the beautiful, peaceful hills of Majorca outside the parameter of what the natives referred to as a city. (For someone who had been raised in a village just a 45-minute train ride from Manhattan, Palma was hardly more than a town.) I found the ruins of a fort built by Roman occupying forces before the birth of Jesus and walked up into a tower and looked out over the city nestled along the shoreline.

It was a beautiful, serene scene, disturbed only by the mammoth carrier from which I had just an hour before been disgorged, which was floating at anchor along with its two destroyer escorts. Together, they had the appearance of three sumo wrestlers squatting in the quaint living room of some tiny rustic cottage.

After a while I made my way back into the city. The merchants seemed genuinely glad to see me - despite my white bell-bottom uniform. The shops were simple, the wares, handmade.

I bought a lace shawl for my wife; it was beautiful (as a matter of fact she still wears it today, more than 20 years later). I had fun buying it. It was priced extremely reasonably, and the merchant made every attempt to make me feel at home in his country, even to the extent that he labored to speak exclusively in English.

It was getting late, and I knew I would soon have to return to the ship. So I decided to take one last walk out through one of the more residential areas of the city.

The homes came right up to the narrow, cobblestoned street with over-hanging porches holding much of the neighborhood's population within yards of where I was walking. As I walked along, it was increasingly easy for me to detect a latent animosity in their faces and in the tone of their voices. They were all speaking Spanish and so I could not tell what they were saying. But I could tell their remarks were directed toward me, and they did not sound inviting.

The only thing I could surmise is that they did not like a sailor walking through their neighborhood. Maybe they mistrusted my motives. Or perhaps they felt it an invasion of their privacy. Perhaps they did not like any military presence on their peaceful island.

I do not know. The best I could hope for was that they stay on their porches, and since they did not seem disposed to move, I felt safe, even if I did not feel welcome.

Then I saw something at the end of this particular stretch of road that held my attention: an ice cream vendor with one of those white, portable freezers on wheels with some kind of canopy overhead to keep off the sun's warming rays.

I remembered my pact with myself to try the ice cream of every port, since it was my favorite dessert. It was a pleasant, if not terribly scientific, survey.

As I approached the vendor, I realized that - whereas all the adults of the community seemed to be on the porches that formed the gantlet I had just walked - all the children seemed to be in the vicinity of the ice cream wagon. I began searching through my pocket for the last of my Spanish money; the vendor looked up and smiled. But my attention was diverted again and again by the light in the faces of all those kids who were now more and more paying close and warm attention to my actions.

I must admit, I think they gave me the idea. But when it struck, I wondered just what the value of all the money I had left in my pocket amounted to.

I stepped up and dumped all I had on the top of the vendor's wagon saying, ``Is that enough to treat all these kids to some ice cream?''

He didn't speak English and neither did the kids, but there didn't seem to be any problem in communication. As soon as I had made a sweeping, circular motion toward all the expectant faces looking up at me and had pointed to the freezer as I spoke, the vendor smiled and nodded, and a cry went up among the little guys that brought even more of them from among the neighboring houses.

I looked again at the vendor to make sure I still had enough, and he nodded again with an even broader smile. He spoke warmly to me in Spanish, the way he would have to a friend, and I warmed inside as I helped him hand each child his or her own cone brimming with ice cream. It was fun for all of us.

When we were sure all the kids had one, we both treated ourselves to one of the same description and ate with grins on our faces as we shared this moment with all those littler versions of us.

When I turned to go, the vendor shook my hand and said something imbued with camaraderie, and the kids shouted and waved, and I grinned and waved back. But that wasn't the surprise; what was was that all those people on those porches I had passed just moments before were now waving and greeting me in the friendliest manner, yelling and smiling and generally treating me like a returning hero of some kind.

I still could not understand the words they were using, but I had no trouble understanding what they were saying. It was a virtual epiphany for me, who had always thought of people from other countries as so different from myself.

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