I could hardly believe my ears. But the music was unmistakable: a calliope rendition of "Turkey in the Straw," repeated over and over again, carried on the warm, still summer air.
I was mowing the lawn when I heard it. And then I saw it: the white truck, cruising slowly into my small-town neighborhood in central Maine. I stopped the machine and ran for my son. "Quick!" I called to Alyosha. "You won't believe this!"
Alyosha was loath to leave his soccer goal, where he had been practicing his kick for the past half-hour. But he sensed this was important to me, so he came along. Side by side we stood at the roadside. My son had never seen a Good Humor truck before, but I was instantly filled with memories of New Jersey summers defined by its daily visit.
I signaled for the truck to stop. As we walked up to the service window, a youngish, rather burly man leaned out. "What'll it be?"
I swallowed hard for both me and my son. "Are you from the past?" was all I managed.
The man laughed. "Why?" he asked.
He was too young to know, then. Too young to understand. I hadn't seen a Good Humor truck in perhaps 15 years. Or maybe 20. The idea that someone came into your neighborhood to deliver ice cream was something we took for granted as kids living in urban New Jersey. Every summer evening, at or around 7 o'clock, Jack pulled around the corner and eased his white truck down the street, passing under a canopy of green sycamores and maples. By then we'd had a hard day of play and supper was over and done with. Ice cream seemed a fitting way - the only way - to end the day.
Jack was a middle-aged man with slicked-back blond hair and quite a tummy. Like his truck, he wore white, and had a mechanical money-changer on his belt. As soon as he turned the corner and rang his rack of bells, we kids would quit our stickball game, disperse, and make beelines for home.
We emerged a minute later with a dime or sometimes even a quarter clenched tightly in our sweaty little fists. Then we'd pile in front of Jack's service window while he admonished us not to push, not to shout, and to say "please" and "thank you."
He spoke fast and in a snapping manner, working his jaws in tandem with the tinny click of his money-changer. He knew every item in the truck's freezers and was up-to-the-moment on what was sold out and what was on special. Within 10 minutes, he had completed transactions with 20 to 25 kids and then, with an abrupt goodbye, was gone, jingling his way into the next neighborhood.
Needless to say, Jack commanded more attention and cooperation from us than our own parents did. In fact, he had us on schedule. On those nights when I might be one of the few kids at home, Jack made no allowances. At the sound of his bells I had to break for the house, get the cash, and leap back onto the street in time for him to see me. On more than one occasion I chased after his truck, calling out "Jack! Wait up!" all the while squeezing the silver out of my dime.
AS I think back on it, I realize how astute a businessman Jack was. You see, my cousin Kenny lived in a neighborhood eight blocks away, but still part of Jack's territory. Sometimes, if I ordered a Toasted Almond or an ice cream sandwich for a dime, Jack would frown and jingle his money-changer. "Your cousin Kenny spent a quarter," he'd cluck. And then, gullible as I was, I'd run home for 15 more cents, while Jack called after me to hurry or else he'd leave.
When I was 10 or 11, I remember wondering what Good Humor men did in the fall and winter. I had an image of all of them living together in the same house, sitting around in their white uniforms and white caps, wearing their money-changers, comparing sales and arguing about which product was the best. Was it the Chocolate Eclair or the Creamsicle? Of course, I pictured Jack as the captain of the Good Humor men, keeping them organized, barking out orders, and telling them how much time to spend on each street.
Unfortunately, my neighborhood eventually went downhill. In time, Jack disappeared as well. There was no announcement, no warning. He just stopped coming. As long as he was there, we still had a neighborhood. But shortly after losing him, families began to move out as well, as if without Good Humor, there was no glue to hold the place together.
My son still doesn't understand why I'm so excited about the appearance of a Good Humor truck in our neighborhood, but he's enthralled by the pictures of the selections on the side of the truck. It takes at least 75 cents to do the trick now. Not so bad when you consider all that the Good Humor man brings to a neighborhood: music, conversation, and sweet licks. I ask the driver when he will be back. "Soon," he says. He tells me he's committed to making a go of it. I salute him and wish him well, resting my hand on the edge of his service window, reluctant to let him go.
As the truck pulls away I watch for a moment. Then I am struck by the strongest impulse. Alyosha throws me a curious glance as I back away from him. Then I turn and scramble after the truck, running as I did when I was 10, coins jingling in my pocket, wanting to buy a Creamsicle, and a Chocolate Eclair, and a Humorette; wanting to stock up - just in case this really is a dream.