The Summer Mr. Softee Tried to Give Us the Freeze

'He's here, he's here!" shrieks my six-year-old daughter, pulling on my arm. "Come on - we're gonna miss him!" Her four-year-old sister adds, urgently, "Plee-ease!"

With the ardor once reserved for Barney (and before that, poor forgotten Daddy), my daughters have fallen in love with Mr. Softee.

The romance began last summer. From mid-June to Labor Day, Elizabeth and Kathleen waited impatiently for their nightly treat as they played in the driveway with their friends. To the kids - ranging in age from 3 to going-on 8 - certain issues became as critical as the soft custard itself. Who would be the first to hear Mr. Softee's trademark tune ("da-da-da-da")? See the truck's lights? Be first in line? (The grown-ups contended that the kids also were competing in another unannounced contest - "first to drop a cone.")

Once Mr. Softee's truck pulled away, the kids would race back with their dripping prizes, and their parents would chat. As the summer nights got longer, then shorter again, the grown-ups' talk drifted from the usual complaints about the heat and higher electric bills to memories of childhood treats and games. (Where are the snow cones of yesteryear?) Those abstaining from Mr. Softee would tease - enviously - the beanpole dad who ate a double cone every night, or urge our pregnant neighbor, Terry, to enjoy a cone for two.

While the night grew darker, the kids would rush up to us for a quick wipe of sticky hands and faces, then return to their friends to tell scary stories alone in the dark - with the grown-ups reassuringly in sight, of course.

That was last summer.

THIS year, the children's love for Mr. Softee seemed unrequited, as he literally passed our street by, night after night. By early August, Mr. Softee had stopped only once - when the children were already asleep. While collecting the kids for bedtime one hot night, we grown-ups discussed Mr. Softee's defection.

With her six-month baby boy in her arms, Terry joked that last year's Mr. Softee had retired on the business she and her three kids had given him. Britanny's dad, Joe, theorized that Mr. Softee was drawing enough customers from the kid-filled streets of row homes around us to overlook our side street of old-fashioned singles and twins.

The kids, tired of both adult inaction and store-bought ice cream treats - and tantalized by the sound of a Mr. Softee truck in the distance - plotted to track him down if someone would just help them cross the streets.

Joe said, "That music seems to be coming from Oakley Street [one block over]; I'm going to see if I can catch him when he turns up Robbins." He set off, determination in his step, but returned a few minutes later to report that Mr. Softee, ignoring the gold mine of kids on Robbins Avenue, had continued up Oakley. Away.

The kids looked like birthday candles that had just been blown out. "That's it," said Terry, handing the baby to her husband, "I'm going after him." Keys held high, she dashed to her car.

We waited and watched, kids and grown-ups alike. The crickets mocked, "We want Sof-tee; we want Sof-tee." But they were interrupted by another tune, loud - and close - "Da-da-da-da, da-da-da...." There was the intrepid Terry, leading Mr. Softee's brightly-lit truck.

So, joy - and Mr. Softee - once again reigns in our neighborhood. For the kids, the shrieks, spills, and thrills are back. We grown-ups, being grown-ups, grouse about the expense and the calories. We can't admit that we missed our old Mr. Softee routine, too, especially the chance to enjoy summer's pleasures: light-as-air conversation; the feel of cold ice cream sliding down a parched throat; an occasional, teasing breeze; and the sound of children's voices rising and falling in the dark.

Too soon, we'll have time only for a quick wave and a hurried "How's it going?" as we shepherd the kids in and out of our houses through the fall and winter.

But summer has taught us we have more than our kids and our mail carrier in common. Perhaps remembering that will help us hold onto a sense of neighborhood - a feeling as fragile as any summer romance - until Mr. Softee rolls down our street again.

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