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I Scream, You Scream, We All Run...
Nothing says “summer” quite like the arrival of the ice-cream man

It’s 4:30 on a Wednesday afternoon, and I’m 9 years old, sitting on the curb at the end of my block with all the neighborhood kids. None of us has air conditioning and we’re sweltering in the mid-July heat. My neighbor’s dog is breathing down the back of my neck; his hot, dog-food breath isn’t helping my already sweaty, sticky situation. We all sit there, tired from merely existing in the summer heat, staring out into the road. Most of us are dirty from digging in the soil on the small strip of grass between the sidewalk and the curb, and have spent much of the day searching under couch cushions for enough change to get a bomb pop. I can still feel that 75 cents in nickels burning in my hand. Then, in the distance, we hear the familiar bells chiming “Yankee Doodle” or some such song, and we know he’s close.

Chasing the ice-cream man was an art to us neighborhood kids. We always had one friend who could hear those bells from blocks away and would come tearing down the street to let us know that the ice-cream man had indeed entered the neighborhood. We would all quickly stand up in anticipation, and then would wait . . . and wait . . . the bells would get louder and louder, then from a distance we’d spot the glare off the roof of the truck, we would see the bright paint job, and inevitably the dog would start barking. We’d jump up and down, wave and yell, but the truck driver would pick up speed, turn off his bells, and enter the highway via the ramp just across the street. We would just stand there, open-jawed, shoulders slumped, a big, stinky dog breathing down our necks: the children the ice-cream man forgot.

For anyone who grew up with an ice-cream man (whether he actually sold you ice cream or not), his bells and colorful truck were a sure sign that summer was here. Most of us remember lining up with our friends and forking over whatever change we had for a frosty treat, a temporary escape from the oppressive summer heat. And we remember how hard it was to pick just one kind of ice cream from all the different choices advertised on stickers all over the truck. Nothing was cooler than those ice-cream bars, the ones that dyed your mouth a bright blue (or pink, or green), and came with gum that lost its flavor the second your brain freeze wore off.

While Mr. Ding-a-Ling is the ice-cream man of choice in my neighborhood, this phenomenon began with the Good Humor Man in the 1930s, whose brightly painted trucks and crisp white uniforms were created by the company as a means of delivering Good Humor ice cream by the box to homes.

The ice-cream man we know and love today evolved from the 1950s version of the Good Humor Man, who, with his white uniform and matching hat, had one lonely bell on his truck and sold that magical “ice cream on a stick.” While he was wildly popular during the childhoods of baby boomers across the country, the 1970s brought the downfall of the Good Humor Man, when the company began selling directly to supermarkets. And although you may see an original Good Humor truck, private companies or ice-cream distributors today employ most of those selling ice cream off a truck.

For some people, the crack of a baseball bat or the smell of hamburgers on a grill will signal the beginning of summer. For others it’s the opening of pools or whenever you break out your white pants. But for me, the return of the ice-cream trucks from their long winter slumber is always a sure sign. Even today, although I know I can just run to the supermarket and buy a box of ice cream, I’m still tempted to rush out the door whenever I hear those bells as a payback for those dog days of summer when the ice-cream man passed me by.

—Amelia Koethen

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