By Jay Borum
I think the first time I heard an ice cream truck was when I was about five — and I had no idea what it was. I heard strange music getting closer and closer. The older kids heard it and they started running — so I didn’t know if it was something good or bad. What I didn’t realize at the time was that they were running to their parents for fifty cents. I quickly caught on to the game and got to the point I could hear the music six or more blocks away. It seems to me that the trucks either played “Pop Goes the Weasel” or “Turkey in the Straw.” In any case, it was a telltale sign of summer.
I remember the colorful paint jobs those trucks had, and the excitement they caused when they’d roll down the street. Harry Burt was the guy mostly responsible for the idea. He was the first to make chocolate covered ice cream on a stick, and he came up with the idea of the trucks. In the late 1800s there were pushcarts selling ice cream but the “Good Humor®” trucks became responsible for bringing the delightful frozen delicacies to many more people — they could travel anywhere and by the 1930s there were over two thousand of them. Before pasteurization became common, eating ice cream was fairly risky — people too often got sick from ice cream they got from a pushcart. Unpasteurized milk and ice cream could carry enough bacteria to put a person in the hospital or worse. Fortunately, they got that situation under control and about ten jillion kids are glad — it became safe to eat that frozen stuff even if it did drip all over your clothes and down your chin.
Over time, the menu got bigger and more elaborate — from simple ice cream bars dipped in chocolate and the occasional ice cream sandwich to super cones rolled in multicolored pieces of candy. Even the traditional ice cream sandwich puzzled me as a kid. I asked my mom what that stuff was on each side of the ice cream. It wasn’t bread like a real sandwich, it wasn’t a cracker or a cookie. It had the consistency of, well, nothing I knew. Maybe a little like wet cardboard mixed with a little chocolate. I loved it, of course, and my mom had no answer except her usual mom-like explanation, “just eat it and don’t complain — it’s dripping on your clean shirt”
One of the coolest things about the ice cream truck (pun intended) was the driver. Back then they wore a white suit and a little white hat. I’m sure that was intended to make people feel more confident that the product was clean, safe, and wholesome. And yes, they even tipped their hat to the ladies. That practice is long gone and seemingly will never return. What’s wrong with showing a little respect and deference to the traditional keepers of the kids who made the ice cream vendor a good living? And don’t bring up that misogyny mumbo-jumbo — the driver also gave a little salute to the dads who stood by, too. People are too sensitive. Eat some ice cream and chill.
I guess it’s a sign of the times that ice cream trucks are few and far between today. There are the rather rare trucks that follow a route, but even they post their location and prices on social media. It sort of takes the fun out of not knowing when the sound of tinny music will come up the street. And now even the kids can pay with a plastic card they swipe or tap on a machine. No fishing for spare change and adding up nickels and pennies. I doubt we’ll see a white suit and hat or a snappy little salute. And the day of fifteen cent medium cones is long gone — even the small one is three bucks. So if you hear “Pop Goes the Weasel” it’s probably an electronic version on a video game somewhere. Get yourself an ice cream sandwich at the store and eat it before it drips all over your clean shirt.