Ice cream cones are important. Especially when you are a six-year-old, barefoot kid on a hot summer day in a pre-television, no-movie-theater, rural village in the 1940s. My cousin Margaret and I learned this early and never forgot it.
In July and August, our days of play would burn out by about late afternoon. Then the hot sun seared our necks, the humidity pasted our shirts to our backs, and biting bugs delivered their miseries to our ankles. And, with the hours creeping slowly past, we suffered tasteless boredom.
It was time for our approach.
We might lie on the cool linoleum in the middle of the kitchen floor, underfoot, and let a few well-placed sighs fall on the ears of Aunt Mary and my mother, or simply whine that we be allowed to "do something or go somewhere." If this went over, we could follow it up with the helpful suggestion of being allowed to go down to Uncle Oscar's store, and - by the way - maybe we should have a nickel or so to "get something."
If any of these tactics worked, we would quickly be off on the dirt and gravel road that led down the hundred yards or so to the highway, and to the store. On the way, we could enjoy the little puffs of hot, powdery dust as it erupted between our bare toes, while being on the lookout for sharp-edged pieces of quartz.
If things were going right for us, we would be able to pass by the house where the big bad kid, Cecil, lived and not be spotted.
When we reached the two-lane highway that ran through the center of town, we turned right and mounted the wooden walk in front of Uncle Oscar's General Store.
Margaret and I were filled with anticipation as we pulled open the screen door (with the battered metal Grapette sign across its middle) and stepped into the sweetsmelling, cool interior of the store. If Uncle Oscar were picking groceries from the shelves for an elderly customer, Margaret and I would have to wait quietly, killing time. We might study the contents of the glass-fronted display case holding all the candy. If that was too much to endure, we could wander to the back and into the breeze from the ceiling fan.
At last, the great man would approach us. He had a stern manner. And with his gleaming bald head, green eye-shade, and tall, angular form looming over us, he was intimidating to a kid needing an ice cream cone.
When it pleased him, he would open the negotiations with something like, "I suppose you two want somethin', dooya?"
After we let it be known that our primary interest was in ice cream, he would study us briefly, and then gruffly respond, "Oh, ya do, dooya? And I suppose you've got money too?"
We would open our fists to demonstrate the loot, and trail along behind him, at a respectful distance, while he slowly made his way over to the big, old, metal chest that guarded the ice cream. Once at his station, he would carefully rinse the ice cream dipper in water. Next, he would fish around in the box below our level of sight - letting the tension build - and eventually get around to asking us what flavors we wanted.
More fumbling around. Then, "Ya say ya want vanilla?"
It was becoming unbearable. We bit our lips, and watched the old man's shaky right hand. Slowly, the hand descended into the box, sending small streams of cold vapor spilling down over the side. Then he would bend far down, make digging motions with his shoulder for what seemed like thirty minutes, and finally bring up a glob of ice cream - resting unstabley on the bowl of the dipper. We held our breaths. With his other hand, he would reach for a cone, and pull it from the bottom of the tin tube. Then - at the moment of greatest danger - he would place the glob of ice cream on the lip of the cone, and press it down. At last, he turned toward the lucky kid.
After a careful transfer of the cone, and an exploratory lick or two, a small hand would reach up and place a nickel on the counter. The worn out, oiled floor-boards would creak briefly, and the screen door would slam shut as the getaway was made. There was no holding back for the sake of the still-waiting cousin. The sole focus of the moment, the ice cream, was soon getting close and needed attention from the kid, as well as close and unneeded attention from the heat outside.
When the other cone and kid emerged from the store, we would begin a more leisurely journey back up the road to home. This time, our only concerns would be trying to catch each trickle of vanilla or strawberry before we were forced to lick it off our grimy fingers, or before we felt the cold shock of a drop on our knees, or - far, far worse - saw the whole scoop sail into the dust with a sickening plop.
Zigzagging in the general direction of home, my cousin and I might look for faces in clouds building before the setting sun. If a sudden breeze brought the fresh, sweet smell of coming summer rain, we would listen for distant thunder, and look forward to a fine, dramatic ending to our day. And these pleasures were made even better by the taste of pure, frigid, five-cent bliss against our tongues.
Life was at those times reduced to its essentials, yet it was complete and whole - and heat, boredom, bugs, and the need to be alert for stray dogs and bullies all shrank to their proper proportions in the universe. We knew who we were, what was of worth, and the meaning of life. And underneath it all, safe down inside, was the knowledge that there was always ice cream.
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