Rocky road in the valley of the bomb pop
By Eddie Dean
I was coughing up dust, and so was my truck as we climbed the long gravel driveway to the sturdy white frame house high on a hill in Greene County. We had traveled many miles to get here, and the people were expecting us.
My truck was actually a converted ‘71 GMC van weighed down by a trio of lead-lined coffin-sized freezers. Above the rearview mirror I’d stuck a photo of a stoned Sly Stone, patron saint of hot-fun-in-the-summertime. On the truck’s filthy battered exterior, a painted tin sign promised "Happy Time Ice Cream," but everyone knew it as the “Big Lik,” the words emblazoned on the license plate.
At the age of 20, I believed I’d found my calling: driving an ice cream truck for Will Kerner’s company. [See sidebar on Kerner and other Big Lik vets.] It was naïve, to be sure. But out here in the remote countryside, framed by the stark grandeur of the Blue Ridge, it was hard to come up with any other vocation.
That’s because of my route: the only one of its kind in the history of the Shenandoah Valley, and most likely the entire United States.
A foolhardy enterprise from the start, my route carved a path through the mountains and hollows of Greene and Page counties, Appalachian outposts little changed since the Depression. It survived until the mid-‘80s, and it was during those twilight years that I drove the truck. I worked for Kerner’s two-vehicle renegade independent without allegiance to Good Humor or any of the other companies that dominated the industry.
The county route, as we called it, traversed the deepest reaches of the Blue Ridge’s eastern range. There were no maps of it except the one in my head.
This rocky region has been little more than a sinkhole for the locals, but it’s a goldmine for interlopers– first the folk-song collectors and then the social workers, and finally the first migration of movie stars seeking peace of mind and land for their trotting horses.
The movie stars didn't buy ice cream, not off a truck anyway. Just about everybody else did, though– at least, they did back then. This was before gourmet ice cream and internet shopping began to feed the culture of instant gratification. If you lived in Greene County, the only way you could get a Fudge Bomb was from my truck.
My journey began on Market Street in the Woolen Mills neighborhood and ended 12 hours later and nearly 100 miles away with smoldering brake pads and melted Dreamsicle splotches on the hot floorboard steps.
It was a grueling ride for me (and eventually a money drain for the company), but the route was a glimpse into a bygone era when selling ice cream from a truck lived up to its mythic status as a vital American enterprise.
The ice cream truck served as a unifying force transcending class lines and social status. Both haves and have-nots waved down Big Lik for a quick fix– a simple cherry popsicle or the more complicated Screwball, with that same cherry flavor crammed into a clear plastic cone and packed with easy-to-see bubblegum at the bottom. I’ve watched many a wild-eyed tot chuck the whole thing to get to that buried treasure.
Then there was the Fudge Bomb. This was a most popular concoction, a brown and yellow “quiescently frozen confection” shaped like a Sputnik-era nuclear warhead and infused with an equatorial stripe of artificially flavored banana which beaded with tropical sweat when unveiled in the July heat.
At the time, a Fudge Bomb cost 60 cents, a crucial dime more than its red, white, and blue cousin, the Superstar Bomb Pop. Well worth the extra investment, a Fudge Bomb was no mere popsicle. It was a bona fide meal, a Space Age dairy product depicted on the wrapper hurtling across the universe. In the hands of an imaginative child, a Fudge Bomb offered cold, hard evidence that a cow could jump over the moon.
I first discovered the power of a Fudge Bomb when I was surrounded by a Mennonite family who hadn't seen the Big Lik truck for a week. All their Fudge Bombs were gone, and their Snow Cones and Chump Bars, too. The Mennonites were some of my most loyal customers.
They were partial to bulk purchases of ice cream to tide them over the week, mainly because they could afford to. They were better off than most of my customers, who boasted little in worldly possessions other than the junk strewn around their ramshackle properties.
Members of a strict religious denomination, the Mennonites treat every day as a holy day, and they dress and try to behave accordingly. But nothing in their rules forbids them from indulging in sweets. And no visiting preacher ever inspired more joy than my truck and I did.
Despite their enthusiasm, the Mennonites never forgot their manners, even where their livestock was concerned. Somebody would head to the family graveyard, a stone-walled plot just off the driveway, and carefully unwrap a reward for a goat named Curly, whose job was to keep the grass trimmed around the dead kin's tombstones. I often lingered in the shade of the house as the family members admired their purchases. Like people in a P. Buckley Moss paintings, they formed a group of still lifes in pale blue church clothes, gathered on the green lawn and blessed by the sacrament of ice cream.
The hazy, hallucinatory Blue Ridge hovered on the horizon, as big white clouds drifted overhead like so many covered wagons. At such a moment on a bright Sunday, I understood why their ancestors had decided to settle here instead of pushing farther west. This perch would do just fine until the battle of Armageddon– at least as long as the Big Lik truck kept on coming through.
My stops began a few miles outside Charlottesville, where the manicured, fenced-in spreads of gentrified horse farms gave way to the great wide open of hardcore ice-cream country.
Heading west from Ruckersville on Route 33, I welcomed the sight of the small family farms, their hog pens and chicken coops. Farther out, some of the houses were strictly for shelter– and barely that. One couple, faithful and longtime customers, resided in an abandoned school bus parked permanently a few feet off the road. For them, the arrival of my truck was proof that even if they weren't among the affluent or the righteous, they would not be denied their just desserts.
Here the Big Lik truck was still regarded as a thing of wonder not to be taken for granted.
You could recognize serious customers by the names they bestowed on choice items. In these parts, a Nutty Buddy became a drumstick, an Eskimo Pie a chocolate cover, and a Neapolitan ice cream sandwich a Napoleon. On the county route, politeness was the rule, and the barter system often prevailed. A carton of watermelon-flavored Italian ice for a fresh mulberry pie; a Frooty Patooty Bomb Pop for a clay-encrusted can of beer unearthed from some secret hiding place.
The locals showed a genuine concern for the truck's well being. They sympathized with its dilapidated condition and greeted an engine breakdown or flat tire with the swift attention of those who know what it is to be in need. The men who helped with a tow or a tool kit refused all offers of free ice cream as thanks. They were poor but fiercely proud, and they were fast to forgive as well: the owner of a dog run over by the truck had only a stern reprimand for the driver the next time Big Lik came through: “You could have at least cleaned it up.”
Once on the edge-of-town route, I came upon a cat writhing in the middle of the hot tar road– it had been hit by a motorist a few minutes before the truck rolled up. A man appeared from a nearby house and identified the dying animal as his. Without a word, he went back to the house and returned carrying a pistol. As his daughter and her friends stood nearby shrieking, he walked a few paces off the road behind some thick bramble. One pistol shot rang out, then another. Soon he reappeared, ambled over to the truck, and bought his daughter an ice cream. But a snow cone could not console her, and she sobbed as she licked, staring into the woods where her pet lay dead.
Some things can never be forgotten, even if they happened more than a century ago. One customer stopped patronizing the truck after he discovered that one of the drivers was a descendant of a Union officer. After all, this was the Shenandoah Valley, once known as the Breadbasket of the Confederacy, and battle reenactments were part of the local social calendar. Our route took us through many of the same mountain passes where Stonewall Jackson and his men trudged on the all-night marches that so beleaguered the Yanks.
Big Lik provided an entry to places otherwise inaccessible to strangers. A century ago, Greene County's Bacon Hollow– abutting Shenandoah National Park– was a Mecca for folklorists hunting for ballads and songs the locals had passed down through the generations. Insular even by Greene County standards, Bacon Hollow earned its reputation as a place unfriendly to outsiders. Shootings were common. And yet, Bacon Hollow was hardcore ice-cream country, home to many of my most loyal and gracious customers.
Another Big Lik hotbed was a place called Brown Hollow, an all-black enclave in Page County. Here I would come upon the entire community playing baseball on a field they'd dug out of a hillside with a backhoe. The players, ranging from teens to stooping gray-hairs, were arrayed in their Sunday best– coats off and shirtsleeves rolled up for a game after church. The truck bell chimed, and for a half-hour Big Lik became the center of social activity in Brown Hollow.
Out in these remote parts, that ice-cream bell was no mere prop– it was a signal I depended on when I entered a hollow. The sound of the electric bell hung in the air for miles, alerting my customers that treats had arrived. Once, the far-flung ringing even wooed a calf that, mistaking Big Lik for its mother, broke free from a fenced field and followed the truck for a good half-mile.
Leaning hard on the push-button bell, I'd make a high-speed run to the dead end of a hollow where the state road hits gravel. On my slow ride back out, customers waited in familial clumps, sometimes three generations strong. They stood next to battered mailboxes with hand-scrawled names: Morris, Roach, Shifflett, the last by far the most prevalent surname in the region, with several hundred members of the clan in every nook and cranny of the upper Blue Ridge. The Shiffletts spelled their name every conceivable way, but they all liked ice cream.
On the county route, the ice cream truck really mattered, and there was still room for magic, like when the kids would ask, “Hey Mister, could you do that trick for us again?'' I never got tired of hearing this request. “Well, now, I don't know,” I'd reply doubtfully. “Let me see what we've got down here.” I'd reach into the freezer and toss a handful of dry ice shavings at a group of eager kids, who would reach up, grasping for the shimmering frozen crystals as they fell to the dusty road. That little shower of snow in July always thrilled them.
But youngsters weren't the only ones who relished Big Lik. Not far from the entrance to Shenandoah National Park, a cabin nestled on a steep slope had a plume of smoke curling from its stone chimney no matter how merciless the sun. It was the home of an old couple. This stop demanded extra-special service: I'd ring the bell several times and wait as the husband hobbled to the idling truck across the meadow that was his front yard. He always carried an iron frying pan. Like a priest offering communion, I would ceremoniously place his purchase– steaming freezer-cold in the summer heat– on the skillet, then watch him make his way gingerly back to the cabin.
Mostly, though, the picturesque countryside only brought into stronger relief the dire poverty of the locals. They came to the truck barefoot and bandaged and black-eyed, in threadbare clothes and metal curlers. They rarely displayed jewelry of any kind—instead, a necklace of fresh red hickeys on the pale neck of a teenage girl, or raw insect bites on the spindly, hairy legs of a crone with an unfiltered Camel smoldering in her sun-blistered lips. It was obvious that many of the children were hungry for more than ice cream, and in the adults’ gap-toothed smiles I could see the ravages of years of Bomb Pops.
As things turned out, the Big Lik expedition wasn't able to pay its way. After a while, the truck couldn't take the billy-goat roads. Barreling back across Swift Run Gap with an empty freezer, the top-heavy truck was always nearly out of control. I'd ride the brakes hard, and Big Lik would howl like an overburdened beast. Our mechanic, Race, had to install new brake pads and other parts every couple of weeks. Even on a good run, the truck rarely grossed more than $300. And so the county route vanished, gone the way of old-time traveling medicine shows and knife peddlers.
If I hadn't lost the route, it probably would have lost me. Places like Bacon Hollow– where one house had fearsome-looking deer antlers sprouting from its tin porch roof– had spoiled me as surely as the ice cream I devoured like road-fuel. (My record stands at 16 items on a single run.) I had no interest in manning a truck through paved city streets, my bell echoing flat off blocks and blocks of brick and concrete. I was sure the romance and wonder would be lost, and for a dreamer like me, that was a price I would not pay.
But memories of Big Lik and our journeys together linger still. Several years ago, while working on a writing project, as I was passing through Charlottesville, my old route suddenly beckoned me deeper into the Blue Ridge Mountains. The once-familiar terrain had changed dramatically. New, middle-class neighborhoods dotted some of the hollows where my customers once tilled the land. Shiny grocery markets and superstores had sprouted, no doubt with freezers full of frozen confections. These people didn't need Big Lik anymore.
Farther along, I came to one of my regular stops. On the gray January day I barely recognized the house without its summer curtain of green vegetation: it stood revealed as a bare, broken-down shack. Outside two gangly teens shared a cigarette and shivered in the bitter chill heavy with the smell of impending snow. They told me they were standing outside because it was too cold in the house; they'd run out of firewood that morning.
I couldn't resist the chance to introduce myself. Did they remember a beat-up ice cream truck that used to come around a few years ago? Their sullen teenage countenances brightened. Yeah, they remembered Big Lik all right, and they began snickering about all the treats that once held their fancy, back when they were just kids– the Frooty Patooty, how its mango mingled with other exotic flavors. Big Ears, pink sherbet in the shape of elephant ears. Chocolate Clumps, éclairs containing entire candy bars. Laughing, they admitted the Screwball had been their favorite.
As we talked, a beat-up compact car pulled up, and a woman emerged in untied high-top sneakers, a coat thrown over her nightgown. She had soft, prematurely graying hair bundled over her tired pretty face. It was the boys' mother.
She told them to get the firewood out of the trunk– some pine scraps from a nearby lumberyard.
She said she remembered the Big Lik truck, too, but it hadn't come by for years. That was the least of her worries. She had recently been laid off from her job at a textile mill, and somebody had burned down her grandparents' house over on Hightop Mountain.
As she watched her sons carry the scraps into the house, she remembered, "Those boys loved that ice cream.”
Pulling her coat tight, she apologized for not inviting me inside. "Next time you come by," she said, "I'll have heat in the house." Then she forced a smile and shut the door.
A version of this story originally appeared in Reader's Digest.