Saturday, July 28, 2012

Summer Part 5 - Good Humor

Good Humor

Ricky Mollinger disappeared without a trace on a sultry summer afternoon in 1963. The three year old was the seventh child born to an unremarkable middle class couple in Elkhorn Wisconsin. The Mollingers were small people. Their children remained tiny through adolescence, from which they emerged small and unremarkable like their parents.

Michael, the eldest Mollinger boy was the best equipped, intellectually and physically, when compared with his younger siblings. Subsequent births seemed lacking developmentally, as if each child received genetic material of diminishing quality from a finite supply that was being progressively used-up. Despite this clearly obvious pattern, the Mollingers continued to reproduce. Mrs. Mollinger was pregnant for most of the years they lived in Elkhorn.

Ricky adored Mike and could generally be found tagging along behind him uninvited like a duckling imprinted on a beach ball. Mike didn’t seem to mind, even in the annoyed way an older sibling might when tolerating instructions to, “Keep an eye on your little brother.”

It is hard to differentiate stupidity from inexperience in a three year old. Ricky was both stupid and inexperienced. He understood that doing what was asked of him was the surest way to gain favor with his brother’s friends. If this meant eating dirt or taking off his pants, Ricky willingly obliged. Mike came to Ricky’s defense only when things got out of hand, but like his friends he usually treated his little brother like a performing monkey. He had a reliable sense of what would anger his mother when events were innocently reported later in the day and knew that parental time was so diluted among the Mollinger brood that nothing short of a disaster merited attention. Ricky’s disappearance was such a disaster.

On the day Ricky vanished, a small white truck with a row of silver bells arranged horizontally above the windshield turned onto Spencer Street from Walworth. Hugo Fleischer tugged five times on the dangling string that brought the bells to life. He did this every thirty seconds as he meandered slowly through the neighborhood where the Mollingers lived. The sound of the approaching bells had a siren-like effect on children within earshot, beginning with frantic requests to parents for money and culminating with a reckless dash to catch the traveling vehicle.

Business was slow, angering Hugo as he drove his mandatory route. His tinkling bells punctuated the monotony of the summer afternoon but seemed ineffective despite the hot weather and crowds of kids he’d served the day before. They were occupied with something. Signs posted along the route announced a neighborhood carnival. No doubt they were too busy to make their usual trip to his truck. Damn kids. Couldn’t they make time for a Good Humor?

As if in response to his thoughts, a phalanx of children ranging in age from 4 to 14 spilled down the driveway between the Nelsons and Parkers. Old lady Parker nervously watered her garden, waving a hose back and forth, the nozzle emitting shimmering strands like an electric fence to keep interlopers away. Hugo pulled up to the curb and exited the vehicle, positioning himself alongside the truck where a silver-handled latch granted access to an otherwise invisible door. The door was masked by a large image of a chocolate novelty and the words “Ice Cream.” He opened the door with a practiced motion and swung it aside as the first of the children reached the curb. White dry-ice vapor spilled over the lower edge of the hatch, a tantalizing portal to the inside of the refrigerated truck. The chilling cold and icy frost within was welcome relief to Hugo as he leaned deep into the cavernous treat locker. He emerged with a Wahoo bar for Patrick Mollinger, and another for Ricky. Michael requested a Toasted Almond.

Hugo processed payments with a coin changer on his belt. A nickel here, a quarter there. He felt like a fool in his black-billed white cap. The kids happily walked away, unwrapping their ice cream treats and smiling with the first lick, the second bite. The line grew shorter as reachable inventory diminished. Around the back of the truck a second door allowed access from another angle. The satisfying kerchunk of the side hatch closing was followed by more vapor and more requests behind the gleaming white truck.

On the back panel of the vehicle were emblazoned words of warning to drivers lest they approach too closely – “Caution*Children” — an ominous necessity on an otherwise delight-filled curbside oasis. Fleischer the Good Humor man was sweating and annoyed by the number of kids, their indecisiveness and lack of proper change. His previous job had been with the sanitation department, disposing other people’s trash in the gullet of a less forgiving vehicle. He missed the gratifying toss of unwanted items into the stinking reservoir and activating the large shovel that scraped the contents deeper into the truck, the hidden area, as if cleansing it of sin, never to be seen again.

Ricky was standing behind the truck slurping the last of his grape Wahoo bar when Mike last saw him. Ricky stared at the words of caution about children without understanding their meaning. The gaping, smoldering hatch frightened him like the fire-breathing mouth of a child-eating beast. The man by the hatch nervously eyeing Ricky was scary too. Nancy Farley later reported in highly dramatic fashion that she saw Hugo Fleischer struggling with something at the back of the truck, as if he was pushing and sorting boxes frozen together, unwilling to be moved, or perhaps even fighting back. She recalled his profusely sweating face, an agitated look, darting eyes and a quick departure as the truck sped off, bells silent.

Just before dinner, the otherwise predictable and mostly quiet routine of the neighborhood was upset by a gathering of adults and the sound of increasingly louder voices. Parents sought their children, out of concern and for questioning. A crowd gathered around Mrs. Mollinger, who was visibly upset, crying and unsure of what to do. Ricky was missing.

The police were called around 7pm when a search by parents and children failed to yield results. A recounting of the afternoon’s events began to lead thoughts in the direction of the long absent ice cream vendor. Nancy Farley’s recollection created a minor panic. The image of Ricky’s squirming little body being stuffed into the rear compartment of the Good Humor truck became a vivid imagining, completed by icy vapor, the mechanical latching of the hatch and the sealing of the door, a puzzle piece that completed the ice cream bar mural under the words “Caution*Children.”

The thought of Ricky suffocating, freezing in the long gone truck was almost more than Mrs. Mollinger could bear. She became hysterical at the suggestion and collapsed into the police officer’s arms. A lawn chair was retrieved from a neighbor’s back yard so that she could sit awkwardly on the sidewalk in the middle of the block. Ricky’s name was shouted by multiple searchers. Kids dispersed as a fairly thorough search party, fanning out from the epicenter of concern on the sidewalk to all of the yards, garages and potential hiding places, obscured by bushes, sheds or other structures.

As the frenzy of activity mounted, a wavelike calm washed over the gathered crowd as news spread that Ricky was safe. He was led by the hand, rubbing his eyes and looking confused by all the commotion by Mrs. Bergrstrom who had found him sleeping in her basement. He had wandered through the open cellar door, became confused and tired and curled up on a load of unwashed laundry.

The neighborhood gradually returned to the usual routines, police filed a short report and a traumatized Mrs. Mollinger carried Ricky home for dinner and an early bedtime. No, she scolded, he could not go to the carnival tonight. There had been enough excitement for one day.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Summer Part 4 - Carnival

The Carnival

John F. Kennedy addressed a crowd in Berlin with the words, "Ich bin ein Berliner." His presidency ended tragically a few months later. In August the Beatles released “She Loves You” in England. In 1963 change came suddenly and unexpectedly.

School had been out for several weeks. When days in the sunshine and fresh air became boring and routine, we turned to familiar games or made up something new. Often we got stuck in the following loop:

“What do you wanna do?”

“I don’t know, what do you wanna do?”

This continued until it got boring as well, which was pretty much right away.

I realize that nothing will ever again approach the bliss and freedom of summer as a child in the early 1960s. We were completely cared for and free to spend our time in play, learning and growing with worries resting on someone else’s shoulders.

Decades later, when I emerge from my basement office at the end of the day I’m reminded of those earlier times and how much I miss them. A breath of fresh air. Sunshine. Clouds floating by. We took it all for granted.

It was on a typical sunny summer day that boredom hit everyone in the neighborhood at the same time. A few of the older kids had an idea. A carnival! We planned to create an arcade full of games with a haunted house, and staff the venue with kids of ages appropriate to their assigned jobs. The older kids took care of crowd control, marketing and ticket sales. We advertised on hand-made signs posted around the neighborhood and charged everyone twenty-five cents for admission.

We knew that location was important. A secluded area near fixed structures minimized construction materials and controlled access for expected crowds. A spot central to the neighborhood made it easier to haul materials back and forth each day. We quickly decided on the grassy expanse between my parents’ garage and that of our neighbor to our rear. In the city, this would have been a space reserved for an alley, but only a few properties on our street had set-back detached garages like ours. Most shared a rear boundary and had larger back yards.

Materials were collected. Chairs, folding tables and drop cloths. Empty trash barrels and tarps. Ladders and two-by-fours. An expandable fabric-covered “tunnel-o-fun” became the entryway to the haunted house. It led into the main space, wedged between the side of the garage and a row of bushes, narrow and perfectly positioned.

A small maze was constructed with tarp-covered tables to guide attendees past scary images – dolls covered with blood, a vacuum cleaner on blower setting that inflated a pillowcase apparition as they passed by, and even a trash can from which jumped a costumed kid. There was some controversy over this, since the can was dirty and moldy, and everyone suddenly claimed to have allergies.

Entering and navigating the maze on hands and knees put our guests at a vulnerable disadvantage. They could not stand, nor could they run. The maze led to a relatively larger central area, a propped up tent with room for a séance and storytelling. Blindfolded participants dipped their hands into passed bowls of “body parts” while listening to a tale of death and dismemberment. Hard-boiled egg "eyes," jello and bread "stomach contents," and cooked spaghetti "brains."

As with many risky things we did as kids, I now look back in horror at some of our ideas. Our parents seemed involved only at a cursory level. They watched us construct our carnival with seemingly harmless materials. But did they realize we were building an airtight combustion chamber where we planned on lighting a candle during our séance? Did nobody notice the paint and gasoline cans behind the garage?

The excitement was tangible on opening night. Our ability to draw crowds was hampered by two factors. First, every kid in the neighborhood was working at the carnival. Second, we were not allowed off our block to advertise. Still, a few friends from down the street and word of mouth resulted in a respectable line of carnival-goers. We made perhaps four dollars, but couldn’t have cared less. It was showtime!

Candlelight illuminated the darkened séance chamber. Nancy Farley was our storyteller. She was one of the older kids involved, and probably came up with the entire carnival idea as a vehicle for her budding dreams of acting. The first group of kids to hear her story had been well behaved, and Nancy learned from their reactions when to pause for dramatic effect or to speak in a whisper. Group two entered the chamber, which grew more stifling by the minute. Assistants were ready with bowls of body parts.

It was nearly dark outside by mid-story. No one remembers the name of the screaming young girl whose hands were thrust into the bowl of brains by an older sibling. I remember laughter as Nancy lurched forward with a particularly dramatic verbal outburst. The little girl reacted in an exaggerated spasm fueled by heat, fatigue and fear, yanking her hands from the spaghetti and tossing the prop across the chamber. The bowl, the brains and the candle flew across the space, quickly igniting the old drop cloths. A rush of scorching flames and penetrating screams filled the tent. Outside, the sky glowed orange above the two garages in a flickering eruption that briefly reached treetop height and then flared further as the leaking gas cans exploded.

Fireflies blinked the approach of nightfall. The tinkling, travelling bells from the Good Humor man grew louder and softer as sounds from the truck emerged from between houses one street over. Bugs swarmed as streetlights flickered on, and the cadence of cicadas and crickets provided a backdrop to the cries of children pleading to make it stop, please stop.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Summer Part 3 - Trench Warfare

Trench Warfare

An army hospital occupied the upper level of a two-story structure. Bandages and intravenous fluid bags were in short supply. The battle had been long and fierce. One medic and two nurses triaged incoming patients according to the severity of their wounds. The dead were removed by orderlies who grew so tired they would soon lack the strength to carry on without rest and nourishment. Mrs. Sellenger made cupcakes in her kitchen.

Some of the best times we had growing up in the low-tech 1960s resulted when all the kids in our neighborhood got involved in a single role-playing game. Outside of age-segregated school it was relatively rare for second and fourth graders to mix. But when “war” broke out in the neighborhood, little brothers and sisters were drafted and assigned to a chain of command. Our army needed a few good soldiers.

The Sellengers lived in a large house on a double lot, a privileged play place for their two kids and a host of friends. They also had the nicest playhouse in the neighborhood, and a dad whose interests ranged from hydroponic gardening to chemistry sets, rockets to mini-bikes. Mr. Sellenger worked in medical sales and was a well-funded adult child. Their playhouse became the infirmary, stocked with real supplies from which needles had been removed.

The western front of our war was waged in the vacant lot next to my house. It was strategically located to the south of the big dirt hill, just west of the sandbox. Casualties were taken across the street to the Sellengers, where they were examined, treated and released for further combat.

We played at war, oblivious to the possibility that we would several years later be stressed over a lottery for the draft that could send us to Vietnam and a real war. Ours was an unnamed battle in the style of great wars of the past, armed with the latest in plastic military hardware, some of which made realistic battle sounds.

We dug foxholes as if our lives depended on them. They were real holes dug with real shovels. We were generally unsupervised and free to dig as deep as we wished. Our parents no doubt appreciated the exercise we got digging the holes and the hours of focused energy that otherwise would have been misdirected in idle troublemaking. Hole-digging occupied us like the videogames of a later era.

Our vacant lot resembled the cratered surface of the moon, dusty and dangerous by the end of each day. The holes never reached more than about three feet deep. Digging became difficult and less gratifying after the loose topsoil was excavated and a layer of compacted clay was reached. It was much more fun to start a new hole. We dug dozens of them.

Such was not the case with the deepest hole we ever dug. We worked that hole like a team of miners, rotating shifts of diggers, dumpers and dredgers. A bucket at the end of a rope was lowered down into the depths of the increasingly deepening hole to the latest crew, then hauled out by the surface workers, emptied and handed back down. A six-foot tall ladder disappeared into one end of the rectangular scar in the earth. The walls of the shaft were unsupported but firm. We would have breeched the water table in a wetter summer.

The hole look disturbingly like a grave by the time Mr. Sellenger came out to see what we were up to. The wide-eyed look on his face probably explained the mysterious filling-in of the hole by the next morning. If there were calls of concern from other parents, we never heard about them.

One afternoon an approaching storm interrupted our play. We were called inside as the sky darkened. Torrents of rain rushed out of downspouts from the houses on either side of the vacant lot, a low spot in the neighborhood. The holes vanished by the end of the brief deluge.

From my bedroom window I watched as Donny and Mike arrived when the storm broke and the sun came out. They were awestruck by the watery scene they found upon their return, and their cautious exploration of the submerged lunar landscape quickly became a game of guessing the location of foxholes, first with sticks, and then with feet and legs.

It wasn’t long before they “fell” into the muddy swimming pools that had been created by the combination of our earlier digging and Mother Nature’s faucet. They frolicked and laughed, splashing and covered in mud from head to toe. From one hole to the next, they army-crawled through the muddy water that covered the entire lot, then slipped beneath the surface of the next mud pot, sputtering and laughing. Any thought of their parents’ reaction or the cleanup they faced when they went home vanished in the pure joy of the moment. Oh, how I wanted to be out there with them.

We weren’t privy to the eventual scenes at Mike and Donny’s respective homes. They were at the very least chastised and stripped naked in their laundry rooms, then sent to take thorough baths. Whatever happened, it wasn’t good, because it was the end of our hole digging period. But that was okay, since we had a carnival to plan.

Saturday, July 7, 2012


No Bats Were Injured in the Making of this Memory

Dusk in the middle of July approaches in a tide of liquid darkness that gradually flows from the ground upward, a pink and silver-blue river of light meandering between the shores of street-separated treetops. Fireflies rise from the grass to greet the night, and silhouetted bats fly like demented sparrows against the fading backdrop above.

Tired and fueled by a desire to breech the day/night divide, kids desperately attempt to prolong the end of day, hoping to extend their marathon of fun just a little bit longer. I did it. My kids did it. So it was on a typical summer night, wrapped in a blanket of darkness and musty warmth that limited our view of the shrinking world outside of the garage light that I proposed, “Hey, you want to see
something cool?”

Of course they did.

From the depths of a bucket in the garage I produced a tennis ball.

Tennis in the dark? Well that’s different, they thought.

But no racket? How can we even see to play catch?

I walked with ball in hand to the center of our street. Checking for cars, I threw the fuzzy yellow orb at the ground a couple of times. It bounced back nicely, producing a satisfying “phlong” as it hit the concrete.

Looking to the sky, I spotted a couple of bats darting in and out of the tree-line, cruising up and down the street and from curb to curb fifty feet overhead. Timing my throw to coincide with the path of one bat’s flight, I leaned back until it felt as if my elbow would scrape the pockmarked surface of the street, launched a pitch skyward as hard as I could and grunted an exhalation as the ball rose to meet the bat, missing it completely. At the apex of its ascent, the ball froze for a fraction of a second, then began to fall, increasing speed toward terminal velocity as it raced back toward the thrower.

The missed bat echo-located a disruption nearby, changed course instantly and pursued the mysterious object, precisely matching trajectory. Speeding just inches behind the falling ball, it seemed about to snatch it from mid-air. As the ball rapidly approached me with the bat in hot pursuit, the kids began to shriek. It was clear that the bat was going to land in my hair or on my face. I stepped quickly aside and let the ball hit the ground, where it bounced as before, the bat hooking incredibly mid-flight in an impossible last-second turnabout just inches above the street. Experiencing g-forces no human could withstand, it flew back up to treetop height in seconds, continuing its quest for a real meal. The tennis ball was inedible.

“I wanna do it!,” both kids shouted simultaneously.

The sound of giggles and bouncing balls echoed down our darkening street on this and countless other summer nights. The agile little creatures never came near us, which made the game a bit less frightening but no less amazing.

I’m not sure how I discovered this unusual bat activity, but I’m glad to have passed it along, and wonder if my kids will someday extend their own children’s evening by a few minutes, sharing the excitement of this quirky little game that begins with the question, “Hey, you wanna see something cool?” It is my fondest wish that they also add, “Your grandpa taught me this.”