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.