My chief competition for business was Mister Softee who played a recorded song through a loud speaker as he moved slowly through the neighborhood. If you have young children, you may be familiar with the song he played, especially as you sat down to dinner. My other competitor was Jack and Jill and he pushed a button and created a sound not unlike a door bell. Frankly, the cacophony of bells and loudspeakers and buzzers more than a dozen times a day as we all passed through the neighborhoods on our routes must have driven parents crazy.
And it wasn't just the neighborhoods I trolled, it was public swimming pools, break time at farms that employed migrant workers and manufacturing plants full of blue-collar guys who just loved their cold ice cream on a hot summer day. My boss wondered why I was ordering so many half gallons of ice cream because bulk sales were handled in another department. I had to explain how I was paying the guys on the gates of those farms and plants with half-gallons to gain entry to sell ice cream bars to the men.
This was the summer of my content and I was having a blast, making almost $500 a week, my wife and I having no idea what to do with so much money. Boy, I' m telling you we were a couple of 2o year old college students living high on the hog that summer . . .
Until one day in the middle of August.
My boss came looking for me and found me at lunchtime when he saw my truck parked in front of a pizza parlor and told me to hurry home as my mother needed me. My father had been in Vietnam since the previous November and, with my boss being so mysterious, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on.
My mother told my brothers and I that she had been visited by the Base Chaplain who told her that Dad had suffered a heart attack. I couldn't resist a guilty smile. Here he was, 45 years old, in a war zone, and he had a God-damn heart attack!
Remember the old World War II movies when women would receive a telegram that started WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU . . . .? well, by the time of the Vietnam war era, we were much more civilized than that.
Two days later, after no word at all except for that one visit from the Base Chaplain, a staff car pulled into our driveway and three men emerged: a minister and two well-dressed officers. They talked among themselves for a second, put out their cigarettes, and as all of us peered through the curtains with a growing sense of dreadful anticipation, the three of them walked toward our front door and knocked.
This was the first time my mother and brothers and I had been together all at once since my father left for Vietnam. Without Dad, there wasn't much "togetherness." My father was the cement that held our family together and, without him there, we were not very close knit. My father had more than 20 years in the service and mandatory retirement loomed at 30 years. In order to get to 30, he had to accept an overseas assignment and he hadn't been able to decide what to do. I was in college, my brother Bobby was a junior in high school and our youngest brother Ricky, was a freshman. He had the option of taking a three year tour in Europe with his family or go to Vietnam for a year. He was a senior NCO and if he chose the one year in Vietnam, he would receive his money tax-free plus receive bonus pay for being in a war zone. It turned out to be a no-brainer from his point of view. He would make enough money in that year to help pay for our college and still have enough for a down payment on the house he and my mother planned to buy when he retired. He wanted to help design and build it. When we were transferred to Washington DC after our stint in North Dakota, he bought a house and built a workshop in the basement. From that workshop, he built a laundry room for my mother and a rec room for the family with knotty pine cabinets on the rec room side of the basement. He was fond of the words "knotty pine." He found them to be beautiful.
Those men at the front door? They were that proverbial World War II telegram.