The Pied Pipers of childhood summers


As kids, there were several things that summoned my childhood chums and me: the street lights, our mothers' call, and trucks.

Not just any trucks, but certain child-alluring trucks that crawled through Washington Park community during the hot, sticky months in Charleston.

The "Ice Cream Man" and the bookmobile could stop a child dead in her tracks and spin her 360 degrees in an instant.

In the middle of the summer, with head askew and ear cocked, she listened intently to pick up the tinny sound of the music of the ice cream man: "Mary Had a Little Lamb," "Three Blind Mice" or "The Farmer in the Dell" and sometimes "Jingle Bells."

What did we care? It was the ice cream man.

Kids would scatter like cockroaches, running home to beg for a quarter or 50 cents to buy a "Dreamcicle," ice cream sandwich, or the "Nutty Buddy," a creamy vanilla ice cream cone, topped with chocolate and peanuts and well worth the 50 cents, maybe even a dollar.

Parents rarely denied a child one of these delightful treats. It was not uncommon, though, for a friend to plead your case, even with her own mom or dad, to cover you. Better that than to have to share.

Then we would stroll down the street to sit in some yard or on the porch of a friend and enjoy our reward. What a life.

But I have to be honest. Though my pulse did quicken at the sound of the ice cream man's pipe, nothing made my heart leap like the rumble and blare of the horn of the bookmobile.

This library on wheels was what I lived for. In a very practical sense, it was much better than the ice cream man.

It cost nothing to enjoy its offerings, except a card, which I had and guarded with my life. I didn't need my parents' or the driver's permission to get on board. But the best part was, even though the bus was parked, once I got on, I traveled all over the world, far beyond my little neighborhood of bungalows and ranch houses.

I traveled to places where people looked different from me, wore different clothes, and ate different foods. Animals talked.

Where I went, girls rode horses, flew planes and carpets, and waged war, too. The handsome prince always saved the beautiful princess. It didn't matter that the prince and princess had blond hair and blue eyes. I was traveling.

Nor did it matter that the books were stamped "colored library" or "Dart Library," (the colored library). I didn't realize that the words were dipped in poison ink meant to kill the spirit, even of a child.

The books were going to immerse me in their world and take me from mine. That's what books can do. I could get several "helpings" here without additional cost; I could have as much as my little arms could carry.

Sometimes my best friend and I would compete to see who could borrow the most books. What a righteous contest.

Sometimes we would carry 20 books home with us. Of course, these were child-sized books. But all we knew was we had wonderful, soul-stirring, imagination-inspiring books.

Books served me well, too. Not only were they entertaining, they also blunted the blow of the buster of childhood fun: Restriction. I was well-acquainted with that word. To this day, I am an avid reader.

The ice cream man still excites children. The bookmobile? Not so much.

Today, few children will entertain themselves with a book. They have lost that sense of wonder and imagination. For them, books are so passe. Hence, reading skills are sorely lacking. But so are computer skills.

Here's a news flash: Reading skills are fundamental for all. Maybe my parents were on to something with all that restricting. The end, reading, justified the means.

Yes, the ice cream man's song lured me to wonderful childhood pleasures, but they were short-lived.

The bookmobile's horn led me out of the doldrums of my confinements to worlds I can still remember and revisit. Now that's a real treat!

Shelia L. Anderson, a native Charlestonian, is a semi-retired, adjunct college English teacher. She has three children and four grandchildren.