One day, in my grocer’s freezer section, a box of red-white-and-blue popsicles reached out dragged me straight back to 1974.
Suddenly, I was 11 years old and strains of “The Entertainer” were drifting up the street as I begged my mother for 50 cents to buy a Bomb Pop from the ice cream truck. I could see myself so clearly, hopping barefoot on the hot asphalt as I waited to place my order, all skinny arms and bony knees in a baby-blue T-shirt that declared, “Butterflies are Free.”
Riding this wave of nostalgia, I tossed a box into my grocery cart. I wasn’t thinking of the actual taste of Bomb Pops so much as the long-ago summertime bliss they represented. At any rate, I figured my sons would know what to do with them.
Our inquisitive 11-year-old quickly noticed the unfamiliar item in our freezer. When he asked, I gladly enlightened him about Bomb Pops and other sugars-on-a-stick that flowed forth from the magical sanctum of the ice cream truck. He stared at me with an uncomprehending expression.
“What’s an ice cream truck?” said the son of a farmer who lives on a two-lane highway several miles from the nearest neighborhood. Facepalm! It never occurred to me he would not be familiar with ice cream trucks. The ice cream man doesn’t come this far out. The Bomb Pop customers are too few and far between to make the trip profitable. Ice cream trucks are just for city kids.
Not for the first time, I was reminded of how different my sons’ summers are from those of my childhood. Besides the time difference – the 1970s versus now – there’s a gaping cultural divide. I mostly spent my youth in a suburb of Birmingham. They live on a hay farm in rural Louisiana.
Looking back at the school breaks of yesteryear, we rode bicycles for hours and miles at a stretch. Sometimes, we’d go half a day without any parents knowing our exact whereabouts. We had no cell phones for checking in and probably not even a dime for a pay phone. We gave no thought to helmets, knee pads or sunscreen. It was just us, our Sears & Roebuck 10-speeds and the closest a kid could get to freedom.
Honestly, it amazes me to think of it, especially when comparing my childhood summers to my children’s. Although they have ample freedom to roam about the farm – including a mile or more of their own private road – none of it is paved. The arduous labor of pedaling over gravel and dirt hardly encourages a love of cycling or all-day excursions. Riding on the highway is too dangerous to even talk about. Short of packing up the bicycles and going somewhere with lots of pavement – which requires the involvement of a driving adult and goodbye independence and spontaneity – there are really no good places for our boys to ride. They will never know the carefree joy of hopping on a bike and going wherever the streets lead.
One place they often led was the town pool, conveniently located a few blocks from my house. A laminated season pass safety-pinned to a bathing suit bought long afternoons of swimming, sunbathing and boy-watching. (I remember, in my junior high years, hot-rolling my hair and applying lavish makeup in preparation for an outing to the pool.)
Our sons will miss out on this chlorine-scented life experience. There is no public pool in our little town. The local municipal pool was closed for years before being demolished. Unless you are lucky enough to own a backyard pool or have friends who do, the river is it. The farm does have two fishing ponds, but they are muddy and snaky and not very swimmer-friendly. Even the country club pool where the boys took swim lessons (which, for most of its history, was public only for those who were white enough and wealthy enough to be members) is now slimy and abandoned.
The list of summertime things country kids can’t do goes on and on. They can’t play kick-the-can in the street with the neighborhood kids until the street lights come. (There are no streets, no street lights, and most of the the “kids” are baby goats.) They can’t walk to the store to buy green apple bubblegum, because the store is 5 miles away. Teenagers can’t cruise around and around the mall to alleviate boredom on hot summer night because … what mall? Here, teenagers hang out in the Winn Dixie parking lot. (And frankly, that’s a positive in my book. The chance that your grandma, English teacher or pastor might pull into the next parking space at any moment must surely limit one’s opportunities to get drunk or pregnant.)
It’s a fact. Every now and then, I wonder if my kids are being deprived of summertime’s great pleasures because they live on a farm in the sticks. (What can I say? I’m a worrier.)
I worry, and then I stop and count all of the summertime experiences they can only have because they live on a farm in the sticks. And I realize how utterly ridiculous I am to spend one nanosecond moping over bicycles and swimming pools.
For example, our boys can go fishing any time they want, at a moment’s notice, without ever leaving the property. There is a pond teeming with bass and perch a mere couple hundred yards from the house. They can walk there. Alone. I can see them from my kitchen window. They can cast their lines from the banks of this pond without adult supervision. And they do, all the time.
Or they can try their luck at the old gravel pit in the woods. With some restrictions, they can even drive themselves there. Yes! Both boys chauffeur themselves all over the farm and have for several years. Although, I’m not as loosey-goosey about the gravel pit, because a) it’s a long way from the house and surrounded by woods and b) there are boats, and boys with boats are rarely content to fish from the safety of the bank.
But about those boats: one is a “houseboat” (more like a floating platform) designed and built by our 14-year-old and his friends pretty much by themselves. Whatever our son is missing because he lives on a farm is nothing compared to building a real boat with your buddies.
I mustn’t forget to appreciate the rope swing, backyard baseball field, tree house or hay barn (where they still get into building “forts” and “tunnels” out of square hay bales).
And although I hate them and they scare this city girl witless, I have to add 4th of July fireworks to the list of reasons farm kids have it good. Not only is it legal to shoot fireworks where we live, and not only do we have plenty of room to shoot them, there is also – get this – a fireworks stand right across the highway. And it belongs to the family of one of the boys’ lifelong friends. If you a boy, this is nothing less than fireworks Nirvana.
Maybe my kids missed the ice cream truck, but summertime on a farm creates its own lasting memories, as brilliant as a firework and as sweet as any Bomb Pop.