Rants from the Relic - Pop and Popsicles

by Doug Luthanen

August has been a temperate month here this year - warm afternoons, cool evenings. The scorching summers of my youth seemed more oppressive, especially when stuck in town.
Being kids, we drank from garden hoses, ducked into the basement to play Monopoly, or explored the vast forest atop the sandpit south of Conan Street. Under the rows of pines was shade and air being cooled by whatever process it is that converts sunlight into green plants. For refreshment, we gobbled handfuls of chokecherries only to find that they only made your mouth drier after you spat out the seeds. So we ate more of them and the cycle continued predictably.
But occasionally, maybe several times a month, we sensed that the center of gravity of our neighborhood was focusing on a point on Central Avenue between Conan and White Streets as area kids agglomerated on Clint’s warehouse. Art Zorman had arrived with his semi and it was time to earn a bottle of pop.
Art’s tractor-trailer grew in our eyes as we tumbled down the slopes and sped through the sandy field toward Clint’s. By the time we got there, I figured the truck was about 200 feet long and held over a million bottles of pop. Art spotted the truck in the door of the ancient former Hudson automobile dealership building and roller tracks were erected on stands. We kids would assist the returnable cases of pop and Fitger’s beer as they slid along and down the tracks. The early-arriving kids got to stand at the conveyor’s curves and nudge any cases that dared to attempt to escape the gravity-assisted rush to the stacks inside the warehouse. Later arrivals were sent inside to catch the hurtling cases.
When the truck was empty and the final case was squarely stacked in its reserved spot on the worn concrete floor, Clint would offer our work gang bottles of orange soda or root beer or Seven-Up. A memorable treat enjoyed by kids grateful for the refreshment and the opportunity to help with this logistics miracle.
On days when the truck didn’t arrive, we’d gather at the southwest corner of the Lincoln School playground for workups sandlot baseball. You worked your way up to bat by starting in right field, moving to center when the batter made an out, then to left, to the infield, to catcher, then pitcher, and finally you got to bat. Usually there weren’t nine kids and you got to bat many times. When you smacked the rubber baseball well, you sprinted down the dirt baseline to first base to begin your major league career dream.
These games would last for hours in the hot, dusty afternoon -- kids would leave and others would arrive to start in right field and begin working up to be allowed to bat. I don’t remember injuries or arguments or broken windows or interference from Big Kids. But I do remember the little Wahlberg Dairy distribution depot across Third Avenue West -- about straight across from third base.
If you or your friend had a nickel, etiquette demanded you two hop over to the tiny building, sort through the top-loading freezer for a flavor of Popsicle you agreed on, and race back to the corner of Lincoln before the dyed sugar-water treat melted in your hand.
By holding the Popsicle plumb, sticks down, and pressing it with enough force to break it into its two intended halves but not so hard as to relocate the school, you could extract each half intact and share one with your pal. And by eating it quickly, you could minimize the stream of cold, sticky liquid drooling toward your elbow.
Misalignment, improper pressure, or bad luck resulted in a horizontal break and the guy with the nickel now had the bottom half and two sticks, while the freeloader had the upper half with no handles and sticky fingers, palms, wrists, and forearms until dinner.
How lucky we were to grow up where and when we did. We must have had a ball when 60 years later we remember the pleasure of an earned bottle of pop and the sharing of a five cent popsicle.
Those summer days lasted 30 or more hours each. Today the years are only weeks long.
Doug Luthanen grew up in Ely and graduated from Memorial High School in 1967. He wrote a weekly viewpoint column for the Northwest Arkansas Times for four years and is an occasional contributor to The Ely Echo.