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June 4, 2006

James Conway — Co-founder of Mister Softee — is dead


His passing last Sunday, May 28, will not go unnoticed here.

For yesterday's Washington Post Style section, Wil Haygood wrote an elegiacal front-page story about the lazy, hazy days of summers long gone by, when the distant tinkle of the Mister Softee truck's bell was enough to stop any kid fortunate enough to hear it in his or her tracks.

The caption of the 1964 photo above reads, "A little boy is about to get his licks alongside the Mister Softee ice cream truck of Vernon Havenner, who dispenses conical convivality to the young and hungry in the area."

The article follows.

    The Dime That Bought a Rich Taste of Summer

    It always began with that bell.

    That bell had a lyrical, almost orchestral tingle to it. It summoned you in the sweetest way, waking you from an afternoon nap, yanking you from the back yard, stopping you cold in a game of patty-cake with your big sister.

    The Mister Softee truck was a big, boxy thing, ice-cream white, rolling on its own time. And it was some kind of magic to a kid.

    James Conway, who founded the Mister Softee company in 1956 with his brother, William, died at his home in Ocean City, N.J., earlier this week. (William died in 2004.) The Conways' enterprise evolved into a multimillion-dollar business, operating in 15 states.

    They hardly could have imagined, in the beginning, how much of a ritual it would turn into: summertime, a truck with ice cream, the twisting legs of little boys and girls giddy with delight. As if there could be such a thing as starving for ice cream.

    Actually, there was, and you did.

    So there you were, on your front porch, the bell someplace in the distance. Wafting over rooftops, through leafy trees, coming around corners, shooting rockets of adrenaline into your 7-year-old body. Was it coming from the east or the west? You look both ways, head spinning. You better not even think about scooting over to Sixth Street to get to the truck before it gets to your house on Fifth. Mama or Grandma or Grandpa (whom we lived with) would just kill you. Vanishing from their sight! No way.

    And yet, brave friends sometimes did just that. Down off their porches, and whoosh! Gone. Six- and 7-year-olds -- a glint of truancy in their eyes -- sprinting to get their cones a block away, then walking back, past my house, tears already falling as they licked their vanilla cones because they'd spotted Mom or Dad back at the house. And they knew: Sure as dusk was coming, so was a spanking.

    You had to wait. And with the waiting came the fretting. Would Mister Softee run out of chocolate, out of vanilla, out of strawberry, out of sprinkles? Out of that milky chocolate syrup? Out of -- no! no! -- the pineapple topping?

    Rarely, if ever, it seemed.

    Looking back, of course, that was part of the drama of it all. You had to pray that by the time the truck circled Seventh Avenue, then Eighth Avenue, then Ninth, only to circle back to Fifth Street and you, that it would have enough ice cream left.

    The ritual was sacred, something you held inside yourself.

    First -- that bell having alerted your senses -- you had to start devising a way to get your hands on the 10 cents, or 20 cents, that you'd need. Never go into your piggy bank for such things: That was Christmas shopping money, school-supplies money, money for your wonderful Aunt Creola's birthday gift.

    With Mister Softee circling, it was time to go for the parent. How they loved you! How you loved them! How you needed an ice cream cone. You tugged and tugged at Mom's dress, even while she's on the phone, telling you to go sit down until she gets off the line. But you can't, you just can't, because Mister Softee is out there, and you're pointing out the window, your arm straight as a ruler.

    There were times, of course, when the answer depended on the mood in the household.

    A recent argument between Mom and your sisters? Between Mom and Dad, who lives across town, who has remarried? Aim for the minimum. Go for the dime.

    But -- the sun shining, Mom's new dress just arrived from that store in Hollywood, dinner light enough to keep her out of the kitchen for long spells (leftovers, coleslaw: summer eating) -- go for the 20 cents!

    "Hand me my purse," she'd say, her mood light, swirling a soda pop in her hands. You'd yelp, drop that arm, race for her purse, which was sitting there on the living-room chair, beside the sewing machine. Those were golden words, and they made you giddy. And there you are, emptying her purse, a nickel here, a dime there. That 50-cent piece? (They had those in 1962.) Hand that thing to Mama. She didn't even know it was down there, amid the nutmeg face powder.

    The clock's about to strike 7. Our Mister Softee always seemed to come around 7.

    And there you are, front and center, on the porch. Waiting. And waiting. And waiting. About to have a conniption fit because Terry and Marcus and Zachary and Sheila down the street are already in line where the truck is parked, and they're twisting themselves in a frenzy, Sheila with her hula hoop, luckiest girl in the world with a double cone of vanilla with sprinkles and now walking away twirling her hoop and licking her ice cream.

    Finally, here he comes, rolling to a stop (double parking) in front of 1343 N. Fifth. The trees throwing shade, the coming cars knowing to slow up, to squeeze around, Mama coming out onto the porch, handing you 20 cents. "Get me a double scoop of strawberry. In a cup."

    Other friends coming from around the sides of their houses -- they were playing marbles, they were splashing in someone's plastic pool, they were in their garages playing. We were all munchkins, in Oz for a few moments of a summer's day, happy and sticky and comfortable, surrounded by people who cared for us, who saw something orderly and tender in children, their children, enveloped in that habit of summer, staring at Mister Softee and his truck.

June 4, 2006 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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When I lived in West London there was a beaten up old ice cream van proudly bearing the name "Mr Stiffy". Dangerous, it was. So many people swerving as the look in their rear-view mirrors to see if they'd read it right.

Posted by: Skipweasel | Jun 5, 2006 3:51:03 PM

oh darn ...I got all wrapped up in the summer story that I almost forgot why you wrote it. I dont' like the fact the man died I just like the way you remembered his legacy. Or maybe it wasn't you but whoever remembered this...don't mind me just caught up in the moment.

Posted by: Rhonda | Jun 4, 2006 2:25:15 PM

I love this. We should all remember times like these. Thanks Joe! =)

Posted by: Rhonda | Jun 4, 2006 2:21:17 PM

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