A Leap Day Parable: The Ice Cream Truck

The mechanized repetitive song played a calliope of bells and droned on over and over again. It was a familiar children’s song, so familiar that I can’t remember the tune, but I can remember the repetitiveness. I guess the reason I couldn’t remember the tune is because the repetitiveness was annoying. It was sort of like that Salvation Army Bell ringer that plays outside of Wal-Mart at Christmas time. I know the bell is supposed to be musical, but it is only repetitive. I can’t quite hear the music for the annoying repetitiveness of the bell. Do you remember the sound? It goes like this: Guilt-a-ring a guilt-a-ring a guilt-a-ring and on and on and on until you can pass by and put some change in the kettle in order to keep the ringing of the guilt from getting any louder, which generally tends to go away once you get inside the store. And when it is time to leave, the ringing is there to greet you again.

The repetitive ringing I heard was not about guilt. It was about joy. It was a strange sound to hear only because these are the sounds associated with summer. Baseball bats zing in the spring. An oak log crackles in a winter fireplace. The repetitive bells of the ice cream truck are usually reserved for summer. It is February 29, 2004.

When the ice cream man came through the neighborhood, time would standstill. No matter what we were doing, building forts, playing ball, or just sitting on the porch and wagging out tongues, all activity stopped. Children would freeze in place. We would hold up our heads, raising an ear, like a beagle hearing a distant train before anyone else would. Hearing the bells of the ice cream truck meant two things. It was time for ice cream, and it was time to beg.

Children would run home at full gallop and promise anything in order to experience the sheer joy of the frozen treat. “Mom, I’ll be good for the rest of my life if you just let me have a quarter.” This was not a time for hesitation. This was not a time for debate. Hesitation meant the ice cream man was gone, and if he was gone, it felt like he would be gone forever. All of life stood in the balance in this one moment of risk. We would rush in with the full exuberance of ecstatic possibility. It was a wonder we did not become bi-polar. On the one hand was the excitement of getting the frozen treat, and joining the rest of the assembled tribe to devour the goods. On the other hand was the possibility of rejection. There were three answers I feared: “I don’t have any money. It’s too close to dinner. You didn’t make up your bed.”

I don’t have any money was the, “old mother Hubbard’s” answer which meant you can’t get blood out of a turnip. The cupboard was bare and there was no bone to give to the dog and no quarter for the ice cream man. Even though we were poor by today’s standards, I rarely believed this one because there had to be a quarter around somewhere. It’s too close to dinner meant that as children we really didn’t know what was best for us, that we would always choose to eat desert before we ate Brussel sprouts, and so I guess this was an exercise we were supposed to learn about priorities and delayed gratification. I don’t suppose I learned this one very well because I’ll choose ice cream over Brussel sprouts any day. The “you didn’t make up your bed,” meant that there was money, but I didn’t earn the right to the ice cream because I did not do my chores. Like any good attorney going through cross-examination, this was a yes or no question. “Did you, or did you not, make up your bed?” If the answer was yes, I had made up my bed, and there was money and it wasn’t too close to dinner, the quarter would be granted.

Back at the ice cream truck, the tribe was gathered to make their selections in accordance with the amount of money that had been successfully begged. Popsicles were at the low end of the pyramid. If all you could beg was a dime, then a popsicle would have to do. From popsicles there were push-ups and from push-ups there were ice cream sandwiches all the way up to the filet mignon of the ice cream truck: the Nutty-Buddy. Nutty-Buddies were wrapped in paper. The paper would be carefully peeled off to reveal a sugar cone with a crown of nuts and caramel and chocolate. An accomplished and experienced ice cream truck junkie could eat a nutty buddy like someone burning a candle at both ends. It was possible to eat the nuts and the chocolate and the caramel off the top, and at the same time, to bite the bottom off of the cone and suck out the ice cream. This feat was not to be accomplished by the novice, but only by the skilled Nutty-Buddy connoisseur.

These bells, these ringing, repetitive bells that play hypnotic children’s songs over and over again, seemed out of place because they were out of season. The bells of ice cream are reserved for summer. It is Florida, after all, but two days earlier there was 18 inches of snow in South Carolina and it’s been cold here with the wind blowing wind chills at a whopping 40 degrees!

It is the dead of winter, but even more odd, the day is February 29, 2004. Leap year. It’s an odd day, anyway. Every four years we have to make up a day because the way that we figure how the earth travels around the sun is off just a tad and so we have to tweak it in order to make it work.

Life is like that. No matter how much we try to organize it, no matter how much order we try to impose on it, every so often, and more often than not, life has to be tweaked. Life requires adjustments. And if we’re waiting every four years to tweak a thing or two, we may find that we need to be building in more tweak time. My manual on my truck indicates the oil is to be changed every 4000 miles. At Nascar tracks across America, cars come into the pits every 25-60 miles, depending on the track. Tweaking is what gets the cars from the back to the front. I’ve been married for 29 years, and if I waited every four years to “tweak” I think I know what I would be: divorced.

It seems, at times, that the repetitiveness of life often diminishes the joy. Bells are meant to awaken, not to put us to sleep. Ask any child when they hear the bells from an ice cream truck if they are feeling sleepy. Bells ringing at Christmas need to be ringing all year around. Maybe the guilt has to do with our neighbors who are in need 365/366 days out of the year. We are surrounded by phenomenal needs all the time. Is it only at Christmas that the guilt breaks through, because we know we have so much?

I want to hear the bells of the ice cream truck so that life doesn’t become so predictable, I want to hear the bells on leap day, ground hog day, the fourth of July, and Arbor Day. For that matter, I want to hear the bells on Monday, Tuesday, and all of the rest. Life is just too short to miss the ringing of the bells.

Jesse and Karen are biker friends from St. Augustine. I have known them casually until recently. The friendship has become much more intense. Jesse was diagnosed with kidney cancer last December. Cat scans revealed the cancer had spread to the liver and lungs. Last Monday Jesse was an “open and shut” case. Surgeons were to remove a cancerous kidney and when Jesse was opened, he was immediately closed. The cancer had spread everywhere. He was sent home to hospice, a condemned man sentenced to death in his own body. Alternative and holistic treatments are the last bridge spanning a diminishing hope. The countdown begins: two months and counting.

For Jesse, it’s immediate, and an “in-your-face” kind of thing. Jesse’s reality is also your reality and mine. We are all dying, or living for that matter. It’s our choice. The clock is ticking and the sand is drifting through the hourglass. We only get an allotted amount of ticks and grains of sand.

The Russian scientist Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when they could hear a bell and anticipate that food would follow. I think that is a pretty good idea. I want to salivate when I hear the bells. I want to live life with an insatiability that makes me always want to come back for more, licking my chops, making me fully aware and alive in every moment. Everything else is just plain boring. Maybe leap day is a subtle reminder that it is time to take a leap back into life!

I feel a strange stirring within. I think I’m ready to get up, fire up the Harley, head down to the grocery store, and see if I can find some Nutty-Buddies. I wonder if I still remember how to suck the ice cream out of the bottom. After all, it is burning at both ends.

Dr. Timothy L. McNeil is the Executive Director of the Genesis Counseling Center in Ormond Beach, Florida.