Nothing brings excitement to a quiet neighborhood street like the tinkling music of an ice cream truck. Mothers rush for their purses, grandfathers rise to their feet and children shoot across lawns like human bottle rockets.
Joe Cooper, who has spent more than 50 years off and on behind the wheel of a street vending ice cream truck, and his brother Ralph, who joined his brother in the trade after his retirement, witness that magic regularly.
“All the little customers are special. They’re all sweet,” said Joe, who’s certainly seen his share of youthful faces since he began his career hawking ice cream from musical trucks in 1958 in Washington, D.C. “For a lot of them, the little ones, it may be the first time they’ve bought off an ice cream truck. They come out with their money and it’s like their first major purchase.”
Ralph concurs on the pleasure of the work. “Oh the little kids are all jumping up and down. It’s a lot of fun for them. And that makes it enjoyable for us, that they like to see us coming,” he said.
And their older customers can be equally enjoyable. “The adults, it tickles a lot of them to death too. They will tell me, ‘You don’t know how many years it takes me back. I remember chasing a truck when I was just kid.’ It’s just enjoyable to see their faces. They’re all special,” Joe said.
Bill Kitch, also known as “Papa,” is among the later group of kids at heart. Springing for ice cream for his 9-year-old grandson, Justice, and his buddies Thursday evening in Carroll Creek Estates, Kitch said, “They hear it coming, and they all go ‘schpew!’” he said, sounding out his best imitation of a fireworks launch. For Papa himself, Kitch said, “It brings back old times, seeing the ice cream man.”
Down the block, Deborah Jasniecki said she and her son Matthew are out by the curb waiting every Thursday night. “He’s early tonight. We almost missed him. He usually comes at 8 and there can be 10 kids out here waiting at this corner.”
This time around, Matthew’s selection was a red, white and blue Bullet, one of the variety of Good Humor novelty treats Joe picks up weekly at Flav-O-Rich in Piney Flats.
Strolling the block as they listened and watched for the truck to roll up, 2-year-old Lyndie Webb, her mom and dad, Tisha and Corey, and their chocolate lab, Rocky, have also developed a Thursday habit.
“Now that we know he’s comes on Thursday, we’re trying to catch him. He’s usually here right at 8 o’clock so we’re giving her sugar just before she goes to bed,” Tisha said, wrinkling her brow at her family’s indulgence. Enjoying a pink, orange and green frozen fruit “Scribbler” that perfectly matched her outfit, Lyndie just smiled.
Looking back over his many years in the business, Joe fondly recalls a couple of small brushes with history. During his time “up in D.C.” in early the 1960s, he delivered ice cream to the Robert Kennedy family at their home in a nearby Virginia suburb. He took the children’s orders and dropped off their requests at the kitchen entrance every Sunday afternoon. On the following Sunday, he picked up his check signed by the former U.S. attorney general and brother to the president.
He drove an ice cream truck into the massive civil rights march on Washington, arriving at 6 a.m., sold out by 10, and blocked in by sheer size of the crowd, ending up a witness to the entire demonstration.
Following his time in D.C. driving for Good Humor, Joe spent a year with ice cream manufacturer in Pittsburgh before moving on to the former Goody Bar company and to Crawford Frozen Novelties in Ohio. In the early 1970s, he went independent with his own fleet of 20 Daisy trucks that kept him in business “seven days a week” in Cleveland, Ohio, and later back at home in Tennessee.
In 2004, Joe finally gave up his most recent winter-time employment. These days he says, “My legs won’t let me do seven day a week” on the trucks. So he and Ralph keep it down to two trucks, running Thursdays through Sundays in Johnson City, Elizabethton, Erwin, Colonial Heights and Kingsport.
“You can make money in it,” he said. “And it’s enjoyable.”