A hundred things tell me that summer is here — the empty schools, the rising heat, the blooming of beach balls and flip-flops from the shelves of the drugstore down the street.
But the season’s arrival didn’t really catch my attention until last week, when I was at the kitchen sink and heard the ice cream truck trolling our neighborhood.
Its odd anthem of expectation was unmistakable. That queer calliope music, funneled through the rooftop loudspeaker of a gaudily painted van, is always loud but never quite clear. The notes sounded slightly underwater, as if summoned from the deep well of memory where, in middle age, all the old delights of childhood now live.
I recognized the melody right away. It was a sing-songy children’s rhyme quickened by a scampering tempo, the same mad hurry that touches youngsters as they rush to a landing spot in musical chairs:
Do your ears hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie ’em in a knot?
Can you tie ’em in a bow?
Can you throw ’em o’er your shoulder
Like a continental soldier?
Do your ears hang low?
My son and daughter are in high school and college — too old now, or so they think, to run toward an ice cream truck as it summons youngsters to the curb, like snakes charmed from a basket, by the hypnotic music of a merchant of treats so cold that they land on the tongue in a blizzard of sweetness.
But there were summers, not long ago, when the sound of the ice cream truck would send our household scrambling for cash before catching the ice cream man on his roll down the block. We pay for most stuff with plastic, so bills and coins weren’t always right at hand. That meant shaking piggy banks and rifling sofa cushions to collect the required price for an Eskimo pie or Popsicle. Meanwhile, the growing loudness of that strange tune told us that time was short, that we just might miss the truck altogether.
Is there anything sadder than a child who’s missed the ice cream truck — who must now trudge back to the house as that mocking music recedes, leaving defeat in its wake?
There were afternoons, I confess, when I piled the kids into the car and followed the ice cream truck if we had missed it, intent on reclaiming at least one summer moment that had eluded our grasp.
But the joys of summer tend to slip away, anyway — no matter how hard we try to chase them down, to hold them close, to keep them fixed. Like fireflies in a jar, the season’s gifts glow precisely because they’re temporary.
Or so I thought as I stood in the kitchen of an empty house last week, listening to an ice cream truck go by. It passed quickly. But then again, everything about summer does.
Follow Danny Heitman on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman