You live in a town but you belong to a neighborhood. In many ways the neighborhood gives the town its flavor; the essence you will remember all of your life even though you move away. It will always be the ãold neighborhood.ä
For years, espionage agencies the world over have been wasting millions of dollars setting up elaborate networks of spies. All the marvelous technical mechanisms, cameras and listening devices they use are not necessary. All they have to do is listen to the kids in any neighborhood and they can find out everything worth knowing about everybody and everything therein.
If you live there long enough its geographical contours and human peculiarities will become as familiar to you as your face. The physical characteristics of every house, garage and shed will be known. The occupants will be sorted out and filed away in your brain. The intimate facts of their lives will be common knowledge to you and all the other neighborhood children. Whether they own or are renting and often how much the rent is per month. Where the breadwinner works and how much he is paid. If he drinks to excess, occasionally or rarely, is grist for the mill. And on and on and on. No secret is too trivial to escape the inquisitive notice of neighborhood children.
We lived just on the edge of town and our neighborhood was an irregular shaped territory that ran from our house to the alley between Second and Third Streets N.E. It extended from the road leading into the City Park to about ãCä Street N.W. Within those boundaries, those of us who lived there felt we had a full vested territorial interest. A sort of ownership on the alleys, fruit trees regardless of whether they were on private property, berry bushes both wild and cultivated, curbs and gutters, vacant lots, sheds, ponds, creeks, billboards and any other unusual feature of the terrain.
Trespassers or strange faces were investigated quickly. Those passing through were one thing but a newcomer, or someone visiting for more than a weekend, had to be fitted into his, or her, correct niche or the whole social machine was soon in complete disarray.
Delivery men and their approximate schedules were well known. The postman, milkman, breadman, iceman, laundry drivers and dry cleanerâs man were regulars. Any disruption in their schedule was noted and probably became a topic for discussion the next time a group of kids gathered in the shade of a big old tree. A change in drivers required inquiries as to where the regular driver was, what the new driverâs name was and if the change was temporary.
Icemen were favorites of ours, especially in the summer. Ice companies distributed cards displaying the numbers ten, fifteen, twenty and twenty-five to homes along the delivery routes. Housewives would put the appropriate card in the front window to advise the truck driver. He in turn, seeing the card, would break off the required amount, dash up to the door, rap on the door jamb, holler ãIcemanä and go on in. Putting the ice in the ice box he would dash back to his truck and continue on his way.
Icemen had the tendency to be big, burly fellows, capable of manhandling two hundred pound blocks of ice besides the extra effort required to run in and out of different houses all day with deliveries of lesser amounts.
Icemen shared a place in popular mythology with traveling salesmen. The epitome of virility, they were cast in the role of being the answer to an old maidâs prayer or a lonely housewifeâs lack of male companionship. The territory a driver covered in a day was called his route. This gave rise to a jingle of the day that used a play on the word ãrouteä to give it double meaning. As we sang it, the words sounded like this, ãOh, the icemanâs got the longest root in town.ä
We would sometimes sing it as we ran beside the ice truck imploring the driver to give us small chips of ice to suck on. I sang it one time on the porch of a neighborhood house and got into a lot of trouble. The lady of the house was married to a traveling salesman. She made excellent root beer from extract purchased from the Hires Root Beer Company. Occasionally, she would invite all the neighborhood kids up on her porch for a glass of this ice cold delight. Besides knowing something about making good root beer, she was apparently young enough to get lonely while her husband was out of town. She was also enterprising enough to do something about it. It didnât take us kids very long to realize ice deliveries at this particular house took a long time. We were not so young we couldnât form an opinion of why. There came a hot day when the lady of the house invited a bunch of us on her porch for root beer.
Why I did what I did, Iâll never know. I can only blame it on an impulsive nature that prompted me later in life to jump out of airplanes and take up downhill skiing as a sport. What I did was quite simple. I downed my root beer and rising to my feet, looked the lady of the house right in the eye and sang, ãOh, the icemanâs got the longest root in town.ä Lightning struck me almost before I got started. That woman just about slapped me clean off that porch. And I mean right now. What was even worse, she never ever invited me to have any more root beer.