I won’t say that everything I needed to know in life, I learned from the Good Humor truck. That doesn’t mean it taught me nothing.
The Good Humor truck was one of the two or three defining vehicles of my youth. It stayed with me even after I moved on to other vehicles, which is why it caught my eye last week when Unilever, the food goliath that now owns Good Humor, announced it will stop marketing Good Humor to kids.
My first reaction, I have to admit, was thinking, “Who else will they market to?” It sounded like Gatorade announcing it will no longer market to athletes or Red Bull announcing it will no longer market to sleep-deprived high school students.
After further thought, I had to allow that at least on the surface, Unilever is trying to do something good.
Unilever’s new policy, which incorporates its many other sweet snacks like Breyer’s and Ben & Jerry, eliminates or curtails product promotions that target kids 12 and under.
It’s part of a wider food industry initiative, encouraged strongly by the Obama administration and not so strongly by the Trump administration, to give kids less of a nudge toward foods that aren’t good for them.
The long-term goal is reducing the serious problem of childhood obesity, under the premise that pre-teens are particularly susceptible to being told that if it tastes good, you should eat all you want.
The 12-year-old age cutoff also seems to tacitly suggest that once kids get to be teenagers, they’re informed and perceptive enough to make smart food decisions on their own. I’m not sure I’m buying that part.
But since pre-teens do embrace foods they see promoted on TV or through influencers on social media, easing off on the ads couldn’t hurt.
Anyhow, back to Good Humor.
In my memory, doubtless polished by time, the Good Humor truck rolled down my street every day from the end of the school year in June until school resumed the Wednesday after Labor Day.
The Good Humor truck was white. It had promotional stuff on top, its jingles sounded like tinkling bells and it had a small compartment door on the side, a magic door that opened to reveal an inner paradise of ice cream.
The truck moved at a pace calculated with NASA-like precision. The driver had to give every kid time to hear the jingle and run inside to ask Mom for money. Mom had to find her purse and dig out the money. Then the kid had to run back to the street in time to stop the truck, assuming some other kid with a faster Mom hadn’t already done it.
Then the queue formed and the magic door opened.
These are the kind of moments we summon when we want to think everything was simpler and better in those days, which it wasn’t. Even Good Humor had a squirrelly side. We just didn’t know it.
And yet, whatever the existential truth, the Good Humor truck taught me life lessons that endured long after I no longer chased it down the street.
1. Delayed gratification. For reasons as much financial as nutritional, my mother only let my sister and me buy Good Humors twice a week. I soon realized that if I skipped Monday through Wednesday, I could wake up Thursday and Friday guaranteed to score. Plus three days of anticipation enhanced the pleasure.
2. Comparison shopping. While the basic Good Humor is a chocolate coating on vanilla ice cream, I discovered the generic ice cream bar in the drug store was cheaper and just as good. So I found the Good Humor products that really were better, like the orange-raspberry popsicles.
3. Customer relations. Okay, I would have bought Good Humors from Nikita Khruschev if he were moonlighting as a Good Humor driver. But when a driver was particularly friendly or helpful, we kids liked him or her better. Sometimes I’d change my purchase days if the right driver was on the route.
4. Recycling. Or at least repurposing. We saved the wooden sticks from our Good Humors, washed them off and made stuff with them. Okay, not all the time. But sometimes.
5. Brand awareness. You live long enough, you see lots of ice cream-style products. From Haagen-Dazs to mango-kiwi gelato to the frozen yogurt shops that outnumber Starbucks these days, the hits keep coming.
But among all my ice cream memories, of which I have an embarrassing number, none has ever felt more satisfying than the sound of the Good Humor truck as it turned the corner from Keeney Avenue onto Sylvan.
I’m fine with the idea of redirecting young kids toward healthier foods. I also don’t think it’s a bad thing that in a childhood with no cell phones, one of our consolations was Good Humor trucks.