Originally published in Arthur No. 1 (Oct. 2002)
ICE CREAM FOR CROW: In the Shadow of the Valley of the Bomb Pop
Last Notes from the Great Lost Big Lik Expedition
by Eddie Dean, with photography by Dave Brooks
I first discovered the power of a Fudge Bomb when I was surrounded by a family of Blue Ridge Mennonites who hadn’t seen the ice cream truck for a week. All their Fudge Bombs had run out days ago, and their Snow Cones and Chocolate Chump Bars, too. Their sturdy white frame house sat on a hill in Greene County, Virginia, and I was parked before it in my truck, both of us coughing up dust after the long climb up the winding gravel driveway. These people were hurting badly. We were here to help them.
For generations, locals have found this rocky region as poor as a snake. But it’s been a goldmine for interlopers—first the folk-song collectors and then the government men and the social workers and finally the movie stars here for peace of mind and land for their trotting horses. The movie stars didn’t buy ice cream, not off a truck anyway. Just about everybody else did, though. At least, they did back then. This was 20 years ago, before gourmet ice cream and the culture of instant gratification. If you lived in Greene County, the only way you could get a Fudge Bomb was from my truck.
A Fudge Bomb is a brown and yellow “quiescently frozen confection” impaled on a stick and molded in the shape of a Sputnik-era nuclear warhead. It is infused with an equatorial stripe of artificially flavored banana that beads with tropical sweat when unveiled in the July heat by a Mennonite housewife in a gingham dress. At the time I was selling them, a Fudge Bomb cost 60 cents, a crucial dime more than its red-white-and-blue cousin, the Superstar Bomb Pop, but well worth the extra investment. No mere popsicle, a Fudge Bomb is a bona fide meal.
The Mennonites are a strict denomination. For them, every day is a holy day, and they dress and try to behave as such. But there is nothing in their rules that forbids the indulgence of sweets. And no visiting preacher ever inspired more joy than did the driver of the truck with the BIG LIK license plates. I would often linger in the shade as the family members gathered on the green lawn, becalmed by the sacrament of ice cream. The rippling folds of the Blue Ridge mountains stretched to the horizon, as big white clouds drifted by like so many covered wagons. At such a moment of a bright Sunday many summers ago, I understood why their ancestors decided to nestle here instead of pushing west. This perch would do fine until the Battle of Armageddon.
Those were good customers, that family, one of several Mennonite families on the route. They even bought ice cream for their livestock. They had a goat named Curly leashed to a tombstone in the family graveyard, a stone-walled plot near the driveway. His reward for keeping the grass trim was an ice-cream sandwich. The Mennonites were businesspeople themselves. I’d often pass roadside stands where they sold homemade peanut-butter pies to the weekend tourists from Washington D.C. They were better off than most of my customers, who had little in worldly possessions other than the junk accumulated on their ramshackle properties. Yet even the most destitute were no less faithful when that ice-cream bell came ringing. For them, the unbidden arrival of the BIG LIK truck was proof that even if they weren’t among the affluent or the righteous, they would not be denied their just desserts–even if it meant scraping together a fistful of pennies for a 25-cent popsicle.
Behind the wheel of BIG LIK, in the shadow of the hazy, hallucinatory Blue Ridge, I believed I’d found my calling, though at 20 I would have never used such a word. All I knew was that it didn’t seem like work and it beat delivering pizza in a borrowed car. What began as a seasonal job during my time at the University of Virginia held me in Charlottesville well after graduation. It wasn’t driving the truck that hooked me: I fell for the geography. I’d grown up in the lowland Piedmont of Richmond, and there was something about this rugged landscape that moved me. Whatever the reason, the mountains cast a spell that I couldn’t shake.Continue reading