An odd and unsung sight in Arlington is the vintage white Good Humor truck I drive past regularly on a residential street just off of Bluemont Park.
To chance upon it as a child would be rather like pulling into a highway rest stop with your parents and encountering Santa Claus–his sled and celebrated animal team taking a well-earned out-of-the-limelight breather.
The magic of Good Humor memories, which for the nation go back to the company’s founding in 1920 by Harry Burt in Youngtown, Ohio, are vivid for Arlingtonians for another reason: So many of us live in secluded, noncommercial subdivisions where access to fresh cool desserts comes more often through infrequent car journeys to supermarkets.
What a treat it was, back when your young age restricted transportation options, to have the playtime routine broken by that unmistakable four-pitch chime. Who among us didn’t rush home to scoop up loose change and join friends for our pick of a chocolate eclair, toasted almond or frozen fruit delights.
This particular Good Humor truck parked on an Arlington side street is an astonishing 1969 model Ford F250. It 693,000 miles on it, says owner Rick Hancock, a four-decade veteran of curbside ice cream vending who on this day is spiffing up his open-sided-truck for the March-October season. Arlington kids may be disappointed to learn that for the past two decades he has been servicing a route in Sterling, Va.
So he’s not really your local Santa (though he used to be).
That honor now belongs to a dozen other independent ice cream vendors who drive Arlington’s routes, I was told by Guy Berliner, president of Hyattsville, Md.-based Berliner Specialty Distributors. He supplies 225 local mobile vendors who work mostly part-time and seasonally.
Hancock, a trained mechanical engineer and technician for Verizon, is among the most committed to preserving Good Humor’s white-uniform traditions. “They’re a bit of a dying breed,” he says.
He is unusual in parking his vehicle at home. Most vendors drive their own vehicles to Hyattsville, where they buy the merchandise and switch to an officially labeled truck,” says Berliner. “Some neighbors may frown on” a commercial truck inhabiting a home driveway, he adds.
(Hancock is in compliance with Arlington’s code because his commercial vehicle is under the weight maximum. His neighbors appear to love him.)
Despite its folksy image, Good Humor in the 21st century is part of a complex chain of evolving corporate ownership. There were mergers with Breyers, Sealtest and Kraft Inc., before current owner Unilever took over in the early 1960s. “Though sales are flat in some parts of the country, it really is popular here, lots of growth,” Berliner says.
Nostalgia websites give the history of Good Humor’s first ice cream on a stick, now made in Green Bay, Wis. “In the early days, Good Humor men were required to tip their hats to ladies and salute gentlemen,” one says. There was a 1950 movie called “The Good Humor Man.”
Corporate changes in the snack food world have come with changes in Arlington, where development emphasizing the urban village has probably moved a greater percentage of residents near markets to which they can walk when they get the munchies.
But ice cream doesn’t taste nearly as good as when that chummy white truck brings it right down your street.
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]