By Joe Kurmaskie – As I grow older, I grow younger… let me explain. The ice cream truck rolled by the pool as I swam with my kids – you gotta hand it to that industry, they know and locate their consumer base and exploit the heck out of them – it’s the first line in the ice cream trucker’s manifesto, I believe. If not, it should be.
But the second line, check the freezer is plugged in, but it’s the third instruction that set me time traveling back four decades; Play The Entertainer and only The Entertainer on a loop to bring them running.
August 1978, we’d reached the truly feral part of summer vacation; carmel tans and an unbound restlessness that comes so close to the next school year. All of us, handsome in an unfinished way, leaning over ape hanger handlebar bikes, stingrays and orange crates with chopper front fork extensions on one or two of them, waiting for the hammer to fall.
I wouldn’t try running along side any one of us at this point in the summer. We’d trample your bones to dust without meaning to, we’re at the end of our suburban leashes, barking AND biting without so much as opening our mouths.
June made us brand new and improving, but once we crossed a certain dateline there was no getting all the way back, Now, each afternoon, after Grape Nehi’s are drunk and summer league ball is done for the day, it’s an slow burn until dinnertime, a lazy rage against what comes next.
Nothing moves. Even the birds are hunkered down and gone mute in the big chestnut grove across from Hyde Park playground. Then I hear the ice cream truck blocks away and with cold clarity I know what needs to be done.
“Dave, you still have that Casio synthesizer organ from Christmas?”
I’d wanted SOMETHING to happen all summer… so now I was gonna force that something into the world and it was gonna be… something else.
This knowledge makes me giddy. I offer a mad dog and Englishmen’s chuckle and huddle the gang together. We pedal to Dave’s uncle’s house with purpose.
It took less than an hour to get our musical abomination road worthy. Street legal it would never be, but wasn’t that the point? We weren’t going rogue and looking over our shoulder, we’d gone native weeks ago. This was just our way of parading it before the world.
Time tends to pass us while we look the other way, but that afternoon we chose to stare it in the eyes… and with the audacity of what was left of the summer and our childhoods, we aimed to stop that relentless fucker in its tracks for a moment or two.
The organ sat atop and X wing leg stand, which we duct taped to skateboards. It wobbled the first time we towed it on water ski ropes behind a bike, but once we attached the office chair to it with a bungee chord things trimmed out and steadied. The chair had sturdy, steel wheels. The chord gave it the right bounce and distance from the keyboard. We considered duct taping the musician to the organ, but in the end, decided against it, going with a second bungee attached to the musician’s shorts instead.
Using a Mr. Microphone was Paul’s brainstorm. We’d been spitballing as to where we might track down a bullhorn. Some big, empty talk of distracting hard working heroes down at the fire station while one of us swiped a horn, when Paul popped up with that Ronco sensation. We duct taped the mic to the front of the keyboard and the FM radio in the apex of the X wing legs. Once we taped the button down for permanent transmission… it was showtime.
“OK, which one of you mooks knows how to play the Entertainer?” I asked.
“Don’t look at me,” Johnnyboy said. “I play baseball… that’s it.”
“And I play your mother.” Mike, Dave’s cousin, couldn’t hold back with.
I shook my head. These were my summer park day camp friends. A pick up sticks box of guys, one visiting each summer from Michigan, another dropped off mornings by his single working mother. Paul went to the Episcopal school, I saw him at church sometimes but we hung summers cause he lived just down from the park.
My school year roster; Glenn, Steve, Ellery, musicians all, and to a man miles away at that moment and the foreseeable future
“This was your Christmas present, Dave.” I said, spreading my arms across the keys like a Price Is Right presenter, willing him to hop up and channel Liberace at that moment.
“Yeah, I liked screwing around with the drum beats and the prerecords for a day or two. Then it went in the closet.”
He looked down, then back up, hopeful. “I know chopsticks.”
Paul smacks the back of Dave’s head almost lightly. “Everyone knows chopsticks, you Jackass.”
We were so close to something here. I couldn’t let it go. But aside from Witchy Woman and a few bars of Mr. Blue Sky, I didn’t play… but I could read music.
“Dave, did the Casio come with a song book?”
The lesson here; if you want something bad enough, and you’re bored enough during the back forty of August, you too can learn how to play a fairly passable version of The Entertainer. Also, it’s only like 13 notes, rinse, repeat.
But could we pull it off at speed. I bungee my Ron Jon surf shorts to the contraption and offer the let’s roll wave. A grade older than the rest of us, Dave was selected to be the mule on the bicycle.
We crashed the whole damn thing to the ground just beyond the drive way, the Casio hitting pavement with a sickening thud. I kept yelling whoa! whoa! whoa! but it hadn’t prevented shit.
A couple of of the presets didn’t work anymore, but the keyboard still played.
“Someone go get a bunch of pillows. Who’s got the duct tape?”
Johnnyboy replaced Dave as pedicab driver. Not as bulky, but he owned slightly more impulse control though there was a higher level of crazy in his eyes and better response time. That, and untethering my pants from the contraption seemed to do the trick. It also allowed me to spin around in the office chair between stanzas.
Everyone else pedaled in a flying V formation to my left and right. A half block of runway to get our rhythm then we were rolling the streets, looking for the punchline. I played, if not with skill, then enthusiasm to burn. I tried to give it the ragtime feel of Joplin, all elbows akimbo and fingers bouncing off the keys.
For a few blocks, the summer was completely ours again.
Florida near dinner time, 100 percent humidity and not a cloud in the sky; an ice cream trucker’s golden hour. Kids bursting from behind fences like the chest scene in Alien. Pouring themselves off porches, surfacing from pools, toweling off as they ran, counting change hidden in the secret little pocket of their swim trunks.
Only to find this wasn’t the rewards of the ice cream truck after a long day of lounging and trying like hell to fill the final freedom hours of summer. No this was some bizarre prank… some sort of – is that an office chair? Is he spinning around in an office chair between stanzas?
Most of the kids stood along the parade route in stunned silence. I was getting pretty good with the tune but it was lost on them.
Where’s all the sound coming from? And Stars Wars pillow cases? What is this? What the actual hell happening? Hold me Momma.
A few chuckled, but it was mostly hound dog panting, trying to catch their breath while squinting hard, hoping to puzzle out some deeper meaning… or at the very least produce a star pop or creamsicle.
For our part, it was the high point of the vacation. A rolling ramshackle carnival, the lost boys of summer laughing and cruising and circling back now; I thought of us as a pack of teenage shriners who’d traded in soul sucking jobs and middle age regrets, little cars and funny hats for youth and bikes and ball caps… and an event horizon that bled into forever.
Jane, shaking her head from the porch in that tight black ACDC tank top made me lose the thread of the song entirely. I spun myself around and gave her a devil may care shrug.
Who knew at the time that we were doing a version of the David Letterman Show decades before he did it…. sans cameras, advertisers, a network, but with a growing audience, many of whom were getting over their initial shock and wanted answers.
“You got ice cream or not?”
Our arrogance was uncalled for, but not unexpected. That late in the summer it’s all a teenage boy has against the slow click of the ticking clock. Misplaced anger and more than a little sadness just under all our bravado, about what we did not know… not yet.
We could have promised to return with Otter Pops and even flipped a profit. Instead, some of us, well, most of us, got mouthy and taunting until some older brothers showed up to exact justice. I thought I could make amends with a few bars of Mr. Blue Sky but I thought wrong.
In the end I had to bail into thick bermuda grass and launch into a full sprint. This was the summer before I filled out and took up wrestling so my go to move was still running away.
Just enough time to see the upended office chair being dragged behind the still upright Casio behind Johnnyboy’s BMX bike. Johnnyboy frantically dancing on the pedals away from danger, cackling all the way home or to a beating.
A chaotic thing of beauty. Orange Crate chopper forked bikes leading him out, the rest of the gang breaking formation and scattering down side streets. I thought of the bike scene in ET, only there was no wrinkly being to tell us BEEEEE GOOOOOD! Just a skinny blond haired kid urging them to be… alive and kicking before another school year swallowed them whole.
Younger kids had taken up the charge now that their older brothers were backing their play. I observed one young lad swinging a set of click clack balls over his head, heat lighting across the bay adding to the drama as he ran. It was only a matter of time before lawn darts appeared. Then the urge to break and run and the joys of doing it took over and I saw no more.
As I covered ground I felt the misgivings of contentment and abundance fall away. That left only time and the pleasures of outrunning it once more. Straight through August and whatever came after that.
Joe Kurmaskie is a journalist, syndicated columnist, and contributor to numerous magazines including Outside, Bicycling Magazine, Men’s Journal and Parenting. He’s a bike advocate, activist, founder of Cadence Press, and a Random House author of seven books including Metal Cowboy, Mud, Sweat and Gears and A Guide To Falling Down In Public.