Soda Fountain Memories
(written for the Allentown Morning Call and America On Wheels Museum)
My soda fountain memories go way back to May 25, 1953. That's when I was born into a soda fountain-owning family.
My Dad and his two brothers owned a confectionary in Oakland, NJ, for all of my growing-up life. Needless to say, I have many memories, ranging from the sweet to the scary.
My Dad was one of those guys everyone liked. He loved to laugh and have a good time. The white apron fit him well and, with his pre-Hippie long sideburns and cigar, he cut a winsome fatherly image.
My Uncle Fred was a severe shop teacher who carried a crowbar in his car to ward off attackers in his home town.
Uncle Joe, whose sole career was this hangout, was a jolly fat man with a weird sense of humor. My most weighted memories of him are when he would smack kids on the back of the head and call them "Squirrel," and when he would tell the riff raff to "Go outside and play baseball instead of letting your hair grow!" By the way, it was his son who taught me how to overcharge customers and slip them the wrong change so we could pocket the difference. He's now a vice-president of a corporation, and I work in a basement.
The confectionary was similar to a convenience store, minus the gas pumps and plus a soda fountain. You could buy the usual bread, cakes, snacks, Mad Magazines, candy, and tobacco products. If you needed batteries and flashbulbs, cheap paperbacks, art supplies, models, toys, school supplies, and newspapers (personally assembled in the back room), that was the place to go. However, the big draw was the soda fountain. You could sit on those wobbly, spinning, plastic covered stools, and order any combination of soda flavors you liked. Soda wasn't soda until the syrup was mixed with the carbonated water from the thing with the big handle. Moreover, ice cream wasn't ice cream until it was scooped out of the big cardboard cylinder with the special scoop that was sitting in the rinse water with all the other scoops.
For some reason, I had a lot of friends when we owned the store. Coincidentally, I lost the friends when the store was sold. Never did make the connection.
There were also scary times, especially when the big kids wanted free candy but didn't know (or care) to ask politely. To paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, I had to "walk softly and carry a big Hershey bar."
Worse than that, one time, just for sick fun, my Dad had the local chief of police handcuff me and threaten to arrest me. It's that lesson (and the fact that every cop who stopped me in later years knew my Dad) that kept me out of jail.
That store was my oasis in the middle of town. I could walk there after a hard day of hanging around and get a ride home. During my senior year in high school, I had to walk several miles to the school, which was located on a hill so steep the school buses had to climb it in one-half gear. Our store was at the bottom of the hill, about halfway through the walk. It was like the last outpost before the desert, where I could stop and load up on sugary confections for the journey. I could also act really tired, but not too tired to persuade my Dad to drive me up the hill. With gas at about 20 cents per gallon, I didn't care that my Dad's '68 Chrysler New Yorker with the largest engine made only got about 2 gallons per mile uphill.
Our confectionary, with the large black pay phones that clanged loudly when you deposited the nickel, and the soda fountain with the cracked-vinyl stools and chrome trim, was the foundation of many happy memories: dunking fresh poppy seed rolls in coffee, mixing all the syrups together, playing with the big green Hamilton Beach mixer, running out to watch the trains go by, and locking up the store at night, made me what I am today: a man with severe dental problems.
Now, if only my parents had allowed me to date, I'd have lots of stories about two straws in one malt glass and spilling sodas while trying to balance spoons on my forehead.