I sit at my home-office desk working, but looking for any distraction. It is around 3:30 pm. Kids are streaming back into the houses around the neighborhood as I look up from my laptop and stare out the window to avoid the mind-numbing job at hand.
In the distance, a familiar clang breaks my trance. I listen, and I am eight-years-old.
It is a boiling day in Memphis, Tennessee in 1964. I am sprawled on the floor of a sweetly comforting living room with my two younger brothers as we stare, glaze-eyed at a screen that begins to erupt with horizontal ripples. I stand up and expertly jiggle the knob until the moving lines stop.
I am at my grandparents’ house — my Dad’s parents. My grandmother is not entirely well (she had a stroke when we were too little to remember). So, for most of the hot days of our summer vacation visits we sit in front of the TV with coloring books to entertain us during soap operas and blankets to ward off the frigid air-conditioned blast in their home.
We watch reruns of the ’50s show “December Bride” during the lunch Nanny makes us of her special thick, hand-cut potato wedges, fried in an ancient, tarnished gray pot. They are delectably crispy on the outside and steaming hot inside. We dip them in ketchup to cool them off.
My grandmother, weakened from her kitchen tasks, sits back on the divan and lovingly smiles at us. She tells us we can get Cokes and we run to the fridge and look on the side of the door where she stores the frosty, 6-ounce bottles she buys just for us. We return to the TV with our half-frozen Cokes and Nanny and I watch “General Hospital,” which has a scary head nurse named Jesse. My brothers color.
At precisely 3:00, my brothers put down their crayons. We, along with rest of the kids in Memphis, now own the airwaves—-at least until 5PM when Pa-Pa gets home from work and switches to the news. Spanky and Our Gang shorts, Yogi Bear, Huckleberry Hound, Quickdraw McGraw and Deputy Dog, just to name a few, will now appear in succession and on all three channels. Some of these are part of shows hosted by a goofy grown-up in a silly suit. In Memphis, it’s Mr. Magic, who we always watch because we once appeared on his show (courtesy of a friend of Pa-Pa’s).
But for my first selection, I turn to reruns of “The Mickey Mouse Fan Club.” My brothers, four-year-old Bill and six-year-old Steve, are in my thrall. As the oldest, I rule their lives and the TV when my parents aren’t around. But I am a benevolent dictator, and luckily, our tastes are similar. My brothers rarely object to my dialing selections.
Just after Annette leads the gang in a final “M-I-C—-K-E- Y” (“Why? Because we love you!”) we hear the first far-off chimes, then the tinkling, metallic-sounding music coming closer and closer. We excitedly stand up and look out the door for the only thing that could distract us from the cartoon-filled TV.
Nanny gives me a handful of change and we hurry outside onto the scorching black tar where other children are already gathering. We are barefoot and hop around the sizzling street to keep from burning our feet.
We run toward an entirely round vehicle, painted red, white and blue with a matching metal umbrella top. It is from Oz. It has come to us from Narnia. It is like nothing that any grown-up would drive, yet it is driven by someone who looks like a grown-up. It moves magically toward us — turning rhythmically around and around like a top on a string.
We have no reference for this strange machine. We live in Richmond, Virginia, where the ice cream truck looks like an ice cream truck. But here in Memphis at Nanny and Pa-Pa’s, there is the Merry Mobile.
We each have our preference. For Steve, it’s the tangy banana popsicle. I order the Merry Mobile’s specialty, Buried Treasure, for my little brother Bill. It’s a raspberry concoction that comes with a plastic prize figure that emerges on the stick after licking down to the last delicious bite. The treasure’s usually a cowboy, but sometimes (if you’re lucky) an astronaut.
With the confidence of my authority, I order last (also, I’m the one who has to pay). I assume the air of a connoisseur and choose a Sky Blue popsicle, another signature Merry Mobile product. It delivers on the promise of its name and is the color of the aquamarine, cloud –free heavens above. The icy treat is so cold that my teeth ache with the first bite. It tastes vaguely like lemonade, but there is really no other flavor quite like it. Best of all, it transforms my mouth into the bluish appearance of a plague victim. Blue gums always enhance my ability to intimidate my brothers.
The front door slams and I am snapped back to 2009. My fifteen-year-old son barely acknowledges my existence with a nod toward my desk and then skulks toward his room, promising to do his homework before Facebook.
“Did you ever hear me talk about the Merry Mobile?” I yell after him. “Yes, Mom,” he responds with withering exasperation. “But it sounds really weird to me. I think you may have imagined it.”
“No, it was real,” I insist, “I just looked it up on the web.” I show him the pictures from the MemphisMemories.org website. “Look, eighty of them operated from 1954 until 1973, just in Memphis. When they went out of business they were mostly sold for scrap metal,” I say with a sad sniff. “They really had some strange stuff back in the old days,” he says with vague interest.
“Yes they did,” I admit. Yes they did.
For more information about the magical, but real Merry Mobiles of Memphis, go to: http://www.memphismemories.org/Decades/1960s/Merry_Mobile/MerryMobile.php