This was the life, I thought. The grass was just the right height to cushion a little boy lying on the green living carpet. My jagged piece of ice was melting in my hand. It was cold so I switched to my other hand and poked it into my mouth to crack off a piece with my teeth. While I chewed on that I rubbed the rest of it over my forehead. The cool wetness ran down my face. I closed my eyes and lay back, my head cushioned by the thick green. I listened to everyone around me. The grownups were on about Ike or something and my cousins were climbing the weeping willow. I was in the shade of the Chinaberry tree which was much cooler than being in direct sun light. The smell of the grill was wafting across me as I chewed the cold ice. I shooed a fly from my face. Life was good.
It was Clyde. What’s he yelling about I wondered. My ice had nearly melted so I popped what was left in my mouth and chewed vigorously. The lazy droning of the fly eased me into a doze.
“MOMMA!” Clyde yelled again.
I opened one eye lifting my head to see him on the steps cranking the churn. Ice cream! It won’t be much longer.
He was wiping sweat from his brow which was set in a frown staring straight at me. I closed my eye and went back to dozing.
The back door slammed and I heard my Grandmother fussing.
“Land sakes, Clyde. Why are you yelling like that? We don’t want the neighbors complaining about the noise.”
“It’s Rickey’s turn and he’s just over there sleeping under the Chinaberry tree.”
“I don’t think he’s old enough to churn ice cream. It’s not going to hurt you to churn some more. Now quit your yelling and crank that handle.”
I jumped up yelling, “I’m old enough. I’m old enough.”
Grandmother stopped halfway into the doorway. She studied my eager face for a minute then relented.
“Well, I guess we can try it out. Do you know how?”
“Sure, I mean, Yes Ma’am. I do!” I was standing next to Clyde watching his arm rotate the crank. “I can do that.”
Clyde looked at me. Grandmother shut the door behind her leaving me in Clyde’s hands. His eye twinkled as that grin crept across his face.
“You sure, nef? You know it’s a mighty important job. This is the dessert. It’s the most important part of the cook out.”
“You just show me. I can do it!” I was emphatic with my arms folded and my chin jutted forward.
“Well, OK, but you gotta do it right or it might sour on us.”
“Huh? Sour?” I looked at him. “That ain’t so. Ice cream doesn’t go sour.”
“Well, nef, you haven’t lived as long as me and I know for a fact that it does. And there is nothing worse than sour ice cream. I don’t think people will like it if they get a bowl of ice cream and take a big spoonful of sour.” He made a face like he’d just eaten a lemon straight out of the skin.
“Well, show me what to do so’s I don’t make it sour.” I said it with a tinge of worry furrowing my brow.
“Come over here.”
I went to where he pointed.
“Here?” I asked.
“Nope. You’re too far away. You got to move in kinda close so that your body heat will help the ice melt at the proper rate for freezing the contents of the churn.”
“It’s summer. Ain’t that enough heat?” I asked.
“Yeah, but this mixture that is liquid now is turning round and round in the ice which is cold but a bit too cold even in the middle of summer. When you stand at the right spot you add just enough extra heat to make that ice the proper temperature so’s it works perfectly to make the cream in that bucket into the perfect bowl of ice cream.”
“OK. So I need to stand right here?”
“Perfect. Now you see how I’m turning this crank don’t you?” He said smiling that smile.
“Yeah. I do.” I moved to grab the handle.
“Whoa, now, nef. Hold on a minute. You just moved from that spot.”
“I have to if I’m going to crank.”
“Now didn’t I just explain to you about the distance you have to stand from the churn?”
“Now didn’t I just explain to you about the distance you have to stand from the churn?”
“Get back then. You’re too close now.”
“How am I going to churn, then. My arms are too short to reach.”
“By golly, you’re right. I guess you won’t get to churn then.” He turned away from me and began to churn in earnest.
“Wait a minute,” I yelled. “Grandmamma said I was big enough to churn so I want my turn.”
“I think it would be a mistake, nef. If this ice cream turned sour I’d feel awful bad if it was you who finished the churning. No, I think I better keep at it.”
“That’s not fair,” I shouted. “I’m gonna tell grandmomma.” I started up the steps.
“Wait! If you want to take the chance, that’s up to you. Don’t say I didn’t try to warn you, though. Alright come back down and stand right there. Yeah, that’s right. Now watch me for a minute and get a feel for the motion you need to make this ice cream the perfect batch.”
He turned the crank as I watched.
“Did you count how many times I turned in a minute?”
“What? You didn’t tell me to do that.”
“Oh, goodness. You’re right I didn’t. I’m sorry. Now, you watch. Don’t forget to count how many times I turn in a minute.”
“What? I don’t know how to do that. How long’s a minute?”
“Oh this is looking worse for you all the time. Maybe somebody has a watch you can use. Go ask somebody,” he said waving me out into the yard.
I ran to all my cousins asking for a watch. Nobody had one. On the verge of giving up my granddad called me over. He was chuckling.
“I’ve been watching you and Clyde. Seems you need a timepiece, huh?” he said with a chuckle. I noticed his grin was a lot like Clyde’s. There was a twinkle in those smiling eyes, too.
“Yes sir. Clyde said I need one to churn.”
Granddad laughed loudly as he pulled his pocket watch out. He was wiping a tear from his eye as he detached the fob from the watch.
“Now you be careful with my watch, young fella. Don’t drop it. Hold it tight.” He was shaking with muted laughter as he handed me the pocket watch. I took it. Squeezing my fingers around it I ran back to where Clyde was still pushing the crank around.
“I got a watch. Granddaddy let me use his.” I held it tightly as I showed him.
“Good. Now watch carefully as to how many times I turn this crank from here to here in one minute.” He started to turn the handle.
“Wait!’ I yelled. “What’s a minute?”
Clyde stopped. He turned, facing me with exasperation all over his face.
“Land sakes, nef. How are you ever going to churn when you don’t even know what a minute is. Gimme that watch.”
He snatched it from my hand.
“Careful! Granddaddy said not to drop it!”
Clyde let it fall from his hand. I almost passed out but he caught it in the nick of time with his other hand. Terrified I looked up. There was that smile he shared with his daddy.
“OK. Come here and look. See that hand that’s moving fast in a circle?”
“Yeah,” I said concentrating as hard as I could.
“Well, that’s called the second hand. And it makes a full circle of the face of this watch in sixty seconds. Sixty seconds makes up a minute. Think you got that?”
“Yeah, but I …”
“What is it, nef?”
“If that’s the second hand which ones are the first and third hands?”
“You trying to complicate this thing?” he asked.
“No, just trying to understand.”
He handed back the watch.
“Do you think you understand the hand going around from 12 to 12 makes up one minute?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“OK. You watch that hand and count how many times I turn this crank in a minute. Try it now.”
I began to count holding the watch in front of me.
When he reached about twenty cranks I lost count trying to keep an eye on the watch and his movements.
“Is that a minute?” Clyde asked.
“I don’t know. I got confused.” I lowered the watch. I know my face must have been near tears because Clyde changed his attitude.
“Whoa, nef. It’s OK. I think you got more out of it than you knew, so I think I’m about ready to turn it over to you. Now stand there, where I told you.” He pointed to the spot again.
“I stand here. What am I going to do with the watch? I can’t hold that and churn.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Give it here. I’ll hold on to it. Now come on stand right where I told you while I get the crank around so you can get ahold of it.”
He moved it around so the crank was better situated. I reached for it. While reaching I moved my feet forward in order to reach it.
“Wait, nef. You moved. I told you how far you had to stand from it.”
“But I can’t reach the handle from there.”
“Hmm. Your feet have got to be on that spot. How about lean forward until you can grab it.”
I planted my feet on the spot he said. I looked at the crank as I reached. Slowly I leaned toward it. Just on the verge of toppling over I rested my weight on the handle.
“That’s it. Now give it a turn.”
I pushed forward and fell against the churn.
“I don’t think my arms are long enough,” I said. “Maybe I do need to be bigger.”
“Oh pshaw, nef. That was as good as I did it when I was your age. You put your weight on the other hand by leaning on the bucket and use your right hand to turn the handle.
With my feet planted the proper distance, I leaned on the churn and pushed the crank with my right hand. It was hard. It was like I was pushing through stone. With four jerky motions I made a complete circle with the arm.
“How was that?” Clyde asked.
“It’s hard as the dickens. I have to put all of my weight into it.”
”I think you better turn some more before it goes sour on you. I’ll get some more ice.”
He went to the wheelbarrow that had a block of ice sitting in the middle. With an icepick he stabbed at it until he filled a small pan with the chips. When the pan was full he jabbed the icepick into the center of the block of melting ice and came back.
“Have you been turning it?” He began to spill the ice chips around the churn inside the bucket. Placing the pan down, he grabbed the box of salt and poured a hefty helping into the ice.
“I can barely turn it, Clyde. Can you help me?”
“OK. I reckon you did your share this time.” He began to rotate the crank. Half way through the second rotation he stopped.
“Uh oh,” he said quietly.
“What? What’s wrong?”
He waved his hand at me. “Oh, probably nothing.”
“You said uh oh. Why did you say uh oh?” My words came out fast and frantic.
“I hope I’m wrong but I think you may have turned it sour.”
“How? I did everything you said.”
“Yeah, I know you did but…”
“Did it get harder and harder and harder to turn the crank?” His face took on a worried look.
“Yeah, it did. It got real hard.”
“Yup, that’s what I thought. I’m afraid we got soured ice cream. Now I could be wrong but just from my experience I get the feeling it turned.”
“Did I turn too much?”
“Yeah, if I hadn’t gone for more ice I might have noticed but I got distracted. I’m sorry. I think this batch is bad.”
“Do we have time to churn more? I think I know how now.”
“Well, nef, I don’t think we could mix it up and get it done in time for everyone to enjoy ice cream. I guess we’ll just have to hope I’m wrong and it is fine. I better let momma know the batch is ready, sour or not. You want to give this back to daddy?”
He handed me the pocket watch. With everything he taught me about making ice cream and, still, I messed it up. I walked sullenly over to granddad.
“Here’s your watch, granddaddy,” I said holding it up to him.
“Oh, Lawdy, child did you turn that batch of ice cream sour? That look on your face is the same one Clyde had when he churned his first batch. Do goodness was it sour. Well, don’t you worry about it. Maybe nobody will notice.” He chuckled as he reattached his watch to the fob and slipped it into the pocket of his overalls. He poked my dad who was smiling at me. My mother had a disapproving look on her face as she looked at my daddy.
I was going back to the Chinaberry tree when the dinner triangle was rung. The family began to line up with paper plates as granddaddy divvied up hot dogs and hamburgers to each and every one who passed by plate in hand.
We all sat around on the grass under the shade of the Chinaberry tree and the weeping willow enjoying the hamburgers and hotdogs. Everybody was too busy eating to talk much but when the meal was over for most of us the talk of dessert began.
“I heard there is going to be fresh churned vanilla ice cream,” someone said.
“No, it’s never vanilla. It’s always peach ice cream fresh from the churn. It’s always so good. Sweet and cold.”
I sneaked away from that particular conversation and hid away on the far side of the trunk of the Chinaberry tree.
From the back porch Clyde yelled, “Ice cream! We all scream for ice cream!”
With that everybody began to gather their paper plates and napkins.
Clyde stood at the back door holding a bowl of ice cream with chocolate sauce on top. He looked over at me holding it out for me.
“Since Rickey helped with the churning today I thought he should get the first bowl. He worked hard at the churning so here is his. Come on, nef. You are first.”
“I don’t want any.”
Everybody joined in. “What? After all your hard work you deserve the first bite. Go on.”
I walked over to the back steps very slowly.
“Hurry up. It’s melting,” yelled Clyde.
He handed me the bowl when I got there. I looked at it so long that everyone began to tell me to hurry up because the rest of them wanted some and it was melting.
I took the spoon. Reluctantly I touched the tip of it to the mound of peach colored dessert. I placed the spoon in my mouth. The small speck of ice cream melted on my tongue with an explosion of sweetness. I dug the spoon deeper and pulled away a huge amount. It was cold heavenly sweetness without a trace of sour at all.
“It’s not sour!” I shouted at Clyde. “I guess you were wrong.”
“I guess I was, nef.” His eyes twinkled as his grin spread across his face. He turned to go inside for his own bowl. Everybody followed him in.
I ran into the shade of my favorite tree to savor the ice cream I had made.