News » Feature

The Ice Cream War

It's a hot, sweaty, cutthroat business. And in most city neighborhoods, it's illegal. A report from the front lines of the battle of the Bomb Pop.


Editor's note: A correction ran concerning this story; see end of article.

Do your ears hang low?
Do they wobble to and fro?
Can you tie them in a knot?
Can you tie them in a bow?
Can you throw them o'er your shoulder
Like a continental soldier?
Do your ears hang low?

As the white van crawls down De Soto Avenue in north St. Louis, the sound of a young boy's voice comes bellowing from an open window. It's a desperate cry directed at the white van. "Wait! Hold up! Wait!" To judge from his tone, the four-year-old could be a parched castaway on a desert island chasing a rescue plane passing overhead.

Victor Montgomery pulls over, stops ringing his bell, turns off his music and waits. Sometimes bowing to children's urgent cries is a mistake, because they want what their parents are unwilling to provide: ice cream before dinner. A driver can waste a lot of time stopping for kids whose eyes are bigger than Dad's wallet.

Soon enough, though, this particular customer swings through the door and makes a mad dash for Montgomery's truck with a baggie full of change. "What's up, Little G?" Montgomery says softly.


"What you want?"

"All of them," the kid laughs. "I got a lot of money." He hands his plastic bag to Montgomery, who counts out nickels and dimes while the child admires the ice cream man's Air Force Ones. Perusing the van's decaled-on menu, the boy points to a Jolly Rancher Bomb Pop: $1.25. Montgomery compliments him on his choice, snags one from the freezer and returns the bag, now holding mostly pennies. The boy cracks open the wrapper and gets to work, and Montgomery rolls on.

Victor Montgomery has just broken the law.

According to a three-year-old ordinance, street vendors in the city of St. Louis, including ice cream truck operators, are prohibited from selling their wares outside designated districts. Initially the law went unenforced. But this past spring, police in three wards began stopping vendors. They pulled over one truck, then another, and informed the drivers that they were violating the ordinance. The vendors were let off with warnings, but Mary Perkins, a branch manager for Kansas City-based Frosty Treats, Inc., the 800-pound gorilla of local ice cream bar distributors, is worried. "Enforcing it citywide would shut us down," Perkins says. "That would shut me down."

Which would be fine with 20th Ward Alderman Craig Schmid. In Schmid's view, ice cream vendors parachute heedlessly into neighborhoods and dispense products that belong in corner groceries. Schmid jots down license numbers of the trucks that roll through his ward and calls the police on them. "There's no accountability to the community," the alderman argues. "You've got a business that blocks your street with music and bells and stuff, and kids running all over the place."

Von Harrell's route encompasses downtown St. Louis and Washington Park, Illinois. His first stop is always the Dobbs Tire Center on South Broadway, a stone's throw from Busch Stadium. On this summer afternoon, just past lunchtime, Harrell flips the switch on his music box as he drives into the parking lot, and Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" starts up. As if by magic, the mechanics are drawn out of the garage, pulling singles from their wallets. "You're early today," says Craig Dickherber, who orders a Jolly Rancher Bomb Pop. To everyone's relief, Harrell turns off the music.

Dickherber says he sticks to only a couple of treats, the other being the three-tiered fudge Bomb Pop. "He talked me into one of those watermelon Bomb Pops once," the mechanic says ruefully. "And it has candy seeds in it. I thought I had bugs in my mouth."

One of the tire guys advises the ice cream man to stop by the convention center, where thousands of fans are awaiting that evening's Metallica concert. Before the ice cream man leaves, Dickherber points over to the cylindrical edifice that houses the Millennium Hotel. "You should go on by there," he suggests. "There's a guy on the roof, and he's getting ready to jump."

"Maybe he should buy some ice cream," Harrell quips.

Harrell is pretty much his own boss. He leases his truck from Frosty Treats, Inc. and sells ice cream from mid-February straight through to October 30. (The ice-cream season officially ends the day before Halloween. Drivers don't risk going out on the holiday, Frosty Treats manager Mary Perkins says, owing to the chance a masked robber will make off with their loot.) At the start of the year, Frosty Treats stocks Harrell's van with frozen confections and bills his account $770, his cost for $1,100 worth of ice cream -- a 30 percent discount off the retail price. Out of his daily profits, Harrell must restock his freezer and also gradually pay off the $770 advance. Harrell pays for his own gas, but Frosty Treats takes care of the upkeep on the truck. He's also given a territory, from which he's not permitted to stray.

"I like the type of jobs where the harder you work, the more money you make," says the 40-year-old vendor. "Some jobs, no matter what, all you're going to make is nine, ten bucks an hour." Harrell has been a driver for sixteen years, the last six of which have been on his downtown/Washington Park territory, where he turns one of the region's most downtrodden areas into one of the company's most profitable routes.

"A lot of people take my job as a joke until they see my car and my house," Harrell goes on. "The people who do know me, they know I'm not joking about this." Harrell doesn't want to get too specific about his income, but he estimates that he grosses about $350 a day. He works seven days a week, and at the end of the season he gets a bonus of ten percent of his gross. "By the first of November, I should have about six or seven thousand dollars to last me until February and the season starts again," he says. Most years, Harrell takes the winter off.

A few minutes after he leaves Dobbs, Harrell spots the hotel jumper. A woman lies perched on a ledge 28 stories up, an arm and leg dangling precariously. Though the ice cream man's earlier comment was meant as a joke, a pearl of truth lay nestled within: It's easy to forget summer days and the feeling of joy that accompanies the bells and music, the leap of the heart that arrives with the truck, the enthusiasm for a gift as simple as something cold that turns wet and sticky and sweet when it touches your lips, that melts its way down your fingers as quickly as it erases, if only for a split second, the sorrows in your heart.

After a few circles around the block, Harrell heads to the convention center. There he finds a mass of metalheads waiting in the hot sun for the Edward Jones Dome to open its doors. Jackpot. The ice cream man flips on "The Entertainer," ding-dings his bell a dozen times. Immediately, he's barraged with sweaty kids who consume his soda and wolf down his frozen novelties. "Gimme a Tear Jerker," says a dude in a T-shirt that boasts "Potential Serial Killer." A fan with a mohawk goes straight for a Tongue Splasher. "What you want, sweetheart?" Harrell asks a bleached blonde hanging on the window. She opts for a Big Neapolitan ice cream sandwich, which she nearly swallows whole.

Having tapped the rockers, Harrell heads for Washington Park. When he flips off "The Entertainer," the crowd roars its approval.

The woman who'd been threatening to jump from the Millennium, meanwhile, has been escorted down to safety, apparently having recalled those wonderful summer days.

Victor Montgomery carries a pair of binoculars in his van. That way, when the 24-year-old Frosty Treats vendor hears a distant bell, he can confirm whether it's coming from an independent driver who's competing for his business.

"Yep, there he is," says Montgomery, peering. "See him back there -- way back." The other day, Montgomery recounts, three rivals passed him on his route, so he had to think fast. (It didn't hurt that he's been in the business since he was sixteen.) "I leaped all the way down to the end of my route, and came back up to the front, because I already know: They're running like I'm running." Having spotted the indie today, Montgomery switches directions. "Last night, after I got done hitting all that down there, I saw a truck coming right up behind me, and I was like, 'Yeah, I already got it. You ain't getting that change!'" he says with obvious satisfaction.

In the ice cream wars, there are two armies: those who, like Von Harrell and Victor Montgomery, lease their trucks from Frosty Treats; and the independents.

Jim and Sharon McMillen used to roll with Frosty Treats, but now they're on their own. After he retired from the construction business, McMillen and his wife started brainstorming a way to make some money and work together. They hit on ice cream and signed on with Frosty Treats. After a time, though, they figured they'd be better off working their northern route without the company's interference. Thus was born Happy Time Ice Cream. Why break with Frosty Treats? "Money," says Jim McMillen. "Why should I give Frosty 75 percent and me buy the ice cream for 25? Now I can make upwards of 65, 70 percent." The McMillens still buy their goods from Frosty Treats (though they're not able to sell a few "exclusives" the firm offers solely to its own drivers), but they're no longer tied to a territory, and they're now responsible for their own overhead.

Another advantage for the independents: Frosty Treats restricts what its drivers can sell. They're ice cream trucks, so they don't sell candy bars, chips or bottled water. They do offer sodas, but only Vess; no big-name brands. Some of the company's drivers complain the restriction puts them at a disadvantage, given that independents can -- and do -- carry whatever they want. If Frosty Treats drivers offer prohibited items on the sly, they risk being fired if they're caught.

Jim McMillen always rides with his wife. In addition to enjoying the company, he says it's safer that way. "You can't be safe out there, one person in a truck," McMillen contends. "With just one person in there, what chance does the guy got? And although they keep it pretty low-profile, they have drivers getting robbed pretty regularly."

Victor Montgomery says he was robbed a few years back, when he was working as an independent. A man approached while Montgomery was pumping gas, showed a gun and demanded money. Montgomery gave the gunman the $13 in the truck's change box. The vendor says he is resigned to this aspect of his job and is philosophical about the threat: "If it happens, it's going to happen."

Frosty Treats' Mary Perkins is reticent about discussing the topic of robberies, citing fears for the safety of her drivers. According to Perkins, robberies involving her trucks have declined in recent years, though they remain a constant concern. "Years back we had problems," Perkins says. "Every now and then one would get robbed. And we'd report it to the police, and maybe they'd get someone, maybe not."

Early this summer a lone assailant robbed Valickas Paulius, a 22-year-old student from Lithuania who was driving a Frosty Treats truck in north county. According to police, a man approached Paulius' truck while it was stopped at an intersection in the Glasgow Village area southwest of the Chain of Rocks Bridge. The man got in the van, ordered Paulius to lie down and then shot him, execution-style, numerous times. After driving Paulius' truck to the intersection of Grand Avenue and Broadway in north St. Louis, the gunman left the driver for dead.

Miraculously, Paulius survived. A St. Louis County police spokesman says the vendor has since returned to his native Lithuania, where he is recovering.

In St. Louis, if you sell ice cream from a truck, chances are you deal with Frosty Treats, Inc. The company holds local distribution rights to every Bomb Pop, Mickey Mouse fudge bar, Monsters, Inc. Mike bar, Goofy Scoop, Tweety bar, Powerpuff Girl bar and Ninja Turtle bar sold on any truck in town -- not to mention a handful of cups, freezes and ice cream sandwiches.

Frosty Treats' Broadway outpost, one of the company's two local branches, isn't much to look at. Given the joy that accompanies the arrival of a truck, you'd expect a Willy Wonka palace, or at least some streamers or balloons. Instead, the business is located in a nondescript single-story building with an attached parking lot, surrounded by a barbed-wire fence. Mornings, the company's eighteen vans are parked outside in neat rows. Frosty Treats prefers late-'80s Chevy vans, purchased used. It costs about $6,000 to transform a van into an ice cream truck; most of the money goes into the cost of the freezer. Once converted, the vans are driven until pieces start to fall off or they start to look shabby. Then they're patched together and driven some more. It's not uncommon to see a Frosty Treats driver behind the wheel of a van with 250,000 miles on the odometer.

Mary Perkins has managed this branch for two years and has been here in some capacity for another sixteen. She's worked the books, stocked the freezers, driven the trucks and placed the orders. Even on a St. Louis summer day, Perkins dresses for the cold life, in thick coveralls and a knit cap. When she emerges from the enormous freezer, the crystallized fog rolling out along with her, it's as though she's exiting a dream, or Heaven.

Closer to Heaven, ice-cream-wise, is Le Mars, Iowa. Le Mars, population 10,000, is about a half-hour north of Sioux City, amid rolling hills and farmland. There's not much to it, in a good, clean, American way -- a charming prairie town that has retained its local retailers, a town whose best restaurant serves its entrées with salad, a vegetable plate and choice of French fries or baked potato. Le Mars owes much of its existence to Blue Bunny Ice Cream, a division of Wells Dairy, a privately held company founded in 1913 by Fred H. Wells and still owned by the Wells family. If Anheuser-Busch were located in Festus rather than in south St. Louis, the brewery would subsume the burg in a similar fashion. No need to ask for directions; visitors are greeted at the town line by a big sign welcoming them to The Ice Cream Capital of the World.

Tourists hankering for a glimpse of the ice cream-making process must trek a mile north onto the main drag of Le Mars, where the Blue Bunny visitor center and ice cream stand has consumed a small strip mall. Museum director June Ferguson, a native St. Louisan who moved to Le Mars five years ago, collects the three-dollar admission fee from curiosity-seekers. Memorabilia items -- from early stabs at novelty treats to old-time ice cream scoops to antique pamphlets -- are housed in display cases. Two videos shown in a mini-theater trace the history of ice cream and Wells Dairy. One room is given over to a mock production line.

The manufacturing plant is located on a vast plot across Highway 75 from Le Mars' Wal-Mart and McDonald's. This is where Mary Perkins faxes her ice cream order every Tuesday morning at 8 a.m. (A typical order during the prime of the summer, Perkins says, calls for more than 80,000 frozen treats.) And it is here, in Blue Bunny's Impulse Division, that the company pumps out its Bomb Pops, sandwiches, cups, cones and "face bars," these last being products fashioned in the likenesses of various cartoon characters -- Bugs Bunny, Spider-Man and the like -- which are made to resemble ice cream but contain no dairy ingredients whatsoever. Inside, the place looks very 2001: all white and dominated by a loud, rumbling hum. All occupants, visitors and workers alike, wear white smocks, blue booties and hairnets.

The Bomb Pop line produces the company's ten Bomb Pop varieties, utilizing a machine that spews rows of eighteen at a time. For, say, the Tear Jerker Bomb Pop (so named for its exceptionally sour flavor), eighteen gumballs are dropped into eighteen cylindrical stainless-steel tubes, which are then filled with white, flavored ice, creating the core. Next comes the straw-like plastic stick. Then on to a new mold, complete with fins, into which a tangle of clear plastic hoses pump colored goo. Finally the pops are wrapped, placed on a conveyor and boxed. The process is fully automated; human intervention is minimal. "Kids love sour, and these are really sour," offers Blue Bunny marketing manager Jill Feuerhelm. And indeed they are. [See "Cold Comfort".]

Much of what's manufactured by the Impulse Division is made exclusively for ice cream trucks. You cannot, for instance, walk into Schnucks and purchase an Extra Sour Double Bubble Tear Jerker Bomb Pop. You have to buy it from an ice cream man. This, says Blue Bunny's 44-year-old executive vice president Mike Wells, is a Blue Bunny innovation. Nationwide, the company contracts with 100 distributors such as Frosty Treats, who agree to stock their trucks with a preponderance of Blue Bunny products. In return for the exclusivity, Blue Bunny offers a line of items that aren't sold in stores, including the Tear Jerker. (Frosty Treats trucks also carry Good Humor and Popsicle products, but not many.)

Even if a bar is available at the grocery store, it's a smaller version. "If you look at a Bomb Pop sold off a vending truck," says Wells, "it's much larger than the piece that's in retail. It creates a better value. You can't do the price comparison of, 'Gee, I paid a buck and a half for it off the truck, but I can get six of them for a dollar and a half at a store,' because they're really not the same items."

That said, it doesn't take a genius to do the math: A Bomb Pop bought from a truck will run you $1.25. It weighs 4.5 ounces. You can buy a two-ounce version of the same pop for $2.49 a dozen at Schnucks.

Still, that Bomb Pop is a major weapon in the hands of Blue Bunny. What, after all, is an ice cream truck without a Bomb Pop? The rhetorical weight of that question is not lost on Blue Bunny executives, who this year are celebrating a "relaunch" of the Bomb Pop. Wells Dairy purchased the iconic red-white-and-blue rocket bar in the early 1990s from Kansas City-based Merritt Foods, which created the Pop in the late '50s. "Technically, the Bomb Pop license is a six-finned, three-stage water-ice, and that shape is trademarked," Wells notes. Then he adds earnestly, "The change this year has been an amazing transformation."

Explains Jill Feuerhelm: "We wanted to add innovation to the Bomb Pop line -- add different color configurations, using different flavors. We have a new machine that gave us the ability to do various different things: You can have different-colored fins versus the core, which in the past was limited. It's still our patented six-fin shape; however, instead of it being quite so wide, we elongated it."

Back to Wells, who points out that the old Bomb Pop design required a fins-first eating approach in order to render the core small enough to fit into a kid's mouth. "The bomb pop was so big that it tended to melt quicker than they could eat it," he says. No more.

Big deal? This year, Mary Perkins reports, her branch has seen a 40-percent increase in Bomb Pop sales.

St. Louis city ordinance No. 65061 was passed on September 29, 2000, by a vote of 25-0. Its aim was to sort out the previous Byzantine, often-contradictory system of vending laws. And in a way, it did: "No person shall sell....any goods, wares, merchandise, flowers, horticultural products, services, food or beverages upon any public sidewalk, street, roadway, or roadway median within the City of St. Louis except in those areas designated by ordinance as Vending Districts," the law reads in part.

The ordinance delineates seven districts. Four of those -- the Meramec Street Vending District (which permits only the sale of agricultural products and flowers), the City Parks District and the Downtown and Wharf districts -- actually exclude ice cream vendors. The other three: an area that includes Dogtown and the neighborhoods directly south of it; a swath of far-south St. Louis south of Chippewa and west of Grand that includes the Bevo Mill and South Hampton neighborhoods; and a stretch of North Grand between Natural Bridge Road and Interstate 70.

In effect, the ordinance prohibits ice cream vendors from operating in any area of the city besides a small industrial section of North Grand and in the city's 14th and 24th wards. (Although a few municipalities impose their own restrictions, it remains legal to operate an ice cream truck elsewhere in St. Louis County, provided one acquires the proper permit.)

Like a lot of ordinances, No. 65061 is typically enforced only after complaints are received. "Because of the priorities and the amount of radio calls we handle, we normally [don't investigate] cases of street vending, whether it's for pretzels or ice cream trucks," says Major Roy Joachimstaler, commander of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department's south patrol division. "Unless we have a report of a complaining witness, that's not one of our high priorities."

For a long time no one complained. In fact, says Major Joachimstaler, his department was unaware of the law as it applied to ice cream vendors, until this year. "The alderpersons from the various wards down here are the ones that brought it to our attention," he says.

When she got word police officers had served her drivers with warnings after receiving complaints from city aldermen, Frosty Treats' Mary Perkins was flummoxed. "We've always run the ice cream trucks," she reasons. "I said, 'Was it something that we did wrong? Tell me, so maybe I can fix it.' I've been here eighteen years, the ice cream company itself has been here at least 50, and all of a sudden we can't run our ice cream trucks?"

The conflict centers on a chunk of the near south side. Specifically: Alderwoman Jennifer Florida's 15th Ward, which comprises much of the South Grand neighborhood; Alderman Craig Schmid's 20th Ward, consisting of Gravois Park, Benton Park West, Dutchtown and Marine Villa; and Ken Ortmann's 9th Ward, which includes Soulard, Benton Park and Tower Grove East.

According to Florida, police reports indicate some ice cream vendors have been selling more than sweets. "They turned out to be drug-dealing screens," Florida says. "It seems un-American, and it's kind of sad that somebody would use an ice cream truck -- children -- as a way to promote their business. But you have to realize that the way they distribute drugs, and the way they conduct their business, is through children."

Major Joachimstaler offers has a different version of events. "That didn't come from the police department," Joachimstaler asserts. "That information came from some neighbors and neighborhood groups, through the aldermen. We've had some calls -- and we have to be careful here -- of suspicious activity possibly involving ice cream trucks and drug dealing, but we have not made any arrests in that regard. Over the years there have been some sporadic instances of that occurring, but there is nothing recent, except for information coming from the neighborhoods."

One source is undoubtedly 56-year-old Harvey Harris, who drove a Circus Delight ice cream truck back when he lived in Kansas City. Harris now lives in Craig Schmid's 20th Ward, and he's sick of the ice cream trucks. His neighborhood is struggling to cope with drug dealers, and Harris says he has witnessed suspicious activities involving ice cream vendors. "Last year I had a truck outside of my house at a quarter to three in the morning with a compressor running and the music going, and rap music on top of that," he says. "The people who were buying from him were the drug dealers down on the corner. Some of the people were giving the guy wads of money and coming away with a bag of potato chips." Now, Harris says, he calls the police. "If we ever get society turned around where people have concern for the kids and concern for the neighborhoods and have concern for the world" -- at this he pauses and erupts in a belly laugh -- "we might be able to reconsider this. But right now I'm pretty adamant about this."

Mary Perkins says she investigates all of her drivers when anyone is suspected of selling anything other than ice cream, even going as far as to deploy dummy drug buyers. She maintains that if any ice cream vendors are dealing drugs, the independents are to blame.

Frosty Treats owner Carl Long would seem to concur. "The problem has arisen because, over the years, a number of independent ice cream trucks have begun to operate in the city," says Long, who has been in the business for 35 years. "These independent vendors have no fixed business location, are not as safety-conscious as Frosty Treats and are often abusive with their noise and hours of operation.

"Aldermen begin to field complaints from constituents and try to remedy the problem," Long goes on. "Unfortunately they have lumped all ice cream trucks together, not distinguishing between responsible ice cream truck vendors, like Frosty Treats, and irresponsible vendors."

Of course, though Long may point the finger at independent drivers, his company continues to sell goods to them.

Long says he wants to work with the city to create a better ordinance, one that mandates safety equipment, restricts hours of operation and limits noise. "I feel confident that the aldermen, once their concerns are addressed, have no desire to shut down a longtime St. Louis business, with the resultant significant loss of jobs, depriving the citizens of the city an opportunity to have fun frequenting a Frosty Treats ice cream truck and enjoying a Bomb Pop on a hot summer evening," he sums up.

"What is it that we're losing?" counters Alderman Craig Schmid. "We're losing the opportunity for kids to run after a truck and get an ice cream when they can go someplace else and get it, versus the safety and irritation and the nuisance and the litter and all the rest. On balance, what have we really lost, other than this sort of picturesque view of what it is? I mean, I remember as a kid there was a guy who was always at Marquette Park, and that's still permitted under the current ordinances. So we still have the opportunity for some of that to occur without the danger that can exist with the way it was before with kids chasing after ice cream trucks."

Schmid stresses the safety issue, as well: "I've nearly run into children, as a matter of fact, and I know other people have complained about that. What happens is, the trucks stop in the middle of the street, they don't pull over, and the kids come around the truck just like they do for a bus, but there's nothing there, even by state law, that prohibits [drivers] from passing around an ice cream truck, and they don't even have the authority to have the caution signs."

Mary Perkins says that besides equipping trucks with swing-out safety arms and convex mirrors, Frosty Treats works with drivers to emphasize safety, convening bi-weekly meetings that all drivers are required to attend. Rookie drivers are shown a safety video and are encouraged to help guide children as they make their way to and from the trucks.

Still, Frosty Treats vendors drive alone, which, asserts Jim "Happy Time" McMillen, is the main cause of accidents. With two people in a truck, one can fetch ice cream while the other safeguards the kids. "There's accidents out there," McMillen maintains. "Even though a child is not hit by an ice cream truck, I would say oftentimes they get hit because of an ice cream truck. I've actually had kids come up to the truck buck naked -- they're in the tub, Mommy left them in there to play with the rubber duck, and they hear that bell and out they come. And they don't look."

Von Harrell's got a divide-and-conquer strategy to selling ice cream in Washington Park, Illinois. "One day I'll do this half," he explains. "I won't touch the other half, because I want them to miss me. The next day I'll switch over. I do that on the strength of, you don't want people to spend their money every day on ice cream, because they'll get burned out.

"Except for the Dobbs guys." He laughs. "They buy every day."

"Washington Park isn't bad," Harrell says of the area's long-held reputation for violent crime. "It's over-exaggerated. I grew up in north St. Louis, so I'm used to what goes on in what you would call the ghettos. I mean, people can feel fear. When they see fear, they tend to act on it. But most of the time they're more scared of me than I am of them. They don't know what I got in this car. I've had confrontations where maybe a few words are exchanged, but nine times out of ten they're trying to see where I was: Is he the type we can chump? If we figure out we can chump him, we gonna take everything they got. But they figure: Hey, he's a man, so just leave him alone. And I don't have no problems."

Still, as with all the routes, these streets are not without their dangers. Harrell remembers days in the '90s when gang activity around here was at a fever pitch, after the Gangsta Disciples came down from Chicago. Once, he says, he drove his truck smack-dab into a rivalry at the Roosevelt housing project. "This guy came running around the corner," Harrell recounts. "He ran past my truck and into a house, and fifteen seconds later another guy comes running around the corner and he's got a gun in his hands. I'm right here, and I've got all these kids by the side of the truck. 'Y'all got to get going! It's time to go!' I'm getting the little kids away from the truck."

The gunman stopped, and Harrell found himself stuck in the middle. "The guy in the house comes out with a gun. I've got all these children here. 'Y'all got to go!' Then the parents see it and start running up to get their children. One guy starts shooting at the other guy, and he shot back, and I'm seeing the bullets hitting the ground and dirt flying up. I'm trying to drive backwards, I've got the kids away, and I'm trying to drive backwards. And I didn't go back into the Roosevelts for a long time."

But he goes back there now, and will continue to. This is his job, and he loves it. "It's a hustle," Harrell says. "This is survival. You're doing something legit. You're not breaking any laws. And I try to instill these certain qualities into my children. It ain't what you do. It's how you do it."

Plus, he says, it's nice to be loved. "I am one of the most popular guys you'll see, and the way the kids go stone-cold crazy -- you try and keep a smile on people's faces. When they see you, you're an escape from the negativity of life itself. The things that might bother you, or are having problems with. I know this truck can put a smile on a person's face. And that's a good feeling."

Correction published 9/10/03:
In the original version of this story, we misspelled the name of the home of Blue Bunny ice cream, Le Mars, Iowa. The above version reflects the corrected text.

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