It was an old-fashioned soda fountain. The counter was maybe ten feet long with four stools. There were four tiny circular tables with wrought-iron pedestals surrounded by small wrought-iron chairs with small rounded cushions. It was tucked in the front of a small drug store on the corner of Atlantic Boulevard and First Street, a block from where Atlantic Boulevard ended at a ramp down onto the ocean beach. Sea winds frequently deposited blow sand as far up as the traffic light; winter-storm high tides stranded driftwood a city crew had to clear. Atlantic Boulevard was the dividing line between Atlantic Beach and Neptune Beach. My family moved to Neptune Beach the winter of 1954. I was enrolled in Atlantic Beach Elementary, about five blocks from the soda fountain.
The little ice-cream parlor stands vividly in recall as the first place I learned the meaning of rank having its privileges. Guess more accurately, the first place I taught myself about privilege. It seemed to come naturally.
Schoolboy patrol was a big deal then, the colored cross-chest bandoleer and badge a symbol of prestige. Norman Rockwell even did a magazine cover of a heroic schoolboy patrol kid, struck by an automobile saving his grade-school charges. I have no recall how sixth-grade boys were selected for the honor. I arrived after the school-year was underway. The first social interaction I recall, other than the routine bloodying of the nose of the class bully to establish pecking order, was election of schoolboy patrol officers. Tommy M., small and quick and fearless, got the most votes. He was named Captain, and his patrol belt was blue. I was taken aback to get second-most votes, and the maroon belt of lieutenant. The rank and file, as I recall, wore orange, but not the Day-glo reflecting orange of later years.
Among the lieutenant’s duties was personally posting the road-guards before school let out. Which meant we got to leave early; first privilege. The Atlantic-First intersection may have been the most hazardous, and required two guards. No Military Police guard mount of my twenties was ever conducted with more gravity or sense of duty. I would “brief” my rotating roster of guards before leaving them to it.
And there sat the ice-cream parlor. Right on the way back to school. I already knew they served a miraculous concoction called a Coke Float: vanilla ice cream in a soda glass foaming over with fizzing Coca Cola from the fountain. I seem to recall they cost a quarter. And I always had a couple of quarters in my pocket. Nobody suggested it; nobody gave me permission. Hell, I was a lieutenant. Second in command. So I commanded myself to take a break and get a Coke Float. I could keep a long eye on my subordinates as the first Neptune Beach children trekked toward home.
If anything in this life ever tasted better, I don’t recall it. Nobody ever called me on it. Nobody ever questioned my privilege. One clever rogue from the wrong part of town — even beaches had a wrong part of town — said since I was lieutenant, I could “authorize” him to have one too before he stood out in the weather walking kids across the street. My first experience of a subordinate toadying up. I didn’t mind. He was fearless the day he backed me with a brick of his own when I found and killed a nest of coral snakes under the kindergarten “portable” building. One of the kids had been trying to pick one up. The grownups made kind of a big deal about it, not that Norman Rockwell showed up with his paints and easel or anything, but the colorful little vipers were terrifyingly lethal.
So I was a lieutenant by popular vote, an acknowledged leader when the chips were down, privileged to do pretty much as I pleased. Including openly directing my henchmen to pick kumquats from the tree under the principal’s window to fill our pockets before going on patrol.
But icy fizzing Coke Floats, at a little wrought-iron soda fountain table, were my first and best experience of rank having its privileges.
I was having one tonight, waiting for dinner, Coke Zero these days, and transcendental vanilla ice cream from Tillamook Dairies in Oregon. My lady love said you really are into those. So of course I had to tell her the whole story, wrought-iron chairs and all. I think they call those ice-cream parlor chairs, she said. I Googled. She was right. And since the keyboard was right there…
Privilege is a word kicked around these days. Disrespected. But not by me. Because…Coke Float.