For my first 10 summers, I lived within Big Wheeling distance of the town Dairy Queen. I could see the DQ sign from my front porch, and every year around the beginning of May, I swear I could smell the added huff of refrigeration in the air when it opened for the season. Other places had fancier Dairy Queens that stayed open year-round, with indoor dining rooms, hot-food Brazier menus, and even restrooms, all of which made the tiny, square, painted-cement stand at the corner of Main and Indiana streets in Danville feel primitive—and yet somehow exclusive, like a cruise ship that docked in our port for a limited time only. Absence made the heart grow fonder when it came to Dilly Bars and Buster Bars tucked inside waxed-paper envelopes, condensation gathering on the hard-chocolate surface the moment it hit the humid Hoosier air. Every summer, I had to retrain myself on how to gingerly bite into those ice-cream bars, holding the wooden stick at an angle so that any falling shards of chocolate would land in my mouth and not on the blazing sidewalk.
Being one of those sturdy, Kool-Aid–mustached children of the ’70s, I was often sent to Dairy Queen to get my own lunch—which meant either a deliciously shriveled Coney dog or a gloppy, sweet-sauced barbecue sandwich dipped from a crockpot. I sat and ate my food on the low cement wall that ran along the side of the building, traffic chugging by just beyond my elbow. Sometimes I had enough money left over for a drink—preferably a cherry Coke so choked with syrup and fruit that the straw would clog up.
Later in the day—sometime before the streetlights came on—I went back for dessert, clearly the more complicated course. I went through phases, favoring the sweet, pink strawberry milkshake for a while and then switching to its exotic chocolate-chip cousin, whipped up by the fresh-faced teenagers who worked in the inner sanctum of the Dairy Queen cube. (Those same teenagers were also masters at executing the DQ curlicue, a quick wrist action in the final moment of the soft-serve pump that resulted in a tip as perfectly curled as a Kewpie doll’s cowlick.) But as my palate matured, I started getting hot-fudge sundaes topped with whipped cream and Spanish peanuts—the original salty-sweet ice-cream concoction. And by the fifth grade, I had advanced to the orange-flavored Mister Misty Freeze, which probably should have clued me in to my later-in-life penchant for embarrassing blender drinks. They were daiquiris in training.
My summer flings with the Danville Dairy Queen came to an end the year we moved to Indianapolis, when the month of May rolled around and there was no buzz of excitement under a glowing red double-teardrop sign, no after-dinner bike rides with one hand on the handlebar and the other hand wrapped around a moldering Crunch Cone dropping its mysterious trail of candy sprinkles and crushed peanut brittle on the pavement. In the decades since, Dairy Queen has reinvented itself about as many times as I have—focused-grouped and rebranded, streamlined and given a whole new look. It’s the era of the drive-through Blizzard, an afterthought on Super Target errand runs. I barely recognize the place anymore.
I go back to my old Dairy Queen anytime I’m out west, though. They’ve changed a few things—a dramatic blue-and-red faux roof dips over the front windows now, and the menu has an added splash of color thanks to DQ’s recent partnership with Orange Julius. But the low cement wall is still there. So are the shake machine, the cake-cone dispenser, the red plastic spoons, and the teenage staff, though their curlicue skills could use some work.
When it’s my turn to step up to the window to place my order, I’m as giddy as a kid with a handful of change. The small glass window slides to the side with a thud, and I get that old familiar blast of AC—that nose hair–tingling puff of freon that smells like my childhood and summer in Indiana. There might be no such thing as a fountain of youth, but ice cream sure makes you feel young again.
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