Catching The Gingerbread Man

I never knew ahead of time that we were going there. Besides, I was just a little kid. Mom would pull into the Towers parking lot and slide the Volkswagen in next to (surprise!) Bowle’s Bakery. I’d perk up like an excited puppy.

 This was in the early 1960’s and the beginning of the age of that suburban American marvel, the shopping center. The first one of these sprawling edifices of which I was aware was Towers, named for the two “spectacular” communication antennae soaring skyward at each end of the place. Painted orange and white, the steel towers reminded me of rockets and launch pads and satellites every time I peered up at them.

We did our grocery shopping a few miles away, at Mick-or-Mack, and we still went to stores downtown and on the market, but I’m telling you the Towers of 1964 had a lot to offer.

Besides Bowle’s Bakery, there were popular stores like People’s Drug Store and Woolworth’s too. I remember People’s especially for its lunch counter with grilled cheese and pickles, and Woolworth’s for its captivating selection of Revell model car kits as well as its collection of bubbling aquariums which featured gold fish and guppies.

“Sonic’s Hardware and Toys” was at the other end of the shopping center, and fascinated me to no end whenever I was lucky enough to wander its aisles. (see “Perils and Lessons of the Toy Car Caper”)

For some years, mostly on special occasions like for lunch after church, we went to another 60’s era Towers fixture: Bailey’s Cafeteria. I can still picture the long line out the door and the hustle and bustle, and hear the boisterous talk and laughter of the patrons.

Down on Brandon Avenue, below the shopping center and across from Wheeler’s Fast Service Cleaners, (which has of course been there pretty much forever), was the first modern-style hamburger joint that I remember: Burger Chef. The big sign overhead proclaimed “hamburgers 15 cents.” Later on, in the 70’s there was a huge steel “Super Slide” set up behind the then-vacant Burger Chef building, but that’s another story.

Back to Towers Shopping Center proper. There was always a liquor store on the east end, and near Bowle’s was a High’s Ice Cream store. I especially loved the lime sherbet and butter pecan ice cream they served.

Once I was there with my neighborhood friend Bill, sitting on the stools eating our ice cream, when Bill’s entire scoop of butter brickle fell out of the cone and rolled across the linoleum floor. He scampered to recover it and replaced it in the cone and, never missing a beat, resumed licking. I would have done the same. I remember too how funny it was to be parked in front of High’s watching the people come and go in rhythm to old-timey country music playing on our car radio. At least it was funny at the time – as a kid, you know.

And then there was Bowle’s Bakery itself. Visiting there with Mom was particularly great since it was always just me and her – she planned it that way of course. I was the third of four children and, given all of the normal confusion in such a family, there were times when a kid might feel a little lost in the shuffle.

Anyway, there I’d stand, grubby hands and face to the glass of the display case, gazing mesmerized at the gingerbread men – there were usually two or three on display on the bottom shelf. Mom might be at the other counter selecting a cake or something but once she finished, she’d step over to me, lean down and whisper, “would you like one?”

Then I had only to point to the one I wanted (they were all decorated a little differently)and in an instant the smiling and efficient lady behind the counter would have it wrapped in wax paper and delivered to my waiting hands.

On our way home in the chugging Volkswagon Beetle, nibbling away on the leg of a gingerbread man, I knew I was a very lucky boy – lucky far beyond the tangible delight of a Bowle’s treat. For through my mom – and transcending the comic and the mundane – I felt the very love of God.

May all of us be never very far from that feeling.

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