Moving Between Military Culture and Ice Cream Counter-Culture A LETTER FROM VERMONT


Middlesex, Vt.--The Cold War is just about history. But if you're gripped by nostalgia for drop drills and teach-ins, peace marches and police actions, this region in the midst of the Green Mountains could be the perfect vacation spot.

On our visit here we spent a night at the Camp Meade motel, a cluster of 18 small cabins deployed among the machines of war, including a 155-millimeter howitzer, a 1940 Stuart light tank, a halftrack, a couple of jeeps and an F-86 Saberjet used in Korea. A public address system barks reveille at 7:45 a.m., then broadcasts martial music. In the evening, the PA plays country-western songs followed by taps.

The encampment is protected by ever-vigilant department store mannequins, most of them stylish-looking lady dummies. One plastic soldier is stationed in the guard shack by the entrance and wears a wide, thin-lipped smile and an MP's uniform. Several of her comrades peer out of a sandbagged bunker armed with a .30-caliber machine gun.

Up the road, just outside Waterbury, is the Athens to Camp Meade's Sparta -- Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream Factory, a sort of People's Republic of Pistachio. Visitors who drive up Route 100 find a Guernsey-studded hillside, a metal factory building with a huge image of the earth on one wall, an outdoor ice cream parlor and a gift shop selling rain-forest-friendly candy. There are also lots of posters and flyers on recycled colored paper, flapping around like early fall foliage, promoting everything from efforts to save family farms to a call for the United States to spend 1 percent of the Pentagon's budget on peace.

When we decided to visit Vermont, we hadn't planned on a '60s re-enactment -- it just worked out that way.

We saw a brochure touting the Ben & Jerry's tour and figured it would be a relaxing hour outside the orbit of most tourists. Doug Wilhelm, a friend and former Vermont correspondent for the Boston Globe, recommended Camp Meade as a nice, if eccentric, place to stay.

We hit Ben & Jerry's first, around 1 p.m., expecting to join a few other ice cream fans and maybe some counter-cultural leftovers in sandals and tie-dyed garb.

What we found was a large crowd of preppy-looking, middle-class families lined up six-deep at the ice cream sales windows, squatting on benches and sprawled on the grass. They slurped the high-butterfat ice cream and waited for the $1, half-hour tours. (50 cents of each $1 goes for the Ben & Jerry's Foundation, which donates money to various non-profit groups.)

Locals claim the factory is one of the most popular tourist attraction in the state -- and it was probably the single most crowded spot we visited.

There wasn't much to the place except the ice cream, the reputation as a kind of counter-cultural Mecca and U.S. headquarters for what the firm calls "caring capitalism." "I came all the way from Rochester to visit this place," one middle-aged woman announced proudly to a blond, collegiate-looking lad selling tour tickets.

Some may also have come because Vermont sounds like a great place to vacation, but there really isn't that much to do here except go leaf-blind staring at the greenery and buy institutional-sized containers of maple syrup.

After dropping about $9 for three milk-shakes (mine was Heath Bar Crunch), my wife, 10-year-old daughter and I bought tickets for the next available tour -- about an hour away -- and wandered around the grounds. We watched them make ice cream in a bucket. We looked at the posters reciting the history of B&J.;

As suggested, we dutifully visited the treatment ponds for the dairy waste water -- "No swimming, bathing or entering" warned a wry sign on the gate.

We returned to the lobby where Peter, our tour guide, led us upstairs to a slide show. It soon became obvious that, aside from their superpremium ice cream -- which is as tasty as it is potentially health-threatening -- what Ben & Jerry do best is shameless self-promotion.

The slides depicted two chubby, pre-teen actors portraying Ben and Jerry when they first met in junior high gym class in Merrick, L.I. Then we flash forward to the mid-1970s, when Ben Cohen, the bearded one who looks a little like the Beat poet Allen Ginsburg, and Jerry Greenfield, the clean-shaven guy who vaguely resembles the film-maker Albert Brooks, take a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making from Penn State University.

A couple of slides later, they open their first ice cream store in a renovated gas station in Waterbury, Vt. in 1978. Flash forward to Vermont's Emperors of Ice Cream receiving a small business award from President Reagan a couple of years ago.

The show over, we marched into a glassed-in mezzanine and watched stainless steel machines spurt ice cream into pint containers while Peter roamed the production-room floor like Phil Donahue, answering questions with a remote microphone. (Yes, he explained, every night employees get to take home three free pints -- "seconds" that didn't pass quality control because they have didn't enough butterfat or Heath Bar chunks or whatever.)

One lady in a white smock and paper hat waved at Peter's urging, apparently to show us what a big and happy family B&J; is. In one corner is a Lionel train-scale papier-mache sculpture of the Waterbury gas station with Ben and Jerry standing out front.

Back in the lobby, there is a wall full of posters, plaques, letters, pamphlets, newspaper and magazine clips about the the company's founding fathers.

Visitors lap it up.

Peter said the company today employs 400 people. A Wall Street Journal article said the firm sold more than $77 million worth of ice cream around the country in 1990.

The company donates 7.5 percent of its pretax profits to charity. Their annual shareholders meeting in June was a sort of scaled-down Woodstock, featuring Toots and the Maytals, Richie Havens and lots of other groups. B&J; also dumped a billion rye grass seeds in a pile to demonstrate how big that number is, and how big the Pentagon's budget really is.

While the Waterbury factory celebrated disarmament, we found the arms race alive and well at our Middlesex motel.

After a stroll past the armament, the bunker and the cabins, each named after such military heroes as Gen. George S. Patton and Lt. Col. Oliver North, I shook my head and muttered that the place was "crazy." "It's not crazy," said my daughter. "It's fun."

Gaston "Gus" Gosselin, a 57-year-old veteran of the peacetime Navy, bought Camp Meade, a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp named after a prominent Vermonter, in 1985. Gus, who lives in nearby Barre, said visitors kept asking him what connection it had with Fort George G. Meade (formerly Camp Meade) in Maryland.

"I said, 'Nothing,' you know? They kept asking, and I kept saying 'Nothing.' " But that got Gus to thinking. "Well, maybe we should buy a tank," he said, because an early tank battalion was stationed at Maryland's Camp Meade. So he hunted around and bought a tank.

Then tanks and half-tracks, most of which operate, began sprouting like dandelions. "Everything started to show up after that," he said.

Over the past six years, Gus has acquired so much equipment that it got to be a bother. "There was too much stuff around here," he said. "When you mowed the lawn, you have to move too many rigs."

So now Gus parks some of his surplus weaponry on 30 acres out by the State Police barracks, where on weekends he stages "paintball" games -- war games where contestants use special guns to fire paint capsules at one another. The motel office doubles as an Army surplus store and sales outlet for paintball equipment.

Gus was friendly. But he took a long look at me in my Hawaiian print shirt and shorts and thought aloud: "Mostly, we get veterans here and that's what I enjoy, because we all share the same . . . you know. . . ."

"Attitude?" I suggested. He nodded. I think he sized me up and decided I preferred B&J;'s Cherry Garcia (named after Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead) to playing Rambo with paint pellets.

But even patriots in this land of marble-hard Republicanism seem to be resigned to peaceful coexistence. Gus had nothing but nice things to say about the ice cream business up the road and "those two boys from New York."

Ever since the 1960s ended, much of the world seems to have been drawn to the roach motel of nostalgia. For Elvis. For JFK. For the innocence of the 1950s. For the electric experience of the 1960s. So it wouldn't be surprising if now there were nostalgia for the mighty engine of history over the past 40 years -- the Cold War.

The summer soldiers at Camp Meade can drive their tanks and shoot their paintballs, and long for the Good-versus-Evil political map of their youth, with communist countries painted blood red and the Free World true blue. Now things are getting messier, of course, with the former communist block countries breaking up into pixels of ethnic and religious and political differences.

Ben & Jerry's, meanwhile, seems to prove that in some crazy way for someone, the peace movement and student protests of the 1960s added up to more than just hedonism and hell-raising. The forty-something children of a gentler God can take comfort in the fact that, even if none of them seems to have had much impact on the direction the world has taken, they've at least managed to make politically correct ice cream.

Doug Birch is a reporter for The Sun.

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