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

August 18, 1991|By DOUG BIRCH

MIDDLESEX, VT. — 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.

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