There are a number of things I remember being traumatized by as a child. Bambi’s mom. Depressing. The horse that sinks in the quicksand in The Never Ending Story. Horrible. Those awful trees that throw apples in The Wizard of Oz. Terrifying. What about that acid-trip boat ride in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory?
While concerned parents worried about 8-bit violence in video games or the mind-rotting effects of comic books, we were disturbed by images in the very programs meant for children. Public television—long thought to be the beacon of children’s programming—was the worst offender. I remember sitting cross-legged on the beige carpet in class. We watched the PBS-produced Tomes & Talismans, the dramatic post-apocalyptic miniseries about an elementary school media center. I don’t remember learning a thing about the Dewey Decimal system, but I remember humanity being wiped out by aliens. It scared the hell out of me.
Then there was a book. Though the story was a teaching lesson for children, I remember being upset and feeling guilty by it. In fact, I could not even remember the name of the thing after all these years, but I remembered the images in the book clearly.
There were little pigs who wanted ice cream. A wolf was disguised as the ice cream man. I dug deep into the Internet to find it—actually, I simply Googled “pigs,” “wolf,” and “ice cream,” and there it was.
Published in 1977 by Mary Rayner, this book is about a pig who climbs into the back of the ice cream truck and gets kidnapped. I had to track it down. Though the book hasn’t been in print in years, I found a library nearby that still had a copy. Since college, I’d become accustomed to the interrogation-room lights and towering aisles of academia, lurking past the emotionless visages of students lit by the sheen of their laptops. I hadn’t been in a community library in a long time.
I walked into the library. It was colorful and rinky-dink, with construction-paper strings of the alphabet along the sunny windowsills. It smelled like crayons and pulp. I approached the children’s section. Behind a desk that was short enough for children to see her, sat a thirty-something woman in an Easter egg of a sweater and glasses. I loomed over her.
“Can I help you find something today!” she asked with an exclamation point on the end. Maybe she thought I was an exceptionally large child.
I hesitated. I needed to find the perfect nuanced way to say the words Garth Pig and the Icecream Lady. I needed bewilderment and a dash of self-deprecation, with a lilt of ironic knowingness. She looked at me with nothing but complete sincerity. Again, I realized she was wearing an Easter egg. There was no way she was going to pick up on the seven layers of subtlety in my voice. What the hell was wrong with me? I was asking for a children’s book.
I glanced at the five-year-old playing with the blocks on the carpet nearby. Was that a boy or a girl or what? I feared it might hear me. I looked at my shoes and muttered garthpigandtheicecreamlady.
“Oh, Garth Pig!” the librarian said, as though she knew him personally.
Immediately, she located the book, and placed it in my hands, expectingly, as though she waited for me to say something. I thought about lying that I planned to read it to a neighbor child over milk and cookies. But I’m afraid of the neighbor children.
“I read this book when I was a kid,” I said. Awkward pause. Stupid. And so I just really wanted to read it again. Yeah right. I wondered if I should casually browse the literature section at this point.
But my real purpose was to come to terms with my demons in Garth Pig. Reviews of the book online say this is gentle story for children. I’m twenty-nine years old, and there are entire slabs of my childhood that I have simply forgotten. But this gentle story? Stayed with me and likely contributes to my neurotic tendencies and distrust of strangers as an adult.
It starts like this. One day, the pigs are all playing when they hear the ice cream truck.
They all decide to make the youngest one, Garth, go buy the ice creams. He’s also the fattest. While the others all want a ice cream pop called a Whoosh, Garth wants a double scoop cone with sprinkles.
The message was not lost on me. Greedy little piggies. I knew deep down in my six-year-old heart that I was like Garth, too. I always opted for the double scoop. He’s so busy counting his money for a double cone that he doesn’t even notice the ice cream truck is sketchy as fuck. He doesn’t even notice the wolf-dressed-as-a-woman’s salivating tongue.
Here’s the part of the book where my mother paused her reading of it to me to discuss never, ever getting into a stranger’s van. If I thought this was going to be a happy bedtime story, I was wrong. This was a lesson of life and death. It’s never too early to begin instilling a healthy fear in kids.
There’s another part of my story that I haven’t mentioned yet. We also stole this very book from the library in the 1980s. It got lost for months and months under my bed, in the abyss of toy parts and Coca-Cola cans and dust bunnies. The fines began racking up.
“I pay enough taxes in this county that I shouldn’t have to pay for that lost book,” my mother said.
My mother had a plan. She insisted to the library that we had already returned it, and that they were the ones who had lost it. She even made a Angry Mom Scene at the library checkout desk until they removed all fines from our card. Not only was Garth Pig a lesson of life and death—it was also a personal lesson in lying and stealing.
It was a smelly book, too. The pages smelled like old cheese. It became incorporated into our collection of books, on the shelf next to the Choose Your Own Adventure and Dr. Seuss books. I felt dirty.
Meanwhile, the wolf drove the truck into the woods, with little Garth trapped in the back.
In the front, the wolf sang about the different ways it was going to eat Garth—minced and buttered and roasted and la de da.
In the back:
What happens next is that the brothers and sisters are tired of waiting forever for Garth to come back with their ice cream. So they go looking for him and realize he is about to be killed. They jump on their ten-person bike and chase after the ice cream truck. Somehow, they manage to rescue Garth, and throw the wolf over the bridge.
Actually, violently fling the wolf over the bridge to his drowning death.
Garth is rescued and the wolf is killed. Instead of silently staring at each other in shame—as me and my sister might have done after a kidnapping, near-slaughter, and murder—instead, they all inexplicably decide to steal the ice cream from the wolf’s truck.
And in the end, Garth gets his double scoop, so no lesson was really learned. The end.
But I had learned my lesson(s). Don’t be greedy. Never trust the ice cream man. Never get in his truck. And if you lose the book, lie about it. If necessary, yell at the librarian.