June 7: Muscatine to Oxford Junction, Iowa - The Great North American Sticky Bun Hunt - CycleBlaze

June 7: Muscatine to Oxford Junction, Iowa

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I CAN SEE WHY Thelma Soteros fell in love with George Nopoulos. George, at 90, is the world's oldest soda-jerk. He has the warmest slow smile I have ever seen. You want him to be your grandfather. He should be available on prescription.

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George and Thelma, who is 79, run the Candy Kitchen at Wilton, first town after Muscatine. There were three children at the long counter, lined with soda pumps, eating ice cream that George makes in a 50-year-old circular blue machine in the window. "I don't know," George was saying in a pained drawl. "I only started here last week."

"Don't ask me - I only started here last week"... George is the world's oldest soda jerk. He stays young and happy, he says, because only in an ice cream parlour are you surrounded by perpetual pleasure.
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The truth is that George started there in 1926, when his job was to wind up the gramophone in a shop that still didn't have electricity. The business has been there since 1856, seven years earlier than the Gettysburg Address. In 1907, Gus Chimpanis arrived at Ellis Island with $25 that his mother had sewn into his jacket. Years later, and now renamed Gus Nopoulos, he and a friend travelled to Wilton to see one of Iowa's swankiest county shows. The friend pointed out the failing business in Cedar Street and Gus bought it. Having renamed himself, it was a simple step to rename the shop. The Candy Kitchen it became.

George, his son, began work there at 10. "That's 80 years," he said, adding an extra scoop of ice cream to my plate with a hands-on-lips gesture that said "Don't tell Thelma."

George with Thelma, who despite a hospital operation came from home to see us.
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"Another few years and he'll have got the job off pat," Thelma said without looking round. They met when Thelma took a job behind the counter. George gave her an engagement ring in the building's back office.

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"They tell me I've qualified to retire," George says with that slow smile. He is a short, dapper, grey-haired man who looks and behaves 20 years younger than he is. The joke is that he provides a Pensioners' Special for "old folk" two decades younger than he is.

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"And will you retire?"

"Can't see why when I'm enjoying myself so much."

"Your sons aren't interested in taking over?"

"They don't wanna get mixed up in all this. Heck, I leave the keys in the door all day and still people refuse to come in and take over!"

It's a wonderful place. It's the sort of visit, and George and Thelma are the sort of people, that make you realise the improbability of anything better happening all day.

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As for the riding, the terrain has grown hillier. There are now shallow valleys to show off the different shades of green. Was it George and Thelma alone or has the end of the flat bean fields brought a new pleasure to this trip?

Tonight we are camped in a park at the edge of Oxford Junction, barely large enough to call itself a village but nevertheless with a "city hall", an enterprise so small that it fits in the little white shed of a former gas station with the pumps still outside. A small road runs to one side of our camp site and there's a baseball pitch behind us. On another side dark cows munch and watch us with unblinking eyes. We have been warned of thunder but we've had nothing worse than a few drops.

AMERICAN FLAGS SEEN: 154

George gave us a tour of his back room
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