Howard Rhile and his wife, Rosemary, were sitting on a wooden bench looking just as calm and happy as could be. It was a Saturday evening; the temperature was still a good bit above 80 degrees, and both of them were slowly and steadily working their way through cups of ice cream.
They had gone out to dinner, and on the way back to their Fairfax City home, they'd stopped off at Woody's Ice Cream on Stonewall Avenue, in their neighborhood.
Ice cream, whether it comes from the neighborhood truck, is hand-scooped at a favorite shop or is sneaked out of a carton in a darkened kitchen at midnight, puts the sweetness in summer nights. It is a comfort food that rekindles memories, forges family bonds and, when devoured with abandon, causes acute and delicious cases of brain freeze.
The Rhiles said they get their fix once or twice a week at Woody's. "This is the happiest place in town," said Howard Rhile.
The happiest place in town is not much to look at. Really. Located at the entrance to an auto-body shop, it appears to have been designed with a toolshed motif in mind. There are two windows, one for ordering and one where the ice cream comes out for delivery. Two teenagers then bring it to customers seated at picnic tables in front of the building. A third worker, Bethany Holland, 11, was cleaning tables one recent night.
The line stretched from the window along a fence where Holland stood eyeballing the tables, ready to swoop in with her spray cleaner and washrag. "Here comes Woody -- that's him," she said.
Woodrow W. Lashley came walking toward his ice cream stand, arms overloaded with supplies, bags of cups and containers. A short, wiry man, Lashley, 64, worked for most of his life in the auto business. He owned a dealership and body shops, and when he retired, he opened Woody's outside one of them.
Inside the stand, Lashley got busy putting away his supplies. George Greco was taking orders at the window and placing the slips on a rack like you'd see at a diner in front of a short-order cook. Lashley started twisting ice cream from a stainless-steel freezer into cones and cups. He sells soft-serve ice cream -- vanilla, chocolate and twist -- as well as milkshakes, sundaes, floats and banana splits.
When told that his ice-cream stand looks like a backyard shed, Lashley laughed. "I'm not offended," he said. "I built it myself. I found one that I could buy, but it had wheels on it, and the city wouldn't allow me to have a structure with wheels. They wouldn't build me one without wheels, so I drew up plans and built it myself."
The front windows at Woody's are plastered with thank-you notes from children. There are also notes from dog owners whose pets often lap up free dishes of ice cream from Woody's.
"You'd be surprised how many of the neighborhood dogs come down here," Lashley said. "We give them a dish and then usually call their owners" just to let them know where they are and what they've eaten.
It is a neighborhood kind of place. Lashley used to live right next door, but he moved to an over-55 community in Gainesville with his wife, Louise, because the house was getting a little big for them. He loves his new home but misses living in Fairfax and said they are thinking about moving back.
Lashley retired in 1996 and opened Woody's in 1998. He estimated that he goes through 120 gallons of ice cream a week, but it's clear that he is not in the business for profit. He opens each year on April 1 and closes around Halloween. Last year, he said, about 3,000 to 4,000 people turned out for his annual Octoberfest. The city closed down the street. The Lashleys gave away ice cream, about 10,000 hot dogs and hamburgers and a truckload of soda. There was a costume contest, puppet shows and music. Inside the ice-cream stand, Lashley keeps a photo album from the street party to show to visitors.
He said all the while he was working during his adult life, he dreamed of opening an ice-cream shop.
"My mother and father used to take us to little ice-cream stores," he said, "and as you look back, you say, 'That was the greatest part of my life.' This is what it is all about -- enjoying family times."
On a recent evening, the tables were full of families, some even arriving in pajamas and slippers as it began to get dark. Lashley bakes a batch of brownies every day for his famous brownie sundaes. This morning, he had burned the brownies, and his wife had come to his rescue, firing up a batch for him. As soon as he got to work, he'd made himself a sundae with one of her brownies. "I have to say, hers are better," he noted.
The line was getting long. Greco was taking orders, and Lashley and another employee, Dean Davis, were filling them as fast as they could. Lashley prepared a large cone of vanilla and dipped it in chocolate. "Table 24," he said, handing it to one of his workers outside for delivery. Clearly, Lashley is in ice-cream heaven. And he wants his customers to feel the same way.
"When people come here, they're happy. And when they leave, they're happy, too. What more could you ask for?"
Maybe another banana split?