We had a large card with numbers on it which we put in the window to tell the iceman we wanted ice. The number on top of the card showed him what size block to bring in. When our ice was just about all gone, we put the card in the window with the number 25 on top. That was for a 25-cent block, a good-sized piece.
The iceman sometimes had a wagon pulled by a horse, but more often it was a truck. He drove slowly along the street and looked up for the cards in the windows. When he saw one, he stopped the truck, went around, and climbed up in the back.
I used to enjoy watching him work. He would climb into the back of the truck and slide a large block of ice away from the pack. Then he would dig the ice pick into the block in spaced places across the top of the block. This was to split it. I enjoyed the chinking sound it made as white sprays shot downward through the ice from the ice pick strokes. Then the piece would split off with a chunking sound.
The iceman put a piece of burlap over his shoulder. Taking hold of the chunk of ice with tongs, he hoisted it to his shoulder. Then he walked with it along the sidewalk by the house and up the shaky outside stairs to our second-floor apartment. Turning into the hall, he opened the top of our icebox and dropped in the ice.
“Twenty-five cents,” he said as he straightened.
“Right,” I answered, handing him a quarter.
“Thanks.” And off he went to get another piece of ice to deliver to his next customer. I wondered how many chunks of ice he carried on his wet shoulder in a day’s time.
Sometimes I followed him out and watched him break off another chunk of ice for the next customer. Then while he was delivering it, I climbed into the truck and looked for small pieces of ice that had broken off. If I found more than one piece, I would give some to my little sister or maybe my next older brother. My oldest brother was usually out working.
If I found a good-sized piece like a large icicle, I wrapped a bit of newspaper about the base of it. I carried it around like a big cone, but it was the narrow end that I licked, instead of the large end as it would be with an ice cream cone. I carried it until I had licked every bit of coldness and moisture from it. It seemed an hour before it was gone, but when I crunched the last bit of it between my teeth, I felt as if the chunk had only lasted a minute.
Joe was the iceman that usually delivered our ice. He was nearly six feet tall, slender, with brown hair and eyes that were an unusual shade of tawny brown. He was probably in his twenties, though it was hard for me to judge at that time.
Joe used to grin at us when we gathered around to watch him split a chunk of ice off the block. Sometimes he would pretend to make a mistake and would make several good chips fall off the block for us to pick up.
“Go on, freeze your teeth,” he grunted as he slung the ice to his shoulder. “Let’s see if I can make it up those stairs without breaking a leg.”
I followed him up the rickety outside stairs that old Mrs. Woodruff always promised to have fixed but never seemed to get around to.
“Look out for that hole,” I called out as he approached the landing at the top. There was a broken board about six inches from the railing where a person could easily plunge a foot through the landing. I always tried to warn anyone coming up the stairs.
“Yeah,” grunted Joe as he stepped carefully around the hole. “Guess Old Lady Woodruff wants someone to fall through before she gets that fixed!”
Joe opened the door and went into the hall with the load of ice on his shoulder. He flipped open the top of the icebox with his free hand, then dropped the chunk of ice in and moved it around a little to settle it on top of the remaining ice.
Shutting the lid, he looked down at a trickle of water appearing from under the icebox. “Better empty the pan, son,” he told me as he pocketed the quarter I handed him.
“Gee, yeah,” I muttered. “See ya later, Joe.”
“Right. Thanks.” And Joe departed while I stooped to pull out the brimming pan from under the icebox.
I carried the pan to the sink, trying to keep it from slopping over too much. I dumped the water in the sink and put the pan back under the icebox before wiping up the spilled water with an old rag.
I thought some more about Mrs. Woodruff and the steps. I wondered why she didn’t find it to her own benefit to fix the steps, because she climbed them every week.
I remembered the previous Saturday morning when she had puffed her way up the stairs to collect the rent. Her weight made the climb especially difficult. She grasped the shaky side rail and leaned forward as she climbed. I watched her progress from the kitchen window overlooking the stairs and wondered, as I always wondered, if the rail and stairs would give way all at once under the stress. With the window open in the summer heat, I could hear her grunts and the answering groans of the stairway. She maneuvered safely past the broken board on the landing and made the door rattle with her knock.
“Come on in,” I said through the window. I was both relieved and faintly disappointed that she had once again avoided the trap waiting for her foot. Not that I actually wanted her to be maimed or killed, but I thought she would be forced to fix the stairway if she had a small accident on the landing.
Mrs. Woodruff opened the door, and I could hear her footsteps in the hall till she appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“Morning,” she puffed out.
“Hello, Mrs. Woodruff,” I said. “Sit down. Mom’ll be out in a minute.” I indicated a chair at the drop-leaf table by the window.
Mrs. Woodruff crossed the kitchen and plopped her weight onto the chair. She was wearing a familiar brown dress, rather baggy, with a matching vest of a style that might have been worn by a child. On her head was a round brown hat with a limp feather. She fanned her face with her hand.
“Hoo!” she panted. “Sure is hot today!”
“Sure is,” I agreed. “We do get some air through here when the windows are open. ‘Course, we usually have to shut them at night to keep out the bugs, ’cause we ain’t got any good screens.”
“You can get some of them sliding screens cheap in the five-and-ten,” she said.
“I’d go broke if I supplied screens to my tenants.”
I didn’t say anything more to her, but went to the curtained alcove that separated the kitchen from my mother’s bedroom, which branched off to the left, and the bathroom, which branched to the right.
“Mom,” I called, “Mrs. Woodruff is here.”
“Okay, son, be right out.” In a moment Mom came through the alcove, carrying her purse.
“Good morning, Mrs. Woodruff. Like some coffee?”
“Just some water, please,” Mrs. Woodruff said. “Gotta keep the radiator full, you know.”
Mom smiled. “That’s right; it’s a hot day.” She poured a glass of water and set it on the table. Mrs. Woodruff nodded her thanks and drank the water thirstily while Mom got a five-dollar bill out of her purse.
“Let me give you a receipt, Missus.” The landlady pulled a receipt book out of her handbag and laboriously filled out a receipt. She had a way of wetting the tip of her pencil with her tongue that made me think she was writing with her own substance.
“There, three and a half,” she said. “Here’s your change.” She fumbled a dollar bill and some change out of her purse onto the table.
Mom left the money there while Mrs. Woodruff heaved herself out of the chair.
“Thank ya, Missus,” said the landlady as she adjusted her hat.
“You’re welcome.” Mom followed her into the hall, and I heard Mom’s voice saying, “Better be careful on the stairs, Mrs. Woodruff.”
The door to the landing opened, and through the window I saw Mrs. Woodruff come out onto the landing. “Don’t worry,” she said as she stepped carefully around the broken board. On the way down she turned around and called over her shoulder, “I’ll see if I can get that fixed next week.”
“Good,” answered Mom, who had followed her out the door. “See you next week.” Then Mom turned around and came back in the apartment.
“I declare,” Mom said as she reentered the kitchen, “I don’t see how that woman can go up and down those stairs every week and not worry about falling through!”
“I know,” I laughed, “and she’s so heavy! But if anybody falls through, it’ll be one of us, not her!”
“That’s right. I sure wish she’d fix them.”
“She’ll never fix them,” I scoffed. “Not till they fall off.”
Mom picked up the money from the table. “Well, maybe she will, son. Anyway,
Mrs. Woodruff is good to us. She doesn’t charge us an awful rent, and sometimes she will trust us for the rent for a week or two.”
Mom put a quarter in my hand. “Delbert, would you go over to the store across the tracks and get some coal oil for the stove?”
“Sure, Mom.” I got the kerosene can from the closet beside the three-burner kerosene cook stove. We had a coal stove in the kitchen too, but especially in the summer Mom used just the kerosene stove for cooking to keep from heating up the kitchen. I usually went for kerosene (or “coal oil,” as we called it) a couple of times a week. Like emptying the water pan under the refrigerator, this job usually fell to my lot.
When I got back with the kerosene, Mom was just finishing some bread dough. She put it on top of the cold wood stove in a crock, and laid a cloth over top of the dough.
“There, I’ll let it rise for a while,” she smiled. “After a while we’ll have some fresh bread.”
“That’s great!” I said. “It sure beats that stale bread we been buying lately.”
The bread we usually bought wasn’t completely stale. It was what they called “day-old bread.” It was no doubt half a week old. We could buy it for half-price or less. It was something like three loaves for twenty cents–a price we could afford. We’d buy a week’s worth at a time. It wasn’t too bad at the start, but by the time we got to the last couple of loaves, it was quite hard, and moldy in spots. We would trim off the mold and eat what was left. When it was toasted and dunked in hot cocoa, it tasted pretty good. But when I ate it in a sandwich at school, it was rough going. It was food, at least, and we ate it. We didn’t throw it away. But when Mom baked her own bread from time to time, what a treat it was!
She had her own way of making bread, just as she had her own way of cooking any other kind of food. She seldom referred to a written recipe; she kept most of her recipes in her head. And she would alter the proportion of ingredients in the making. In making bread, she would stir the batter and throw in extra flour until the batter reached the bread-dough consistency she wanted. When it felt right, she would knead it on the breadboard, then put it into a crock to let it rise.
After a while the bread dough was ready to be kneaded again. “Delbert, would you like to knead it this time?” Mom asked.
“Yeah, let me at it,” I said enthusiastically. After washing my hands at the kitchen sink and drying them, I approached the table where Mom had dumped the bread dough onto the breadboard.
“Here,” she said, “get some of this flour on your hands so the dough won’t stick to them.” She sprinkled some flour on the breadboard beside the dough.
“Okay, Mom.” I rubbed my hands around in the flour till they were coated with white. Then I began to knead the bread. I dug my knuckles in it and worked it back and forth on the board. I liked the feel of its passive resistance as I attacked it. It was something I could hit without hurting. It was sort of like a punching bag but not as hard on the knuckles. It was soft and yielding but never gave way completely. In fact, it always came back. The more I kneaded, the better it would rise again later. I made a big ball of it and punched it with my right fist. Then I rolled it around on the board and slapped it a number of times. After that, I kneaded it again with the knuckles of both hands for a while.
“I guess that’s enough, son,” Mom said after about ten minutes.
“Okay, I’m ready to stop.”
I washed my hands again while Mom formed the bread dough into loaf shapes and put the dough in four bread pans. These she set on the stove, putting a dish towel over them.
“I’ll let it rise again, and then I’ll bake it,” she said.
We had a special oven attachment that we would set on top of the kerosene stove. It was a large metal box, and it was made so that, when it was set on top of the two burners, the heat would circulate around the sides of the oven. The bottom part was open so that it would fit down over the burners, and there were air compartments between the outer shell and the inner walls of the oven so the heat could circulate around the oven about the same way it would with a regular oven. The kerosene oven didn’t heat up the kitchen as much as the coal and wood stove, but even so, Mom did not usually bake anything in it on the hottest summer days. This day was not as hot as some, so I was glad to see that Mom had decided to make bread.
My sister Ruth came in while the bread was in the oven. She was a gangly kid of eight years old at this time. She was very dear to me most of the time, though I sometimes got annoyed with her, as older brothers usually do with “kid sisters.”
I remembered a night when Ruth and I were sharing a bedroom, and I had sat up late working on some difficult arithmetic homework. Ruth was asleep in spite of the glare of the light bulb overhead, which had no shade. I don’t know how late I worked, but it was a long time that I sat at the end of a trunk, using it as a desk. I was sorry that I had to keep the light on while my sister tried to sleep, but it was the only light we had. The room was on the third floor next to the attic and was bare of any conveniences.
After wrestling with an especially hard problem for a long time, I decided to get up and walk around the room for a minute or two. The room was about ten feet square. I walked quietly back and forth in my socks a couple of times, then stopped and looked down at my sleeping sister.
Ruth lay on her left side with her left hand relaxed on the pillow in front of her face. Her hair was honey-colored and fine; it covered her ears but left the rest of her face visible. Her clear-skinned face, with high forehead, turned-up nose, and definite chin, was as peaceful in repose as that of a sleeping infant. I thought of the times when she was a baby, and we had all competed for the right to hold her. There was something extremely appealing about my sleeping sister that awoke a strong protective feeling in me. She looked so defenseless and innocent that I felt more like her father than her brother.
A song came into my head, a song that probably was written about a sweetheart rather than a child. But it seemed very appropriate.
“My little girl, you know I love you,
Though you’re many miles away.”
I sang those two lines quietly several times as I looked down at the sleeping child. The pathos of her trusting vulnerability moved me powerfully, and I stood there for several minutes with tears coursing down my cheeks. I felt that I must do my best to defend her from harm.
I went back to my homework then and concentrated on finishing my math before going to bed. But the memory of that evening stayed with me, though it was often submerged in daily activities, and the emotions that my “kid sister” had aroused in me while she was asleep reinforced my protective feelings for her while she was awake.
There were times, of course, when I was impatient with Ruth or when I wanted to get away from her to play with other boys. But most of the time I took seriously my role of older brother and protector.
I remember taking Ruth to the movies on Saturday afternoon. The admission was only a dime, but of course Mom didn’t have much money. She liked to let us go to the movies once a week if at all possible.
“Now be careful at the crossings,” she told me.
“I will, Mom.”
“Here’s a nickel for candy,” she said.
“Gee, thanks, Mom!” I pocketed the coin and kissed her on the cheek.
She hugged Ruth and said, “Have a good time, honey.”
“Okay, Mama.” Ruth kissed her, and we went out the door and down the shaky outside stairs.
Ruth and I walked along together, with Ruth skipping ahead from time to time. At railroad crossings or street intersections I called to her and made sure to catch up to her so I could hold her hand. She minded me pretty well because she knew Mom had put me “in charge.”
On the way to the movie, we had to cross the railroad tracks near our house and several street intersections. The railroad crossing was bad because trains would often stop for long periods and start up unpredictably. After waiting ten or fifteen minutes, we would get impatient–but I sternly rejected any thought of climbing over the train.
“Let’s go,” said Ruth. “It hasn’t moved in an hour.”
“No,” I asserted with a laugh. “Anyway it’s not an hour. It’s ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Well, I don’t know what to do,” she complained. “What can we do while we’re waiting?”
“I don’t know. But if I let you climb across, Mom would skin me alive–even if you didn’t get hurt, which you probably would.” The train gave a sudden jerk.
“There, it’s starting to move. Let’s count the cars.”
But it was slow counting. The train moved by fits and starts, and we were only up to thirty-seven when it stopped cold again.
“Let’s go home,” Ruth said.
“Don’t you want to see the movie?”
“Yes, but the train won’t let us.”
I was about to answer, when the train gave a shuddering jerk and started to move again—backwards.
“Oh, no!” I said. But the backward movement halted with a jolt; after a pause, the train began to move forward again, slowly at first, then picking up speed, and the caboose went by at last.
“Hooray!” said Ruth, beginning to skip across the tracks as the gates lifted.
“No!” I sprang and grabbed her hand. “We’ve got to wait and see if there’s a train on the other track.”
Many times I had seen another train appear on the other track just as the first train had finished passing. This time none appeared, but I waited till we could see down the tracks for a block before I said, “Let’s go.”
We ran across the double tracks and down the street to the corner, where we turned left. We had five more blocks to go to get to the movie, but only one intersection was bad. That one was bad enough to make up for a whole bunch of easy ones. Campbell Street was a through street running north and south, and we had to cross it without a traffic light. That meant watching and waiting for long minutes till both lanes of traffic were clear. It took a lot of patience—and timing.
“When can we go?” Ruth whined after five or ten minutes. At least she didn’t try to get away from me at this crossing, because she was afraid of all the cars. You see, the railroad tracks went through the center of town from east to west, and therefore north-south traffic was cut off except at certain through streets where there was either a grade crossing or an underpass. After the grade crossing on Fifth Avenue, there wasn’t another through street until Campbell Street, where there was an underpass. Because it was one of the few through streets without a grade crossing, Campbell Street was one of the busiest streets in the city. And there was no traffic light where we had to cross.
Cars came whizzing out from the underpass on our left, more frequently than those approaching the underpass from our right. Perceiving that, I watched the traffic from the left, which was nearest us, for a break in the flow. Occasionally one occurred, but when I looked to the right, the flow from that direction would be for that moment uninterrupted. Finally a break in the traffic from the left came when there were half a dozen car lengths between cars in the opposite lane.
“Come on.” I gripped Ruth’s hand, and we walked to the middle of the road. Then I looked in the faces of drivers coming from the right until I saw one who smiled and waved us across. By that time, traffic was coming from under the viaduct again, and I had a fearful impression that the cars were touching our clothing before we scampered across the second half of the street.
“It’s a good thing you didn’t hold back like you used to do,” I told Ruth, “or we’d have never got across.”
From Campbell Street it was a short block to the theatre. We paid our ten cents apiece and went into the lobby, where we lingered in front of the candy case for some minutes trying to decide how best to spend our nickel apiece for candy. Eventually we both decided on some green leaves—little green gum drops shaped like leaves, with a delicious mint flavor. With our little bags of candy, we groped our way down the aisle—the theatre didn’t offer usher service for Saturday matinees—and found seats near the front where we settled down with grateful expectation of an afternoon’s entertainment.
And an afternoon of entertainment was what we got. There was a feature-length western with lots of galloping back and forth across the screen—and lots of stamping and cheering by the kids; an Our Gang comedy short full of silly antics by Spanky, Alfalfa, and the rest of the gang; a newsreel during which we went to the restrooms; and a Flash Gordon serial episode in which Flash escaped at the start from a trial by fire ordered by Ming the Merciless–to the cheers of the audience—and appeared inescapably trapped in Ming’s cave with collapsing walls at the end. The children all groaned, “Oh no!”
The neighborhood movie theatre provided a lot of wonderful family memories. Dad and Mom separated when I was young, so I treasured the times when Dad took us three boys to the movies. Ruth was generally too small, so my older brothers Norman and Don and I went with Dad to see a number of classy films, adventure movies like Captain Blood and Robin Hood with Errol Flynn and quality movies like The Tale of Two Cities starring the great Ronald Coleman, based on the famous novel of Charles Dickens.
Little wonder that when the time came, I went to work at the local movie theatre. After Mom remarried, we’d moved from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to Elmira, New York, in 1938. In 1941, I took on the job of usher at the Keeney’s Theatre.
In modern times, movie buildings often contain a bunch of little theatres, but in Keeney’s Theatre where I worked there was room for maybe 1,400 people on the ground floor and another 1,200 in the balcony up the stairs to the right. Once you got past the ticket-taker, you entered the theatre on the ground floor, with the seats slanting down gradually toward the screen. I’d report to work before the theatre opened to the public, sometimes in the morning. I’d get dressed in my uniform and get ready for work. First I’d take off my shirt and jacket. We wore a starched shirtfront called a dickey, connected to a starched collar. I wore a light blue uniform with a long-sleeved jacket, trousers, and a bow tie.
Sometimes I would tear up tickets at the entrance and sometimes I’d work with my flashlight as an usher leading people down the aisle. And sometimes I’d clean out the restrooms after the show was over.
Each ticket was about two inches long. When you tore it in half, you still had a square inch of ticket, made of a better-quality cardboard bearing the legend Admit One, not the name of the movie. The tickets would have a date stamped on them. The usher would split the ticket and drop one half into the receptacle, then give the other half back to the customer. But you didn’t need a ticket stub to get back in. And we didn’t leave the theatre to go to the restroom. Most people went at the end of the feature film, at the beginning of the previews of coming attractions—what we called in the trade “the trailer,” because it used to be the trailer after the main feature. We’d usually have a cartoon, a newsreel, and coming attractions, and then the movie. Sometimes they would have two features for the price of one—a double feature.
Most of the time while I worked in the theatre I didn’t have a driver’s license. I think my pay for a week of work at the theatre was $10, and there was a deduction of 2% for Social Security.
The Maltese Falcon, as a matter of fact, came out while I was working there. I came in early before my shift started in order to sit down in the theatre and enjoy seeing Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor without being interrupted. I watched it a couple of times.
With war declared, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps on Dec. 30, 1941. We saw a lot of great pictures in the Eighth Air Force. I treasured every letter from Ruth and Mom, and from our family.
When I returned from the war, I drove a taxi in Elmira for a while and went to work with Dad and brother Don to sell various things: Filter Queen vacuum cleaners, TVs, food freezers, and so on. I lived with Mom and Pop in Elmira during the summers to work and save up money for room and board at Syracuse University, which I used the G.I. Bill to attend–a first for our family. Through it all, Keeney’s Theatre was still there to provide great entertainment.
Photo at the top of the page: “Jimmy The Iceman Cometh: All heating and cooking is done with coal oil in the FSA (Farm Security Administration) housing project. Hartford, Connecticut. September 1941.” by polkbritton is marked under CC PDM 1.0. To view the terms, visit https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/mark/1.0/