Tongs for the memory

The storage battery in my little garden tractor quit, and I had to lift it out to put in a new one. It's heavy and in a tight place, so I couldn't seem to work my fingers in to get sufficient grip. I don't have one of those straps for lifting batteries. So - I went to my Museum of Awesome Oddities to fetch my old iceman's ice tongs, which neatly snaked the battery up and out. These tongs are not just something for display; they are the tongs I used when I was an iceman back in high school summers and earned a full dollar a day, every day except Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays. We peddled off an ice cart three days, and then on the others a different crew filled the cold boxes at the markets. That was heavy man's work, and I was only a ten-center. Ten cents was about right for a small icebox at the top of a flight of stairs. So ice tongs will handle a storage battery, and this made me think of two things - Ruel Butler, and the iceman song.

Ruel was never a student, but he knew more practical things than all the rest of us put together. He read slowly and without profit, and he always put two t's in cat. It was in the physics laboratory that his wide knowledge proved his undoing. We had come to electricity, and had fiddled with the Wheatstone Bridge and the machine with a crank that stood our hair on end. The teacher explained how a storage battery works, and Ruel raised his hand to tell her she was mistaken. That's not the how of it, at all, he said. She, her dander up, bawled poor Ruel out for intruding thus in a serious moment, and told him to bear in mind that she was teaching this class and if she wanted to hear from him she would let him know. Crushed, Ruel hung his head, but we heard him mumble that some day she'd start a fire. That teacher was never anybody's favorite - but pupils come and go, teachers stay, and Ruel got a big flunk in physics. You see, Ruel's father had an automobile repair shop, and while I peddled ice and such, Ruel helped in the garage. He swept out and pumped gasoline, and took care of the storage batteries on the charging line. He knew all about storage batteries, but he didn't know enough to keep it to himself. I have always acknowledged a big debt to Ruel, who taught me never to know more than Teacher - as a consequence I had several good grades in subjects where I should have had better.

As to the iceman song - it was on a phonograph record and enjoyed popularity enough so people often sang it as I came upstairs with my ten-cent ice. I can remember some of the words and some of the tune, but that was long ago and I'm hazy in places.

Only us oldsters will remember the iceman. Mechanical refrigeration was well ahead, then, so pond ice was stored in the winter in rambling sheds under sawdust to be brought out in the warm months and distributed about town. What we call a refrigerator was then an ice box or an ice chest - a zinc-lined and insulated cabinet with a lift cover on top, where the ice went, and a door on front for the food space, and a drip pan beneath. More refined customers might have a drain pipe instead of a pan. When a housewife needed more ice she would put the ice card in her window, and we boys on the cart would spot it and respond. Now and then we would lug a piece of ice, by the tongs, up two flights of stairs to have the lady say, ''Oh, I didn't want ice today!''

''Your card is up.''

''Sorry - I forgot to take it down from last time.''

The iceman, if the lady did want ice, would lift the top cover to reveal numerous perishables snuggling against the remnant from last time - a cucumber, tomatoes, smelts, leftover corned beef hash, a wedge of cheese, all put against the ice because the food area was full. He removed these, took out the remnant, put in the new ice, and then chipped the remnant so it would fit back. ''Be sure to put the food back!'' she would call, and then, ''And while you're there, why don't you dump the pan for me?'' All for ten cents.

The ice-man song went something like this: It's nice today, lady, Any ice today lady? How about a piece of ice today? It's only a quarter, You know that you ought-ter, Hurry up before it melts away! Yes ma'am, no ma'am, not on your linole-am, No ma'am, yes ma'am, giddy-up Napole-an - Your heart is on a nice man, And so is your old ice man, Oh, lady, be good to me!

All of eighteen then, I didn't mind if somebody greeted me thus as I struggled up the steps with a ten-cent piece.

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