My parents had three small children when the Great Depression hit. Their household also included my elderly grandfather and my uncle Lonnie, who was only nine years old when my grandmother died. Lonnie came to live with mother and dad when they were newlyweds. The household shrank and expanded like a bellows as different relatives would come to stay for a month or year, or more. For a while the household included my Aunt Eva, her husband Paul and their two babies, Eddie and Pauline. This story from that time was told and retold as I was growing up in the 40s and 50s.
Paul had a job driving an ice wagon back in the days before electric refrigeration, when food was kept cold in an ice box, an insulated wooden cupboard - which held a large block of ice in one of the compartments. This ice was delivered door-to-door by the ice-man. The horse-drawn wagon was packed with 50 pound blocks of ice separated by layers of sawdust. The horse knew which houses bought ice and which ones didn't, Paul didn't even have to hold the reins.
When the horse stopped Paul would jump off the wagon seat, run to the back of the wagon, open the door, get a firm grip on a block of ice with a set of huge tongs, heft the block out, haul it around to the back porch and into the kitchen where he'd put it in the ice-box. Sometimes he'd have to chisel away the irregular edges with the ice pick he carried in his belt so the block would fit in the box. 50 pound blocks. Over and over. All day long. It was back-breaking work.
One day he slipped and hurt his back and couldn't lift the blocks. But jobs were scarce and he couldn't risk taking a day off. School had just let out for summer so Paul begged Lonnie to help him with the route. Little Lonnie, who at 14 years old, was five foot nothin' tall and still weighed only 85 lbs.
They struggled the blocks into the houses together for most of the day, but by the last hour Paul could barely crawl off the wagon. Lonnie was left to deal with blocks of ice that weighed 3/4s as much as he did - alone.
As they approached one of the last houses Paul said, "Lon, make sure you get a big block. This woman has a scale on her back porch, and if the block isn't 50 lbs she'll make you bring it back and get another one."
Lonnie surveyed the remaining blocks carefully and picked what looked like a big one. He grappled at it with the tongs and using every ounce of strength drug it out of the wagon.
"Did you get a big 'un?" Paul asked, from the front of the wagon.
Lonnie wiped his brow and picked the block up off the tailgate. "Oh, it's a big 'un all right!" Then he began the slow, stiff-legged walk toward the back of the house, with the ice-block in the only position he could manage, swinging on the tongs between his knees like a cross-wise pendulum, threatening to overbalance him at every step.
"Ice-man!" he yelled as he struggled up the steps, just as Paul had taught him.
"You ain't my rag'lar," the woman said, eyeing him suspiciously.
"No, Ma'm, he's in the wagon a 'cause he hurt his back."
"Well, I hope he told you I won't be cheated! Here - you sling that block on these scales. And don't you be a laying your dirty thumb on that scale or I'll slap you sideways to Satan!"
The dial gyrated wildly and gradually settled - at 49 lbs. Lonnie's heart sank.
"Do I LOOK like a fool?" She narrowed her eyes. "I pay for 50 lbs of ice, and by gum I'm gonna GIT 50 lbs of ice. You ain't cheating me! Git me a bigger block!"
He had no choice. He hauled the block down, wrestled it back to the truck, opened the door and shoved it back in.
"Not big enough?" Paul asked in dismay.
"Only 49 pounds." Lonnie wheezed.
Paul crept off the wagon seat groaning and holding his back. Together they searched through the blocks until they found one Paul was certain was big enough. He sweated as he helped Lonnie pull it out and leaned panting on the tailgate as Lonnie traversed the long path around the house again.
The block went on the scale. He held his breath. The woman watched the dial the way a hungry cat watches a mouse who is just one step from being too far from its burrow. The dial settled - 49.5 lbs.
"I do believe you take me for a fool! I will go to the office tomorrow and report you to your superiors! I PAY for 50 lbs of ice and I am going to GIT 50 lbs of ice!"
"No Ma'm, no Ma'm!" Lonnie was at the edge of panic. "It ain't no trouble a'tall. I'll get another block," and he started back to the wagon, with the tonged iceberg trying to tear his scrawny little arms out of their sockets.
"Not big enough," he gasped as he swung it up on the tailgate. "God Damn," he was nigh in tears, "Not God Damn big enough."
Paul didn't even scold Lonnie for swearing. "Get inside," he said. "Let's make sure we get the biggest one in the wagon."
Several minutes later they had separated out a massive block, and Lonnie was once more on his difficult journey to the back porch of this very particular customer.
He saw a gleam of satisfaction in the woman's eyes as she saw the block, and sure enough, when the dial settled down it read an astonishing 54 pounds. "Well that's more like it!" she crowed.
Lonnie felt a wave of righteous indignation come over him. He reached for the ice pick tucked into his belt and attacked the ice block.
"Here! Here! What do you think you're doing?" she shrieked, dodging flying ice.
Lonnie paused briefly to look at the dial and started chiseling again. Finally his pick fell silent. The dial read exactly 50 lbs. He grinned for the first time that afternoon.
"Lady," he said, holding out a trembling hand for his nickel payment. "You're paying for 50 pounds of ice, and 50 pounds of ice is ALL you're gonna GET!"