By Greg Clark, July 31, 1937
“Ice,” said Jimmie Frise, “is badly needed at my cottage.”
“And mine, too,” I confessed. “Welcome the day when they get electric power through this neck of the woods and we can have an electric refrigerator.”
“Nonsense,” cried Jim. “Going for the ice is one of the few remaining pleasures of the summer cottage. Look at us. Radio. Indoor plumbing. A gasoline pump for the water tank.”
“On a day like this,” I sighed, “I could wish to be modern in all things.”
“The swellest kind of a day,” retorted Jim, “to go for the ice. Think of the dear old ice house. How cool it will be inside. The dark damp sawdust. It will be a pleasure just to get inside it.”
“Will you row the boat?” I asked.
“I’ll row over,” said Jim. “You row back, after you are refreshed by a few minutes in the ice house. It will revive you the way no swim can. Not even a cold shower.”
“You know,” I mused, “on a day like this, Jim, we Canadians can pat ourselves on the back, just for being Canadians. Just for surviving. Did it ever occur to you that perhaps no place on earth do they have such extremes of temperature as we have in Canada? In the summer, it is as hot as India. In the winter, it is colder than Russia. To be a Canadian, you’ve got to be made of real stuff.”
“Asbestos,” agreed Jim, “on the outside, with wood alcohol for blood.”
“In about four hundred years,” I stated, “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Canadians take on a racial type, a sort of cross between the Negro and the Eskimo. We will gradually acquire a dark brown hide as the result of our summer. And a smooth featureless skin covering a thick layer of blubber, like the Eskimo, as the result of our winter. I bet we’ll be an interesting looking people, in about four hundred years.”
“Come and get the ice,” said Jim, rising.
“Sit down, sit down,” I begged. “This is a day for thinking twice about everything. Let’s think about things for a while. The sun will be going down in a couple of hours. We can get the ice any time.”
“Our ice box,” said Jim, “has got a humid smell. It is moaning for ice.”
“You skinny fellows,” I sighed, “are lucky. There you are dressed in thick canvas, and as cool and dry as a cucumber. Here I am in shorts and a cotton scanty, and I’m oozing slowly to pieces. Suppose you get the ice today, and I get the ice to-morrow? For both of us?”
“No,” said Jim. “It takes two to get the ice. One to dig in the sawdust, and the other to crowbar the hunk out and chop it. And then it takes two to carry the ice down to the boat.”
“You could drag it,” I explained.
“If I have to go alone,” said Jim, “I’ll bring only my own cake of ice. Depend on that. I look upon going for the ice as one of the last old-fashioned pleasures of summer resorting. Summer cottages are getting so sissy the last few years that there is really no sense in having them. You might as well be at home. In former days, you went to a summer cottage not so much to escape the heat – for really you don’t escape the heat – as to restore your mind and spirit by a taste of the simple life. Your cottage was primitive. It had outdoor plumbing. You carried the water up in pails and washed in a blue enamel basin hung on a nail at the back door. You had a wood stove and the kitchen was so hot, your wife never had to worry about reducing. The summer cottage kitchen reduced her. There was a woodpile for you to work on cool evenings or gray mornings. There was no radio. You had candles and sometimes lamps. The mattresses were made of hay and you could hear the mice tickling along the rafters and gnawing, the minute the last lamp was blown out at night.”
“I remember,” I sighed, happy just to be listening,
“Alas,” said Jim, “we have conquered even the mice. Even the ants. We’ve got modern spring beds, running water, electric light in most of them now … it’s not for the simple life we come to summer cottages now.”
“What is it we come for?” I dozed.
“Fashion,” said Jim. “Custom. That’s all it is. As a matter of fact, most summer homes nowadays are more refined and civilized than city homes. They are civilized, sophisticated. We used to get bitten by mosquitoes. Now it is the love bug that bites them at summer cottages.”
“Mmmmm,” I muttered reminiscently.
“Here, wake up,” cried Jim. “Let’s go.”
“Jim,” I said earnestly. “I love to hear you talking about things like that. You’re quite a moralist, do you know that?”
“I’m the ice man,” said Jim, champing the jaws of his ice tongs. “Come on, snap out of it.”
Which I did, and sufferingly went and got my ice tongs and followed Jim down to the rowboat. It is a pleasant row over the little bay to J. Brown’s Ice House and Lumber Yard. Even on such a day as this, with copper sun glaring and hurling down its thunderous heat, it is pleasant to sit in the stern of a rowboat and watch an aggressive man like Jimmie pulling at the oars. I think the nicest sensation in the world, on a day like this, is not to feel your own muscles working. It is positively pleasant to behold another man’s arms bending and hauling, and feel your own arms resting limply along the sides of the boat. Actually pleasurable to see somebody else bending and straining and feel your own back loose and limp against the cushion behind you. They talk about the lovely sensations of athletic sport, the consciousness of action. The sensation of inaction is far lovelier.
And presently the skiff grated on J. Brown’s beach, scarred by generations of ice haulers such as we, and we unbarked. The J. Brown Ice House and Lumber Yard has, over a period of fifty years, come to a splendid working arrangement with the cottagers of our neighborhood. J. Brown himself long ago discovered there were far too many things expected of him around a summer resort to allow him to dance attendance on an ice house. So you just go and help yourself and at the end of the season you go and settle with J. Brown, making a rough estimate of the number of hunks you have taken. It is the same with lumber. If you need a few scantlings or a plank or two you help yourself. J. Brown comes around in the evenings and closes the ice house door in case it is left open, and asks any small boys who might be around if they have seen anybody take any lumber. It’s the best way to do business, as a matter of fact. Worry and keeping accounts is what takes the pleasure out of business.
Jim led the way up the ladder of the ice house and cheered me up the climb with shouts of delight.
“Just wait till you get up here,” he cried. “It’s like a cave. It’s air conditioned.”
So I hurried up the ladder, and it certainly was a lovely sensation to step out of the slanting rays of that angry declining sun onto the soft damp sawdust into the shadowy cool of that old cracky ice house
“You dig. Jim,” I said. “I’ll chop.”
So Jim took the old spade and stabbed around in the sawdust to find the latest layer of ice. He found it and proceeded with large graceful sweeps to fling the sawdust aside. He presently bared a dark and wetly gleaming cake of ice. With the crowbar, he wedged it loose from its neighboring cakes and then stood back.
I rose and took the axe. There is something about chopping a cake of ice that wakes the sculptor in a man. The feel of the little flying chips of ice is pleasant to the skin. To make a nice neat split in the big cake of ice is the aim of every good family ice man. To achieve this, you tap and tap, cutting a channel along the top, then a channel along both sides, and finally, you give it a good sharp crack with the axe, and it splits with the grain, neat and tidy.
“I Told-You-So” Stuff
Jim, while I was chopping slowly and carefully, was prodding around in the sawdust with the spade to see what the neighbors had hidden as usual. Sometimes it is a parcel of fish, wrapped in newspaper and secreted deep in the sawdust against the ice in a corner. It is interesting to examine these packages and know just what is going on in the community. It helps you separate the liars from the fish hogs.
Jim found two packages and we ceased work long enough to open and examine them, however one was a leg of lamb and the other was two cartons of eggs.
Then, having successfully parted the huge block of lee into two handsome sections, one for each of us, we hooked the tongs into one of them and hauled it to the door and dropped it down.
“One piece at a time,” decreed Jim. “It will give us all the longer in this cool place.”
We descended the ladder into a humid, heavy world, and carried the ice down to the skiff after dousing it with the pail of water. Then we returned to the ice house for the second load. Inside, it was so lovely we both sat down in unspoken agreement and lit cigarettes. Jim saw a swallow’s nest stuck against the side of the wall and we proceeded to study it.
And suddenly the ice house went dark.
“The wind,” said Jim.
“There’s no wind,” I stated. And plowed across the sawdust to push the door open. It was stuck. I kicked it. It would not open.
“Jim,” I said, “the door’s fastened.”
“Don’t get excited,” said Jim, “it’s too hot.”
He looked through a crack in the ice house wall.
‘H’m,” said Jim. “it’s old J. Brown himself. Hey, Mr. Brown.”
But Mr. Brown has been hard of hearing for twenty years. I found a crack to peep through and saw J. Brown slowly walking along the beach path that leads past the lumber yard to J. Brown’s house, half a mile away, which is also the post-office and the general store and the dance hall and garage and everything.
“Hey,” I roared through the crack. “Hey.”
But J. Brown was aimlessly walking away, scratching his head and stopping to study his lumber piles and to gaze out across the oily lake under the descending sun.
“Hey,” we harmonized. And pounded on the walls.
“Jim,” I said, “there will be nobody else for ice at this time of day.”
“If you had come promptly, when I wanted you to.” said Jim.
“Never mind that I-told-you-so stuff,” I snarled. “Figure how we are going to get out of this.”
“He padlocks it,” said Jim.
“And leaves the key in the padlock.” I sneered. “So near and yet so far.”
“Have you got a pocket knife asked Jim, feeling his own pocket blankly.
“Mine’s in my tackle box.” I accused.
“Well,” said Jim cheerfully, “we’re cool al last. Let’s enjoy ourselves.”
It was already dim in the ice house. The light that came through the cracks was red and warm. But it was not cheering.
“Let’s try for a loose board,” I commanded.
But Jimmie just started to scout around for a soft spot, scooped himself nice nest and lay down with a comfortable sigh. I was left alone to go around the walls, trying each board for a loose spot, panting and prying and shoving; in vain.
“Don’t grunt so,” said Jim, luxuriously.
“Jim,” I stated, “I have nothing on but these shorts and this cotton dicky. I’m liable to catch pneumonia in here.”
“Oh, I don’t think so,” sighed Jimmie, snuggling.
“I’ve been sunburned,” I informed him loudly, “and my skin is tingling now and I’ve got little chills already.”
“Keep moving then,” said Jim dreamily. “Shovel or take reducing exercises or something.”
Nothing Like Exercise
Instead, I tried looking out the cracks for the sight of rescuers. I went all around the ice house once more, feeling for loose boards. I tried a couple of long shouts out a knothole, but Jimmie protested violently.
“What’s the good of all the racket,” he demanded, “We’ve just got to wait until our absence is noted and they come hunting for us.”
“They’ll never notice our absence,” I declared. “We’re never home on time. They won’t even think of us until midnight.”
“We’re cool, aren’t we?” said Jim. “We’re comfortable? This sawdust is soft, isn’t it? All right, sit down, relax, and let’s continue that discussion you were so anxious to continue a while ago. Let’s see, it was about Canadians being made of the real stuff. Asbestos hides and anti-freeze for blood, wasn’t it?”
“Jim,” I said carefully. “I’m starting to shiver. I’m getting a chill. I’m going to catch pneumonia.”
“What do you want me to do about it?” demanded Jim. “Slap you to restore circulation?”
“I’m sunburned,” I said. “We can’t do that.”
“Then,” said Jim. “exercise. Swing your arms. Bend. Walk briskly about.”
I kept still for a minute to make sure I was really starting to feel shivers, and then, feeling shivers, I began to exercise. Jim just lounged in the sawdust, his hands behind his head, watching me. I swung my arms, bent my knees, ducked, swung, in the exercises familiar to all old soldiers and all fat ladies. I worked myself into a nice warm flush and then discovered that, if I stopped, the cold clammy air of the ice house really did chill me.
“Now you’ve done it,” I informed Jim. “Now I can’t stop this monkey business.”
“Walk around,” said Jim.
But, as it was now dark in the ice house, walking about knee deep in loose sawdust was not amusing at all. So I continued, slowly, the calisthenics.
“I can hear you puffing,” said Jim, from his comfortable resting place. “I wish I could see you.”
I made no answer. Every man, in his life time, makes some such a friend as Jimmie.
“I was thinking, this afternoon,” continued Jim, on the veranda there, that you were looking kind of flabby. This will do you no end of good.”
Still I made no answer.
“At our age,” went on Jim. “men have to guard against a creeping desire to just loaf and sag and go limp.”
“Jim,” I said firmly, “please shut up.”
“I’m a moralist,” said Jim. “When I am not an ice man, I’m a moralist.”
And then we heard a boat engine. It sounded like Jim’s. It had the same miss, the same sputter and stagger and almost stop.
“That’s your engine, Jim,” I shouted, leaping for a crack to yell out of.
“If it is,” said Jim, still unmoved, “whoever is running it certainly won’t be able to hear you yelling.”
So there we had to wait, helplessly listening to the engine, sometimes thinking it was coming our way and sometimes thinking it was going away, until at last there could be no doubt that it was coming straight for the ice house beach. Then we heard laughter and answers to our calls. The kids unlocked the door, J. Brown always leaving the key in it, and they asked us what we were doing.
“We were going to spend the night here,” said Jim. “It’s the coolest place in the country.”
But they persuaded us to come on home.
Editor’s Notes: Before refrigeration, ice would be collected from lakes in the winter, and stored in an ice house, which was a large warehouse like building. It would be insulated with sawdust throughout, which could keep the ice through the summer. In the city, ice would be delivered, but in this story, it was self serve, where you had to go and pick it up. Ice boxes, were just that. A wooden box or cabinet that you would put the ice in, along with whatever you wanted to keep cool. The melting ice would drip water into a pan kept below. Ice boxes were not very good, as the cooling would be uneven, and you obviously had to replace the ice as it melted. There were more elaborate ice boxes as time went on, resembling fine furniture.
This story was reprinted in “Greg Clark & Jimmie Frise Go Fishing“, 1980.