where the writers are
THE ICE PLANT

"I like manual labor. Whenever I've got waterlogged with study,
 I've taken a spell of it and found it spiritually invigorating."
-- W. Somerset Maugham

 

When I was in high school and in college I worked at the Canton Ice and Fuel Company, the Ice Plant. It was hard physical labor and of all the jobs I've had in my life it was one of my favorites. My boss was L.C. Baily, my high-school buddy, Rich Baily's, father.

L.C. Baily was a mountain of a man. And a taskmaster. He tolerated no bullshit, allowed no swearing in the workplace and he had a booming infectious laugh. He believed that a person could be harmed by too much book-learnin'.

During the winter months we'd unload coal cars. In those days most of the houses and businesses in Canton were still heated by coal furnaces, including my own. I'd spent nearly all of my teen winters in the basement shoveling coal into the furnace. Now I was unloading it after it rolled into town.

The tracks ran directly alongside the Ice Plant. It was wintery cold work. Billy Childress and I'd share a pint of whiskey to chase off the chill as we worked. We'd open the bay doors under the car and the coal would dump onto a conveyor belt. But usually the coal stayed put because it was frozen into a giant black lump. So one of us would have to climb into the car and jump up and down on the frozen coal until it would break loose. When it did knock loose it spilled out fast, like water down a drain. It was a bit of a trick to avoid being sucked down with the coal when it finally started moving. It was one of those things you'd learn quickly if you valued survival.

During the summer months ice was the primary product -- though it was a year-around item because bars' and restaurants' year-around needs. And there were still customers -- most of them elderly women -- with ice boxes instead of that newfangled contraption, the refrigerator.

I'd drive the delivery truck around town on my regular route, kids chasing behind begging for chunks of ice. I'd throw the ice tongs into a 50 pound block of ice and haul it behind the bar and into an ice bin at taverns and ice pick it into chunks. Or tong a 25-pound block and haul it up the stairs and hoist it into the upper compartment of some elderly widow's icebox. It was a transient moment in time, the pivot point between halcyon Americana and brittle modernity.

Another principal function of the Canton Ice and Fuel Company was to haul water to replenish dry wells, primarily on farms. The trick here was to make sure the truck's water tank was emptied. If the well or reservoir was full the remainder of the water needed to be dumped, because on the way back to the plant any water left in the tank would -- due to Newton's Laws -- slosh back and forth with enough inertia to launch the truck off-road into the ditch or into the path of on-coming traffic.

I was delivering water to a farmer's dry well a few miles outside Canton. I backed the truck into position, hopped out and unrolled the hose. After I got the water flowing I had time to kill. It would take around a half hour for the well to fill so I took a stroll around the property. I walked out behind the farmhouse and across a pasture to the barn. The barn door was partially open so I walked on in. When my eyes got used to the darkness my brain froze up. A teen-aged farmboy, his dungarees down around his ankles was standing on the slats of a stall. He was holding a bovine tail aloft, fucking the holy shit out of a young cow in the pen -- a cow that remained nonchalant and oblivious to the cross-specie carnality in progress.

Suddenly I was startled by a loud and angry voice behind me.

"Goddamnit!"

I turned and saw the farmer silhouetted in the barn doorway. He had grabbed up a stick of wood and was moving on the hapless boy who had jumped down from the stall door and was attempting, with difficulty, to get his overalls back on. "Godammnit!" the farmer howled again. "Thet boy is after thet heifer AGIN'! I'm gonna wail th' tar outa yew, boy!"

The boy took off, pushing past the old man, sprinting at full throttle. The two of them tore off across the pasture toward the horizon, the farmer shrieking and flailing at the boy. The boy hightailing it at a full gallop.

I went back to the truck. The well was full. I dumped the remainder of the water in the truck's tank, rolled up the hose and drove back to the Ice Plant.

All in a days work.

But at the Ice Plant, "pulling" ice was our primary task.

Two huge compressors - one for ammonia and the other for air -- squatted like giant toads on the concrete floor at the foot of the deck where ice cans were immersed in salt brine. The ammonia gas was stolidly pungent throughout the Ice Plant and was the means by which the water in the cans was frozen into ice. There were two cans to a bin. The floor of the deck was 10 bins wide and 40 bins long. Each can would produce one 300 pound block of ice. Air was pumped into each can of freezing water to insure clarity in the final product. At one end of the deck was an automatic saw that would score the ice -- so it could be easily ice-picked into 100, 50 or 25-pound blocks -- and then feed the three-hundred pound block through a chute and into the cold storage locker. Above the deck were electrical wires that powered a hoist and pulley that would haul two cans at a time out of the brine. The worker would put his back into it and shove the six-hundred pound load -- electrical sparks sputtering overhead, his feet soaked in salt brine -- across the deck to the scoring machine. This procedure was called "pulling ice". It was several of hours of back-breaking work to pull all of the ice in the deck and to refill the cans so that new ice could be made.

I'd been assigned the overnight shift to pull ice. It was a long and lonely haul working the overnight. During the day there were normally two workers pulling ice. One on the deck and one in the cold storage room. At night it was a solo act.

I asked one of the older Ice Plant workers if he'd work the night shift for me. He agreed.

The next morning he was found dead on the deck. The official cause of death was a heart attack (he had a history of cardiac problems). But I couldn't help but wonder if he hadn't been nudged across to the Other Side by an electric jolt. Feet in salt brine, electrical sparks above.

During the day while one worker was pulling ice, another needed to be in the cold storage room to receive the 300 pound blocks after they were fed through the scoring machine. The blocks would slide in -- one at a time -- on their sides. The cold storage worker would throw his tongs into the block, flip it upright and slide it into tight, even rows until the room was filled.

A seasoned and well-muscled worker, armed with two sets of tongs, could grab and flip up two blocks at once -- six-hundred pounds of weight. The icy lack of friction got the blocks moving. The tongs were the fulcrums, and if the worker heaved and pivoted at just the right moment the two blocks would slide upright together. Of course, if the worker's timing was off -- or if he didn't have the strength for it -- the blocks would fall back and shatter. Or slam into the unfortunate worker, pinning him between ice and ice -- an unpleasant event. By the end of my tenure at the Ice Plant I'd fairly well mastered the six-hundred pound pivot.

Ice was needed at various villages and towns in the area. Places like LaGrange and Monticello and Beardstown ("Whiskersville!" L.C would bellow and laugh his booming laugh.) Ice trucks would back up to the dock at the cold storage room and we'd load and pack the truck-bed tightly with ice. It was important that the ice be packed tight enough so that was no movement. If there was air between the blocks as the driver accelerated the blocks would shift against the tailgate. And if the wheelman had to slam on the brakes, tons of ice would slam forward shearing off the cab at bed level. This actually happened once but the driver had enough savvy to understand his predicament, threw himself onto the floor of the vehicle and escaped decapitation.

All of this was not easy work. L.C. Baily once hired a young man directly out of prison on a work-release program. But the guy only lasted a couple of days on the job and then opted to go back to jail instead of continuing the grueling labor required at the Ice Plant. Richie Baily and I missed him when he decided to be re-incarcerated because he made the time fly by as he would regale us with stories of working in the prison dairy and impishly jerking-off into milk cans.  And other convict hi-jinx.

L.C. had a love for the restoration of antique and unique automobiles. I remember, in particular a 1922 Cadillac, a Jazz-age Studebaker, a Jaguar XKE. There were Packards and Dusenbergs, Model-As and Model-Ts. Roadsters, coupes and convertibles. You name it, he rebuilt it.

He also owned a "Duck", an army-made amphibious vehicle that was particularly handy in Canton, a Mississippi river village prone to seasonal flooding. Many happy hours were spent tooling down Route 61 and then veering off into the Big Muddy for a leisurely traverse from the Missouri side to the Illinois side. However, because official government products tend to be imperfect, the Duck sprang a leak so significant that repairs were impractical. Still, we had fun tearing around Canton's highways and byways in the olive-green monster.

L.C. Baily's fleet of Ice Plant vehicles were all 1953 Dodge trucks, his favorite. And, because all things in L.C.'s purview were also part of the daily work routine, we became quite adapt at the maintenance of his fleet. Everything from signage of the truck doors (Rich Baily was way more proficient at sign painting than I ever was. What took me half a day, he could whip out in a couple of hours. And, in the end, his work was crisp and precise. Whereas mine was a bit lopsided and wobbly.) to mechanical repairs. To this day, if called upon, I could remove and replace the transmission in a 1953 Dodge truck.

Other trades I learned at the Ice Plant were brick-laying, hot-tar roofing, plumbing, construction, pouring concrete for sidewalks and driveways and whatever else needed to be done. Didn't matter that I didn't know what the fuck I was doing. If L.C. needed it done I'd get to work and learn on the job.

Rich Baily and I grew up together as friends and schoolmates, feeding each other's artistic centers. I became a cartoonist and he moved to Amsterdam for a number of years where he gleaned technique and influence from the Dutch Masters. He is a vastly talented artist, totally unrecognized and doomed to the impoverished bohemian lifestyle that imprisons those of us who have chosen Art over the Fiduciary.

After the death of L.C., Rich moved back to Canton ostensibly to care for his aging mother and to pursue his artistic proclivity with as little financial burden as life would allow. He became Canton's eccentric town artist. He's (admirably) chosen isolationism. No phone, no cable television, no computer and he doesn't check his mail. He lives incommunicado, a happy libertine painting realistic (often surrealistic) nudes of the many women -- from the town, nearby villages and the local college -- who line up at his door eager to disrobe for him.

Rich took charge of the Ice Plant after his father's death. But, with the advent of the ice making machine and the decline of coal for home heating, there wasn't much of a market for it's services in this grim modern world.

Rich shared his dad's love of restoring automobiles. He retained the name of the Ice Plant but used the facility to rebuild and recover ancient vehicles. Inevitably, Art and Commerce were on a collision course.

One of Rich's nude models was the wife of a local redneck who was not at all pleased that his spouse was showing off her naughty bits to the town's free-spirited iconoclast. Enraged that his wife could possibly be porking this artistic weirdo, he first attempted to burn down Rich Baily's garage -- and failed. Then, with a blowtorch in hand he attempted to set fire to the Ice Plant. This time he didn't fail. The place -- and all the cars in it -- was incinerated by the angry cuckolded arsonist. And Rich, living on a shoestring, had no insurance.

I asked Rich if he was fucking the pyromaniac's wife.

He looked at me an smiled "I wasn't fucking her," he said. "But she may have been fucking me."