It’s funny. Grandpa repeated his stories over and over. He–and we–had favorites. The stories hold his humor, his practicality, his tolerance, and his impatience with pointless rules. The story below is not one of those stories. This is a story I only heard him tell in full one time. I don’t know that he consciously decided to tell me this story because he knew I needed to hear it. He wasn’t that sort of a man. However, Grandpa was intuitive, and sensitive to nuances. I watched him in the garden, learning how it was with his plants through his thick, spatulate fingers. I think that probably Grandpa himself didn’t really understand why he told me this story, this way, on that day. But however or whyever it happened, it was a story of courage, fortitude, and persistence that I later came to realize lay at the heart of Grandpa’s life, even though he seldom talked about it.
This story has become a touchstone for me; maybe you will look into it and see something of value, too.
The Ice House
In the winters when Grandpa was young, Pewaukee Lake froze over. Sometimes the ice got two or three feet thick. This meant many things to the town of Pewaukee. For one thing, it meant a large supply of ice for iceboxes. For another, it meant jobs.
The icehouse owner assigned jobs by the day. He recorded each man’s time in a little black book, meticulously noting starting and quitting times, time taken off for lunch and for trips to the outhouse, shaving minutes where he could. Each Friday the men lined up for their wages. He’d open his little black book, squint and mutter, slowly total up their hours that week, re-total, then carefully count out wages, reducing a week of labor to pennies and nickels, grudgingly doled out.
“We hated him,” Grandpa said, “but we needed the work.” And hard, cold work it was, out on the lake with massive ice saws, picks, and chains, hacking giant crystalline green blocks from the sheet ice, grappling it from dark water that froze on fingers, loading it onto horse-drawn sledges, dragging it to shore, and up the rough bank, where men manhandled it into the ice house and buried it in sawdust against July.
The icehouse had a caste system. The best, steadiest men worked in the first room, packing the large, even chunks of ice tightly in sawdust. They were paid fairly well. The weaker, less experienced men worked in the second room, packing smaller, irregular chunks of ice in sawdust. They were paid less. In the third room even less experienced, less reliable men worked, and so it went. There were seven rooms in that icehouse, and there were never enough good men. In the last room derelicts packed ice chips into sawdust for the price of a bottle. Grandpa had worked his way up to the first room that winter. So had Joe.
“He wasn’t a nice man,” said Grandpa. “He drank too much, an’ he gambled, and he had a girl and he got her in trouble, ya know, and didn’t do nothin’ about it, see. People said he hit her, but she stuck with him.” Grandpa shook his head not because the girlfriend stuck by Joe, but because Joe had fallen so low as to hit a woman, get her pregnant, and not marry her. “He was a good man on the ice, though,” Grandpa said, finally.
Pewaukee Lake didn’t freeze solid. There was a ‘drift,’ as Grandpa called it, a warm current running through the middle of the lake that always stayed open. One day, the men were hard at work cutting the ice at the edge of the drift when the icehouse owner drove up. The men weren’t working hard enough. They were taking too long at lunch. They weren’t cutting the ice right… “We just let him yell,” Grandpa chuckled, “and went on loading the ice onto the sledge. And I don’t know exactly what happened, if it was an accident or if the driver did it on purpose, but when the sledge was full the driver started to back up, ya know, and the little cheapskate was behind him, yelling and shaking his fist, and that sledge just kept on backing up, and over he went, right into the drift.”
“Well, a course we fished him out right away, but it was bitter cold, and we knew we had to get him home, see. I had my car there, but I didn’t have no windows or a heater or nothin’—we didn’t in those days—just isinglass curtains.
“I went to work an’ put the curtains up and we got him right into the car and I drove as fast as I could, but the roads was pretty much drifted shut and icy underneath an’ I didn’t have no snow tires a course, just those little narrow things, so I had to be pretty careful. By the time I got him home he was froze stiff, all hunched over in the seat there.”
“I yelled for somebody to help and the neighbors come runnin’ and we carried him into the house and sat him in a tub of ice water. That’s how ya gotta do it, ya know, ya can’t put’em in hot water. Ya gotta start with cold an’ warm’em up real slow, see. We warmed him up real slow, and in the end he was fine.”
“But he’d lost his little black book. It must’ve fallen out of his pocket there in the drift. Come Friday the men lined up and he sat there with his bag of change like he always did. Joe stepped up to the table and the boss said, “Now, I lost my book this week, but I don’t want to overpay any of you men. You tell me how many days you worked this time, and I’ll start with the black book again next week. Now, how many days did you work?” he asked Joe.
“Seven days, sir,” says Joe, an’ he grins.”
“You sure? Seems to me you missed a couple days.”
“‘No sir. It was seven days.‘ Joe was lyin’, see, but the little cheapskate couldn’t prove it; he’d lost his black book.” Grandpa laughed.
The second man said he, too, had worked seven days. So did the third, and the fourth, and the fifth. Every man there, even the bums and winos, had worked a full seven days that week. The little cheapskate was furious.
“Most of’em was lying,” said Grandpa. “When it come my turn and he asks me I says, ‘Seven days,’ too, but I really had worked all seven days,” said Grandpa.
“And the little cheapskate, he was so tight he said, “But you missed a couple hours the day you took me home. And he docked my pay. I shoulda just let the bum freeze.” Grandpa chuckled ruefully. “He was mad, see, because he knew a lot of the men was lying, but what could he do? He’d lost his book, and he needed men so he had to pay.”
“Whatever happened to Joe?” I finally asked.
“Joe? Nobody really knows for sure. There was a blizzard that winter, and the boss told us to go on home, it was too dangerous; we wouldn’t be able to make decent time, anyway. The wind was howlin’ that day and I could barely see the trees on the hills around the lake. It looked like night, it was stormin’ so bad. Most of us just stood around the fire barrel warming our hands, and every once in a while somebody’d pull on his gloves and head home. Joe, though, he decided to go ice fishing. He drove home and we thought he’d see sense and stay there, see, but he comes up the road in his old Model T, his fishin’ gear in the back seat. “Don’t go, Joe,” we shouted. “Ya can’t see.”
“Aw, I can see all right,” he said. “I’m gonna go to work and catch me some fish.”
He never even stopped, Grandpa said, just rattled out onto the ice, and the snow swirled around him, pulling him out of sight, then sweeping aside to show glimpses of him as he sped across the ice toward his fishing shack. The wind died, and for a moment they could hear his engine, and see the square back of the Model T disappearing far too quickly into the gloom. The snow swirled up in his slipstream. And then it cleared again just long enough for the men around the fire to see Joe’s car shoot into the drift and sink out of sight. A splash, tiny in the wind, drifted back to them.
The men ran for ropes and a grappling hook. They formed a line from the icehouse, where the rope was moored, out to the edge of the drift. Over and over, they cast the grappling hook into the lake, let it sink into the stormy black opacity of Pewaukee Lake, dragged it slowly back through the icy water.
“We threw that hook all day,” Grandpa said quietly into the lamplit gloom the afternoon he told me this story. “I was on the end of the rope most of the time.”
“Why? Couldn’t some of the other men have taken a turn?”
“Because I could. I was big and strong in those days, almost six feet, and my arms were—” and he flexed his gnarled arm like Popeye, and chuckled. “Who else was gonna do it? But I tell you, my arms sure ached from pitching that big hook over and over, with the wind screamin’ and the snow an’ ice cuttin’ into my face.”
At five that evening, the hook finally snagged on something. “We pulled it up real slow,” Grandpa said. “If we’d gone fast it would’ve broken loose, see.” It was the Model T. Joe still sat in the driver’s seat, blue and dead. They pulled him gently to shore.
“Some people thought maybe things just got too much for him with the gambling and his girlfriend pregnant and all,” Grandpa finished. “I don’t know. I don’t think he was the type to give up, but who knows?” He spread his hands and shrugged. Grandpa was a storyteller, not a preacher.
“Why didn’t you just leave him for spring?” I asked.
Grandpa’s eyebrows shot up. “We had to get him outa there.”
“What did you do with him when you got him?” I asked, chastened.
“Oh, we put him on a door and carried him home. And we got together a collection for the girlfriend, something to help her out a little bit with the baby. It wasn’t enough, but what else could we do?”
I shook my head. I had grown up with the gospel according to Sister White and my father—if I tried hard enough I could be happy; if I worked hard enough I could be secure; if I prayed often enough I could be saved. And yet, I Grandpa had just affirmed what I already suspected, that there are some hurts too deep to fix, that sometimes doing everything you can just isn’t enough, sometimes there is no happy ending, ever.
“Tell me about the frog in the water bucket,” I begged.
“Didn’t I tell ya about that?” Grandpa laughed.
“Yeah, but tell me again.”
And so he did, and then he told me the other old stories, until the afternoon was spent, and it was time for me to go.
“Good night, Grandpa,” I said.
“Plant one right there,” he told me, tapping his leathery cheek.
I planted one right there and then I got in my car and drove back to my cold, lonely apartment in Chicago, where I, too, knew what it meant to be at the end of one’s rope. But I went knowing that Grandpa was there with me, in the cold, enduring until we could both find our way back home to a warm fire and safety.