Iceman

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AN ICEMAN'S SON

by Clarence Hayden Goldsmith (Selected Excerpts)

 

It was not easy growing up in East St. Louis during the Depression years, nor the years that followed. After an anxious trip from Paducah, Kentucky, Dad (Clarence) hesitatingly stepped from the vestibule of an Illinois Central passenger car onto the platform of Relay Depot in East St. Louis. Prior to the Great Depression, word had spread throughout southern states served by the Illinois Central Railroad that jobs could be found in this thriving city. After short-term employment at Eagle-Picher Company located near Collinsville and St. Clair Avenues and a shorter period of work at Kroger & Company, he secured work as a laborer at the Terminal Car-Icing Company. The work was physically demanding and job security was nonexistent. Men worked seven days a week and twelve hours a day. Each shift began at six o'clock and worked until six o'clock, either morning or night. Sick men reported to their jobs or they were replaced. The foreman could fire you for any reason; all for a wage of twenty-two cents an hour.

Soon after the rest of the Goldsmith family arrived in East St. Louis to join Dad and, after living in a succession of rental houses, we moved to a home at 916 Winstanley Avenue near the Goose Hill area. This house had formerly housed a couple happily engaged in the operation of an illegal whiskey still in the cavernous basement.  Circumventing Prohibition was mildly profitable at the cottage industry level and diligently practiced in many neighborhoods by otherwise God-fearing, law-abiding citizens. When we moved into the house after the illicit distilling operations ceased, the residue of its manufacture was everywhere. Mash and fermentation barrels lined one side of the basement and the collection hood, boiler and coils were still mounted on a large, dilapidated, cast-iron laundry stove. Quart jar containers lined wall shelves alongside neatly stacked grain sacks. Smaller malt and sugar sacks, with their dainty imprinted floral designs, filled the shelves.

Our family disdained distilled spirits but when the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed, we made a little home brew. The rather simple brewing process involved buying a prepared malt, mixing it with water, and adding a previously processed mash to which hops had been included. After stirring the mixture thoroughly, it was boiled for about two hours, allowed to cool., poured into a ten gallon crock, yeast added, and set aside to ferment for one week. After settling, the beer was filtered and bottled. 0 of my sisters or I would cap the finished product. However, it must be pointed out this product had a short shelf life and bottle exploded daily.

While my sisters involved themselves in the varied girl activities at the Settlement House, I joined the Boy Ranger program directed by a sagacious lady of perceptive skills, Miss Larkin. We entered the competitive atmosphere of boyhood with the likes of Bill Shopher, Joe Shopher, Barney Brooks, Ray Sackett and Billy Edmiston. As I grew older, I left the Boy Rangers to join Troop 7, Boy Scouts of America, led by Ray Sackett's father. We met in the basement of the Settlement House. Scoutmaster Sackett was a lean, muscular man of solid leadership qualities and picked up our youth training where Miss Larkin left off. We escaped the bricks and concrete of the city with trips to mosquito-infested Indian Lake, Monk's Mound, and Camp Vandeventer near Waterloo, Illinois.

My boyhood was filled with simple pleasures. Time was passed shooting marbles, playing card games such as Rook Rummy, flying home-made kites, and even watching the rag man come by on his regular rounds. I have fond memories of streetcar excursions to St. Louis to view Christmas window displays at Famous-Barr and Stix, Baer & Fuller and shopping in downtown East St. Louis at Dickersons,Blumbergs, Kresge's, Woolworth's, Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Wards. Stores in our immediate neighborhood were Henry's Market, Al's Market, Eisenstein Market, Krogers, Blazek's Confectionery Old Rock Bakery and Berger's Drugstore. We listened to the brilliant baseball announcer France Laux, as he thrilled audiences with his eloquently loquacious play-by-play and systematic analysis of action on the field. I vividly remember being fortunate enough to take a day cruise on the S. S. St. Paul, a magnificent wooden-hulled stem-wheeler operated by Streckfus Steamers There was also an occasional trip to the St. Louis Zoo and a rare trip to a Cardinal baseball game at Sportsman's Park. courtesy of the Knothole Gang program. Few people attended St. Louis Browns' games played in the same ballpark.

In 1938 our fortunes improved when congress approved the Fair Labor Standards Act, submitted by President Roosevelt. Dad now earned time-and-a-half for working past 40 hours a week. Mother and Dad purchased a building lot and built a home in an unincorporated area east of Washington Park, not far from the defunct Bosworth home and dairy. My father had little experience in the building trades, but was ably assisted by my uncle Gifford. Eager to share his expertise, Uncle Gifford taught me much about construction, craftsmanship, and tool maintenance. Richard Dashke, a life-long friend who learned about concrete, bricks, and mortar on WPA jobs, volunteered his help to complete the project. The last thing constructed was an outdoor privy, around which Mother planted the necessary mint plants and flowers. It lasted until plumbing came and was moved only once when necessity required.

My thirteenth birthday passed as quickly as it came. I was well into the first semester of the eighth grade and was more than holding my own with the bullies of Manners School. I had early on established my place in the pecking order by successfully meeting the challenges of classmates who considered themselves tougher than most. I had achieved an unknown physical prowess through months of hard work and most bullies stayed clear after the first confrontation. Miss Bennett, a quality teacher of superior skills, was my homeroom teacher. Miss Merz, Miss Goin, and Miss Armstrong filled out the rest of the departmental staff. We loved the effervescent personality of Miss Bennett, the talented efficacious Miss Merz, and the tough, but fair, Miss Goin.

Miss Armstrong. a veteran employee, lacked virtually every acceptable quality necessary for teaching. She created a less than desirable climate for learning with her irrational ideas about classroom management. Her classroom was a den of darkness as the shades were pulled down each day, no matter the day sunny or cloudy. Her customary manner of emotional response to any problem rivaled that of a snarling dog. We were "dog meat" to her and she let us know it with every click of the clock, Absolutely no sound. except that of her own gravely voice, was permitted in the room and the least disturbance sent her into an uncontrolled rage. Girls cried and boys trembled. No drill sergeant could match her demeanor. She had little time for teaching. One day. after listening to a twenty minute harangue that left everyone shaking with fright and me slumping in my seat. I quickly pulled erect to avoid a lecture on poor posture and accidentally hit a loose adjusting bolt under the desk with my knee. The sound was barely audible to anyone except Miss Armstrong. Her back was turned as she walked down the aisle toward her desk, The sound froze her in her tracks. As she turned around the class also froze at their desks awaiting that which they knew was coming. Miss Armstrong screamed for the culprit who made such a reprehensible noise to come forward and she would "knock your head off."

I felt terrible about bumping the loose bolt and the thought crossed my mind that I should confess but I was too frightened come forward. The next day, Miss Armstrong cut up scraps of foolscap paper and passed out a piece to eve one in class asking them to inform on the culprit. "Just write the name of the guilty person on the paper, fold it over, and pass it forward. No one will know who the informer is," she assured the class. Beads of perspiration began to roll down my face. Had it not been so dark in the room Miss Armstrong could easily have picked out the guilty person without putting so much pressure on the class.

On the command "Now!" pencils moved and papers folded. My heart pounded faster and faster because I knew I would soon be dead. Miss Armstrong carefully unfolded each paper and was astonished to discover all were blank. "I'll get the guilty person if it takes all year," snapped the enraged teacher.

Thereafter, I decided to make the noise about once a week. The school year ended in June 1939. Given another two weeks, I would have driven this disturbed person over the brink of sanity.

World War II made prodigious demands on food and equipment and, of course, before the days of expressways and manageable truck transportation those products were moved by train. Food was vital to the war effort and perishable items moving by train stopped at the Terminal Yards for switching to other carriers and to the icing station for initial icing or to be topped off with more ice. With this in mind, the time seemed right to press Dad to get me a summer job at the plant. He agreed, but only on the condition that I work on trial for one week, at no pay, to learn the job and prove myself. I had just turned sixteen, school was out, and I wanted to earn 70 cents an hour. I readily agreed to his terms.

A durable old Terminal Railroad steam engine pulled Train No. 66 slowly into the Terminal Car-icing Station at exactly 6:35 a.m., just as it did every morning. Dad and I had been there since 6:00 a.m. When the foreman sounded the familiar cry to "Crush 'em up," meaning to fill the forty ice buggies and position them on the dock in preparation for icing the incoming train, we joined the rest of the icing crew. Each buggy was placed under a growling crusher and filled with 750 pounds of ice. We mustered all the strength within to balance and pull this mule-sized load to its proper position.

Most of the cars on Track Four were refrigerator cars designed to haul fruits and vegetables long distances. Cars of this type required block ice and no salt, The secret of working with block ice was to stay close to it without being afraid that the huge three hundred pound blocks would crush your extremities. The required equipment consisted of either a pike-pole or tongs, depending on your particular job. Dad methodically and patiently taught me to use a pike-pole and urged me to watch him for tricks of the trade. He stayed very close to the three hundred pound blocks and tossed them around like cardboard boxes. He hooked them at strategic comers, used his legs for leverage, and generally made the work look easier than it was. Under his tutelage, I caught on quickly and in time could handle ice as efficiently as other dock hands.

Friday was payday for Terminal Car-icing employees. I watched the men file into the dingy office to pick up their checks before making their way back to the locker room. Each employee was handed his check by the foreman. After a brief period of small talk and good natured bantering, Duff flashed a toothy smile and said to me, "This is your check." I knew there was a mistake. I had accepted Dad's condition that I was to work the first week at no pay on a trial basis. I made no move for the proffered check, forcing the grinning foreman to say, "Look, we all know about your agreement with your Dad because he told us, but we're not about to let anyone work beside someone else and not get paid. Take this check. It's yours -- you earned it. Clarence just wanted to make sure you could do the job. You have proved that." I took the check and muttered an embarrassed "Thank you." I smiled a bit when I saw $27.58 imprinted across the face of the check. Breaking the tension and roaring with laughter, Jack Anderson, a giant figure of a man, said, "If you want to buy a round of drinks, I'll show you where you can cash that thing." Dad joined in the laughter knowing full well that neither he nor his sixteen-year-old son would be stopping on Whiskey Chute.

I was now in my last year of high school at East Side, the war moved inexorably on, and Uncle Sam had his eye on each of us. Many of my friends had not waited to graduate before joining the armed forces but my parents would never consent to that. My best friends were Rolla Salmons and William D. Smith. The three of us joined different branches of the military, but prior to leaving, had ourselves a thirty-day fling. We all loved the Mississippi River and went down to Front Street several times a week to look for a boat to take us down the river after the war. While there we often swam in the swiftly flowing river. Sitting on the east bank of the river one day, basking in all our infinite wisdom, we decided to swim across the river even though it was 2,980 feet wide at the St. Louis riverfront. We recalled that George Hopper swam the river annually on the 4th of July with hands cuffed behind his back, towing a rowboat full of beer barrels, and another full of men. If he could accomplish that feat, we reasoned that free of those encumbrances we should be able to safely swim across the river.

We quickly stripped down to our swimming trunks and, in the fashion of Tarzan, we entered the river by swinging from a cable attached to the Eads Bridge and dropping into the surging waters rushing through a channel formed by the east arch of the bridge. We rapidly exhausted ourselves and made little headway against the current. Bill, exercising an inexplicable rush of cautious judgment, turned back saying he would wait for us and watch our clothes. Rolla and I kept going, swimming at a slower pace, and no longer fighting the current. There were no tugs or barges in sight and we let the current carry us as we swam a diagonal course across the river thereby lengthening our swim. Well over an hour later, we crawled exhausted upon the west bank of the mighty river and surveyed our surroundings. I mentally judged our location to be about 300 yards south of the Free Bridge (MacArthur Bridge) and maybe, a mile and a half from our starting point.

I served as a paratrooper with Company H, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II and was not seriously injured until late in the war. After the Battle of the Bulge the 82nd moved back to Sissone, France, for refitting and some badly needed rest. Most men had lost fifteen pounds or more since our entry into the Battle of the Bulge but most of us felt we could regain that weight "overnight" if company rations held out. With winter temperatures always below freezing and often hovering around zero, few hot meals could reach us at the front and we survived on K rations and a little food foraged from the land.

March 24, 1945, was a mild, lovely spring day of the sort one would not normally associate with war and dying. It was also my birthday. As we neared our drop zone, our lumbering C-46 troop transport was riddled with flack and ground fire and quickly lost altitude. Man), paratroopers were wounded and bleeding when the jumpmaster ordered us out of the plane at 300 feet. We plummeted down to an uncertain fate far from our drop zone and directly into a heavily defended battery of enemy 88 mm guns supported by two batteries of 20 mm weapons and a company of SS troopers. Many troopers were dead before reaching the ground. Others were killed as the), hung in trees unable to avoid German machine gun fire. Our C-46 crashed in a ball of fire on the horizon. All thirty paratroopers were badly hit with either flak or ground fire. It was later confirmed that twenty-four had died and that only six survived. For yet another time, the virulent cannons of war had been fed the cream of America's youth.

While on a pass from Camp Kilmer, I met a comely Pennsylvania lass of impeccable charm and we were married in 1946. Returning to the midwest with the former Marian Dmuchoski, I enrolled at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale under Public Law 346. the popular veteran's rehabilitation program more commonly known as the GI Bill of Rights. After graduation, I agreed to a teaching contract with East St. Louis School District 189. Earning a Masters Degree in 1955, 1 became a principal. Our two daughters. Sydney and Stacey, attended Collinsville schools and SIU/Edwardsville. In 1966 1 was granted a sabbatical to St. Louis University to study for a doctorate. The Doctor of Philosophy (Ph. D.) was awarded in 1970 and consequently I moved through several Central Office administrative positions in the school district. Retirement came in 1987 after which the University of Illinois offered me an adjunct professor's chair to teach summer school. Dutifully, I eagerly accepted and traveled to the Champaign/Urbana campus for four summers.

I have been enriched all my life by a family that supported me and helped shape my character - my parents, three sisters (Daphne. Isabelle and Phyllis), and my younger brother (Ronald). The writer's early life was buttressed by a steady, resolute foundation firmly established by rock solid loving parents - poor, but rich in human values. If we accept the premise that each of us is the accumulation of our memories, then we should recall them as often as we wish. Memories never wear out!

 

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