safety first

By Tim Wintermute

Out there the deck ran a hundred yards into the night.  Fifteen feet below on either side were the railroad tracks and beside those tracks were other tracks that stretched across the flat bottomland beside the river.  On the wooden deck were two thin rails that ran its length.  The icer, an ugly, metal machine, rode on the rails pouring crushed ice into the bunkers of refrigerator cars from either of the funnels that protruded from its sides.  There was a conveyor belt between the rails, carrying three hundred pound blocks of ice from a tunnel that ran under the railroad tracks.  The ice was loaded onto the conveyor belt at an icehouse on the other side of the tracks.  The icehouse was almost as old as the railroad yards and the stockyards just beyond them and the clapboard houses on the bluffs and the church spires you could see over their roofs, against the sky, even in the dark.

 

Although the deck was infected with dry rot the owners hadn’t repaired it just as they hadn’t replaced the insulation peeling from the high voltage electrical wires that hung inside of the tunnel above the puddles of melted ice. Instead, they put up signs labeled “Safety First” warning workers to watch their step and to not touch the conveyor belt or the wires.  By the summer of 1967 the signs were fading.  They were dissolving just like the Railroad Ice Company itself whose painted name was now barely legible on the windowless side of the five-story icehouse.

 

“Cruz is crazy,” Joe Bill said to Griff as they sat on the edge of the loading dock as they took a break from their summer jobs on the midnight to eight, graveyard shift.

 

Cruz had a slight limp, wore an old Kansas City “A’s” baseball cap and usually carried a baseball glove that he pounded with his right fist.  But that didn’t make him crazy - it was the things that he didn’t do.  Like never looking a person in the eye and, instead, looking over their shoulder when he spoke to them.  That was when he spoke; usually he didn’t.  When he wasn’t looking past you or working the icer, which was what they called the icing machine, Cruz would sit at the end of the dock where they loaded the trucks that delivered the bagged ice to be sold in supermarkets, convenience stores and gas stations.  He was in the shadows so you couldn’t see more than his dark form but you could hear the smack of his fist on the leather.

 

There had also been the time on the icing deck when Griff was following the icer and “tamping down” the ice that had been poured into the bunkers so that the hatches could be closed.  He used a long steel pole called a pike that looked like a spear.   So much ice had been dumped that tamping them down seemed as futile as cramming tomatoes back into a bottle of catsup.  And once that was done the hatches were so heavy that it often took more than one hard yank to pull them shut.  When he stopped long enough to look up, through his sweat he could see the icer getting ahead of him, the blocks of ice moving further and further along the conveyor into the distance.  He was only half finished, his arms ached, and a blister had formed between his right thumb and index finger when he heard the icer returning.  Griff could see Cruz in the dim light of the cab, his face half hidden in shadows beneath the brim of his baseball cap.  He turned to look at the mountain of ice covering the hatchway in front of him.  He hoped Cruz would come down and help him but, instead, a freezing shower hit his head.  “What the hell,” Griff yelled, swatting the chunks of ice.  When he looked up the icer was continuing down the deck, throwing a clattering stream of ice onto the tops of the cars as it went.

 

“So what else is new?” Griff asked Joe Bill during their lunch break at 4 in the morning.

 

“You know Reece told me that Cruz wants to work the Fourth of July.”  Joe Bill said between gulps of the Dr. Pepper he always drank on breaks.

 

“Maybe he just wants to work the holiday for overtime.”

 

“No, stupid, he said he wanted to work the entire twenty four hours, not just his regular shift.”

 

Griff whistled.  “He must really be hard up for money.”

 

Joe Bill stared at Griff, then shook his head.  He shook it in despair, as if Griff still didn’t get it. Maybe Griff’s dad was a lawyer and maybe Griff was going to college in the fall but that didn’t mean he really knew what it was all about.  “Hell, Griff, everybody knows it’s not that.  Everybody knows he got himself hurt over in Viet Nam and now he’s so pissed at America that he doesn’t give a damn about the Fourth of July.”

 

“Who says?”

 

“Reece says.”

 

“How does Reece know all this?”

 

“Reece is the foreman.  He knows everything about this place and about everybody who works here, including Cruz.  He says the only reason that the company gave Cruz a job again when he came back was because he used to be the star of the company’s baseball team.  They won the league championship.  Then Cruz got drafted and when he came back he couldn’t play because of his leg but they felt sorry for him and gave him his old job back anyway.  They decided to get rid of the team because it cost too much and, besides, they weren’t winning anymore.  The good news is I won’t have to worry about Cruz when I go to Nam.”

 

“You’ve been drafted?”

 

“Volunteered for the Marines.  Report at the end of the summer.  The good news, like I said, is that Cruz won't be over there.”

 

Griff shook his head and then said.  “Why wouldn’t you want Cruz?”

 

Joe Bill put down his Dr. Pepper and pulled a cherry bomb from his lunch pail.  “Just watch and you’ll see why.”  He struck a match against the rough wood loading dock where they were sitting and lit the short fuse.  It hissed and sparked as he held it momentarily cupped in his hands.  Then, with a sidelong smile toward Griff, he tossed it onto the ground.  There was a silver flash followed by a sharp explosion.  Joe Bill pointed toward Cruz who had compressed his body into a tight ball, his capped head tucked beneath his arms.

 

“Jesus H. Christ,” what the hell was that?”  Reece bellowed as he popped out of his small office at the end of the dock.

 

Several of the workers were laughing as Cruz raised his head and got to his feet.

 

“Who did it?”  Reece demanded.

 

“Yo!”  Joe Bill raised his hand.

 

Reece walked over to him.  His balding head reflected the overhead light bulb as he knelt down and looked Joe Bill in the eyes.  “So you’re the wiseacre who ruined my nap.”

 

“I saw a rat; a big one.”

 

“And you just happened to have a fire cracker with you?”

 

“A cherry bomb.  Got it to celebrate the Fourth.”

 

“Where is this big old rat?”

 

“Hell, Reece, if you were a rat would you hang around after someone tried to blow you to pieces?”

 

“No,” Reece sighed, then grinned at Joe Bill.  “But I just might come back and bite your ass.”

 

There were no floors inside the icehouse, just layers of ice stacked on top of each other.  When Griff started at the beginning of summer he had to bend down to avoid hitting the ceiling as he pried the blocks of ice apart and slid them toward the elevators for their descent to the receiving room where they were placed on the conveyor belt.  By now, Griff estimated that they were where a third floor would be.  Standing on the ice, he was two and half feet above that imaginary floor, the metal creepers strapped to the heels of his steel towed boots dug into the blue sheen as he pulled the blocks apart with his ice tongs.  He shoved them with a rubber glove and they accelerated across the slick surface toward a metal chute.  The chute led to the thick, lumbered shafts of the two hydraulic elevators.  Waiting just in front of the elevators, Joe Bill would kick the hurtling cubes, deflecting them to whichever elevator was ready.  As one elevator descended under the weight of the ice the other one, now empty, would ascend.

 

It was a place of echoing walls and reflecting floors.  Words travelled in vapor through the frozen air.  Their work was to the metronomic beat of the elevators, punctuated by the dead thud of ice.  “You’re really joining the Marines?”  Griff asked Joe Bill.

 

“It was that or get drafted into the Army and it’s the grunts that get the glory.”

 

“What about college?”

 

“What about it?” Joe Bill laughed, releasing a cloud of steam.  Griff watched it rise toward the lights in the ceiling far above them.

 

Enough said, Griff thought as he pulled at the ice.  He saw himself throwing a grenade at a Viet Cong hidden in the jungle.  Standing, exposed to fire he wrenched the pin from the cold steel and threw it.  His tongs sent the block down the chute then he looked toward the elevators and realized that Joe Bill wasn't there.  The elevator must have gotten jammed again and Joe Bill had climbed down the shaft to free it.  “Head up, ice coming!” Griff yelled watching his words drift away, harmlessly, as the three hundred pounds of ice slammed into the empty shaft and disappeared.  A second later the room filled with a sharp crack and splintering.

 

After what seemed like a lifetime Joe Bill’s head popped up from from the other shaft.  “The way you dropped that mother, it was like a bomb.”

 

“I sent it down before I saw you were gone. You should have let me know.”

 

“Sorry but Reece called me down.  He wants us to help Cruz with a train that just came in.  You should have seen Cruz jump when that ice hit the bottom of the shaft.  I thought he was going to crap.”

 

 

“Watch for live wires, safety first and all that other bullshit,” Griff muttered as they walked single file behind Cruz through the icy water through the narrow passage under the tracks to the deck.

 

“There’s a live wire right in front of us,” Joe Bill whispered to Griff from behind.  “Or is it a loose wire?  Oh, its just Cruz.”

 

On the deck after they emerged from the tunnel, Griff watched Cruz as he limped toward the icer and climbed up into the cab.  He had not said a word.  Sparks flew from beneath as the electric motor came to life.  The icer started to move toward them.  Griff and Joe Bill jumped onto the car of the train they would be icing.  The icer stopped on the deck beside them.  The funnel was lowered and, like an anchor chain being drawn from an artic sea, the conveyor started moving.  “I’ll open the bunkers and you can pike them down and close them,” Griff said to Joe Bill than opened the one next to him on the car.

 

“Don’t forget to come back,” Joe Bill laughed, the pike slung over his right shoulder.

 

Griff walked forward, leaping from car to car, pulling the hatches up in one motion and letting them slam down.  He imagined they were hatches for those tunnels that he heard the Viet Cong dug and that he was tossing in grenades. Then, as he got farther away from the icer and Joe Bill, he imagined himself running along the top of a moving train as it steamed west to parts unknown.   Finally, exhausted, he reached the end.  He caught his breath, inhaling the sweet smell of the fruit that was ripening in the refrigerator car beneath him.  There was nothing beyond but the switching tower, bathed in floodlights. A diesel switch engine pushed a railroad car to the tower where it was released and shunted onto one of a dozen tracks and rolled down an incline until it slammed and coupled onto the end of a line of cars. Lightening ripped the sky to the west, splitting it in jagged seams followed by the crack of thunder.  Turning back, Griff felt the rain hit him like pellets as it swept along the deck toward the icer.

 

He thought for a moment that he should stay there; that Cruz and Joe Bill would not know that he was done, but he figured they would have headed for cover already so he jumped onto the deck and began running.  The icer had stopped and instead of crushed ice, rainwater flowed in a torrent from the funnel that stretched out over the train.  He ran under it and could see blocks of ice – shiny and white - slithering across the deck in the heavy rain while others continued to pop out of the opening in the deck, where they immediately slipped off the conveyor.   In the middle of these frozen bodies was Joe Bill, who was jabbing at the blocks with his pike.  Cruz stood motionless inside the cab.

 

“Tell the crazy bastard to shut the conveyor off,” Joe Bill yelled, his terrified face lit up by lightening, as he fought to stay upright.

 

Grabbing the slick railing of the ladder to the cab Griff swung onto the bottom rung.  “Turn off the damn conveyor belt before it kills him,” he screamed at Cruz. He looked at Joe Bill, now on his knees, with only his head and torso above the ice.  Griff pulled himself up to the window of the cab and shouted at Cruz’s glass enclosed face.  “Safety first, goddamn it, safety first!”

 

Cruz glared back.  Griff thought he saw a smile flicker across his lips but maybe it was just his imagination. Suddenly the conveyor stopped.  Griff jumped down from the ladder and furiously shoved the blocks off the deck until he could reach Joe Bill.

 

“Jesus, Jesus and Jesus,” Joe Bill wailed as Griff helped him pull his right leg from a hole in the rotted deck.  “I could have been killed.  I could have been crushed to death by ice cubes.”

 

Cruz stepped down from the cab and walked past them and opened the trap door that led down to the tunnel.  “You’re crazy, Cruz,” Joe Bill shouted as he sat on his knees in the rain.   “You know that, don’t you?”

 

By then Cruz had disappeared and all they could hear was a fist pounding a glove.

                         

                                                                                                       The End

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