s I look back on my childhood, I realize that my mother must have been blessed with the patience of Job and the trust of a saint. She not only put up with a house full of children of her own, but with a yard full of neighborhood children. I heard her say probably a hundred times, “When my children are home, I know what they are up to.”
We had a big rambling yard surrounding the house, which was encircled by the porch, open underneath. Near the house was the smokehouse and woodshed. Joining the yard was the fenced kitchen garden. In the back there was the half block lot with the hen house and barn where the animals lived. These included Old Button, our favorite horse, and some times other horses, the chickens, cows, goats and various other animals. There were oak, hickory and sweet-gum trees scattered here and there. There were even patches of grass which had triumphed over feet and shade. This was our playground with all the delightful places to hide when we played our favorite game, “Hide-and-go-seek.” Inside the house, the smokehouse and the kitchen garden were all off-limits for hiding.
I was 11 years old that summer and so were Violet, Arlie and Essie. My brother Julian and his friends Roy and Odean were 9, and my little sister June and her playmates Dovie and Ray were between 2 and 3. These were our regular playmates who lived beside or across the street from us. Then there were the children who wandered in occasionally from a few blocks away. Daily and nightly the running and yelling could be heard blocks away, which was music to the ears of parents. Neighbors were delighted to have free babysitting, excepting that word hadn’t yet been coined. Babysitting was called “having to take care of little sister or little brother,” and sometimes it was called by other names by the children who had to share in this chore. It was another one of those hot summers when the temperature didn’t dip below 100 degrees in the shade, that I remember as one of my very best and most enjoyable summers. It might have been because it was the last summer that I was allowed to be the tomboy that I was. When girls reached that certain age, they had to start acting like ladies and become miniature adults.
As usual, the regular group of children had congregated under the huge oak tree in the front yard. It was too hot to play running games. It was even too hot to play “Miss Woman,” for the girls have to dress up in their mama’s long dresses and the boys would, at least, have to wear one of their papa’s old hats. We could even stick our tongues in our cheeks and pretend we were talking with a northern accent. Probably we had never heard a northerner speak, but we knew they didn’t talk like we did.
As hot as it was, we were all stretched out in the shade. One child, looking up at the sky, said, “If I had a million dollars, I’d wish for wings and fly away from this hot place.” Essie said, “If I had a million dollars I’d wish for a fan big enough to cool this whole town.” Julian’s turn was next and he said, “If I had a million dollars I’d wish for a big dish of ice cream.” No one waited for the next one’s turn, but in unison, yelled, “Let’s make ice cream!” Everyone ran home to ask their mamas. When Julian and I asked our mama, she said, “Do you expect me to let you kids chip up all the ice I have?” It has to be hauled from the ice plant in Searcy and I have to make it last until the ice man comes again next week. I told you that we’d buy extra ice and make ice cream for the Fourth of July. Ice is too expensive to let children waste. Money doesn’t grow on trees and you might as well learn to make do with what you have.” When all the children regrouped in the front yard, their reports were all about the same, all excepting Ray’s and Roy’s, that is. Their mama said, “I know where you can get ice for free. Why don’t you kids use the ice in the emptied iced boxcars down on the railroad tracks? You can run down to the depot and ask your papa.” Having the depot agent’s permission to salvage the ice, the children ran home again to get permission to use milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt. We had a large ice cream maker and a lot of milk. Milk and eggs were plentiful as most families kept at least one cow and many chickens. Those children who had neither could bring sugar and vanilla.
Perishable foods were shipped to market in iced boxcars. At their best, they were only cooled cars, for refrigeration as we know it today had not yet been invented. On each end of the boxcar there were two compartments filled with ice. The perishable foods were placed in between the two ends. After the merchants emptied the cars of the produce, they were left in the switchyard until the next freight train came through and picked up the cars.
In order to get the ice out of the hole, as we called the ice compartment, two or three children had to climb up the ladder on the side of the car, push or pull open the heavy lid which sealed the top of the ice compartment, and swing down inside. The distance we had to drop depended on how much the ice had melted. With an ice pick, we chipped off big chunks of ice, threw the chunks over the top of the hole, then down on the ground where they on the ground filled their red wagons with ice. They then pushed and pulled the wagons the two blocks up the hill. They then wrapped the ice in a tarpaulin. To get out of the hole we had to use our arms and legs, and by putting one foot on each side of the wall, we climbed and pulled ourselves out of the hole. All this time the little sisters and brothers were tagging along.
Week after week, as long as the supply of ice, milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt lasted, we lived in ice cream heaven. No one complained of any of the hard work of mixing, chipping or cranking the ice cream maker. Even the housekeeping duties were shared. It was a silent agreement, “No work, no eats.”
One day our pet crow flew in to investigate and share in the fun and eats. Sitting with his mouth open, one of the boys dropped a chip of ice in his mouth. He swallowed it and opened his mouth for more. This continued until the poor crow was almost frozen. He then flew out into the sunshine and sat until he was warm again and then came back for more. This continued until the ice cream was hard enough to eat and then he shared in eating the ice cream.
It was near the end of summer when the almost tragedy occurred. It happened to be my turn to go down into the hole. It was Arlie’s turn to stay on top of the boxcar and throw the ice to the group. For the first few minutes, on this hot day, it was delightful to be standing on a cake of ice. At first I chipped slowly, savoring the coolness and sucking on a chip of ice. Then I began to feel the chill and started chipping ice faster and faster. Suddenly, I heard the whistle of the freight train. I panicked! I could imagine the train hooking onto the car and taking us to faraway places. As rapidly as possible, I climbed out of the hole. To my surprise, there sat my baby sister June on top of the boxcar. I could hear the train coming down the tracks, getting closer and closer! I started screaming, “Help me! Help me get June down! How will we ever get June down?” Arlie offered to put June on his back and carry her down, but I was afraid that she would fall off and the train would run over her. Some wise kid on the ground said, “She climbed up, and she can climb down,” and climb down she did. Julian climbed part way up the ladder so that he would be behind June as she climbed down. Arlie and I started her climbing down from the top. When we were all a safe distance from the railroad tracks, I stopped everyone and said, “We must never tell anyone. If Mama finds out that June was on top of the boxcar, she will never let us make ice cream again. Swear that you will never tell anyone.”
“I swear!” everyone said.
“Cross your heart and hope to die!” came the unison reply as each one crossed his arms over his chest. vvv