Of my neighbor's large brood, I loved Charlie best. The middle child of seven, the one who lingered longest in the familial nest. He was tall, resourceful and helpful to all of the older neighbors with clogged gutters, flat tires, cans that needed curbing, cats in trees, etc. So when, at 32, he announced that he had found THE WOMAN and she had said "yes," I offered my congratulations with mixed emotions. Charlie had driven me, sat next to me when my spent toy poodle met the angel of death -her vet, comforting me as best he could afterwards. I determined to show my deep affection with a significant present for the newlyweds. Their greatest need, "a refrigerator and she wants stainless steel with an ice-maker,” he told me. “Of course she does," I said a tad tartly, "but I'm told they don't hold magnets well and show fingerprints." I honored my intention.
How we take this stodgy, bulky appliance for granted. It has not always been standing at attention in American kitchens; certainly not in our kitchen in 1935 — the era of our iceman, Mr. Henry.
Mr. Henry's horse was named Henry as was his son. This paucity of imagination (ergo his son was Henry Henry) never led to confusion. We simply referred to them as the horse, Mr. Henry or the iceman, and Junior. His cart bore a hand lettered sign that assured "Henry's ice is Tucson's finest."
The iceman's visits to our service porch with the dripping, tonged mass on his burlapped shoulder were a much anticipated diversion for my sister and me. We could feed the horse carrots. When he repaid the kindness with a pile of steaming ordure, our mother, never distant from her Russian peasant roots, gave Junior a shovel and a quarter to enrich her flower beds with the fortuitous fertilizer.
The enamel clad colossus Mr. Henry serviced was appropriately on our service porch, convenient for milk and ice deliveries. A long hall at the back of the house with linoleum flooring and a door at each end, it housed what we called the icebox and Mr. Henry called the Kelvinator. That was the name emblazoned in chrome across its heavy door. The icebox was a ponderous presence that a child did not visit idly as kids do today's refrigerators, aimlessly looking for inspiration. It demanded and got respectful consideration as did Mr. Henry until a searingly hot August afternoon.
The iceman, having made his delivery, was chatting with our pretty mother as all the tradesmen were wont to do. Junior was busy in our garden and the horse swished away flies with his tail. Archie, a kid who lived across the street, and some of his buddies approached the back of the wagon brandishing ice picks.
"We're gonna get that diamond," Archie whispered. There was one large block left on the cart's straw bed and the sun's rays glanced off it in such a way that it appeared to have a huge diamond smack in the heart of it. My sister and I had never seen this phenomenon before and we watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the boys hacked away at it, the apparition receding as the block diminished. The back of the wagon became a sopping mess and when Mr. Henry's tuneless whistle could be heard, the boys fled, leaving my sister and me standing, stunned at their ferocious audacity.
Our mother tssked and clucked and said she would get to the bottom of it. My sister hissed, "tattle and I'll kill you," her standard threat, which I never tested.
Mr. Henry said he would have to go back to the ice house as the decimated block was intended for his last customer. "What the hell were they thinking?" he asked rhetorically. "They wanted your diamond," I said before my sister could clap her hand over my mouth. This seeming non sequitur only made mother more irritated. “This is serious girls. Get in the house.”
Shortly before World War II, the icebox was replaced by a refrigerator. It stood in the service porch, and our father, always loyal to a dependable brand — all his cars were Dodges — got Kelvinator. Mr. Henry had a plan B. He pastured the horse, got an Airstream trailer which he proudly towed behind his LaSalle in a last hurrah visit to his old customers. The Airstream's gleaming aluminum made our eyes smart when we tried to see our reflections in its sides.
Long after I was disabused of the notion that diamonds were to be found encased in blocks of ice, or that they originated in jeweler's display cases, I still missed the horse and Mr. Henry's humble but essential ministrations to our family. Whether from sentiment or just ornery habit, the sleek new appliance on our service porch – that marvel of human ingenuity – was never referred to as anything other than "the icebox."