Once Upon a Time
I was freshly married to Pennie and barely old enough to see over the dash of a car but I wanted to show her the magical places of my childhood, so we saved up enough money for 3 tanks of gas and made the 200-mile drive from Broken Arrow to Ardmore, Oklahoma.
I never knew my father’s father. A couple of photographs and a pocket watch are all that remain of the original Roy H. Williams. But my mother’s dad I knew. Roy Pylant (PIE-lant) was the iceman in Ardmore for more than half a century.
My career as an iceman began one afternoon when I was five. A restaurant called for 100 pounds of crushed ice and I went with Daddy Py to deliver it. I watched him dump the ice into the restaurant’s icemaker and then I carried the empty canvas bag back to the truck. I wasn’t big enough to do much else.
As I walked away I heard, “Looks like you got you a new helper.”
“That’s my grans-ton Little Roy. He saves me a lotta steps.”
Daddy Py couldn’t say “grandson” without putting a T in it.
Daddy Py’s house had chickens and a little stone washhouse and a garage from which you could see the edge of the world if you climbed up onto its flat tar roof.
Once, when I was nine, Daddy Py and I took a break from crushing ice to go with Larkin from Larkin’s Bait Shop. He needed to check his trot lines and asked if we wanted to go along. Trot lines were illegal, of course, but Larkin knew how to hide them so he never got caught. He got a big catfish that day and I got my first ride in a motorboat. I also saw Tucker Tower. It was even cooler than the garage at Daddy Py’s house.
Summer after summer, Daddy Py and I would roll out of bed early, drive to the ice plant and slide 300-pound blocks of ice onto his ‘65 Chevy long-narrow pickup. Roll the tarp over the ice, drive to Lake Murray, crush and bag the ice, toss it quick onto the truck, cover it again with the tarp and deliver it to the convenience stores.
I was good at it.
As a child, it never occurred to me that my family spent summer vacations at Daddy Py’s because we didn’t have the money to go anywhere else. I figured we went there because it was the grandest place on earth. And Mama Py took care of us all.
Back then they didn’t let you become a grandmother unless you could cook and Mama Py was a grandmother of five. Her food glowed like the sword Excalibur. Dopers would give up drugs for it. Ministers praised it from the pulpit. Shakespeare wrote sonnets about it.
Mama Py had a vegetable garden. Bright rays of color would shine from her kitchen windows as she prepared tomatoes, okra and corn on the cob with bowls of beans and fried potatoes. Her kitchen table glimmered like a leprechaun’s pot of gold.
Then Daddy Py would arrive with a tinfoil bundle and 2 mysterious jars of liquid. The quart Pepsi bottle with the screw-on cap contained a thin, grey-brown au jus, redolent with course black pepper. The baby food jar contained an equally thin, red liquid that sparkled with what appeared to be cayenne. The tinfoil contained sliced brisket. Airplanes buzzed the house to get a sniff of it. This was Lieutenant McKerson’s barbecue.
We delivered ice to him every morning.
The sidewalk in front of McKerson’s was broken. The building had no air conditioner. A tightly sprung screen door traded magical aromas for outside air. There was a hole worn in the linoleum in front of the serving counter, its edges smooth, tapering down to a mirror of grey cement, the silent work of a million shoes standing, twisting, turning to leave with their tinfoil treasures and sparkling jars. I looked into that mirror and saw the soul of America.
And it was beautiful.
Rich men had tried for decades to get McKerson’s recipe by offering to franchise his little place, but McKerson had no interest. He cooked for the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Each morning I’d hold open the screen door and Daddy Py would plunge into the mist with a 12-and-a-half-pound block of ice. I never saw McKerson’s face. These early morning hours had him boiling Pepsi bottles and baby food jars in a 25-gallon aluminum pot. I saw only the white apron strings tied behind his neck and back. He didn’t turn to see who we were. Our delivery of the ice was a morning ritual worn as smooth as the hole in the linoleum. We were gone in less than ten seconds. Ice is an impatient master.
One day as we drove away, I asked, “What branch of the service was Lieutenant McKerson in?”
“He was never in the military. His mama just liked the name.”
A decade later I sat with Pennie, my young wife, across the street from Lieutenant McKerson’s in Ardmore. Daddy Py and Mama Py were dead. I told Pennie about the Pepsi bottles, the baby food jars and the soul of America. We were gazing in silence at the tired little building when an ancient man emerged in a glowing white apron. He hung an Open sign on a hook outside. We watched as he went back in.
I sat and thought.
Then I drove away, unwilling to taint the taste of the memory.
Roy H. Williams