Going the Way of the Ice Box

See my just-published essay “Confessions of a Failed Energy Martyr” at Terrain.org.

The yellow truck with the red and blue lettering stopped at the curb by the dying elm. The uniformed man stepped from the cab, came around the back, and threw open the cargo doors. He climbed inside the hold.

Soon, a block of ice appeared at the opening. The man hopped to the pavement. With both arms, he sunk the pincers of a pair of circular black tongs into the ice, and in one graceful motion heaved the load to his shoulder.

A faint coolness trailed him as he crossed the stoop where I sat. His hunched back ascended the creaking stairs to the flat overhead, the ice glinting behind him.

This was 1961.

My mother told me the old lady upstairs didn’t have a refrigerator like we did. She had an ice box.

“Why?”Welch family 1961

“She doesn’t have the money for anything better.”

My mother was 23 years old and had three children under five. We lived in the downstairs flat— one bedroom, a kitchen, and a front room where my parents slept on a fold-down divan that Mum made up daily so we’d have furniture to sit on. The end tables were tv trays.

Still, my father could afford to drive (yes, drive) the half-block to the corner grocery for a pack of Lucky Strikes and a rack of Narragansett cans (which required a church key; the technological miracle of pull tabs was a few years off.)Church key  A blue-gray cloud of incompletely combusted hydrocarbons plumed from the tailpipe of his used Packard. Gasoline and cigarets were cheap, and concern for pollution only beginning to dawn in a few distant minds.

It’s astonishing to think that within living memory, enough people lacked electric refrigeration to sustain home ice delivery in a place as thinly populated as Bangor, Maine. And nobody had a clue that those tailpipe emissions might be part of a chemistry experiment we were performing on the very air we breathed.

Well, almost nobody:

People were in thrall to the idea of technological progress. I think my dad drove those 100 yards not because he was lazy but to express allegiance to that ideal.

Cars are much cleaner and more efficient now. But there are a lot more of them, and a lot more refrigerators and other electric appliances. The six billion tons of annual CO2 emissions mentioned in “The Unchained Goddess” clip above is now 33 billion metric tonnes (about 37 billion short tons), and the trend is up.

harvesting_iceBy 1961, it had been seven years since the Getchell Brothers had cut ice from local rivers and stored it in insulated ware- houses. They’d switched to manufacturing it.

There’s a sharp irony in making ice with electricity in Maine, where winters were historically long and cold, and there’s plentiful flowing water for hydroelectricity. In that sense, the ice still comes from the river. But the hydropower used to freeze ice isn’t available for other loads, so all those additional appliances drive the demand for gas-fired electric generation. The Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline opened in 1999 to meet that demand—which is an improvement over the oil-fired electric generation it’s partially displacing.

An even deeper irony is that the hydroelectric dams along the Penobscot are being torn out, pushing Maine to yet more fossil-fired power while doing the right thing to restore fish habitat.

Going back to the days of harvested ice is a nostalgic fantasy. But finding ways to harness nature rather than override it to satisfy our energy needs seems like the obvious path to follow. Solar, wind and, yes, hydro all have a role in moving us away from fossils while keeping the technological advantages we developed so rapidly since the Getchell man carried the ice block up the old lady’s stairs. Otherwise, the river ice in Maine may follow the way of the ice box.

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