Bob Reed was a strong man. However, Bob didn’t acquire his strength rowing a dory several miles a day in the open sea as so many other locals. Bob was an iceman. He acquired his strength wrestling three-hundred-pound slabs of ice.
I know that everyone under seventy years of age will have trouble believing it, but at one stage in society’s climb up the ladder of civilization, there were no ice cubes. Really. I kid you not.
Ice came not in handy cubes but in huge slabs about five feet long, five inches thick, three or four feet wide. Each slab weighed about three hundred pounds. Also, believe it or not, there were no refrigerators. Instead, there were iceboxes on the top of which there were lids which, when lifted, led to a container into which blocks of ice were placed. That ice came via an iceman who drove up in a truck loaded with those huge three-hundred-pound slabs. He would chip off a slab that would fit into a particular icebox and put that slab into the icebox. The icebox was usually kept on the back porch. There was a good reason for that placement. As the ice melted in the box it dripped into a tray which had to be emptied regularly. If one forgot to empty the tray, it overflowed. Thus, the icebox was kept on the back porch to minimize damage. Yankee ingenuity.
Because I grew up during the pre-cube portion of our ice age, my first job, at the age of ten, was that of an ice chipper. When a restaurant bought a slab of ice, someone had to chop that slab into small enough pieces to fit into a glass. I was that someone at the Green Dragon Cafe in Balboa. I had two ice picks, one the typical single prong. With that one I cut off enough ice to fit into the ice container behind the counter. The other ice pick had a series of parallel prongs. This one was used to cut the ice so that it would fit into a glass.
The ice chipper was pretty far down the social scale in a restaurant, just one jump ahead of the dishwasher who was usually a drunk and who was, in turn, about one jump ahead of a sideshow geek, the guy who bit heads off chickens. The ice chipper was pretty far down the wage scale, also. I was paid ten cents an hour.
Because of my contact with ice, I stood in awe of icemen. They were strong. They had to be to wrestle those ungainly three-hundred-pound slabs of ice around. Bob Reed was our iceman.
Bob was the son of Clarence Reed, owner and operator of the Newport Ice Company located on 30th Street in old Newport. I never saw Clarence Reed touch a piece of ice unless it was in a cocktail glass. Handling the ice slabs was Bob’s job.
And so I had the good fortune to see the great iceman race in Balboa sometime during the late twenties. Bob Reed and a man from the Santa Ana Ice Company were the contestants. The race was around the block and started in front of the Green Dragon. Each of the contestants was attired in the traditional iceman’s costume, a long leather cape that hung down the back to keep water from the melting ice on his back from saturating the iceman’s clothes.
Two identical, carefully weighed three-hundred-pound slabs of ice were placed on the sidewalk. On the count of three, each iceman grabbed his ice tongs, jammed them into his block of ice, hoisted the block of ice onto his back and took off down Main Street toward the pier. At the boardwalk they turned to the right past Dirty George’s hamburger joint and the bathhouse, then to the right on Washington to Central, then right again past the old Rendezvous located where the Balboa Theater now sits vacant, and to the finish line back at the Green Dragon. The two icemen came charging down the sidewalk neck and neck. The judges declared Bob the winner by an ice pick. It was a thrilling race.
My next exposure to Bob Reed was somewhat more traumatic. Tagg Atwood and I, as a couple of normally obnoxious beach urchins, had developed a practice by which we stood at the water’s edge and ostensibly threw wet sand at each other. Of course, somehow we kept missing each other and pelting unwary tourists with wet sand. It was great fun.
One day this big, blond smiling man came walking down toward the water. Tagg and I stood there casually throwing wet sand at each other and measuring just the right time to pelt this unsuspecting fellow when he reached the water’s edge. When he came within range we just happened to miss each other and pelted him with globs of sand. The big, blond, smiling man didn’t say a word. He just grabbed each of us by the back of the neck and marched us out into the surf where he held our heads under water until we thought we were going to drown. After I finished throwing up salt water I recognized the big, blond, smiling man. It was Bod Reed the iceman. I hadn’t known him without his iceman costume. Tagg and I quit throwing wet sand at tourists after that.
Bob Reed was not only a man of immense strength. He was also an astute businessman. He had several successful businesses, culminating in the purchase and operation of Charlie TeWinkle’s hardware store in Costa Mesa which he operated for several years. Sharp businessman though he was, however, one of his more memorable business ventures was a disaster. That was the great whale fiasco.
One year a great big dead whale washed up on the beach next to the Newport pier. Bob Reed saw the commercial opportunity it offered. He secured permission from the city council, rented a circus tent, put the tent over the whale and charged admission. At first it was a great success. People stood in line to see and touch this great monster of the deep. However, a problem soon arose. After a few days in the hot sun under that circus tent, the whale began to decompose. I guess that everything that decomposes begins to smell. However, dead fish are in a class by themselves. It was for that reason that John Randolph of Roanoke chose a dead fish when he uttered his famous phrase to the effect that his political enemies “shine and stink like rotten mackerel in the moonlight.” A few tons of dead whale stink a lot worse than a single dead mackerel.
Bob took down his circus tent, but that wasn’t enough. All the merchants along the oceanfront began to complain. So did the homeowners up and down the beach. The city council ordered Bob to remove the carcass. Bob hired a tug to pull the whale off the beach and into the water, but the whale came to pieces and couldn’t be towed. It was too big to bury. Whale blubber never had much of a market except among Eskimos. So Bob finally had to cut the stinking monster into truck-size pieces and haul them away. Just where he disposed of those truck-size pieced he never said.