1886 The Mutt: A Short Story

Written by: Pam Backlund  

Illustrated and read aloud at: https://youtu.be/DnMPpfwHRgk

May 1886

Dearest Penny,

Enclosed is my translation of Father’s last letter to us.  I know your German and Spanish are not strong…that’s why I decoded it for you.  Our father finally has a job!  I’ll let you find out for yourself.  But we can be upset for other reasons, now.        Love, Cecile

April 24, 1886

Dear daughters,                                                                                                                                  Thank you for the birthday present last month.  I had forgotten that I am now a fifty year old mutt.  My leg deformity from that cowboying incident still gets me down sometimes, but all in all I’m getting around OK as long as I have my bourbon.  I’ve had some pretty good years.  The births of you two girls were the highlight of my life. 

          My birthday was uneventful, as San Angelo is having an epidemic of chicken pox right now.  It happens every spring it seems.  Most of the ill kids are bedridden.  So I get a lonely kind of feeling when I walk along the streets.  Oh, the dreariness will pass soon.

          I have a job at the San Angelo Ice Factory!  I’m a part time ‘day helper’ and a full time ‘night watchman’.  It’s not easy with my handicap, but everyone understands.  It takes me a while to climb up the stairs to check pressure gauges and such.  But I can still do it. They wish I didn’t have my flask of whiskey, but they don’t know what it takes to get me through the day.

          My night vision is worsening.  Fortunately we have oil lamps installed throughout the factory.  My perimeter vision seems to be getting smaller and smaller.  I suspect it has been happening slowly as of this year, for I used to be able to see the left and right corners of my tenement room at the same time.  I know this because once my two mouser cats were in each corner while I was standing in the doorway and I know that I could see them at the same time. They were conversing with each other across the room.  Now if I see one corner, I cannot see the other and vice versa.  It is so frustrating to be like this.  I wonder if there are spectacles for my kind of problem.  Will you look into that for me?  I don’t trust Texas doctors ever since the one who set my leg, did it wrong.

          Will you tell your children that working in the Ice Factory is good respectful work?  We pump and distill the Concho River.  We have operations for cooling down distilled water in the big freezing tank.  This is how we make ice (which is half the price of imported blocks) in San Angelo.  First, we have a wood burning firebox that heats water in the boiler for steam power.

          With that power, we are constantly moving, compressing and expanding three fluids; water, ammonia and oil.  Each of these needs to be cooled with water condenser baths.  The water that was filtered and distilled then becomes the ice.  The ammonia circulates within large and small diameter pipes…some of which are submerged in very salty water (which is the freezing tank). The tank is where the ice molds temporarily sit to freeze.  The oil circulation keeps all of the moving parts lubricated and keeps a vacuum.   It is very rewarding to see the water from the North Concho River being turned into crystal clear, distilled ice chunks with this factory.

          Because the ice is crystal clear, it takes a while for it to melt.  But it also takes a while for it to freeze.  The molds for the ice are rectangular.  When they are frozen to the middle, we dunk the molds in tepid water and remove the ice. Then, of course, we refill the molds for the next batch of ice. The ice brick weighs about 100 pounds.  Oh, for a man my age, moving the masses around is a chore.  The floor can get pretty slippery if you don’t pay attention. There is always some WASTE ice.  So the broom is my friend during the daytime.  I prevent slipping accidents.

          Most of the ice is used by breweries and saloons, though we supply to ice cream shops as well.  We also have a horse-driven wagon for ordered sales.  The ice wagon goes to businesses and residences to deliver chunks of ice. 

          There is a group of women (The Temperance Society) that is very much against the ice factory.  They don’t want anyone to drink alcohol, period.  They claim that ice should only be made for food preservation and ice cream. (“Forget the beer,” they say.)  Those women apparently don’t have pain in their leg as I do.  I must have my beer every afternoon.

          We have been fortunate that our setup is only one year running. It has had few breakdowns because of its newness.  Other, older factories haven’t been so lucky.  I worry about mechanical failure all of the time.  I’m not a very smart man and I don’t understand everything that maybe I should.  But I know explosions can happen and I don’t want to be around when it occurs.  I’m glad the cleverer people can understand the internal conditions of the machinery by looking at gauges; then they know how to respond.  The gauge for the pressure within the steam engine is my biggest concern.  Otherwise, we mostly just re-liquefy and re-evaporate the ammonia over and over again.  And did I mention that ammonia is explosive?  Well it is. But don’t have fear about it!

          I know you worry about me, but I feel safe.  My night time job entails listening for unusual noises and making sure that no one vandalizes the place.  Last summer was the first season for San Angelo to have an ice factory and my boss was surprised at how many people wanted to come into the ice room to recuperate from the excessive heat outside.  The night watchman at the time had to run off several persons of questionable character…and even some of good character.  Did they think the factory had opened an ice hotel or something?

          I myself have slept on the floor of the ice room on occasion this spring.  It feels so comfortable in the heat of the season to sleep in a cold room with lots of blankets on me.  I can drink my bourbon to warm up occasionally and just let the two cats snuggle with me.  Most other people are sleeping with their windows open, with mosquitoes biting and with no relief from the constant sweating.  I sleep like a lamb. 

          Today is the Saturday before Easter Sunday and we are actually making ice at night this one time.  There was a big influx of ice orders because of all of the celebrating going on so we are running the machinery tonight. I’m feeding the fire in the firebox.  In the morning a crew of men will come in before church and get the ice to where it has been ordered.

          I had an epiphany moment the other day when I was sweeping the ice scraps off of the floor into the tepid water tank.  I thought, “I can save bits and pieces of ice and sell it to my favorite saloon.” 

          I’d been trying to use my brain to come up with the scheme successfully.  Two days later my boss found me drawing the “ice box” I was going to build for the endeavor.  I flinched when he asked me what it was.  I said it was a toy for my granddaughter.  He smiled and went on with his day.  To this day, I don’t know if he knew I was thinking of my own side ice business with the waste of his factory.  So far I’ve made the box and it is in the ice room looking innocent.  No one suspects me so far as I know.

          The problem with starting my own business from the ice house waste is ‘probably every other guy has thought of the same thing.’  For all I know, someone is already making money for himself as I plan to.  Is it a sin?  Will he go to hell for doing it?  What if he never gets caught?

          Oh, you see that I’m frustrated with my pay as part-time-day and night-watchman.  I don’t have enough money to buy as much whiskey as I need.  I know you don’t approve of the juice, but it helps me with the loss of your mother.  Anyway, in order to drink, I need to find a better job or smooch off the side. 

          This shift tonight, has been curious because while I’m writing this; I’m intermittently adding wood into the firebox of the steam engine to keep the ammonia and oil circulating (so the water freezes for Easter.)

          Also, this evening I had three interesting visitors; Paul an orphan, Candace the temperance lady and Mutt, the pregnant dog. 

          I’ll start with Mutt’s giving birth to two female puppies while the cats and I looked on.  I just randomly named her Mutt as she seems to be a stray dog.  I won’t bore you with the ‘disgusting details’ of the procedure but she labored for quite a while and I was with her the whole time.  I couldn’t help but remember when your mother gave birth to you two sisters.  Oh my how I miss your mother!

          Candace the temperance lady was standing outside of the front door until dark.  She had a sign on a stick which read, “Alcohol causes sin!”  When I first saw the logo, I kind of took it personally.  But, some of the other society members have been stationed outside the saloons with their own signs with their own individual slogans.  I eventually rationalized she wasn’t aiming her message at me but rather at the ice being made for breweries and saloons.

          The reason I find her to be exciting, is because she is precisely opposite of your mother in the way she looks and the way she acts.  It is strange that I’m attracted to anyone, even though your mother has been dead for 18 years.  Don’t worry that I’m going to marry her or anything like that.  I just had a little spark light up in me today which I haven’t felt for a very long time.  Can you imagine me not drinking alcohol?  Ha!

          My last little visitor is another mutt of sorts called Paul.  He is about seven years old and has recently been ditched by his supposed aunt. His harlot mother died last year.  He is remarkably resilient, considering he sleeps in Nasworthy’s Stables and begs for food the rest of the time.

          Anyway Paul has the chickenpox and he is so feverish that he instinctively came to the coldest place he could think of.   I have on occasion given him scraps of food to help him through his day.   On some of the cold spring nights, I’ve even let him (with the boss’s approval) sleep in the office in the warm bed the factory provides for me, whilst I slept on the floor.  Tonight I am letting him sleep wherever he is most comfortable.  If he has chills, it’s under the covers.  If he is hot, it’s to the freezing room.  I’m testing to see if the salty brine water might help with the itching.  I don’t think it works. I even tried smearing bourbon in them and the open ones stung like wasps…so I quit right away.  By the time you get this letter, he should be over the pox.  I feel so sorry for the kid.  He is going through hell right now.

          This is the end of my letter, as I cannot think of anything else to talk about.  But would you consider having a little brother the same age as your own children?  When I see little Paul all ragged and miserable, I think that maybe I could be his adopted father.  I could help someone other than myself.  Let me know what you think.  I might even ask my boss if we can keep Mutt (the dog) as a watch dog.  I love you both!

                                                                             Your Father,

Viktor Gunther

Printer friendly version: http://pamsliterature.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/12/1886-The-Mutt_A-Short-Story.pdf

pdf of my research about ice factories

1 thought on “1886 The Mutt: A Short Story”

  1. Being a chemistry and physics teacher I loved teaching about refrigeration. This story gave me an opportunity to explain the process with a real Ice Factory of San Angelo in 1886.

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