... Ducky, Lillybelle, Pin-Head and the Iceman
During the steam train days of the 1940s, the gate tender in the little Boston and Maine shack by the railroad tracks on West Wyoming Avenue was a small, diminutive, Popeye-like man known to all as Ducky. He had no last name, just Ducky. We paper boys from Hinchey's News store on the corner knew him especially well, as he always had a word or two for us as we passed by every morning or evening with our large bags of newspapers. It seemed as though he was always in that shack, day and night, winter and summer. His job was to crank the gates down when trains approached and then back up after they passed by. Once, he let me do it.
Ducky lived on Gould Street just a couple of houses down from where I lived. He rented an apartment in one of the big, old, four-family houses built originally for employees of the old rubber shop down south on Washington Street. As he was a neighbor of mine, I knew something about Ducky that was not common knowledge. He lived with a woman. My mother told me that she was his sister and I believed it; why not? The sister's name was Lillybelle; my mother told me that, too. Sometimes I think my mother had a good imagination. We would often see Ducky and Lillybelle waddling down Gould Street to catch a Warwick bus to Malden. As kids, we all wondered who was watching the tracks for trains up at the B & M shack while Ducky was in Malden.
In those days, we often saw a strange man riding his bicycle around the streets of Melrose. I say strange because he looked strange; his body was very thin and his too-small head seemed to be somewhat pointed. He was known to all as Pin-Head. He never spoke and, as far as I know, he never stopped riding his bicycle and he never bothered anybody. My mother told me that he had been doing this since she was a little girl growing up on Upham Street. That would have been in the early 1920s. She also told me to be kind to him because he was a very nice man but had some kind of a problem. I have no idea how old Pin-Head was, but he'd been around for a long time.
I actually met Pin-Head, professionally, so to speak, in the 1950s. During my Melrose High School years, one of my part time jobs was as an usher in the Malden theaters. One evening, following intermission between the two movies at the Granada, I was sweeping cigarette butts up from the carpet in that huge lobby. Suddenly, I looked up and there was Pin-Head, working as hard as he could, polishing the ornamental brass fixtures on the Granada's walls and doors. It seems he had been doing that job, off and on, for years. We spoke, not much more than "Hi!" to each other and then went on with our respective duties. Up close, he really did look old. That was the last time I saw him.
During the warm months of the years of my youth, the Iceman would come every weekday down Gould Street to deliver ice to all our houses. Mom would put a sign in the front window and, depending on how she stood it, it would announce to the Iceman the size of the piece of ice we needed; 15 cents, 20 cents, 25 cents or 30 cents. The 25-cent size was what our old icebox always took. His name was Mr. Beck and, unlike Ducky and his sister down the street, Mr. Beck had no first name, only a last name. In the early 1940s, a horse pulled his ice wagon and it was a regular thing for all us neighborhood kids to follow along behind the wagon and eat ice chips from the tailgate. The ice tasted like very cold old wood. Mr. Beck didn't mind; in fact, he would always make sure there were some chips left over after he cut his block of ice. In the late summer and early fall, his wagon would also carry vast quantities of fresh corn-on-the-cob for sale; 49 cents a dozen, if I remember correctly. Everybody bought his corn. Some time in the later 1940s, he started using a truck and it wasn't as much fun for us anymore. We still had Mr. Beck, the woody tasting ice and the corn but, we missed the horse.
No one, at least amongst us kids, knew where Mr. Beck came from, where he went at night, or from where he got all that ice and corn. During the horse days, he kept his horse and wagon in a small barn on the east side of Pleasant Street, down the hill from Frances Street. But there was no corn or ice around there. It's still a mystery to me.
In the late 1950s, after I finished high school, I joined the US Air Force and went away for four years. During that time, my parents sold our Melrose house and moved to North Reading, to Peter Road, off of North Street heading up toward the Parker Reservation. I came home on leave, for the first time, to our new house and across the street was a huge corn field behind an old farm house that had been there for many years. In that field, doing farmer things, was the Iceman, Mr. Beck. He had retired, long ago, from the ice business, but still sold corn from his stand along North Street. He was old, and I was busy-young, so we never got to talk. I wish, now, that I had thought to ask him where he got the ice.
November 5, 2004