Tommy Joe: Slip Sliding Away
by Ralph "Gonzo" Crosby
I could barely make out Tommy Joe's sweat stained
outline through the shimmering mirage dancing off the black top.
I pedaled up beside him and motioned him to pull up
under Mr. Stillwell's big Oak tree.
We dropped the bikes and lay down in the cool grass in
the shade of the tree.
"TJ, I reckon you better find you an inside job
this summer, you look a little peaked" I said.
Tommy Joe wrung a few gallons of brine from his Crane
Cam's tee shirt and wiped the sweat from his eyebrows.
"Ya know Gonz old man Smelt was lookin' for a
couple hands down at the ice plant." he replied.
"Pays a buck ten an hour." Tommy rolled over
and stared up into the branches. A guy could make a bundle if'n he could
keep from catchin' the nee-monia."
I pictured my mom with an ice pick, hackin' me out of
the ice plant door each night.
"TJ, we ain't exactly Eskimos, what's the coldest
place you ever been to?" I asked.
"Delray Gonz, it's way up the coast, gets plenty
cold up there." Tommy explained.
I never heard of Delray before so I figured TJ musta
paid a visit one Christmas while I was on restriction.
We cruised downtown to Sixth Avenue and pulled up to
the giant yellow building.
The only writing on the block long warehouse was the
word ICE painted in big red letters.
We strolled into the office and a fat lady with Buddy
Holly glasses asked us what we wanted.
Tommy Joe informed her that word was out the ice plant
was looking for a few icemen.
Mrs. Buddy looked us both up and down and chuckled,
"You fellas are icemen huh?"
Being as we had no idea what and iceman was or did, we
had to pull out all the stops.
"Well ma'am, old Gonz here used to do some ice
work up north in the union," Tommy Joe explained.
She lifted a painted on eyebrow and asked
"Yes ma'am, Tong Handlers Brotherhood out of
Winter City." I could see Tommy was making good progress here cuz
Mrs. Holly asked security to come to the office. I figured she would
want him to give us a quick tour to see if we thought the jobs were all
they were made out to be.
I wiped the dirt and pebbles out of my face and pulled
TJ up to his feet.
"Reckon we'll just wait till old man Smelt comes
in and cut out the middle man," TJ explained.
About an hour passed and Caddy rolled up with a tag
that simply read "Kool" on the back.
"You boys need a Band Aid?" Mr. Smelt was
about fifty and had a confident look about him.
No sir, what we need is a job!" TJ was still
reeling from the standing eight count administered to him by the
security guard. One thing Tommy Joe had was grit. It was this quality
that got him in and out of trouble all the years I've known him.
Mr. Smelt looked at the knot rising on TJ's forehead
and turned to me. He handed me his handkerchief and told me to hold it
on my lip.
"You boys just real clumsy or you been fighting
with each other?" He asked.
"A guy looked like he was trying to steal some
ice and we chased him off is all," TJ said.
Mr. Smelt called security to come out in the parking
Brutus Heignt was about seven or eight feet tall and
around three hundred or so pounds.
"Brutus, these boys said they tried to keep a
thief from stealing my ice," he said.
I could feel that chemical that allows you to run a
nine second hundred seeping into my bloodstream.
"Yup I saw em running around in the parking lot
hollering and screaming about an hour ago," Brutus told him.
"Well then, boys, I guess I owe you a reward. How
bout a job?" Mr. Smelt shook our hands and winked at Brutus.
My mom pulled out all my winter clothes and laid them
on my bed.
I had spent my whole life in south Florida. I had one
sweatshirt, one pair of jeans, one pair of dress pants.... twenty pairs
of cutoff shorts.
Tommy Joe showed up on our front porch in pair of
carpenter's bib overalls about a foot longer than he was tall.
I clapped my hands and told him I'd sooner freeze to
death than wear some danged clown's outfit.
I rolled the bib overalls Mr. Cauldwell had sent me
over my shoe tops. "On second thought, we look a little like
railroaders," I said.
We took turns prying each other's pant legs out of the
bike chains all the way to town.
Brutus met us at the back door, and handed us each
long johns, sweat pants, sweat shirts, big fur lined parkas, gloves,
goggles, spiked work boots and a big giant overcoat.
I got everything snapped, zipped, tied, buttoned and
Then I remembered how I always gotta pee when I'm
nervous like at the first day of a new job or something.
I got everything back on and stumbled for the ice
house, it felt like I was piggybacking a house along with me
"Hey Tommy, your gear feel a little heavy
compared to say a pair of baggies?" I slumped over and looked at
Tommy looked like a midget polar bear.
"Just go with it till we get the hang of things
Gonz," TJ trudged towards the big frozen steel door.
Brutus pushed the door open and our breath froze
against our numb faces.
We stood in the center of the massive frozen building
and looked around.
There was a big long chute coming out of the ceiling
and every couple minutes a dozen forty pound blocks of ice would slide
down and pile up at the bottom.
Our job was to grab the blocks of ice and stack them
on small pallets with sled runners on the bottom. Each pallet had a
truck number and the total blocks of ice to load.
We loaded the pallets then pushed them over to the
loading dock where the endless procession of trucks backed in and loaded
Every now and then a buzzer would go off and we had to
drop a block of ice down the customer ice chute. In those days you could
come down to the ice house and put a quarter into the slot on the front
door. This would buy you a forty pound chunk of ice.
Every now and again someone would want a bag of
crushed ice. We took turns bashing blocks of ice into tiny shards with a
As always TJ and I would complete a day's work in
about an hour and a half of everyone else's time.
This gave us lots of time to explore the possibilities
of the ice house.
The first thing we tried was riding the blocks of ice
down the chute as they whipped out of the ceiling. This called for split
The ice would make a little thud sound as it fell from
the ice maker onto the chute.
The rubber doors would flap open and the ice would
whoosh down the chute passed us.
TJ straddled the chute like a cowboy about to ride a
TJ's cat like reflexes were a bit too quick and he
jumped before the ice cleared the door.
He landed on his back on the bottom of the chute and
the next ten or twenty blocks of ice rammed into the top of his head.
While this amused me quite a bit, I was pretty certain
Tommy wasn't smiling.
He let go of the side of the chute to rub his
throbbing head and immediately slid off down the trough towards the
Old TJ somehow got himself spun around on the slick
ice chute and was slipping along headfirst.
I guess we should have pulled the last few blocks of
ice out of the end of the chute before we started.
It sounded like a bowling alley when TJ's skull
smashed into the frozen boulders at the bottom.
I helped Tommy up out of the ice chute.
"This is fun sure enough Gonz , but it kinda
takes a toll of you," TJ mumbled.
The next thing we invented was "ice ice
"Ice ice skates" were just that. You took a
block of ice, split it in two. You stomped your spike soled boot into
the chunk of ice and repeated it for the other foot.
You held a piece of rope in your hand and the other
guy stood in the center of the building and whirled you around at about
a hundred miles per hour.
This was a fantastic diversion until the guy spinning
you got dizzy and let go of the rope.
You would immediately go from circle track ace to
straight line rookie.
The room was only so long so eventually you would
smash into the wall full tilt.
Your face already being numb from the cold made impact
a little more tolerable.
Ice surfing was another interesting but painful
You stuck a block of ice in the middle of the slick
Running full speed with your spiked boots you jumped
up on the block of ice and skimmed across the floor like a rocket sled
on a frozen lake. Except you didn't have a parachute tucked in your
Being upright gave you the option of sticking your leg
up to stop you against the brick wall or using both arms.
Either way it was a couple yards of Ace bandage wraps
and bed rest for two or three days.
As time wore on and we healed we became bored with the
indoor ice circuit.
We would take big chunks of ice out on sixth avenue
and glide down the street as graceful as any Olympic speed skater.
The Florida sun would make short work of our "ice
ice skates" and our time trials were short bursts, nothing like the
long torturous rides we were used to in the soap box derby cars.
"Hey Gonz, what would you think about storing one
of the derby cars in the ice house for a week or two" TJ asked.
I couldn't remember any of the soap box cars ever
spoiling, so why we would want to freeze one was beyond me.
"Dunno TJ, why?" I was relatively scab free
at the moment and most of my double vision was gone. I tried to change
the subject but TJ was just warmin' up.
"We turn her upside down, take the wheels off and
make ice grips on the ends of the axles!" TJ was a lot like Harry
"We take her up on the 17th street bridge and
slide down a few times till the ice melts away,." Tommy was jotting
down notes to himself and making little drawings on his pad.
We put one of the Cauldwell Specials in the deep
freeze for a few days and took it out on Sixth Ave.
A few confused looking folks pulled their cars over to
the curb as Tommy skated down the street.
It was amazing how fast the little car could go
sliding on ice compared to its speed on rubber tires.
Tommy got out of the cockpit and declared we would
soon be holders of the world speed record for soap box derby bodied race
cars. Being the only competitors for the title took a lot of pressure
We called Uncle Thurmon and told him our plan. Uncle
Thurmon could come up with anything we ever needed when it came to
racing. He was a kid at heart and seemed to know everyone that had the
really cool stuff.
We raced the soap box car on its ice runners a few
more times on Sixth Avenue
The car was slippery and scary fast but emergency
stopping was impossible.
We stuck the little car back in the freezer. Weeks
went by and we had all but forgotten about the
Uncle Thurmon however had spent a month quietly
working on a braking system.
Uncle Thurmon devised a stopping device that he
figured would at least save our lives if not prevent a few nasty
He took one of the springs from an overhead garage
door and hooked it on the back of the Cauldwell Special's fuselage. He
tied a long nylon line to other end of the spring.
One end of the line was tied to a steel support at the
top of the bridge the other was hooked to the garage door spring
attached to the race car.
The car would speed down the bridge, the line would
unroll behind the car and slowly put tension on the spring bringing the
race car to a slow and graceful stop.
Man this always looked so good on paper!
Uncle Thurmon talked to Murphy the bridge tender about
the chances of us "renting" the bridge for about a half hour.
Murphy had seen TJ , Sammy The Slide Rule Morgan, and I race in the Soap
Box Derby a few times. This was before our cars were banned for life due
to rules bending.
"Well Thurmon I reckon, if you can sneak up on
the bridge about three in the morning, You can make one pass,"
More weeks past as we finalized our plan. It was late
October and the first cold front of the year was heading our way. The
ice speed gods were smiling down on us.
We talked Brutus into lending us an ice truck to haul
the frozen car up to the bridge.
Brutus had taken a liking to TJ after he saw what a
whuppin he could endure.
As usual word leaked out around school that we were
about to try and break another world record and a couple local laws.
It was about midnight and a light rain was falling.
The icy rain was quickly turning to sleet.
We loaded the Cauldwell Special into the ice truck and
bounded off into the chilly night.
We pulled up to the bridge. It looked a whole lot
steeper at night.
Uncle Thurmon chatted with Murphy the bridge tender
for a couple minutes and eased back over to the truck.
"OK boys," Murphy said, "At two a.m. he
will raise the east side of the bridge for five minutes." Uncle
The rain left the streets damp and slippery.
About half the kids from school were lining the side
of the bridge hoping to witness another Tommy Joe bloodletting.
Crazy Norman, Sammy The Slide Rule, Debbie Stillwell,
and the rest of the unofficial pit crew
were on hand to help us go for the record.
We set the frozen car on the sidewalk at the bottom of
Sammy attached the nylon line to the big spring on the
back of the car and walked back up the bridge to the starting line.
Sammy tied the other end of the line to the ladder on the bridge
tender's house. This would insure TJ would stop before he sailed into
the crossing gates at the other side of 17th street.
Tommy Joe squeezed into the cockpit and we pushed him
up the sleet covered steel grate of the bridge. I thought the wooden
floor of the ice house was slippery. The steel bridge made the ice house
floor feel like sand paper.
We had wooden blocks under the front of the car-sled
to keep TJ from slipping away.
It was 2 AM . I patted TJ on the top of his helmet and
pulled his goggles down over his eyes.
I kinda wanted to be at the bottom so I could see
Tommy at full speed but it was always our custom to be at each others
side when one of us was about to do something really stupid.
Tommy stuck his hand up in a thumbs up. He hunkered
down in his famous posture and I yanked the stop block from beneath the
The car slipped away like it was shot from a cannon.
With no friction at all to slow him down Tommy was just a blur in the
Uncle Thurmon had the newfangled radar gun set up at
the finished line.
TJ was wailing down the bridge faster than anything we
had ever seen.
The screen on the radar gun lit up 1....1....2 mph.
Tommy hit the bottom and the nylon line was stretched
The garage door spring started to spread apart and
slow Tommy Joe down.
I guess old TJ was going a bit quicker than Uncle
Thurmon had figured he could.
The spring unwound to its full length, for about one
millionth of a second Tommy Joe and the race car were motionless. This
would have been a real good time to get out of the car.
Even as fast as TJ's reflexes were a millionth of a
second is a small time frame.
The spring retracted with a tremendous SPRONG!!!
The spring was so powerful it shot Tommy and his race
car straight back up the bridge!
There was a hushed gasp from the spectators lined up
along the sides of the bridge.
I could see the nylon line going limp at my feet and I
sensed something unusual was about to happen.
I looked up and saw the rear of the Cauldwell Special
shooting up the bridge around ten times faster than it left.
I jumped out of the way as TJ whipped by.
Tommy flew backwards out over the Intercoastal
He rammed ass backwards into the raised section of
bridge and kinda stuck there frozen in time for a second or two.
Tommy Joe and the car plunged into the ice cold water
under the bridge.
TJ came up out of the water looking a bit stunned and
tied the nylon rope around his waist.
I could hear him yelling up to me.
"Gonz, what was it" he asked.
"It was crazy," I said
"No, No, the speed, what was it," he asked
"It was crazy," I said.
fast times, quick cars, cosmic advice