We were in a dangerous situation, but an angel was watching over us.
- Posted on Apr 19, 2010
One of the best things about having George Miller as a neighbor and a friend was his dad’s bakery.
So when he asked if I wanted to take a walk there on a broiling hot Saturday morning in July 1931, I jumped at the chance. The bakery was three stories high, and George and I planned to explore the whole place top to bottom.
“Hi, Dad!” George called when we went inside. “I’ve got Don with me!”
Mr. Miller waved to us from behind the counter. “You boys want cookies?” he said. “Oven fresh.”
We eagerly accepted his offer, then continued on our way through the plant where workers decorated cakes and pulled fresh loaves of bread and rolls out of the ovens.
Of course, you couldn’t expect a couple of 10-year-old boys not to sample this kind of merchandise. We swiped maraschino cherries dipped in chocolate, pastries filled with cream, fresh donuts, you name it.
Those were just a warm-up for the ice cream department. Creamy vanilla, rich chocolate—and my favorite, sweet strawberry. “It’s pretty hot outside,” said the man in charge. “You two could probably use some.”
He handed us each a spoonful of vanilla. Hardly enough. George motioned to a stack of containers. I could read the label from where I stood: strawberry. Quarts of it!
We hung back until the supervisor’s attention was elsewhere and grabbed one. “I know where we won’t get caught eating it,” George said. “Come on!”
I followed George down to the second floor, first floor—all the way to the basement. It was cool and quiet, a little spooky even, like a dungeon. A big change from the bright, busy workrooms upstairs. But I forgot all about that once we dug into our treat.
“Someone’s coming!” I said, my mouth full of pink ice cream.
Two brown shoes appeared on the stairs. “My grandfather!” George whispered. “We’ve got to hide!”
We looked wildly around the dim basement. The walk-in refrigerator was the only possible place to go. Quick as a flash we crouched behind two big barrels inside it, next to the shelves that lined the back wall.
We stayed stock still, our breath chilly puffs in the refrigerated air. George’s grandfather placed a cylindrical container on a shelf above us. We didn’t make a move until he had shut the door and turned out the light, leaving us in total darkness.
“He’s gone,” said George.
We stumbled around the barrels and felt our way to the door. “It’s freezing in here,” I said. I didn’t even want to finish our ice cream.
“There’s no handle,” said George, his voice rising in panic. “There’s no way to open it from inside!”
We hurled ourselves against the metal door, but it was latched from the outside and wouldn’t budge. The light switch was on the other side of the door as well. We were trapped. No one knew we were down here in the cold, dark refrigerator.
No one would know to rescue us.
“The bakery’s closed on Sundays,” George moaned. “Unless someone comes in the next few hours—”
“Locked in till Monday!”
“Help! Help!” we yelled, banging on the door. No one worked in the basement. Nobody was going to hear two boys through a solid steel door.
“Maybe we can break the door down,” I said.
We felt around for something heavy. “Over here on the floor,” said George. “Feels like a metal rod.” We picked it up together and prepared to run at the door. “One, two, three!” We rammed it with the rod. Nothing.
We went at it again and again, but for our efforts all we got was a couple of shallow dents in the steel. I could feel them with my fingers.
“This place is like a bank vault,” I said through chattering teeth. “An ice cold bank vault.” What would become of us locked inside it?
I paced to keep my blood flowing and stumbled over a roll of something. “What’s this?” George said they were wax paper bags, for wrapping bread. We wrapped the bags around our arms and legs. They were beginning to sting with the cold.
“Is there anything else warm in here?” George said when the bags failed to do much good.
“Hey, there’s something warm on this shelf,” I said, feeling my way around. “I think it’s the thing your grandfather brought down.”
“It’s warm gravy,” George said.
We pressed against the canister. Even that little bit of warmth was like heaven. Something occurred to me. “Heat rises,” I said. “Doesn’t it? Didn’t we learn that in school?”
I gripped the metal shelf in my stiff fingers and hauled myself up. It wasn’t much warmer at the top of the refrigerator, but it made a difference. When I got to the top George handed the gravy canister up to me before climbing up himself.
We took turns passing the canister back and forth. I hugged it in my lap while George put his arms around me, then he took it in his lap and I put my arms around him.
It had been hours since we’d swiped that strawberry ice cream. Maybe the bakery was closed by now, leaving George and me alone in an empty building.
“Is there enough air in this ice box to last until Monday?” I asked.
“Who knows if anyone will even come down here on Monday,” George said. “We’ll be frozen solid.”
In the dark, I heard George sniffle. A second later I was crying too. Crying like I’d never cried before. “God, you’ve got to help us,” I choked.
“Yes, Lord, please get us out of here,” said George. “Please. You’re the only one who can.”
We huddled on the top shelf, rocking each other, crying and praying. “We’re sorry for what we did,” I said. “We won’t ever steal strawberry ice cream again! Or anything else! Just please don’t let us die here!”
We prayed until we fell asleep, huddled together like that. I woke up sometime later, but my mind felt dull and slow in the chill. I slipped back into unconsciousness.
When I awoke again, I felt something different. Warmth. Fresh air. The delicious heat of a July night. Little by little things came into focus: the pavement, the street, the outside of the bakery, and Mr. Miller rubbing George’s arms. We were out of the freezer. We were safe.
Thank you, God, I thought. Thank you for saving us.
Neither George nor I were up to explanations right then. Mr. Miller took me home and after a solid night’s sleep in a warm bed, I was good as new. It wasn’t until the next day at George’s house that I learned just how we’d been rescued.
“We were sitting down to dinner,” Mr. Miller explained. “All except for George. It wasn’t like him to miss a meal or not tell us where he was.”
“We all tried to figure out where George could be,” said his mother.
“I remembered seeing you two at the bakery in the morning, well before noon. There was no reason to think you’d still be there all those hours later, but I got in the car and drove over anyway. I couldn’t resist.
"I walked through that silent plant calling George’s name, but there was no answer. Of course there wasn’t, I told myself.”
Mr. Miller scratched his head. “I don’t know why I didn’t just turn around and leave,” he said. “Instead I marched down those basement stairs. I flipped on the light and the place was empty. I almost turned around again, but something made me open the steel door to the refrigerator.
"Imagine my surprise when I found you two boys inside it shivering together on the top shelf.”
George and I knew what made Mr. Miller open that freezer door. And the angels who’ve watched over me in the nearly 80 years since then can attest to the fact that I kept my promise: I never stole anything so much as a paper clip again.
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