It was 1944 and our country was in the midst of a brutal World War. The men and women who worked in the agricultural industries were considered strategic workers, because they provided the food and supplies that kept everyone else alive, healthy and able to fight to include our armed forces. Like everyone else in the United States, these workers rationed food, commodities and anything made with metal. Few people owned refrigerators with freezer compartments. If you could not preserve it in a jar or can and you needed to freeze it, there were companies in town that owned large buildings with huge cold rooms where you could rent out cubicles. These cubicles looked much like large baskets with doors on them, and they were called frozen food lockers.
On a typical warm California evening, Joe stopped by one of these cold-storage buildings to get food from his locker for his family’s meals the following day. He wore a T-shirt and a pair of pants, and although the inside temperature was kept at about -20 degrees, a quick trip inside and back out did not require a jacket. Joe walked down the aisle to his storage area and started to pick out items he wanted. Suddenly, the lights went out, and a thunderous boom reverberated as the huge foot-thick insulated door to the cold-room slammed shut. Nearly simultaneously, the smaller personnel access door and the outside office doors closed. Everything was enveloped in total darkness and silence.
“Hey! I’m still in here!” Joe hollered. He suddenly realized his potential danger, and he staggered through the darkness towards the doors as he shouted at the top of his lungs. “Help Me! Let Me Out!”
It was deathly quiet.
In the total darkness Joe felt along the walls for ladders, tools, anything he could use to break open the doors. He thought surely there must be someone left in the office. Panic gripped his mind. “They couldn’t just leave me in here! Maybe they will be back!” He found a heavy metal personnel door and started to bang on it. He pounded and screamed with his fists, unaware of the blood that oozed from his knuckles in the darkness. Then the blood started to freeze on his hands and arms, and he suddenly became aware of the situation when it stuck to the surfaces he touched. He winced in pain as he ripped himself away, his flesh left frozen to the spot.
Twenty minutes passed, and the intense cold started to dim his ability to think. His lungs felt like they were on fire, his eyes froze shut at the corners, his ears were numb, but he noticed he could start to see some objects in the darkness. There were two tiny windows at the top of the twelve foot wall on the Lander Avenue side of the building. The windows were one foot tall by about a foot and a half long. While he felt along the wall, he accidentally discovered a light switch. Finally, he could see!
With his new found light Joe looked throughout the entire big room. He was unable to find any ladders or tools that could help him. Suddenly, he had an idea. If he could throw frozen food and break the windows, perhaps some glass would fall on the street to alert someone. After several failed attempts, a package of meat hit one of the windows and broke through. Now he had hope, and his mind started to focus. Joe kept throwing meat at the window, and some of the hit the target and sailed through the window. He thought he could hear cars stop, and he shouted “Help me get out!” Nobody came.
In final desperation, he prayed “God, can you help me?” Clumsily with numb hands, Joe grabbed another package of frozen meat from his own locker, and moved near the window. His hands were so cold and damaged that he could not even feel the package. He heaved it with all his strength. It cleared the window dead center, and never touched the window frame. He thought he heard a car stop. He screamed with all his might. “Please Help ME! HELP ME OUT!”
A sheriff’s deputy on his way back from patrol noticed some debris and packages of frozen food in the road, and slowed to get a better look. He rolled down his window for a better look and turned on his flashers. BANG! A package of meat bounced off the pavement, and hit his door with thud. Startled, he sprang out to investigate, and heard Joe’s faint cry for help.
He dove back into his car and his siren wailed as he rushed to the company’s parking area. He left the siren on as he jumped out of the car. America was at war and nerves were on edge. Every farmer, dairyman, and mechanic within earshot was there nearly instantly, some toted weapons. “Put away your guns guys, and get some tools!” the deputy shouted. “Someone is locked inside, and we must rescue them!” Quickly, volunteers brought tools of every kind, and the personnel access door was demolished in seconds.
Joe had already fainted, and when they carried him out, he was covered head to toe in blood. Nobody recognized him, but a helper looked in Joe’s nearby car and discovered he was one of Turlock, California’s best known men, Joe Vasconcellos.
“That’s Joe? Let ‘em go, Joe?” folks whispered in disbelief.
Quickly and carefully they laid him in the back seat of the patrol car, and two men, one on each side held him. Sirens seemed to scream more loudly as they sped to the hospital a few blocks away. Joe survived, but that is only part of the story.
The large Vasconcellos family was an important part of our community when I was a child. They immigrated to America from the Azores, a set of islands off the coast of Portugal. Like most other Portuguese immigrants, the Vasconcellos family members were dairymen and cattlemen, and they were the backbone of our thriving local economy. Unlike his relatives, Joe Vasconcellos was not a farmer. Instead, he helped us buy and sell all of my family’s livestock and equipment. He was the most well-known auctioneer in the San Joaquin Valley.
I was only six years old when Joe got locked in the cold-storage room. Dad and I went every Tuesday to Joe’s auction. Dad held Joe in high regard, and it was because of this that three to four weeks later Dad and I assembled with several hundred others at the auction to welcome Joe back. The auction arena at the Turlock sales yard only held about 150 people, but that day at least twice that many were there. It was packed! In the center ring, where cattle normally were displayed, assembled the cold-storage company owners, all thirty of their employees, the sheriff’s deputy who rescued Joe, and several members of the Vasconcellos family.
Joe’s arms and hands were still bandaged, but wore a pair of fleece lined leather mittens. Two assistants who sat up in the auctioneer’s booth, helped Joe climb the stairs that led to his seat. High above everyone else, he stood silently for a moment. Then he said, “Will everyone please stand with me?” Everyone stood. “Please remove your hats!” Joe said. He bowed his head and prayed. “God, I thank you that we can ALL be here this morning. Help us to do what is right today! Thank you for having the sheriff’s deputy in the right place at the right time, and God, thank you for helping me hit the sheriff’s car with the frozen package of meat! Amen.”
The visitors all hurried out through the livestock exit gate except for the ringmaster who stayed in the ring to help take bids and herd the cattle out after the sale. With no pause, no explanation, and no other comments, Joe sat down and rattled off in his dynamic, but intentionally monotone voice, “Bring in the first string of steers. Here we have our first pen of ten steers, and they look good. Let’s start at 25, do I have 25, 25, 25.” Yes said the ringmaster. “Now 27, 27, 27, I have 25, now 27, 27, 27, yes, now 30, 30, 30, I have 27 cents a pound now 30, yes, now 32, 32, 32, I’ve got 30 now 32, 32, do I have 32?” The ringmaster, unable to get a higher bid, quickly said “Let ‘em go, Joe!”
“Going once, going twice, sold!” said Joe, and he called out the buyer’s name as the ringmaster handed the buyer his slip through the fence that separated the ring from the gallery. “NE-EXT” hollered Joe, and out went the ten sold cattle as ten or twelve more entered the ring from the other side.
Joe was back! Let ‘em go, Joe! Dad and I were teary eyed, but I learned a lesson that stayed with me to this day. Joe had little to say about what happened to him in front of the gathered crowd. Joe was not afraid to stand in front of hundreds of friends and associates, and give God “ALL” the credit!