The Milkman and Me

This was published in the December 2006 issue of “The Good Old Days” magazine. I provided the photo from the family album.

Before dawn on an icy winter day in the early 1950s, dad and I left our warm home and drove slick empty streets to the Sealtest Dairy, on Detroit’s west side. Dad checked out his Divco milk-truck, we backed up to the dock, loaded forty wooden crates, each holding a dozen quarts of milk in glass bottles, another crate filled with pints of cream, fifteen dozen eggs, some butter, seasonal eggnog, and, my favorite at about age fourteen, chocolate milk.

With temperatures at freezing we skipped the ice house and headed straight to Dad’s suburban milk route. It was still dark. The sleet visible against streetlights was blowing horizontally in the cold wind. Residential streets, sidewalks, and driveways were coated with a half-inch crust of ice, wet and slick from the freezing rain.

We struggled to keep our balance as we slipped and slid from the truck to customer’s homes hauling metal carriers of milk. Homes were built above street level so the trek to the house was up, a struggle for traction to make even baby steps. The return trip a was down, a scary ski slide without skis, trying to aim for the truck and hoping it would stop us without damage to it or us. We must have been a comical sight, arms flailing, feet sluing in odd directions. Snow on front yards was crusted over with ice; sometimes we could stomp through the crust and gain some traction but my recollection of the day is of a prolonged battle to stay upright.

My dad was a milkman from the 1930’s until sometime in the 60’s, when home delivery gave way to societal changes as wives joined husbands in the work-for-pay world, leaving empty homes with no one to receive delivery. I worked as his helper as soon as I was old enough to be of any use.

I probably worked the route a thousand Saturdays and summer-vacation weekdays but whenever I think back, my first memory is that icy winter day when dad and I won the battle against the weather. We completed the route without a single casualty, no broken bottles or bones. Finally, wet, cold, and tired, we stopped for a late breakfast, sharing a friendship that comes with working together and accomplishing something difficult.

Most days on the route weren’t so exciting. They were times of talking, father and son. Dad told me about delivering milk when they still used horse-drawn wagons. He said horses learned the route, taking the wagon from one customer to the next, waiting patiently while the milkman trotted the bottles to the house. He recalled a labor strike at the dairy. A news photographer shot a photo of a couple horses facing the picket line. The caption read: “Shall we cross? Neigh Neigh.”

By the time I started working the route, horses were retired and dad drove a Divco milk truck.  Out of business now, Divco specialized in home-delivery trucks and lost their market when home delivery became passé.

The Divcos were remarkable vehicles, designed to operate with the driver standing up.  Driving while standing up was quite a feat.  The trucks had manual transmissions so we had to keep our balance steering, shifting through three gears, and managing the three pedal-functions, accelerator, clutch, and brake.

Divco Milktruck about 1950, dad at the wheel, me behind, two sisters and cousin outside.
Divco milk truck about 1950, dad at the wheel, me behind, two sisters and cousin outside.

There were two floor pedals.  One was the accelerator, a round disk on the floor.  You put the front part of your right foot on the accelerator and, pivoting on your heel, raised or lowered your toe to control speed.  You had to balance your entire weight on your (pivoting) right heel, so your left foot was free to work the other pedal, a combination 

 

clutch and brake.  Depressing this pedal halfway engaged the clutch, past halfway engaged braking.

Home delivery was part of the culture in those days.  The milkman was most common but dry-cleaners did home pick-up and delivery and bakeries delivered bread and other good stuff.  I recall a Norman Rockwell picture showing a milkman and a bread-man taking a break together from their respective routes, the milkman providing beverage and the bread-man sweets.

Dad often told me the milkman is a salesman, not a delivery-route man.  To make his point, he said “we can teach the route to a horse” but it takes a salesman to get and retain customers.  He was a great salesman, often winning recognition at the dairy for soliciting and signing up new customers.

I recall working with him when he stopped at a vacant lot and struck up a conversation with a man who was standing there.  “Are you going to build a home here?” dad asked.

“Yes.”   “Well, when you do I’d like to be your milkman.”  The man laughed, complimented dad on his enterprise, and assured us we had the job.  That family remained our customer for as long as we had the route.

Other times we’d be out in the family car and dad would suddenly change our direction to follow a moving-van in the neighborhood of his route.  He never missed an opportunity to be the first to solicit new move-ins.

Customers often became family friends.  I recall one family, the Richardsons, were Seventh Day Adventists, attending church on Saturday mornings.  For Saturday deliveries, Mrs. Richardson left a key so I’d bring the milk in, putting it in her refrigerator.  She sometimes chided us for working Saturdays, once leaving a note quoting scripture:  “Remember the Sabbath to keep it Holy.”  She loved the note I left in   response:   “How could we forget with Mrs. R to remind us?”

For me, the milk route was hard physical blue-collar work.  My earliest memories are of 4:30 a.m. wakeups; driving empty streets to the dairy while the rest of the city was still in bed;  loading the Divco truck with four-high wooden cases, each filled with a dozen glass bottles of milk;  the ice house and blocks of ice bigger than I was, using an ice pick to break off hunks and ice tongs to hoist them to the top of the milk cases; stopping at a  diner for breakfast, sitting at the counter watching the short-order cook frying our bacon and scrambling eggs (dad noticing the cook starting eggs frying and then stirring them up, so there was a little egg white showing in the yellow scramble); a quart of chocolate milk opened early in the day and nursed through the route.

Dad always carried a thermos of coffee.  Whenever he took a coffee break, I’d join him sipping my chocolate milk.  Sometimes we’d work right through the day without stopping for lunch, just eating a sandwich while driving between stops.  He called that “eating on the bug.”  I never understood what “bug” had to do with skipping lunch, until just recently, I finally recognized it as a morph of “eating on the fly.”  A “fly’ is a kind of “bug” so he just opted for the alternate word.  This funny mis-wording was my dad’s humor, having fun with his son.

Smells make up much of my memory of those days.  Melting ice dripped over wooden milk cases creating a scent like rain in the woods; dairy smells, some a little sour from milk spilt but not completely cleaned up, some a little sweet like, well, like milk (kind of like working a dairy farm absent the manure).

There were the scents of morning in neighborhoods, newly mowed lawns, flowers I couldn’t name then nor now but sweet to my nostrils, bacon frying inside houses as families started their day.  On winter mornings, the damp smell of new-fallen snow, a little like rain but different. There was the odd scent of exhaust, visible in the winter air, as reluctant cars were fired up to make the trip to work, fully three hours after dad and I had made our trip to the creamery.

Some of these cars were driven by guys in suits, with ties and bright white shirts. I often wondered what it would be like to have a white-collar job.  Eventually I finished college and got one of those white-collar jobs, worked in an office for over thirty years until retirement.  Looking back at the blue-collar milk route days, I sometimes feel a small twinge of regret.  Maybe my dad had the better thing.  He brought me to work with him.  Often.  I never brought my son to work with me at the office.

Those days working with dad were special.  Those really were the good old days.