His name was Raymond Clifford Nelson, but to me he was just Dad.
He first worked at Western Electric, rolling the coils of line. Then at Bond Bread, delivering door-to-door in hilly Conshohocken, occasionally making retail deliveries. When we moved to Jersey he switched to delivering milk.
My Dad, the milkman.
He rose at 1am, drove 45 minutes to the dairy, manhandled blocks of ice into the truck, then the crates of milk bottles, orange juice, butter. His route was in the area around New York Ship on the Delaware, Gloucester mostly, but parts of Camden also.
He’d hit the ground running, literally running… setting the truck into idle, it would creep between rows of parked cars, while he dodged up cracked chunks of concrete to back doors where he’d leave the milk bottles (glass, heavy solid glass) in a metal box, pick up empties, pause to read a note perhaps, then dash back to the truck, grab the additional items, return… then race to the next house.
Most of his customers were on a MWF or TThS schedule. He kept it all in his head, who needed what and when as he darted in and out of the slow-moving vehicle. He knew when a husband started a new shift, or kids were sick. Relatives visiting.
The deliveries happened between 3am and 7-ish, but mostly earlier, especially in high summer when the ice melted fast and families needed their milk for their breakfasts.
Later he’d retrace the route, knocking on doors, soliciting new customers, collecting on accounts or adjusting the next week’s orders. By 1 or 2 in the afternoon he might be home to work on those accounts. Paperwork was less stringent in those days, but he still had to translate what was in his head into a rough ledger. I’d make dinner as my mom worked as a waitress and her day began at 4pm, ending at 4am next day. He’d doze, maybe watch a little TV but 1am came fast and he never got enough… not enough sleep, not enough food, not enough down time.
He worked 6 days a week, 14-16 hour days. I can’t emphasize enough… he ran the route, carrying heavy bottles of milk. The truck spewed carbon monoxide so if he closed the door on the right side—the one he used to enter and exit the moving vehicle—the fumes collected. No, it wasn’t safe. There were few regulations back then.
Sometimes he left the delivery on the porch, but more often than not he went into the house and left the milk or juice or butter in the ice box. These were row homes, shotgun style: porch, parlor, dining room, kitchen, back porch. His customers trusted him, relied on him.
Can you imagine that? In this day and age?
The area was poor, dirt poor. Many worked at the yards but times were tough. Tough enough having milk for your kids was a luxury. My dad made sure those kids had it, even if he carried their accounts out of his own pocket for as long as it took.
When I was off school, especially around the Christmas holidays, I’d do his route with him. I think the first time, I was twelve. He seemed to take inordinate pride in having his daughter “helping” though mostly my job was re-stacking and moving crates in preparation for the next street over… or just staying out of the way. I stood on the middle step by the door, holding onto a rail on the dashboard, while my dad drove standing up. That’s how I know about the fumes and getting a headache, feeling lightheaded and nauseous.
When the dairy closed, Dad was in his early-forties. He sold insurance, again door-to-door, but the neighborhood had changed, gotten poorer if that was possible, and the demographics shifted to dangerous. There were whispered incidents, times when he looked apprehensive, perhaps even frightened.
He died when he was 49, in a hospital in Phoenix, and I never got to say goodbye.
Of all the things I remember, him driving that truck down narrow city streets sparsely lit, nodding to me when I’d gotten the next stop’s order in the wire carrier set up, those are the memories I cherish the most.
My Dad with his sister, he’s 18, she’s 16. Chicago.
Wedding day: my mom and dad are on the right, July 1, 1944. Philadelphia.
My Dad, age 46.
Happy Dad’s Day. You were and always will be my hero.