“Wake up, Paula. Wake up now!” my mother insisted.
Pulling my covers over my head, I burrowed down into the warmth of my twin bed. Across the room, I could hear Denise stirring.
“Come on, girl. Wake up,” Mom insisted, adding a few pokes for good measure. “Your father’s running late, and he needs your help.”
Yanking my covers completely down to the bottom of my bed, she turned toward my sister to repeat the process.
Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!
Swinging my legs, I sat up, trying to blink myself awake. An ungodly bright and harsh light filled my room, but the sun had yet to make an appearance outside. My sister, Denise, and I made eye contact, shrugged our shoulders at each other. Like it or not, it was time to get up.
Blindly pulling on our clothes, not much caring if they matched or not, we grabbed our sweaters for that extra bit of warmth needed during these predawn hours.
Stumbling downstairs for a few extra moments of sleep on the sofa, we listened for the rumbling that signaled Dad’s milk truck climbing Cabbage Hill. Too tired to chat, anticipation and pleasure built in each of us. We got to help Dad!
It didn’t take long; a low steady hum of an engine began to make itself known. Steadily growing, sounds of truck doors and milk bottles rattling and mixing in some sort of strange cacophony, the noise seemed to fill the morning.
By now, completely awake, Denise and I sat up, grinned, and headed out the side door.
Smiling at Dad, we hopped into the truck, each claiming our side. We knew to grab onto something tightly, and we swayed and rocked as Dad backed out the driveway, and headed up our hill.
Through the open doors of the milk truck, we watched the world wake up. Bird song, faint at first, began to swell. Stars blinked their good mornings, and soft whispers of pink and orange crept into the sky. A few house lights blinked on here and there, while neighborhood dogs patrolling their territory warned us not to intrude. We soaked in the magic, each of us silent, listening to Dad as he spoke.
“Early morning, watching the world wake up, is a gift. Almost everyone is asleep now, and we have it all to ourselves. Isn’t it beautiful?” Learn to enjoy the silence; you don’t need to fill it.
Behind us seemed to be a million glass milk bottles of all sizes packed into wire or wooden crates, the odor of milk filling the air. Some bottles wore orange caps, others wore green. We tried to remember which denoted homogenized and which one meant pasteurized. Packages of Land’o’Lakes butter and some sour cream and Half and Half completed the stock. I loved the Indian woman on the Land’o’Lakes Butter; she seemed so beautiful and mysterious to me. I wanted to be her when I grew up.
"Early morning, watching the world wake up is a gift. Almost everyone is asleep now, and we have it all to ourselves. Isn't it beautiful? Learn the enjoy the silence; you don't need to fill it with noise."
A brain in my head…looking back, I realize my dad thought differently than most men of his time. In the early 1960s, most expected girls to grow up to be homemakers and didn’t much focus on higher learning, other than a means to grab a husband.
But dad’s girls, well they had brains in their head, and by God, he expected us to use them. And, girl or boy, it didn’t matter. Girls could carry milk bottles as well as any boy. I don’t know if any other driver pressed their kids into duty, but I do know that all four of us willingly took our turns helping.
Rumbling into a neighborhood, Dad shouted his instructions over the clamor of clanging bottles. He seemed to know each customer’s normal order by heart.
“Paula, grab two large greens and one small orange. Denise, you’ll need a large orange and a container of Half and Half.”
Stopping the truck in the middle of the road – no one else was up and about in this tiny rural one red light town – he’d point to the respective homes, and off we’d go, cradling our precious cargoes in our arms. Climbing the steps to old fashioned railed porches, we’d look for the square silver metal container, red lettering stating it to be the property of Highland Dairies.
Opening the lid, lowering the glass bottles carefully, being sure to check for a note that might change the order, we’d deposit the bottles ever so carefully and scamper quickly back to the truck.
But, every now and then, catastrophe struck. We’d lose our grip on a bottle and watch it explode onto the sidewalk, strewing glass and milk everywhere.
Stunned into immobility, we didn’t know where to look. Had we woken up someone sound asleep in the comfort of their bed? What would Dad say? Were we going to get yelled at?
My disappointment in myself made the tears roll down my cheeks. I had let my dad down.
Dad sprang into action, hopped out of the truck. Handing us a replacement bottle, and sending us on our way, he’d clear out the glass.
It’s okay to break a few milk bottles, girls. No big deal; it’s glass and milk. The world is not coming to an end. Don’t make a big problem out of a small one. Now, let’s go and make this happen.
Scrambling back into the truck, we took up our stations, and with a roar, we’d take off while Dad issued instructions. Sometimes, other than the appropriate colors and sizes of milk, notes would be added about family pets. We needed to know which ones were all bark, and which ones, given a chance, would be delighted to take a chunk out of us.
But it was the geese that terrified us. As we pulled into a local farm, the geese appeared out of nowhere. Swarms of geese, honking, raising themselves up their full height, staking out their territory like a New York City gang. Clearly, we didn’t wear the right colors, and those geese meant to take us out.
“Now, watch,” said Dad. Grabbing a pencil, he extended it toward the geese. Hissing loudly, the gang leader leaned forward and snapped that pencil in half.
“If he can do it to a pencil, think about your fingers, girls. Don’t pet the geese. Don’t go near the geese, ok?”
“Now, I’ll distract the geese, and you go out the other door to deliver the milk. These guys may be vicious, but they aren’t smart.”
I think we rivaled Olympic athletes on that delivery, but Dad’s strategy worked. In record time, we made back into the truck, and Dad drove us to safety.
Always know your customers, your audience. Some folks are all bark and no bite. Some will take you down in a heartbeat. Know what to expect, have a plan, and take the appropriate action.
By now, we had it down to a rhythm, hopping in and out of the truck, making our deliveries. As the sun peeked through the clouds, and the world began to stir, a few folks would greet us at the door to take their milk in for breakfast. Dad would yell a greeting, and sometimes, step out briefly to say hello and tell a few jokes. Laughter rose, smiles bloomed, and people fussed over us, as Dad beamed.
Sometimes, the delivery was to a small store or restaurant. Working as a team, we’d all troop in, drop off the milk, and quite often, get a treat. Dad greeted each customer – homeowner or business owner – with the same kindness and respect.
Never ever be too busy to say hello. Never miss the chance to make someone smile and laugh. Most of all, girls, don’t look down on anybody because you think they might be less than you. We’re all humans, and we all deserve respect. Remember that, even if you forget everything else I tell you.
And, as the rest of the world began their day in earnest, ours began to end. Balancing ourselves without thought as we rode, talking with Dad in earnest now, we moved into the rest of our day. Dad navigated the streets easily, standing as he drove, and impressing us no end. I can still see that pencil tucked behind his ear.
With an empty truck, we headed toward the dairy, rolling through Pennsylvania countryside dotted with cows and steers. With the midmorning sun on our faces and the wind in our hair, life was so good. The dairy lay nestled among the hills, sprawling low, long, and white, and signaled a successful ending to our route.
We retrieved the car and headed home, each of us hoping for a nap. Dad always thanked us, telling us that he could not have done it without us, and I know our chests puffed up with pride.
I’m proud of you, girls. Look at what we accomplished today, and all because we worked as a team. We did our jobs, and we did them well. What I couldn’t do by myself, got done because of our teamwork. Thank you.
I learned these lessons over 50 years ago, and they stand the test of time. As I move through my days, dad’s voice tumbles through my mind, and I can so clearly see his facial expressions – that raised eyebrow when he couldn’t believe something or the other I’d done, or not done. I can see the twinkle in his eye and his ever ready smile. And, I remember his lessons, always told in the form of a story, and usually a funny one at that.
Somewhere in the early 1980s, the dairy closed its doors. Most people picked up milk at the local supermarket, along with their other groceries. Glass bottles gave way to waxed cardboard and plastic. Dad found a job at a local printing place, working until his retirement.
As always, he took pride in what he did, showing us all the ins and outs and how each machine worked.
When we closed up his home, I found an old milk crate tucked away in the corner of his closet. I grinned, thinking about the race car he had built me out of old milk crates. I drove that car standing up – just like dad - until it fell apart, pulling it up to the corner, and then hurtling full speed to the end of our one way street, and then turning left to continue down our neighbor’s drive.
We had to time it just right, driving it as far as we could go but jumping off right before the car crashed into the neighbor’s garage door. No brakes, you know!
And, if mom happened to be sitting on our front porch, sipping her coffee – well, I heard an oft repeated lecture letting me know that I’d be the death of her. I had that lecture down pat, because as soon as she went back inside, I did it all over again.
I took that crate home with me, and I see it each time I come down the stairs. I’ve scouted out old Highland Dairy glass bottles and tucked them here and there throughout my house. Pieces of my dad live everywhere, both physically and in my mind. His presence seems to envelop me in a warm hug (“Never, ever, turn down a chance for a hug. Grab all the hugs you can.”), and his laughter fills my heart.
Looking back, I know this experience couldn’t happen today, not in this world of ours. Too many safety regulations, too many prying eyes and voices that might shout child abuse of some sort. No seat belts, no official seats for that matter. Open truck doors that let in the sights and sounds of early morning magic, as we rode a sort of roller coaster through the streets of a sleepy town.
But, magic happened. Lifelong lessons got learned. Memories got made.
And, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Note: The above photo was taken in the late 1970s...my dad right after finishing his daily run; my son, Corey; and my mom. Great memories!