A Milk Truck Runs Through It
I spoke to Joe Renard the other day. We talk by phone every few weeks these days. He went on about his five children, all girls, eight grandchildren, and four great grandchildren, all brilliant. Nearly all his descendents who have come of age have acquired advanced education. Three daughters have Masters degrees. Joe himself claims to be a fourth grade dropout from a one-room schoolhouse, but he contends in his slow, gravely voice, “I figure a 4th grade education in a one room school house is about the same as a Masters degree these days.” Then he got down to what we both love - “Where Are They Now?” Joe fills me in on the long-lost gentry of Camp Hill, PA – names that I remember from times long past. These conversations evoke long-sleeping memories and shed insights into some of that town’s social machinations that I couldn’t grasp as a boy.
Four decades ago I haunted the streets of Camp Hill with a group of similar middle class vagabonds like Kim Fackler, Billy Hawk, Jim Bowman, the famous Park Dietz, Dickie Myers, Jimmy Miller, Dennis (Double D) Daily, Jimmy Tyner, Dougy (The Wog) Pollack and many, many others. My older brothers and sister had their own gangs of friends who also figured prominently in my daily life. Joe Renard was our milkman and my personal great friend. He circulated about town in a boxy, red truck with “Irwin’s Dairy” scripted in tall, white print on the sides and back. I can see him now standing hunched over the large, flat steering wheel, his right foot propped on the gas pedal. The driver’s seat that Joe rarely used folded forward and out of the way. The walk-in doors on each side were never closed in good weather, and rarely during inclemency. My place was on the passenger side, where I stood, holding on to the door frame and watching the town go by as I accompanied Joe on his milk run. Behind us were all the products to be distributed on that round, set in open, wood and metal crates, piled atop one another, their corners poking out of mounds of chipped ice.
I would arise on Saturday morning to meet Joe when he passed our house – about 5:30a.m. In the cool air of the early dawn I clambered aboard the red truck to set off on what was to my youthful point of view a great adventure. At some stops Joe assigned to me a single quart of milk, or pint of cream, or perhaps a tub of cottage cheese, which I deposited in a hinged-top, grey, galvanized metal milk box that some customers kept outside their door. More commonly, Joe stocked his carrier with several quarts of milk and as I followed along toting some small item and feeling immensely useful, we tromped right into the customer’s kitchen. There Joe propped the refrigerator door open with his knee and peered inside to assess the situation. He performed a few strategic rearrangements to produce the necessary space. In doing so he often, readily and almost unconsciously, consumed some tidbit, say the last remaining pickle in a jar, in order to make more room; then he stocked the shelves with the milk from his carrier and whatever item I had carried in. Some customers preferred the glass milk bottles in which one could distinguish the cream perched atop the milk. Others took theirs in a cardboard carton coated in wax that could be scraped off with a fingernail during idle moments. Upon the completion of our mission the empty pickle jar was placed in the sink and we were out the door. Most people weren’t even out of bed yet.
When the route took us back to the dairy Joe dropped me off at my grandmother’s house, which was only a block away, while he went in to restock – apparently there were some rules. I visited with Grandma, ate her baked German stollen or chocolate pie, and Joe picked me up awhile later.
As children we roamed all over that town – no backyard or alley was foreign to us. We knew which properties we could safely cross and which ones we must traverse more surreptitiously. In any case we could run faster than most adults and we knew how to disappear into the landscape - the biggest challenge was to avoid being recognized. There was a code on those streets, playgrounds, alleys and back yards. It was nothing so malevolent as the mores of hard-core city turf – one didn’t fear for his life and the strongest drug ever contemplated was a stolen cigarette - but to a ten-year-old the other side of town was a long way from home and there was no adult to immediately turn to. In that out of doors a boy was on his own and the battles he found were his alone to fight.
There were put downs, stand offs, thrown fists, black eyes, scraped knees, occasional deep lacerations and bullies to be avoided. There were Dutch rubs, Indian rubs, cherry bellies, noogies and other forms of childhood torture – inflicted more to instill humility than to cause physical damage. Endless summer afternoons gave way to cool evenings and games of Kick-the-Can, Baby-In-The-Air and Capture-The-Flag. We lounged on street curbs and grass yards and made empty boasts, and solemn pacts, told wild lies, traded dark secrets, boisterous laughter and enjoyed wonderful camaraderie. We listened to transistor radios and confessed crushes on little blonde-haired girls. We caught crawdads, turtles, frogs and fish out of the Conodoguinet Creek in the summer and sledded on Knob Hill late into winter eves. On Saturday nights my brothers’ friends promenaded up and down Market Street in fin-tailed automobiles, to impress their confederates who loitered outside the Hill Theatre, cigarettes dangling precariously from lower lips.
With playing cards riffling in the spokes of our bicycles we followed the high school band and cheerleaders as they paraded, trumpeting the fight song, from the high school to the park before the Saturday afternoon football game. We ate snow cones from a traveling vendor, malted milk balls from Reams Confectionary and slurped ice cream floats at Polk’s soda shop. The most gala event of the year was the Fireman’s Festival where once my brother, Jim, swallowed a goldfish on a dare. This great portion of our daily lives proceeded in the absence of direct adult supervision. On the day when America produced the televised admonition, “It’s five o’clock. Do you know where your children are?,” my parents could only chuckle – we were scattered all over town – safe, but not too safe, and learning the facts of life.
This was the song of my town, Camp Hill, Pennsylvania in the 1950’s and early 60’s and Joe’s truck wended through it like a recurring refrain weaves in and out of a lovely melody. On a hot summer day I might cross paths with that vehicle standing idle while Joe made a delivery. I could avail myself of a pint of chocolate milk to which I never considered I might not be entitled – no guilt, no sin. If I was a pedestrian in any part of town, and Joe happened by, I became a passenger. Joe entertained us kids with his fantastic stories and his demonstration of a bouncing bicep muscle that gave us the impression he was the strongest man alive. In response to our urging Joe would roll up his shirt sleeve to reveal a bulging upper arm. Then he bent his elbow and caused the bulge to twitch repeatedly. We ate this trick up. For several years Joe took a group of neighborhood children on an annual “mountain hike” up the Appalachian Trail and although I was a sometimes petulant participant, Joe showed infinite patience.
Deeds of minor heroism about town were all part of Joe Renard’s day – rushing in to quell a stovetop fire, shush a swooping, misplaced bat out of the house, or dust off a crying child who had just crashed his bicycle.
And he was rarely in a hurry. Joe stopped at least twice daily at our house to call the dairy and pick up late delivery requests. As he munched some left-over procured from the fridge, he typically held forth from a kitchen stool giving us the latest town news, or commenting on sports and politics. As my dad passed through the kitchen on his way out the door to work Joe would mutter lowly, in a tone as if announcing a ball game: “Whoop. There goes the boss.”
On his rounds Joe had a cup of coffee nearly every morning with George Bloom, who, at the time, was the Pennsylvania state chairman of the Republican Party. These morning sessions were sacred to Mr. Bloom. Joe swears that one morning as they sat, idly chatting at Mr. Bloom’s kitchen table, their conversation was interrupted by the chairman’s maid with an important telephone call. Mr. Bloom took the receiver and after a few moments said, “Sir, I’m having breakfast with my milkman, can I call you back?” He returned to the table and stated evenly, “It’s Ike. But he said it wasn’t anything urgent” and they returned to their conversation in which George Bloom had much more interest than anything the 34th president of the United States had to tell him.
Joe was born in a house in Bowmansdale, PA 82 years ago on this day. (June 8, 2005) He was the son of a carpenter but his dad left the home when Joe was ten leaving Joe and nine siblings to be raised by their mother and her mother. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and married Betty Lenehan when he was twenty one. He took a job with Irwin’s Dairy in 1947 and drove the milk route for thirty two years. Now this former itinerant hero, traveling raconteur and counselor to counselors of the high and mighty has assumed the role of elder statesman. He follows the national news closely and local news even more so. Joe has a clear stand on nearly any issue and is willing to advance it without provocation. He spends part of his day telephoning old acquaintances. And when he calls me he nearly always introduces himself as “Harry Hippensteele” and advances a wild tale as false as his pseudonym, until finally confessing his true identity. “It’s your oooold milkman …,” he finally states, drawing out the “old” in his slow cadence, “…thought I’d waste a few minutes on ya.” And with those words the clock begins to wind in reverse. I sit back, close my eyes, and for a brief time return to a boyhood that has disappeared from today’s world.