Uncle John was in the milk business. His day began in the blackness of early morning when a small truck delivered a load of milk and a block of ice to his barn. The milk was in round metal cans, each about two feet tall, with a metal handle on either side. It took hours to transfer the milk to glass quart bottles, and hours more to deliver them. I know all this because one summer my uncle asked me to help him on his milk route.
It was the Depression of the 1930s. I'd get no pay, but could have all the milk my family could drink. To me, the offer held the possibility of adventure in an otherwise mundane summer babysitting my younger brother.
"Be at my house about midnight," Uncle John told me rather offhandedly. That's when the milk arrived. "Wear old clothes and be ready to work," he added.
My father dropped me off at midnight, having driven 15 minutes from the next town. I was excited. The day's milk had already arrived, and I helped drag the heavy metal jugs into the barn. With its concrete floor and bottling machinery, it was more like a small creamery. Milk was poured into a large vat and thence into bottles riding on an endless belt. They were filled and capped with a cardboard disc, one after another, all by machine. Each bottle had a bulge at the top, just above a constriction. The cream in the unhomogenized milk would rise to the top and accumulate in the bulge.
Having filled the bottles (I don't recall how many, but there were hundreds), we loaded them into a wagon, iced them down, and hitched up his horse. That's right: It was a horse-drawn milk wagon. I thought maybe Uncle John couldn't afford a truck. After all, times were hard.
I was wrong. The horse and wagon were by choice. The horse was an ancient mare named (of course) Nellie who (of course) was gray. Nellie was gentle, slow, and deliberate in all things. By this time it was about 4 a.m. We had already put in a half-day's work.
We climbed up on the seat of the wagon, a boxy, closed vehicle with rubber tires. Before we could sit down, Nellie was off.
"Where do we stop?" I asked. I thought I'd be helping to make deliveries.
"You don't have to know the route," he replied. He would carry the bottles this trip until I saw how he did things. "Besides," he added, "Nellie likes the feel of someone in the seat." As we clopped along (Nellie never clippity-clopped - that's too close to a trot, and Nellie never trotted), I noticed that my Uncle had tied the reins above the kickboard.
Nellie was on her own. I mentioned this oversight to my uncle, certain he would be grateful to see how observant and astute I was so early in the morning. I thought I detected a smile in the darkness, but he said nothing. Soon, I found out why.
Nellie didn't need guidance. As we came up to a house on the right side of the street, Uncle John rose from his seat, and Nellie came to an abrupt stop. What was going on? He hadn't touched the reins or spoken a word. My uncle hopped lively to the ground, circled to the back of the wagon, put two bottles in a metal, basketlike carrier, and walked briskly down the driveway to the back of the house. I did not touch anything. I knew almost nothing about wagons and less about horses. I was a city boy.
Nellie stamped the pavement impatiently. Turning her head to the right, she seemed to scan the house and the driveway - as much as her blinders would allow. A few seconds later, Uncle John came back down the driveway, walking fast, with two empty bottles (yesterday's delivery). As he approached the wagon, Nellie started off again. My uncle, walking behind the cart, reached into the wagon to unload the empties and get some full bottles.
The reins were still tied to the seat bar, and I was a passenger in this unguided vehicle. I was thinking about abandoning ship when, two houses farther along, Nellie stopped again. My uncle repeated his semi-jog down the driveway to leave full bottles at the back door. Was he going to walk the whole route? This could take forever, I thought. But I was in for more surprises.
When Uncle John returned this time, Nellie did not start off, but waited until he'd mounted the wagon. Then she immediately started up again. This horse was a lot smarter than I, and I was going into the sixth grade in the fall.
"She knows I don't have any more customers in this block," my uncle told me, "so she's taking us to the next stop - nine or 10 houses down the street."
And so it went. Nellie stopped at the house of every customer on the route, making lefts and rights onto other streets, without a word spoken or a rein taken in hand. She didn't miss one.
When the house was on the left side of the street, Nellie would crane her neck to the left, watching until she spotted Uncle John on his way back. Then she'd start off or wait for him to mount the wagon, whichever was appropriate.
We got home about 8, early-morning daylight now. We fed and watered Nellie, cleaned up the bottling room, hosed down the concrete floor, and washed and sterilized hundreds of empty glass milk bottles from the day's route. By then it was about noon.
"I'll take you home now," Uncle John said, "and you'd better get some sleep. I get to bed pretty early, myself, after an early supper. See you 'bout midnight. You can help me carry some bottles tomorrow."
Thus began my summer as a milkman's helper. A "striker" (assistant), as my uncle introduced me to his friends: "This is my striker, Phil."
I worked every day, with no days off, and I enjoyed every one of them. Some of it was hard work for a 10-year-old, but my uncle never let me overdo it.
I learned a few things that first summer. I learned to take care of at least one horse: Nellie was my charge, and we became great pals. Occasionally I'd ride her bareback in Uncle John's field - no galloping, though, despite my urging. She only walked. I also learned that animals - despite the fact that they do not speak - are not so dumb. A corollary was that small boys who can speak often have a lot to learn. It took several more trips before I learned the route and most of the stops.
It also dawned on me that a motor truck would have been a lot more work for us than Nellie and the wagon. Nellie was programmed, and you couldn't program a truck. Not in those days, anyway.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society