Working Cars Of A Lifetime: My Dad Reflects On Time Spent In His Grumman Kabmaster(s) – After His Involuntary Retirement

(first posted 12/01/2012)    In my previous post, I touched on the fact that my dad was a route salesman for Wonder Bread, a division of Hostess Brands. After having delivered bread to stores and supermarkets in New York City for 35 1/2 years, does he have any interesting stories to tell? Absolutely.

When I asked my dad for any work vehicle-related stories he might have, he instantly stated just how horrible these rear-wheel drive vans were in a typical New York winter. Even with four-on-the-floor, it was hard for him to get the van going–but once he had, the Grumman became an unstoppable freight train filled with fresh bread. Once, while delivering to a strip mall with an unplowed parking lot, his departure was hampered by zero traction–make that negative traction–and his van had already slid perilously close to cars belonging to the local customers and business owners.

Fearing that he might eventually trigger some real-world bumper car action, everyone poured out of the building to help him get on his way. In fact, so many people came to his aid that he didn’t really have to do anything; they simply pushed the van out of harm’s way. That day, human muscle trumped technology.

Driving an aged and unwieldy van on perpetually snow-covered winter roads certainly got the attention of the local kids. See that strap next to the door latch? It was used by punks who created a crude Jet-Ski by hanging onto it once my dad started driving. What’s more, they were quite brazen, sitting on the bumper and leaving only after my dad had intervened. And what do you think happened when my dad got back inside to head to the next store? They’d get right back on that strap in search of more cheap (and very unsafe) urban thrills.

It was always a cat-and-mouse game: My dad would chase them away and they’d come right back. Occasionally they were successful, sometimes even getting as far as a next stop that was many blocks away. These kids were so full of themselves that they actually expected dad to drive them back to the previous store! He never did. Good for him.

Dad didn’t always have his truck to drive around; soon enough, you’ll see why that’s important. Anyway, one day my dad was cleared to leave early for a dental appointment. In a gracious gesture, the management gave him an assistant so he could return to the depot at a reasonable hour. Because his usual Grumman was being serviced, they were stuck with the oldest gal in the fleet. So as they’re moving along through their work day, they hear some perplexing noises entering the cabin, as well as feeling  mysterious bumps where none existed, after which the van would be fine. Repeated attempts to diagnose the problem met with failure.

Their work day now done, my dad steered the truck along I-95, then started his exit to I-287. While negotiating the single long curve, the truck cried out in pain. Alarmed, both men looked at each other; dad’s co-worker asked, “What the hell was that?” Then my dad saw what the problem was: One of the rear wheels had struck out on its own, and was now traveling down the interstate faster than the van. The errant tire eventually came to a rest, settling straight-up vertically on the center median. His work buddy walked to a store to call the mechanic, who arrived along with lunch. The two men ate lunch while the mechanic fetched the tire and then remounted it. The reason for the wheel separation never was found, but at least my dad got to his appointment.

If you knew my dad, you could tell he has a heart of gold and is a very altruistic person. On one cold and extremely rainy early morning, his good nature came through in spades. While out on his routine deliveries, Dad was slowing to a stop at an intersection when a cop put his hand up. Not knowing what was happening, Dad opened the side door to find an officer, who was wearing a police hat with a protective plastic cover and an utterly ineffective raincoat. The dripping wet member of New York’s finest stepped into the truck and asked if Dad could drive him to the nearest precinct. And the reason why? His shift was over, no one had come to pick him up, he’d had it with the foul weather, and protocol be damned. Good guy that he is, my dad drove the officer to where he needed to be.

These photos of Dad’s second truck (he had only two throughout his entire career) were taken on November 16th, 2012. After my introductory article, I begged him for shots of the Wonder Bread trucks. He’d forget about it pretty much every day, and always promised to take some shots next time he got to work. Then came the liquidation. Concerned, I phoned him to confirm that the news I was reading was true. It was, he said, and he agreed to take some pictures for me. He did, most likely on his final ride;  the photos were taken following his final delivery, just before he went back to the depot one last time. I guess something about being forced to leave behind the places, people and vehicles you’ve grown used to for 35 years can spur you to get photographic evidence of memories made over decades that outspan my own lifetime.

Still, there might be hope: Rumor has it that a company is looking to buy up the assets of the former Hostess Brands and restore the company to its former glory. It’s a long shot at this point, but who knows? Maybe something good will come of it.

The strangest part of this tale is that three days after Dad’s termination, I got my first job since earning my MA in May 2011, a sales position at a local Ford-Lincoln dealership. Its been great so far, and everyone there has made me feel welcome. While the sudden role reversal shocks me still, and is likely to do so for the rest of my life, it also calls to mind this quote, from my favorite book, with which I conclude:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”