07 April 2010

Helms Man, Watermelon Man ... Redux

Good people work hard. They work hard and rear their families as best they can, whether making $125,000 or $25,000. I've known one family making a million dollars per annum, with salt-of-the-earth parents and great kids (Hollywood types), and another family with a dad who quite literally collects recycled materials and hauls trash to make ends meet (Hauling types). Both of these families have a few things in common: they own their homes, with children who attend private/religious schools, and both are credits to their neighborhoods.

Good people work hard, and to work is a blessing from a good God, so says the Puritan work ethic and King Solomon in Ecclesiastes (before everything became vanity). Occasionally my sons will ask me about the men we see waiting by Home Depot for work. "Dad, why are some of the workers dirty? Are they from countries that are dirty?" I tell them that these men put many of the men in suits on the same LA streets to shame with their amazing work ethic and indefatigable spirit to make a living. And, yes, they may be dirty, but their day-laborer m├ętier is a badge of honor. That's what I tell my sons. If I had their work ethic, thick skin and stamina, then I'd be Richard Branson successful (see Ex Libris ... 2009, right) of Virgin Group fame.

When I was a kid -- 4 and 5 years old -- the Helms Man used to come through our neighborhood regularly. I can still hear the distinct "wooot, wooot" whistle of the Helms truck telling all who had ears to hear that calorie-loaded goodness was drawing nigh. And, like any good childhood memory, there was food involved.

Many times as I was walking to kindergarten (when children still walked to school), I would wave down the Helms Man and he'd stop and give me a chocolate chip cookie and a bag of M&Ms. I'd put it on our tab and then he'd charge my mom (since she always slept-in, she could not stop such mid-morning gastronomical tomfoolery). The yellow truck was modified with all sorts of doors that opened, revealing still more drawers, some which were very narrow and long, or very flat and wide. In these drawers and behind those doors were the time-tested still-warm goodies of a bygone era: pastries, doughnuts, cookies, and some store-bought candy all within steps of your home or on your way to kindergarten.

Lots of memories from that time have stayed with me: the feel-good aroma that poured out of the Helms truck every time those doors opened (like the perfume scented memory of loving grandma's bakery hug). Or, the sonic memory of clanking bottles (both full and empty) when the milkman would drop off the milk on his morning round -- which occasionally included a bottle of thick-n-rich chocolate milk after my little brother and I would mark up the order card with an extra 'X' in the box. Which I suppose was appropriate as we were the beginning of the generation tagged with moniker 'X'.

Helms Bakery at its height of popularity was a 24-hour-a-day factory that cranked out fresh baked goods, and then loaded up hundreds of trucks around SoCal for daily delivery. Helms established the brand after landing the contract to supply the 1932 Olympics. Drivers like the Helms guys, and individuals like them, made a living by working the oil rigs, doing time on the assembly line, or walking a beat in Southern California. These guys are called the "greatest generation" because of their ability to see something that had to be done, and then going about their doing it without any fanfare whatsoever (like stopping some of the grossest evils mankind has ever seen in Nazi Germany, Imperialist Japan or despotic fascist Italy). They believed in duties, not rights.

Just this last week, I heard the call of the Watermelon Man. I hear it occasionally, maybe four times in the last five years. "Watermelon Man. Fresh, cold melons. Get your melons. Watermelon man. " I can hear the octogenarian driver as he barely above a whisper calls to his former clients over his loud speaker, many who are either no longer alive, no longer hear, or have moved out of the ole neighborhood. I'm not sure what's the bigger surprise, that his truck still operates, or that he's still working at 82? What doesn't surprise me, is that good people from all walks of life work hard, and find tremendous satisfaction in a job well done. Especially if that job helps men and women with calloused hands meet the needs of their families in a very expensive City of Angels.


Caleb S. Garcia said...

I don't fully get the whole "redux" treatment you've been doing...are you adding on Coppola style or just re-editing / modifying. Either way, this is one of your classics...well written, nostalgic, and enjoyable. Indeed they were the greatest generation in the sense that they fought the greatest foreign war the United States has ever seen, in efficient time too.

Char said...

i'm glad you're doing redux as i get to read things that i missed before following.

my grandmother is 97 and i visited her last week as they say she is not long for this world. i think of the things that she has seen during her lifetime - amazing.

and even i can remember when the icecream man and the avon lady rode through my neighborhood - i loved listening for the old cowbell and begging for a quarter from my mom. of course now it's canned music and ice cream is $2-$3

Dumbwit Tellher said...

You wrapped it all up perfectly with the remark, 'they believed in duties, not right'. It's hard to elaborate on anything past that.

Great memories. What especially comes to mind is my paternal grandfather. Left home in the 3rd grade after his mother died & his father abandoned the children. He ended up eventually becoming an engineer for the Great Northern Railroad. 'He' was a hard working, god fearing man. A good man. Just like his son, my father. As a kid it was great to say 'that's my granddad driving the train'!

Hey I'd take Palm Springs over Vegas too. We still own a home there & I was just adding up all our expenses for 2009 our taxes, & about fainted. Thank goodness somebody still wants to live there so we can rent it. Hope this week has been good to you & the boys? x

Jane said...

I really can't believe there is still a watermelon man. We don't have these kinds of travelling car people here. Also not people waiting in line for jobs but that is because Australia has miraculoulsly escaped the GFC.

And I agree with you about that generation. They could teach Gen Y a thing or two about persistence, loyalty and getting on with things!

Julie@beingRUBY said...

Hi Jg
You know I can relate well to this post.. Australia.. just like America is a nation created by the hard working ordinary person.. As a small child I was also taught to admire those that achieved through hard work. In fact like Deb's grandfather, my own father left school at 8 or so to support his family.

Today we know longer have the 'milko' or bread delivery man.. but on a daily basis, the carpark attendant, the barista at the local coffee shop, or the man in the newsagent are people who make my day more enjoyable by their hard work and always friendly greetings... Great post .. Have a fab day.

Barbara said...

My dad got up, dressed in a suit and tie and drove to work until he was 91 and physically in too much pain (from bone cancer) to do so. His brain, until the day he died about a year later, was as fresh and bright as it was when he was
20. There is much to be said for a strong work ethic, personal responsibility and just plain guts.

Toad said...

I remember so many of the merchants who would walk the streets dragging or pushing a cart of something. Watermellons, strawberries, knife sharpening machines.

I can sometimes hear them in the dark hours. Thank you for the memories.

Kathy said...

Wonderful, beautifully written post. I still have great childhood memories of all sorts of traveling vendors. While I'm still fortunate enough to have my milk delivered to my home milkbox, I would give anything to hear the "Vegetable Man" ringing his bell this summer, driving his classic green and white, Ford 1960ish truck, ancient scale dangling off the back, and the best silver queen corn, tomatoes, and butter beans you ever tasted! We just took it for granted. You don't know what you've got til it's gone...JM...thanks for the post...K