When the owner of Maven IT Inc., the parent company of Roseville-based Captain Kool Ice Cream, stopped into the Detroit Veterans Center seeking potential drivers, John Ford, a Marine veteran, stepped forward without hesitation. Before long, he was on the road handing out ice cream sandwiches dotted with crunchy chocolate chips, frozen fruit pops, and ice cream bars coated in hard chocolate shells. Within a year, he’d moved out of the Vet Center and into a rental home in Southfield, all thanks to a job he finally felt good at — the irony not lost on him. “I tell people: I used to drive a tank and now I’m driving a truck!”
Back in the old days, Detroit truly lived up to its reputation as one of America’s great industrial cities. It would seem then that a guy named Ford — a veteran with experience operating an M60A1 tank — would be able to find work operating heavy machinery, or at the very least land some auto-related role, here in the Motor City. “I couldn’t even find a job driving a forklift,” he says.
Military officials had led him to believe that tank drivers would easily secure work as heavy machinery operators after leaving the service, but in 1985, when Ford returned to his hometown of Detroit, those opportunities had dried up. Instead, he made a living as a freelance security officer, guarding churches and block clubs around the city.
In the late 2000s, Ford fell on hard times and found himself homeless for a brief spell. It was just two days, but nevertheless, “it was a rough two days” of hunting for shelter and food. “I asked a worker at a bread shop in the area for the ends of the bread,” he recalls. “He told me, ‘No!’ I’m seeing all these racks full of bread, and all I wanted was the ends of a loaf. But no.”
Eventually, Ford sought refuge at the Vet Center, where he was given a cot. He slept in the hallway until a room opened up.
It’s been more than a decade since Ford first sat behind the wheel of an ice cream truck, and he still revels in the response his arrival generates — the crying child who lights up when handed a cool treat, the joyous block parties anchored by his musical truck. “That’s the thrill of the whole job. Being in the service was rough, because you had to show up somewhere for guard duty. Even as a security manager, if I had to show up, that meant something went wrong — they weren’t happy to see me,” he says with a laugh. “But everybody’s happy to see an ice cream truck.”
At the start of his career over a decade ago, Ford says, even he was thrilled by his inventory of frozen desserts. He’d never had the privilege of devouring sweet treats from an ice cream truck as a kid. “You have a grown man that never got something out the ice cream truck in a truck full of ice cream — I had a field day!” Though overindulgence has dulled his ice cream appetite over the years, creamy Strawberry Shortcakes are still a favorite. And on very hot days, he says, “You can’t go wrong with a lemon pop to cool you off.”
On occasion, Ford finds ways to give back to the veteran community. After working at special events, he’ll sometimes donate leftover ice cream bars to the Vet Center. He hopes his example can show fellow veterans that a career as an ice cream truck driver has life-changing potential. Ford now owns a car, and his suburban home is just steps from a serene lake where he often drops a line to fish. Pride, he cautions those who might shun a job like his, tends to stand in the way of progress.
Still, Ford’s visits to the Vet Center bring together an otherwise isolated population. “Once they get back inside, everybody goes to their own corner or their room,” he says. “But while they’re eating ice cream — gathered around the ice cream truck — they’re together again.”