I saw him repeatedly: the man in the walk-in closet.

He frightened me.

I was 4 years old and my father, mother, brother and I lived in a small apartment behind my grandparents' home on Balboa Island. It was an idyllic setting and time: Newport Beach, circa 1949.

We weren't wealthy, but Newport was an economically diverse community.

My dad worked hard, and we considered ourselves a part of the great postwar American middle class. A U.S. Army veteran, Dad was a driver for Arden Farms. Dressed in a crisply starched white shirt and pants, and white military-style "saucer" cap, he delivered milk and other dairy products to residential customers. For years he drove a route that wound through the twisted byways and hairpin curves of Laguna Beach.

For a time, he delivered to the Nelson family: Ozzie, Harriet, David and Ricky. He took milk to their kitchen door, knocked and loaded it into the refrigerator. Thoughtfully, they gave him a gift every Christmas.

One time, Dad made the local newspapers when he forgot to set the handbrake on his truck while delivering to a Laguna customer. The truck rolled down the hill, crashed through a barrier and barreled over a cliff.

My dad was such a valued employee that Arden never considered sacking him. They brought in a crane and hoisted the truck out of the canyon.

Because Dad had to be loading his truck by 5 every morning, he left our house about 4, sometimes earlier. As soon as I heard the front door shut, I'd slip out of my twin bed in the room that I shared with my 2-year-old brother. He never heard me. He was always sound asleep.

I'd tiptoe to my parents' bedroom, and climb into bed with my mom. She'd usually enfold me in her arms and I'd fall fast asleep. I loved my dad, but his departure always signaled for me the availability of a comfy spot in my parents' bed.

Sometimes I'd lie on my right side and face the small walk-in closet that held my dad's shirts and jackets. Inside the closet — in an architectural statement pertaining to our seaside location — was a small porthole window that on sunny days backlit the hanging clothes.

Occasionally, as the eastern sky began to show the faintest signs of impending dawn, I'd open my eyes and look toward the closet. My body would freeze with fear.

I'd see him.

"Mommy," I'd croak in a hoarse stage whisper, "there's a man in the closet."

"Shush, Jimmy," she'd offer drowsily. "There's no one in the closet. It's just Daddy's coat."

I wasn't convinced.

"No, Mommy. Really! There's a man in the closet."

So, Mom would raise herself off the mattress, pull off the covers and walk to the light switch at the entrance to the room. She'd turn on the light and walk over to the closet.

"See. No man in the closet. Just Daddy's jacket. Now, go to sleep."

Warily, I'd close my eyes after darkness again enveloped the room, but I'd reopen them periodically for the next five minutes or so, just to make certain the jacket hadn't moved.

Then I'd drift off.

I stopped going to Mom and Dad's bedroom when I was 6 and we'd moved to our new home in Costa Mesa. My younger brother replaced me.

Throughout elementary school, junior high and high school I'd hear Dad in the kitchen at 3:30 a.m. fixing his breakfast. At 3:50 he'd start the car on the driveway outside my bedroom window and let it warm up. At precisely 4 a.m., he'd put it in gear and back out of the driveway.

He did that five and six days a week for 40 years. I don't think I ever thanked him for it.

Everything I learned about hard work, commitment and loyalty I learned from him.

Since his passing six years ago, I've come to realize that my early fears were unfounded.

Dad was the real man in that walk-in closet.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.