Having recently retired and made the transition from big city grind to clean country living, it quickly became pretty clear that, although I loved the bucolic peace and quiet, my laconic but wonderful neighbors, and the more relaxed pace, there was something that was still missing from my life. I seemed to remember something about it from my old working days. Hmmm, what was it now? Oh, yeah, I got it! It was green, and a big wad of it felt really good in my hands. Now I remember: it was called money! It may indeed be the root of all evil, but try telling that to those happy-go-lucky folks at the collections agency. It was time to drag myself away from my busy schedule of checking my e-mail for spam (no, I didn’t need a Russian girlfriend at the moment), walking the dog to the mailbox (a one mile roundtrip), and chatting about the weather like I was a real farmer instead of a wannabe with a brown thumb, to actually doing something productive, maybe even something close to what I used to call work.
It’s true that work is a four letter word for me. My idea of retirement must have been crazy, because I thought it involved actually not working, but thanks to the amazingly effective diet that my stock portfolio went on last summer and the fact that my expected Lotto earnings failed to materialize (who could have predicted that), my choice became very simple: make some dough, and pronto, or begin shopping for that dream tent I’d always wanted to live in. Yet much as I’ve always admired the exciting lifestyle led by migrant farm workers, I was afraid my wife wasn’t ready for a world without air conditioning, so I made the right choice…and sold her jewelry.
Yet even that wasn’t enough in the long run, so I tried selling my OJ Simpson rookie football card. But, much to my surprise, no one in rural Tennessee seemed very interested in professional football…go figure! Barter didn’t seem to work either. It may not have helped that I had no marketable agricultural skills and that there was little use out in the boondocks for my golf clubs, time share vacation, or Starbucks gift card, but I thought for sure I could at least trade a class on time management for a side of beef or a live chicken. No such luck. So, with a great sadness in my heart and lead in my feet, I began a serious search for that most dreaded of all things: “a job”.
At first, I was deluded enough to think that I’d be able to locate a suitable high caliber job rather quickly, given my fancy Ivy League education and corporate management experience (I just hoped no one would want to see my grade transcripts or ask for references). It didn’t take me long to find out, though, that in this economy in rural America it would take a lot of local pull to get a really plum job in the food service industry, where if I kept my nose to the grindstone, in just four short years I could work my way up to Assistant Manager, making possibly as much as minimum wage! Not a lot of money or status, maybe, but at least you earned good benefits like free parking and a 10% discount on all fountain drinks. It was better, at any rate, than the single column devoted to Employment in the Want Ads. Somehow I didn’t really think it was possible to “Earn thousands every week without leaving (my) home!”, if I only sent in $39.95 to get started. I’ll never see that money again, will I?
Maybe I’d set my sights a little too high, expecting an actual living wage and all. But I knew there had to be something nearby for me, even residing (as I do) in the exact middle of nowhere. So in desperation I took the Post Office exam, and to the amazement of those who know me well, I passed it. A few months later, I was hired. Just like that. Almost, anyway.
It’s quite a transition going from the corporate world, with its plush office environment, expense accounts, starched shirts, and high powered (read: boring) meetings, to a part-time job driving a truck from the wrong side while dangling an arm out the window in the freezing rain, all the while trying to keep from running down a mailbox, especially when you’re searching through a thousand letters with one hand and eating a sandwich with the other (knees are for driving, right?). Yes, the perfect job at last!
You’ve heard the unofficial post office motto, I’m sure:
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
What you may not know is that it was supplied by William Mitchell Kendall, one of the architects of the General Post office in New York City, who borrowed it from the Greek historian Herodotus. Somehow it’s comforting to know that, even in 500BC, mail carriers were dealing with the same elemental forces of nature and with the same dogmatic determination that we do today. I wonder if they were unionized?
What’s certain is that there are even more obstacles than the weather trying to stay us from our “appointed rounds”. Take dogs, for instance…please! The worst offenders are not the big guys. They have a certain degree of canine self assurance and aren’t really out to prove anything except that they are suckers for a scratch under the chin. It’s those little yappers, the ones with the doggie equivalent of a Napoleon complex you’ve got to watch out for. Rather than confront you directly, they like to bide their time, patiently lurking beneath the porch, so they can lunge out and bite your calf once you’ve turned your back to them. Masters of the sneak attack, they choose their battles carefully, marshalling their courage and energy for a quick strike, then retreating back into their lair as quickly as they appeared, like some ersatz land-lubbing version of a Moray Eel. One such mutt tried to attack me as I distributed toys to needy children on Christmas Eve. To this day I’m afraid one little girl’s lasting impression of Santa is of a fat guy with a fake beard wildly swinging a bag of toys at a mad dog while Mom and Dad try desperately to corral him. This, while Ole Saint Nick backs slowly toward a battered pickup screaming, “NO! NO! NO!” instead of the more traditional “HO! HO! HO! Who needs dogs? Mace is the mailman’s best friend.
You’ve got to watch out for the crazy drivers as well. Although most country folk are very courteous behind the wheel, some even pulling off the road for you as if you were an ambulance, there are a few who are NASCAR wannabes, hurtling down the two lane roads of Route 41 like it was the back stretch at Daytona. Kids, mostly, with big block V-8s shoehorned into very small pony cars, in a rush to get to the Dairee Delite before the ice cream’s sold out. There you are, stopped on the highway with the left side of the car in the road, and ready to serve the next box, when a blur of metal streaks by so close that you could swear they left a paint sample on your driver’s side mirror. And don’t get me started about the ATV’s. They come out of nowhere in packs like wolves, two abreast, taking the inside of every turn, their drivers laughing maniacally, occasionally swerving from the paved surface to explore a dirt trail before bounding back onto the main highway directly in front of you. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that alcohol might be involved, but since they’re packing heat, I guess they’re just lost hunters hoping for some road kill. Come to think of it, they could be both.
Driving a left-hand steer (normal) truck from the middle of a bench seat provides some cheap thrills also, shaving more minutes off my life than a year’s supply of super-sized fries. A lot of people might think that, since mail delivery is done exclusively from the starboard side of the vehicle, the Post Office would thoughtfully provide right-hand steer vans for all of the carriers due to safety considerations. A lot of people would, unfortunately, be quite wrong. For rural carriers, normal prudent safety rules go out the window. Picture yourself seated in the middle of a bench seat, your left foot extended toward the brake and accelerator pedals, attempting to control both with your outstretched toes while driving with your left hand. You have trays of mail perched to your left and right. Your right leg braces you, wishbone-like, against the right foot well. At each stop, you serve the box with your right hand, which you extend out and down to the box like the arm of an Orangutan. And try not to take off with your hand still in the box! Every day, you serve three hundred boxes this way over a seventy mile route. Now you have some idea of what it’s like to drive your own private vehicle in this capacity. But remember, Safety First! True, you can buy a right hand steer vehicle (with your own money), but remember: this is after all a part-time gig!
But all is not about defying death and rabies in the quest for on-time mail delivery. There is the little old blind lady that I deliver books on tape to. Living alone, she needs me to open her honey jars. I find her waiting patiently on her porch swing in the morning, a radiant smile on her face and a pleasant greeting on her lips. There are the barefoot kids who come running down to the box, eager to be the first to get the mail. There’s the farmer who wants to chat about the weather and his crops and the teenager who wants to go to veterinarian school. And of course the veteran who needs to sign for his medication. There are fields of sunflowers and phlox in the spring and a kaleidoscopic canopy of golden leaves in the fall. I pass over rushing rivers flashing like cool fire in the summertime sun. In the winter, a silent blanket of white descends on a town square festooned with Christmas lights. I deliver to grand old Victorian mansions, big country farms, and squalid mobile homes I hope no one actually lives in. I’ve seen houses burn down and rebuilt by neighbors. I know every road even better than the locals do and give directions to strangers (even to a police officer once). I’ve delivered parcels from as far away as India and as close as the next street. I’ve seen everything from alpacas to longhorns grazing in fertile fields. I’ve seen chickens, trees, and roosters delivered courtesy of your US Mail. I bring holiday joy to many and cherished memories to a few that have lost loved ones. I’ve even seen a hero risk his own life to rescue a dog from a burning conflagration. Doing my own small part, I’ve helped stranded motorists myself.
Yes, I’m just a mailman now. I don’t have anywhere near the level of power and prestige that I used to, at least by cosmopolitan standards. I don’t make as much money and I don’t wear tailored suits anymore. I go to work in blue jeans and a plaid flannel shirt and I get my hands dirty every day. I don’t have time to “do lunch” with anyone. I just brown bag it these days. I don’t get to take many holidays. When the schools were closed and everyone stayed home during a freak December ice storm, I still delivered, just like the poem said. Though I’m certainly not perfect, I try my best to deliver the mail on time and get back by dispatch. Nobody’s life depends on it, but everyone still assumes that, even in a cynical world of reduced expectations and lowered standards, some things still work the way they’re supposed to. It’s nice to know that the Post Office is one of those things people can still count on. After all, when you absolutely must reply to the Publisher’s Clearing House within seven business days OR YOUR NAME WILL BE DROPPED FROM THE SWEEPSTAKES, we can’t afford to be late, can we?