There is a special relationship that exists between rural citizens and their mail carrier. Even in this age of constant electronic information flow, or perhaps because of it, the physical presence of a message from "a far country" delivered to your home has a wonderful allure.
Looming large in this quiet drama is the mailman, who, until the intrusion of the Internet, FedEx and UPS, was our strongest link to the outside world, daily playing an almost Santa Claus–like role. Whether it was the Saturday "color funnies," cards on our birthdays (laden with cash, we hoped) or the biggest bonanza of all, a package, it all came from one guy: the mailman.
I got mail! My entry into the world of letters was brought about by a third-grade chain letter. I was highly skeptical of the dire consequences of chain-breaking mentioned in the text, laboring with the following logical paradox: If "George R." indeed lost his arm in a bizarre quilting accident because he didn’t copy the letter and send it on, how did this information get into the letter?
However, mail at that time warranted a certain respect, so I painfully scrawled out the specified number of copies and patiently waited for 30 minutes or so for good luck to shower down on me, after which I forgot about the whole mess.
Perhaps it was the electric thrill of seeing a mysterious envelope with my name on it, but, for whatever reason, I wanted more, beginning my ongoing fascination with the magic metal box at the end of the lane. The process of becoming a postal consumer also spawned a close relationship with our postman, Roddy.
Back when common sense was still allowed in government, rural mailboxes were mounted on the "wrong" side of the road and mailmen drove their vehicles from the driver’s seat. When Washington realized this was too comfortable for government employees, we all had to move our mailboxes across the road and Roddy started driving sidesaddle in order to be able to reach across the cab to the mailbox. This skill fascinated me, prompting experimentation with the farm trucks, whereupon I discovered the virtue of an automatic transmission.
Meanwhile, I discovered the appeal of classified ads. In the back of Popular Mechanics, my favorite barbershop reading, were hundreds of ads promising free catalogs to anyone who was interested. Interest happened to be my No. 1 personal asset. As postage was 5¢ (seriously), I responded in groups of 20, expending my entire week’s allowance on postage.
I would leave money with the mail in the mailbox and Roddy would stamp the letters for me. However, after about 60 or so catalog requests, Roddy drove up the lane to say that he would appreciate it if I would lick my own stamps.
Suddenly information flooded in to me, as I became an "official mailing list member." Though an eighth grader, I received almost as much mail as the rest of the family put together: catalogs for electronics, hobby supplies, tools and books, and the always interesting messages from apocalyptic kooks sincerely asking for my attention and money.
There was a certain feeling of triumphant self-importance in receiving a stack of mail that many of us never outlive. I get mail, therefore I am.
Once a year or so, I would scrape together enough money to actually order something. Mail order then was an act of faith, with a time line similar to that of a 16th-century merchant marine. By the time the long-awaited stuff showed up ("Allow 2 weeks for delivery"—hah!), I had usually forgotten what I had ordered. This languid pace is why I long believed the service was called "partial post."
Postal power. Mail still has the power to move us. Notification of a registered letter can cause frantic review of past conduct for something legally ambiguous. An unexpected letter from your bank can dry your mouth in seconds. An IRS return address instantly focuses your attention.
A handwritten envelope, however, so very rare today, can make your whole day brighter. The explosion of scent from a love letter to my son in the mailbox once transfixed me with long-dormant memories.
Sadly, Roddy delivered his last letter long ago. And the whole institution of rural mail might soon sink into an economic morass and become nothing but a memory. But a memory worth writing a letter about.
- November 2011