When my grandfathers, Hubert Adrian Parker and McDonald Wilson Brice, came home to Columbia, South Carolina from WWI, they took the Railway Post Office (RPO) exam. RPO clerks were considered the elite of the postal system at the time. They were a close-knit group. That’s how my parents met—their fathers worked and socialized together.
The RPO manual required clerks to “not only be sound ‘in wind and limb,’ but possessed of more than ordinary intelligence, and a retentive memory.” My grandfathers traveled across the country sorting mail in rickety rail cars and were expected to know not only the post offices and rail junctions along the route, but also specific local delivery details.
Here's where the “wind and limb” part comes in. With the train operating at 70 mph or more, an RPO clerk would ready a fifty-pound pouch of mail, stand in the open doorway just before the train passed the station, grab the incoming mail pouch off a mail crane and kick the outbound pouch off to the ground (and hopefully not underneath the wheels of the train.) There are some great videos of this terrifying procedure here.
My father rode with my grandfather on a few of these trips and decided he did not want to work for the post office when he grew up. I wasn’t expecting to either, but when a friend took the post office exam, I tagged along. When I got hired, I thought I’d work a few months, save some money, quit, and travel. But I stayed for all kinds of reasons—the variety of jobs, the five weeks’ vacation, the ten paid holidays, the benefits, the retirement package, and most especially the camaraderie of a close-knit group of people working towards a common goal.
I know that sounds corny. There’s a more poetic mandate, the one inscribed on the Post Office building in New York City--“Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night, stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” The official mission statement sounds almost corporate: “provide prompt, reliable, and efficient services to patrons in all areas and render postal services to all communities.”
Postal employees like my grandfathers, my uncle, Charles Bukowski, John Prine, my husband, countless friends, me, and the characters in my novel “The Lockhart Women, take these instructions seriously (although the characters in my novel are equally serious about the camaraderie part.) Postal employees miss Christmas celebrations, get bitten by dogs, and lose sleep working graveyard because they are committed to getting the mail out. So, I find it incredible that the newly appointed Postmaster Louis DeJoy is prohibiting overtime, shutting down sorting machines and instructing letter carriers to leave mail behind.
Mr. DeJoy is the first postmaster in two decades to not have Postal Service experience, although he is heavily invested in United Parcel Service (the brown truck people) and contributed over $1.2 million to the Trump Victory Fund. The current resident of the White House has never been a fan of the Postal Service, has a vendetta against Jeff Bezos and Amazon’s contract with USPS, and claims without substantiation that voting by mail is fraudulent. Hence the slowdown.
The Postal Service hasn’t always been run efficiently. I spent the last ten years of my career writing reports for the Office of Inspector General suggesting improvements, some implemented, some not. The USPS is a complicated entity, crippled by not being able to set its own rates and having to prefund retiree health benefits. Up until now it’s never used tax dollars. Thanks to the pandemic it needs help now.
It’s certainly not profitable to provide service to every single address across this complicated land, to “bind the Nation together through the personal, educational, literary, and business correspondence of the people,” to quote the mission statement again. Universal mail service will never be profitable.
The old Railway Post Office handbook called the charge of delivering the correspondence of the people “a sacred duty.” I would agree. I can think of nothing more sacred than binding our nation together in these fractured times.
Another sacred duty is voting. Before November, make sure you are registered to vote. Consider volunteering at a polling place if you are not at risk, mail your ballot early if possible or drop it off at a polling place. More than ever, your vote matters.
My grandfathers would be grateful.