The other day I escorted my wife to the post office to have a few choice words with whoever came into her line of fire. She’d sent a birthday package to one of our adult kids in Alaska. Through the magic of today’s electronics, she was able to track it enroute on the computer. The birthday came and went. The gift went but didn’t! It was always enroute.
Uh oh. Most certainly it had to have been misplaced by the men and women in navy blue (also known as “those guys down at the post office”) who all but guaranteed arrival, not just on time, but by a specific date before the birthday. Needless to say it is preferable not to anger a Mother. You know what I mean if you’ve ever seen a mama bear protecting her cub … let alone one losing its birthday package.
I sat in the car and listened to some soft, soothing music while she went into the post office. No use getting in the middle of that upcoming little chit chat between Mama bear and the UPS. Sooner than expected she returned to the car, and said simply: “That nice post master tracked it on his computer. It arrived at the Fairbanks post office on the day they guaranteed.”
Hmmm. Time now for another chat. This time with daughter. Bottom-line: “Sorry Mom, I’ve just been too busy to get to the post office. I didn’t realize it was there.” Busy daughters of course are allowed that luxury, and so round one went to the Post Office, which pleases me because I come from a post office family. Actually, ditto my wife. Her brother climbed the ladder to become an assistant post master in a major Ohio city.
My Dad carried mail 17 miles a day for 33 years. No little white trucks in those days … the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s. Just heavy leather bags. Two, one on each shoulder, when the monthly slick magazines came out. Walkin’ all the way. Those were the days when truly “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” All for 3 cents an ounce!
On wintry nights the week before Christmas I would trudge through the snow to take Dad his black dinner pail and watch him sit and eat in a big, open US mail storage box. Particularly at Christmas time, nothing was left undelivered at the end of the day … or night; including Christmas cards mailed from one neighbor to another next door. And I am happy to say that, as far as I know, the creed is still alive and well for the most part throughout the year. And, even if a package or letter is occasionally late in arriving or
God-forbid, misplaced, so be it. Absolute perfection can hardly be expected for 50 cents an ounce, regardless of distance.
Believe it or not, back in April, 1860 it would have cost you 10 times that amount ($5 an ounce) for letters delivered “in ten days” from St. Joseph, Missouri, where the Pony Express service began, all the way to California, 2000 miles away. The famed express riders high-tailed it 75 to 100 miles before handing the letters off to the next rider. A total of 190 way stations were located about 15 miles apart. The service lasted less than two years, ending upon the completion and competition of the overland telegraph. Worn-out saddles, tired ponies, and heavily calloused rider bottoms might also have spurred its demise.
Describing the ancient Persian system of mounted postal carriers, circa 500 B.C., he said: “It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed” — or at least that was how Prof. George Herbert Palmer of Harvard translated his words in the early 20th century.
Next to get hold of that lengthy quotation was William M. Kendall of the architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White who trimmed Herodotus down to size in 1912. The resulting 21-word inscription so familiar to us today was chiseled into the stone front of the newly erected James Farley Post Office building that his firm designed in New York City across from Penn Station.
It’s still there, inscription and all, across the street from Penn Station, in what became America’s first zip code: 10001. For the record, while the building’s exterior remains unscathed due to its status as a New York City landmark, the interior has been and continues to be revamped as a shiny new extension of Penn Station known as Moynihan Station. Completion is forecast for 2021 they say.
Which brings us back a 106 years later to the zippy way, our present postal system got Mama’s birthday package to its Alaskan zip code on time. In case you didn’t know (I didn’t), the term “zip” is an acronym for Zone Improvement Plan; chosen in 1963 to promote the fact that our letters and packages would zip along more quickly and more efficiently if and when senders used the code in the postal address. When we do, for very much of the time, they do. And, yes, for half-a-buck an ounce it’s still one of America’s great bargains! Even Mama Bear agrees to that.
Mel Grossman is a local resident and guest columnist.