The Post Office

When I had a brand-new driver’s license, I was told a story about a man who, after imbibing too much at a local watering hole, drove home. On the way, he managed to knock over a dozen or more mailboxes along the rural road. The way I heard the story is that destroying mailboxes is a federal crime and that he spent time in the penitentiary as a result. It was just one of many stories that I heard about how important it was not to mess with the mail. In our household, it was forbidden to open a piece of mail that was not addressed to you. Most of the letters were addressed to our father or our mother and we didn’t think of opening them. Once in a while a letter or card from a grandmother or aunt would arrive and we would feel very special to have our own letter to open and read.

There were more stories. We heard about the secretary who was sent to pick up the mail and dropped some of it on a windy day. A check was lost in the process and created a lot of extra work and might have cost the business needed income. We would accompany a parent to the post office to pick up the mail and see someone sorting mail at the post office and were told that it was a dangerous practice. In our home the mail went directly to a desk and was sorted there. At our father’s office the same happened.

We weren’t allowed to pick up the mail until we were teenagers and then it was a grave responsibility.

In school we learned about the Pony Express and the deprivations that riders endured to make sure that the mail was delivered on time. Our father once took us to the train station very early in the morning so that we could witness the exchange of mailbags as the train went through town without stopping. We learned about APO (Army Post Office), FPO (Fleet Post Office), and DPO (Diplomatic Post Office) addresses. We were taught that the US Postal Service operates worldwide and is a critical link between those serving in distant locations and those at home. We heard stories of how letters sustained soldiers in the trenches in World War I and provided links between those serving and their families at home. We learned of how our mother and father corresponded when he was away serving in the military before they were married and how letters were an important part of their romance.

When I went away to college, there were mailboxes in the Student Union Building. It was the first time in my life that I had my own mailbox. I checked it six days a week even though I didn’t receive that much mail.

For most of my life we have received our mail in a postal box rather than home delivery. It is simply the result of the places where we have lived. It has also become my preference. I like the process of checking the mailbox even though the bulk of our mail these days is advertising. Over the years I have received a lot of mail from carpet cleaning services and more than enough from car dealers. I routinely receive discount coupons for service for my vehicle a few days after I have had that service performed.

I have never thought of the Post Office as a business, though I understand that it takes money to run the operation and that there are business practices that must be employed to make the system work. The Post Office is a service. It is one of the things that we band together to have in our lives. Government exists to provide services that we are not able to provide by ourselves. No state could operate its own world-wide letter and package delivery service. It is a job for the federal government.

I find it distressing that the Post Office has become a political football. I guess it shouldn’t surprise me because in an era of intense polarization almost everything becomes politicized. But I never expected the Post Office to become the object of such processes. I thought we all agreed that having reliable mail delivery is an essential governmental service in a modern country.

I understand that communications are rapidly changing. We do a lot more correspondence by electronic mail than by postal mail. From my perspective the US Postal Service should have been involved early on in the process of electronic communications. Imagine what it would be like if we had considered reliable high speed Internet to be as essential for every person in the United States just like we have considered reliable mail delivery to be an essential service. The pandemic has made the digital divide more obvious. Overcoming that inequality will require a serious national effort, something that is particularly challenging in a time of legislative dysfunction.

The words "Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" have long been associated with the American postal worker. Though not an official creed or motto of the United States Postal Service, the Postal Service acknowledges it as an informal motto along with Charles W. Eliot's poem "The Letter.”

Those words have their origins deep in history. More than 400 years before Christ the Greek historian Herodotus wrote about messengers who could not be delayed by the weather in similar words to the modern postal motto. Delivering messages is a long-established mark of an enlightened society.

When I retired, I turned in all of my keys to the church. What I had left was a house key and the key to our mailbox. A ring with only two keys was a radical departure from the way things had been, but it also demonstrated the importance of those two keys.

Now, as has long been the case, the US Post Office is a critical institution in our society. Though we may differ on how it should be run, we can agree that we need to have a robust postal service for generations to come.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!