Friday, December 24, 2010

Neither Snow, nor Rain, nor Heat…

Back in 1995, we painted Sandhill's mailbox green. If you pulled down the door, on the inside would be a message painted in yellow: "Hi Charlie." That salutation was for Charlie Houghton, our regular mail carrier for almost 22 years—from Jan 14, 1989 until yesterday, when he gave himself an early Christmas present and retired. We'll miss him.

In this season of exaltation and exhalation, it seems an auspicious time to reflect on the many years of good service we've enjoyed from our local Post Office.

While it's something of an urban distortion that change in the hinterlands comes slowly, the pattern holds true to stereotype when it comes to Rutledge mail carriers. I've lived here since 1974 and in all that time we've only had two regular mail carriers: Charlie and the guy before him, Hillis McCabe, whose time in the saddle went back far enough that a regular portion of his delivery route literally required him to spend time in the saddle. The roads were so poor when Hillis broke in that whenever it rained he'd have to deliver nine miles on horseback, slogging through the mud. (I don't know if it was uphill both ways, but I'm sure there wasn't any "swift completion of his appointed rounds" on wet days.)

Charlie was an easy-going mail carrier, happy to take a moment to discuss the weather (what were the chances of rain overnight?) or the whether (he'd take your package whether you had the right postage or not; if you underpaid he'd front the difference and bill you the next day—try getting that kind of service in the city).

Charlie knew where the vicious dogs were (and knew that ours were all bark). If there was a bad dog, he'd simply stay in his truck. What with the FIC's national headquarters located at Sandhill and my community's need to ship sorghum hither and yon, it's a common occurrence for our packages to exceed the capacity of our mailbox. If it was a nice day, we leave the extras on a skid next to the mailbox. In inclement weather, we'll stash the surplus on the front porch and leave a note in the box. Without complaint, Charlie would pull up to the steps, walk up to the porch, and gather the packages. In the country, you see, the Post Office doesn't just deliver, it also collects.

Our happy association with the Post Office goes further than our relationship with our mail carrier. Of the four postmasters we've had during my community's tenure in the outskirts of Rutledge, we grew quite close to the one we had the longest: Mary Walker, who served from 1990 to 2007. She came along right as the FIC was developing its role as a publisher, and together we plumbed the depths of the DMM (domestic mail manual) to learn about the arcane features of bound printed matter, periodical rates, and bulk mailing (we were the first locals to blow the dust off some of the sections of the DMM, and FIC was assigned Bulk Permit #1 when we started dabbling in direct mail campaigns).

In the early days of publishing Communities magazine, I'd go into the back room of the Post Office once a quarter to count and weigh all the bags with Mary's help. On Tuesdays she'd drive the two miles to Sandhill to take her one-hour lunch break with us, and we got to know her pretty well. In the depths of winter, it became a tradition to attend the Walker's Super Bowl Party, where the entertainment was equal parts of: a) watching the high-priced efforts of Madison Ave's latest attempts at clever TV ads; and b) listening to Mary's husband, Roger, who'd regale us with stories from his career as the road manager for Buckwheat Zydeco. Some of us even watched the football game.

• • •
The next in line to ascend to the regular mail carrier's position is Charlie's substitute, Kim. There are rumors though that we may lose our small town post office to the larger one in Memphis, our county seat, in which case the Rutledge routes would be consolidated and Kim might be out of a job. Wile we don't want that to happen, it's probably out of our control. Politics.

If closure decisions are based on volume of mail, the FIC is doing its part to help keep the Rutledge Post Office open, averaging around 100 pieces of mail outgoing each week. We're crossing our fingers that it will be enough, and our small town of 100 will not lose one of its favorite spots for socializing. If you're ever out our way, stop by and visit a spell. Hillis still lives in Rutledge, and you can ask himself yourself about all those miles of mud.

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