The boxes are about 4 feet by 4 feet, and 4 or 5 inches tall. They look like giant pizza boxes, but I’ve never seen a pizza box so I couldn’t make that comparison. I ‘m about 8 years old, helping my dad on his rural mail route, and on this spring morning we are delivering baby chicks to a farm a few miles out of town.
The boxes have little holes in the sides, just big enough for a child’s finger. And there is a constant peeping noise coming from the boxes. I stick my finger in, and feel a soft, warm fluffiness. I want to bring it closer and pet it, but it moves away from my finger.
Boxes of baby chicks were one of the many things my dad delivered to the farmers on his mail route, but they were my favorites. Packages, letters, advertisements (he called these “boxholders” because they came in bulk, simply addressed to “Boxholder, Edelstein Illinois”) were loaded up every morning and carried around the 50 or so miles of the route.
I helped Dad on the route most Saturdays, and during the summer when school was out I rode with him even more often. I sat in the “shotgun” seat of his Studebaker, with a cardboard box of newspapers and letters between us; Dad had sorted and bundled all the mail before we set out, so that at each mailbox we could pick up the newspaper and the mail for that patron. Mailboxes were sometimes on the right side of the road, sometimes on the left; when Dad pulled up to one on the right side, I would reach out, open the box, and shove in the bundle of mail.
Sometimes a mailbox would have its flag up; that meant there was something to be picked up. Usually it was a letter, stamped and ready to be sent on its way, but sometimes there would be a note and some change: someone wanting to buy stamps or penny postcards, which dad carried in a wax-paper envelope in his pouch. Occasionally there would be a gift: a plate of cookies, or a package of sausage from a recent hog-butchering.
Mail arrived at the post office, and left it, in two ways. The less interesting of these was Peter Post’s truck (yes, that was really his name). He drove from Peoria very early in the morning with a sack of mail, and took an outgoing sack away with him. Much more fun was the mail cart that old Lee McWhorter wheeled up from the depot every morning and every afternoon. Two mail trains went past the depot each day (never stopping, of course; the town was too small for that, even though many years ago it had been larger and there was actually a waiting room in the depot with a couple of benches and a pot-bellied stove) and threw off one or two gray canvas mail bags. Lee loaded them into his two-wheeled cart and trundled them the three blocks to the post office, where Dad and the Doris, the postmistress, dumped them out and sorted them. Dad got the rural mail; Doris got the in-town mail.
This was the USPS as I knew it, growing up. We lived in a tiny village, so I never saw a “postman,” though I had read stories and seen pictures of a man in a blue uniform, with a leather pouch hanging from his shoulder, delivering mail from house to house. I had never seen a mail truck, or even a specially built mailman’s car with the controls on the right-hand side. Houses in our town didn’t have mail slots; people who lived in town walked to the post office and collected their mail from little glass-fronted pigeonholes in the lobby. Special delivery letters, or certified mail, or priority, or overnight delivery, didn’t exist – or if they did, we didn’t have them in Edelstein. It was all pretty simple: the mail came in by train or truck, and Doris and Dad and the old Studebaker took it from there.
It’s been more than 70 years since I rode the mail route with Dad. I’d like to be able to do it again, to reach out of the car window and try to snatch leaves off the tall weeds by the side of the road as we drive past, or pet the farmers’ dogs when they run to the mailbox to greet us, or listen to One Man’s Family on the car radio as Dad maneuvers the Studebaker along dusty summer roads or up icy hills to deliver Christmas packages.
Few little girls, I think, have had the privilege of spending so many hours with their father, riding through the countryside, talking and listening, watching the farms and fields pass by. So for me the USPS hasn’t just brought me my mail every day – it has given me my father, too. It has helped Dad and me to know and respect and love each other. And that’s worth a lot more than a package of sausage or even a box of baby chicks!