Christmas rush
Joseph Mansfield

My granddaddy was postmaster ­­in our town for something like thirty-three years.  His name was Vola Mansfield.  Do not ask me where that name came from or what it means.  We never knew.  We know that my great-grandfather had a friend in Kentucky named Vola Tremmell.  That was all.

Granddaddy was a political appointee.  That meant that to be appointed he needed good connections with a congressman or senator.  He had his connection with Estes Kefauver.  To retain such a job one also needed the good will of the people.  Granddaddy had that too.  He ran his post office well.  He retired in the sixties.  The Dunlap post office has never since had a postmaster so popular or so appreciated—or so good at running a post office.  Even to this day, when I visit my home town, occasionally someone will tell me of a bad experience in the post office, invariably concluding with, “How I wish your granddaddy were still our postmaster!”

Back when Granddaddy got his job many rural post offices were family businesses, with several job slots, maybe all of them, filled from the same family.  Sometimes these post offices passed from one generation to another in a family.   Granddaddy’s post office was no different.  Civil service regulations forbade having two full time employees from one family.  But Granddaddy hired Grandmother anyway as a substitute clerk.  In this capacity she came in when one of the other clerks was absent, and a few hours on Saturday, adding up to a bit less than full time.  He also hired my father as a rural carrier.  He could do this because “family” meant “related and living together”, and my father did not live with him.  When Granddaddy retired, the postmastership was offered to my father.  But after his many years on the route he did not wish to be confined inside the post office, and he turned down the offer.

Having both of my grandparents working in the post office, I passed a great part of my childhood there.  Regulations allowed only bona-fide employees beyond the door marked “private”.  But many postal families were inclined to keep their children in the post office when school was out, and most of the inspectors in those days went along with it.

Not only did I stay in the post office.  I also worked when I was there.  I would beg to be given something to do and gradually it came.  Outgoing mail had to be sorted and bundled according to its destination.  I learned the outgoing case[1]  perfectly.  I also became fairly good on the local boxholder[2] cases; I could case about eighty per cent of  that mail, leaving the rest in an appointed place for an experienced boxer.[3]

As early as I remember, the clerks were Lee Roy and Alma Carolyn.  As is not unusual in the South, nor in that marginally southern region called East Tennessee, both were invariably addressed by both names.  “Carolyn” was shortened to “Carlin”, perhaps to get the rhythm right (“almaCARlin”).  I barely remember her.  But I remember that she was kind to me, and I loved her.  She died of cancer when I was very small.

Her place was taken by a man named Jimmy Tyner.  Jimmy was a disabled veteran, having had his right knee crushed in a vehicle accident.  The knee was locked permanently straight.  He had to have special controls installed in his car.  Perhaps it was due to the suffering he had experienced that he was a pretty cranky man.  Perhaps he was just cranky.  He was also a stickler for rules, and was always complaining about me being in the post office.  “What’s Butch[4] doing in here?”  And sometimes with effect.  When Daddy was there—which was only a couple of hours in the morning—sometimes he would send me away just to get Jimmy quiet.

Let us talk about two great old postal traditions.

The first tradition was one that the whole population participated in, the sending of Christmas cards.  In my childhood days the practice was considerably more popular than it is now.  In rural areas a tremendous amount of merchandise was also mail ordered as Christmas approached.  Post offices had to deal with more than triple the usual volume of mail.

The second tradition, among postal employees, was that of drinking.  On the job and off.  On the job until one got stewed enough that the other employees would insist one go home.  Sometimes this would mean staying at home for days or weeks—as Granddaddy sometimes did.

The two traditions did not mix.  It was essential that all hands be on duty in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  There existed an unwritten but ironclad rule in the post office:  One does not drink during the Christmas rush.  Period.

But Granddaddy did, one year.  He did the unthinkable.  That year—I was maybe eleven—he suffered a lapse just as the Christmas rush set in.  And stayed at home for the duration of the rush.

The post office was a disaster.  There was just more mail coming in than they could handle.  The staff placed priority on delivering the incoming intercity mail.  But the mail posted locally was going nowhere but into huge cardboard boxes, canvas bags, baskets.  And the post office building was literally filling up with these.  One could hardly find a path to walk between them.

A retired postal worker from a nearby town was drafted into service.  But he had grown old, and a bit muddle headed, and was not up to the work.  For two days as he worked the backlog grew in spite of his efforts.  And Jimmy—who was second in command to Granddaddy—drew close to panic.

Panic, until he too, like Granddaddy, did the unthinkable.

He went to Daddy and said, “Get Butch and bring him in here.  He can handle this!”

And I did.  I took over the local outgoing mail and routed it.  I spent something like twelve hours a day facing the outgoing case.  Pennsylvania.  New York.  Louisiana.  Chattanooga.  Pikeville.  Daus.  Western states.  International.  Out it went.  And still it came in.  But with my long days I got it out faster than it came in.  After three or four such days I had the jam cleared.  The post office was back to a normal Christmas rush.

So what was my compensation?

Somebody paid me.  Perhaps they took up a collection.  Perhaps there was a slush fund.  I don’t know; I know I got some money out of it.

But the money did not matter.

What mattered was that my abilities were acknowledged and used, an experience I longed for but seldom experienced, particularly in childhood.  And I proved myself up to the task before me.

And did I enjoy Jimmy having to turn to me in his time of need?  I did.  It was sweet.

[1] A “case” is a set of pigeonholes used for sorting mail.  The term also refers to a set of post office boxes as seen from the back side.  To sort mail or place it in rental boxes is to “case” the mail.

[2] “Boxholder”, one who rents a post office box.  Also used to refer to junk mail addressed to “boxholder”.

[3] Although the set of boxes is a “case”, and putting mail into the boxes is “casing” mail, the one who does the casing is a “boxer”.

[4] “Butch” was my childhood nickname.


© 2005 Joseph Mansfield





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