All the gloom and doom concerning small town post offices certainly does not paint a pretty picture for their future. It would seem that the United States Postal Service has made up its mind to ax the little guys. It probably won’t be long until we’ll need to drive to Des Moines to actually talk face-to-face with a postal clerk.
This really bothers me. I am a member of a rapidly disappearing segment of the population born before the baby boomers. We older folks remember quite well when the post office was as important to a town as a doctor’s office, a grocery store and a gas station.
I grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s. People lived differently then. For one thing, telephones were in most of the homes, but they served basically as a communications device for people in the immediate area. Sure, we could call Ames and Des Moines but that was not a common practice. Any further away was a really big deal. You paid extra for long distance phone calls and most families didn’t or wouldn’t spend the money for such an exorbitant expense.
That’s where the post office came in handy. If you wanted to communicate with Aunt Sylvia out in Indiana, you would simply write down what you had to say in a letter or postcard. Then you would walk to the post office and put it in the mail. If it was a letter, you would have to go to the counter and buy a stamp. A day or so later, Aunt Sylvia would know what was on your mind.
That’s why the small town post office was a special place. It was the communications center. There weren’t a lot of people working there, at least not in small town post offices – just the postmaster, sometimes a clerk and the rural mail carrier. The post office was open a certain amount of hours each day and when it closed, it closed. There was a slot on the front door where one could drop his or her mail after hours.
I think back to those days and I immediately see Merle Chader. He was our postmaster in Slater. Merle was a no-nonsense kind of a guy. He took his job seriously and made no qualms about it. He went by the book and probably slept with the book every night.
But Merle had a vice or two. For one thing, he enjoyed cigars. As soon as one opened the post office door, he or she was immediately engulfed with poignant cigar smoke. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes. This was long before smoking bans of any size, shape or form. In fact, adult males were probably more frowned upon if they didn’t smoke than if they did. Female smokers were much less common. They were, smokers or not, expected to put up with any second-hand smoke. But that’s another story.
As I said earlier, Merle was a serious man. If the sign on the door said the post office opened at 7 a.m., that meant 7 a.m. – not 6:59 a.m. or 7:01 a.m. You could take that to the bank. So at 5 p.m., the post office closed for the day. If you happened to be a minute or so late you were locked out. No amount of knocking, banging or shouting was going to change that.
Instead of waiting until next morning to mail your letter, you could simply drop it in the door slot. If you had no stamps (which few people ever bought ahead of time), you could drop the proper amount of money in with the letter – not a penny more nor a penny less.
Today’s post offices don’t smell of cigar smoke. Nor do they accept coins dropped in the mail slot for postage (at least as far as I know — I haven’t tried it for a long, long time). Merle left this world nearly 60 years ago to the big post office in the sky.
Times change … not always for the best.
Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.