In this day of internet, phone service cheaper than yesteryear’s, and constant instant communication, the United States Postal Service has slipped from its former position of importance; some people think it cannot survive another decade’s constantly burgeoning technology. I hate to think of its disappearing, for its role is intertwined with the history of this country, with my history and with yours. Consider the songs written about letters—“Return to Sender,” “Letter Edged in Black” and “Dear John”—those are the ones that pop instantly into my mind, but many more exist. I remember waiting for the postman to bring a package, a French pen pal’s letter, and the Sears-Roebuck catalogue, especially at Christmas. Mama ordered books for me in stacks, and they arrived in the mail. The postman was an important man in my life. When I moved to the country, the nomenclature changed.
“We don’t have postmen in the country,” Larry explained. “They are mailmen.”
Last Saturday morning in the Wal-Mart parking lot, I met a retired mailman that most of you know—Simon Wooten. His lovely wife Betty was with him, so we stopped to talk as we often do, but this time he had a surprise for me.
“Mary Ann, I’m so glad to see you this morning,” he said, smiling. “I have some letters that your Uncle Sol wrote to me over a period of years, and I thought you might like to read them. I’ve been carrying them around with me for a quite awhile now, hoping to run into you.”
He stepped back to his car to get them as with Betty’s help I packed my purchases into my trunk.
Sunday afternoon, I dug into the letters, dated from 1989 forward. Uncle Sol (Solomon Nichols) was also a mail carrier, and he and Mr. Si became close friends over the years, close enough that they stayed in touch after Uncle Sol and Aunt Stell moved to Dublin to be close to their only daughter, Mary Nell. Naturally these two mail carriers would use the medium they knew and trusted best—the US mail. As I read the letters, I could almost hear Uncle Sol’s voice. Ever the historian, he told of his first job with the USPS in 1928. His annual salary was $1800. He writes poetically about his cabin on the river, about hearing during the quietness of the night the calls of the bobcats and the wild turkeys. In those letters he talks of gout symptoms, eye problems, funeral plans and deciding to be buried in Dublin rather than Baxley. However, he reminisces about people they’ve both known and places in the county. What a delightful service the USPS provided them.
As I related to Larry my encounter with the Wootens, he told me the following story of his relationship with his mailman, Mr. Si.
“When I was 4 years old, I used to sit on the board that protruded behind the mailbox and wait for Mr. Si to come with the mail. One day he asked me, ‘Larry, can you say your abc’s?’ I proudly did so, and he gave me a fifty-cent piece. ‘Can you count to 100?’ he asked. ‘Not yet,’ I replied. ‘I’m working on that.’ ‘When you can do it,’ he said, ‘I’ve got another half-dollar for you.’
“I completely forgot that conversation until at 20 years old, I was home on leave from the military. As I heard Mr. Si’s car coming up the road, I remembered. I went out to the mailbox and when he stopped, I started counting. I counted slowly to 100 and then held out my hand. Naturally, he was astounded. ‘What?’ he asked. ‘I don’t understand.’ I reminded him of his promise. He laughed and laughed as he laid a shiny half-dollar in my hand.”
Baxley folks know that Simon Wooten is a man of his word. So was Solomon Nichols. Such men were the backbone of the USPS in the first half of the twentieth century. People knew and liked them. Not much has changed. The people I meet behind the counter at the post office are also good people. My mail lady is delightful. If the fall of the USPS ever comes about, it will be in the name of progress. Another fabled institution falling fast—going, going, almost gone.