Letter Carrier Storm Stories
The Tumbleweed Connection
Greetings from the dry and dusty West, where Southern California is quickly blowing into the ocean under a barrage of howling, desiccating Santa Ana winds that seem to want to carry away your skin cells into the ocean and leave you a parched, shriveled up, devitalized lump of flesh. While my fellow letter carriers in Massachusetts and other points along the Eastern Seaboard plow through and leap across seven foot snowdrifts to deliver America's mail, the only storm story I have to share from Winter 2015 concerns a huge tumbleweed I had to wiggle my way past a couple Thursdays ago to get to a mailbox, when the Santa Anas were raging. But I'm sure my friends and coworkers in the Northeast quadrant of the country would gladly trade their long johns, mittens, and Eskimo-style parkas to bask for a few moments in that 80 degree gust blowing in from the Great Basin.
It is with a deep sense of mailman guilt, therefore, that I write these words to honor those letter carriers who suffer silently through the snow, ice, and frigid temperatures. Yes it is their job, yes they are fairly well compensated for it, but the letter carrier vocation is among the few where the employees are not only required to work in inclement weather, but at the same time must utilize a great deal of manual dexterity to manipulate letters and flats and squeeze them into often crammed mailboxes. The UPS and Fedex drivers drop off a package on a doorstep then race back to the comfort of the truck. The Letter Carrier, on the other hand, has to finger through five or six pieces of mail for 100 Elm Street to make sure they are not placed in the mailbox of 108 Elm next door, then continue this for an entire route of several hundred deliveries; all the while using frigid digits whose motion is further inhibited by heavily padded gloves.
Although I have delivered untold hundreds of thousands of letters in my 20 plus years in the Post Office, I have never had to do it in the cold. I have never endured anything more extreme weather-wise than an occasional El Nino or Pineapple Express rainstorm, so I couldn't begin to describe what it is like to deliver mail in freezing temperatures. But since I do have plenty of letter carrier friends on Facebook for whom the cold is an unavoidable fact of life, I will allow them to tell the story here, in hope that you will gain a better appreciation of how they struggle through miserable working conditions to get your mail to you on time.
Because I have such an easy gig I have out here in California, trimming my palm trees in my shirt sleeves while the rest of the country is scraping ice off the driveway, in order to gather supporting evidence about the harsh conditions under which letter carriers do their jobs I had to post the following query on a Facebook group page:
Just a note about my fat fingered spelling mistake up there that was made on my tiny cell phone screen. I'm actually the Palm Tree Postman, not "Pistman," although I probably would be pissed, man if I had to work in the kind of conditions you are going to read about below.
Although I opened up the conversation for all types of weather conditions, since it was February all people could remember were experiences with snow, ice, and icicles, followed by more snow. So here we go with some snow. Put on your mittens, muffler, fuzzy bomber hat and plenty of extra layers of clothing, because it is going to get cold in here.
When the winter blizzards are raging all around and the highway and roadway traffic is spinning and careening out of control on the slippery ice, sometimes just getting to work and getting back to the post office after delivering the mail can be a daunting challenge. Take for instance this story by my Massachusetts Letter Carrier friend Michelle Mobilio:
"I had two hours AL (Annual Leave) and My son dropped me off and went to school. I had given him the car because, we knew there would be an early dismissal. He got out at 11 and went to lunch with some friends before coming to get me. I ended up getting 2 hours OT (Overtime)-the snow was falling heavier and more per hour than expected! I actually headed back to the PO (Post Office) early enough but there was a traffic nightmare-bumper to bumper traffic!! Then the LLV got stuck around the corner from the PO, a school bus in front of me spun out and hit the fire hydrant! So for a normal 20 min. drive back to the PO it took me 6 hours! NO LIE!!-Finally bosses came walking to the LLV to push it! Many carriers didn't make it back in 10! The next day our PM (Postmaster) just thanked us all because there were no accidents. BY the way MY son didn't make it to the PO until 7:30 PM and he left his location at 1:45 to get me."
Last I heard, Massachusetts had received a country leading 100 plus nches of snow this year, and it was still rising, threatening to break its all time record. God bless you Michelle and others like you for bravely confronting the elements every day and still keeping your cheerful attitude, for which you are famous.
The Seven Layer Burrito
If you live in a cold, snowy climate but your experience with snow only involves racing, or should I say skating to your car in the morning, then slipping and sliding through the office door into an agreeably acclimatized environment, you may have a healthy respect for the cold but you might not fully understand what it means to actually work in it for eight hours a day.
First of all, delivering mail in the cold involves the skillful application of multiple layers of artificial skin to the body. Human beings were apparently not genetically engineered to survive in such frigid extremes, unlike Polar Bears who are born ready made with built-in blubber. Actually, some of us humans have more blubber than God intended, but since a bit of paunchy "weather proofing" around the belt occurs everywhere and is not limited to the northern latitudes it can't be looked upon as an evolutionary survival mechanism, like I sometimes try to tell my wife.
Anyhow, since nature didn't provide extra layers for letter carriers, they have to make their own. When discussing how she prepares for a heavy storm, letter carrier Amy in Omaha says:
"I wear sock liners then heavy wool socks. At least one pair of longjohns, no particular brand, sometimes two pairs. Then my winter weight uniform pants, then a pair of snow pants I bought from Target. I wear the Neos boots that are both waterproof and insulated. I wear a turtleneck and my uniform shirt. Then depending upon the route I'm on I'll wear a hoodie underneath the heavy weight uniform coat (not the parka). Plus a neck gator, face mask (if it's really cold), and my bomber hat that is the warmest hat I've EVER owned."
One year Amy also purchased 200 dollars in extreme cold weather socks, which the annual uniform allowance doesn't cover. In addition to the multiple layers for the upper body described by this Omaha letter carrier, Melissa in New Jersey protects the lower extremities by wearing heat holder tights, then pajama bottoms tucked into a few pairs of wool socks, then a pair of jeans, then heavy grade work pants. If you're dressed up thicker than Admiral Peary when he reached the North Pole, you're probably getting close to how letter carriers have to wrap up when they brave the icy days of February.
Taking it from Both Ends and the Middle
When delivering mail in the snow and ice, the letter carrier is likely to get it from both above and from below. While the icy surface beneath the feet testifies that the devil with his pleasantly warm sulfurous flames seems to be sleeping on the job just when he is most needed, up above God has opened up the heavens for all manner of freezing perils; not just snow but falling ice as well. When approaching frosty front porches after a winter blizzard has rolled through, letter carriers must calculate the length and density of ice hanging over that porch to determine if there is a risk of getting skewered like a cheese cube on a party tray.
There are other on the job conditions that have to be taken into consideration by polar posties that we pampered palm tree postmen never have have to think about, such as trying to write in the cold. As if filling out the customer signature form for accountable mail items with several layers of padding on the fingers wasn't enough of an obstacle, the ink in postal issue pens can actually freeze. There are a multitude of tiny details like this that have to be taken into account when planning for cold weather delivery. As Debbie in Minnesota neatly sums up:
"We have to consider the weather in our estimate. Scraping ice off the truck, getting dressed in cold weather gear. In the bitter cold we have to get warm to prevent frostbite. It takes a lot longer to deliver the route in winter."
Dashing Through the Snow
Frozen ink pens are certainly annoying and can be a hindrance to the smooth performance of a letter carrier's duty, but there are serious health risks associated with delivering in the snow that letter carriers learn to confront and to conquer. There is no shortage of grim survival stories from across America that relate what happens when mailman meets ice.
Bill in Chicago tells his tale:
"I was a new hire farm boy working a walkout in the winter of 1984, one of the coldest on record in Chicago suburb. It was January 21, 1984, 22 below zero. Since it was a walkout I had no vehicle, I had a coat, jeans, a postal trooper cap that I folded the front fur part down, and a scarf and gloves. All I could see was a slit between the scarf and the folded down bill of the cap. I was poorly dressed to say the least with no way to get out of the weather. I used the #3 bags that the relays were in and made a sort of kilt over my pants to protect from getting frostbit. I was the coldest I ever was."
Note to Bill: That woeful 1983-1984 Chicago winter was, in fact, one of my few cold weather experiences. I departed from the Great Lakes Naval Station in December of 1983 on a day when the mercury hit 20 below. But I was only lugging my seabag the few yards between the barracks and the bus to the airport, not hauling a satchel for hours in the unforgiving cold, trying to jury rig devices to avoid frostbite, like Bill was.
Christopher from Wisconsin sums up the physical hazards associated with the letter carrier cold weather experience much more succinctly:
"It's icy here in WI and I have fallen...a lot."
CCAs on Ice, the Musical
Delivering in winter is bad enough for grizzled old postal warhorses who have learned to adjust to; although never to get used to delivering in sub-freezing, sometimes sub-zero temperatures. But imagine the horror experienced by the new hires, the fresh farm boys and girls like Bill once was, when they graduate from CCA (City Carrier Assistant) Academy and are immediately thrust out into the cold, where they are expected to deal with keeping warm in flesh-freezing temperatures while learning to deliver mail in the process. Here is one such typical CCA experience from CCA "mail maam," whose rather incoherent but nonetheless entertaining ramblings perfectly reflect her snow-stressed state of mind.
Says mail maam:
"I think my street times are getting better,but they forget we started ibid the friggin winter c with the misery snow we've gotten in awhile. I live in the upper peninsula of Michigan. So my first day out we had a friggin blizzard lol lovely...But I'm just not getting it and my time sucks. So if I stop to use the bathroom that puts me a little over God forbid and I'm jumping over and through snow banks."
Jumping over and through snow banks. Lol lovely indeed.
The Meaning of all this Lol-ish Loveliness
So what is the conclusion to be drawn from all this lol-ish loveliness? The meaning is in the word "service" attached to the end of the organization's name. This word service is what gets forgotten when politicians are flipping the bird at the Constitution and scheming about how to dismantle and divvy up postal assets at the expense of the American people. The USPS operates as a business, using its own funds entirely, but still carries out an indispensable Constitutionally mandated service to provide guaranteed mail delivery for everyone.
As such, Postal employees have a sworn duty to deliver the mail, even if that means doing so in extreme and often hazardous conditions. No other company that I know of swears in its employees to a solemn oath of duty to the American public. Therefore, if the Postal Service is privatized - as is the ultimate aim of many in Congress, I find it hard to imagine that the low wage employees of some cut rate delivery firm will feel a sense of duty to jump over snow banks and risk frostbite to deliver your letters. Furthermore, I also doubt the heartless bean counters of corporate America will allow you to keep getting your mail right there on your doorstep. As has already been proposed in Congress, when the "Service" is separated from the word "Postal" your mailbox will certainly be moved to a more cost effective centralized receptacle about a block away from home, and pity poor Granny balancing her way gingerly across the ice with a cane as she goes to pick up her medicine. I also can't imagine that cost-cutting CEOs will look favorably upon your Uncle Jim's mailbox standing all alone out there two miles down a slick, muddy dirt road. Chances are that Jim and his fellow rural residents will have to drive into town to pick up their mail, probably in a raging, blinding blizzard; or maybe even two towns away if Jimmy's sparsely populated burg does not give a sufficient return on investment to merit its own post office.
So in appreciation of this service, please support your United States Postal Service, and especially support your local Polar Postman or Postwoman. Let them come in and warm their frozen tootsies for a minute or two, or have a cup of hot cocoa ready to heat up their frozen bones. Keep your walkway and porch snow and ice free. All of these little acts of kindness are greatly appreciated by the men and women who move the mail and help get your important correspondence and packages into your hands, regardless of whether the mercury is 110 above or 20 below.