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A Unique Perspective

Post Office Engineers
Cardiff Council Flat Holm Project, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Post Office Engineers

Hi, I'm Alan Erwin from Amarillo and I've been reading Winifred Gallagher's How the Post Office Created America.

The American postal system is a marvel. Often maligned, it is a miracle of efficiency that every one of us takes for granted.

The U.S. Post Office was instrumental in defining a real, usable and portable system of addresses. In the early days of this country, there was no universally agreed-upon method of defining an exact location for businesses or individuals. In those days, most mail was actually delivered to a central location within a city or area, and people would have to go pick it up.

In small towns this stayed the norm for a long time. I remember my grandparents in their little town of Cheyenne, OK. When we visited them in the 1960’s, we'd all dress nicely, pile into the Rambler and drive 2 blocks to pick-up the mail. I don't know if that little town ever updated to home delivery, but the mail always got there.

Years ago, I had a job that required me to travel to small towns in the Tri-State area. One frequent challenge was finding a new business on my first visit. This was long before GPS and many of these towns were so small that paper maps didn't exist for them.

Luckily, every town had a convenience store with a counter person more than happy to give directions, as long as I bought a greasy, fried burrito and beverage.

Unfortunately, the directions often went like this: “Well, take the old highway out east of town and when you get to where the drive-in movie screen used to stand, drive about a ¼ mile further and you'll see a sign that points left, but you'll actually need to turn right. Drive a ways and you can't miss it.” (Anytime someone says you can't miss something, just know that you will.)

Imagine that your mailing address is “the house that used to be painted blue, on past the big house with the fence – the metal fence not the wooden one.” My monthly copy of Kitten Knittin' would never arrive!

Now, the country was truly becoming united, at least in our desire for efficient, reliable communication and periodicals. Even living 10 miles from town on a dirt road, my mail would find me, thanks to Rural Free Delivery or RFD.

The Postal Service was mostly reliable and mostly well liked. However, success is not lost on politicians. As a branch of the federal government the Post Office was not required to make money or even break-even. Sure, this did at time cause some grumbling among the stewards of our land. Pointing out problems in other government programs is a time-honored method to draw attention away from your own program.

The solution: turn the Post Office into a government business! While still a government function, it is also a “quasi-private” enterprise. The Postmaster General is no longer a Cabinet level position, but more like a CEO who, along with a board of Governors, manages, oversees and runs this sort-of-private Executive branch corporation.

Now when the Post Office has issues, such as paying for unfunded mandates, the politicians can tsk-tsk-tsk and say what an antiquated and poorly run endeavor it is and “wouldn't it just make more sense if the government got out of the mail business and let private entrepreneurs take control?” What could go wrong?

I was once a postal employee. I think the idea was to bring in fresh, young college students and lure them into the fold with excellent benefits and above average pay. Not a bad idea, but it was 1972 and government employment was not the lure they might have hoped. I was one of a group of 12 or so, and only 1 made the decision to quit school and become a productive citizen.

My time as a postal employee did give me a unique perspective. I saw an agency in the early throes of moving to cutting edge technology and modernization. I'd like to say I realized this at the time, but I didn't.

What I did see was the dedication and seriousness with which the employees performed their assigned duties, the respect they had for their mission and the respect they had for their customers: you and me….

Alan Erwin for the HPPR Radio Readers Book Club.

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