Incoming & Outgoing: In Praise of a Grand Old Government Service

Dan Rattiner

I sent a handwritten letter earlier today. Closing the lid on my laptop and pushing it toward the back of my desk, I assembled an envelope, a pen, a roll of stamps, a dispenser of Scotch tape and a sheet of paper. And on the paper I began to write, using my pen. It’s not important to this story what I had to say, and as a matter of fact, it’s against the law to tamper with the U.S. mail – you could go to jail – but my pen makes a fine black line because I write small. And I enjoy doing that. 

When I finished writing what I had to say, I folded the paper into thirds and slid it into the envelope. I licked the back of the envelope and folded it over to seal it shut.   Then I peeled off a stamp – it had on it a picture of Francis Scott Key and two American flags – and affixed it to the upper right corner of the front of the envelope. In the center, still writing small, I wrote the address of where it was to go. And in the upper left corner I wrote an abbreviation of my return address that would suffice in case the mail could not be delivered. I wrote RATTINER, 11937. They know me in this small town.   

With this completed, I took the envelope out of the house, walked with it down to the mailbox I have on the street, opened the front and put the letter inside, and then I lifted up the red metal flag on the side – a signal to the postman that he should stop here even if he does not have any incoming mail for me, open the box, take out my envelope, close the box and lower the flag. Then he would drive off with it, pass it off to another mailman and then another mailman and so forth, until after a few days of this it would wind up in St. Paul, Minn. There. I mentioned something about my private business.   

Then I walked back up the driveway and into the house, went back to my desk, put the stamps and envelopes and my pen away, slid my laptop back into position and that was that.

Later in the day, I walked back down my driveway to the mailbox. The red flag was down. So I know the mailman had been there. I live on a busy county road, Three Mile Harbor Road, and the cars come by and the drivers see me opening the lid and reaching my hand into my mailbox, then pulling out some incoming letters, from Dallas, or Paris, or maybe just the people down the way. The motorists would see me happily looking through my incoming letters. They were like the cards dealt me for the day. Good ones, bad ones, offers, replies, requests, and so forth. I’d smile at the mail. Then I’d walk holding the letters back up the driveway and disappear into my house to get a closer look at what I got. Maybe I got a check in the mail. Maybe a friend far away sent me something. Maybe a charity for a children’s home for boys would enclose a dime that could be peeled off a letter from them asking for money. Or maybe they would enclose a piece of heavy paper that had little peel off stickers on the back that had my name and address printed colorfully on it next to a heart or a flag I could use. Clearly it was intended for me to put on the upper left part of my outgoing mail, saving me the trouble of writing RATTINER 11937.

Thank you, children’s charity.   

I like sending and receiving letters using the U.S. mail. The U.S. mail was one of the first things our founding fathers set up as a service to the citizens of this country. It was never meant to make money. It was meant to lose money so even the poor, paying even a pittance, could send letters back and forth. It was considered a right for the citizenry to be able to communicate with everyone elsewhere, and it was considered a job for the government to provide it. I think that, like the stamp I put on the outside of the envelope, it is first class, and I hope the U.S. mail continues on forever and ever, until the Earth falls into the Sun. A long time from now.

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