By some provenance or other, I have always inherited a mailbox when moving into a new place, needing only to change name tags before resuming my swim in the postal stream. As a result, I have taken these receptacles completely for granted. But no more. Alone in the woods, the yellow brick house I recently occupied sits just off a county road. Since no mailbox came with it, I contented myself with driving to town (or townlet, as I like to call it) five miles each day to pick up the mail, drink a coffee at the crossroads and tap into local news and the latest gossip.
I had hardly entered into this rural American ritual when it came to an abrupt halt. For while handing me a sheaf of welcome-to-the-area utility bills one morning, the postal clerk cleared his throat. "You've got thirty days," he announced, as though imposing sentence. "The postmaster says you can't come in for your mail anymore. You've got to put up your own box." Stung, I reeled out the door and headed for the local discount mart.
My zest for country life returned when, among the preposterous new plastic mailboxes on the shelf, I also found the traditional, galvanized-tin version, the kind that made rural America great, or at least recognizable. While I debated whether the big, silver RRD 2, as it is called, could hold the torrent of mail I expected, a young woman reached in front of me for a black RRD 1, the smallest and cheapest available. "This is the third one in a month," she fumed, tossing the box into her cart. "Teenagers. The new game around here is to knock of mailboxes with cars. They've learned to nick the posts with the bumper so they can kick the box over but not scratch their car, God forbid. Who knows what they'll do next," she ended, scarcely more than a teenager herself.
Arresting piece of local color, I reflected, suddenly grateful to the evil postmaster for having forced me into what I now saw to be a vital cultural eddy of its own, one that swirled around the freestanding mailbox with all the force of gravity. Actually, I had already become intrigued upon reading the mailbox guidelines thrust at me, along with my bills, by the postal clerk. I found, for example, that erecting a box that resembled a person was strictly forbidden. Shucks. There went my notion of a gargoyle in the likeness of the postmaster general himself. Sensibly, I settled on the midsize model, RRD 1 1/2, and shifted my energies to installation and lettering.
Having found a good cedar post and a bag of cement in the shed, I sank a hole with a crowbar and a gardening trowel and then spent way too much time stenciling on my address with the neatness I assumed was owed the post office. Yet I was intensely proud of the finished product. It was like a piece of sculpture. I even got in the car and drove past it several times, pretending I was the world at large and noting with keen pleasure that someone in this benighted neck of the woods had erected a very fine mailbox, indeed. Look at that clean, straight lettering, would you?
I didn't sleep that night, excited by my mailbox's official debut the following morning as a fully qualified, functional element in the vast network of the United States Postal Service—an august institution, I now allowed with swelling patriotism. Like the christening of a ship or the swearing in of a new citizen, the debut would be auspicious, an event not to be taken lightly. Accordingly, I popped out of bed at dawn and stationed myself at an attic window. I could just glimpse the box with my old birding binoculars.
The hours slid by, uneventfully. No sign of the mail carrier. At noon I gave up constant surveillance, gearing down to a couple of observations each hour, but to no avail. At five, I put aside the binoculars and walked to the road. "Probably just no mail for me today," I told Arthur, my dog, who has despised mailmen since birth. Expecting the usual marathon, he looked disgusted when I stopped at the mailbox.
Good grief, there was mail. Somehow, I had missed the delivery. But something still wasn't right, I decided, even though it was my first true experience with rural delivery. For, on top of sneaking furtively by, the wretched carrier hadn't even raised the red flag on the side of my box, a signal readily visible from my perch in the attic. Just seeing it in the up position and knowing the box was radiating a state of genuine alert would have been enough, a palpable sign that it had been put to the test, had made it into the ranks. Instead, I had sat stewing in the house while the mail had sat brewing in the box—a container, alas, technically no longer virginal but in essence still unacknowledged, uncelebrated and unmarried, so to speak. So much for a memorable debut.
Nor did the mail itself help much, initially. One piece was an ad, another a notice from the postal service, addressed to "Rural Customer, Local." It informed me that "Mailbox Improvement Week" was right around the corner. Aha, I thought, there was glory to be gained yet. I envisioned an entourage of beribboned postal inspectors cruising up the county road in an open stretch limo. Then I heard the chief thunder to his underlings, on a megaphone and while pointing to my box, "Now, there, you clods, is a rural receptacle the service can be proud of. Stop the car. Get its address, Smithers. I intend to see it receives the Neither Rain Nor Shine Award at once."
"Anyway," I said to Arthur as we trudged back to the house. "Anyway, maybe tomorrow the guy will raise the flag."
He didn't, not that day or the one after that. Finally, I collared him and asked, as politely as I could, why not.
"Excuse me, sir," he answered, equally polite but with a tinge of forbearance. "You're the one that's got to raise it."
"When you've got something to mail and want me to pick it up, you put it in the box and raise the flag. Then I know to stop, even if I don't have mail for you."
"Right. Of course. Makes a lot of sense, doesn't it? Well, what I really wanted to talk to you about was this Mailbox Improvement Week stuff:"
"Oh, don't worry about that," he said. "Yours is just fine. Clean, straight lettering, too. Our people will like that." Locked in the house, Arthur barked his head off. You could hear him all the way down by the roadside.
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