And the Post Office Made Three

By Margaret Van Every

woman diary

 

They met in the US Postal Service in 1936, in St. Louis. She was a secretary/stenographer and he was a post office inspector. They loved their work and they loved each other, partly because of shared love for their employer. The post office was not just any workplace. Its inability to lay them off was getting them securely through the Great Depression, and for that Ted vowed to remain loyal to his employer for the remainder of his life, even though he had a law degree.

Ted, with his parents and seven siblings, had immigrated from a shtetl in Transylvania to Chicago when he was a small child. He quickly learned English, studied hard in school, and started helping support his family as a milkman’s assistant, delivering heavy bottles to top-floor apartments in the wee morning hours before school. His goal was to melt in the Great Melting Pot and reap the fruits of the Promised Land.

The Postal Service was an institution anyone would be proud to be part of. Predating the Declaration of Independence, it was the first federal law enforcement agency, founded in 1772 by Benjamin Franklin. It not only delivered the mail, but provided Ted a new set of Commandments after he had laid down the oppressive burden of his own religion. All employees swore to adopt the post office code of conduct so they would know how to behave on and off the job.

He also liked that his employer was the legislator and enforcer of public morality. If postal inspectors suspected the sender or recipient of mail of unlawful or deviant behavior, they could steam open an envelope and examine the contents, no warrant necessary. They could withhold leftist publications in order to do what was in the best interest of the individual and the nation. They could even decide what books were fit to be sent through the mail, barring filth like Tropic of Cancer and Lady Chatterley’s Lover, thus sparing the United States of America from the corruption of smut. If the Postal Service, in its wisdom, deemed a book to be sexually stimulating, it was empowered to send publishers to prison with six months to five years of hard labor for printing “obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious materials.” Lumped under these definitions was information pertaining to contraception and abortion.  Postal inspectors were among the country’s original men of action, gun toters who risked danger for the public weal.

A post office inspector swore to uphold high moral standards. Unfortunately, to get the job Ted had to lie about his age on the application, perjuring himself—but only for the sake of consistency.  When he was 15 he had told the first lie about his age in order to enlist in the US Cavalry.  It gnawed at him every day that he had to maintain the lie all the way to retirement and cheat his employer out of two years of service. No one had ever checked the date of birth on his immigration documents because none was recorded.

Sally had her own reasons for loving the Postal Service. What drew her to her stenographer’s job there was that she worked for something she believed in, namely, writing letters and enabling people to stay in touch. She lavished her literary bent on letters to family and friends, written on a mahogany desk with a gold-nib fountain pen. She was intrigued with stationery—its textures and tints and intertwined, illegible initials. She was sentimental about addressing an envelope with a flourish, daubing it with a seductive scent, and licking a stamp with an image matched to the interests of the recipient. Even the corner mailbox captured her fancy, the way you opened the chute and inserted your letter, your heart thumping as you abandoned it to the belly of the box—because sometimes you bared your feelings or wrote something of questionable taste, something you intuited you might regret. Yet once inside the box, it was irretrievable, no longer deemed your legal property. A uniformed employee would slip it into his sack, another would sort it, and yet another would deliver it. It took so many caring hands to process the mail.

A willowy brunette from near Austin, Texas, Sal was 36, eight years older than Ted’s real age but only 6 years older than his fabricated age, which was the only age that mattered anymore.  People said she resembled Wallis Simpson, the glamorous, scandalous Duchess of Windsor, and Sal flaunted the resemblance, which included the now fashionable notoriety of being a double divorcée.

The couple eloped on New Year’s Day 1937 and decided to drive to Mexico City for a honeymoon as soon as they could pack their bags and settle affairs at home. It was the most romantic honeymoon Sal could imagine. Ted said they could justify such an extravagance because he could inspect post offices all the way from St. Louis to Laredo. Sal bought a gilt-edged leather-bound journal with the title “My Trip” stamped in gold. She would document everything on the honeymoon, including her secret-most thoughts. That’s what a diary is for, to serve as a confidant when there’s no one else to listen.

Sal Begins Her Diary

Our first night, January 4, Poplar Bluff, Missouri. Ted stopped in the PO, and what do you know, there was a notice from Ted’s boss that because he is now married, he will receive a $300 annual salary increase. Will I get a raise, too, because I’m married?

Jan. 5. I woke this morning to find that Ted was nowhere to be seen. A note informed me he had ventured off to visit post offices in neighboring towns. I didn’t mind staying in the room manicuring my nails, buffing my arms, writing letters, and reading the Poplar Bluff Gazette. A woman, after all, needs time to herself. It’s awkward to groom oneself with a man looking on, prying into your maintenance secrets.

Jan. 6. On to Blytheville, Arkansas, where we got a hotel right across the street from the post office. Together we wrote a 6-page report on the POs visited so far. Ted had brought along his Underwood and I took dictation and typed it all up. Might as well. Just married and nothing else to do in this little town.

Jan. 7. Destination Little Rock, driving through rain and sleet. First stop was you-know-where, where one of the inspectors invited us to his home for dinner. By day’s end, a blizzard had started up.

Jan. 8 in Ft. Smith, another warm welcome from the postmaster and his inspector, including another home-cooked meal. Wives of postal inspectors beware! Short-notice guests come with the territory. Dear diary, does this sound like a honeymoon?

Morning of Jan. 9 we discover the postmaster paid our $2 hotel bill as a wedding gift. Such generosity. The post office is family wherever we go. The blizzard had made roads nearly impassable with snow so deep we weren’t sure where the road was. Nonetheless, we forged on to Dallas for just one night and then to Austin, my home turf.

I told Ted I didn’t care about any other accommodations but wanted a good hotel in Austin, where my childhood friend lives. But because the state legislature is convening, we had to stay in a “third-rate” hotel. Nonetheless, because of certain people I know, we got invited to a hastily arranged cocktail party at Senator Parnell’s suite at the Driskill and were his dinner guests later that evening at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel.

On January 13, after breakfast with my girlfriend and the senator, we set out for San Antonio, passing through San Marcos where my family, the earliest settlers there, are buried. I yearned to visit their graves but Ted was so eager to get to Mexico, I didn’t insist. He left his ancestors buried in Europe and he can’t comprehend why anyone would visit graves anyway. We arrived in San Antonio around noon and checked into a decent hotel. That night we saw The Drunkard at the Diamond Horseshoe.  

January 14, I put my foot down and insisted that Ted see the historic Alamo despite his disinterest. It was even more important to me than visiting the graves of my forebears. In strained silence I breathed in the sacredness of this shrine that is hallowed ground to all Texans, as Ted looked at his watch and chafed to hustle on.

We were soon on the streets of Laredo, where we checked into The Plaza Hotel. Ted went immediately to the post office and picked up both our paychecks. How coincidental! Postmaster Jackson, from St. Louis, had just passed through Laredo the day before en route home from Monterrey. Mild weather here.

Dear diary, this is not at all how I remember my first two honeymoons! I keep waiting for this one to get started. I guess it will begin tomorrow once we cross the border and leave all the post offices behind us.

To be continued in our March issue...

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