Deep River–I had long forgotten about the enormous Post Office event that took place way back in 1960. Enormous because important to the whole country. At the left is the special poster designed back then to mark it.
That historic event came back to me yesterday in a strange flash.
I got home from my errands and found a new message on my answering machine. From AT&T.
A computerized male voice told me AT&T had mailed me an important message and it had been returned as un-deliverable. “This was our second attempt!” the unhappy voice said.
I called that number and of course I waited for somebody to pick up. And waited. And waited. Finally I gave up for now.
My problem with the Post Office was not new. I had gotten three other complaints. I had complained at the Post Office just last week.
Right away I called the Post Office to straighten this out. Busy. Again 20 minutes later. Busy. I did a bit of work. Called again. Busy. Damn!
I had to go to Old Saybrook. I’d be driving right by the Post Office. I’d stop in. I was sure I’d have to wait my turn.
To my surprise, I was alone. The only clerk was busy checking something. I had been hoping it would be the clerk I had complained to last week. Not so. I waited. Finally she turned to me. “Yes?”
I explained. I gave her my name and address.
Told her that three days ago I had gotten a call from Life-Long Learning in Madison. They had mailed me a check for a talk and it had been returned as un-deliverable. “What address did you use?” I asked them. They had used the correct address. Strange. Said told me they would re-send me the check. “Sorry for the trouble!” I said.
I told the clerk, “I just got a call from AT&T complaining about the same thing!”
Also told her that twice recently milady Annabelle in California had forwarded mail to me that had been forwarded to her for me from Deep River. True, I had been there with her for a long stretch but had returned home to Deep River three months ago.
And I had given the Post Office notice of those changes of address and proper forwarding instructions.
I also explained something else. “What’s puzzling is that I am getting mail properly addressed to me. Why just some? Why not all?”
The clerk was all business, “I’ll go and check.” She said it in a tone that told me she was no stranger to such complaints.
She disappeared behind a partition. I waited a couple of minutes. She re-appeared.
She looked triumphant. She had discovered the problem for sure. “What is your address again?” I told her No. 228.
“I just checked with the clerk back there. She said that just this morning she caught two letters going to you not at 228, but 111. She re-addressed both to 228. That’s the problem! Some people are using the wrong address!”
“No. 111 used to be my address. I lived there until about eight years ago. But the mail that is being returned is from regular billers. AT&T, for instance. I get mail sent to 228 from At&T every month without a hitch. Why this all of a sudden?”
“You’d better check! I’m sure they’re the cause.”
I believed differently but didn’t say so. I suspected the Post Office was at fault. “I certainly will check,” I said. And I added, “We’re all human. We all screw up at times. I undertand that. I’m not angry at anybody. Just irritated.”
“But what you just said is NOT true,” she said stiffly. “All this mail is being sorted by machines! Not people. By machines!”
“Oh, of course! I had forgotten. I will do some checking at my end. Anyway, we had a good discussion. Thank you for explaining!” And I left.
I went out to my car. Of course. Machines! How come I didn’t remember that! I should have. Long ago—52 years ago! — I had written a big story about the very first mail processed by machines in the USA. At the very first automated Post Office in the country. The one in Providence! The one you saw in that poster up top.
It was such a big event in postal history that the Post Office had issued a special stamp. The stamp showed that very building you saw in the poster. It was a regular first-class stamp. It sold for four cents! The Post Office sold 833,306 copies of that stamp on the first day.
I was a staffer at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. The Post Office sent us one news release after another about the automated post office it was building. The world had never seen a post office designed to handle huge hauls of mail by machine. It was always done by human hands. This was a technological break-through. A big deal. It sent those news releases to newspapers everywhere.
It invited newspapers to come to Providence for a preview tour of this phenomenal operation.
Well, I got the assignment. I was a feature writer. This would be a huge feature story. And I was familiar with Providence. I was born next door to Providence. Had gone off to school in Massachusetts. Then had come home to do graduate work at Brown University. I walked by the Post Office every day to get to Brown at the top of College Hill.
But this post office would be a mile or so away. The old Post Office would remain open. This would be a factory really. The only people in there would be postal workers operating these mammoth machines. The machines would spew out the sorted mail faster than the eye could see. And do it more accuraely.
If it proved itself (and all the officials believed that of course it would), it would be the prototype for others spotted across the country.
I looked forward to the tour. I loved being a feature writer.
Sometimes someone asks, “John, what’s the difference between a reporter and a feature writer?” Good question.
I’ve developed a pat answer that seems to satisfy. “A feature writer is an experienced reporter. Knows how to ferret out all the facts and write them up. Like a good reporter. But a feature writer adds all the extra little facts and background and ‘color’ that give the story real human interest.”
Feature stories usually run longer. Are not always pegged to a certain event, although this one would be—the opening of this new factory. Top reporters usually cover a beat: police, or education, or politics, or business, or health, and so on. Beat reporters develop deep expertise. Feature writers cover just about anything. And range farther geographically to do their work. The tour was two weeks before the grand opening day. I was one of a number of press people who showed up. Some of the biggest papers in the country were there. Some of the mid-size papers like mine from throughout southern New England. And little ones from nearby.
The new building was enormous. It sprawled over 13 acres. It looked very strange. Like an egg carton turned upside down but beautiful in its own way. Big trucks would bring in the mail. Three miles of conveyor belts laced through the place. The specially designed machines would turn the mail face up. Sort it. Cancel it. The the belts would carry it out to the right trucks going to the right places. What a marvel!
We didn’t get to see the factory working. Everything had been set up. Everything was ready. The Grand Opening was coming up, and the mail would stream through from that day on. But we could see by the enthusiasm of the tour officials that this would be smooth and easy. And historic indeed.
The tour ended and all us dispersed, thoroughly impressed. I went back to Worcester and wrote my feature. The Post Office had supplied photos and we used some. My feature would be published on the big day.
It was truly a grand day. I was not there. I had done my job.
I knew that the main speaker would be the postmaser general himself from Washington, Arthur E. Summerfield. And I knew what he would talk about. How significant this was. A huge step forward. Progress!
I waited eagerly to see how other big dailies would handle it. The Providence Journal-Bulletin especially. It was the usual big trio like my paper—meaning it published morning, afternoon, and Sunday editions. Bigger, but not that bigger.
I had another reason. I admired the Journal. Clever people there. I had written for it. It had a fine Sunday magazine. It was called The Rhode Islander. Its editor, knowing my Little Rhody roots, had asked me to come back and drive through Providence on all its numbered routes—Route 1, and 6, and 44, and others. The city had made big changes. I’d tell what I liked, and what I didn’t like if I found such. I did that. And I took the photos to illustrate it.
The headline said something like, “A Rhode Islander returns home and takes a fresh look at Providence.” I don’t remember the exact words. I hadn’t said a word about tis to my family and friends in Rhode Island. My piece was a surprise to them and it created a pleasant stir.
Finally I got a look at the Journal story about the big event. It was a good, straight story, like mine. But the Journal published a follow-up story a few days later. And I saw it. I was shocked. Yes, shocked. Then I laughed. The Journal had done a clever thing.. But terrible and sneaky in one way. But important in another because it was a true public service.
Some editor had gotten a devilish idea and had pulled it off.
The paper had gone to a lot of trouble. Had collected all kinds of stamps. But not one of them was a legitimate postal stamp. They were tax stamps attached to cigarette packs. S & H Green Stamps (if you remember what they were). Other phony stamps of various kinds. The Journal had pasted them on numerous pieces of first-class mail addressed to itself. And waited to see what would happen.
And all this phony mail got processed by those fantastic new machines and got delivered to the paper. All those new workers were too busy running the machines to notice. Wow!
The Journal took pictures of this bad mail, made a montage of them, and published it. The headline said, “New Post Office Processes All the Mail!” Excuse me. I made up that headline. I don’t remember the original. But it was along those lines.
Imagine the consternation…the anger…the fury at the new Post Office!
Maybe scanning machines to detect bogus mail were already part of that factory. If so, they were not working that day. But for certain automated scanning devices were soon making sure such mischief would be caught. And prosecuted.
Yes, prosecuted. Tampering with the mail is a federal crime. I never heard if the Journal suffered legal headaches because of that stunt. But the paper had made a big point. Machines are only as good as the designers who create them. And as the workers who run them are trained.
When I go to Providence, sometimes I pass by that big, strange building. Still in service. Always think of the awful start it got. And smile.
Know what? Nowadays any mail mailed from anywhere in the U.S. to anywhere in the U.S. passes through a processing center. In our case here, it’s in Wallingford. If I drop a birthday card into the mailbox in front of the Deep River Public Library addressed to a friend three blocks away, that card will pass through Wallingford. Imagine that.
Today’s machines are descendants of those original ones. Better, I’m sure. But the system is still fallible. What isn’t?
So maybe a machine somewhere has been causing my mis-delivered mail. I hope it gets straightened out. I will keep my word to that clerk. I’ll ask folks to make sure they mail to me at 228, not 111. But she’s probably right.
A big coincidence! I just spotted a story in the New London Day. “Even Before Closures, Postal Service in Decline.” It was a summary of a story in the New York Times by staffer Ron Nixon. I looked up the original. Much more detail.
Nixon reported many complaints about mail service. From heavy users of the mail. Newspaper and magazine publishers. Utilities. Big fund-raisers. Mass mailing services. Said one business executive, “The problems only seem to be getting worse.” Many people are upset. So, not only me.
The Post Office does have a major headache.
Have you had problems like mine?