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Wash water can drain out, necessitating washing with ice
water in midwinter. Overhead boxes with their sharp under-
slung hooks will not only give a nasty dig in the head to any
clerk unbending so as to contact them; they have sliding gates,
too, which will descend to crack one's knuckles violently
when being emptied. Stall poles, supposedly removable with a
twist of the wrist, often stick like the mischief; mails are
passed through the alley both ways at once, or a "bottleneck"
results from some other cause; and trying to figure out


"space" requirements under the complex regulations in-
volved drives clerks to despair. As Dan Moschenross puts it:

"During the Middle Ages, the Flagellants considered self-
torture as the only means of attaining Divine favor . . . they
beat one another . . . with whips and scourges.

"Today their modern successors bury one another under
great piles of heavy sacks and call it Space System."

Although much is being done to remedy such conditions,
C. D. Sherwin writes that a postal transportation clerk must
often work "on a shaking platform, under lights [fifty-watt]
that do not meet I.E.S. standards, eat ... in the same room
with exposed toilets, and handle dirty sacks used all over the
world twenty years without cleaning." In an antique, non-
ventilatable car he "is expected to . . . correctly case some
t^venty-five letters per minute. Try balancing yourself on the
rear bumper of a moving auto some dark night and read your
mail by the taillight. It'll give you an idea . . ." Small fifty-
foot 1901 wooden mail cars are still run in some seventy-mile-
per-hour trains, some clerks claim.

Unless assigned alone, the new man must learn to be a
cono^enial asset to his R.P.O. crew. Thrown into constant
contact with the same men for years or decades, he usually
develops a friendly tolerance for the peculiarities and failings
of others, faults that we all have. Only occasionally do we
find the clerk who is morose or mean towards those whose
personality he does not find congenial. Time passes rapidly
amid the tempo of a heavy run, and soon a clerk finds him-
self living from layoff to layoff until months and years have
slipped away as if by magic. Before he realizes it a clerk may
have spent his entire Service life in one locality (or even on
one line). Others, with wanderlust, transfer all over the
United States.

There is a sense of rhythm felt throughout the crew.
There is the synchronized, clocklike motion of a multiple
human machine at work. There is the steady, even click of
the -wheels. There are the pulsating notes of barbershop
harmony indulged in for many a mile, ranging from the
classics to jive, from grand old hymns to ribald ballads, de-


pending on the men and the mood. And each letter clerk has
his own varying, personal mail-flipping rhythm; some prance
or sway in time with their sticking, while others tap letters
regluarly against bundles or fingers.

The recording and receipting for valuable mails enclosed
in "rotary-locked" pouches give an interesting insight into
some clerks' different characteristics. To save a record in
handling, small pouches for our line or for local points are
often enclosed in one large pouch; and when a red man opens
one and discovers all the little ones, he may growl expressively
that the "pouch has pups"— only to find, perhaps, that some
of the smaller bags have "pups" in turn. He calls off the lock
numbers from each opener or liner (working pouch), such
as L-I2345 or B-6789, followed by the numbers of the articles,
and a helper checks all this on the bill enclosed. To avoid
confusion, words are called to replace the lock letters— thus,
Lucy 12345 and Baby 6789— and one can pretty well "size up"
some clerks by noticing what words they choose. For example,
"L" is commonly heard expressed as Lucky, Lucy, Lady,
Lousy, Louis, and Liquor! (Note 14-)

One colorful personality, an old-timer once of the Toledo
& St. Louis (a Wabash route, famed in the song "Wabash
Cannonball"), evidently used worse words than the above for
"L" and the rest of the alphabet too. Although he claimed
he was once an evangelist or preacher of sorts, he was notori-
ous for his vitriolic language. He became famous throughout
the area, especially after some extra trips were clamped on to
his assignment; he referred to them disgustedly as warts, and
this term has meant extra trips in the Midwest ever since.

There will often be a left-handed chap in the crew who
works his mail "backward," and since the larger letters slant
the wrong way, no one else can work his case. Another may
be a "string saver," tying up all discarded twine for re-use, or
a tier of fancy knots (the work of some clerks can be recognized
thus). Some clerks use privately-printed, name-on facing slips
rather than the free government ones; others hang extra sacks
galore on all the aisle hooks or gills on both sides, until no
one can squeeze past. Others, perpetual kidders, threaten to


push senior men (with a desirable assignment) out the door
when crossing bridges; cry, "What's the number of that job?"
when a clerk is "up" and taking it easy; or annoy mail mes-
sengers by calling mail for the local stop as "Dogtown" or
"Bird Center." One such clerk, called by phone for unwanted
extra trips, always sneezed violently while listening, then
repeated, "What did you say?" until the "office" gave upl

There is a more grim form of humor too— the grins and
facetious wisecracks indulged in when men grab the long
safety rods overhead in case of any sudden application of
brakes. They know chances of wreck are almost nil, but they
are prepared for anything, as tight hand holds reveal.

Our new crew member often discovers odd practices
peculiar to that area. On Atlantic coastal lines, for example,
mails for Pensacola, Florida, are always included with those
for Georgia State— because Pensacola is the only locality not
routed to the regular Florida connection, the Florence &:
Jack. R.P.O. (ACL). At certain stops on a line an outgoing
mail separation may be called as hot stuff (a close connection),
snake mail (for West Virginia), or good and bad (as for Cle
Elum, Wash., and dis).

A good crew member soon learns what not to do. He tries
not to drop twine under his neighbor's feet, haul large objects
through a crowded aisle (they are best carried high, to the
cry of "Low ceiling!"), or "have a chair" (frequent the district
superintendent's office) every time he feels mistreated. He
doesn't pile mail in bins in a slovenly, falling-down, old-
wheat-shock stack, or come to work with out-of-date or un-
prepared slips, or keep his things, and change clothes, in the
aisle. He admits responsibility when wrong, helps at doors
or busy cases without being asked, and keeps discarded mis-
cellany off the floor and the case ledges. He avoids imitating
the occasional chap who shows contempt for his clerk-in-
charge, who partakes of hidden stimulants, or who stops nec-
essary sorting to pour out windy chatter or soiled barroom
tales which distract and perhaps annoy his co-workers. He
knows that only a pest "keeps his cup under the water spigot,
buys stamps from his clerk-in-charge, whistles the same tune


all day long, and yells 'Shut up!' at baby chicks." (Most of
these traits were listed by D. D. Bonewits in the Railway
Post Office.)

Our new clerk will develop varied interests. Besides
hunting and card playing, as noted, most clerks like fishing,
ball games, and horse races. Terminal clerks are often adept
at chess. Some are religious workers or even ministers, like
Reverend Lawrence L. Fuqua of Cleveland (Ohio) Terminal.
Some clerks even do farming in their free time; others are
enthusiastic musicians, stamp fiends, or railroad "fans," and a
few are dreamy Shakespearean scholars, writers, trolley fans,
or even R.P.O. enthusiasts (to their co-workers' utter amaze-
ment—See Chapter 13). Possibly the strangest hobby is that
of George E. Travis and his wife, who built a much-public-
ized "Shaker House" in Fort Worth, Texas, containing the
largest saltcellar collection known.

Since 1921 clerks have had to carry revolvers, usually a Colt
.38, with belt and bullets; it must be kept cleaned and pol-
ished, and unloaded when not on duty. Such a requirement
is most essential, as Clerk J. B. Williams of Washington, D.C.,
discovered to his sorrow when his ten-year-old son was seri-
ously injured while playing with his pistol. Official target
instruction is not given, but many clerks can "pull a mean
trigger" and keep up practice in voluntary groups such as the
2nd Division P.T.S. Pistol Club. A congressional investiga-
tion, deploring the lack of firearms training and the extra
responsibility forced upon clerks, has urged that armed
guards be substituted.

Federal law requires recognition of postal gun permits in
all places, but some localities have refused to honor them.
In North Carolina one clerk was fined sixty-five dollars for
carrying his gun on duty, deprived of his twenty-five dollar
weapon, and warned that other armed clerks would be
arrested on sight— because he had no local permit! Don
Steffee, the railway author (see Chapter 16), tells of laying
over for three hours in Saratoga Springs, New York, when
subbing on the Rouses Point & Albany (D&H), and of spend-
ing his time exploring the town or resting in the park— his


gun in a back pocket. One day he was gruffly accosted by a
cop, disarmed, loaded into a patrol car while onlookers
gawked, whisked to the station house, and released only after
examination of his papers. He carried no guns in Saratoga
after that! And even with guns put away, clerks who go and
come in the witching hours before dawn often run afoul of
the law anyhow. A judge in New York City, not knowing of
the P.T.S., has even ruled that "the only people one can
expect to meet at 3 A.M. are those who might be lawless."
Picked up as "suspicious characters" for such reasons as grow-
ing a luxurious beard, attending a criminal trial, or dashing
up the street, recently, were Bob Lareau of the Kan. City &
Albuquerque (Santa Fe); a Bos. & Newport (NYNH&H)
clerk, in Rhode Island; and Ben Spurgeon and Fred McCand-
lish of the Toledo k Charleston (NYCent,Ohio— W.Va.), re-
spectively. This writer has himself been stopped and grilled
at about 2:30 A.M. by the alert constabulary of two different
New Jersey towns near his home!

From time to time, speaking of guns, P.T.S. officials or
inspectors ride the R.P.C). lines or inspect other functions of
the Service, and one superintendent discovered a fault in
Clerk Al Gunn's trip report on the Portland & San Francisco
(SouPac), proposing to give him five demerits for it; and
when the clerk replied (on the form) "Shoot.— A. Gunn," he
was "shot" twenty-five more sinkers for disrespect in official
correspondence. Retired District Superintendent J. P. Fitz-
patrick, inspecting the same line, used to help sort the letters,
and one day found a private note in a package of letters re-
ceived via "go-back pouch" from the opposite train, reading,
"I carried Dixon by. No report." The official added a letter,
making it read, "Now report," and returned it to the clerk
who wrote it and who had missed the exchange at Dixon,
California! On an Eastern line one official tried to catch red-
handed a clerk suspected of imbibing on duty, contrary to
regulations. He watched the suspect throw newspapers for
the whole two hundred-odd miles, was amazed to see the clerk
become steadily woozier until he was completely "out" at the
end of the trip, and gave up the quest in despair. Only after-


ward did the clerk admit to his fellows that his flask was
hung inside a paper sack in his rack, from which he took a
swig every time he leaned over to rearrange or push down the
mail therein 1

Another superintendent, inspecting a terminal, proposed
a charge of five demerits to a clerk merrily whistling, contrary
to his regulations, but canceled them when he received the
reply ". . . Sorry; little did I dream I was disturbing those fine
men with whom I worked ... I was merely trying to knock
off the rough edges of fatigue." Sometimes, however, a P.T.S.
official himself is inspected. A postal inspector interviewed a
former chief clerk, whose office included the Great Northern's
Fast Mail (St. Paul & Williston), to demand why a large
second-class office on its route was not supplied by that train
when it was the only one which could afford a morning
delivery. Told that they couldn't fool around with a little
local stop like that when mailbags thrown in at Minneapolis
were still in the way and being stacked, the inspector replied,
"All right— we will report to the Department that the car
doors are blocked for fifty miles after leaving. In case of
wreck the clerks could not get out. The Chief Clerk knows
this, and has taken no steps to correct it." The local office
supply was established.

Meanwhile our typical clerk has been gradually climbing
up the various salary grades and later longevity levels, each of
which brings a one hundred dollar increase. Usually he has
his eye on some "dream job" on his own or another line,
which he takes when seniority permits. He may be nearing
middle age by then; and, having reached his goal, he will stay
there unless he aspires to be a clerk-in-charge or an official.
Promotions to such positions, at a very substantial salary
increase, are made to qualified clerks who are willing to
accept and who are in the highest automatic grade and with
top seniority, a clerk-in-chargeship, of course, usually preced-
ing any higher promotion. Many clerks do become C.-in-C.s,
especially on the short one-man lines where every clerk is one;
few aspire to higher offices, because of the influence allegedly


As the busy chief of a trunk-line crew, a clerk-in-charge
well earns his Grade 16 or 17 pay and wears the saber, as they
say (or the burlap tights), with distinction. Typing check
sheets and handling correspondence consumes much of his
layoff, and on the job he usually must work letters as well as
supervise, check pouches, write trip reports and records,
handle train space, and what not. He is accountable for all
property in the car, must see that clerks obey orders and work
properly all mail received, if possible, and that mails are
properly dispatched. He must collect the "count" of each
clerk (amount of mail worked) in a pigeonhole labeled
"OFFICE" before he can make out his trip report.

A wise and friendly clerk-in-charge conducts himself like
any other clerk; he is equally considerate and respectful, wears
the same work clothes, works just as hard, and gives "orders,"
if necessary, in the form of pleasant suggestions. (It seldom is
necessary in the ideal crew, where each man knows his duties
in detail.) On his responsible job, as one writer says, he must
have the "patience of Job, the wisdom of Solomon, sometimes
as hard-boiled as a top sergeant, but as diplomatic as Franco
would like to be; wide-awake and alert, yet at times blind
and dumb— meek as a lamb . . . He is custodian of what other
clerks are not to be bothered with: Special orders, post-
marker, 'Missent' and other stamps, canceling pad and ink,
postage stamps, trip-report book, postal guide, extra registry
supplies, clip boards, wire clips, rubber bands, flashlights,
batteries, car keys, space books, special-delivery and check
sheets, and a thousand and one blank forms . . ."

Two-grip man he is rightly called, for he seldom gets all
this material into one case. His extra grip or box, as well as
his regular one, must be bought and handled at his own
expense even though used for government property only.
A C.-in-C. who tried using a mail sack for this purpose was
severely reprimanded.

Scattered among the P.T.S.'s legion of kindly and capable
clerks-in-charsre there are, of course, a few of the Simon
Legree type too. One clerk said in the Railway Post Office:
"They cannot give an order in a respectful manner, and oft-


times use profane language in emphasizing same ... a direct
violation of P.L.RrR." In the same magazine (now Postal
Transport Journal) D. D. Bonewits lists a few other com-
plaints toward such, including, "He uses all the drawers and
boxes for his shoes, hat, parcels, and personal collection . . .
Waits until the engineer whistles, then hurriedly ties out his
local package and charges you with a pouch-exchange failure
when you can't get to the door in time . . . Asserts his author-
ity—officious and arrogant in giving orders . . . Lets some
favorite mollycoddle assign the distribution for the crew . . .
Is a superman on supervision, pygmy on effort . . . Never has
time to listen to suggestions . . . Arranges for valet service—
someone to wait on him, no matter how busy . . . Fallaciously
thinks the hard way is the best way to get the most out of
his crew . . . Never gives partner a lift when a ten-minute
breather would have saved carrying mail by . . . Careless
about orders from his superiors— thinks they are meant for
. . . the crew," and so on.

It must again be emphasized that such clerks-in-charge are
much in the minority, and that the chief himself has to con-
tend with the annoying crew-member habits quoted from
Mr. Bonewits earlier, not to mention many others. And
of course there are anecdotes galore about clerks-in-charge.
A C.-in-C. on the old Chicago & Hannibal (IC-Wabash), says
F. C. Gardiner, discovered a sleeper in his Decatur box just
after all mail was unloaded at Decatur. The conscientious
chief took the letter in his teeth, jumped off, snatched a pouch
off the truck, unlocked it, threw the lock in the pouch, and
closed it up, yelling, "Gimme a lock! Gimme a lock!" until
the second clerk tossed him one just as the train started up.
When he jumped back inside, his teeth still held the letter
tightly clenched!

Old "Rocky," in charge on a Western run, would fuss at
his men whenever he got caught up on his work; so to occupy
him they would slip a penny under his letters— keeping him
busy for half on hour digging into his grips, sprawled amid
patent medicines and junk, hunting for a "matter-found-
loose-in-the-mails" form and writing it up. Years ago, Owen


D. Clark gasped when, while he was throwing mail as a sub
on a branch line in the East, a sudden shot rang out in the
car. His clerk-in-charge was standing there with a smoking
.45 in his hand. But he hadn't gone berserk; his old-style
gun had a secret shell compartment, which he had forgotten
about when he dumped the bullets out before hammering a
loose nail with the butt. Before putting them back, he had
decided to give the trigger a couple of test clicks!

On the Atchison & Downs (MoPac) in Kansas an elderly
bachelor clerk-in-charge had a crush on a little postmistress
out on the line. The romance progressed nicely during the
train's two-minute stops there as the little lady met the train,
until the old chap stayed home sick one day and a sub (who
resembled him enough to pass for a son) was sent oiu amply
coached by the crew. He answered the postmistress's inquiry:

"Yeah, Pop's rheumatism has got him again." Then, notic-
ing a pendant she wore, "Say! Where d'ye get Ma's locket-
did Pop give it to you?"

The old gent could never understand why she stopped
meetinsr the train.

Clerks-in-charge have run up enviable records in super-
vising the same crew for many decades. Before 1900, it was
reported, J. C. Beck of the N. Y. & Chic. (NYCent) had held
such a record for nearly thirty-five years. Palmer C. Vincent
of the Chatham & N. Y. (NYCent), supervised one crew from
1906 to 1943.

Then there was J. F. "Cat" Caterlin of the K.C. & Denison
(M-K-T), who perhaps typifies the ideal clerk-in-charge, with
forty years' total service on the line. One could not find, says

E. E. Stuart, a more beloved or capable chief; he was a charter
member of the R.M.A. and a division secretary, and a regular
"steam engine" on his Texas letters in the mail car. He
"would slash a double row five feet long, jab his right arm
like a piston, and never slacken until the last letter was in
. . . 'Old Cat can sure hide it,' they said. It was his best, his
whole best, nothing but the best . . . Competent in action,
superlative in judgment." He was sometimes brusque, but
never showed a temper; kindly to his men, with a sound


philosophy and keen sense of humor.

Other clerks, too, have run up some amazing service
records. The longest and most distinguished of all is said to
be that of Christopher A. McCabe, of the St. Paul & Willis-
ton (GN), who became district superintendent at St. Paul,
Minnesota, to round out fifty-seven years of continuous ser-
vice since his appointment in 1889 at $800 a year. A dele-
gate to R.M.A. conventions as far apart as 1892 and 1949,
he retired in 1946 as "the best-loved and admired man in the
10th Division." He was "fired" twice during the hectic early
days, felt a gun in his ribs during a train robbery in 1894,
and is still rallying against any curtailment in the P.T.S.

Longest career on one line was probably that of William
H. Meyers, of the S.P.'s former Placerville &: Sacramento
(California), or of Fred Sheldon of the N. Y. & Chic. (NYCent),
just retired— both fifty years. Other high P.T.S. service records
were those of "Dean" John H. Pitney, Boston & Alb. (B&rA),
over fifty-five years (see Chapter 16); 12th Division Super-
intendent John Morris, Memphis Gren. & New Orleans
(IC), fifty-five years; 7th Division Superintendent Joseph A.
Muldoon, St. Louis & Monett (StL-SF), fifty-four years; and
so on down.

A clerk can retire optionally at fifty-five or over, but in
any case not later than seventy. Formerly, railway mail clerks
were arbitrarily retired at sixty-two— much to the displeasure
of clerks still strong and capable at that age who had children
to put through college or homes to pay for. On the other
hand, most younger clerks— eager for the promotions that
retirements bring them— are anxious to restore a compulsory
retirement of sixty-five, sixty, or fifty-five. They argue that
the old-timers need a few years of well-earned leisure and
that too many have slowed up and must be "carried" by the
young clerks. The argument goes merrily on, but it would
certainly seem obvious that if a clerk is healthy, interested
in his work, and truly efficient, he should be permitted to
stay to seventy if he needs the money.

Reactions to the final departmental "order of discontinu-
ance" at the end of the month in which a birthday occurs


are mixed. Many vigorous old-timers definitely hate to leave
the job and the co-workers they like so much and snort at
the idea of some sub abruptly relieving them in the middle
of a trip when the fatal day arrives. Others eagerly await it,
as an emancipation from a lifelong grind, perhaps flinging
the old road grip into a river on the last run.

Many outstanding clerks are honored with a dinner and
gifts on their retirement, especially if they have become
officials; but some were still on the road, like J. H. Lucitt of
the N.Y. & Pt. Pleasant (CRR-NJ), to whom seventy clerks
gave a banquet, autograph book, and diamond ring. An-
other unusual retirement was that of Joseph McElvin of the
Kan. City & Denison (M-K-T), whose father was still on the
retirement rolls himself. And when Lum Andrews, of the
Chic. & Council Bluffs (CB&Q), retired in 1919, his son Carl
had been on the line fourteen years— and is still on it, a
family record of 77 years' service on one line! (Note 22.)

The low retirement annuity, averaging about fifteen hun-
dred dollars annually for those retired before 1949, is a
great hardship to many clerks. (Clerks retired now fare only
a little better.) A mere fraction of active salary, it is
unlike army, navy, and similar pensions in being subject to
income tax too! Railroad employees retire at much better
pay after paying less in deductions (6 per cent in the P.T.S.);
their pensions are tax-exempt by law; and they often receive
passes good for rides on most railroads for themselves and
their family. On the other hand, the retired clerk's com-
mission - restricted to single-route business trips as it was— is

Online LibraryBryant Alden LongMail by rail : the story of the Postal Transportation Service → online text (page 7 of 38)