Wednesday, April 30, 2014

 My Postal Farewell


            How do I sum up thirty-four years of working at the East Hartland Post Office? A quote from Charles Dickens' novel comes to mind: “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times,” and like his novel, it is a tale of two “cities”—rather three divisions—customer service, management and micro-management. This is part rant because I wanted to give a picture of what happens behind the scenes and part a nod of appreciation to the customers and co-workers.

            I didn't spend my entire working career at the USPS. I spent seven years at CG Insurance Company in three different positions but left there when my first child was born.

            When the USPS was offering their exam, I decided to take it. My first interview was actually for Norfolk, CT where we lived at the time but I didn’t get that job.

            My second interview was for East Hartland, the town I grew up in and lived in for fifteen years.

The moment I walked in, I saw a friendly, familiar face, Evie Bjorbekk. I had gone to school and church with her son. She was genuinely thrilled when she found out I was there to apply for the other clerk position. She put in more than one good word for me to the Postmaster, Priscilla Evonsion. 

            I started April 19, 1980 and I never left East Hartland in my entire career except for three weeks of being a trainer at the academy. The hours at East Hartland, though part time, were miserable: Monday, Wednesday, Friday 8 am – 10 am and 4 pm – 6 pm and Saturdays 730 am – 12:30 pm. The commute was 25 miles one way so I often spent the middle parts of those split days visiting Mom who babysat for me. Eventually we moved to Barkhamsted, which I love, and that made things much better.

            We had a good postal team. Priscilla was clearly the boss but also a friend. She was an excellent teacher providing the ground work for me to follow all the postal rules and regulations precisely. Evelyn was a teacher of life, mostly by example. She cared about people and few people know the things she did above and beyond, for example, I saw her on several occasions, use her own money to put the proper postage on an envelope where someone had not put on enough.

            In addition to our postal duties, one of the most important things we did in the eyes of the children was to hand out cookies. Looking back and thinking of that glass cookie jar, which we took turns refilling at our own expense, it was a very unsanitary thing. The kids were trained to say, “Cookie, please.” so there were not so many hands in the cookie jar—yet, we did not wash our hands between sorting mail, making change and handing out cookies. People didn't think about those things as much then. Heck, they licked the stamps we handed them. Is it any wonder anyone survived?

            Priscilla had them install and alter the post office to accommodate several hundred new boxes for the growth we were seeing in town. Shortly after that, William Bakken started a petition to have rural delivery in East Hartland. The rural route was added and most of the new boxes went to waste except for the larger ones which we used as storage. More than twenty years later, three quarters of them were removed and sent to an office that needed them.

            Over the years our “team” changed as people came and went—all but me. When Priscilla transferred to Southwick, Mass. in 1985, a secretary from Hartford was sent out to serve as Officer in Charge, the term for temporary postmaster. I can't say it didn't burn my buns that I had to train my new boss who didn't even know how much a stamp cost. Ida Martin learned the job well (I'm a good teacher) and was there six months.

            The next postmaster later that same year was Mary Ransom.  She was my favorite boss. She had the most wonderful sense of humor. She did her job conscientiously and cheerfully. We always had laughs. What I appreciated most about Mary was her unselfish nature telling me that my family came first and allowing me whatever time off I needed when she could cover. 

            When Mary retired, I was assigned as officer in charge in 1992 and I was hoping I might have a chance to apply for the postmaster position. However, one day six months later without warning, this tall gentleman showed up and told me he was the new postmaster. What do I say about Wayne Hapgood?  He also enjoyed life and somehow unlike all the previous management, didn't seem to let the job fluster him. He assigned a few of his duties to me and was the only postmaster I saw that would occasionally put his feet up on the desk and read the newspaper for a few minutes.

            Wayne taught me a different philosophy entirely opposite of my original mentor, he said when management above gives you all these extra reports and things to do, which they always loaded upon us, they just want you to sign off that you did it. It doesn't matter if you did it or not. Just say you did. I am sure a lot of postmasters had that philosophy as it was almost essential to be able to finish everything I just could never adopt that. Wayne was an easy going boss and he did express his appreciation for the extra work that I did. He was the one who suggested that I become a clerk trainer at the academy. 

            I have always enjoyed training people and am glad that I had that opportunity for three weeks of my career. I am sad that I am not going to be allowed the time to train my replacement. I would have made him/her great.

            No sooner had I become a trainer, when Wayne moved on to another job in the USPS. They made me OIC once again in 1995 for seven months in East Hartland and this time when I applied for the postmaster position I got it. I was chosen by Bill Cournoyer and became postmaster on February 17, 1996. Sadly, he was not my boss when I was sworn in months later and so I learned of the revolving door of bosses. I wish I had the presence of mind back then to start counting how many bosses I had. I know since 2007 I've had 12.

I embraced the job of postmaster wholeheartedly. Besides the regular duties, I enjoyed “making up” extra activities, for example Postmaster for a day essay contest. The young winner spent a day being the “postmaster”. I did that four years. We had mailbox improvement contests, letter writing contests, coloring contests and more. We had scouted and school tours. I enjoyed decorating for the holidays. We had two special cancellations over the years, one for Bethany Lutheran Brethren Church and one for the Folk Festival. Our big claim to fame was the stamp unveiling of the Candy Heart stamp when we had a fun time with all the people in Hartland who had Love or Heart in their names. Three TV stations and two newspapers covered it. Those were happy memories.

            Unfortunately management became more and more demanding over the years. We were required to do daily manual checklists of the things we already did anyway. These checklists had to be completed and available at a moment's notice and then there were several places online that we had to reaffirm that we really did it—check lists of the checklists.  I remember one day when I was called close to 10:00 am when I was supposed to have all the mail in the boxes. I was asked to fax the checklist into them. Well, I had several customers and when I hadn't faxed it in ten minutes, they called back. I said, “Listen, I am not done distributing the mail and I have customers. Is this more important than that?” They said, “Yes.” After I faxed it in, they called to reprimand me because there was one item on the list that did not pertain to our office, and I had put N/A on the line for the entire week. I was told not to pre-populate any of the lists. That is just a bird's eye view of the micro-managing that the postmasters have to endure.

            It's those things that I don't want to forget about the post office, because I will miss this job that has been part of my life for thirty-four years. I don't want to forget the wakeup call at 5 am at home when I was being reprimanded for the parking lot not being plowed for the truck from Hartford. I couldn't understand why they were calling so early when the truck didn't come until 7:30 am. Turns out they called the wrong postmaster. Then there was the call at 11:00 pm at home. One of our duties is to scan a barcode in the collection box to prove that we did our job and emptied it. On this particular day, I had not worked, but an employee had scanned the collection box ONE minute early. So, at 11:00 pm I was told I had to return to my office, open the safe to get the collection box key, re-scan the box, download the scanner, wait for it to show up on the computer, print the report (we do this every night anyway) and then if there was any mail in the box, since it could have been put in the box during that minute time (I think the employee would have seen someone in the time they were walking back to the office and obviously any mail in there was from 5 pm – 11 pm), to drive it to Hartford. Thanks to Wayne's old advice, I can say there was no mail in that collection box. (wink, wink).

            In the earlier years of the route, if there was no carrier available for some reason, the postmaster sometimes had to deliver the mail in their own vehicle. I didn't mind casing the carrier mail, but I hated delivering. When the LLV (long life vehicle) was assigned to our office, I never took the test so I never had to deliver the route again.

            It's going to take a while for me to forgive management for forcing me to transfer the office to a new accounting system the week I retire. It required 4 hours of training and several hours of preparation and a ten hour day for the actual transfer. Not all offices are switching at this time but they wanted to do it at my office because there was too much a new person could “mess up.” As I write this, five days before I retire, they still are scrambling to fill my position after 50 days’ notice.  This job not only entails, sorting the mail, forwarding the mail, returning or re-routing mail, but of course, knowing the services we sell and how to process them for the customer. There are special ways to dispatch the mail. Each package that comes into the office has to be scanned a minimum of two times, sometimes three scans. That's the clerk end of the job. The postmaster end requires keeping track of stamp stock, ordering within a certain dollar limit, keeping track of box rents, accounting paper work and bank deposit, paying the bills and ordering other necessary supplies and forms as you run out, time cards and volume reports. There are a slew of emails daily to weed through and many, many other reports to do. There are also rural audits every year or two where every single piece of mail the carrier touches has to be manually counted and recorded by type of mail for two weeks. Believe me, it is not a fun task. I include this information because many people don't think there is much to the job. I have five sites to click on before I even start sorting the mail in the morning and more during the day. This is just the postmaster job in a nutshell.

I could write many pages about my exasperation with management spinning their wheels on things that didn't matter. Then there was the time when I missed a scan or something and I was told that I had to respond to them with what I was going to do to punish myself. I thought about responding with 50 lashes with a wet noodle or better yet, taking a “day of reflection”--there really is such a thing.

            Most of my bosses I never met face to face. It actually is nice to go to work and not have to see your boss every day in person, but you need to be self-motivated to complete all the tasks. On the other hand, if the boss had been down the hall, then maybe it would have been easier for me to beg him in person, rather by email or phone, to find me someone to cover so I could be with my mother in the hospital. That was the only time I had to go over my boss's head.  And now, despite 50 days’ notice, they waited until the final weeks to try and find a replacement for me and have been scrambling. On the other hand, they didn't waste any time to start the process to reduce the office hours. (It could not be done before September if I was still there). I will be the last full time postmaster for East Hartland. Yes, management has made me laugh, exasperated me and made me cry.  These sour memories will remind me why I am glad not to be working there anymore. I blame this micro-managing with my sometimes grumpy moods with the customers.

            I worked with a nice group of people over the years in the office, clerks, carriers and PMRs (postmaster reliefs). The ones I worked the longest with were Jymi, George, Kathy and Brian. I also gained a wonderful support group of fellow postmasters who called each other to solve problems, decipher what nonsense management was asking of us or to gripe about it or the rare irate customer. These co-workers, via phone, became friends. On occasion we see each other face to face and have a bond that we will always share.

            Then there are the customers. I've seen customers come and go. We had regulars who came to hang out with us a little bit every day. We received advice on gardening, finances, stamp collecting and many other topics. We learned of history in “their day” from the seasoned customers. Many shared personal events or happenings in their lives. One loved to tell us jokes—often repeats, but we still laughed. Others had their key phrases they would always greet us with, such as Tim Root when it was a sunny day, “Great day for roofing.”

            We were the “go to” place for why the fire alarm went off the night before or who in town might do a certain trade. Quite often someone would wander in hopelessly lost asking for directions. Sometimes they were close—other times they were so far off it was unbelievable. One honestly was a bus load of people who needed directions to NYC.

            There was the day that I was rushing out the front door of my home to come to work and I twisted my ankle and when I went to catch myself, I landed on a rock and twisted that other one. I had to get to work as no one else was available. I drove my standard transmission car and worked the 8 hours resting my feet on another chair when I could. Dear Penny Lacasse brought me ice for my feet and a 2 liter of Coke to see me through. That evening I went to the walk-in clinic and came out with a pair of crutches for my two sprained ankles. Fortunately, I had the next day off.

            There was the blizzard when I actually slept alone on a sleeping bag on the floor of the post office not wanting to drive home.

            I can't tell you how much we appreciated the goodies and presents that customers gave us. It is especially great to have such pick-me-ups in the hectic holiday season. When Evie retired, she would always stop by with enough copies of the Daily Bread for everyone in the office. When she passed away, Einar Olsen stepped in and continued her tradition. The first time he brought them, I thought of how she still lived on via others.

            We loved the homemade cookies, the chocolates, the pistachios, eggs, warm waffles, even breakfast from the breakfast with Santa. I can't remember all the goodies we received, but I always tried to write thank you notes as my Mom taught me. Everything was greatly appreciated.

            I was humbly honored and thankful when I was given the opportunity to be the grand marshal in the East Hartland Volunteer Fire Department parade. I will always remember that.

            I thought about keeping track of the names of the stuffed toys that we mailed out that some child had left at a relative’s house. Of all the many times that we sent out packages of things people left behind, this year I had a first. Someone mailed back something they had accidentally taken home with them from someone's house.

            We had baby chicks, bees and tadpoles arrive to be delivered and coconuts with addresses written on them—it is scary to reach in a sack and feeling something hairy. Before the days of our “fragile, liquid,” etc. question and requirement of a return address, we had an extremely nasty package arrive that had to be locked in the bathroom in a plastic bag until it could be delivered. We even had a couple of cremated remains to be delivered over the years.

            Over thirty-four years I guess I was lucky that there were only four unwanted guests who wandered in over all that time—a mouse, a snake and a chipmunk, the last two both in one week!

            I could go on and on and maybe someday I will write more. I will miss the social interaction and the intimacies that were shared with me and the customers who became friends. I will miss hearing of the latest bargains that could be found somewhere or of an activity going on. But I won't be far away and I know I will see many of you again and there is always face book.

            Now for the million dollar question that people keep asking, “What are you going to do in retirement?” First I have four doctor and two dentist appointments in May because I have not been able to get time off. I have worked the last 31 weeks, six days a week with one day off for a funeral and five hours for a nasty stomach bug.

            My plans are to finish my novel, a love story but I also write short stories, children's stories, and poetry and have a comic strip idea besides blogging. I will have time to “really” cook, read, play the piano, and clean out our attic, and do volunteer work. I look forward to more time with family and friends, day trips and vacations. I have worked over 41 years but if I get tired of being a starving writer and beach bum, I will look for another job. The USPS has said they will gladly hire me back at less than half the pay I earned—what a bargain, with my years of experience. No thanks.

            I am looking forward to this next chapter in my life and thank the people of East Hartland for truly making the last chapter part of the best of times.


PS I apologize for the lengthiness. There was more I could say too, but I just wanted to give you a glimpse of my time at the post office.

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