Eighteen and Eight
Since the Postal Service has been in the news recently, especially with the removal of high-speed sorting machines, I thought I would tell you all about the Jurassic days of casing all our mail by hand.
Working at Mack Trucks was great. I made a good wage, only had to work Saturdays if I chose to do so, and after thirty or more years, I could collect a pension, including health care. I had a sedentary job for most of my thirteen and a half years, and only did physical work near the end of that short career, working on the line in Macungie.
First, I worked on the cab line where I put on door and window handles on the driver’s side, the aluminum step, and squirted sealant into the grommets and all open holes in the firewall, a not too difficult job, if one kept up, or even a little ahead.
My second job, after being bumped off my gussie, by a more senior employee, was to help another guy install the windshield of a cab, working above my head most of the time.
My third and final job, before being sent back to Allentown, was to install mufflers. I spent my working hours on a creeper under the truck as it moved down the line, picking up the muffler, bolting it to the frame, and then keeping it up by installing U-shaped hooks and attacking them to the frame. It was so tiring that most times I just laid on the creeper for my two six-minute breaks. Lunch was twelve minutes, and I would crawl out to eat my sandwich and drink a soda.
I knew that I was going to lose my job soon, so I applied to take the exam to become a postal worker. Several weeks before the exam, I took a four-hour course where I learned the shortcuts I would need to ace the test.
Casing mail is all about speed and accuracy, and the exam tested one’s ability to perform this task. It was a two-part, eleven-minute test. Part one was about ninety-five questions, if memory serves. On the left side column was a list of addresses, on the right-side column was another list.
I had approximately three seconds to determine if the side by side addresses were exactly the same, or somewhat different. The most difficult part, after making my determination, was to completely blacken the answer circle with my number 2 pencil. That concluded the speed part of the test.
Part two dealt with memory and accuracy. There were five address blocks, with five different addresses in each block. On the test, you would see one specific address and had to answer which block it was in, A to E. I think we had eighty-eight questions in this section, and had to answer and mark your circle in about five seconds.
I scored ninety-six out of one hundred, plus was awarded an additional five points for being a veteran. Disabled veterans received ten additional points to their score.
I was hired and my first day on the job was December 16th, 1986. I was thirty-nine and a half years old, a rookie, when most employees my age were midway through their careers.
The next task I had to pass was my ninety-day probation period. My supervisor would judge my performances during the Post Office version of Basic Combat Training. As a recruit in BCT, I was fat, and out of shape, and now I was also old.
Most of my days were spent delivering routes. A carrier would case the route, pull it down, and I would grab the loaded satchel, and either be transported or walk to my first delivery point. Generally, when a professional carrier cased the route, there were few errors, and having to be quick, when we delivered, we rarely had time to check to see if we were delivering the correct mail. As long as we delivered to the correct address, we rarely got into any trouble.
The accepted method of handing the mail was to rest the flats, which were large pieces of mail and magazine sized mail, in the crook of your arm, and hold a bundle of letter-sized mail in your hand. Using your free hand, you would peel letters for a specific address off the pile, and then peel of the corresponding flats, collating both piles together to deliver to the mailbox, or slip through the door slot.
Finally, I was given the opportunity to case mail, so before leaving work the day before, I walked to the route to check out the case. A mailman’s case consisted of two or three five row metal boxes with every address, or two addresses in a section, marked off on the case and split up by metal separators.
The job at hand was to grab a handful of letters and begin sorting them into the proper divider, your eyes and hands moving all around the case until you would finally recognize where to put the mail piece from memory. It was sort of like the game Concentration.
After casing the letter mail you were going to take out, you would pick up a handful of flats and rest them on your arm. The flat case was a series of cubicles with multiple address labels—remember the test—where you would throw the flats into the proper bin, and then when finished you would have to sort them into delivery order on your desk.
Doing the job properly, and speedily, the speed that was required was eighteen letter pieces a minute, and eight flats. I think I used to case close to thirty letters and fifteen flats a minute once I got the hang of it.
Today’s mail sorters now ‘case’ about thirty-five thousand pieces an hour, and in delivery order. I had been retired once they began using flat sorting machines, and I know literally nothing about them.
Note: If you want to learn more about Larry, read his interview A Time Traveling Man
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