National Geographic : 1954 Jul
Everyone's Servant, the Post Office Improperly addressed letters are "duds," and the men who specialize in deciphering duds are "hard men" or "nixie clerks." Letters that cannot be readdressed, or re turned to the sender, end up in the dead letter sections of large post offices. Each year approximately 23 million letters and one mil lion packages meet that fate. Unclaimed cash found in these letters, averaging some $100, 000 annually, goes into postal revenues; like wise $300,000 from the sale of merchandise. Invariably the fault lies with the public: improper addressing, no return address, in secure packaging and wrapping. Whimsical Addresses Deciphered Fictional detectives seem pale in compari son with nixie clerks. Frequently these postal veterans match wits with wags who address letters in Morse code, in musical notes, by numbers corresponding to position of letters in the alphabet, with drawings, or with chemical symbols, such as H 2Otown for Watertown. Clerks are not required to decipher whim sical addresses, but they often do. Most of their trouble stems from misspelling and poor handwriting. A nixie clerk showed me his tabulation of 197 spellings of Chicago, among them Chaque chico, Shehego, Zizabo, and Hizago. I saw letters in difficult scrawls addressed to "Tourtle Cleck, U.S.A." (Turtle Creek, Pennsylvania); "Poki-hunter, I." (Pocahontas, Iowa); and "Leven Hull, Id." (Twin Falls, Idaho). Articles spilled from containers and found loose in the mails often give employees their worst headaches. Lester Bricks, a New York official, recalls spending weary days tracking down the addressees for a human eye pre served in a jar of liquid and an urn contain ing human ashes. When dispatched mail leaves our post offices, it passes into the vast realm of the Bureau of Transportation, jealous custodian of the time-honored slogan, "The mail must go through." And, come hail or high water, it always does-by aircraft, rail, horseback, bus, truck, ship, dog team-in fact, by just about every means that man can conceive.* A vast Teletype network links Bureau rep resentatives; if there is a transportation tie-up in one region, orders shoot out all over the country to reroute mail around the trouble. Within the past year the Bureau has intro duced a number of experimental innovations in mail handling, including the dispatch of first-class (3-cent) mail by air at no extra charge. European countries pioneered the practice. The United States followed suit in 1953, linking Chicago with New York City and Washington, D. C. Early in 1954 we added routes between these three northern cities and points in Florida. Recently a num ber of western communities were included. The new service supplements, but does not displace, regular airmail. Your airmail let ters are guaranteed transportation by plane, whereas the airlines contracted to carry 3 cent mail on a space-available basis. So far, however, they have found room for all the letters. After World War I the Post Office intro duced experimental helicopter airmail de livery in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Later the Department included Chicago and New York. Chicago's Helicopter Air Service, Inc., shut tles mail from dawn to dusk, six days a week, between Midway Airport and the roof of the General Post Office (pages 148 and 149). This service also picks up and delivers mail to 32 suburban communities for 52 post offices. Leapfrogging congestion, the company's fleet of seven helicopters reduces suburban de livery time by as much as 24 hours. When loaded with mail, the aircraft, all Bell 47-D models, have room only for the pilot. I rode to the post office in a train ing ship with operations manager Robert Angstadt. Throughout the 9-mile trip we flew formation with a companion copter de livering mail. Flight Route Follows Canal Hurdling the airfield fence, we crossed a broad avenue, skirted a housing development, and pinwheeled up to an altitude of 500 feet. In a moment the sluggish, murky waters of the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal appeared below. We banked gently and followed the shoreline. Exposed as in tabletop-scale relief lay the industrial heart of a great city: directly below, a switching yard, its vast expanse neatly ruled with line upon line of freight cars; to our left, the plants of titans, such as International Har vester and Commonwealth Edison; to our right, the pens of Union Stock Yards, a study in cubism. * See "J. W. Westcott, Postman for the Great Lakes," by Cy La Tour, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, December, 1950.