Mail on the rails

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A NEW postage stamp commemorates the ``Railroad'' Mail Cars of the 1920s, and the picture of the mail car is right side up. (There was an airmail stamp years ago on which the picture of the airplane was upside down, a printer's goof, and that stamp became immediately of great price among collectors.) Maybe this new 21-center in the transportation series will achieve similar value, because it, too, has a mistake. 'Twas never ``railroad'' in the lingo of the RMS - Railway Mail Service. The car was a Railway Mail Car. The RMS was the Railway Mail Service. The RPC was a Railway Postal Clerk. The car was an RPO - a Railway Post Office.

I hasten to make this clear, because my dad was one of the 30,000-odd RPCs that sorted mail in some 4,000 Railway Mail Cars back in those 1920s. Dad always made it clear to anybody who needed instruction that while he did ride the trains, he was NOT a railroad man. He was a railway postal clerk, and that meant something. While his train (Boston to Halifax) howled up along the Sebasticook River in the Maine woodlands, he stood at a sorting case handling mail for No Breakfast (NB - New Brunswick), No Supper (NS - Nova Scotia), PI (Prince Edward Island), anything still in Maine, and half the sainted towns in PQ.

On the return trip, he was the ``city clerk'' for Greater Boston - he had memorized the distribution for some 30,000 business firms in the Hub. He retired after 42 years, claiming he'd ridden 7 million miles standing up, and his postal clerk's rubber stamp for personalizing his facing slips is in the Smithsonian Institution.

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Dad would hoot in hilarity might he know that his RPO (East Division, Bangor & Boston, Train 8) is now downgraded to a ``railroad'' car. No way, Mr. Postmaster General - it was the Railway Mail Service. I speak as an expert. Not only my dad, but my wife's dad as well, was an RPC. Ben Wells ``ran'' on the Boston & Albany RPO. She and I owe 56 years of wedded bliss to the RMS!

When I was in college, my dad spoke to his chief clerk about a job for me during the Christmas rush. So while my college mates all went home for the holidays, I hied me to the Portland, Maine, terminal of the RPO and sorted mountains of Christmas cards bound for Prince Edward Island.

Dad suggested that particular sorting case, because the island had but three separations - Kings, Prince, and Queens. These were the three counties of the province, and amounted to the three cities of Georgetown, Summerside, and Charlottetown.

Even a college kid could handle that, and it was the secure job in the terminal during the Christmas-card rush. I always surmised Dad had once done the clerk a favor. The admittance card that amounted to my RMS ID expired Christmas morning, 1929, but I have kept it among my souvenirs. For one reason, it proves I'm a natural-born citizen, and is easier to carry than a birth certificate or passport. If the Smithsonian shows an interest, I will be glad to deposit it.

I never rode in a railway mail car as Dad did. When the Christmas rush was over, and my last card had been pouched for PI, I went home and crawled into bed and slept three days.

Three days was standard in the RMS. Dad's job, depending on the train schedule, made him ``six-and-eight.'' In six days he rode distance enough and worked hours enough for two weeks, giving him eight days off for ``rest and study.'' He'd come home after his six days and sleep for three. The whole neighborhood kept a serene silence until Dad had his makeup sleep - nary a dog barked, and children whispered at play.

The four of us RMS youngsters, and Mother, lived with the postal service, and all of us, at one time or another, would help him study his distribution. We knew which RPOs pouched on branch lines as well as he did. We didn't always know where a town was, but we knew how its mail got there.

One time in school the teacher had us working on the ancient ``post road'' Benjamin Franklin laid out through our town, and we learned how stagecoaches carried the mail between Boston and Augusta.

Teacher asked us to look at the map and bring in a list of towns the stagecoach passed through on this route. My list didn't need any map. I set down everything from Charlestown to Hallowell, and Teacher thought I was being smart-alecky. As I recall, I had three sheets of paper. Teacher wrote a note to Mother, suggesting I be reprimanded for showing off, and Mother looked at my list and chided, ``You left out Arundel!''

Dad went through only one railroad accident in his time. The locomotive ``split a switch'' and the frog shot up through the floor of the mail car. The clerks jumped for the safety rods overhead and waited for things to calm down.

I have a chewed-off portion of rail iron on my shop bench as an anvil and straighten nails on it. It weighs 35 pounds and Dad always said he found it in his hip pocket after Train Eight split the switch at Andover.

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