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Mail Delivery Was Catch as Catch Can

By John Gould / May 29, 1992



IN the old days of the Railway Postal Service, a train would howl through many a small town without stopping. Our town was stopped at with the exception of the midnight Halifax Express. This was a through train from Boston, and in its time maintained the record for over-the-route speed. It usually ran in two sections, mail car and Pullmans ahead, and the work cars and coaches following in about five minutes.

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At a sustained speed of 100 miles an hour, the train dismissed our Freeport in scarcely more than a twinkling - the engineer holding down the whistle lanyard so all our grade crossings were celebrated in one unearthly toot.

So our town, as far as the Halifax Express was concerned, was known to the clerks in the mail car as a "catch and throw." A clerk would make the Freeport pouch ready and lay it athwart the closed portside door. At a precise spot that door was pulled open and the clerk kicked the pouch into the black Freeport night. And on the other side of the car another clerk would open his door, pull down the handle on a device, and snag Freeport's outgoing pouch off a yardarm where it had been hung for his attention.

This was catch and throw, and took care of towns too small for a scheduled stop.

That took care of Freeport, except for Earl Buck. Earl Buck was our night watchman - our only policeman - and the logical person to be mail messenger for the Halifax Express. Before the train was due he would hang the outgoing pouch, and after the train passed he would hunt up and down the line until he found the incoming pouch.

There came a night when mischance complicated this routine. The pouch left the mail car door all right, and then caught the wind askew, somehow, and flew back under the train. Earl, who always stood behind a big tree until the danger was over, now approached and couldn't find the pouch. It was, you may believe, chewed pretty much to bits and scattered along the rails for four miles.

Not much could be done until daylight, and then Earl, the postmaster, all the clerks, and a dozen or so volunteers walked the main line and picked up the pieces. When the paper train from Boston, which stopped at every town, came at 8 a.m., the post-office clerks paused to sort the morning mail, and then returned to pick up more pieces.

For two days, using every odd minute, the clerks and Postmaster Luther Cushing fitted letters back together as if doing a giant community jigsaw puzzle, and Luther always claimed that every piece of mail in that pouch was accounted for. At least nobody ever asked about a missing letter. True, some letters lacked some pieces, and late in August, Chester Blake brought in a shred the wind had blown into the bushes by Spar Creek.

I was going to tell you about our No. 2 granddaughter, who is studying this semester at York University in England. It is her first adventure off North America, and she plans to see some of the Continent as well as certain oddities such as Ireland and Scotland. Karyn knows her polites, so as soon as she was settled in her dormitory she penned the news to her loving grandparents over her first tea and scones. Here we sat in Colonial Maine awaiting this news.

We got the letter.

It came in what may well be termed a body bag, indicating that the attendant mishap is common enough so our postal service keeps an adequate supply on hand. Karyn's neatly composed report was chewed to bits in a way that reminded me of Earl Buck, and each bit was stained with black ink.

Knowing well that a pouch can roll back under a mail car, I accepted this as a hazard of the Yorkshire Ridings, but then I found in the plastic bag, along with the shreds, an explanation from the Portland, Maine, postmaster. To expedite service, he wrote, high speed sorting equipment has been installed, and now and then a piece of mail fetches up. He hoped we would forgive this inconvenience.

I think we might have done a Luther Cushing with the chewed up letter, but the black ink defeated any effort. In the days of Luther Cushing and Earl Buck, postage on a letter was 3 cents. A difference, let us say, of a quid, two bob, and six and thruppence. More or less.