How Captain Finney Wrote A Card, and His Own Ticket

If I get the message, a recent letter to the editor said that if we stop trading with Wal-Mart, the Postal Service will stop closing post offices. To be sure, this is the computer age and we can never predict what will come out, but I have reregulated this wisdom to my file in which the gentleman says, to compliment the lady, "You look much more as you are now than you did yesterday."

The only time I was in Wal-Mart they didn't have what I wanted, so I didn't buy anything, and the next day they closed 10 post offices. I think, otherwise, that this letter was intended to compliment the Postal Service, and if so, I now apologize to several of my readers who are sitting back wondering why I haven't answered their recent good letters. I have always operated on the jolly premise that if I manage to get a reader, I should do all I can to hang onto him, so I like to respond to those who write to tell me anything at all.

And just lately the Postal Service has brought into use a stamp-canceling machine that puts a blob of darkness on the stamp but also blots out all else across the top of the envelope. This includes the return address. You'd be surprised how many people rely on the Postal Service not to do such a thing. So now you know, dear Mabel Thornhurst, why I ain't writ to thank you for the kind words. May I suggest that the same indigenous ineptitude is what closes heritage post offices only because the windows are dirty again, and this has nothing to do with Wal-Mart?

The US Postal Service was not instituted to be an omniscient institution, but was meant to serve the citizens in the matter of communications. The notion that it was meant to be self-supporting can be dismissed and never brought up again. Its primary function, however, has never been to deliver mail. That was the excuse, not the reason. As the nation developed and people came out of the swamps, Congress provided funds to make up the difference and keep the mail moving. Does anybody remember when every congressman sent free garden seeds to constituents? It wasn't to promote husbandry, but to give Congress the excuse to subsidize the Farm Bureau.

The US never subsidized its merchant marine, as did all other countries. We were pure about that. Now, while you were posting a letter at the enormous cost of 3 cents, did you happen to hear about Capt. Norcross Bickford Finney of the jackass schooner Mabel F.? You didn't? Captain Finney was one of the gentlemen who kept stamps at 3 cents for two generations.

He was a "coaster," which meant he was a merchant master mariner and he limited his services to the West Indies. He'd go down to The Islands, and then come back to Halifax, St. John, Bangor, and Boston, and then he'd go back to The Islands. In this routine he would side-trip to New Orleans and tie up long enough to go to the post office and buy a 1-cent postal card, which he addressed on the spot thus:

Capt. N.B. Finney

OB Sch. Mabel F.

Gen. Del.

Portland, State of Maine

Then he would drop his postal card in the slot, return to the waterfront, and bide until the pouch came.

It didn't take long. New Orleans had little mail for Portland, and vessels didn't leave New Orleans, Portland-bound, too often. Down would come a boy on a bicycle, and he would pass a locked mail pouch, designed for "packets," to Captain Finney, who would call out in a loud voice to himself, "Fill to the No'th!" Finney, himself, was the Mabel's crew, too, and sailing vessels leaving port always filled to the north.

Those little schooners, most of them rigged with ringtails, were smart at sea, and shortly the Mabel F., named for Mrs. Finney, would be in Portland. A messenger picked up the pouch from New Orleans to hurry it to the post office so the clerks could brag about the speed with which they handled letters. So allowing sufficient time, Finney would go to the Portland post office, pick up his postal card (the only item in that pouch), and have his postal manifest attested.

Then Captain Finney would collect for the mileage on the pouch. Not the tonnage, but the mileage. He'd get no more if he'd brought up 100 tons, and no less. But the United States never subsidized its merchant marine. I remember, as a boy, how Captain Finney, under another name, would laugh when he told about this. He showed me one of the cards; he had a bundle of them.

SOMETHING else the Postal Service did was to pay rent for just about every other government department. Every post office, big and little, had offices for the Army, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard recruiters. Also, the corn-borer inspectors, the Weather Bureau, and similar essential services. Postage was 3 cents, and post-office upkeep was met by liberal Congressmen, whose mail was franked.

In Boston, the imposing Custom House tower, standing this way against Arlington Heights and that way against Massachusetts Bay, never cost the Treasury Department a cent; it had a sub-postal-station on the 10th floor.

As to Wal-Mart and its nugatory effect on small-town America: Do you remember how Ohio built a superhighway and bisected the old gentleman's hog farm so he had to go 30 miles to feed up? Don't pontificate about what's happened to gracious country living! Then they built a picnic plaza for tourists. Then they made the man stop raising hogs because he was too near a lunch ground and it was unsanitary and unhealthy. I wonder if they closed his post office while they were at it.

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