The postal-card mystery is solved - to her chagrin

My mother attacked spring housecleaning with a vengeance and my father and I were so intimidated by her fury that we often sneaked away to the trout brook, where the peace and quiet pleased us tremendously. But if we weren't alert, and she recruited us first, we endured the annual ceremony in good spirits, bringing everything down from the attic so it could be taken from boxes, dusted, and put in those boxes to go back "up attic."

The biggest problem was a heavy oaken tub, the size of a bushel basket, that Mother was keeping should she ever have another aspidistra. It had been a wedding present, a rubber plant in this walloping wooden tub. In the summer she'd drag it out front where people passing could admire it. Then one day a thunder shower let down a spasm of hail with pellets the size of baking beans, and in an instant every pulpy leaf on the rubber plant was shot full of holes.

The plant rallied and grew great welts around each wound, but it always looked improbable and Mother was less pleased than before. Her interest languished. Lacking care, the rubber plant bounced beyond recall, and the tub went up attic to be handy if kept 17 years, according to the adage. Dad and I would struggle it down to be wiped with a damp cloth, dried, aired, and struggled back up attic.

But this story is not about my mother's rubber plant at all.

Several homes beyond ours stood Capt. Jabez Nickerson's place. He had been a "coaster" in the West Indies trade, sailing his schooner from Halifax to the islands. He'd left his property to his spinster daughter, Letitia, who lived alone in the great house and was probably the richest woman in the county. Each spring, Miss Letitia hired Slim Jim Ringrose to houseclean in the seasonal style. This gave Slim a week's work and a welcome respite from sitting around idle the rest of the year.

The Nickerson attic's treasures included three beautiful pumpkin-pine sea chests made by a ship's carpenter long ago. Miss Nickerson had no idea what all the papers in the chests were, but they were cargo manifests, customs declarations, wharfage and pilot receipts, and all manner of papers from a lifetime in the "WI" trade. All of it was no longer important and could have been disposed of years ago. But in those days, people kept things.

Miss Nickerson had often shuffled through her daddy's old papers in the sea chests. One item puzzled her. There were nearly 300 one-cent postal cards addressed to her father in Portland, Maine. Each bore the same message: "Having fine time, miss you." Most, but not all, were canceled in New Orleans. The dates spanned her daddy's years at sea. A mystery for sure!

One day Miss Nickerson answered a knock at her door. It was a man from Pennsylvania, a dealer looking for antiques. He'd talked with Mr. James Ringrose and learned Miss Nickerson had several sea chests. Miss Nickerson said they were not for sale, and the man left his card and said if she changed her mind, he'd appreciate a call.

The postal cards were important historical documents, but Miss Nickerson didn't know it. The United States never subsidized its merchant marine, as did other nations. Instead, it gave each vessel a contract to carry mail. Payment was based on mileage, not tonnage. It didn't matter if you had one pouch or a hold full of pouches, the distance was what the government paid for.

So to make sure he'd have mail to carry, Captain Nickerson always stopped in New Orleans on his way home and mailed himself a postal card. He'd wait until a wagon came to the wharf from the post office with a pouch that had his card in it, then he'd upsail and away, yo ho! When he arrived in Portland, he'd go to the post office, pick up the postal card he had mailed to himself, fill out the required form, and collect his "packet mileage," the euphemism for subsidy. Every postal card Miss Nickerson had in her attic was proof that her seafaring father had swindled the US Post Office.

Then one spring Miss Nickerson had Slim Jim Ringrose bring down the sea chests. She took out all the papers and had Jim burn them. Then she sold the three empty chests to the antiques man, who was happy to pay her $30 apiece, and she was glad. Glad until she learned more about those postal cards. Each one had cost her daddy one cent. But the instant he dropped it into a postal box it became a document of historical value, for it was a souvenir of the days when the US subsidized its merchant marine with the subterfuge that every skinflint Yankee sea captain was an honest man.

The postal cards Slim Jim Ringrose had burned were worth $50 to $75 apiece. The half-dozen or so canceled at Florida ports would have run to $500. The Smithsonian had a standing offer of more than that for a card in perfect condition. And so on.

I have no idea what became of our rubber plant tub.

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