The check really was in the mail

"Did you get the mail today?" I asked my husband late one evening shortly after the holidays. "No," he answered. "Then we didn't have a delivery today," I said.

"Maybe there wasn't any mail for us," he guessed.

"We always get mail!" I answered.

Eight days later, when I opened our mailbox, I extracted a plastic envelope containing the new checks I had ordered. But they were in a charred box. Also in this doubtful-looking plastic sleeve was a notice from the local post office confirming that there had been no delivery on Dec. 29. The mail truck had caught fire in transit. Fortunately, the letter carrier escaped unharmed. Regrettably, however, the mail for several subdivisions had been in the blaze, and not much had been salvaged.

In addition to the toasted checks, the brown-edged check register, and the melted plastic checkbook cover, we received a wavy, doused-in-water envelope with a Macy's bill, a smoky-smelling letter from the insurance company, and a scorched magazine.

The postmaster's letter informed us that the US Postal Service was not liable for the damages that occurred except for Express Mail, registered mail, insured mail, and articles sent COD. So I wondered if any of our mail had burned to a cinder. I tried to figure out what might have been on its way to me but had never arrived.

First thing Monday morning, I telephoned two companies about outstanding orders. The first told me that Federal Express would deliver my package, and the other informed me it would take about two months to process my request. Their items had not been incinerated, because they had not been sent.

Next I called a good friend who had promised to send an original artist's print, which would have been irreplaceable at any cost. Fortunately, he had not mailed my gift yet. Thank goodness for his dilatoriness this time!

But still I wondered what else might have been in the mail that day – or not.

Not a letter written by my dad's 90-year-old Navy buddy, describing his friendship with Dad that began during World War II. I hadn't expected to hear from him because I hadn't received mail from him in more than 40 years. This note, lovingly transcribed by his daughter, arrived intact on another day.

But had the flames reduced any late holiday cards to ash?

Not a letter from a 1964 colleague.In her message, which had arrived a few days earlier, she told me that her husband (who had been in medical school when she and I taught together) had just had a medical building named in his honor.

Not the one from a former fifth-grade student (now in college) and her family. Several days later, when I bumped into them, they told me I would receive instead a New Year's card later in the month; they hadn't sent any Christmas cards.

Nor, fortunately, a photographic card of four great-nephews and one great-niece: My sister-in-law confided shortly after I found out about the fire that she had not yet mailed her cards.

But what else might – or might not – have been in that vehicular conflagration?

Not – to my relief – the CDs a friend recorded for me of my late brother's piano performances, including one of Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, Op. 58, taped from a Boston Symphony Orchestra radio broadcast in November 1969. I didn't have that one in my collection. Those disks arrived three days later, packed securely and sandwiched between layers of Bubble Wrap.

What else?

Missing catalogs, advertisements, and coupons – junk mail, in general – can be set alight every day of the week for all I care. Less for me to recycle!

And?

I may never know.

My friend Suzanne, who lives in one of the neighboring subdivisions on the same postal route, did not get the postmaster's notice. She had her mail delivered before the destruction. Only when she got a telephone call yesterday did she discover she had put an envelope in her mailbox for pickup on the fiery day. The recipient said the enclosed check had arrived – crisp and cashable.

I finally saw John, our mail carrier, and asked about the incident. He told me he had been on vacation. Evidently, the substitute carrier got his truck stuck in a huge curbside pile of leaves awaiting pickup on a cul-de-sac. Trying to move forward, the young replacement gunned the engine, causing the ignition of the leaves underneath – and the contents of the mail truck.

According to Herodotus, in ancient times men and horses, stationed at intervals, delivered messages. I don't know if combustion caused delivery problems for this Persian pony express. But the US Postal Service might want to add a small disclaimer to the famously boastful and generally accurate description about its services adapted from the Greek historian: "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat, nor gloom of night – only fire – stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

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