OUR ancient friend Anonymous sent me a Christmas present. A ``nixie.'' It had to be from somebody who knows my father was a veteran Railway Postal Clerk and who knows what a nixie is, or was.
The gift arrived just as the television was showing the wheels whirling in the post office as the tide of Christmas mail peaked. Overcome by emotion, I clasped it to my bosom and rejoiced. I had a glad moment there by myself to recall the postal days of my dad, who rode millions of miles back and forth on the Vanceboro & Boston RPO, back when postage was two cents and the federal deficit was reasonable.
Congress had created for every railroad in the United States a Railway Post Office, and every Railway Postal Clerk put RPC after his name with pride that would shame a simple PhD.
My father ``stuck letters'' while riding on a train, sorting and dispatching mail while the nation he worked for slept. He had memorized 30,000 firm names and street addresses in Boston. That made him a westbound ``city clerk,'' but eastbound he worked the states of Maine and New Hampshire, the Maritime Provinces, and the eastern half of La Belle Kaybeck.
A nixie is a piece of mail that lacks an address. First-class mail thus orphaned would go to the dead-letter office. But the nixies with which my father had so much fun in his postal career were newspapers. There was a presumption in Congress in those times that newspapers entertained and edified the readerships.
So to encourage the press, special postage rates were set, and in its own county a paper spent little on postage. You could get some country weeklies for 50 cents or so - for five years. So every postal crew on an RPO had one man who worked the papers, and usually the first-class crew would ``clean up'' before he did. So it was courtesy for a clerk to step over when he was idle and help the paper man finish.
Mail for every town had to be ready to go when the brakes were set for that station. My dad, thus, frequently sorted newspapers, although that was not his assignment.
It was the custom in newspaper mailing rooms to stick a couple of unaddressed copies in each bundle to let the postal clerks decide what to do with them. A clerk might save a copy to read at lunch break or, as my father did, write somebody's name on it and toss it in a pouch. It was good advertising for the newspaper, and it got the nixies out from underfoot, since nixie newspapers at second-class postage never got to the dead-letter office.
(You might like to know what did happen to some of them! The clerks would shove an accumulation of nixie newspapers into an empty mail sack and route them westbound to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Now and then the general orders of the US Postal Service would warn clerks not to do that anymore.)
My father's favorite nixie newspaper was printed in Polish in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and circulated to just about every person in the country with Polish connections. Somebody told my father one time that the paper had more influence in Poland than anything printed in Warsaw, but Dad didn't know a word of Polish. That didn't make any difference, because Dad had friends all over New England who didn't know any Polish either, and he was glad to patronize their edification and enlightenment.
Polish immigrants came to work in our Maine woods, and when Dad heard of a Polish-sounding name he'd set it down and save it for his newspaper list. One time, he saw in the real-estate transfers that somebody named Warscholewski had bought the old Turner farm, right in our town. After that, Dad would send Mr. Warscholewski a Polish newspaper whenever he helped the paper man clean up his work.
This went on for some time - a couple of years, anyway - and one day a strange man stepped up to my father on the street to say, ``I've been meaning to find you and thank you for my paper!''
He said he was Charlie Warscholewski. Being puzzled as to why he should be getting the paper, he had enquired at the post office, and a clerk had told him about nixies and my father. Mr. Warscholewski said, ``I guess this is a good Polish joke. You see, I don't know any Polish. I was an orphan in Canada, and I speak French and Montagnard Indian, and a bit of English.''
I am happy to report another and better story about my dad's generosity with that particular newspaper. It has to do with Willy. Willy was a grown man with a child's mentality. He was a public charge in those days before welfare became refined, and while he never wanted there were some things he lacked. Willy never got any mail. He would go to the post office every morning, and when his turn came he would step to the window. ``Nothing today!'' the clerk would say, and Willy would turn and walk home.
One night, my father stepped over to help the newspaper man, and there were the Polish newspapers. Everybody in the crew knew who was to get them. One went off at Biddeford, two at Portland, one at Yarmouth Junction, and so on, and then the nixies. My father pulled his pencil from his apron pocket, laid the nixie on the sorting table, and wrote ``WILLY.'' Then he tossed the Polish-language newspaper from Wilkes-Barre into the pouch.
After that, we would see Willy shuffling along home every morning, happy to have some mail. It made everybody feel good. Somebody cared enough to send the very best.