I may have admitted that I was a Postal Clerk, a rate which has gone the way of the Triceratops. I suppose this is because everybody does their communicating electronically. It’s a bit odd to be a dinosaur.
When the mail arrived in-port, a truck rolled to our ship’s brow and the clerk in the back would sign over the delivery, then dump out the gray canvas sacks, and the red, green and yellow nylon bags to my possession. I’d hand over my own bags and the truck would go on its way.
At sea, there would be a helo drop, sometimes with a landing, sometimes not. Those Chinooks could hold a huge amount of mail for a flying machine, and if they came back again, you’d have yourself quite a mail call.
The biggest I ever had was when we had no parcel mail from Hawaii on, including Australia and finally Okinawa. The passageway was sixty feet of solid mail and it took two days to sort it out. And then there was Subic Bay. Whenever you hit the pier there you had a moving van waiting.
The large canvas bags were supposed to max out at 75 pounds, but they often went to a hundred. You could drag them but it wasn’t advisable. The best method was to stand the bag on end, bend from the waist, and tip it onto your shoulder. I weighed twice a mail bag in those days but I’d hoist them up and onto the ship all day if necessary. I carried scores of bags up ladders. If they slipped you learned to let them hit the deck without you. The canvas sacks were surface mail—mainly supplies for the ship, hardware, tools, replacement parts. Once I lifted up an ‘empty’ sack to clear it out and had a five-pound box of bolts hit me on the toe of my shoe. Steel toes after that.
I worked alone on two of my three ships. You’d sort the letter mail first, get that out, and then concentrate on the parcels. If you don’t know how to sort mail it takes forever. They teach you to grab a letter with your middle or ring finger behind the end and shoot it into the pigeon hole with a flick of the finger. It should make a sharp ‘clack’ when it hits the metal of the back wall. A good sorter can do better than one a second. After you’ve got them into divisions, you put the same names together, wrap a rubber band around them and you’re ready to face your public.
The letters will go out to the divisions along with the yellow 3849s that tell people to sign for a package or certified letter. Those would either be bad news or good news; you could tell by the envelope. Bad news comes from lawyers and the IRS. Good news comes from banks and investment companies. Really bad news comes from wives right after you start a long cruise. Hawaii is the first place you get mail on a Westpac. It’s also where many a sailor gets his Dear John notice. Say what you will about women, they have exquisite timing.
Nobody knows more about a crew than the Postal Clerk. He sees the bills that are paid, the checks and money orders sent to the light company, the subscriptions to the girlie magazines. He sees the perfumed letters from girlfriends the old lady has no idea exists; he knows whose utilities have been shut off, and which landlord is complaining to the captain about a damaged rental.
It takes about a month after a ship has left a foreign port for the last of the sweethearts to get smart and quit writing. I remember some of the cleverer sailors would tell the girls a different name, which made sorting the mail difficult. You’d see one for a ‘Detroit Ray’ in ‘Boilers Room’ that had to be figured out.
I saw quite a few men who would buy money orders to send to poor families they’d met overseas. This was especially common in the Philippines, but not just there. I don’t know if this was guilt, generosity, or some combination.
Back then the limit on money orders was $299. Amazingly, many sailors (paid in cash) would execute all their transactions in money orders. This is how I’d get to know who was being paid what. You see, they’d write in the payee there at the window, seal the MO in an envelope, and hand it to me. The commonest recipient of these was either the Navy Credit Union or San Diego Gas and Electric. I paid for a new car with money orders: $78 per month. Tell that to your kids.
And then there were those sad characters who bought money orders as a safeguard to keep themselves from blowing their pay. For some reason, they’d take all their pay in hand rather than keep some on the books, then make out one or more money orders to keep themselves from spending it all in one place. Such as in a card or craps game. I can’t tell you how many times I got a grubby, finger-smeared MO from some guy who asked “How can I cash this,” despite the fact that it was filled out in both boxes to the original purchaser. Apparently, money orders were as good as cash to gamblers, and why not? They took wedding rings and watches, too.
It wasn’t uncommon for sailors to lose money orders—often when they’d failed to fill out the boxes. But other tragedies occurred. One very nice Petty Officer First Class came to me and asked if I could find out what happened to the money orders he’d sent to his wife back home. He explained that every month he sent her numerous MO’s, which she claimed never to have received. There’s a thing called a ‘proof of payment’ and I did one so we could find out what happened.
A few weeks later a fat envelope arrived, and my friend opened it to find copies of the cashed money orders, everyone having been negotiated by his spouse. Needless to say, there were some tense discussions over this matter, and, not surprisingly, correspondence from an attorney later on.
There are a few undying legends about the Navy, and some of them concern things that were allegedly mailed to or from ships. Before a cruise of any duration, I would have a little mess decks chat with the crew about (ahem) certain contraband that might be obtained and mailed to the states. Likewise about stuff from home that had no business in the mail.
Only once did I discover liquor in the mail—and it was all over the mail. I was homeported in Japan and somebody’s brother attempted to mail a fifth of booze because everybody knows you can’t get liquor in Japan ( ! ). They tried the old ‘bottle in a box of Quaker Oats’ trick, but the oats weren’t padding enough, and the glass went to pieces, saturating everybody else’s letter mail with hooch.
Once I had a guy ask me, flat out, if he could mail a pound of marijuana in a jacket he bought. He figured that if the stuff was discovered, he could just say that it was in a pocket or something. I suggested he have a nice long smoke with friends and forget about it. More than once I saw incoming envelopes with the bulging outline of a joint.
Professional hint: Never send cake or cookies in the mail. Forget what you heard about packing them in popcorn. Nothing is less appetizing than a popcorn ball with green frosting inside.
Marines posed unique problems. They had a habit of getting their postage, envelopes and money orders soaked in the field, and they used postage and money orders as currency, especially for repayment of debts. Of course, many struggles followed when one guy would demand his stuff back—I learned to demand I.D. when cashing money orders for Marines. But hear this, Sailors: It was like looking for unicorns when I needed Navy help to bring mail bags on to the ship. But one word from a Sergeant and Marines would work until they dropped from exhaustion.
To a Postal Clerk, the two ugliest words in the English language are ‘Christmas’ and ‘Valentines Day.’ The Navy has a special problem with Christmas having to do with distance and location. The problem was always how to get sailors to send things home early enough so they’d arrive on time. And if you know sailors, you know that they put off sending home the Japanese figurine until December 24th. Not to mention that they’d wrap it in a handkerchief, toss on a stamp, and stuff it through the slot in the post office wall. We weren’t allowed to wrap patron packages or affix postage, but if you didn’t, you’d get dust and fragments arriving back home in Kansas. So I saved up tons of cardboard boxes and spent evenings packaging stuff. It was actually a lot of fun.
Professional hint: You don’t lick stamps or gummed paper tape. You just run them over a bit of spit on your tongue. Be careful with the tape or you’ll get a paper cut in the corner of your mouth.
Valentines Day was another train wreck. Every guilty sailor on the ship would run around looking for a card to send to his wife/girl/mother/all the above the night before. Mothers Day was another crisis. Your average sailor was no Shakespeare. He’d sit there on the mess decks staring at a greeting card, trying to figure out how to express his love or something. It got to where I’d tell guys “Give me that,” and just start writing. I had a standard set of messages:
“Francine, I have been away for XXX months but you are never out of my thoughts.”
“Joey, your Daddy misses you and hopes that you are making me proud in school.”
Somewhere along the way one of my captains called me in and said “Stamps, you got to tell these guys to write home. There are people, some of the wives, who haven’t heard from their son or husband in months.”
And so, during the break in the evening movie, I would suggest that they write a note to a loved one—or even a relative. Men can be astonishingly dense—or maybe it’s just focused. They were like “Hell, she knew I was going on a cruise.” I think this was the reason for some of those certified letters from attorneys. I remember asking a guy “How many kids you got?” He said “Three.” “How old are they?” “Three, maybe four Westpac’s.”
The worst thing sailors ever did to me was claim that things they’d never sent, or things they wanted to ignore, were ‘lost.’ I noticed that none of these ‘lost’ items was ever searched for later on. Your ‘lost’ items tended to be tax forms; payments to credit card companies, and similar obligations. Things never received included divorce papers, overdue notices, and paternity claims. Oh, and those tax forms. Back then military people only had to have them postmarked by April 15th. You can imagine me sitting there in the post office, postmarking forms right up to midnight, and beyond. This spawned a little business in which I would do your short form for you if you’d buy me a beer when next we saw each other in town. I discovered to my shock that many of my pals hadn’t filed their taxes in years, despite the promise of refunds. Just another thing that went by the boards.
In PC school they told us “You’re going to hear one phrase constantly from now on. Get used to it and don’t get angry.” That phrase was “Where’s the mail?” One is tempted to give the typical Navy response, but I learned to simply say “When we hit Subic in two days,” or something like that.
To an overseas sailor, the happiest pair of words you could hear in the work day were ‘Mail Call!’ It was always a good thing to be part of that delivery. I knew I was bringing home to people and it made me happy every day. And sorry boys about those divorce papers. Nothing I could do about it.