Herodotus wrote of the Persian mail service that “as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day’s journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.” If it was dangerous work, it was also important. And one suspects, not without its share of danger and adventure.
The romance of the mails continued into the New World. Pony express riders, many teenage boys, road a “1,900 mile route [which] roughly followed the Oregon Trail, and California Trail to Fort Bridger in Wyoming and then the Mormon Trail (known as the Hastings Cutoff) to Salt Lake City, Utah. From there it roughly followed the Central Nevada Route to Carson City, Nevada before passing over the Sierras into Sacramento, California.” All to deliver a letter.
Their 20th century descendants of the pony express riders were the mail pilots. Charles Lindbergh was perhaps the most famous real one, while Mickey Mouse the best known fictional flier. In the pre-Internet age the idea of sending a few hundred pages of messages across the Atlantic in less than a day seemed stupendous achievement. And the only way to do it was by air.
And there was only one way to see if it could be done. Try.
Lindbergh’s solo across the Atlantic was in part an attempt to demonstrate the feasibility of sending letters across an ocean. For 27 hours after he had taken off from New York, no one knew where Lindberg’s plane was, nor even whether he was alive. To add to the drama, the young pilot’s mother, Evangeline Lodge Lindbergh, sat waiting in her Detroit home “awaiting word of her son’s victory or death” as the press camped on her doorstep.
Paris was in breathless suspense as the hour of his estimated arrival neared. When word came that the Spirit of St. Louis had been sighted over England people rushed out to read the news on the ticker boards at the Place de l’Opera, and with hardly a pause those with the means of transportation headed direct for the airfield there to be held spellbound by what 21st century man no longer feels thrilled by: the bare contest between a human being and pitiless nature.
Fifteen thousand others gravitated toward the Štoile, filling the city block that surrounded a hotel because they assumed Lindbergh would be spending the night there. Many too impatient to stand around in town suddenly decided to witness the arrival. Students from the Sorbonne jammed into buses and subways. Thousands more grabbed whatever conveyance remained available, until more than ten thousand cars filled the roads between the city and Le Bourget. Before long, 150,000 people had gathered at the airfield.
A little before ten o’clock, the excited crowd at Le Bourget heard an approaching engine and fell silent. A plane burst through the clouds and landed; but it turned out to be the London Express. Minutes later, as a cool wind blew the stars into view, another roar ripped the air, this time a plane from Strasbourg. Red and gold and green rockets flared overhead, while acetylene searchlights scanned the dark sky. The crowd became restless standing in the chill. Then, “suddenly unmistakeably the sound of an aeroplane … and then to our left a white flash against the black night … and another flash (like a shark darting through water),” recalled Harry Crosby– the American expatriate publisher–who was among the enthusiastic on- lookers. “Then nothing. No sound. Suspense. And again a sound, this time somewhere off towards the right. And is it some belated plane or is it Lindbergh? Then sharp swift in the gold glare of the searchlights a small white hawk of a plane swoops hawk-like down and across the field–C’est lui Lindbergh.
Today the mails routinely fly the oceans, but they are fighting a more modern form of menace. Bankruptcy. While the challenges of weather, distance and bushwhackers lurking in ambush were met, no one has yet found a way to escape the clutches of arithmetic. The US Postal Service announced it can no longer continue to meet its pension obligations while delivering the mails — at least without being allowed to cut back services or a new infusion of subsidy money from the government.
Postmaster General Patrick Donahue warns he can’t make a congressionally-mandated $5.5 billion health-care-benefits payment for future retirees that’s due at the month’s end, and says the USPS faces total insolvency a year from now — perhaps even sooner. When the fiscal year ends on Sept. 30, the post office may have as little as a week’s worth of cash on hand — about $1 billion.
And that’s the good news.
Its annual deficit is now $9.2 billion, its revenues are plummeting and its labor costs — some 80 percent of its expenses — are far higher than those of competitors like FedEx and UPS. Benefits are generous and featherbedding — paying workers not to work — is rampant.
Under longstanding labor agreements, the USPS is forbidden from layoffs or worker reassignment due to low mail volume. Instead, it must have workers sit idle on “standby time” — which cost it nearly $31 million in 2009.
Low volume is a big part of the problem. The amount of mail the Post Office handles is down 22 percent in the past five years (with e-mail free and instantaneous, who couldn’t see that coming?) and the outlook for first-class mail is grim.
It’s not that the Postal Service isn’t trying to save itself. It’s pushing to end Saturday delivery, close 3,700 post offices and fire up to 120,000 workers (about a fifth of its workforce), even though layoffs are expressly prohibited under current labor contracts.
So it looks like the USPS is a goner. All that may be left of it is its pension footprint, the lingering smile of the fiscal Cheshire Cat. In its own way the saga of the Post Office embodies both the finest traditions of change and illustrates its dangers. Just as the post-horses of the Persian Empire gave way first to the iron horse and later to delivery by air, so now messages are being delivered over the wire. The means change. But the essence of the task often remains.
The USPS made the mistake of believing that its business was delivering letters and satisfying the unions. That was wrong. It forgot that its real business was linking the hearths of men. That unmet need was provided by social networking entreprenuers, email providers and the cell phone industry. Linking the men is the core business. The pony express rider, the mail pilot and the network administrator know that. The rest is merely detail.
This is the Night Mail crossing the border,
Bringing the cheque and the postal order,
Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,
The shop at the corner and the girl next door.
Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb:
The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time.
Letters of thanks, letters from banks,
Letters of joy from the girl and the boy,
Receipted bills and invitations
To inspect new stock or visit relations,
And applications for situations
And timid lovers’ declarations
And gossip, gossip from all the nations,
News circumstantial, news financial,
Letters with holiday snaps to enlarge in,
Letters with faces scrawled in the margin,
Letters from uncles, cousins, and aunts,
Letters to Scotland from the South of France,
Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands
Notes from overseas to Hebrides
Written on paper of every hue,
The pink, the violet, the white and the blue,
The chatty, the catty, the boring, adoring,
The cold and official and the heart’s outpouring,
Clever, stupid, short and long,
The typed and the printed and the spelt all wrong.
Thousands are still asleep
Dreaming of terrifying monsters,
Or of friendly tea beside the band at Cranston’s or Crawford’s:
Asleep in working Glasgow, asleep in well-set Edinburgh,
Asleep in granite Aberdeen,
They continue their dreams,
And shall wake soon and long for letters,
And none will hear the postman’s knock
Without a quickening of the heart,
For who can bear to feel himself forgotten?