“We live for mail call.”
That unequivocal sentence is an excerpt from a 1991 letter written by Maj. Reina DuVal during Operation Desert Storm. It could have been written by me or anyone else who has worn a uniform in a distant place for a year or two. I read DuVal’s words on an exhibit panel at the Park City Museum on a recent Sunday afternoon. The panel is part of a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum titled Mail Call.
Those two words transport me to Fort Dix. It is August. My platoon has run for miles toward the setting sun. Now, we stand at attention—40 dirty, sweating soldiers—as a distant bugle sounds “Retreat.” The first sergeant barks, “At ease!” The soldiers wilt and wait expectantly. The mail clerk struts out of the orderly room and to the front of the platoon formation. Radiating self-importance, he carries a bundle of letters. As he calls the surnames on the envelopes, he flicks them into the air as fast as he can. They flutter down into the ranks, setting off a scramble. Those who get letters are happy; those who don’t are not. It is that simple.
“Your letters have been my happiest moments,” wrote Pvt. Warren Gerstenkorn to his mother in 1943. “I guess you have to be a soldier to realize what I mean.” Gerstenkorn has it right, I think, although I would add airmen, sailors, Marines—even prisoners and Mormon missionaries—to his “soldier” category.
On June 8, 1945, my father, a Navy lieutenant deployed to the Philippines, wrote to my mother about me: “Today brought the grand news. I’m still shaking with joy and relief. Letters from David, Mom, Joyce and R.C.—all had the news and some details about John’s arrival. Joyce said he was a healthy feller and thought he had black hair. Can that be? The cigars made the rounds.”
All these years later, smoking a cigar is as passé as joining the military or handwriting a letter. How many people can you name who have served in America’s longest war? Not many, I’ll bet. Most of us prefer a wired, climate-controlled cocoon to a foxhole. Most of us communicate by text or tweet because, as everybody knows, the Internet has made the letter obsolete.
The Marine Corps takes a different view. Its Internet-based MotoMail “is a fast, easy, free way for the families and friends of deployed Marines to send letters to their loved ones in Afghanistan,” according to the website of the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit. “These letters are downloaded, printed and ready for delivery, usually within 24 hours. MotoMail, unlike e-mail, can be taken anywhere and read and reread.”
“Reread” is the resonant word. To be able to ease a letter out of a pocket at will—unfolding it carefully and lingering over its words—is to register a visceral connection with whoever wrote it. The quality of that connection is beyond the digital reach of a text or e-mail, especially on a palm-size screen. Reading this sentence on the City Weekly website is not the same—not as satisfying—as reading it on newsprint. But I am biased. I come from a family of letter writers for whom the arrival of mail is the pivotal point of the day. (As I write this, I listen for the mailman’s footfalls on the porch.) A no-mail day is a flat tire in a snowstorm or a corked bottle of $30 wine.
Home delivery began in 1862, almost a century after the Continental Congress established the U.S. Postal Service. In Cleveland, where women queued for hours in winter to retrieve letters from husbands and fathers serving in the Civil War, a postal clerk began to deliver letters to houses to alleviate their hardship. The deliveries were so welcomed that the Postal Service soon hired Civil War veterans as mailmen. The two world wars had the effect of opening the door for women. When 43,000 postal workers were drafted in the early 1940s, women took their places.
As the volume of mail increased, cities were divided into numbered zones to facilitate handling and delivery of mail. I grew up in Zone 6, near Sugar House. The address read: Salt Lake City 6, Utah. Most of the mail at the time comprised first-class letters and penny postcards. In the 1960s, however, magazine subscriptions, advertisements and the innovation of paying bills with a mailed check resulted in a flood of mail. The Zone Improvement Plan, the zip code, introduced in 1963, made it possible to sort letters with machines, but a 15-year campaign was needed to persuade the reluctant public to use it.
That the Smithsonian is sending the Mail Call exhibit around the country may be an indication that mail as we know it is receding into history. The Internet has changed the business model for good. In 2003, the Postal Service moved 200 billion pieces of mail; this year’s total is projected to be 153 billion. The resulting losses presage the end of Saturday delivery and the closing of post offices. It’s a sad development. However, I am encouraged by the comeback of vinyl records even as CD sales continue to slide. Perhaps as the 140-character text becomes intolerably banal— if it isn’t already—the handwritten letter will resurge. Perhaps the hip and the beautiful will write to one another on vellum with Montblanc fountain pens, and Hillary Clinton will send thank-you notes on White House letterhead. In the meantime, the nostalgic ones among us, those who have “lived for mail call,” can view the Smithsonian exhibit in Park City until Oct. 20.