By Clark Fair, for the Redoubt Reporter
Living in a community remote from Alaska’s highway system means no Winnebagos and fewer tourists, much higher gas prices ($6.72/gallon in late December), a strong sense of isolation and community, and that getting in or out of town can be expensive, and weather and ice are the great determinants of travel.
This remoteness also means that the mail and all other cargo must arrive either by air or by sea. In the summer, when the ice departs, occasional barges haul cargo to and from public docks. And throughout the year, cargo planes receive and deliver freight to and from local airports. But the post office is the heart of this system, and in Dillingham its workers are, as such, the most visible employees in town.
In Dillingham, all the letters, all the magazines and catalogs, and most of the parcels funnel through a single entity — the United States Postal Service. And for seven months in the latter half on 2014, I was been an employee of the Dillingham Post Office, helping to send and deliver thousands of pounds of mail each day in the eye of a swirling postal storm.
If I were to suggest to newcomers a great way to learn about this community — and perhaps any community — I could recommend no method better than employment at the post office. Because Dillingham (like most, if not all, remote Alaska communities) has no home delivery service, nearly everyone within the city limits (and often beyond) shows up in the lobby at least once.
Mail clerks see names and faces, which they connect to box numbers. They know who receives the most catalogs, who orders the most parcels through Amazon.com, who neglects to collect the mail from jam-packed boxes, and who purchases the most money orders. They keep this and other such information confidential, of course, but they do know.
Given enough time, postal clerks also begin to piece together community histories — who is (or was) related to whom, how many generations certain families have lived in the area, the names of newcomers arriving in town to fill transient positions at the local hospital or the courthouse or the schools. They hear the gossip and the politics, the commercial fishing reports and the weather forecasts, the news of the day and the brewing controversies.
As such, USPS employees, especially those in rural areas, become integral to their communities, assisting understanding and agitated residents alike to track down their packages, ensure the security of their mail, and send money or correspondence to loved ones, businesses and even the IRS.
Our patrons, like postal customers anywhere, want their mail on time, and yet ours (more, I suspect, than those living on the road system) understand the fickle nature of the weather (and therefore travel) in Southwest Alaska. Consequently, although they may dislike the delays, they are more willing to accept them as a part of life.
Some days the mail arrives just once. Sometimes, as on Christmas Eve, it arrives in about a half-dozen waves. Whenever it does arrive, we do what we can to get it into the hands of our customers as rapidly and safely as possible — all governed, of course, by the myriad and sometimes complicated rules of the U.S. Postal Service.
Although I have enjoyed the company of my talented co-workers and the opportunity to learn more about this community, working at the post office has been far from easy. In fact, it’s some of the most difficult work I’ve ever done — and I taught high school English in Soldotna for 20 years.
The hours are long, and the sometimes back-straining labor is done primarily on our feet. All day long, we load and unload parcels, accept packages from and deliver packages to customers at the front counter, sort and scan and shelve the mail, and stuff letters and large envelopes, catalogs and magazines, and even tiny packages, into approximately 1,500 mailboxes.
By the end of the day, we have tired legs, tired feet, tired shoulders and backs — even tired smiles.
As far as I know, I am the third member of my branch of the Fair family to deliver mail. Most recently there was my Aunt Joyce (my father’s sister), who spent 35 years as a member of the USPS working for the small post office in Walton, Indiana. And many, many years earlier there was my great-great-grandfather, John Fair, a Civil War veteran who was wounded in battle and went on to haul the Walton mail with a horse-drawn wagon.
When I began working at the post office, I was overwhelmed by the numbers, names and systems I needed to learn. For example, most large parcels are delivered by airline cargo personnel to the loading bay at the back of the post office. We unload, sort and electronically scan all of those parcels. Then we label them and write up package-arrival slips (to be placed in mailboxes) and then line them up systematically on shelves so we can find them later.
If any of the parcels in the shipment are destined for one of the outlying communities (mostly villages) served directly by the Dillingham Post Office, we separate them manually from the rest and scan them to direct them to their next destination. We load them onto carts to be dispatched to another airline.
We handle small parcels somewhat differently, but the overall goal is the same. Ditto for the letters and all of the large correspondence, catalogs and periodicals. Express mail, certified mail and registered mail receive special treatment and have their own special rules.
The naturalist Boyd Shaffer, who spent more than three decades teaching about art and nature at Kenai Peninsula College, once told me that the secret to learning the names of plants was committing to memory only one or two new species each time I went out. Never try to learn it all at once, he said. The same had been true for learning the names and faces of postal customers.
In the beginning, I was introduced to hundreds of names and numbers as they flashed daily across my field of vision. It was difficult enough just to put mail in the correct box, let alone absorb all that data. At times I played little games with myself to help me retain information. For instance, I tried to figure out which Dillingham surname appeared most often on the mailboxes at the post office.
At first, my eye was drawn to names that seemed unusual to me and more indigenous to western Bristol Bay, such as Heyano, Savo, Illutsik, Hiratsuka, Chythlook, Wassillie and Noden. Later, I became aware of the preponderance of Olsons and Olsens, Nelsons and Nielsens, Andrews and Andrewses, Larsons and Larsens, etc. But it wasn’t until I discovered a log of postal names that I learned the truth. While the second-place surname occupied 14 boxes, that was less than half the number of the first-place name — Johnson. So much for exotica.
Anyway, gradually over the last seven months, I have been figuring things out — connecting the dots and learning to do my job with an acceptable level of skill.
The real frontline troops, however, have been — and will continue to be — my co-workers: Postmaster Penny Johnston and her husband, Chuck, both recent transfers from longtime positions with the Soldotna Post Office, and Jane Norbert, who attended school in Dillingham and has been working at the post office here for 16 years.
This trio of highly skilled postal workers is so much swifter and more competent than I am that their efforts almost appear like magic to me sometimes. And Dillingham’s mail is in fine hands with them in control.
I appreciate all I’ve learned and the opportunity to integrate more fully into this community. And I know that — after I end my postal tenure in mid-January to increase my freelance journalism and my part-time employment with the University of Alaska — that I’ll have an even greater appreciation for all the effort it takes to get me my mail.
Clark Fair, a resident of the Kenai Peninsula for more than 50 years, is a lifetime Alaskan now living in Dillingham.