The Telegram Boy
I have been away for a while, working on a secret project. You know one those “If I tell you I would have to kill you” kind of things.
It was a good time to be away, not reading or listening to the “making the news” reports. My digital newspaper subscription had expired, the light on the Wi-Fi modem router was blinking red and water had penetrated the internet cable so I walked to the store early in the morning and bought a newspaper.
After checking the football scores I went to page one to see if there was anything new happening that could threaten my bank account. There didn’t appear to be any significant change in the world, the sky hadn’t fallen, interest rates hadn’t gone up and the dollar hadn’t gone down. The weather report was good except for threatening storms in New York, Chicago, Seattle and all over California.
Seems the change in weather was affecting some people and they were letting their little world know they were not happy. I muttered something like, “get over it” or “get a life” and returned to the sports page.
It was light when I returned to my home; the sun had come up again.
Before I started the “not to be mentioned” project, my security clearance was reviewed by those “not to be mentioned people.” It was like reviewing my whole life or having a colonoscopy.
Their files contained things I had forgotten long ago but they expected me to remember like where I lived in 1960 and the names of my neighbors. I couldn’t remember but they knew. What clubs did I belong to in the 1970s, had I ever been arrested or taken drugs? Where did I go to school, what was my first job and was I ever a member of a political party?
I could remember the name of the school not my first job, and said I was no longer a member of a political party. “No way sir,” I said, “they have either moved to the right or to the left, and I am still in the middle.” When asked about my current interests, I told them, “Football and the weather.”
The process, as they called it, lasted about three hours. Unsmiling, they left without congratulating me or asking me to report to the local police station. They don’t give you feedback. I didn’t even know the names of my neighbors IN 1960 so there was no point trying to remember. But somewhere, stored in my pre-digital mind, was the file containing information about my first job. I just had to remember the file name.
It was my third job that came to my mind, because I was optimistic then I could work my way to the top and become the Postmaster.
I didn’t know how long it would take but I had plenty of time because I was just sixteen.
The advertisement in the local newspaper said:
Wanted. Reliable boy to deliver telegrams. Full-time position. Immediate vacancy. Uniform provided. Must be over 15 years of age, be able to read and write and have own bicycle. Apply in writing, stating experience, to the Post Master General.
I had all of the qualifications so without telling my father I wrote to the Post Master General and applied for the position. It must be an important job I thought if they had a General heading up the local Post Office. Besides, if it was good enough for Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Harry Truman and Walt Disney to work for the Post Office then it was good enough for me.
My father wasn’t happy that I had quit work at the saw mill after only ten months, because he was friends with the manager who had hired me to work as an assistant on a saw bench. There was no safety gear and I didn’t like the work, standing all day in a cloud of saw dust that worked its way into my eyes, ears and throat. At the end of the day I coughed all the way home.
It was the second time I had disappointed my father by not taking his advice on my career.
The first job he tried to arrange for me was with the railroad where they needed strong and diligent young men as stokers, shoveling the coal into the furnace on steam engines.
He didn’t like me working at the local market, carrying large wheels of cheese from the cellar to the deli and sweeping the floors.
I didn’t like the idea of being a stoker, breathing gas from the burning coal or joining the labor union.
My father worked for the railroad as a track worker and was a strong member of the union. He said it was an important job inspecting, maintaining and repairing the railroad tracks and bridges, and the union protected their rights, health and safety.
My father worked in a road gang across the state, sleeping in a tent beside the tracks and returning home for the weekend. He said the worst part of the job was poisoning the termites on the wooden bridges standing at the top of a long step ladder, with a dirty piece of rag across his face for protection from the poisonous mist.
During school vacation I often went to work with my father, sleeping beside him on my own cot in the cold tent and washing in half of a 44-gallon steel drum. The other half was used to cook our meals over hot coals, the only source of heat.
Coal was plentiful as the drivers would throw large lumps from their engine as the trains passed by in the day.
Passengers threw old newspapers from the windows of the trains so the road gangs could keep up with the news of the war, light their fires at night and have a supply of toilet paper.
By the time I finished high school, I had already decided I would not follow my father into a life as a railroad track worker, stoker or engine driver. I would find something else to do where I could enjoy the outdoors and fresh air. The advertisement for a telegram boy appeared at the right time.
The interview with the Post Master General at his impressive Post Office was brief, and as there were no other applicants, I was given the job.
The uniform provided was a shirt and cap with Post Office sown into the fabric. I was to supply the rest.
The training program was brief as I was instructed on the hours I would work, the time of the daily inspection to ensure I was properly dressed, how I should greet people, and where the telegrams were typed for delivery. A brief tour of the room where the telegrams were received by Morse code and transcribed by a group of serious-looking typists, and introduction to the other telegram boys in the waiting room took less than an hour. I was told no maps were provided and at Christmas I could work extra hours to help the regular mailman deliver parcels. A Post Office bicycle with a large basket suspended above the front wheel would be provided to carry the parcels.
After the brief introduction to the job as a telegram boy I nervously sat down in the waiting room with the other boys who laughed when they saw my long sox, gray shorts and the uniform shirt that was too large.
It was summer and I was visibly sweating even though the room had a large ceiling fan.
The oldest boy asked, “What is your name kid, and do you know the rules?” He told me the “rules” were the most senior boy in the room had the choice of taking the next telegram or passing it one down the line until someone accepted it. As I was the newest boy I could not refuse to take a delivery.
When I asked why someone would refuse to take the next telegram I was told, “It depends on where the address is, what the weather is like and what is in the telegram.”
I replied, “If the telegram is in a sealed envelope how do you know what it is?”
He said, “The girls typing the telegram know, and if they smile it is a good message, if they don’t it is bad news.”
I had a lot to learn about being a telegram boy and was destined to deliver bad news telegrams, in the rain to places that were the furthest away from the Post Office.
It was eight years since the end of the war and many people still associated the telegram with bad news. It was how the military notified the next of kin that a loved one had been killed. I recall one telegram received by a relative that said, “I have to inform you that … was killed in action on Fourteenth April 1941, and desire to convey the sympathy of the Army.”
In a few words the unsigned telegram advised the parents that their only son had been killed at Tobruk. The telegram was delivered by the bus driver, not a telegram boy.
I didn’t have to wait long before I was sent off to deliver my first telegram. It was a long ride uphill to a house about ten miles away. I knocked on the door and waited until a voice called out, “Who is it?”
I have a telegram for you I replied. “Go away, I don’t want a telegram!” the voice called out.
I knocked again and was told to go away once more. I couldn’t return to the Post Office without delivering the telegram or I would be sent back so I persevered, knocking on the door repeatedly, and pleading for the lady to open the door and take the telegram.
“Slide it under the door” she said.
“I can’t do that,” I called out, “you have to sign my book.”
The voice came nearer to the door and this time it was quieter. “Open the telegram and read it to me.” she pleaded. Desperate to get away I agreed to read the telegram to her if she would sign for it.
“Happy birthday Maureen,” I shouted, “and love from your sister Meredith.”
The door flew open and a large lady in a night gown pulled me close to her chest and thanked me several times. I struggled free, handed her the telegram, a pen and my receipt book for her to sign.
She invited me inside the house but we weren’t allowed to accept tips or gifts, even in kind, so I hurried back to my bicycle and pedaled furiously back to the Post Office, it was downhill like my career as a telegram boy.
The other boys were smiling as I returned to the waiting room and one asked how I enjoyed meeting Mrs. Robinson. “Just fine,” I commented, and walked to a seat in the corner as the whole room filled with laughter. I discovered later that Mrs. Robinson sent the telegrams to herself.
Life as a telegram boy was interesting as I learned the “rules of the game.”
At Christmas, when I was assigned to mailman duties delivering parcels, it became more challenging as I struggled to control the old Post Office bicycle loaded with heavy parcels. It had a mind of its own, like a supermarket trolley that wanted to go someplace different.
The regular mailman on my assigned route wasn’t helpful, he only told me to not “screw up” on his route because he expected to receive gifts from most of his customers. Apparently, the mailman was able to retain gifts at Christmas. There was no offer to share them or any advice on the hazards on the route, except Mrs Robinson.
On the first day, after falling off the bicycle just around the corner from the Post Office and scattering parcels everywhere, I headed up the hill to make my first delivery, which involved knocking on the door and having my little receipt book signed, just like delivering a telegram.
Half way through the day, as I was returning to my bicycle after handing over a large parcel, I heard a noise behind me and before I turned around the teeth of a small dog had sunk into my ankle. I jumped and hollered words that would not be acceptable in Church as I felt the pain and saw the blood oozing from my ankle. At the end of the day when I saw the regular mailman I told him about being ambushed by the dog. With a smile he said, “Oh yes, you should watch out for him because he ambushes any new mailman. After a while he will get to know you.”
The following week, after I delivered a parcel to the same house, I ran back to my bicycle with the small dog inches away from my ankle still covered with Band-Aid strips. He didn’t bark, just quietly attacked from his hiding place under the house. He obviously didn’t remember me.
I prayed for Christmas to come so I could return to being a telegram boy riding my own bicycle, even though it did not have gears or mudguards and the mud covered my back in the rain. I could ride to different parts of the town, not follow the same boring route of the mailman, and get away from the silent attack dog.
Two days before Christmas I stopped at the house with the dog. As I rang the door-bell I looked cautiously around but couldn’t see the dog. He was there someplace waiting for me to turn around and head for my bicycle.
After the old lady shut the door I turned around, checked the bushes and under the house but there was no sign of the dog. I thought maybe he was inside or had finally got to know me. As I headed for my bicycle I heard a familiar sound and turned around quickly to see the bare teeth of the little dog about to taste the flesh in my ankle once more.
This time I was prepared, bent down grabbed the dog by the collar and with a perfect hook shot hurled him onto the roof. Stunned he looked at me with a mournful face and I wished him a Happy Christmas, you could say that in those days. I didn’t tell the regular mailman because he was expecting a gift from the old lady.
- Images: The photos in this story were taken by the author, Ken Peacock.