Peg Fields had heard there was an opening for an associate rural mail carrier for St. George’s southern route—basically a position that provides back-up for the full-time carrier, Rebecca Barrows—so she applied. “I decided to do it on a lark,” she admits.
The basic qualifications for the job had been easy to meet: She had to be a U.S. citizen, provide her own vehicle (Fields’ is a Honda Element), possess a clean driving record and have no criminal history.
But mastering the procedures and logistics of her new role, Fields soon found out, proved to be more challenging than she had expected. “There were several levels of difficulty to overcome,” she acknowledges with a wry laugh.
Her training began in late August, when she spent six days learning the ropes from veteran carrier George Nye, who had ended his full-time contract with R.L. Trucking (a firm based in Medina, Ohio that provides rural mail delivery services to the USPS), but had stayed on as a back-up carrier.
The first challenge involved learning how to sort and arrange the mail for delivery. In full season, Fields’ route contains 290 active mailboxes, involving first-class mail, magazines and flyers. She was amazed, she says, when she found that “there can be a stack of magazines five feet high to sort!”
Each carrier’s method of sorting and arranging things, Fields quickly realized, was different, so she had to figure out what would work best for her. “Some people focus on road numbers and some focus on names as they sort. It can be tricky keeping things straight—for example, there are four to six 15-somethings on my route and several 8-somethings.” The carrier also needs to keep in mind the ever-changing list of whose mail is on hold each day.
The next degree of difficulty, Field says, was learning how to load her vehicle most efficiently, given that she would be distributing the mail out of her passenger-side window while driving with her left hand and left foot. “There’s a lot of bending and twisting, because there are also packages and flyers to contend with,” she points out. Some carriers put the mail trays under the driver’s wheel, but Fields says she found it easier to put them by the window. Forms that might need to be filled out, along with a scanner, also needed to be handy. “All packages have to be scanned to show they were delivered,” Fields explains.
Completing her 20-mile route, including sorting time, in the five-and-a-half hours allotted by R.L. Trucking was the next challenge. “My first two official days of delivering the mail took me 11 hours each,” she acknowledges with a laugh. “But in about two weeks you’re good to go. No matter what, you have to get back to the post office by 4pm with any mail you’ve collected. So if you’re not done with your route you have to break off, go back, and then come back to resume delivering.”
Although there are many aches and pains that accompany the physical contortions required by the job—“I’m keeping Tiger Balm in business”—Fields says she’s noticed a benefit, too. “Doing this is better than luminosity.com! It’s about pattern learning and identification. After a week or two my short-term memory was getting better. And although you get terrible gas mileage, it is a beautiful route to drive and you get to meet people. There are also roads I never really knew existed.”
Another side effect of Fields’ rural mail delivery experience has been her sharpened awareness of what attributes are most desirable in a mailbox. “I would like them to have clear numbers, to have doors that work, and for them to be upright—putting mail into boxes that lean is really difficult,” she says. “And I LOVE plastic mailboxes because they don’t scratch my car!”
Fields’ foray into the rural mail delivery world has also impressed her in another way. “It has been a real eye-opener into the realm of the U.S. Postal Service,” she says. “It is amazing how many rules there are.” After a pause she marvels, “Like you are never supposed to back up.” —JW
PHOTOS: Julie Wortman