Coming crisis in mail

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Steve Haynes
Guest Editorial

We got a Christmas card this week.
Not the first holiday card of the season, just in time for Thanksgiving, but the last card of last year, just a little late for Halloween.
This card, mailed from Oberlin on Dec. 19, took almost 11 months to come back home. It was returned Monday marked “not deliverable as addressed,” probably because the intended recipient had moved to Abilene, Texas, by the time it arrived in his former home at Austin. We got a card from him mailed in Abilene a month before ours went to Austin.
But don’t you wish we could see where it had been since? Lodged in some cubbyhole in Austin, awaiting a forwarding order that never came? “Lost in supposedly empty equipment;” I always like that one, but it wasn’t stamped on the poor, battered envelope.
Our friend is a careful kind of guy, and I can’t imagine he didn’t file a forwarding order when he moved. But forwarding mail these days can’t be worked at the local post office. Like outbound mail, no one is allowed to touch it. The Postal Service has special centers to do such things.
One of the principle theories postal efficiency experts work on today is that clerks and mail carriers should take in or deliver mail, but nothing else. Forwarding, cancelling, dating and sorting mail is to be done at regional centers, preferably by machines capable of making mistakes faster and more efficiently than human employees.
So mail carriers, for the most part, no longer “case,” or sort, the mail for their routes. That’s done by machines in a larger city. Never mind that the carriers know their customers; the machines are programmed to go “by the book.”
Postal clerks can’t cancel letters or presort them or pull out those that go to nearby towns, either. The machines hundreds of miles away can do that. Transportation apparently is the cheapest thing the service can buy.
So what happened to our little Christmas card?
Wherever it was hiding, it was marked by a machine to “return to sender” on Nov. 11 of this year. I’d like to think it has taken some kind of grand trip around the country during the months it was not being delivered, but I doubt it. The truth is likely that it fell into one of the many cracks in or around a sorting machine and was lucky that someone found it.
These machines are fairly sophisticated in their computer applications, but the belts and drives and such are regular Rube Goldberg devices. Letters fly around and fall out with regularity. Most, apparently, get back in the stream.
What does all this say about the future of our mail service?
Nothing good, for sure. Centralization of sorting and services such as forwarding already have made a laughingstock of the current “service” standards. Things are likely to only get worse, as the top brass in Washington proposed further relaxing the standard for First Class mail, from three-day delivery to five.
The only thing first class about this service may be the name, in fact.
But if it can take 11 months for a card to go to Texas and come home, we had better look at getting this year’s cards out by Thanksgiving.
Like that was going to happen.
Steve Haynes is editor and publisher of The Oberlin Herald in northwest Kansas

Annie Spratt

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