Weather won’t stop carriers

Register Reporter

Register/Anne Kazmierczak
Letter Carrier Patti Whitcomb negotiates a tricky set of stairs while delivering mail in south Iola Wednesday. Snow and ice can make walking difficult for the civil servant, who covers about 14 miles a day in her job to deliver mail.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
That inscription marks the 8-acre James Farley Post Office in New York City and is the unofficial motto of Untied States Postal Service letter carriers.
It’s apropos. Although snow can slow the carriers, little stops them.
In Iola, letter carrier Patti Whitcomb tackles winter with practical steps.
She dresses in layers. She uses sun screen and skin care products. To deal with deep snow, Whitcomb wears Cordura galoshes over her shoes.
The heavy nylon coverings act as boots, keeping snow out of her footwear. They’re part of her official uniform.
“They’re not exactly waterproof,” though, she said, “You wouldn’t want to wear them in the rain.”
Despite this season’s unusually brisk weather, Whitcomb said “the worst I saw was my very first winter.”
It was 1986-87, she noted.
“We had pretty deep snow that year. We had jeeps and the heaters didn’t work. I kept thinking, ‘If I can live through this winter, I can get through anything’ — and I did.”
Now, Whitcomb says, she’s an old pro at battling the weather.
“I stay warm because I’ve been out in this for years and know how to dress appropriately,” she said. Yet “unless it’s bitter cold out, I just wear normal gloves,” she said.
The constant pace of mail delivery keeps Whitcomb’s circulation pumping and her body warm.
“It’s just that first 15 minutes that I’m cold,” she said.

ON WEDNESDAY, the eastern half of Whitcomb’s route was mainly unshoveled. She slogged through snow a foot or so deep to get from house to house. Her entire route spans from the Bowlus Fine Arts Center to behind Coronado’s restaurant on East Street. Altogether, delivering the daily mail to houses and businesses takes about 6 1/2 hours. In the process, she walks about 12 to 14 miles.
“You estimate about 2 miles per hour,” Whitcomb said.
“Of course, that changes in this weather,” she laughed.
Still, she said, nothing stops the mail.
“In all the years I’ve worked we’ve never not delivered the mail,” she said. “There’s been a couple times where a truck didn’t get through and we’d go out with what we had.”
Even when flood waters coursed through Iola in 2007, Whitcomb “stayed one step ahead.”
Whitcomb noted her route didn’t receive the worst of the water, and Providence placed the flooding on a weekend, so that “by Monday, it had gone down quite a bit where you could get to most of the houses.”

AS FOR this winter, Whitcomb said “I think there’s fewer (walkways) shoveled this year than in the past, but I think that’s due to the timing of the storm.”
That it hit over the Christmas holiday meant many people did not get to the snow right away, she noted, and those who didn’t have had a hard time playing catch up with snow that has become packed. In addition, she said, many older customers are no longer physically able to keep up with snow removal.
Postal Service policy does not require a letter carrier to deliver mail if they feel the route is unsafe.
“I do have a few places I don’t walk up the stairs if there’s no hand rail,” Whitcomb noted.
And, she said, “I do get miffed when people put out letters for me to pick up and there’s a big blob of ice on their steps.” Especially, she said, when those people are younger or able-bodied and could shovel their walks.
For the most part, though, Whitcomb will make the effort to keep the mail coming.
“I have good people on my route,” she said. “They give me homemade cookies and chocolate candies at Christmas time.”

MAIL CONTENT has changed over the almost quarter century that Whitcomb has been a carrier.
The bulk of her load is “credit card applications and things like that,” she said. Holidays catalogs have given way to seed catalogs. Though much purchasing is done online, Whitcomb said “a lot of people still like to look at,” the glossy colored booklets.
One thing Whitcomb does not deliver is junk mail.
“It’s no longer called that,” she laughed. “It’s bulk business mail.”
In addition, Whitcomb said, “there’s a lot of books from Amazon. A lot of QVC shoppers. You don’t get as much personal mail except at Christmas time, and Mother’s Day is big.”
With the advent of e-mail, cell phones and electronic social networks, written correspondence no longer plays a large role in peoples lives, Whitcomb said.
“It’s not like a few years back when people really looked forward to mail. But there’s still enough people that are happy to see you.”
Despite the fact she herself uses those alternative forms of communication, Whitcomb said hand-written letters are special.
“There’s something about having a letter in your hands that somebody actually held and wrote,” Whitcomb said. “But 25 to 30 years later, that person might be gone, but you still have that letter you can hold.
“I think that a lot of kids miss that experience because they’ve never felt it,” she mused.
Being the bearer of that connection is still Whitcomb’s favorite part of the job.
“Probably the best,” Whitcomb said, “is being with people. I like being outside, being able to do something for people.”