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Treasured up forever

That same schoolmarm who taught me to ``dangle participles in secret and split infinitives out behind the barn,'' the one who wept at ``quick glance'' and ``most perfect,'' and insisted above is an adverb, was the same who perfected our knowledge that the Smithsonian is an institution. Which is why I wince at all the times it turns out to be an institute. Well, after all these years I am a benefactor and the Smithsonian Institution has thanked me for my most generous deposit. It's the institution's own fault, in a way. It has a philatelic collection, including items from the Railway Postal Service, and a recent exhibition of old RPO stuff was mentioned in the papers. RPO -- that was a Railway Post Office, which long since joined the dodo and responsible journalism and breakfast oatmeal as lost causes. My Dad was a railway postal clerk -- a real RPC -- and rode several million miles standing up back and forth between Boston and Bangor, Maine, back in the 2-cent days. His RPO was ``Vanceboro and Boston,'' and while the train kept on going to Halifax, he got off at Bangor to rest a few minutes before returning to Boston. Eastbound he sorted letters for all the towns in Maine and the Provinces, and westbound he became the ``city clerk'' and sorted Boston. The mail car, always next behind the locomotive, was actually a rolling post office, with a mail slot for platform use at stations, postage stamps for sale, and its own cancellation stamp. Instead of a postmaster, it had a ``clerk in charge.''

So that's all gone, and prices have mounted, and the Smithsonian Institution considers the Railway Mail Service in museum condition. As the son of an RPC, I had certain contacts with Dad's career, but the only thing I inherited was the rubber stamp with which he marked his ``facing slips.''

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When he pulled a handful of sorted letters from a pigeonhole in his case, he would tie them with a cheap jute string now superseded by rubber bands, and on the face of each package he would put a slip that showed the destination. Much of that was esoteric with the mail service, but a good many slips would say Bangor, Millinocket, Lincoln, and so on, town by town. Westbound, for Boston, he had slips for Grove Hall, Astor Street Station, Newspapers, Banks, and all the carrier routes. Also for connecting trains -- the ``Springer'' for Springfield and the ``Shoe Line'' for the New Haven. All this was known as ``separation'' and ``distribution.'' Dad took an examination one time on 30,000 Boston firm names and came home dispirited because he scored only 99.92 percent correct.

Each of every postal clerk's facing slips had to be stamped for identification -- if a mistake occurred in distribution, the culprit could be identified for demerit marks. Since Dad worked ``six-and-eight'' and was gone a week each tour, he had to take a whopping supply of these facing slips in his grip. In my turn, it was my job to sit at a table on Sunday afternoons and thump-thump-thump that rubber stamp on hundreds and thousands of facing slips, until the house rattled to the rafters. One slip for every package of mail he would ``stick'' (sort) for all of Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, part of Quebec, and all of Boston City. Plus spares and extras, and a good many that said ``All for firm on face.''

You want to know something? Before I was 15 I knew more about the US postal service than all the postmasters general from Frank Hitchcock to Jim Farley. After that, Dad turned to my brother and two sisters, and in our combined time we thumped a good number of his rubber stamps until they no longer gave off his name, but left merely a blur. The rubber stamp that survived his retirement was left with the date of his last ``run,'' in October of 1941. It reads, ``Vanceboro & Boston RPO (SD) Tr. 8. Franklin F. Gould.'' SD means southern division.

Most of his RPO gear had to be ``turned in,'' his badge, his ``scheme book'' (for train schedules and mail connections), and the monstrous great .45 revolver he was supposed to wear at all times to protect the mails but never did. But the rubber stamp for facing slips was his, and he brought it home. At some time or other it got among my keepsakes, and there it was in the back end of the second drawer down when I read about the Railway Postal Service exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution. Treasured up forever, Dad's rubber stamp for RPO facing slips just happened to make me think of that schoolmarm.

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