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What You Used to Get For Your Three Cents

These important government shredding machines that render classified documents into oblivion are not innovative with our great age of abandoned reason. I first heard of shredding when I was a boy and my father was a railway postal clerk on the Boston-to-Halifax run. Train 8 held the speed record for over-the-route in North America. She would go through our little town of Freeport, in Maine, at 88 m.p.h., with whistle cord tied down for 15 grade crossings, and we youngsters at home in bed would hear the swoosh! and know Dad was riding again.

In those happy days of 3-cent stamps, every railroad train was a rolling post office. In every railway post office there was a maneuver known as "catch and throw," which took place when a train went through a town but didn't stop. One clerk, usually, threw and caught the incoming and outgoing pouches. The departing pouch was suspended on a trackside yardarm to be caught by a hook in passing, and the arriving pouch was kicked out to be picked up by a porter.

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This meant pulling down on a handle to bring the hook up to catch the suspended pouch, then racing across the car to kick off the other pouch. The pouch off the yardarm would slap into the speeding car and slam against the wall, and clerks who made the "catch" were necessarily agile. "Throwing" was also hazardous, but not to the clerk.

At Haverill, Mass., soon after leaving Boston, the eastbound of the Halifax run offered a clerk a half-second choice of kicking the pouch into the Merrimac River. And in New Hampshire, one trip, a tardy place kick sent the pouch flying to rake down a greenhouse with 50,000 geraniums in bloom. When catching, not much disaster prevailed if the clerk knew to duck, except once.

Train 8 came to Freeport, doing about 90, and the clerk pulled the handle to make his catch. When the hook came to the pouch suspended on the yardarm, it was demonstrated, as Newton had suggested, that bodies at rest tend to remain at rest and bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. That is, the speed of the train was at odds with the motionless suspended pouch, and the elevated hook cut the pouch in two, letting fly the contents. The letters fell, were sucked in by the passing cars, and for the next five miles the wheels of Train 8 shredded things up some old good.

As usual, we youngsters at home in bed heard Train 8 in its thunderous passage, and we knew Daddy was riding again. But we would not know about the shredding until the next day. Daddy knew nothing about it either, as Train 8 hurtled him away. Train 8 usually had 14 cars in its first section: mail and express, coaches, diner, sleepers and parlor, and sometimes a few empty fish cars going back to Nova Scotia. Counting ponies on the head end, that's a lot of wheels a-shreddin', and a good job was done by all.

On my way to school in the morning, I found most of my fellow townsfolk walking around, picking up bits of paper. In those days, the US postal service was operated by dedicated folks who believed that if a man spent three whole cents to mail a letter, he was entitled to respectful attention and there was an obligation to keep him happy.

So postmaster Luther Cushing had recruited everybody he could reach to pick up bits of paper in a mighty effort to do a big jigsaw puzzle and start all over again. Mr. L.L. Bean, who had just launched his mail-order business, released his shop and office crews to help and made his big shipping table a place to rejoin shredded letters.

Mr. Bean's business was just above the post office, so this was handy. It was said the jigsaw matching was not so difficult as expected, and at the end of two full days everything that could be recovered was in place. Mr. Bean honored all complaints without question, and in the end said the shredding made him many friends.

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Fortunately, all of Bean's mail in that pouch had been processed in his offices. Had it been incoming mail, he'd have had some trouble. Postmaster Cushing put a card of thanks in the paper, in gratitude for the community's understanding cooperation, but he had to pay the 75 cents himself. The postal service said he had incurred the expense without official authorization.

BUT the most fun was when our father came home and we youngsters could tell him what happened. He didn't know anything about this, because while he was on the spot when the pouch was slashed in two, a minute later he was too far away and merely knew that the clerk, somehow, had missed the Freeport pouch. There was little he could do about it.

My father liked to tell about railway efficiency with the story of the Winslow pouch that got kicked off the westbound into the Kennebec River. Quite a tide ran there on the ebb, and the mail porter wasn't able to snag the pouch before it went downstream. The matter was duly reported, investigated, and entered in the records as a lost pouch.

This proved premature. The pouch floated out to sea and spent some time floating back and forth until at last it got into the Gulf Stream and began going toward Europe. But off Nova Scotia the pouch was intercepted by a trawler working the Grand Bank and was hung out to dry on a spar.

A week later, the trawler arrived at home port, New Bedford, Mass., and after unloading numerous buckets of ground fish, the skipper took the recovered pouch, somewhat bedraggled, to the post office. There, it was opened, wrung out, and contents noted. Every letter, my father said, was delivered promptly. It just goes to show.

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