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Authors: Vincent Wyckoff

Beware of Cat

BOOK: Beware of Cat
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and Other Encounters of a Letter Carrier

Vincent Wyckoff

Borealis Books is an imprint of the Minnesota Historical Society Press.

© 2007 by Vincent Wyckoff. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information, write to Borealis Books, 345 Kellogg Blvd. W., St. Paul, MN 55102-1906.

The Minnesota Historical Society Press is a member of the Association
of American University Presses.

Manufactured in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

∞ The paper used in this publication meets the minimum requirements of the American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48-1984.

International Standard Book Number

ISBN 13: 978-0-87351-582-5

ISBN 10: 0-87351-582-X

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Wyckoff, Vincent, 1952–

Beware of cat and other encounters of a letter carrier / Vincent Wyckoff.

p. cm.

ISBN-13: 978-0-87351-582-5 (cloth : alk. paper)

ISBN-10: 0-87351-582-X (cloth : alk. paper)

Ebook ISBN: 978-0-87351-657-0

1. Letter carriers. I. Title.

HE6241.W93 2007



For MacKenzie Wyckoff—

this is what your grandpa did


For her encouraging words at the outset and critical feedback throughout, I want to thank my good friend, Martha Anderson. A special thank you to my former classmate and faithful writing group member, Paula Zuhlsdorf, who taught me how to splash some color into the black-and-white printed word. Later, Luaina Lewis spent hours proofreading my work, giving me the confidence to send it out into the big, bad world.

The staff at Borealis Books has been outstanding. My editor, Ann Regan, brought great skill and sensitivity to the project. Many thanks to Greg Britton and Alison Vandenberg.

I want to recognize my fellow letter carriers at the Nokomis Post Office, whose integrity and work ethic never take a day off. I’m proud to work beside them. Of course, this book would not be possible without the wonderful folks living on Route 17. It has been a pleasure delivering their mail each day and an honor to know them. These are their stories, and while I’ve attempted to relate them as accurately as memory allows, it should be noted that every writer is a storyteller first.

I also want to thank my best friend and wife, Sybil, for listening to my mail-delivering escapades throughout the years. She often commented that I needed to write these stories down, but I didn’t take her good advice until the day she asked about a particular character from a tale I had related years earlier. I barely remembered the incident, and the fear of losing these stories inspired me to get them down on paper. Thanks, Syb.

Sybil and I invited a few friends over for dinner. Our oldest son, Sam, was finishing up high school, and I had recently noticed his less-than-exuberant response whenever the topic of college arose. In our house, from the time the kids were old enough to understand the words, the discussion had always been about
you go to college, not

Gathered at the dinner table were some interesting conversationalists, so as host I took the opportunity to ask a question that I hoped would spark a discussion about furthering one’s education and reaching for goals and dreams.

“If you could have any career imaginable,” I asked, “with
no concern about how much money you earn, or how much education it requires, what would you choose to do for a living, and why?”

One by one I directed the question around the table. Some of the answers were downright startling, creating lively rounds of laughter and conversation. There was the insurance agent who saw himself as a classical musician, and a nurse who dreamed of being a doctor working with Doctors Without Borders. A corporate communications executive said she would have been a puppeteer. “I’ve always loved the Muppets,” she added.

Sam listened and laughed along with the rest of us. I wasn’t sure my little exercise had fulfilled the intended purpose until we reached the end. When the laughter died down, Sam spoke up, directing the question my way. “How about you, Dad? What would you do for a living?” he asked. “Would you still choose to deliver mail?”

Everyone looked at me, and I found that providing an answer was no simple task. I had been too busy working and raising a family to ponder such questions. For years my wife and I had concentrated on helping the kids grow up strong and healthy and motivated, and I hadn’t thought about my own dreams for a while.

“You know, Sam, I’ve always wanted to be an author. If I had the opportunity, and a chance to take some classes, I think I’d sit down and write a book.”

“Well then, why don’t you do it? You’re always telling me that I can be whatever I want. If your dream is to be an author, to write a book, then you should do it.”

So here it is, Sam, with a nod of gratitude.


The Red Piñata

After delivering mail on the same route for over fifteen years, I’ve become something of a fixture in the lives of more than five hundred residents in a quiet neighborhood in South Minneapolis. I know all their first and last names, including the children’s, and I can recite every name in every house as I drive through the route.

I learn much more than just names, however, while delivering the mail. Stacks of handwritten cards show that someone is celebrating a birthday or anniversary. Certified letters from the
clearly signal an investigation. Newspapers from other towns reveal a patron’s origins. I know who receives X-rated magazines, and for a time I delivered love letters to a woman from an inmate in federal prison. The explicit artwork penciled on the envelopes was the clue.

Change-of-address forms show where someone is moving to, or where a new family is coming from. I’m aware of divorces and separations, when a child is born or somebody passes away. I’ve even attended some of their memorial services. Of course, I know every single dog on my route, the good ones as well as the bad.

Years ago, when still a substitute carrier, I noticed a warning sign on an open porch: Beware of Cat! I grinned at the snarling animal etched on the sign as I put mail in the box. Not until I turned to leave did I notice the huge feline watching me from a shadowed corner of the porch. With its back arched, the cat spat at me, showing off gleaming canines. I lunged for the steps, but he caught me halfway down. He clawed his way up my legs and latched onto my mail satchel as I ran for the next house. He finally let go, but then strutted along the perimeter of the yard to ensure I had no plans to return. After all these years, I’m sure that cat is long gone, but I’ll never forget that house.

While it’s possible to learn many details of people’s lives from the mail they receive, most of what I’ve discovered has come from talking to people. It can’t be helped. Walk through someone’s life once a day, year after year after year, and you’re bound to learn a few things.

My relationships with several patrons are almost like those within an extended family, and I know other carriers enjoy similar connections. As coworkers we share many of our experiences from the route; however, out of respect to the patrons, we keep some stories, as well as people’s names, to ourselves.

One of the more important lessons I’ve learned, and the most incredible to me, is how many everyday heroes are walking around out there: unassuming folks who have accomplished amazing feats with little fanfare or acclaim. Take all the war veterans, for instance. On my route lives a man who landed on Iwo Jima. His old unit holds a reunion every year, and he tells me how the few remaining survivors still shed tears when the reminiscing begins. I’ve talked to Korean War vets and listened to stories from veterans of both gulf wars.

One fellow on my route fought in Vietnam. He is a quiet, modest man with a tidy little house and a loving family. It was years before he finally talked to me about being drafted and becoming a machine gunner in the infantry. He told me how, over just a few months’ time, his whole unit was killed off and replaced by new recruits, many of whom didn’t make it home themselves. He was shot in the neck and barely survived. Now the vertebrae in his upper back are fusing together, twisting his head and neck painfully. The Veterans Administration won’t help him because he can’t prove his wounds caused the problem. The truly amazing aspect of the story is his lack of bitterness. Unable to drive anymore, he goes to work every day on the bus and always greets me with a smile and a wave when I see him.

Not all of my patrons’ stories evoke compassion, however. Another fellow lost his wife to cancer at a very young age. For the last few months of her life, a nurse spent several hours every day with her to make her as comfortable as possible. One day, I accidentally spotted the husband and nurse in a compromising position on the couch. I wasn’t surprised when they became engaged just two months after the wife died.

Above all, I particularly admire those people who quietly go about living their lives, raising families (a heroic effort in itself) while trying to do the right thing by others, especially those folks who struggle with emotional, mental, or physical disabilities. They go to work every day at menial jobs, pay their bills, and find peace and enjoyment in the little victories and rewards of life.

With so much time on the same assignment, I’ve seen children go off for their first day of kindergarten—and years later I’ve attended their high school graduation parties. In South Minneapolis, these summertime celebrations are often centered on a backyard barbeque. Colorful helium-filled balloons are a common decorating motif: blue and orange for Washburn High, burgundy and gold for Roosevelt, and black and orange for South.

I witnessed the preparations for a slightly different graduation party. The Anayas, a family of recent immigrants from Central America, lived together in a tiny one-bedroom house: a young boy and girl, their parents, and their grandmother. The boy, and occasionally the grandmother, met me at the door to get the mail. They never said anything, just nodded and smiled. I figured it was a language thing, because sometimes I offered a “gracias,” or “buenos dias,” and they giggled while responding with a phrase totally incomprehensible to me.

One day the front door was wide open. I couldn’t help but see inside. A mix-and-match array of kitchen chairs, stools, straight-backed wooden seats, and folding chairs neatly lined the walls of the small front room. Dozens of pages of crayon artwork, finger paintings, and elementary worksheets of ABCs were taped to the walls. A bright red piñata, shaped like a bunny, hung from the light fixture. Salsa music played softly in the background. Then the little boy came running through the house to meet me.

“Are you having a party?” I asked.

The grin on his face threatened to consume him. His big brown eyes shimmered and sparkled. “Later,” he replied, bouncing up and down as he reached for the mail. I think that was the first word of English I ever heard from him.

“Is it a birthday party?” I asked, thinking his excitement was due to the presents he would soon be opening.

But he shook his head. “My sister,” he said.

“It’s your sister’s birthday?”

Again he shook his head. I thought the kid would burst. “My sister, she is done from kindergarten!” he exclaimed.

I smiled and turned to leave. It seemed they were making a mighty big deal out of passing kindergarten, but maybe it was a big deal for the little girl. After all, she was the one who had gone off to school all alone in a strange new country. She hadn’t even spoken the language all that well.

As I reached the foot of their stairs, I realized her little brother, who could not possibly understand her accomplishment, was showing the joy and pride he sensed in his parents and grandmother. His sister was launched into this new world, and he would soon follow. I glanced back to see him standing in the doorway, the bright red piñata swaying in the breeze behind him.

BOOK: Beware of Cat
2.83Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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