While Jimmy and I were painting Joiner’s Store I thought about my childhood employment there with Uncle Emmett. I began helping him one day a week in the summer of 1964, a little before my twelfth birthday in October. I’m not sure how long I worked there, probably between six months and a year. Store work had its benefits, but I had already been spoiled by a government job.
A couple of years earlier I had begun a lucrative stint with the United States Postal Service. That job also involved Uncle Emmett and was my first paid position with someone other than my parents.
Before I landed the post office job my resume included rather mundane chores around our home like gathering eggs for a penny each. Daddy also paid me a dime to polish his shoes, for which I’m almost certain I gave him a nickel’s worth of shine. Shoes don’t need shining now like they did back then, and most folks have gotten rid of their chickens, so I don’t know what kids today do to earn money. I guess they help their parents resolve technology issues with electronic devices.
Besides operating the store, Uncle Emmett was the substitute rural route mail carrier for Unadilla. Mr. Bruce Poole was the full-time postman who delivered mail to us on Route One. I think there were three rural routes and he covered them all, but my thinking is sometimes more speculative than factual.
Uncle Emmett filled in for Mr. Bruce once every week. He paid me three dollars to ride with him and put mail in the boxes. It was easy money and we had a good time. He enjoyed gospel music and made sure we were tuned in for a thirty-minute program aired by WCEH radio in Hawkinsville.
As he sang along with The Chuck Wagon Gang and other old-time gospel groups, I’d kid him about being a little off key. Then one day he told me I’d said enough about his singing. He explained that even though his talent might not be all that strong, singing was something he enjoyed. It had never crossed my mind he was tired of my lighthearted ribbings. Uncle Emmett’s honesty stung just a bit, but it helped me better understand that teasing is something both parties should enjoy. That’s when I began singing along with him. I don’t understand why, but two fellows a little off key somehow sounded a little better than just one.
We’d go to the post office in Unadilla to pick up mail in the mornings, then return that afternoon with letters collected along the route. Mr. Howard “Pop” Butler was the postmaster, and his wife, Miss Sarah, also worked there. They were a cheerful couple, wonderful folks to start and end your workday around. Cheerfulness, I’ve learned, is a good quality in those you work with, live with, or plan to marry.
Mr. Taylor Hooks, an older gentleman, would occasionally be waiting by his mailbox. I didn’t know Mr. Hooks except for seeing him on the route and I don’t remember much about him, but somehow his rather unique name has stayed with me. Another man sometimes met us in his car rather than waiting until we drove by his house. I’ve forgotten how he was injured, but Uncle Emmett said he had a steel plate implanted where he’d lost part of his skull. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could live through that kind of ordeal, and I sometimes wondered if a magnet would stick to his head. Even as a child, however, I knew some questions are best left unspoken.
The most thrilling incident of my postal career came unexpectedly. A mailbox had been noticeably leaning for months. The rotten post finally gave way and we found it lying on the ground. Uncle Emmett left a note saying they needed to put the box back up. The next time we were there it was still right where it had fallen. “Just throw the mail out the window,” he said, “They’ve had plenty of time to take care of that.” A new post was in place before our next delivery. That was one of the first times I realized some people need more encouragement than others.
My good paying postal job abruptly ended. Thankfully, I hadn’t run up a lot of debt and didn’t have any dependents. Next week we’ll talk about a new profession, clerking at Joiner’s Store. Retail work had its benefits, but the hours were long, the pay was low, and my expectations were perhaps too grandiose. Being the assistant to the substitute rural mail carrier can do that to a person.