Oral Histories: J

Railway Post Office Clerks

Richard Jennings

Mr. Jennings started in the Railway Mail Service as a substitute in 1946. Later that year he became a regular, running out of Boston. His main runs were on the Boston and Albany Railway Post Office, from 1950 to 1952, and Boston and New York Railway Post Office, from 1952 to 1970.

Richard Jennings (RJ) Interview Transcript

RJ: Well let’s see, I worked… overseas, I got talking to some Railway Mail clerks. They were sorting mail. And decided when I was overseas. And when I came back, I took the examination in 1946, when I got out of the service, got married, and that’s the start of my career.

INTERVIEWER: What sort of jobs did you do on the cars? You know, registry clerk, pouch rack, that sort of thing. RJ: Well, through the years I did them all. But yeah, work the registry letters, work the pouch table, letter case.

INTERVIEWER: Were there any jobs that you preferred?

RJ: No, actually you bid the job that you wanted that had a peculiar, the particular days off. For instance, we had jobs that worked 6 days and off 8 days. And those were the ones that the old timers got. And, so, I didn’t get one of those until I became an old timer [laughs]. Years and years later.

INTERVIEWER: Did you mostly work day trains or night trains, or some of both? RJ: No night trains, mostly, all of the trains out of Boston were night trains.

INTERVIEWER: Okay. So was it hard to get used to that sort of lifestyle and sleeping during the day and that sort of thing?

RJ: No. You learned to sleep in snatches, you know, you’d get a couple of hours here and a couple of hours there, yup.

INTERVIEWER: Was it difficult for your family to have you away?

RJ: Actually, there was a couple of Christmases when the kids were small and at those times, in those days they worked the mail on Christmas. And that was tough. That was tough being away from home, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: What was favorite part of the job, would you say?

RJ: Oh, the windup trip and knowing that you had a full week off. You were dirty and tired and you had, you got home and it was really nice. It was very nice.

INTERVIEWER: So was there anything you really didn’t like about it?

RJ: I liked every aspect of it. It was a dirty job, but it was fascinating because it was handling letters that you know you were expediting that letter that was going from point A to point B and you were sorting it, and it got there that much faster, because maybe people like you were working terrible hours of the day and night. So, it was a job that got, the people just liked. They just loved. A lot of esprit de corps among our people. Out of 700,000 postal employees, there were only like 30,000 of us. So we got paid a little more money. Not much, a little bit more.

Yeah, it was kinda, kind of a nice, a nice job, yeah.

INTERVIEWER: Did you have to study very often at home?

RJ: Oh, that was another part that wasn’t too pleasant, but you did have to study quite a bit until, after four, five years you pretty well knew… for instance, I knew every post office in New Jersey going south, I knew Washington, DC, I could break down mail for New York City and coming north, Boston. We’d sort the mail going to North Station, going to Maine, and yeah. It, it was fascinating and very nice.

INTERVIEWER: Did you ever run into any dangerous situations? Any train wrecks or anything like that?

RJ: Well, there was one that was real danger, I mean it was a real tragedy. But I was working on the Boston and Albany Railroad, one that ran from Boston, Wooster, Springfield, Pittsfield, Albany. But anyway, they were taking the mail car off at Springfield and the coupling broke and one of the fellas fell on the tracks, and he was crushed, crushed to death. Yeah that was tough to take.

INTERVIEWER: We’re also looking for any stories or memories that you have of the Railway Mail Service, maybe… RJ: Well, that was one bad memory, but the other memories… Well I associated the birth of the kids with what train I was running on, it was just a nice, quite a nice, it was a dirty job but it took a lot of memory and it was, we just loved it. We were a small band of lucky people in that job like that. We got dirty, but we had to use our brains, and we were doing a job that meant a lot to people that never even knew we existed.

Milton Johnson

Mr. Johnson took a position with the Railway Mail Service in 1947. He subbed on the Chicago Gilman and St. Louis, Chicago Decater and St. Louis, and Chicago Springfield and St. Louis lines. After two years, he made became a fulltime clerk, and held a position on the Chicago and St. Louis run.

Milton Johnson (MJ) Interview Transcript

MJ: Well, I worked for the Caterpillar Tractor Company in ’36, and when I came back from the service in late ’45, they were supposed to give us any benefits that might occurred in the past, like pay raises and step up in the job positions, and when I came back, I just was more or less on the same level as when I left. And I was disappointed, and so they had these tests for the Railway Mail, and another fella and I, a friend of mine, we took the exam and passed it, and that’s how come we went into the army… RMS.

INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me about your schedule on the trains?

MJ: Well of course the hours varied depending on what runs you were on. Most of them though were 10 to 11, or even 11 and a half hours. And we worked, like on those shifts we worked like five days on and then we had like 9 days off.

INTERVIEWER: What was your favorite part of working for the Railway Mail Service?

MJ: Well we had good people to work for. The people I worked under, the superintendent and all of ‘em were courteous, generous, helpful and also like being working say 5 days on and 9 days off.

INTERVIEWER: Were you ever injured?

MJ: Yes. I was a substitute on the, in the Illinois Central. And they switched the mail cars from the setting position over onto the mail train. And they had chocks under the wheels to keep the train from rolling, because it was on a kind of a grade. And when they took the chocks out, evidently there was some miscommunication between the people working on the ground. Anyway, the mail car rolled free. And we were out in the yards. And we were going possibly around 35 miles an hour and we heard people shouting and yelling and someone in the mail car had gone to the door and yelled back to us that we were freewheeling, there was no engine or anything on the car. And what they did, they headed us in to a line of stationary boxcars, and we hit the boxcars. And of course, there was a sudden jolt. And in doing so, it threw all of us to the ground, or to the floor, or against the cases or against the racks. And I happened to be close to the racks, and it threw me against the mail racks where they hung the pouches and the sacks, and injured some ribs and also some other contusions. And then there was another time on the Illinois Central in Litchfield, Illinois. We ran right through a freight train, and the boxcars. And there was several times that we run into, you know, trucks, or cars. You know, accidents on the tracks. But that was the only time that I was, you know, injured.

INTERVIEWER: Do you have any other favorite memories? Something funny that happened or unusual?

MJ: Well, we were always playing tricks on each other. And, well one comes to mind, there was one fella that, he chewed tobacco, and one time when he went back to the restroom several other fellas cut up some rubberbands and he chewed the Red Man chewing tobacco, and inserted some of those cut up paper bands in his chewing tobacco. And of course when he came back and he took another chew, well you could tell that he thought there was something different, but he finally found out that we did that.