The First Mail Girl

(August 2, 2000)  I almost didn’t go out on the Mail Boat last weekend. I’d just been out earlier this month with our friends Roland and Theo (Roland’s first question was, “Can the captain marry people?”) on a fabulous, cool, blue-sky day with my wife’s chocolate chip raspberry bars for dessert, and while she was planning on packing her new chocolate chip/dried cherry bars, which are more assertive than the previous week’s delicious but perhaps too subtle chocolate chip/macadamia nut bars (rehearsing for the State Fair baking competition is arduous), the weather did not look as promising. But I did go, and looking back I tremble at the thought of what I would have missed.

The guest of honor this time was my wife’s mother and it was she who persuaded me to come along. The boat held two other parties, one a largely invisible trio up front, and the other a family, more a tribe really, with three sisters, two husbands and several children in orbit including a 4 1/2 month old child with eyes of startling blue and a round toothless smile she would occasionally pop at her mother that persuaded you that good might triumph in the world after all. The family arrived with ten bags, most filled with food. I leaned across the table and said, “Nobody is going to starve on this voyage.”

Nor perish from a lack of color. There was bright blue Fierce Grape Gatorade, a jumbo pack of Big Red gum, pink Double Bubble, rich brown NesQuik, all out and in circulation before the boat left the dock. Then white paper was taped on the tables and crayons were brandished, rainbows were drawn.

The family was a contingent from The Pines, a family-owned camp established in 1901 and the recipient of Mail Boat service since that date, now the oldest stop on the boat’s rounds. I felt as though I was traveling with royalty. And when we approached The Pines, another happy gathering of roughly equal size (supplemented by a dog), appeared on the dock and, reunited, they all began waving and shouting greetings to each other, the children’s high-pitched voices singing out to their cousins and second cousins as the mail bags were exchanged. (The Pines has its own mail bags; I cannot imagine what that must feel like.)

This brush with a century of history would have made the trip worthwhile, but there was more. The alpha sister, as it turns out, was the Mail Boat’s first mail girl, in 1970. When I heard that piece of intelligence being shouted forward to the captain for his edification, I knew I had to beg an audience. And the First Mail Girl was very kind.

She got the job the summer between high school and college (Boston University), at the age of 18 1/2. (This calculating one’s age by halves must be a family tradition.) She started by refinishing the interior of the boat, the Miss Pat, then learned how to pilot it, then learned how to deliver the mail with a long fish net (still the method employed), and then how to wait tables for the evening’s dinner cruise. And after the drinks had been flowing, it even fell to her to master the art of intercepting and informing determined male passengers that they would not be allowed to relieve themselves off the stern.

Less difficult was tying the boat up during a thunderstorm, or painting the engine room purple under cover of darkness.

As we came to Lourdes Camp, where food packages from parents cross paths with postcards begging for rescue, she remembered a young camp counselor, a “real hot dog,” who one morning paddled out to the Mail Boat to swap mail bags with her and casually stood up in his canoe. You cannot stand up in a canoe; the counselor was reminded of this immediately. The mail bags have a lead bar in the bottom and they went directly to the bottom, passing the counselor on his humiliating way back up to the surface. You may ask, “How could one forget that you cannot stand up in a canoe?” I have the answer, because 30 summers later, the First Mail Girl is still a woman who could make a man forget the basic laws of boating. (Not that I, a happily married man, would usually notice such a thing, but as a writer I force myself to be observant.)

The Pines, the First Mail Girl… you would think that was enough to fill the day, but then I wandered out to the open air of the bow and fell into a conversation with the First Mail Girl’s husband. “I married into The Pines,” he said. “I’m an outlaw.” And he told me how much he loved the place, and how good it was for the kids, how when a toilet was recently retired from one of the cottages it was sent to the Onondaga Historical Association. Our conversation wandered through history, nature, the civil service reforms of Chester A. Arthur’s administration, the Winship family in Massachusetts, our favorite search engine (Google), the sudden demise of the Rose Hill seed company because of its failure to follow Burpee’s lead in using color photography in its catalog, the importance of adapting, and the interconnectivity of things. A glorious voyage, and as the Village grew larger, I hated to see it come to an end.

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