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9/02/2011

Joe Brinkman, Taberville Postmaster

The Ozarks Herbalist column for The Ozarks Mountaineer
Jim Long

The Postmaster

I grew up in Taberville, Missouri, in the 1950s and ‘60s, a time when the rest of the world was awakening and modernizing. It was the early days of shopping malls, of ranch-style houses and color television. The fins on Chevrolets and Fords came and went, smoothing out to more sleek sky-rocketed models. It was a time when rock and roll replaced the Big Bands, when Elvis Presley pushed aside Lawrence Welk and t.v. dinners made cooking from scratch seem old-fashioned.

But our little town didn’t take much notice of any of that. What was happening in New York City or Los Angeles, Little Rock or Atlanta, had little bearing on our lives. The Civil Rights movement seemed far away, prejudice and bigotry wasn’t a local problem. Hippies may have demonstrated for peace somewhere, but it was only on television and didn’t exist anywhere within the borders of our lives.

The major conduit for information into and out of Taberville, was the Post Office. More correctly, the conduit was Joe Brinkman, the official Postmaster for 32 years, who, upon his retirement was forced to take 3 1/2 months of vacation time before he could receive his first retirement check. It was discovered by the Post Office officials that Joe had never taken a day off, not a sick day and not a single day of vacation in all of his years of service.

It’s reasonable to say that Joe Brinkman was dedicated to the Post Office and to his job.  You could sit on the front porch of my father’s grocery store and set your watch by Joe’s daily routine. At five minutes before 7:00 a.m., Joe hoisted the American flag up the old Osage Orange flag pole. Sometimes, if the wind was blowing, the flag would catch on a limb of the catalpa tree as it was drawn upward and Joe would retrieve his cane fishing pole and knock it free. But always, the flag went up at five of the hour.

You would know it was twelve o’clock, too, because the door was locked for the fifteen minutes Joe went next door to eat lunch. And you could tell it was 12:15 when you heard the radio click on, signaling the Post Office was again open for business. At exactly 5:00 p.m., not a minute before nor one minute after, five days a week, the flag was lowered, carefully folded so as to not touch the ground and taken inside before the Post Office door was locked for the night. On Saturdays, the routine was the same except the closing hour was noon.

Everyone, all fifty three of us who lived within the city limits of Taberville, stepped through the Post Office door every day. If someone was ill, or infirm, a neighbor would ask Joe for their mail and drop it off on their way home. The important fact is, every bit of news that informed the citizens of the town, and every reply or inquiry they made regarding that information, went through Joe Brinkman’s careful hands.

The Post Office was a tiny shack, just six nine feet, tacked onto the south side of the old wooden garage where Joe fixed flat tires during the same hours the Post
office was open. The garage was ancient, and leaning precariously. Within its shamble of walls sat a Model A Ford, parked there when Joe replaced it with a shiny, newly used, 1951 Ford sedan. There didn’t seem to be a reason to sell the old Model A, and since it wasn’t still in use, became simply a fixture of the garage upon which spare tires were piled. In the back seat extra, new tire repair materials sat, along with new inner tubes and Monkey brand tire patches, covered with dust but at the ready when needed.
Joe Brinkman, bent over the tire, fixed flat tires as well as dispensing the mail.

What kept the whole building from falling over in a wind storm, wasn’t the Post Office which had been added as an after thought, but the catalpa tree that had grown up from under the concrete slab of the Post Office floor, some thirty or forty years before. The tree grew had grown so close to the building, on the outside wall of the Post Office, that it kept the Post Office’s walls from falling outward and by so doing, continued to prop up the larger garage.

To get into the Post Office you had to climb up two uneven steps, one was an old squared sandstone from the foundation of a much older building, the second step being the edge of the concrete slab that made the floor of the building. The old screen door, the only entry door into the room, had never been painted but had darkened to a coffee-colored patina by years of oil, DDT sprayed on the screens to kill flies, and tobacco juice spit that didn’t quite make it through the mostly opened door.

Anytime you went to the Post Office in the summer and there was a ball game somewhere, you would hear the radio as you approached the building, cranked up to a high decibel. 
“There’s the windup....and the pitch!” the announcer said. You’d hear the roar of the crowd, then the announcer would announce, “Hit!” or “Strike!” Play by play, the ballgame was always on the radio and if you walked in while the ball was in play, or if the announcer was describing the position on the field or what an outfielder was doing, Joe would ignore you completely as if you were invisible. Joe was a diehard Cardinals fan, he’d whoop and yell when one of his players got a hit. He’d jump and down on his old nail keg stool with excitement when his team was winning. When there was a break for a commercial, or between plays, Joe would again be amicable to retrieving a patron’s mail.

Joe loved two things in life, baseball and tomato soup. More explicitly, he liked his wife, Myra’s tomato soup. He said more than once, when he died, he wanted it to be by drowning in a big bowl of Myra’s tomato soup. He also liked sitting on my father’s front store porch and listening to, and telling stories. He had worked as a farm laborer in his early years and he designated that time, and those stories in a predictable way.

Anytime one of Joe’s stories began, “I remember, up on the prairie...” it designated a story from his youth. The thousand acre virgin grassland Taberville Prairie lay just a mile to the north of Taberville, and the rolling hills that undulated southward into the Ozarks, began just past the Osage River to the south. Town sat almost on the riverbank, the dividing line between the prairie to the north and the river and hills to the south. Joe’s youth, and his best memories, came from the time he and his parents lived up on the prairie.

However, Joe’s stories weren’t confined to the prairie days, nor even to his tomato soup and baseball adventures. Joe had a particularly inquisitive mind, with lots of time on his hands since processing and sorting the mail, and stuffing it into the little wooden cubbyholes that made our Post Office efficient, didn’t really take much time out of each day. Therefore, when no ball game was on the radio, and no patrons were inside the building, Joe sat, staring at the rows and rows of little wooden cubbyholes, many filled with news from the outside world. Temptation would rear its head and Joe would read.

When you stepped through the door into the Post Office, you had to ask for your mail. Joe would retrieve it from your Post Office Box cubbyhole and hand it across the little counter to your waiting hands. But while he was reaching, he might mention, “I see your aunt has been back in Oregon again.” Or, “You have a birthday card here from your grandmother. How’s she doing? I remember her from years ago. Does she still have the old gray tomcat?”
The nail keg Joe sat on for all his years as Postmaster.

Yes sir, Joe kept tabs on everyone in town by reading their mail. Not just the post cards, either, but the letters that weren’t well sealed. The packages, too, if they weren’t wrapped well and could reveal a bit of their contents. “Tell your mother the new shoes she ordered are here,” Joe would say. “I always like those white summer shoes she buys.”

The fact that Joe read everyone’s mail wasn’t so bad, we all knew and expected it. What was bad was Joe didn’t just discuss your new shoes, or your application for a job with just you. No, he carried that information with him to the front porch of the store or even into the next town where he played pool with friends. If there was a lull in the conversation, he might toss out a bit of gossip. If you inquired how he knew, he’d always have a story ready for where he’d overheard the tidbit. Yet everyone knew, Joe read the population’s mail. The only way to be sure your outgoing mail wasn’t pilfered by Joe Brinkman, was to take it to someone outside of town and put it in their mailbox for the next town’s mail carrier to pick up.

The Post Office might have been automating in the cities, mail service might have been improving and modernizing, but in Taberville, in those years, you would walk in and have your mail recited to you and not even have to open the letter yourself. Joe Brinkman sat on his little nail keg stool and dispensed the news as well as the mail like the Oracle of Delphi, always there, always ready with the latest news and a word or bit of sage advice.