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The Mailboxes of My Memory
By Chet Dalzell | Posted on July 21, 2014

It's the height of summer in New York City—seems like we shrugged off the chills—and my mind has turned to lemonade, fresh berries, the beach at Fire Island and my upcoming class reunion in Ogallala, Nebraska. Getting nostalgic is something I think I have a knack for ... Funny, even as I experience present moments presently, I sometimes find myself wondering how I will think about each memory years down the road. Pretty convoluted—experiencing "now," and thinking ahead about thinking back, all at the same time. The weekend of my class reunion, I literally will be reliving a time a few decades ago, except this go-around on my terms.

In my life, I've had a lot of mailboxes. My current box (New York, NY) is part of an apartment building cluster box—and one that proudly holds about four to five days' worth of mail, including magazines and catalogs. I can run off for a day or two and the incoming mail safely, securely collects there without my having to fill out a "hold mail" card at the local Murray Hill post office. Before we remodeled our building's lobby, I had a tinier cluster box—installed in the 1960s—that could barely hold a day's mail. The mail carrier sometimes would just come up the elevator and leave my mail on the mat by my door. He was probably not following protocol, but I bet he was just as happy as I was when we installed the larger boxes.

Before New York City, and a few prior addresses ago, I lived in Newtown, CT, with my family during my college years. There we first had a standard USPS mailbox with an up-and-down flag, the kind you still find at Sears. Mom was an avid direct shopper. Her L.L. Bean and Lands End deliveries were stuffed in the mailbox and sometimes dangled out over the open lid. (The QVC purchases came by UPS and were left by the garage door.)

After a series of snowfalls, when the town plow took out the mailbox for a second or third time, we had had it. A friend of my Mom's engineered a piece of genius: a super-jumbo mailbox that set on a sliding rail that in wintertime could ride forward over the snowbank to easily meet the reach of the mail truck. We could slide the mailbox back from the road during snowstorms to keep it from getting whacked. It also held a lot of mail order packages.

That was my favorite mailbox—but it also was a favorite of yellow jackets during springs and summers. Each year I had to spray it with insect killer to eradicate a growing hive. (Aside, we always hear about letter carriers and dog bites—but how many bee stings do letter carriers endure?) I also remember the hearty hostas perennials that would grow so fervently around the base of the mailbox—and to this day, hostas are my go-to ground cover in any area beset by sand and road salt leftovers from the winter.

In Ogallala, NE, we actually had a "city style" single-residence black mailbox with a top lid and two parallel curling hooks underneath for flyers and my Boys Life magazine (my first piece of regular mail, that I can recall), attached to the house by the front door. I had my first pen pal then, too—a school principal I corresponded with from Melfort, Saskatchewan. Nothing unusual in this mailbox setup—until my big sister (well, allegedly, one of her friends) was found to be hiding a stash of 70's illicit paraphernalia inside a corner of it. Talk about special delivery! I wonder if she shared any of it with the postman.

Then I go back to childhood—in Williamstown, MA. There we had a roadside mailbox, where one of my daily chores was to check for mail (we didn't always get mail) and to put outgoing letters in the box with the flag up. It was the 1960s. I remember Mr. ZIP ads on television, his likeness on the sides of the mail truck, and the occasional special letters written to me from Grandma and Grandpa that always were addressed (until age 12) as "Master Chester Goodale Dalzell II"—no mistaking that for a note sent to my Dad (also named Chet).

As a kid, I hated firecrackers, and one day Stewy, a guy next door, lit a cherry bomb that exploded inside the mailbox when I was just a few feet from it. The mailbox endured, but my fear of fireworks only grew exponentially. (I love fireworks today, after therapy.)

I'll never forget that noise—but I also will always love another noise, actually a sequence of noises, that I fear is going away soon ... the sound of the mail truck driving up to the box, the squeak open of the hinge of the mailbox lid, the flag being dropped when an outgoing letter is picked up, and the squeak shut of the lid just as the truck drove off. No matter where in house I was standing, and no matter what I was doing, I could hear it. Those noises triggered in me a sliver of daily excitement—"what's inside today's mail?" and I would run out to check the mailbox, sometimes fast enough to wave at the postman as he continued with his appointed rounds.
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