Richard Shafer Autobiography: toc | previous chapter | next chapter
The Life of Richard Shafer
©1988 Glenn Shafer
CHAPTER VIII. A NEW BEGINNING
I went to work in the Caney Post Office in 1955, when I was 33 years old. The job was part-time at first, and I considered it temporary, but by the end of 1956, it was full-time and permanent.
It was hard for me to give up the idea of being my own boss, but the security and income from the post office job made a great difference in my family's life. During the late '50s, we got electricity, running water, plumbing, and television. I still had the farm, so I was still in a better position than somebody just working for wages.
Our family grew and became a bigger part of my life in the late '50s. Roy was born in 1955, and Janet was born in 1958. At the same time, the older children, Glenn and Delores, participated more and more in the things I did at home.
GETTING A NEW JOB
In the spring of 1955, we saw an advertisement in the Caney Daily Chronicle inviting people to take a Civil Service examination for jobs in the U.S. Post Office in Caney.
Things were looking better on the farm that spring. I had 40 acres of corn in, and it was looking real good. But during the drought we had gotten heavily in debt to my mother just to keep going. I hadn't had any outside income since I had quit the anodizing shop at Continental Can the spring before. Now Anna was pregnant again. I talked it over with her, and we decided I should take the exam. I took it in July, and then I had to wait for the results.
The postmaster of the Caney Post Office was M.L. Pearsall, a Caney boy I had known all my life. He and his wife, the former Polly Bridenstine, went to our church. His father, Lester Pearsall, owned the grain elevator in Caney. The job of postmaster was a political job in those days, and M.L. had good political credentials. His family was prominent, he had been an officer in World War II, and he had gotten shot up pretty badly.
M.L. became postmaster in 1954. The job had been up for grabs for quite a while, and M.L. had politicked a lot to get it. His family was Republican, like almost all prominent Caney families, but he had changed his registration to Democratic when he started trying to get the job, because Truman was still President. Then Eisenhower was elected, and he changed it back.
The people with the highest scores on the Civil Service exam were supposed to have first crack at the jobs, but Pearsall could pretty well decide who to hire, because the openings were for substitutes, and he controlled the hours. If there was someone he didn't want to hire, he could offer them a job working only a few hours a week. Most people weren't interested in that. At the time I took the exam, there were a couple of guys who were already working for him also taking it. They had taken it before and failed.
On August 17, Pearsall called me up about coming to work, even though the scores still were not back. He hired me as the third substitute, at $1.38 an hour. I would work about one day a week, unless someone was sick, and then I might work more. That was just what I wanted. I intended to keep farming, but I needed something to help me get by.
I ended up working a day or two a week. Sometimes I would just work a couple of hours late in the afternoon, tying up mail. Often Pearsall would call me on short notice. I remember one afternoon when I was in the Union Gas office looking at stoves. We needed a new stove because of the new baby who was coming. Pearsall was walking by outside, and when he saw me, he stepped in to see what I was doing. He said, "If you're going to buy that stove, you better come to work this afternoon so you can pay for it."
When the scores came back, I had passed, with a reasonably good score. The two guys who were already working in the post office also passed this time, with scores better than mine. So we were all officially hired.
I finally got electricity in the house in 1955, just as I was getting the job at the post office.
Caney was served by a small independent electric utility, the Caney Electric Company, and it just never was interested in fooling with us. Their closest line was at the Andy Jack place, about half a mile north, and they expected me to lay out the money to build a line from there.
The Blundells had gotten electricity about 1949, from a rural electrical co-op that had come down from the north. But the co-op couldn't help me, because they couldn't cross the Caney company's line. It was against the law for one of the co-ops to get closer than half a mile to a private company's area.
In 1955, I finally wrote the Corporation Commission in Topeka about the problem. They more or less ordered the Caney company to put the line in and charge me a monthly minimum of 1% of the cost. The company figured it would cost $1,800, so we were talking about a minimum bill of $18 a month.
That still was more than I felt I could afford. But I got to talking to Charles MacBride, who was the foreman for Caney Electric, about the used poles and electric line the company had from the lines they were taking down along the highway. The new U.S. Highway 166 had just been opened then, and the company had put up new lines along it, leaving some of the old lines along the old highway unneeded. MacBride and I figured out how we could get the cost down by using the used material and by having me do some of the work myself. I was to dig the holes, except that the company would furnish dynamite when I needed it to break up the rocks, and Charles would come out to set it off for me. The company crew would come out to set up the poles and string the wire. Charles and I went together down to the Canary oil fields to talk to Carrol Russell to get permission to put the line across his place, the old Andy Jack place.
We got the line in that fall, after I was already started at the post office. The minimum was $6.50 a month, for 40 kilowatt-hours. All we had at first was lights in the dining room, kitchen, and barn. We kept under the minimum for about six months. After that we started getting things like toasters and water pumps, and we went over.
After we got the electric line, it wasn't long before the company extended it for free over to the Sanders, and then across Wallace Ward's pasture to the house on the other side of his property, down on the state line. That irritated me, because I had tried for years to get Ward and the Sanders to kick in to get the line in. The three of us must have been about the last places in the area to get electricity.
From August 17, 1955, the day I started, until the end of that year, I made $1,600 in the post office. That was working about two days a week on the average. We thought that was tremendous.
The corn crop turned out well that fall. I was so busy and had so much money to spend that fall I bought a used corn picker to harvest it.
We also had a real good hay crop in the summer of 1955 - nearly 50 ton. Glenn was eight years old that summer, and he and I put the hay up by ourselves. He had already raked for me in '54. In '55, he and I even got the hay in from the field all by ourselves. When we got a wagon load to the barn, I threw the bales up to the loft door, he caught them as I threw them and pulled them back out of the way, and when there was no more room on the floor, I came up and stacked.
Our new baby turned out to be a boy. We named him Roy. He was born at 7:25 a.m. on November 1, 1955. He was a little premature, and he weighed only four pounds. He had to stay in Mike Scimeca's hospital for thirty days, until he got up to five pounds. We fed him a special non-dairy formula. He was terribly frail. But there was nothing wrong with his lungs. Anna could hear him crying all the way down the hall in that hospital.
That year, 1955, was a real banner year. I had a new boy, electricity in the house, money, and a great farming year.
My position in the community was also improving. Just about the same time I got my civil service score back in the summer of 1955, I was asked to be a deacon in our church. I remember Shorty Wemmer asking me if I would do it.
Our standard of living gradually improved during the late 50s. I was still working half-time in the post office in 1956, and I made about $3,200. I began to work practically full time in 1957, and I made $6,300. With that kind of money, I was able to get on my feet. I had borrowed $1,900 from my mother over the preceding few years just to keep the farm going, and now I was able to pay that off. We also found a lot of new ways to spend money.
We got a television in 1957. Instead of watching television one night a week at my mother's house, we were soon watching it seven nights a week, like everyone else.
Another item we got about that time, that didn't cost so much, was our oak roll-top desk. I bought it at the auction for the estate of Ed Hanlin, who was once the postmaster in Caney. I got it for $3. It fell apart when I took it out of my pickup at home, but I rebuilt it, Anna refinished it, and it looked real nice. I suppose I could sell it for now for $500 or $1,000.
I also put a pump on the cistern beside the house in 1957, and we had running water in the kitchen sink for the first time. Soon afterwards, I built in the south porch and installed a bathroom. Ralph Coltharp did the plumbing. We dug a septic tank for it just south of the house. Glenn dug a water line to the barn, and we had running water there, too. Unfortunately, the cistern would pump dry pretty quickly after a rain. We still had to haul water from town.
In 1959, while rain kept me out of the hay field, I built in the north porch. I had taken two weeks off from the post office to hay that summer, and it rained the whole time.
We began to drive better automobiles. When I started working at the post office, we were still driving the old '37 Chevrolet car that my folks had given us and the '48 Chevrolet pickup that I had bought when I was working at Continental Can. But Anna drove the car into the ditch on the way to town one day, and we replaced it with a '52 Chevrolet. It was one of the finest driving cars I ever had, but its sloping back windshield was real irritating, because the ice built up on it so. After a few years, we replaced it with a pretty little '56 Chevrolet. Anna drove it into the ditch at the same place, but we found another one that was the same model, except that it had an automatic transmission. In the fall of 1958, I bought a brand new '59 Ford pickup - the first new automobile I ever bought.
Roy turned out to be a real talker. He had real good diction, much better than Glenn at the same age. Roy was constantly talking and asking questions. Delores remembers being irritated at the way he would ask a question and then repeat her answer in the next sentence as if she didn't know anything about it.
You could find out anything from Roy. Elton used to pump him for information about the family, just because he thought it was funny that he could get so much information so easily.
We always tell about how Elton encouraged Roy to oil his tricycle. I had taught Roy that things work better oiled, and he always had his tricycle upside down oiling it. Elton found him at it one day and asked him what he was doing. "It works better if you oil it," he told Elton. "Would the seat work better if you oiled it?" Pretty soon there was oil all over the tricycle and all over Roy.
Janet was born on August 17, 1958. She was over six pounds. She was healthy, with a lot of hair. She was a real satisfied baby.
The older kids all loved Janet. So did Anna and I. Janet could do no wrong. Delores remembers the time Janet got hold of a Kleenex box and pulled out all the Kleenex. "She's going to get it now," Delores thought to herself. But when Anna saw what had happened, she just took a picture of Janet in the mess and then stuffed the Kleenex back in the box.
Janet never hesitated to demand attention. If Roy just touched her, she would yell, "Help, help," at the top of her lungs. Sometimes she would do that when my mother was over, and it would scare her half to death. "What's happening to Janet?" "Oh, she's just yelling," we would say.
Delores was always real involved in the Girl Scouts. She got started as a Brownie in the second grade - as soon as she could. Every year she was out selling Girl Scout cookies, and every year I went to the father-daughter banquet in the grade school gymnasium with her. The meetings were formal, but nicely done. Delores thought they were really great. Probably a couple of hundred girl scouts were involved. Lucy Sheldon usually gave a talk about the Meadowlark Girl Scout Council. I don't know how the seating was organized, but it seems like we always sat by the same people each year. I always sat beside a fellow named Burns, who could hardly hear. I did see his daughter grow up that way.
It must have been in the spring of '55, before I went to work in the post office, that I finally bought a bicycle for Glenn. I didn't have much money, but I bought an old black bicycle from Charles Lingle for $6. It was a full-sized bicycle, with an old torn up seat. It was hard for Glenn to handle, but I figured he could learn to ride it if he tried. I would get out on the lawn north of the house with him and hold the seat while he started pedaling. Then I would let go. He fell over every time. He just would not try. I would get so mad at him. He wasn't interested. I finally gave up.
He finally did learn to ride. He spent a couple of weeks at a church camp, either that summer or the next, and when he came back, Delores was riding the bicycle. He learned to ride it that afternoon. After that, I got Delores an old girl's bicycle of her own, and the two of them spent many days bicycling all over the farm. They were always getting flat tires from the goathead sticker weeds that had got started during the drought years.
Glenn and Delores spent a lot of time playing together, inside and out. Glenn loved to play board games - checkers, Chinese checkers, Parchesi, even chess - and he would get Delores to play with him. He almost always beat her. She always wanted to get him to involved in some kind of competition she could win, like a foot race, but he wouldn't do that.
The kids got a new dog in summer of 1955. I had a little haying left to do when I started to work in the post office that August, and one day Glenn found a German shepherd laying under the baler. He was a gentle dog, though he wasn't young. Someone must have dumped him off out there. We called him Shep. He was Glenn's companion for years. He finally choked himself to death in the garden fence, about 1960 or '61.
We gave Glenn and Delores daily chores to do. Glenn's chores were outside - he had to feed the chickens and see that they were closed up every night, and when we were milking, he had to milk the cows and take care of the milk. Delores had to help with the cows sometimes, but most of her work was in the house with her mother - helping clean up and wash dishes. They both had to get out and help with seasonal work - digging potatoes and haying and shucking corn. Anna would also send them to burn the trash when there wasn't too much wind. There were times when they were assigned to supervise the younger kids. Glenn looked after Roy, and Delores looked after Janet.
Glenn and Delores did well in school. I guess Anna and I had quite a bit to say to them about it. I regretted that I hadn't paid more attention to school, and I didn't want them to make the same mistake. I suppose I said more to Glenn than to Delores about it, but she took it to heart, too.
Delores inherited some of my ear problems. She had some miserable times with earaches in the first and second grades. The problem seemed to clear up after we got her teeth fixed. Glenn didn't have so many problems with his ears or teeth. But Glenn and Delores both inherited from me the big gap between their upper front teeth.
After my father died in 1952, my mother lived alone in the house on East Second Street in Caney. She was active in the church. She was one of the deaconesses, the women who prepared the communion. She was active in her Sunday School class and in other women's groups. She kept in touch with her sister-in-law Ethel, who was also widowed and lived in Caney much of the time. And she spent a lot of time gardening. She never considered remarrying. I often urged her to, but she felt that would be disloyal to my father.
I saw a lot of Mother. I would drop by and chat with her about the kids, the cattle, and people in Caney. She knew a lot of the long-time Caney people. The price of water at the fire hydrant went up to a dollar a tank about the time my father died, so I would fill my water tank at Mother's house, and that gave us more time to talk.
She would come out to our house for dinner almost every Sunday after church. She would sit on the swivel chair at the desk on the south side of the kitchen and talk to us while Anna fixed dinner.
Mother bought a television set a year or so after she moved back to Caney, and from then until we bought our own set in 1957, we would take the kids in to her house every Thursday evening to watch TV. We would see Boston Blackie, Topper, and The Hit Parade.
Mother would often join us at Thanksgiving Dinner at Anna's folks' house. She would say the prayer. In those days, before I became an elder, we never said grace at meals at our house, but Mother always said grace when we were eating with her.
On Christmas Eve, we would go to Mother's house and exchange presents. We would stay home on Christmas. When I was a boy, I had always resented having to go to my Grandmother's house on Christmas right after I had opened my presents.
The children would walk to Mother's house after school and wait there for Anna and I to pick them up. When Glenn was in the first grade, that was a long walk, about ten blocks from the old Washington School way on the west end of town, which was the only grade school in town in those days. But the next year, they built the new Lincoln school on First Street, only a block from Mother's. It was an easy walk then. Mother was also only a few blocks from the High School, so the kids often walked over to her house even then.
When I was a kid, there were three grade schools in Caney: McKinley on the east, Washington on the west, and Lincoln on the north. Lincoln was torn down to make a place for the new school. McKinley sat empty for many years, until it was finally torn down in the mid '50s to make way for a small municipal swimming pool.
Mother got a lot of enjoyment out of gardening in those years. She raised a lot of vegetables and a lot of flowers. She would raise a big potato crop, and she would give most of it to us.
Mother remained half owner of our original place for many years. Finally, about 1960, she agreed to sell me her share for $3,500. That was the $3,150 she and my father had originally paid Sanders, plus what they had put into the new east pond. I paid it off in a couple of years. Then I started selling off her cattle, which brought her another $3,000.
INSIDE THE POST OFFICE
When I started at the post office, there were ten people working there. Pearsall was the postmaster. There were two rural carriers, Jack Pocock on Route 1 and Orville (Shorty) Wemmer on Route 2. There were two carriers who walked the routes in town, Clint Hodges on the south route and Bus Covell on the north route. Then there was Granville Carinder, the assistant postmaster, and Earnest Woods, the clerk. Finally, there were three substitutes. George Finney was the first substitute, a substitute clerk. Paul Cochrane was the second substitute, a substitute clerk-carrier. I was at the bottom of the totem pole, the third substitute, another substitute carrier. The only fellow below me was Earl Hodison, the janitor.
Most of these people I had known all my life. George had been a boyhood friend. Paul had been in Anna's class. Shorty Wemmer went to our church. Granny Carinder, who was much older than me, had lived on my farm when he was a boy, around the turn of the century.
The rural carrier jobs were political jobs, just like the postmaster job. You didn't work your way up in the post office to those jobs. You had to have connections with the party. Once you got the job, of course, you couldn't be active in politics. That was against the law. But you were expected to contribute money to the party. Shorty once complained to me about how much it cost him.
I got to know my fellow workers real well. I got to be real good friends with Paul. The two of us would joke about the foibles of our fellow workers. We had a famous saying for each one - something characteristic the person said. For Bus, it was "Give it to me. I'll carry it all." That's what Bus would say when he gave up arguing that something didn't go to his route. For George, it was "Can I get off tomorrow?" For Granny, it was "All this and the fire, too." That meant that the aggravation of the job was comparable to hell fire. Granny was also famous for telling people that if they didn't like the way we did things they could go to the post office down the street.
Bus was famous for getting into trouble over his relays. In those days, the carriers were completely on foot, but the fellow who delivered packages had a car to drive. The north route was so long and so far from the Post Office that Bus was allowed to give the package man extra relays, bundles of mail for the package man to leave on various people's porches. That way Bus would not have to lug so heavy a load around all day. There were only supposed to be a few relays. Officially, a relay was supposed to weigh at least 40 pounds. But Bus's relays would get smaller and smaller, and more and more numerous, until the package man would complain. This always seemed to be an issue between Bus and Paul. Paul was the package man for several years, and later, when he was the assistant postmaster, he would take up for the package man.
As for Paul, he was always hiding in the corner reading the baseball scores in the newspaper. I teased him a lot about that, but he never got in trouble over it. He was always a step ahead of Granny and M.L. in getting his work done.
When I started at the post office, I had no intention of working into a full-time or even a permanent job. I was still determined to make it farming. I just needed to get on my feet.
I worked part-time for a year and a half, and I did manage to get in quite a bit of farming during that period. In fact, those were good farming years. But there were a lot of things we had been doing without, and it was easy to learn how to live on the money instead of using it to buy fertilizer. Gradually, the farming came to seem less important. It was hard to keep working hard at it when I could see that I was doing so much better for my family at the post office job.
There came a point, after about a year and a half, where I said to myself, "Well this is what I'm doing. It'll do."
It did seem like we had an important job to do there in the post office. In those early days, we would sort all the mail that went out of Caney. We sorted it into States, and for the States we sent the most mail, California and Illinois, we even sorted alphabetically by towns. At Christmastime, we had a lot of parcel post to deliver - 100 sacks a day. When you delivered those Christmas packages, you felt you had a job that needed to be done and that people appreciated.
Clint Hodges retired early in 1957, and George Finney, the first substitute, got his route. That moved Paul up to first substitute, and me up to second. As second substitute, I had some work nearly every day. That fall, George got the mumps. He was really sick with them, and it got to where I was working all the time. I worked a 60 or 70 hour week. Since I was a substitute, there wasn't any limit on the amount of work Pearsall could give me.
As third substitute, I had carried mail and occasionally packages. As second substitute, I also clerked occasionally. Marvin Sawyer, a clothing store owner who was thought of as Caney's stock market millionaire, was my first customer. He wanted 50 post cards. They come in stacks of 50s, but I had been give some broken bundles, so I had to count 50 out for him. I had never done that or seen it done before, so I didn't do it the quick way. I dealt them out instead of flipping through them. Sawyer told Pearsall to get me out of there and hire somebody who knew something. Pearsall told me not to pay any attention. In fact, it made Pearsall a little mad. He told me he was running the place.
Working as clerk was a lot easier than walking a mail route. I enjoyed greeting people and selling things, although I didn't feel I had a lot to sell - just a stamp or money order.
In the spring of 1958, about three years after I had gone to work in the post office, Earnest Woods, the regular clerk, left. Paul got his job, and I moved up another notch, to first substitute. The first substitute was officially a clerk substitute. He would spend a couple of days a week dealing with the public at the counter, and the other days he would carry packages two hours in the morning and tie out mail two hours in the afternoon. I was the first substitute for eight years.
FARMING IN THE LATE FIFTIES
I put in wheat in the fall of 1955. It did fairly well, but I remember that I was a little ashamed of the job I did with it. I was too busy to do it well.
I had about fifteen acres of corn in 1956. It did real well, but I put it in a crib down at the barn, and the rats ate most of it. Those rats were so big the cats didn't bother them. I shot some of them with a rifle, and they were more than a foot long, not counting their tails. I had heard of rats that big before, but I had never seen them.
That was about the end of my crops. I intended to put in some corn in the spring of 1957, but I was working almost every day, and it seemed like it was raining all the time.
We quit selling milk in 1956. After that we just kept a couple cows for milk for the family. One was a Holstein, and the other was a gentle old part-Jersey whiteface. Glenn milked those two cows for years.
Glenn likes to tell the story about how he found out that he wasn't milking cows just because he wanted to. Glenn and Delores had been real proud that they could help us milk, and when Glenn started milking the two cows by himself, he still thought it was a privilege. But one afternoon he came home from school with a library book that he particularly liked, and instead of milking the cows he just went up to his room and read the book. When I came home I gave him a whipping.
We quit keeping chickens in 1958 or 1959. I cut a pair of big swinging doors on the east end of the chicken house and turned it into a shop.
I kept my cattle, and I made more money just running cattle in the late '50s and the '60s than I had running cattle and farming in the earlier years. The cattle had always paid for the farming.
Cattle are a year-round activity. They have to be fed daily in the winter, and in the summer you have to keep track of fences and flies. The one big seasonal task that goes with them is putting up hay. For us, haying always takes two solid weeks or more of work in late July and early August.
During the first few years I worked in the post office, I wasn't able to get time off for haying, but fortunately Anna's brother Garold, who worked at Glen Durrill's elevator, was glad to earn a little extra money by helping me. He and I always got along well, and he was one person I could turn loose with Glenn. So I just turned the job over to them. It wasn't until about 1960 that I got enough seniority that I could get time off from the post office when I wanted, and then I took the job back over myself.
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