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Retired Postal Service letter carriers have a ZIP code to call their own: 33856 (Nalcrest, Fla.)

"I was walking down the street one day and heard this racket behind me. A pit bull was coming after me dragging a grill. He wanted me so bad, but he couldn't pull the grill up the steps. I dove off porches and into hedges, but I never got bit.''

Matt McKelvey, 62, of Beaver Falls, Pa.

NALCREST, Florida — On Monday, the cost of a first-class stamp increases to 44 cents. Which is almost 15 times what it was when 85-year-old Fred Taeger became a postman. • "Started in '47,'' Taeger says. "Got bitten five times. In the first year.'' • Dogs loom large in the life of every letter carrier but you don't have to worry about them here. Canines are banned in Nalcrest, the nation's only retirement community for the men and women who soldier on through all that rain, snow, sleet and hail to bring Americans their mail.

Founded in 1963 in eastern Polk County, Nalcrest is owned and operated by the National Association of Letter Carriers. (The name comes from N-A-L-C and "rest.'') The 850 residents include one who is 98 and others in their 50s, reflecting a wave of early retirements as the Postal Service struggles to stem huge losses caused by competition from the Internet and overnight delivery companies.

The town has a slightly time-worn air, and its one-story garden apartments are sorely in need of paint. But the price is right — $355 a month for a one-bedroom, $375 for a two-bedroom — and amenities include a restaurant, Laundromat, market, chapel, gas station and unisex salon. There are almost 50 people on the waiting list to get in.

Of course, Nalcrest also has its own ZIP code (33856) and post office. After decades lugging around a 35-pound sack of mail, it would seem that the last place a retired postman — or woman — would want to go every day is the post office. But because Nalcrest has no home delivery — and because the post office is the town's de facto social center — residents noisily line up every Monday through Saturday, ready to rush through the door the minute that postmistress Edie Raymond opens.

"For some strange reason they all want to be here at 10 a.m.,'' she says. They also grumble every time stamp prices rise. "They ask me why. Like I know.''

In 2004, Nalcrest got raked by Hurricane Charley. But in the best "mail must go through" tradition, Raymond stayed open even as Charley knocked out power and ripped off roofs.

The town, on Lake Weohyakapka, also has a rather rough-looking beach ("Closed For Swimming"), pool, shuffleboard courts and a softball diamond that is home to the Nalcrest Eagles. After a game the other day, team members relaxed in the shade and reminisced.

"I had an older woman on my route and I heard her hollering, 'Joe, I've got some potatoes boiling and I'm locked in my bedroom,' " recalled Joe Nittoli, 65, who started delivering mail in 1965 in Hackettstown, N.J. "The doorknob had fallen off, so I climbed in her bedroom window and used my key to pop open the lock.''

"She wasn't being fresh or anything,'' Joe added.

"We were like family; people would tell you things you wouldn't believe,'' said Al Ruffino, 65, originally from upstate New York. "I saw this college student I knew and she was crying. I asked what the matter was and she said, 'I had a hysterectomy.' Like it was any of my business.''

"It's not a good job,'' said Matt McKelvey, 62, of Beaver Falls, Pa., "if you don't love people.''

Dogs are another story.

Matt: "I was walking down the street one day and heard this racket behind me. A pit bull was coming after me dragging a grill. He wanted me so bad, but he couldn't pull the grill up the steps. I dove off porches and into hedges, but I never got bit.''

Joe: "I got bit four times. Once, this German shepherd raced after me. I always carried spray, but he rubbed it right off and came after me again.''

Al: " 'Famous last words: 'The dog won't bother you.' "

The men liked the security and good pay of postal jobs — in 1965, Joe went from $75-a-week bank teller to $102-a-week letter carrier — but they know that changing times have inexorably altered the business.

"Special delivery,'' which really did seem special when a letter arrived regardless of day or hour, has been replaced by Express Mail and Priority Mail. Post offices have morphed into "postal stores,'' replete with games, artwork and collectibles. And can anyone imagine an American Idol winner crooning Please, Mr. Postman at a time the Postal Service is losing $2.8 billion a year and offering buyouts to another 150,000 carriers?

Even postal employes past and present are forsaking the mail for the Internet.

"I do all my banking online,'' Joe said.

In recent years, mail volume has dropped so much that Postmaster General John Potter recently threatened the unthinkable: eliminating six-day-a-week mail service, in effect since 1912.

"I don't think Congress will allow it because their constituents are ripping them out,'' Al said. "People love to get mail.''

Which reminded Joe of a bit of mail-related trivia.

"Do you know what ZIP stands for?'' he asked, then answered his own question: "Zone Improvement Plan.''

"Gee, I never knew that,'' said Eagles teammate Tim Gibson, "and I was a mailman for 31 years.''

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com.

Retired Postal Service letter carriers have a ZIP code to call their own: 33856 (Nalcrest, Fla.) 05/08/09 [Last modified: Friday, May 8, 2009 6:04pm]

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