Rural letter carrier writes book of experiences

Published January 1, 2015 at 12:00 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Eilish Palmer

Jesse Lee Hatfield of Conway holds a copy of his book, 72058: The Many Mini Adventures of a Small-Town Mailman, about his experiences as a mail carrier for the Greenbrier Post Office. Hatfield also used anecdotes from his wife, Suzy, a relief, or substitute, mail carrier in Greenbrier, and from his co-workers.

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor a bear or other crazy experiences has kept Jesse Lee Hatfield from delivering the mail — they just motivated him to write a book.

“I love being a rural mail carrier,” Hatfield said. The 55-year-old lives in Conway, but he has delivered mail for 23 years for the Greenbrier Post Office.

When he and other carriers gather at the post office, they all have stories to tell about friendly — or not-so-friendly — pets they’ve encountered or funny things that have happened. Hatfield started jotting down his experiences a few years ago and in September 2014 published 72058: The Many Mini Adventures of a Small-Town Mailman.

“I had all these notes; I didn’t plan to write a book. I found out in middle of November 2009 I had [prostate] cancer and was going to be off for 30 days to have surgery,” he said. Hatfield told his co-workers to start putting together their stories for him. His wife, Suzy, is a substitute mail carrier for the Greenbrier Post Office, and she shared stories for the book, too. It wasn’t until January 2014, Hatfield said, that he started putting the collected stories in book form.

Hatfield, a native of Texarkana, Texas, had dreams of being a musician. He and his brother, J.D., who also lives in Conway, played in a “dance-rock” band — Diamond Jym. J.D. played bass; Jesse played drums. “We played a lot of proms,” Hatfield said. Their father, Jerry Hatfield, is a retired government employee — a civil engineer — and their mother, Jo, taught ceramics and owned a shop at their home. Hatfield dedicated his book to them.

The deal growing up, Hatfield said, was that he and his brother wouldn’t play any plate-shaking music while their mom was teaching classes.

When Hatfield graduated from Texas High School in 1978, the band was still together, and the band’s booking agent lived in Little Rock. They played the area frequently, and J.D. had gone to the University of Central Arkansas, so Jesse ended up in Conway, too.

The music business didn’t take off like they’d hoped, so Hatfield started to work at Wilkinson Shoe Co. in Conway, when it was strictly wholesale. “It’s a good place to work,” he said. From the shoe company, he went to work at American Cabinet Inc. in Conway. “I’ve always built stuff,” he said.

In 1991, Hatfield became a substitute mail carrier in Greenbrier, a job he held for almost nine years. “On the side, I did other stuff — built fences and decks and remodeled houses; I had an ice cream truck one summer,” he said. He shifted to full time with the post office in October 1999 after someone else retired.

“I knew it [being a mail carrier] was good benefits and a good career. Dad had always been a government employee and paid well; he enjoyed his life, and we went on vacation every summer.”

On the exam he had to take, Hatfield listed Greenbrier as one of the places he’d like to work, and officials at that post office called him first. “I count my blessings every day that I don’t work in Conway; it’s too big,” he said. In Greenbrier, there were five rural routes when he started; now there are nine. “It’s like a small family,” he said.

One of the first stories he heard that drove that point home was about a letter simply addressed to: “Grandma, in the blue house behind the old post office, Greenbrier, Arkansas.”

“One of the mail carriers said, ‘If that’s from the Blooms, it goes to Elda Bloom,’” Hatfield said. When asked how she knew that, the mail carrier explained that the woman’s grandchildren had moved to South Carolina a couple of years before, “‘and I just know who they are.’”

It didn’t take Hatfield long to learn each resident on his route, either. He has 770 customers and drives 60 miles a day in his own Jeep with a steering wheel on the right-hand side.

“When I first became a part-time carrier, one of the first things I remember as a carrier — and the story’s in the book — I saw a cow in this big pasture having a calf. It looked like she was having trouble,” he said. Hatfield stopped at the home and told the family what he saw.

He went on down the road, turned around and worked his way back the other side of the road, filling mailboxes. “I passed by that same house and the little girl was waiting by the fence excited to tell me they had a new calf, a new addition to the herd,” he said. The family thanked him for letting them know about the birth.

“I shared stories with my family, and they were always listening with interest, and then I start writing them down,” Hatfield said. He said he’d jot a note in a journal to jog his memory, such as “Cow being born.”

“I didn’t really start writing it down till six or eight years ago,” he said.

His wife, Suzy, became a substitute Greenbrier mail carrier in 2001, and she has her share of stories, too, some of which also are in the book. “The route she carries has 830-something boxes, but she only drives 33 miles; she’s stopping a lot more than I am,” Hatfield said.

He said his favorite story in the book is rated PG, and it involves his wife making a pit stop to use the bathroom in a secluded area, and the basset hound who found her.

Although dogs chasing mailmen have been the subject of many a cartoon or joke, Hatfield said he mostly encounters friendly pets.

“I don’t have a problem with any of the dogs on my route,” he said. “Some carriers really aren’t animal lovers. I do carry dog treats; I don’t think we’re supposed to do that. We know our dogs’ names. In the book, there’s 30-40 names.”

Hatfield has learned to keep a camera with him at all times, because he never knows what he’ll see on the rural roads of Faulkner County.

What he thought was a big brown dog on his route turned out to be a bear.

A few years ago, in May, he said he saw in his peripheral vision what appeared to be a “really big dog” on the deck of a home not far from the Senior Citizens Center, but as he slowed down for the mailbox, he realized it was a bear. He parked his truck and jumped out, wanting to capture it on video. He fiddled with his phone, and the bear ran slowly across the road behind him into a wooded area. Then he saw a bear cub follow its mom across the street. “Like a fool, I walked toward the woods, whistling and calling for the bears,” Hatfield wrote. He left the truck door open just in case he needed to jump to safety.

“I was tickled to death to see the bear,” he said. He got a short video of baby bear following its momma, and didn’t get eaten.

A couple of days later, he wrote, the bear cub and mother were found in a man’s yard about eight miles away, and the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission was able to rescue and relocate the bears.

Hatfield thought he was doing another family a favor by alerting them to a skunk he saw on their porch. The family already had more than a dozen cats. Hatfield left a note in the mailbox about the skunk, and the man wrote back, thanking Hatfield for the heads up: “Yes, it is a skunk, and we’re training him. His name is Flower. Have a good day!”

Hatfield also has some unwelcome pests occasionally, such as wasps or spiders in mailboxes, and he has a photo in the book of a Jumanji-sized spider.

Hatfield doesn’t barrel down the roads delivering mail as fast as he can. Talking with customers or helping them is one of his favorite parts of the job, he said.

“Some people are just waiting to tell us a story or a joke,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘Hey, Jesse would like this joke; let me tell him.’”

At some homes, the wife will be there one day, complaining or talking about her husband; the next time it might be the husband bellyaching about the wife, Hatfield said, laughing.

Although it’s strictly forbidden for a mail carrier to read the mail he’s delivering — and Hatfield said he takes that seriously — he said he can’t help but notice some of the magazines.

“You see a guy building something in his garage, and you’re bringing him the woodworking magazine that day. So you go, and you’ve got a package for him; it won’t fit in the mailbox, so you take it to him in the garage” and wait for him to turn the saw off. You say, ‘Hey, what are you building today?’ He says, ‘I love this magazine; thank you; I was looking for this today.’

“We know where all the nurses live,” he said of mail carriers, “and we know where all the storm cellars are.”

Hatfield said mail carriers also know where the good cooks live. Residents often will leave treats for the mail carrier, such as a tin of fudge or cookies at Christmas. In true Southern tradition, customers often share the bounty of their gardens with Hatfield.

One customer left a whiskey fruitcake with the admonition for Hatfield and his wife to enjoy it, adding, “but don’t eat it on the mail route!”

A mail carrier, however, doesn’t have to be tipsy to accidentally hit a mailbox. Hatfield said a rural letter carrier is responsible for fixing any mailbox he hits. He knows because his wife knocked over a brick one, and Hatfield said he spent a few hundred dollars and used his bricklaying skills to build the man a new one.

“I’ve run over two or three before,” but not brick, he added. “I slid right over them in the ice storm one day.”

A mail carrier has to deal with dilapidated mailboxes and ones that vandals have used for batting practice, a sport Hatfield said he’ll never understand. One of his customers, as he explained in the book, let Hatfield in on his secret: the man built an identical mailbox and filled it with cement. The resident was pleased to find the remains of a broken bat, and he didn’t have a problem with his real mailbox being knocked down again.

Hatfield said it’s the relationships with his customers and the handwritten notes from them and from children that mean the most to him.

He said he wouldn’t have written the book without the encouragement of his sons, Brian, 24, and Brandon, 28, who was killed in May in Oklahoma. He was walking down a road and got hit by a car, Hatfield said. He said his son was working for an oil-field company, “loving what he was doing.”

“When they were little bitty, I had custody of them,” he said of the boys. “Their biological mother lived on my route … but we got along. When I delivered [mail] to her house in the summer and the boys were at her place, they would be standing at the mailbox.” He said they’d share what happened to them that day and give him a hug.

In the foreword of the book, Hatfield wrote, “If not for the unknowing encouragement of my two sons, the contents of this book would only be notes stuffed on the top shelf of a bookcase.”

In the afterword of his book, Hatfield said he hopes readers will see that letter carriers’ jobs are difficult, and that they take seriously protecting customers’ privacy.

“Secondly, please notice the small things in life, like mailboxes — the size, the shape, the color, the designs and creativity,” he said. Hatfield asked people to take a photo of unusual mailboxes and send them to him at Jesse72058@aol.com or Jesse72058@gmail.com.

“I love to see mailboxes from other parts of the country,” he said.

Hatfield will hold a “book reading” at the Faulkner County Library in Conway from 7-9 p.m. Jan. 8. “I’m going to tell some stories and sign some books if they want to buy some,” he said.

He also has a book signing scheduled from 5-8 p.m. Jan. 9 at Hastings in Conway.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.