Don Stewart speaks fondly of his military days, back when he was an Army clerical worker in the hot, humid Vietnamese summer, circa 1965.
Ah yes, the good old days, Stewart recalls, back when he had it easy, except for the occasional mortar bombardment.
Stewart has spent the last 28 years being bitten by a passing parade of discourteous canines and verbally abused by several generations of disgruntled postal customers. Then there is the work itself, a job where performance is constantly monitored and measured with near stopwatch accuracy. Army life, says the 52-year-old Fullerton letter carrier, was good preparation for his postal career.
"Everything with the post office is by time: When you start work, when you take a break, how much time you use for washing your hands, how many letters and flats you sort per minute," said Stewart, a remarkably cheerful man who transferred to Fullerton in 1970 from Torrance. "Originally, most of our supervisors were retired military people. In Fullerton here, after the Second World War, almost all the carriers were ex-GIs. It figures."
In a profession that has spawned the term "going postal"--for random acts of violence by a few gun-wielding, headline-grabbing employees--Stewart is a survivor. He generally likes his work and mostly gets along with the people who live in the 332 homes he visits each day.
"I'd have to say that 99% of the time, people are fantastic. It's just that 1% that can ruin your day."
Like the two 18-year-old toughs who played keep-away with his mailbag.
"They kept tossing my satchel back and forth," Stewart said. "I guess that's an age when they feel pretty gutsy."
But Stewart counts himself lucky, considering the violence that some letter carriers have suffered at the hands of irate residents. He recalls a female co-worker who was severely beaten by a woman who blamed her for undelivered mail. The assailant was quickly arrested by postal inspectors.
"It turned out that we had her picture in the post office here. She had three aliases."
Most of Stewart's trouble over the years has come from dogs. He carries pepper spray but has found it ineffective.
"We're supposed to use it on dogs, but all it does is make them angry," he said. "A water hose works best. When I used to have walking routes, I used to get bitten every six months. I had one come through a screen door. I had another one break a leash where he was tied to a porch. I had a pregnant one over on Orangethorpe here that really got me good. She came through a crack in the back fence and ripped my leg pretty bad."
After a few stitches and a tetanus shot, he was back on the job.
"I got to where I didn't even tell the supervisors, because they would give you a letter of warning or some form of punishment for getting bit. The post office philosophy is: There's no excuse for an accident."
After sorting mail at the station from 7 to 11:15 a.m., Stewart now makes his deliveries from the safety of a small postal truck. But he keeps in contact with the people on his route, gets to know their families, watches their children grow. One family invited Stewart to their son's college graduation party about a year ago.
"You become an extended part of the family," he said.
Some residents even turn to Stewart for advice, like the young man who was considering law school but feared giving up his computer company job.
"He lived in the last house on my route. He said, 'I really want to go to law school, but I'm afraid I might not get a job.' And I said, 'What the heck; you can work for the computer company and go to school. After you do that, maybe you could work in the legal section of your company.' He did end up working for them at first, but now he has a thriving practice.
"People ask me all kinds of questions. Sometimes they ask for your advice and sometimes they ask for your help."
The familiarity of letter carriers with people on their routes is a fact well-known by law enforcement agencies, according to Stewart, who said he has been periodically interviewed by investigators.
"Your mailman knows who you owe, who your doctor is, who your friends are, your occupation, who a lot of your relatives are. The post office is a fount of knowledge."
A long-distance runner who has competed in the last seven Los Angeles marathons, Stewart has also learned how to be quick on the job. He has developed techniques for sorting and distributing mail quickly to allow himself a little extra time to be friendly, and a little extra time for lunch, now and then. It helps relieve stress, he says.
"I am one of those people that you see sitting in my truck, eating my lunch and reading the newspaper. But the thing is, I make up the time on the streets. I step on that gas pedal a little bit between stops."
But the stress of postal work is a constant challenge, said Stewart, who blames job-related stress for his second divorce. (His first wife left to rejoin her family in Pennsylvania while he wanted to stay put.) He has been married to his third wife for 10 years.
"You're either nuts when you start or you're nuts by the time you've finished. Everybody, including myself, does get burned out. It's like an assembly line job; no matter what you do today, there's going to be just as much or more work tomorrow," he said. "We do go through a lot of employees.
"I hired on here in 1970, when there were probably about 15 people hired in the same year. Since then, there's probably only about two or three of us left. The post office does change you. You're not the same as when you came in. A nervous breakdown is a very easy thing, because everything you do is timed. I've been very fortunate, and I want to continue being that way for the next two years, nine months and 14 days. I'm looking forward to retirement."
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Profile: Don Stewart
Residence: Mira Loma
Joined Postal Service: 1968
Started working in Orange County: 1970
Education: Graduate of Mount Carmel High School (Los Angeles); attended El Camino Community College
Family: Married, two grown daughters
Background: Born in Los Angeles; served in the Army for four years, including stints in Turkey and Vietnam; has run in the last seven Los Angeles marathons
Daily home deliveries: 332
On the postal grind: "You're either nuts when you start or you're nuts by the time you've finished. Everybody, including myself, does get burned out. It's like an assembly line job; no matter what you do today, there's going to be just as much or more work tomorrow."
Source: Don Stewart; Researched by RUSS LOAR / For The Times
Los Angeles Times