Letter carriers have to endure as temperatures rise

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 19, 2012

SALISBURY — The best people to talk about the heat are letter carriers. So I took a few moments Wednesday to speak with retired letter carrier William L. Poole and longtime mailman Jeff Clifton, who is in his 31st year toting the mail.
Remember how mild our past winter was? Clifton wore long pants only three times on his route last winter.
“I absolutely loved it,” he said.
But just as pleasant as the winter was, that’s how unpleasant the 90- and 100-degree temperatures this summer have been.
“Miserable,” Clifton said. “That’s the only way I can put it.”
As we spoke, the temperature again was over the 90-degree mark. On these kind of days, Clifton employs a hand towel, soaked in ice water, and drapes it around his neck.
With his truck’s small fan blowing on him, it’s the closest thing he has to air conditioning.
Poole retired from the post office in 2000, but that doesn’t mean he has stopped tracking the heat.
He has kept a log since June and reports that Salisbury had 12 days in a row of 95 degrees or better. “It’s been rough, I know that,” Poole said.
When Poole walked his mail route on the extremely hot days, “you had to stop and wring your shirt out,” he recalled.
I am happy to hear from Poole about once every summer. He always wants me to write about the heat — last year, he sent a note asking the Post to recount the heat wave of August 1983.
“During that time, I was a letter carrier, and it seemed to be endless,” Poole said.
From Aug. 19-24 — for six consecutive days in 1983 — the temperature in Salisbury hit 100 degrees or more, topping out at 105 degrees Aug. 21.
Post records put the 105 reading as Salisbury’s all-time high, matching a mark first set on July 21, 1926.
Poole told me Wednesday that three other years stick out in his mind from his 20 years as a mailman — 1986, 1988 and 1993.
I trust Poole’s memory. I still remember how my wife, caring for our 4-month-old baby, suffered through 1986 with only one window air-conditioning unit at our house on Mitchell Avenue.
Poole spent five years of his postal career on a route that took in parts of Fulton Heights.
When he told me this, I said, “I used to live on Mitchell.”
“I know,” Poole said. “221 Mitchell.”
I couldn’t believe he knew that old address.
“Mailmen never forget,” he said.
This summer, Poole dropped me a note in the mail that simply asked, “Will you compose an article on the present heat wave?” He never anticipated I would call him, so right away he put me in touch with Clifton for his take on how hot it really is.
“He’s the best carrier they have up there now,” Poole said of Clifton, “because I trained him.”
Then he laughed.
Among Salisbury postal carriers, the two primo routes are Milford Hills and the Country Club neighborhoods — they are the easiest to deal with physically, Clifton said.
Thanks to his seniority, Clifton has the Country Club section.
“Bill Poole could have had this route,” he said, but Poole retired just a bit too early.
To cope with the heat, Clifton carries around a big Thermos of ice water. People along his route often offer him fruit, soft drinks and tea, but Clifton usually sticks to his water.
Clifton made exceptions for the late Wilson Smith, a Food Lion co-founder, who used to leave a cup of ice, canned drink and a snack for Clifton in his mailbox.
“He did that several times a week,” Clifton said. “He was an amazing man.”
As for food, Clifton sticks to things that work — heat or no heat. Every day he is on the route, Clifton eats two bananas, half of a pepper, a pear, a fourth of a cucumber and half of an orange.
Clifton doesn’t smoke or drink alcohol, and with the exercise a mailman logs daily, he’s probably one of the better conditioned 57-year-old men you’ll see.
For his back, he spends several minutes in the morning and evening on his inversion table at home.
“I’m the only Oriental-looking mailman around,” Clifton said, explaining that his mother was Japanese. “Everybody thinks I’m Hawaiian.”
The courthouse area used to be part of Clifton’s mail route, so he became familiar with every judge and lawyer in town. Now he delivers mail to many of their homes in the Country Club neighborhood.
After sorting his mail for two to three hours in the morning, Clifton wades into this summer heat for at least six hours.
It’s a long, hot day — even for a Hawaiian mailmen trained by the best.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.