Reprinted from yesterday's late editions

The orchestra played the nice slow tunes - the stuff that crackles out of old radios as postmasters sort the mail in their front rooms or gas stations or grocery stores. It's the stuff that keeps rural America in touch with the world out there: radio waves and letters from mama.

Monday night it was the Blue Room at the Shoreham, where 800 convening postmasters wore name tags with their towns and zip codes proudly showing.

The talk, as might be expected, turned from time to time to the averted postal strike.

Edith Shay from Bretz, WVA 26524 was forced out of work seven years ago at the mandatory retirement age of 70. She still looks like she could hand out a lot of mail in the tiny town she served.

Wearing her best dress, the kind saved for big occasions, Shay said, "I built a room on my house and used it for a post office. When I retired I turned it into a sewing room, and I can still make an income with it."

There are 28,000 postmasters in America today, and about 800 have turned out for the 75th annual convention of the National League of Postmasters, an organisation started in 1904 at the Willard Hotel here by Oscar Pogue - a man fired for his rebellous act.

A lot has changed since then, most notably that postmasters are no longer appointed by the president as plum political favors. But a grandfather clause in the 1970 Postal Reform Act allowed appointees to stay on, and now almost half the postmasters in the country got their jobs through the patronage system.

About 1,000 postmasters were expected at the convention from the 5,000 who make up the organization, but the threatened postal strike forced about 200 to cancel.

"If there had been a strike, we all would have been ordered home by the postmaster general," said Allen Lanier, of Guyton, GA 31312.

This is not a bad business, being postmaster in Small Town, America. Who can boast, like Chester Shirp of Soudersburg, Pa. 17577, that "we have no problems, there just aren't any?" Postmaster Shirp is also a cashier at auctions and runs a catering concern.

"Oh, if there had been a strike, we wouldn't have received any mail," he says. "Maybe some pickets would have come in from Philadelphia."

Sam Moore, from Red Oak, NC 27868, says he's constantly stretching it to say he's got 500 people in his town. Every year when I fill out those budgets I'm hoping they'll keep the place open."

The talk Monday night also turned to mornings spent sorting the mail while a pot of coffee perked away for the people coming into pick up letters. One postmaster spoke of the woman who lived some distance from the post office and phoned to see if a letter had arrived from her daughter away at school.

And, some said, they worried about the people they had put in charge while they were away at convention.