Those stairs were steep, Otha Anderson remembers. And that big mean dog loitered at the top of them, growling, pacing and panting. That dog guarded the old lady's house when Anderson delivered mail. That dog did not want mail. "It wanted me," Anderson says.
The house was one of 487 stops on Anderson's route in Arlington; he had no time to play games. "One day, I started walking up the stairs, ignoring the dog," he says, in a voice mixed with laughter and disbelief, "and when I get near the top, it jumps out and tries to bite my face."
Anderson responded. "So I reached for my Mace -- you know we carry that in case things like this happen -- and sprayed. So the dog is running around blind and barking, running right into the wall."
That brought trouble. "Next thing I know the old lady comes out screaming, 'I saw you spray my dog! I saw you spray my dog!' and she tries to grab the Mace out my hand and spray me. So we're scuffling. She's wrestling me to the ground, and the dog's still running into things. But I finally got away. And, yes, all the mail was delivered."
Anderson offered that memory this weekend at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, as part of a presentation called "Mail in Motion: The City Mail Delivery Service in America."
The program featured folk music about mail, slide-show presentations on the history of mail service, letter-sorting demonstrations and a spirited conversation among six former and current letter carriers from metropolitan Washington who spoke of the joys and dangers of mail delivery.
Their point was this: There are no slow days. And -- in the through-rain-sleet-snow tradition for which letter carriers are famous -- they talked like soldiers home from the front, reminiscing about the thousands of miles they've walked, the people they've helped, the weather, and the other common enemies -- hissing cats, attacking dogs, dive-bombing cicadas -- they've fought.
"Stories like these show a tremendous amount of dedication on the part of letter carriers to get the job done every day," said Jim Bruns, curator of U.S. postal history and philately for the Smithsonian. "Mail is one of the things everyone enjoys and expects. It's a central part of life. Everyone is touched by it. But it's important for people to know that it wasn't always that way."
Home delivery began in 1863. Joseph Briggs, a Cleveland postal worker tired of watching long lines of anxious families awaiting word from soldiers fighting the Civil War, suggested a plan to distribute mail using letter carriers that was adopted by the government.
Bruns said the first letter carriers wore gray uniforms, and were occasionally mistaken for Confederate soldiers. "There was a lot of hostility in some places, and the carriers got shot at now and then," he said. "It was not a good way to start a route."
Tensions soon eased. But the letter carrier's sense of mission -- one slide-show narrator described the new letter carriers, who often carried 70-pound satchels of mail, as "messengers of sympathy and love, couriers of news and knowledge, and consolers of the lonely" -- did not wane.
Leonard Washington contends it still hasn't. Washington, who has delivered mail in the District for 26 years, told a small audience listening to the letter carriers' presentation that what he is paid to do -- place mail in a box -- is sometimes much less important than the other roles for which he feels compelled to volunteer each day along his route.
"You got to look out for the people you deliver to," he said. "You got to know everything about the neighborhood, do the smaller things for the elderly. Sometimes, they ask me if I could go to the store and get them some bread or a newspaper because they can't go out. And I do.
"Sometimes, we're the only everyday connection some of the older people have with the outside world, so it's important to be friendly and helpful. And it's really nice. You almost become part of families. You watch kids grow up ... Everybody knows the mailman."
Everyone knew Ralph Wheeler. He walked Washington streets for 28 years delivering mail. He now serves as chairman of the Postal Service's retired letter carriers committee, and reveals memories like an astronaut might years after a flight in space.
"You should've seen some of the things I've seen," Wheeler said, his eyes lighting with the fire of glory days long since passed. "I used to spend eight hours on the street every day, looking out for children, and the old people, and keeping away from dogs.
"I got threatened a bunch of times when my route was in Southeast Washington. Each month I'd have a whole bunch of checks to deliver to old ladies, and the winos in the neighborhood knew I had 'em, and I knew they were following me. So I'd drop off the checks, and they'd try to steal them from the box, but I'd stop them before they could get far. Those ladies needed that money awful bad."
Still, frustration usually chases satisfaction along the letter carrier's route. You bring mail people don't want. You bring biscuits to keep dogs from your ankles. And -- perhaps the worst nightmare -- you watch the new, 500-unit apartment complex get built along your route.
"Yeah, sometimes it's pretty bad. I've found dead rats in the letter boxes, and been in fights with dogs, like I said before," Anderson said, "but I've helped a lot of people, too. I studied engineering in college, and couldn't get a job doing it after I graduated, so I started doing this. And about a year after I started with the mail, I got a call for an engineering job, but I told them I didn't want it. I told them that I was in good shape right here, just getting up and bringing people their mail."