For eleven months of the year it's a quiet country life down in Valentines, Virginia, a tiny town about 80 miles south of Richmond. It is home to 190 families, according to Postmaster William Wright. The residents combine fresh seasonal food with what they can or freeze from the summer crops, and buy penny candy from one of two general stores. For big family dinners there are piles of fried chicken and homemade buttermilk biscuits. Lights are usually out by 10 p.m.
But starting in mid-January, Wright finds himself working 15-hour days, carefully putting LOVE stamps, red hearts and the official Valentines, Va., postmark on thousands of valentine cards and boxes of candy sent from lovers all over the world to their sweethearts far away.
He juggles stamping boxes of candy with running Wright's General Merchandise, a tiny country store that also houses the Valentines Post Office. Here he sells Valentine cards and 3-cent candy, and decorates a Valentine tree for the counter. The tree is painted white and covered with red hearts and red bows. Around the first of February the mail gets so heavy that his wife, Frances, helps out at the store after supper, and occasionally their best friends, V.R. and Loretta Smith, come in and do some stamping too.
"Each piece of mail is handled 4 or 5 times," said William Wright, and he handles each one as though it were his own. Last year over 9,000 pieces of mail passed through his post office, and this year he predicts that number will more than double to 20,000. After he opens the letters addressed to him and reads the instructions inside (some lovers want more than one LOVE stamp or heart put on an envelope or box of candy), he puts the stamps, hearts and postmark on the Valentine and sends it on its way.
Candy is a special problem, handled carefully so that nothing breaks, he said, and it is stored away from heaters so it doesn't melt. "People do strange things," he mused, but he tries to play along. Last year when a man in Florida sent a woman in New York three boxes of candy with no return address, Wright refused to give the woman her secret admirer's name. "She wrote and called me a couple of times to find out," he said. "I knew who it was, I just wouldn't tell her . . . It's a lot of work but people really appreciate it," he said, "sometimes they even send me a box of candy."
But William Wright says what he really wants is a box of candy from his wife to mark this holiday that turns their lives upside down each year. But that'll be it, he said. "We won't do anything real special, we'll be too tired from getting the job done."
It's especially at this time of year that the cooking is simplified in their household, said Frances Wright, they are just too busy at the post office. "We'll have a quiet dinner of chicken casserole, go to bed early and save our celebrating for our anniversary on the 25th," she said.
What the Wrights don't know is that Loretta Smith is planning to make an extra supply of her special country buttermilk biscuits on Valentine's Day to send down to post office via her husband. She hopes things will have quieted down by then and everyone will have time to enjoy a biscuit and take great pleasure in the knowledge that even though this was a record-setting year for Valentines, Va., the mail got out on time anyway. LORETTA SMITH'S BUTTERMILK BISCUITS (Makes 8 to 10 biscuits) 2 cups self-rising flour 1/4 cup shortening 1/2 to 3/4 cup buttermilk
Mix flour, shortening and 1/2 cup buttermilk together with a wooden spoon, adding more buttermilk if the mixture doesn't hold together. Roll into an even cake about 1/2 to 3/4 inch thick. Take a 3-inch glass, dip the top in flour and use as a cutter for biscuits. Gather dough scraps and roll into another biscuit.
Place on top shelf of 400-degree oven and bake 15 minutes, until they rise and are cooked through. Turn oven to broil and run biscuits under broiler until lightly browned on top (about 2 minutes).