Neither rain nor snow nor heat nor gloom of night, the saying goes, can hold up the U.S. mail. And that goes double for certain pieces of Postmaster General William Bolger's mail.

Clerks at Northern Virginia's regional post office at Merrifield said in interviews they have been directed to stop sorting Alexandria mail and search through thousands of pieces of mail on the mornings that a Washington department store sends out advertising flyers.

Their quarry? The one advertisement from the Hecht Co. addressed to 4012 Moss Pl., the Bolger residence in Alexandria.

"It's pretty well systemized by now," said clerk Bruce Chido. "When a Hecht's ad comes in, the supervisor comes over and tells us to find the one addressed to Bolger. With three or four people looking," said Chido, "sometimes we find it right away. Sometimes it takes up to an hour."

When the Hecht's ad addressed to Bolger's Alexandria home is found, the clerks said, a supervisor takes it and photocopies it -- "to cover their a---- in case it gets lost from here to there," as clerk John Williams put it -- and the original is placed in a carrier's bag. It is sent out just after noon with most of the other third class mail, thus assuring it of next-day delivery, the clerks said.

Clerks said they believe what they call "the Hecht's hunt" started about seven months ago, after Bolger's wife complained she had received a Hecht's ad too late to take advantage of a sale.

"They [supervisors] came up to us and said, 'We're looking for a Hecht's ad for this [Postmaster Bolger's home] address,'" said clerk Williams. "We said 'Why?' They said, 'Because he didn't get it on time.'"

"Whenever a Hecht company ad comes in," said clerk Linda Lewis, "we stop everything and start sifting. The supervisor comes over and says, 'Find Bolger's Hecht Company.' I'd say it happens at least once every two weeks." According to a Hecht mail manager, the company mails out advertisements about four times a month.

"It's just the Hecht's ads we have to go for," said Williams, "because they're dated. "It's not uncommon to have several clerks and a supervisor sifting through thousands of pieces of mail looking for it," said Williams. "It's turned into a game. Everybody goes for it. It's the standing joke."

Williams said delivery of advertising mail like the Hecht's ads often is delayed at Merrifield for an extra day or two "because it's thinner. It takes a long time to sort, and at the end it doesn't look like you've done much work." But, the clerks said, if the rest of the Hecht's ads bound for Alexandria don't move, the Bolger ad does.

"I can't comment on the days that I'm not here," said Donald Pender, one of three supervisors who, clerks say, most frequently sounds the hunting horn. And as far as days that he is there: "I can't comment on that either."

"It's ridiculous," says Lewis. "All this extra work for a piece of paper that I just throw out when I see it in my mailbox."

Mrs. Bolger was reported out of town by her neighbors and could not be reached for comment. Nor could William Bolger, but Postal Service spokesman Ron Powell said, "From my indications at this time it does not look like Mr. Bolger's mail is receiving preferential treatment."