Tommy Chandler has a set routine as the longtime postmaster of this small, forest-ringed community. At 7 a.m., his first duty is to raise the American flag outside the tiny red-brick box of a building--his signal that the federal outpost here is open and ready to serve.

After that, a steady stream of customers pulls up in the gravel lot, coming to check their postal boxes, buy stamps, pick up a package, or find out about the reception going on next door at the Monroe County Bank branch for its retiring president. As postmaster, Chandler also serves, it seems, as unofficial mayor, community historian and repository of local news events.

"You do a lot more personal service, I guess," said Chandler, 54, the Peterman postmaster since 1982 and a 30-year veteran of the Postal Service in this part of southern Alabama between Montgomery and Mobile.

He and Brenda Cobb, his lone mail carrier, serve 278 rural mailboxes over a 90-mile route in greater Peterman, and 364 post office boxes.

If it is the first of the month, and pension and assistance checks are in, Chandler is here to sell the money orders some people prefer to use instead of bank checks to pay their bills ($123,000 worth last quarter, he says proudly). He also patiently helps customers fill them out and address them, a little extra that a big-city post office could hardly begin to duplicate.

At the turn of the century, Peterman was a thriving railroad settlement that even had a two-story hotel and a taxi service, according to "Recipes and Remembrances," a cookbook/history put out by the Peterman Historical Society, of which Chandler is president. The town took its name from a railway agent in nearby Repton named Allison Peterman.

"This was a boom town when my daddy was little," said Chandler, whose family has lived here for at least six generations.

There were sawmills and cotton gins, a drugstore, a barbershop. But the onset of the Great Depression and the decline of the railroad, along with the dawn of the automobile age, brought an abrupt end to the growth. Today, beyond the post office and bank, there is only a tractor company, a plant nursery, a couple of country stores and a scattering of churches.

Chandler grew up a few miles from here, one of nine children born to a cotton and corn farmer. He began his postal career as a clerk in Monroeville, the county seat six miles away, then went on to become postmaster in Franklin before moving on to his bigger post in Peterman in 1982.

As the sole federal representative in the area, Chandler sometimes gets an earful of local opinions on events in Washington. Surprisingly, however, there were no objections to the recent first-class stamp price hike from 32 to 33 cents--at least not the kind one might expect.

"They said, 'Why didn't you just go on up to 35 cents?' " he said.

One subject that he treats with fastidious discretion is the question of how much he might know about his neighbors, based on the kind of mail they receive. He knows plenty, no doubt, but he's not telling a thing.

"You have to be very trustworthy," he said.

Every day for an hour-and-a-half, Chandler locks up the post office and goes to lunch "in my recliner" at his home three miles away. He shares it with his wife, Ann, an elementary school bookkeeper. Their two grown children live with their young families in homes on either side.

As his 30th anniversary in the postal business approaches in November, he concedes he is thinking of hanging up his money order machine and retiring. If he does, he'll devote more time to a sideline business, repairing antique clocks. Describing himself and others in his family as "mechanically inclined," he even fixed the stalled outdoor clock on the 1903 county courthouse, diagnosing its problem of broken wheels and burned-out motors and setting it right.

But for now, he still enjoys his job in Peterman. "It's been good to me, and I'm thankful for it," he said. "There's only one postmaster in Peterman, and I am it."

Players

Tommy Chandler

Title: Postmaster, Peterman, Ala.

Age: 54

Education: High school degree.

Family: Married, two children, three grandchildren.

Previous jobs: Postmaster, Franklin, Ala.; postal clerk, Monroeville, Ala.

Hobbies: Repairing antique clocks, playing guitar.

On not talking about the kind of mail his neighbors receive: "You have to be very trustworthy."

CAPTION: Postmaster and unofficial mayor Tommy Chandler sorts the mail at the tiny Peterman, Ala., post office.