“I couldn’t believe it — it only took the post office 41 years to deliver it,” said Sargent, 61, who renamed the leather repair shop Outback Leather when he bought out the previous owner.
“I was really surprised, but I immediately knew exactly what was inside the box,” he said, adding that the size and shape of the box indicated only one thing: “boots.”
He was busy and distracted, so he set the package on a shelf and on Oct. 28, he opened it and found out they weren’t just any boots, but a pair of size 10-D, black Burghley riding boots made in England before the company went out of business. Gayer’s Saddlery, where Sargent worked after he graduated from Laurel High School, sold and repaired thousands of pairs of Burghleys mostly for equestrian enthusiasts and motorcycle cops coast to coast, he said.
Sargent also found a set of boot jacks and a riding bat (a shorter version of a riding crop) inside the box, which was mailed from Dr. A.K. Taori in South Charleston, W.Va., about 360 miles away.
When he tried to track down Taori or his family members but had no luck, Sargent said, he decided to go public with his snail-mail surprise.
“I’m hoping that somebody in his family might hear about the package and come forward,” he said. “I’d love to be able to get the boots back to them.”
Sargent also figured that some people might be able to relate to his story since the U.S. Postal Service has been in the news lately for erratic service and slowdowns in advance of the Nov. 3 Election Day.
“With everybody worried about their mail-in ballots, it makes you wonder,” he said. “Plus, I’d just watched a story on TV about a 100-year-old postcard that was finally delivered in Michigan. It got me thinking, ‘How often does something like this happen?’ ”
The U.S. Postal Service says deliveries that take decades to complete are rare.
“In many cases, old letters, postcards and other items delivered years ago are dropped into the mail stream by customers who discover or purchase them in hopes that the Postal Service can reconnect the items with their original senders, recipients or family members,” said Michael Hotovy, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service.
“These incidents don’t [typically] involve mail that had been lost in our system and later found,” he said.
Sargent said he has a hard time believing that’s what happened in his case.
“The mailman who brought the package to me didn’t want his name mentioned because he didn’t want to take the blame for delivering it 41 years late,” he said with a laugh.
“He came into the shop one morning and said, ‘Hey, boss man, check this out.’ He showed me the postmark and told me it had probably been sitting for four decades somewhere.”
When Sargent inspected the box, he saw his own handwriting on the back. He surmised that after he repaired the boots in 1979, he must have written down the amount owed for the repair ($10) and the amount of length he’d cut off the top of each boot for a proper fit — then shipped them to the customer.
The customer seems to have used the same box to send the boots back — though it didn’t reach Sargent for 41 years.
There was no note inside the box, so Sargent isn’t sure why the customer sent them back, but he suspects the doctor must have wanted further adjustments.
“But then he decided to throw in two boot jacks and a riding bat for whatever reason, so who knows what he was thinking,” said Sargent.
It was an amazing feeling to look at his handiwork 41 years later and realize he’d done a “pretty good” job, he said.
“I cut a quarter-inch off the left boot and one inch off the right, and even though I hadn’t been at it very long, I was pretty precise,” he said. “And what’s really incredible is that even after four decades, those boots are in perfect condition.”
In 1976, Sargent was working in the Laurel Theater across the street from Gayer’s Saddlery, when his father suggested that he try to get a job repairing saddles instead of tearing movie tickets.
“They hired me, and I really liked it, so I stuck with it,” he said. “They sent me to Omaha to learn how to do boot repairs and pretty soon, that’s how I was spending most of my time.”
Dozens of packages arrived or went out weekly from the shop, he said, and today that hasn’t changed.
“Saddles, boots, chaps — we repair them from all over, but getting an order 41 years late is a first,” said Sargent.
“I suppose that now would be a good time to say, ‘Better late than never.’ ”
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