Edward Rountree Interview Transcript
Edward Rountree: My name is Edward A. Rountree. I was a railway mail clerk out of Jacksonville, Florida. I ran on Ocala and St. Pete RPO most of my career.
INTERVIEWER: And were you a regular or a sub?
Edward Rountree: I was a regular clerk. Well, I was a regular clerk. I was in the service 18 years. Thirteen of them were regular clerk and I subbed for five and a half years.
INTERVIEWER: And could you repeat the rail lines that you worked on and the locations that you traveled between?
Edward Rountree: Well, they were numerous. As I said earlier, I was a substitute clerk by choice for five years and I ran on all of the runs out of Jacksonville, Florida, Jack and Pensacola, Jack and St. Pete, Jack, Ocala, and St. Pete, Jack and Miami, and I ran north on Hamlet and Jack and I ran north on Florence and Jack at one time or another.
INTERVIEWER: And I know that you said that you served as a railway post office clerk for 18 years. Do you remember which years you served?
Edward Rountree: 1949 until we quit sorting mail in I think it was ’66. I’m not positive of the exact dates but I entered the Railway Mail Service I believe in 1949.
INTERVIEWER: And what made you want to become a post office clerk?
Edward Rountree: My older brother had heard about it and he was on the Naval Reserve Crew with two railway mail clerks and he came home and said, “We need to take that exam.” And so he talked me into taking the exam and at the time, I had no interest in it whatsoever but it sounded pretty neat and then after seeing he made a better grade and he went in before I did and I went down to visit in what they call advance time and it seemed like a real nice job so I decided that -- I was an apprentice machinist at the time.
INTERVIEWER: And what types of jobs did you have while on the rail cars?
Edward Rountree: I was what we called a letter clerk and a paper clerk and a local clerk. These are different jobs that you had inside the car. I really ran every job there was because I was an experienced substitute clerk so I even took the place of the foreman or what we called a clerk-in-charge.
INTERVIEWER: And for any one of the positions that you had, could you describe a typical day on the rail car, starting from when you first went into work?
Edward Rountree: Well, my tour usually started on the day train. You get up quite early in the morning. We went to work probably 5:30, six o’clock in the morning and we worked approximately three hours before the train ever left. We call that advance time. And then when our train came into the station, they would switch the other car out, put ours in, and then the day train, it only took about six hours to get to Tampa and my job most of the time was the local clerk. I worked the newspapers. I did all the loading and then separate the newspapers and I handled all local exchanges. By that, I mean putting the mail off and taking it on and making sure that the other clerks had what they needed to do to their job.
And then I would sleep for about six or seven hours in Tampa and I came back on the night train and the night train was a much slower train and it took most of the night and we also had advance time there and we stopped at every place to pick up parcel post and that sort of thing. So it would be a 10-11-hour day. Then I slept all day at home in Jacksonville, went back to work that night on the southbound night train, which I have said before is a very slow train because it stopped everywhere, and then I had five or six hours sleep at the other end and then finished up on the day train. It took me three days to make two round trips and before that, I would then have three to five days off after that.
INTERVIEWER: And was there any one job that you liked doing the most on the rail car?
Edward Rountree: Oh, I don’t think there is any particular one job. I liked the excitement of being the local clerk, the one that put the mail off and took the mail on and we made our catcher exchanges and the day just seemed to fly by. You were at the other end of the line before you knew it. Night train stopping everywhere, it was more boring. It was like working at a post office almost. So I would say my favorite job was local on the day train.
INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever disliked about any of the jobs or the positions that you held?
Edward Rountree: Well, like I said before, working on the night train, for instance, my job southbound was to distribute the Tampa City mail so that when we got to Tampa, the mail and all the business mail was ready to be delivered right that minute because we had already separated it. And it was certainly exciting to make sure you got through before you got to the other end. But by the same token, you are in the same spot working the same case all night long and that was a little bit boring but it was still a wonderful job.
INTERVIEWER: What type of rail car did you typically work on?
Edward Rountree: Typically, a 30-foot apartment car, they called it. And I also worked as a substitute on all sizes, a 15-foot car, a 30-foot car, and a 60-foot car. But my regular job was in a 30-foot car.
INTERVIEWER: And when you worked on the railways, do you remember what your starting salary was?
Edward Rountree: No. No, I don’t. A substitute clerk worked by the hour and our check varied according to how many hours we worked. Because we had no prescribed number of hours to work, the ruling at that time was they did not have to pay overtime for 40 hours. Therefore, in the wintertime, when the mail tripled in Florida, we would work it seemed like almost twice the time and the substitute clerks, they did not have to pay them time and a half. But we were all young and had young families and we wanted to work as many hours that they let us. So I had no set number of hours and I do not remember the hourly rate but it was -- I was well compensated, I think.
INTERVIEWER: And so that basically answers my next question, if you thought that the pay was fair for the amount of work that you had to do.
Edward Rountree: Yes, I did.
INTERVIEWER: What did you typically carry with you in your grip while you were on trips?
Edward Rountree: Well, we were -- we had to carry our revolver and our badge and our scheme and schedule and a copy of the postal laws and regulations. And then in my case, just a change of clothes is all I would have in mine and I tried to make it as light and my lunch.
INTERVIEWER: And do you remember the longest trip you ever worked?
Edward Rountree: No. It would be because of a train accident that somewhere along the line, once in a while, we would meet, say, a freight train got derailed or something like that and they would have to -- and then of course, working in Florida, other than hurricanes, and I do not remember any particular run that I was on that was affected by hurricanes but we had them but I cannot tell you which one was the longest or anything like that, no.
INTERVIEWER: And while you were working as a railway post office clerk, did you have a family?
Edward Rountree: Oh yes, yes.
INTERVIEWER: And how did you cope with leaving your family behind on long trips?
Edward Rountree: Well, it’s just that you did it everyday of your life just about and it was a very normal and natural thing to do. I don’t remember any crises. That was fortunate, I guess, but I don’t remember any crisis and it was like going to work with any other job. It was kind of different to begin with, of course, because you don’t spend that much time away from home when you’re that young. I was probably 22 years old when I started so a young family and just glad to have a good job.
INTERVIEWER: And how did your family cope when you were away?
Edward Rountree: Oh, again, I don’t want to sound repetitive but I can’t remember when we first started but it got to be so natural that I had my calendar marked. That was one advantage of being a railway mail clerk. You can mark up your calendar at the beginning of the year because my job was a six-week cycle and every six weeks, I had nine days off because you built up so many hours while you’re on the road. I would have nine days off.
And to a lot of people, that’s a vacation and so my family knew when I was going to be in town and knew, they knew as much as I did almost because my calendar was marked at the beginning of the year and so there wasn’t much coping to do with it. We all just -- and of course, I must say like most railway mail clerks, I had -- you just don’t sit around the house and do nothing so I had what we called a moonlight job and I learned to be a television photographer in my off time and I utilized that good layoff to earn extra money and I think most railway mail clerks did. So I was busy all the time and loved it.
INTERVIEWER: What are some of your fondest memories of working on the railroad?
Edward Rountree: The camaraderie, I would say. I was in the post office a total of 38 years and like I said, after my railway mail clerk days, I became an audio-visual specialist at postal headquarters in postal service training management, and I had experience to see all forms of the post office and I will always say that you’ll never find the esprit de corps that we had in the Railway Mail Service. It was -- you took so much pride in getting the job done before you got to the other end of the line that I’ve always said I’ve been very proud and happy that I was a railway mail clerk.
INTERVIEWER: And could you elaborate a little bit more when you said that you saw all forms of the post office? Edward Rountree: When I was doing audio-visual production, we made training films for the letter clerks, for the supervisors, even the vehicle maintenance people. I helped make training films, took still pictures from manuals and all of that, so I was privileged to go into the different post offices all over the country producing training films. And then quite frankly, I saw a lot of things that would never have been tolerated in a railway mail car, I mean the way that people weren’t as industrious as we were, let me put it that way.
INTERVIEWER: And do you still keep in touch with any of the former clerks?
Edward Rountree: No. They’re about all gone now and I was privileged to come to the reunion that the Smithsonian had last year and I’ve acquired more friends from that than I -- in fact, if you -- I cannot contact anybody in my hometown that was a railway mail clerk because I’ve lost track of all of them. But I must say that my -- the last 18 years being up in the Washington D.C. area took me away and I lost track of them while I was up there because I worked up there 18 years.
INTERVIEWER: Did the post office ever issue you anything for your safety or for your job?
Edward Rountree: Well, we had goggles. I forgot that. That’s another thing I had in my suitcase and a revolver would be safety. That was to defend the mail. I won’t say it was for our safety but I guess if you stretch the point, then it would be. And of course, we were required to wear our goggles when we were making the catcher exchange because a lot of things could get in your eyes.
INTERVIEWER: Were you ever in a dangerous or bad situation while on the railway?
Edward Rountree: No. Well, anything can happen when you’re doing 80 miles an hour down the road. Well, we didn’t do 80 probably but no, I was fortunate. I’ve heard tales of other clerks. The train they were on was in a bad accident and things like that. But if I did it was maybe the train would hit a car on the tracks or something like that but I wouldn’t consider it really dangerous but the work itself, anything can happen, like when you’re driving an automobile, anything can happen. But I was very fortunate in my 18 years not to be in an accident.
INTERVIEWER: And you kind of led into my next question. Did you ever hear of anybody experiencing anything dangerous on your line or on another line?
Edward Rountree: Well, yes, you would always hear the other clerks telling about hitting an automobile and glad the train didn’t turn over and things like that. And then of course, some of my fellow clerks, some of the old- timers that I ran with, I’ve heard of it, yes. But as far as turning over, having them hit the car or something like that and turning over, some of them were quite injured but that would be the old-timers more than my age.
INTERVIEWER: And was there any particular story that stands out to you about that?
Edward Rountree: Well, I think probably my own experience as a substitute for the first time I ever had to run, we had a few one-man runs where you run. The mail car is only 15-foot long. We had usually what we referred to as a branch line run from Lakeland, Florida to Clewiston, Florida and Clewiston, Florida is on the Lake Okeechobee and out in the middle of nowhere, sugarcane fields all around, and I was the only clerk and US Sugar Corporation was in -- you had the payroll for that thing and of course, as a 22-year-old, that was my very first run and I was scared to death that I’d mess up and nobody to ask and I often thought what if somebody did get in that mail car and demand the payroll and on that same run?
One of the funniest things that ever happened, as you probably know, we had mail slots in the railway mail car and many, many people at the small stations would come down the train to mail their letters and we had a postmark. Most of them would just hand it to you instead of putting in the slot and when I was in a little tiny town, I’ll tell you, it was more Moore Haven, Florida on Lake Okeechobee, the person give me a handful, and I was canceling them and somebody had put a nickel, the nickel with a paperclip in the corner. And there was another I think we were required. The clerk in charge were required to carry stamps to sell to the public in case they needed it. And here, I was canceling these letters and there was a nickel and that was the price of a stamp in those days. And I said, “Gee whiz,” and fortunately, as a young substitute, I did have a staff to put on there and I put the nickel on my pocket.
INTERVIEWER: And as far as you hearing other clerks, especially the old-timers talk about train wrecks, do you remember any of the stories that they told you?
Edward Rountree: You know, when you get 84 years old, those are the kind of things that you -- I can’t tell you the details. There was one particular fella up in South Carolina and he walked with a considerable limp. He was really injured quite bad but he still wanted to work. He didn’t want a disability. And at one time, I can tell you about that train wreck but after all these other years now, I can honestly say I remember the train wreck that he was in.
INTERVIEWER: Did you ever face or witness any type of racial discrimination while you were working as railway post office clerk?
Edward Rountree: No, none, none. And one of the best foremen I ever had was a black fella and then no, I don’t remember it at all. No discrimination.
INTERVIEWER: And did you hear of anybody who did experience it?
Edward Rountree: Honestly, I don’t think so, no. No, I don’t.
INTERVIEWER: Were you ever a member of any type of outside organization, such as a union or club that was affiliated with the railway postal clerks?
Edward Rountree: Oh yes, we had our -- what did we call it -- we had a railway mail clerk association, yes. We had a union and it was strictly fraternal because as you probably know, it’s against the law to strike against the government were, I remember, strictly fraternal. Yes, I think everybody just about belonged to it.
INTERVIEWER: And what were some of the things that you guys did?
Edward Rountree: Oh, we made recommendations, nitpicking stuff that would make it better. We young clerks wanted to air condition the mail cars but the old-timers said, “Shoot, no, we don’t want that. All that hot air coming in and cool, we’ll catch a cold.” So the old-timers, they didn’t want anything to do with the air condition but the young clerks did but that was one of the little nitpicking things that the -- it was, like I say, it was just a gathering and anytime you get two railway mail clerks together, they can talk and talk and talk and so we just talked about our runs and how much mail we had and all that kind of stuff because it varied. Sometimes, you’d have an easy trip and sometimes, many, many times, I have gone to one end of the line to the other and not even stopping to eat lunch because of your pride. You didn’t want your fellow clerks to know you couldn’t get it done.
INTERVIEWER: Were you ever featured in any type of publication for your organization?
Edward Rountree: I don’t think so. No. No, I became, like I said earlier, a news camera person and when the last railway mail run out of Jacksonville, Florida made a nice news film out of it in our local station, the NBC station, and the news director ran, oh about five minutes of it, by the way, which I sent a copy to the Smithsonian so it was about a five-minute news item and I did those sort of things. If there was any award for anything like that, I would take pictures of it but no major, major big deal.
INTERVIEWER: And was there anything that you ever wanted to change about your job and if so, what was it and why?
Edward Rountree: No, like I said earlier, I thoroughly enjoyed being a railway mail clerk and I probably fussed about some things but right now, I can’t think of it, no.
INTERVIEWER: What do you miss the most about being a railway post office clerk?
Edward Rountree: Well, the biggest adjustment when we quit sorting mail on the train was the layoff, the time off that we all had. Those who didn’t retire had to go into the post office in some way or another and I was fortunate because I went in to the public relations. I became a customer service representative because of my television experience. But most of the clerks everywhere, I would see my fellow clerks around the post office as part of my public relations job and too, every one of them missed the layoff. We were used to condensing our hours and having three or four days off at a time. But then the post office, you worked a regular five-day week, at eight in the morning until five in the afternoon-type thing, you know, and so no, it was layoff, without a doubt.
INTERVIEWER: And is there anything else that you miss about your position?
Edward Rountree: The camaraderie. I enjoyed seeing my fellas and we’d always wave to the other crews when you met the train and just the camaraderie, that’s what I miss the most.
INTERVIEWER: And for the last question, is there any other information or stories that you would like to make accessible to researchers about your experience or position with the railway post office?
Edward Rountree: Not necessarily. No. It was a good run and I’m just glad that I was part of it.