March 12, 2023

By Arthur H. Gunther III

In a very simple time when things were still complicated for grown-ups of course, country children of the 1940s and ’50s found diversion in rustling through the woods, playing hide and seek with other kids and going on small errands with dad or mom.

Absent the video games, cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, HDTV, ballet school, karate lessons and all the other appointments now penciled in the datebook of a youngster, if you were staring at the wall as a 7-year-old, and dad was warming up the 1949 Studebaker Commander (once red, then repainted green), he might beckon you to hop in and travel a few miles to the Spring Valley (New York) Post Office so he could retrieve mail from Box 74.

You weren’t tall enough to see in the small box, set in a long row of decorative brass containers with combination locks. In a year or too, you could actually open the box yourself, anticipating mail as you walked home from school.

But for now, dad went to get what was there, and you would hang around the Art Deco lobby, standing on a grand marble floor and looking up at a Social Realism mural, courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt and Postmaster Jim Farley Post Office rebuilding projects of the Great Depression.

The Spring Valley branch on Madison Avenue was and is a most solid structure, meant to convey the ability of a nation to rebuild itself and to endure. And the inside was deliberately set as a small palace, with wonderful hissing steam heat that warmed you on the coldest of February days. The government could help take care of you, you see, and the mural of laborers, farmers and industrial smokestacks billowing the white smoke of progress underscored this “we-can-do-it” recovery.

A “socialism” view, though it was lost on the 7-year-old in 1949. He was there, escaping boredom with his dad, and he liked getting his fingers warm at the radiator. He also wanted his own mail, so the routine was to head over to the huge wire basket where people threw junk mail that arrived even in those days, and without messing about too much, take out a sealed letter and hold it, then open it, a grown-up thing to do.

The trip home was usually uneventful. Dad might stop for a loaf of Sunshine bread at Mager’s store, the motor and heater left running as he ran in and out. Soon you would be back in the quiet of the house, no TV to watch, and you might seek imagination in adjacent woods, within earshot of mom calling you home for supper at about 5:15.

Like I said, a simple time.

The writer is a retired newspaperman. This essay is adapted from an earlier one.