Fort Riley, Kansas - 1966
For Barbara West
Zeke was the best mailman in the Annipannistan Post Office. In fact, his friends said he was the best mailman in the country. Neither rain, nor snow nor dark of night could stop the mail when Zeke was on the job.
Zeke had a little truck that he drove when he delivered mail. It was one of those trucks that looks like a washing machine on three wheels with a driver's cab in front and a lawn mower engine in back. Zeke had a name for his truck. He called it Charlie.
Charlie was painted red, white and blue in typical Post Office fashion; and Zeke kept his truck waxed and polished so the sun sparkled on the paint like a thousand red, white and blue fireworks.
When people saw Zeke chug-chugging down the road in his glistening truck, popping letters into mailboxes; they would say, "Here come Zeke and Charlie, the pride of the Annipannistan Post Office." And Zeke would smile and wave, and sometimes he would toot Charlie's horn which sounded like a little tugboat whistle.
Zeke liked being a mailman. He like delivering letters and he liked talking to the people who came out to meet him. And he liked his work back at the Post Office building where he would sort out the letters in his pile so he could put them all into the right mailboxes.
He spent hours every morning comparing the addresses on the letters with ones he saw every afternoon on the mailboxes. You see, Zeke did not know how to read, so that was the only way he could tell which letter went to which house.
But Zeke liked his work. That's why he was a mailman. Most of all Zeke liked to find letters addressed to himself. Unfortunately. since he could not read. nobody ever wrote to him. The only letters he ever got were the ones he mailed to himself.
Every Saturday morning Zeke sent himself a letter. There was nothing in it of course - Zeke could not write either. But he knew how to put his Zip Code on the envelope, and when he would find it among the other letters the next week, he knew that it was his. Then he would show his letter to everyone who came out to talk to him while he made his rounds.
Everyone knew that Zeke would bring their mail faithfully every day. After he washed, waxed and polished Charlie, he began to separate the letters that Oscar, the sorting clerk, handed him. He knew that the letters whose addresses started with a round letter were for Oscar. The ones with a down-pointing letter were for the Vandergrifts who lived on Third Street; and Iggy Arnold, who lived next door, got the ones with a narrow, straight letter. The odd-shaped packages with the wiggly letter in the address were for that strange old man, Stram Drocer, who never came out of his house except at night.
Zeke also knew that the thick envelopes with the bent letter were for Mr. Lovecraft who lived in the old gambrel-roofed house on the corner and spent long afternoons on the river bank writing long letters and stories. And the ones with the wide, straight letter were for the Hollihans who lived on the old farm near the swamp.
There were many more families and Zeke could recognize the addresses for them all.
One morning Zeke found an address with a curious zig-zag letter that he had never seen before, but neither rain, nor snow nor zig-zag letters could prevent Zeke from delivering the mail. He asked Oscar who the letter was for. Oscar was always glad to help, for he knew that Zeke could not read. But his time he said, "I can't imagine who it might belong to, Zeke. Why don't you ask Mr. Vandegrift on Third Street? He's a schoolteacher and he might be able to tell you." So Zeke put the letter carefully in his truck as he left for his daily rounds.
That afternoon, when Zeke turned the corner onto Third Street, Mr. Vandergrift was standing at the end of his driveway. As Zeke pulled his truck up to the mailbox, he heard Mr. Vandergrift say, "Here come Zeke and Charlie, the pride of the Annipannistan Post Office."
After giving him his mail, Zeke asked about the letter. Mr. Vandergrift looked at it and said, "I'm sorry Zeke, but I'm afrid you're going to have to find this person yourself. I can't help you."
Zeke thanked him and drove slowly away. The rest of the afternoon he asked everone he met if they knew who the letter belonged to, but they all smiled and said they could not help him.
Zeke's last stop was at the shack of the unpleasant old man, Stram Drocer. Zeke did not like talking to Stram Drocer, but he still had not delivered the strange letter, and neither rain, nor snow nor mean old men could hold up the mail when Zeke was on the job.
Zeke took Stram Drocer's bulky package in one hand and the letter in the other and went to the door. When Zeke knocked, Stram Drocer opened the door a few inches and grabbed his package. He was about to close the door again when Zeke asked him very politely if please would look at the address on the letter. Stram just sneered and said. "Why don't you go jump in the lake, my friend!" Then he slammed the heavy door in Zeke's face.
Now, that was a very nasty thing to say, but Stram Drocer was a nasty man and said things like that all the time. Only Zeke did not realize that, and he thought Stram Drocer really meant what he said. So, wondering how it would help him find the owner of the letter, Zeke drove down to Hollihan's pond and jumped in.
When Mr. Hollihan heard the splash, he came running out of the barn with a long pole which he used to pull Zeke out. While Zeke combed the algae out of his hair and pulled the fish out of his pockets, he explained his problem to Mr. Hollihan and showed him the letter with the unfamiliar address.
"Well, Zeke, I think if you follow my fields for a couple miles along the edge of the swamp, you'll find the person you're looking for out there." Zeke thanked him for the information, but explained that he could not take Charlie, his mail truck, on the rough road.
Mr. Hollihan scatched his chin and said, "Well, I guess I can lend you my tractor." Zeke thanked him again and, after parking Charlie in the big barn, he drove off across the fields on the lumbering tractor.
A half hour later he was still driving and he had not seen anyone to whom the letter might belong. As he rounded an outcropping of the swamp trees, Zeke saw a big sign that read "Annipannistan Municipal Aeroport", and he thought that maybe someone here could help him. For neither rain, nor snow nor lumbering tractors could stop the mail when Zeke was on the job.
The man at the airport looked at the letter and smiled. After Zeke explained the situation the man said, "I'll lend you an airplane, Zeke. If you fly directly west, I think you'll find the owner of the letter out there.
Zeke thanked him and, after parking the tractor in the spacious hanger, he climbed into a 1929 biplane which the man explained used to belong to Stram Drocer. The ancient plane spluttered down the runway and, just as Zeke thought he might roll into the swamp, it lifted sluggishly over the trees.
The coughing, clattering engine managed to keep the plane airborne for several hours while Zeke anxiously scanned the ground below for someone who might own the strange letter. He lurched over the town of Annipannistan, rattled above the treetops of the Ubangi Swamp and bounced through the air over picturesque farms to the west.
Zeke did not know much about flyng airplanes, and for most of the time he just clung to his seat as the rickety old plane popped in and out of clouds, occasionally flipping upside down in a brief wind and fllying that way for long minutes until another chance wind righted it again. The rough flight was too much for the old biplane though, and finally the rusty engine choked to a stop.
With a start, Zeke recognized his predicament and searched frantically for a place to land the slowly descending plane. By some unbelievable stroke of luck he saw no less than three airports below him. There was one near a large town a few miles to his right, another beside an odd, long ridge in front of him and the third a few miles beyond that. He was already passing the first airport, so he decided to try for the next. If he overshot it, he could still come down at the third.
Carefully he opened the door until he could stick his foot out to slow the plane. It was too late when he realized that this procedure, while effective with a runaway mail truck, is quite useless in an airplane. He had already thrown the plane off balance and it banked sharply to the left, shooting Zeke helplessly out the open door.
Flung suddenly into space, Zeke grabbed frantically for anything to stop his fall. His hand closed around a flimsy wing strut. The wind burned his face and tore at his clothes, but he pulled himsellf slowly into the framework between the stacked wings of the biplane.
The plane was now badly off balance and went into a tight spiral, falling toward the ground with ever increasing speed. It was a race against time. Zeke had to work his way along the flailing wing to the cockpit and get the plane under control before it crashed into the hard ground below. He inched his way through the framework of the wings. The ground surged upward at a frightening rate, coming faster with every spent second.
After an eternity of frantic scrambling, he slid into the pilot's seat and snatched the controls. Slowly, ever so slowly, the plane straightened out. But nothing could slow the dizzying fall as the now useless weight of the motor dragged the rest of the plane to almost certain destruction - and Zeke with it!
But neither rain, nor snow nor helpless biplanes could stop the mail when Zeke was on the job. He guided the speeding plane toward the runway that loomed in front of him. In fact, he was able to line it up for an almost perfect landing. Almost!
At the last second he saw the helicopter hovering lazily over the runway. He jerked back the yoke, but an engineless plane rarely climbs. The straining biplane touched down on a road two hundred yards from the end of the runway and bounced violently back into the air. It started down again at a much steeper angle. Zeke had lost his nerve at the first bounce and, clamping his hat to his head with one hand and holding his nose with the other, he jumped out the door.
A split second later the plane touched down a second time The front landing gear collapsed and the nose plowed a deep gouge in the ground. The jolt caused the plane to execute two somersaults before coming to rest, right side up, devoid of wings and tail.
The fate of the battered plane could easily have been predicted as a result of the uncommon approach. Zeke's landing, however, was entirely unprecendented and will probably never be duplicated, because it was simply impossible. It was indeed a shocked helicopter pilot who, while watching a pilotless biplane smash into the earth below him, suddenly found a United States mailman sprawled across his lap.
A hasty landing and a hurried goodbye later, Zeke found himself lost and on foot many miles from Annipannistan, and he still had not delivered the letter. The dazed helicopter pilot had no idea to whom it might belong. But neither rain, nor snow nor dazed helicopter pilots could stop the mail when Zeke was on the job.
Zeke struck out across open country. He had no idea where he was or which direction he should go, so he wandered aimlessly for hours without seeing another person. The afternoon had been hot and he was relieved when a breeze sprang up and clouds obscured the burning sun.
For fifteen minutes the breeze gained in strength untuil it was a howling gale and the sky was so filled with black clouds that Zeke had trouble finding his way in the dim light. The clouds flew and boiled in the sky as if agitated by some giant hand. Then, gradually, the shrill howl of the wind was lost in a deafening roar that built in violence like the voice of an approaching, unimagineable monster. Then a tornado burst upon him with frightful, unbelievable violence.
But neither rain nor snow... Zeke wasn't interested in his pledge of service as he was batted and bounced by the furious wind. He felt himself lifted from the ground and flung once more into terrifying empitiness.
Just as suddenly as it had struck, the tornado was gone. Zeke was up to his neck in black, slimey mud. He recognized it as the familiar mud of the Ubangi Swamp, and felt a deep sense of relief as he realized he must be near Annipannistan again.
Slowly and carefully, so he wouldn't sink any deeper, he paddled with his hands until he could reach an exposed root and pull himself out of the slime. He was grateful when he reached the edge of the swamp and put his feet on solid ground once again.. But he was still a good distance from town and he had still not delivered the letter.
Zeke resumed the walk he had started so many miles and a tornado earlier and after ten minutes he was standing beside a river. But he did not know if it was the Mozy River that mosied through town, or the Consimcalon River that lost itself in the hills to the north.
As Zeke pondered what to do next a small, flat bottomed boat drifted into view. Zeke shouted and waved his arms. The lone occupant of the boat saw him and, using a long pole, pushed the craft toward shore.
Zeke immediately asked the question which was formost in his mind; but no, the man did not know who the letter belonged to. However he offered Zeke a ride to his ranch a mile down the river. Zeke was glad to accept,, for he had become used to riding his truck while making deliveries and was tired from all this walking.
A half hour later Mr. Schwemm, for that was the man's name, dragged his mud scow onto the river bank and led the way to his small ranch. When Zeke saw the corral, he got an idea. He asked if he might rent a horse. Mr. Schwemm considered then replied, "Well now, I only got two hosses, but maybe we can arrange something."
They went into a dimly lit barn. He pointed to a strong animal that appeared to be standing under a blanket. "This here's my best hoss. I bought it from an old indian that passed this way a few years back. Won't eat hay. Won't eat nothin' but doughnuts and coffee. But it's a good hoss. He patted the animal.
"Name's Ng'lnt'hrpk. That's an indian word. I think it means The-one-who-eats-doughnuts-and-coffee. And this ain't no ordinary hoss. The indians call these things shantak birds." He lifted what Zeke had though was a blanket. Instead it was a great wing, one of a matched pair. Zeke was at a loss for words but managed to ask if the beast could fly.
"You bet it can fly. High as any airplane I reckon, and fast as the wind!"
Zeke choked. He had had enough of airplanes and of wind to last him a long, long time. He asked to see the other horse.
Mr. Schwemm snorted as he led Zeke across the dirt floor to where another horse stood. Zeke looked at the horse. The horse glared at Zeke. Mr. Schwemm was describing it. "A strong animule, but lazy. Won't even look at a plow. Only pulls a wagon or takes a rider with constant coaxing. Don't like to do nothin' but sleep and watch television." He pointed to a seventeen inch portable in a corner of the stall.
Zeke asked Mr. Schwemm how much he wanted to rent the horse. "Fer that hoss, I don't want nothin'. Just aim it in this direction about suppertime and let it come home."
Zeke thanked him while they saddled the horse. As he was about to ride off into the sunset, he remembered to ask the horse's name. It was Barbara. Zeke did not believe it at first. Nobody in his right mind would name a horse Barbara. But then he remembered that he, himself, had named a truck Charlie.
However, neither rain, nor snow nor horses named Barbara could stop the mail when Zeke was on the job. So off he rode down the lane. Later he rode across across open country to the other river, the Mozy River which flows through downtown Annipannistan.
He was on the last part of his journey home when saw the man sitting and writing under a tree on the river bank. He knew, of course, that it was Mr. Lovecraft who lived in the strange high house with the gambrel roof. Zeke rode up to the tree and jumped from the horse.
Mr. Lovecraft looked up an squinted." Well, well, if it isn't Zeke," He said in surprise. "What brings the pride of the Annipannistan Post Office out here this evening? And where is Charlie?"
Zeke introduced Mr. Lovecraft to Barbara, the horse, and explained that Charlie, the truck, was in Mr; Hollihan's barn. He had always envied Mr. Lovecraft who received several thick letters every day. Zeke showed him the strange letter.
Mr. Lovecraft chuckled. "Zeke, don't you know that this letter is addressed to you?"
Zeke could hardly believe it. The letter was his! But who sent it?
Seeing the puzzled look on Zeke's face, Mr. Lovecraft said. "It's a little story I wrote last week. It isn't a very good story; but I sent it to you since I know that, even though you can't read, you like to get mail.
"It's about a mailman, like yourself, who goes through a long series of adventures while trying to deliver a letter. He meets an evil old man, falls into a pond, borrows a tractor, survives an airplane crash, gets caught in a tornado and finally rides an amazing horse called Ng'lnt'hrpk to the great castle where he must deliver the letter."
At that moment the bells in nearby Annipannistan chimed the dinner hour. The horse, who had been patiently waiting, turned and trotted off in the direction from which they had come. Zeke waved goodbye then looked back at Mr. Lovecraft.
"The horses name was Barbara," he said. "She was a nice horse. Thank you for the story, though I like the real ending better." He smiled, then started off on foot for Mr. Hollihan's barn.