For Retired Letter Carrier, Life Is an All-Weather Occasion

By VICTORIA FORD | Jan 17, 2018
Photo by: Lynn Hensor

Upon his retirement last month from a 31-year career with the United States Postal Service, Stafford resident Ken Hensor received a leather jacket and a plaque for his “Million Miles” accident-free. He joined the million-mile club with three colleagues, all of whom were recognized for 30 years of safe driving.

Hensor and his wife Lynn moved from Bucks County, Pa., to the Colony Lakes section of Manahawkin in 2009. He had worked at the Bristol Borough Post Office for 22 years at that point, so, rather than transfer to an office closer to his new home, he opted for the 120-mile roundtrip daily commute to see him through the eight years to his eligibility for retirement. “I liked my route and coworkers, so the hour drive each way seemed worth it.” He felt a loyalty not only to his office but also to his customers with whom he shared that simple, yet significant, routine.

“I always thought of it as going in for my customers every day,” he said. “That’s a way to give life purpose.”

Each morning would start with casing his route, or putting the day’s mail in order. (When he started, the mail was all hand sorted, he recalled, but by 1993 the system had been automated and sorting was done by machine, enabling carriers to spend less time in the office and more time out on the street.) After about an hour and a half he would load his truck and head to his route.

“I basically walked up to 400 doors every day,” Hensor said. With that responsibility comes the constant awareness of entering someone’s property, being respectful of where he treads, putting care and attention into each transaction. After 30 years of delivering mail to residents and businesses in the Harriman section of Bristol, he knows every crack in the sidewalk and a lot about what goes on in people’s lives, from the magazines they read to the notices they receive from organizations and agencies.

A letter carrier becomes “very much a part of the community.”

Hensor’s father, Ken Hensor Sr., and younger brother, Brian Hensor, have also dedicated much of their professional lives to the postal service. Their dad had worked in management capacities and eventually became postmaster in Fort Washington, Pa.

Ken Jr. first took the test in 1984 at age 23 (a physical and written exam that tested, among other things, memorization skills). He was attracted to the job for the outdoors component, the physical activity, the solitude and for the practicality, he said, as secure, union work with good benefits. He took a preparatory course at a Holiday Inn to gain an advantage.

“I say one of my skills is being able to handle the weather.” He had always worked outside jobs so he really didn’t know any different. He had another important qualification: the work ethic for the job. The methodical nature of the work also appealed to him.

An equally important part of the job, of course, is driving. As professional drivers, letter carriers face unique challenges, given the right-hand drive setup of the mail trucks and the slow creep along the roadside that makes them vulnerable to collisions. For the most part, he said, other drivers are respectful. Nonetheless, postal drivers do a lot of mirror checking and double-checking.

The trucks, called long-life vehicles (LLVs), are heated, and cooled by a fan, but for the most part they’re no-frills, with all-aluminum bodies and easily replaceable parts. Hensor’s route would have him driving for two to three hours and walking the other four or five.

Customers, too, are thoughtful and concerned, offering bottled water and ice pops in the heat.

“I don’t think one mailman is better than another, but (residents) like to see a familiar face,” he said. They develop a certain trust.

Some things residents can do to make their letter carrier’s job easier: keep dogs secured; keep a path to the mailbox clear of snow and hazards; have a postal-approved mailbox; slow down while driving behind a mail truck.

Major weather events keep things interesting. He recalled an ice storm in the early ’90s when it rained and everything froze over and it was near impossible to walk two steps without slipping. “I must have fallen 20 times that day,” he said. In his eight years of driving to and from Bristol his own personal vehicle only gave him trouble three times (flat tire, blown alternator and bad water pump), but he always made it to and from work. Blizzard conditions kept him home once.

Safety is the key factor in determining whether carriers go out on the street in bad weather, he explained.

Exposed to the elements, the right weather protection is essential. In the cold, a good hat is vital, as are gloves that allow him to use his fingers. The worst thing to do is restrict blood flow. Those who stand at cluster boxes need to think carefully about footwear, but as a walker he was never too worried about his feet. He would mainly focus on staying dry, and prepare for the day by bringing extra socks.

In extreme heat, he would buy a bag of ice and use it throughout the day, to add to his drinks, or to cool off his face and hands.

But he never had an injury more serious than one dog bite that punctured his arm – and he considers himself lucky it was only once. “Some people get bitten all the time,” he said with a laugh. There’s a saying in the business, “the dog that bites you is the one you never see coming.” In his case, the dog was hiding in some shrubs by the front door.

He did have both knees replaced last winter, in separate surgeries between October and February. Joint problems are common in the mail business, he noted.

Over the years, the biggest overall changes he has observed are a rise in the number of packages, as online shopping has increased; accountability, as carriers’ whereabouts, handling and activities with every parcel are closely tracked; and hiring practices. The turnover rate seems higher nowadays.

The average workload might include 50 to 60 packages per day, and 100 or more per day during the holiday shopping season. The number of magazines, catalogs and advertising circulars has decreased, but the letter-sized pieces have remained fairly consistent. (People still receive paper statements, organizational literature and other correspondence.) A lot more of it is bulk-rate than first-class now.

While it’s hard to say if the increased accountability has actually improved service – packages are still reaching their destinations as reliably as ever, in Hensor’s view – it does seem to benefit customers’ confidence and peace of mind.

As for the future of the postal service, Hensor said he thinks it will stay in businesses for a long time to come. Even as digital communications advance, he believes people will continue to need and want to receive mail.

Upon eligibility for retirement, Hensor wasn’t required to leave, but he felt ready for a change. He had always liked the idea of retiring young (he’ll be 57 later this year) and now he gets to “see who else I can be.”

He’s grateful to have had secure work for 30 years – “a lot of people aren’t that lucky” – but he’s also glad to quit the commute and stop emitting so much exhaust every day.

“My new thing is, I’m obsessed with feeding the birds (to the tune of three times a day) and walking the dog on the beach.” He looks forward to doing more “LBI” activities, enjoying outdoor recreation, fishing and kayaking. Freedom.

victoria@thesandpaper.net

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