As the volume of mail continued to grow, the U.S. Postal Service moved into using high-speed sorting machinery to separate new mail into groups by Zip Code. The initial machines used a conveyor belt with an attached operator terminal.
Every few seconds, a piece of mail would zip up to the operator terminal, who would then key in the zip code from that envelope. The unit would then send that piece to a corresponding slot that matched the zip code. When the slot got full, that group of mail would be bundled up and removed.
I saw one of these early sorting machines in operation at the main Post Office in downtown Savannah once, years ago. I was amazed. The only problem was, operators sometimes keyed in the wrong zip code. The postmaster who showed me this machine explained that they only allowed a 3% error rate, and if that was exceeded, the operator had to undergo more training.
A 3% error rate sounds very small, but, as he explained, if an operator keyed in 100,000 pieces of mail a day, 3% of that was 3,000 envelopes!
They eventually moved to Optical Scanners to take care of that problem, and it usually worked much better. However, sometimes the preprinted return address on business envelopes turned out to be a heavier font than the addressee print below it, and that sometimes caused the scanner to pick up the return address, instead of the delivery address; in which case, the mail went back to the sender!
This happened to the agency I work for, some years ago. It was a mystery to us why, after our regular large end-of-month mailout, all of a sudden we started getting whole bundles of mail returned to us, for no apparent reason. Walter, the fellow at the branch we used who worked with me on this issue, finally figured out what was happening, and told me to change the ribbon on the dot-matrix printer we were using at the time, so that the ink was newer and heavier, and that solved some of it. On his part, he had to adjust the “scan window” on their scanner, so that it was less likely to “see” the return address section on the envelopes. That helped too. Another time, most of the mail we were sending to Statesboro, GA (Zip 30458) for some reason began going to Colorado, and took several weeks to get returned to us for “bad addresses.”
That was a surprise! Back I went to Walter. When he checked their scanner, he discovered a speck of dirt had gotten on the glass plate where the “3” was getting scanned, and the scanner was reading it as an “8” – thus the machinery sending those pieces to Colorado! The Post Office there then had to send them back with the “No Address Found” stamp, as there was no “Statesboro” in Colorado!
Once Walter cleaned that glass, that issue went away.
The last complication that arises occasionally is that of mail getting stuck in-between those zip code cubby-holes in the sorting machinery. It will stay there until the Postal Service does their routine maintenance, discovers the errant piece, and puts it back in circulation. Sometimes that can be a couple of weeks; other times I have seen it take 6-8 months.
I will never forget the time one of the other fellows at the main post office downtown, who picked up the mail for his company just as I did for mine, went through his mail one morning, and suddenly started cussing! I had never heard him do that before. I asked him, what in the world was the matter?
He held up an envelope that clearly had a check in it, and told me ruefully, he had called that man up two weeks ago to ask where his payment was, and was told it had been mailed two weeks ago. Herbie said he didn’t believe him, because his mail always came from this customer in three days, before. “I all but called him a liar, he told me, shaking his head. “Now, here is his envelope, postmarked the day he said he sent it! I’ve got to call him back and eat crow.”
I had a similar incident with a customer an hour or so up I-95 in South Carolina, some weeks or months later. Sure enough, two weeks after I called her to ask where her check was, it showed up in our mailbox, postmarked the day she said she mailed it.
“Murphy’s Law #14: Everything mechanical will eventually break; everything electronic will eventually crash.”
So it goes! You have to be open to the possibilities, and allow for the possibilities that things happen just as folks tell you they did.
Rafe Semmes, who lives in Midway with his wife and cat, is a Savannah native and UGA alumnus. An accountant by trade, he works in Savannah regularly drives through Richmond Hill on his way there and back home again.