The Rambler 11/10/2002
I WISH to begin this week with a salute to Mr Alfred Grant of Aghalee, doyen of retired postmen, who is celebrating his 97th birthday. Congratulations and best wishes, Alfred.
Down through the years, he has regaled me with countless stories by his experiences when he tramped the loanens around the village, covering maybe 20 miles a day, forbidden even to use his pushbike and at intervals accompanied by an official from the Head Post Office, sent to do the walk with him as a kind of audit.
The recent announcement by a government minister that Northern Ireland's 400 rural post offices are to be subsidised to the tune of £6.9 million a year will have caused Alfred to reflect upon the miserly reward which he had to exist on, in the bad old days - buttons.
No wonder he had to burn the midnight oil at weekends cutting hair for locals, when he had a wife and young children to feed.
The late Sam Green, J P, Aghalee village storekeeper and sub postmaster, was Alfred's boss and an exacting one, but also capable of taking a hand out of an unsuspecting colleague.
For example, when World War Two broke out and German air raids were expected daily, steel helmets arrived as an official issue for the protection of postmen.
By that time the powers-that-were had had to turn a blind eve to the use of privately owned (and privately afforded) pushbikes.
Sam managed to convince his small team of rural postmen that wearing the helmets was compulsory, and soon he had Alfred and Co. pedalling around Aghalee roads attired with steel helmets.
Of course the ringleaders managed to bluff it out, while within close proximity to the sub-post office, and convinced one rookie that he was not to remove the tin lid in any circumstances while on the job.
They, the cute merchants, slung theirs on the handlebars, as soon as they got their gullible colleague launched! (I have names, but I had better not name them).
Alfred still rehearses a touching story about an elderly member of the travelling community.
She and many others had encamped at Sandy Row, near Davy Mair's place at Deerpark.
They had been there for some time and managed to get mail delivered. This morning Alfred had a cross-channel letter for an old lady.
When he located her, she explained that she couldn't read, and begged him to open the letter and read it for her.
Alfred obliged and the letter turned out to be from a daughter who had emigrated and promised to send home money.
Instead of money, all the mother got was a litany of excuses, but no cash. The mother broke down and wept bitterly, for she was genuinely penniless.
The incident obviously vexed Alfred for he never forgot it.
Knowing the man, I am sure he put his hand in his near-empty pocket. Alfred's best story was an account of his solution to the problem of getting the mail from Lurgan during the 1937 snow storm. The Lurgan post van got stuck in drifts at Whitehall, and Alfred volunteered to drive a borrowed farm tractor to Whitehall, which he did, and arrived back at Sam Green's with the mail bag. Then wearing thigh boots, the local postmen managed to reach addresses - or at least those accessible.
The Post Office declined to pay a shilling compensation for the tractor job. "Typical," was Alfred's comment.
Isn't it a pity that the NIO Minister with the £6.9m could not hand Alfred a suitable reward for his many decades of faithful service, to backup the bit of paper which adorns his living room wall in the shape of a retirement certificate? Not that he needs it now. But still ...