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A tribute to the mail carrier of Christmas past

Forest Grove woman has fond holiday memories of postman fathers efforts

by: COURTESY PHOTOS - William J. Tonkyn, father of Forest Grove resident Bev Walker, walked his Christmas Eve route in the snow and cold until he finally made it home around midnight.Note: Forest Villa resident Bev Walker, 82, has lived in Forest Grove since 1991. But these memories she shared with the News-Times of her own personal Santa come from her childhood in Portland.


For The News-Times

Whenever I hear somebody complain the daily mail is late this time of year I bristle.

My Dad was a mail carrier, and to me they are a very special bunch. Christmastime at our house when I was a child had all the bell ringing, pie tasting, glittering traditional evergreen smelling wonders it’s supposed to have. I remember it that way, even though 1 also remember getting my wicker doll buggy as my Christmas gift at least three years in a row — each time lovingly given a new coat of paint in a different color by my Dad and maybe a new doll blanket from scraps made by Mom.

There was a difference in our house from our neighbors, however. On Christmas Eve, when they were celebrating or happily anticipating Santa’s coming, we were waiting, sometimes anxiously, sometimes ’til very late, for Dad to come home.

The month of December meant he would miss supper with us almost every night. He’d be up before dawn every morning and gone before we thought of waking up to get ready for school — but on the breakfast table he left messages. If his Shredded Wheat cereal box was empty, he cut small doors and windows in it and it became a building for us to play with. If he had a soft-boiled egg, the eggshell was there with a silly face drawn on it. Or he wrapped his napkin around his fork for a coat, stuck a scrap of toast on the tines for a hat and stood it up, handle first, in the sugar bowl — a goofy man to greet us in his stead.

His mail route was in a steep ridge of the Tualatin Hills overlooking the Willamette River and the city of Portland, Oregon. Many homes there were built on stilts and many cross-streets were only flights of steps.

There were no carts to push or jeeps to drive in the 1930s. The mail was carried on Dad’s back in a huge leather bag and the route was walked — every bit of it. Dad had great legs.

One Christmas Eve he was especially late. It had snowed heavily for several days. Using the car wasn’t possible. We usually traveled by trolley, bus or walked anyway. We lived to the north, across the river, about ten miles away from Dad’s route.

As a 6-year-old I was immediately concerned when I heard the announcement on the radio that the trolleys and the buses had stopped running early, in mid-afternoon. We didn’t have a phone then. I asked Mother, “How will Dad get home?” She replied, “I don’t know, but he will ... he will.” And we knew he would, somehow. We were allowed to stay up late until he arrived.

We sat by the decorated and wonderfully smelling Christmas tree in the window, listening to the carols on the radio and watching up the street for Dad. It was very dark outside, but the white of the snow and star-shine made the scene bright enough to see a block away. Mother told us again why he was so late — he was taking presents to other children. He was delivering gifts of cake and cookies, beautiful cards of greeting that wish “Merry Christmas” from family and friends. They came from all over the world to those people who lived in the hills above the city, in those houses on stilts. I had visions of my Dad leaping from rooftop to rooftop, chimney to chimney, until she added, “... and he takes them right to their door.”

“Not down the chimney?” I asked. by: COURTESY PHOTOS - William J. Tonkyn, father of Forest Grove resident Bev Walker, sits in the front row on the far left in this 1926 photo of postal workers from the U.S. Post Office in Portlands Wardway Station (above). Inset, postal carrier Tonkyn delivers mail on his route in Portlands west hills in 1934.

“Certainly not down the chimney,” said Mother, “they’d get all dirty!” That was such a relief. I wondered how that other guy did it and not only stayed so clean but never got burned in the fires burning in the fireplaces, or worse, got stuck in a furnace like ours!

It was midnight before we saw him coming at last.  He trudged heavily through several inches of new snow, as he’d been doing since dawn. In those days it was required that no piece of mail be left undelivered in the station on Christmas Eve. How many miles he’d heaved himself through snow up and down the hills of his route that day I don’t know. Or how many times he’d walked back to his drop box — to refill that big leather bag until there was no more — I couldn’t imagine. But on top of that, because there was no bus service, he’d walked from his route above the city for miles north along the river to the beautiful new St. Johns Bridge, across its long expanse covered with treacherous ice and snow, then back south along the east side of the river for several more miles to our house. He was greeted with tearful hugs that he was home safe.

Very late the next morning we opened our presents. I think my doll buggy was green that year. When did he ever have the time or energy to do that?

I would not take away the smallest of gifts donated for children I see filling the rooms of TV studios this season, but I wonder if any of those children will possibly know the love conveyed by a fork, a napkin and a scrap of toast stuck in a sugar bowl. I hope so.

He did smoke a pipe and he was a jolly fella, but he didn’t have reindeer and a sleigh, and it occurred to me it would have helped if he had. He didn’t have a red suit and he wasn’t fat, but I’ve always known the secret of who Santa really is.

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