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Gone Postal

In 1984, when my academic career was still new, I mailed a year’s worth of anthropological fieldwork home from the heart of Africa in a cardboard box. It didn’t seem so reckless at the time. After all, the Fulbright people assured me that the documents would be traveling by diplomatic pouch. To my naïve grad student mind, “diplomatic pouch” suggested a blue-suited diplomat handcuffed to my precious papers, ready to die before surrendering them.

Eventually, the box did arrive—but broken, with hundreds of hours’ worth of painstakingly filled-in survey forms missing. To track them down, I spent nearly as much time on the phone with postal officials, the Customs Service, the Fulbright folk, and my congressman’s office. I learned that the glamorous-sounding diplomatic pouch is handled like any other giant sack of mail. Thanks to the intercession of Senator Edward Kennedy’s office, though, I returned to northern Nigeria on a “reactivated” fellowship. I did the surveys over with the help of a colleague and published an article in a prestigious journal. I even confessed my imprudence in a cautionary volume entitled Mistakes Social Scientists Make. I had learned my lesson. Or so I thought.

In June of 2002, after a sabbatical year in the French Antilles, I had nearly 300 pounds of books and papers to ship home, and the only option was the regular Poste. My wife, the best packer in the world, tucked and wrapped and taped my treasures into boxes. Of course, the earlier catastrophe crossed my mind. “I should photocopy the irreplaceable stuff,” I told myself. Yet I pushed the thought away, rationalizing: “There are hundreds and hundreds of pages. Just too many. Too costly. And this time, the boxes are truly well packed.”

I brought the first two boxes to the immaculate glass-and-steel post office in Martinique. One of them contained materials from my trip to Africa sponsored by the American Philosophical Society, whose founder, Benjamin Franklin, had been the first postmaster general of the United States. Would not Franklin’s spirit protect my package? Three weeks later the supervisor herself accepted the remaining boxes. She was very professional and exuded confidence.

But back in Boston, a month after the initial sendoff, my wife called me at work, panicked. “The first two boxes have arrived,” she sputtered. “Only they’re not ours.”

“Not ours?”

“Well, some of the contents are ours, but not most. And they didn’t come in the same boxes we mailed. Get home as fast as you can.”

It looked bad. Only a fraction of my papers and books had come, and they lay inside an unfamiliar box with my French customs form crudely taped on it. A piece of our original cardboard with our address had been taped onto yet another strange box. That box contained somebody’s bicycle shorts and other assorted clothes, along with a couple of manuals on firefighting, a printed manuscript of a novel, and, incredibly, an address book. I phoned one of the “frequently called numbers.” It was the first time I had ever spoken to anyone in Idaho.

“Well, yes, Jamie was wondering what had happened to that last box,” said the kind, elderly voice. “He shipped it here from Prague. He’s now driving to Oregon.”

A parcel from Prague mixed with mine from Martinique? “Sounds like New Jersey,” sighed my local postmaster. “That’s where the East Coast overseas bulk mail comes in. It happens. Talk to Denis at the inquiries desk in the Providence office.”

Denis was sympathetic. “You can fill out the 1510,” he told me, referring to the declaration of lost mail, “but frankly, it rarely comes to anything.” When Denis returned a call-back a few days later, he spoke French with my Martinican wife, entertaining her with tales of his French Canadian boyhood but bearing no leads about my lost research material.

Jamie, who had spent seven years abroad doing language training with the Army, called from Oregon. One of his boxes arrived with a hole carved in it and a pair of used surgical gloves—presumably from anthrax-hunting customs agents—left inside. As for the box I had mailed on to him, it held not only his stuff but that of some unknown third party.

I was compelled to initiate crash research into U.S. handling of foreign bulk mail. I learned that parcels for East Coast delivery addresses first clear customs in Atlanta, Chicago, or New Jersey. But so common are breakage and spillage that the larger centers have full-time “rewrap sections.” And I noticed, then, that our alien boxes bore manufacture stamps from the Bacon & Graham box company of Paterson, New Jersey. All evidence pointed to the Garden State.

With heavy postal machinery grinding in the background, Michelle Washington, supervisor of the rewrap section in Jersey City, chided me over the phone. “People just don’t know how to pack,” she sniffed. Leslie Silberman, who has overseen foreign bulk mail deliveries for God knows how long, admitted she had no idea what happens to loose items after she sends them off to Michelle in Rewrap. And their colleague Ziggy Mandel, a postal agent married to a nuclear scientist, gave me a physics lesson. “You have to appreciate the weight on top of these boxes, the geometric forces as they incline up the conveyor belts, the inside pressure pushing against the sides . . . ”

The relentless industrial soundtrack that had been pounding behind my conversations with these mavens of mail seemed to swell, tell-tale-heart style, as in my mind’s eye I saw the grisly fate of my research. Yet only gradually did the full extent of my loss dawn on me. It wasn’t only the most recent work. While on sabbatical, I had intended to complete my book about a kibbutz I’d studied a couple of years earlier in the Negev desert, and all the tapes, transcripts, disks, and handwritten notes I had taken with me to the French Antilles were now gone. I had also traveled back to my village sites in sub-Saharan Africa during my year abroad. Where were the forms from the census my assistants and I had so laboriously conducted? Where were my field notes? My diary?

First came the sleepless nights. Later, when I could sometimes doze off, I would wake in a cold sweat as each loss welled up from my unconscious. “Oh God, not the Rwanda genocide conference videotapes!” “No, not the notes and photographs on Jewish studies in China!” Documents on Holocaust and apartheid commemoration in South Africa. Corroboration of my trips to peace museums in Japan. An out-of-print book borrowed from a neighbor. Years of memory, in the form of pocket notebooks with scribbled thoughts, chores, references, addresses. “Stop dwelling on it,” my brother counseled me. “It will eat you up. Literally.” But I couldn’t help it. I grieved. I mourned. I moaned. I yelled. After my wife banned the screaming, I took to laughing madly.

A stray CD on the kitchen counter reminded me of the missing collection of political music from the French Antilles. A computer disk, the lost files I hadn’t got around to backing up. Postal employees stirred ambivalence: were they heartless villains or eventual rescuers? Stores provoked angst: what value could there be in owning things that millions of others also possessed?

One week after the onset of my ordeal, the second of the original boxes arrived, waterlogged and sorry-looking. Mold was already digesting some of the books. Ink had started to run in the margins of the field notes. But the kibbutz project was saved. “There is a God for the Jews,” declared my wife. “Now we just have to wait and see for the Africans.”

Thus began my fixation with Saint Paul.

Saint Paul, Minnesota, America’s Citadel of Hope for the Lost, is officially known as the USPS Mail Recovery Center. All that is “loose in the mail” winds up there. Or is supposed to. I fantasized about flying to Minnesota, meeting with the Recovery Center director, and tackling a desperate needle-in-a-haystack search through the largest warehouse in the world. Days later, plucking into the billionth bin, I would reach into the remains of crumpled cardboard files and recover my purple leaf-cover diary. I would caress it. Unfold the correspondence pasted inside. Inhale the Sahelian dust within . . .

There was only one problem. The Saint Paul facility is off-limits to the public. So 18 years after the postal disaster of my graduate student days—the one I always used to say had taught me my lesson—I again wrote to Senator Kennedy. He would get me admitted to Saint Paul, I convinced myself—especially if there was a national security motive. I therefore invoked my loose-in-the-mail poster entitled “Facts About Osama Bin Laden,” as well as my diaries, notes, and tapes of conversations with African Muslims about September 11, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, and anti-American and anti-Christian rioting in Nigeria. I mailed the letter and, feeling both empowered and slightly foolish, returned home.

It was sitting on the doorstep. The last box. The Africa box.

Under the protection of Ben Franklin, the package had indeed arrived safe and sound, but with a salutary lesson attached: “A learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.”

In 1984, after completing his Fletcher School Ph.D. thesis on politics in Martinique, WILLIAM MILES, F82, F83 (“Gone Postal,” page 40), joined the political science department at Northeastern University, and has taught there ever since. On Fulbrights and other research grants, he has conducted extensive fieldwork in West Africa, the South Pacific, and South India. His most recent book, based on data recovered from the errant boxes described in this issue, is Zion in the Desert (SUNY Press, 2007).

  © 2007 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155