I found myself in eastern Pennsylvania that spring of 1969, cresting a rolling hill, and facing a straight stretch of road cut through the encroaching forest. There was a light mist of rain. The cresting road rolled into a gentle downward slope, bottoming out some quarter-mile distant before beginning an easy climb. At the bottom of the slope it looked like there was a wide spot cut into the woods.
I had written a letter home every week since running off to Hollywood five years earlier. It never crossed my mind that living on my feet, walking backroads, and having all of six cents in my pocket might add up to an excuse to break the letter habit. In fact, I had a letter to send and had spent the day looking for a post office. It was getting late, just losing light. I had to find a spot to roll out my sleeping bag.
As I reached the bottom of the hill the wide spot in the woods expanded to include a building. That one building was marked, U S Post Office, Greentown, Pennsylvania.
It was at least five o’clock. Even so there was a lone person in the building, behind the counter and putting on his coat. Expecting a locked door, I was surprised when it gave way.
Yes, he was closing up.
But, sure, he’d weigh my letter and make sure the single stamp was adequate.
It turns out the letter was overweight. The rural postmaster looked me over, pulled out his keys, and unlocked his drawer to sell me a second ounce stamp. Fortunately my six cents were adequate, even leaving change.
I thanked him profusely, affixed the stamp, delivered the letter to the slot across the lobby, and began to leave. One final turn to say thanks. We acknowledged one another and hesitated.
“Did you just mail a letter to your folks?”
“Are you just passing through?”
“Would you like a place to spend the night?”
His home could not have been more cozy. His beautiful wife stretched dinner to include an extra place at the table. The conversation was lively, with questions about Boise and Idaho, which he had notice on my letter. We spoke of hitch hiking and adventuring and the lovely forests of the eastern United States, something his two daughters had not considered.
After dinner I insisted on washing the dishes to say thanks, despite the postmaster’s insistence that his daughter’s chores covered that. While mom and dad rested in the living room their junior high-aged daughters could not get enough, more than happy to help this tall stranger from the mystery of the road who had taken over their nightly chore.
After dishes I joined the conversation in the living room where we became more intimate. The daughters, it turned out, had an older brother—a brother who was fighting in Vietnam. The fight that was tearing the United States apart. The fight I was not participated in.
“We worry about him, of course,” the postmaster said. “We hope if he needs help someone takes care of him. So I couldn’t leave you outside tonight.”
That night I lay, warm and dry in their son’s bed. A photograph of him in his dress uniform was on the corner nook, watching over me.
For one night this empty room in a loving family’s home had the sound of breath. I hope their son slept as soundly as I did.