Weightlifting and Zip Codes

Written by M.J.C

“I’m not very strong,” mom said. “Ever since I stopped picking up all you boys I’ve gotten weak. I need to get strong again.”

Mom was preparing for two tests with the U.S. Post Office.

Mom had worked the last two Christmas’ as a seasonal part-time employee at the post office and now she had applied for a full time position that required two tests: One test for strength and the other for memory.

The strength test was first, since mom was initially going to be a mail handler: These were the workers who loaded bags of mail onto carts and bins and moved them around the main post office in Oakland to the right area for sorting and loading on trucks.

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Mom needed to be able to lift 75 lbs. bags of mail over and over for a full eight hour shift.

We did not have weights at home, and in those days there weren’t health clubs or gyms with weights in every neighborhood, and certainly not in our neighborhood.

“How much do you weigh?” Mom asked me.

About 80 lbs, I said

Mom had her solution.

“Go get a blanket and bring it to me,” she said. I brought mom a blanket.

“I’m going to wrap you up and practice lifting you.”

“Okay!” I said excitedly.

I laid the blanket down, and lowered myself on it. Mom then wrapped me up, tightly, and told me to be “stiff.”

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I pretended I was in suspended animation like Captain America and made myself stiff and unmovable.

Mom tried lifting me and, though she did, she struggled, and said I had to be heavier than 80lbs, or she’d gotten much weaker than she remembered.

Mom tried every day for the three weeks leading to her test. By the end of three weeks, mom was easily lifting me and lugging me around the house as I was alternately Captain America, Spider-Man trapped in my own webbing, Thor, held down by my magic Hammer, or tied up with Wonder Woman’s magic lasso.

Mom never responded to my changing superhero personas.

When it was time to test – work a full shift without any help and under the watch of your supervisor while handling all the required bags of mail – mom passed without any issues.

She said a few of the guys offered to help her with the bags but she refused their help and did a little more than her fair share each night.

She was happy that she passed, but not satisfied because she wanted out of the warehouse and into an office job.

The second part of the test, which would come after she was hired as a mail handler, was learning and memorizing zip code by city, and cities by zip code for the entire U.S.

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Mom was testing to be a LSM Operator – Letter Sorting Machine – Operator. The “Machine” in Letter Sorting Machine, was a machine that placed one letter per second in front of a a person, mostly women. Every second the women had to see/recognize the zip code and encode the corresponding city on the machine in front of them. So the machine was not a computer or even smart, it just placed the letter in the line of sight of a person like mom and that person had to ensure the letter went to the correct city.

One letter per second, for an entire eight or more hour shift.

Mom literally had to memorize almost every zip code and its corresponding city. And she had to do so with 98% accuracy. All these functions are of course now automated, but all the way into the 1980’s, this was a manual job done by mom and the other women.

To train for her test, mom made cue-cards with all the zip codes on one side, and on the back, up to three different city possibilities. Some zip codes had more than one city, others did not.

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I was the helper and held and read out a city while mom had to say the zip code. Or, we’d switch and I’d say a zip code and mom would have to say the city or cities.

We practiced for close to four months, and at least 3-4 days/nights a week. And mom practiced on her own as well.

Toward the end of her practice sessions leading up to the test, mom would get almost every one correct, save for a couple upper midwestern zip codes/cities that vexed her to no end.

When it was finally time for her test, we practiced one last time the night before. Mom said she was nervous. She needed to pass with 90% accuracy to even be considered for the position and mom was told many folk had to take the test multiple times. She said she didn’t want that to happen to her. She wanted to pass the first time and be done.

Mom took the test and afterwards said she felt good but that she was also sure she missed some upper midwest cities/zip codes!

She had to wait for her results for about a month, during which, she stressed over how well she’d done or hadn’t done. She didn’t talk about it much, but I could see it on her face and in her mannerisms as she read or ate or cooked. She was still herself, but with a little more in reserve than her “normal” self.

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Finally, the results came on a Saturday afternoon. She was excited, holding the envelope and said aloud how much this test result meant to her.

As a high school dropout who went back to school to get her GED, this was a real opportunity for a career. Mom had walked a mile and a half to adult school three days a week to complete her high school requirements and to be eligible to apply to the U.S. Post Office. She got it done in a few months and now she was about to realize the benefits of her high school degree. It didn’t matter that she was in her twenties – she’d have made an important step toward improving her life and future.

Mom opened the envelope and started reading. Her reading face was familiar to me: firm, focused, and friendly.

Then she smiled. Then she screamed. Then she waived the envelope around while yelling, I passed with 99%, with 99%! 99%!

She was so happy and so.. Relieved, I think. Mom was confident in herself. And she held doubts about her place in the grown up world, due to her bearing children at a young age and missing out on some common grown-up experiences in the work world.

Seeing the almost perfect results and being accepted into a career job was a dream come true for mom and it validated her efforts over the prior few years to take control of her life, career, finances, and future.

She danced and talked about how she was going to be the best LSM – Operator and she’d strive for 100% because, while 99% was good, why not go for better? She just had to learn those damn upper midwestern cities and zip codes!

She made spaghetti for dinner, one of her specialties, and she walked just slightly above the ground for the next few weeks.

Mom went on to be recognized and receive many awards and rewards for consistently performing with 100% accuracy – sometimes for a full year of perfection – in what was the last job she ever held.

A view shows U.S. postal service mail boxes at a post office in Encinitas

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