In Hinsdale, Massachusetts, March 1804 came in like a lion and went out like one, angry that the lamb never showed up. Even on less frigid, blustery days, postman Israel Bissell liked to interrupt his daily battle with “rain, sleet, and dark of night” with a quick stop at the Bull Moose Tavern.
He’d defended his stops by saying it didn’t hurt to deliver letters in person to someone as important as Big Sam Pierce, the tavern’s proprietor. The problem was most of Sam’s friends and associates couldn’t write too well, so he rarelyreceived letters. Israel often had to pretend a letter was Sam’s when he knew it wasn’t. On this day it wasn’t necessary.
“Are you sure this is mine?” Big Sam asked, looking suspiciously at the envelope. Over his wide shoulder from the wall peered the blank-eyed head of a moose. “It’s not for Sam Percy or Stan Pierce?”
“This one’s the real McCoy,” Israel said, climbing onto a stool and unwrapping his scarf. Next to him sat John McKenzie, a farmer who would have spent more time in the tavern during the winter months if he wasn’t so poor. “It’s cold out there.”
“It ain’t that warm in here,” John complained. “Don’t you think that fireplace of yourn could use another log, Sam?”
“Maybe I’d consider it if you’d stop nursing that gin and drink like a man,” Sam said, putting a glass of whiskey in front of Israel. What little light the day offered was filtered to almost nothing through the tavern’s tiny windows.
The flickering lanterns made reading letters a challenge.
“So who’s the letter from, Sam?” Israel gasped, after downing a gulp of his drink.
“Now don’t tell me you didn’t look at the return address 27 times before you got here.”
“All right, I’m caught. What’s Ann got to say?”
This was a question with a bit of history behind it. Ann and Sam had been sweethearts when the two were in school together, but Sam had joined the navy during the Revolutionary War. Ann opted for the stability of being a blacksmith’s wife in Boston. In disappointment, Sam moved to the western part of the state. But that was over a quarter century ago. Death had made them widow and widower. Sam’s Mary had died of tuberculosis two years after they’d wed, while Ann’s husband was fatally kicked in the head by a horse five years ago. Since then Sam wrote her a letter each year, heavy on his business, the townspeople, and the weather, and bereft of his real purpose: to entice her to move out west with him. Pride and her short responses had restrained his customary straightforwardness.
Sam ripped open the envelope and read the letter. It didn’t take long. He slammed it onto his counter.
“Still no, huh?” Israel asked.
Sam picked up the letter and read.
“‘Dear Sam, Best spring wishes. Ann.’”
He placed it back on the counter. “Hardly worth the postage.”
“At least she took the time to write,” Israel said.
“Yes, yes. She used to be a schoolteacher. That must have taken her all of five seconds. Can’t you bring better letters than that?”
Israel shook his head. “That’s out of my control. It does seem the ones people choose to share with me are always about the most mundane things, however. I risk my health out there to deliver messages not worth the paper they’re printed on.”
“It’s a job, ain’t it?” John interjected.
“Of course, and I suppose walking miles to deliver the equivalent of ‘Hi, how are you?’ is preferable to trying to coax plants to grow in this rocky Massachusetts soil.” John glared at him. “But there are times when I get philosophical.”
“Oh Lord,” John moaned.
“One is defined by what one does. If I spend my days delivering messages, then my life is only as meaningful as their contents. Did I ever tell you about the time I had a message worth delivering?”
“Many times,” John said. “It’s one of the reasons I began drinking.”
But the whiskey had loosened Israel’s tongue. “It was April 19, 1775, the day after Paul Revere and William Dawes warned that the British were invading. They just rode a few miles though. Colonel Palmer told me to ride to Connecticut and tell everyone. The British needed weapons and were after Sam Adams and John Hancock. I was in Watertown at the time and rode all the way to Philadelphia. It was 325 miles and I did it in six days.”
“Israel, no man alive could do that,” John said, tipping his glass toward his mouth.
Sam lightly cuffed him on the head. “In my tavern, everyone can tell their stories.”
“All right,” Israel said. “I went as far Hartford, but that was the one time in my life I felt I had a message worth delivering. People listened to me,” Israel said.
“Unlike now,” John said.
“It stopped them in their tracks. They were hoeing the gardens, counting their eggs, living their lives, and suddenly because of what I said, everyone had a direction. Especially me. I didn’t want to ever stop. “And now, I deliver happy spring greetings.”
Sam wiped his counter with a damp cloth. “You’re too hard on yourself, Israel. This woman drives me crazy. It’s not easy for my unschooled hand to fill a piece of paper and mail it, but I do, and I get a five-word response. But she always writes back eventually, so I ask myself, why? Maybe a part of her is interested, that doesn’t want to let go of the chance that we might someday get together again. That gives me hope, and I don’t know what I’d do without it.” He put his hand on his friend’s shoulder. “And I have it because of you.”
“That’s nice of you to say, Sam,” Israel replied.
“Right. So you’ve got me thinking. Boston’s only about 120 miles from here. Why don’t you hop on your horse, ride out there, and ask her if she’ll marry me. It’d be like the old days.”
Israel chuckled. “Except it would be the much older me.
What makes you think she’ll respond any differently?”
He sighed. “I’ve been bandying words for five years, hoping she’d get my meaning. It’s hard to believe, but maybe she has just as much pride as I do.” He walked to the rear of the counter, pulled out an old diamond ring, and handed it to Israel. “Give her this. Twenty dollars for you if you do it.”
Israel looked into the dead serious eyes of the proprietor.
The thought of breaking out of the postal route he traced every day, of challenging himself to ride to his physical limits, was dizzying. But what if he fell on his face, another nostalgic fool trying and failing to recapture his lost youth, smashing forever a pivotal, cherished memory? Didn’t middle age demand practicality?
“My boss would not be happy if I missed those days,” Israel said.
“I have some influence with him,” Sam said.
Israel looked at Sam’s ring, which he guessed the tavern owner had first put on when he married his departed wife. It, like Israel’s ride, teemed with memories. What was the best way to honor those memories?
“As a farmer, I can tell you this,” John interjected. “You never know if a crop will come up, but the only ones you can hope for are those you plant.”
Israel finished his drink and put the ring in his pocket, his decision made.
“This is a message worth delivering.”