MARYVILLE, Mo. (AP) – The card itself is a trivial thing, a bit of mildly risque bathroom humor about a baby sitting on a cold chamber pot. But the memories it has stirred for the Maryville man who sent it nearly 50 years ago as a teenager living away from home and about to enter the Air Force are gentle and bittersweet.

W.R. O’Riley, now a 67-year-old agent with Jackson Insurance in Maryville, mailed the card on Oct. 7, 1961, to his recently graduated Maryville High School classmate Richard McGinniss. At the time, O’Riley was making some extra cash in an Omaha, Neb., lumber yard while waiting to be processed into the Air Force. McGinniss, who died several years ago, was working for his parents in a Maryville steakhouse.

The card, O’Riley said, was an attempt – in that ancient day before Facebook – to keep the old high school gang together as long as possible. The message jotted on the back mentions McGinniss’ Oldsmobile and holds forth the promise of a weekend get-together. It’s an honest, open exchange of friendship between one young man and another, and the card is really rather touching when one thinks of how people used to stay in touch before email and cell phones turned “contact” into a verb and letters into museum artifacts.

But sentiment aside, this letter is special for another reason – it almost never arrived.

Something, speculates Maryville Postmaster Paul Eschbacher, went wrong in the Omaha post office. Possibly the miscue was as simple as a postal worker failing to use correct procedure when checking to make sure a mail sack had been completely emptied. And so for most of 50 years, O’Riley’s card just laid somewhere, maybe in an old canvas bag, maybe behind an obsolete piece of mail-sorting machinery, maybe in a dusty room that used to be used for something but isn’t anymore.

Whatever the case, some nameless postal worker found it recently, scribbled the Maryville ZIP code beneath the hand-written address and sent it on its way. When the card finally arrived in Maryville it was picked up with a stack of other mail by carrier Kenny Beattie, who noticed it had insufficient postage – a 4-cent stamp. Then Beattie noticed something else. The card was old. Really old. A lifetime’s worth of old.

Realizing what had happened, he immediately turned the card over to his supervisor, Robert Cracraft, who did a little bit of detective work and soon tracked O’Riley down on his cell phone. The letter was finally officially “returned to sender” on a recent afternoon.

O’Riley said he doesn’t remember the card, but he certainly remembers the fall of 1961 as he prepared to enter the Air Force. He said McGinniss was one of a small group of close friends who attended Maryville High School, and that it would have been natural to reach out with a silly little message purchased in a coffee shop while delivering a load of lumber to Sioux City, Iowa.

“We were real good friends,” he said. “And we were all making major decisions about where our lives were headed. I still wanted to maintain that contact, and let them know what was going on.”

Eschbacher said the postcard is one of the oldest pieces of late mail he has ever heard of in 16 years with the Postal Service. He said he knows of one letter that finally got delivered 75 years after it was postmarked, but that the longest delay he has personally encountered is 10 years.

“This is by far the oldest letter I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I’ve heard stories, but this is a milestone for me, that’s for sure.”

While he regrets the delay, he said the incident underscores the Postal Service’s commitment to making sure the mail goes through, even when there are accidents and mistakes.

“It’s a good story,” he said.  “And it shows that, no matter what, we are going to deliver every piece of mail, and (in cases like this) we are going to try to find someone to deliver it to.”

As for O’Riley, though his original intention of touching bases with his friend miscarried, he’s glad to have the card. With his 50th high school reunion coming up in the fall, the picture of a pouting, red-headed toddler sitting on the potty – coupled with O’Riley’s warm little greeting – is sure to be a big hit with the Class of `61.

Copyright 2011 Associated Press


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