Paul Greenberg

The list of those due to be executed is long and ominous. There were 179 names on it just here in Arkansas -- names like Carthage. Casscoe. Columbus, New Hope, Witts Springs....

Those are just some of the post offices to be closed down as the U.S. Postal Service prepares to cut its budget -- and its service. The smallest post offices have become an endangered species. And when they go, the sense of identity and community they gave America's smallest towns will go with them.

Here in Arkansas, the post offices/community centers in Alicia, Driver, Pineville and Rivervale are already gone. The one in Peach Orchard has been put up for sale. And so on down the list.

It's enough to make you wonder which will prove the last to go as one post office after another closes all across rural America. At one point, there were 3,653 on the list of endangered post offices nationwide, and each represents a disappearing way of life.

Why kill them off? Because the U.S. Postal Service continues to lose money as snail mail becomes a thing of the past in this internetted age. Closing the country's rural post offices is one way to economize. That it means sacrificing the soul of rural America doesn't seem to matter. How enter the value of a soul on a balance sheet?

Everybody knows, or should, that the national debt is swallowing the country's future. So the Postal Service proposes to pass the buck for its fiscal problems to America's tiniest towns.

But there's no putting a price on what will be lost. Consider the role of the post office in Rosston: "It's where we get our information," says Tony Ellis, who manages the town's water department. "If you wanted to know something, you'd go there."

The bulletin board of a small-town post office is crammed full of notices, schedules, ads, appeals, church drives, lost-and-founds. ... These post offices perform the role the town crier did in medieval times. But they offer more than a strictly utilitarian service. "If you take away our post office," to quote Eddie Dunnigan at Black Oak, "you take away our identity."

And more. A town as small as Black Oak, Ark. (pop. 286) can feel more like a family. What happens when the family has no place to gather on a routine basis, as when people pick up their mail?

"We don't get to see people out in our community," Rachelle Hickman told the Postal Service's representative at a hearing that sounded like more of a wake. "You always see a friendly face at the post office. It's not right doing this to our small town. We love each other. We are family."

Behind every one of these closings, there are real people who need more than just a place to pick up the mail; they need to see each other, exchange a few words, be neighbors. But where will they run into each other if the post office is gone?

Of course the Postal Service, like so many other federal agencies, needs to cut back. And adjust to these changed times. One of the folks at the hearing in Black Oak said he'd emailed his U.S. senator urging him to help save the post office. Yes, emailed him. Which explains why post offices are in trouble as the Internet takes the place of the postman.

But there are other, better and bigger cuts the Postal Service could make without cutting out rural America's heart. Every time somebody protests the loss of a government service, he ought to have to suggest a different way the government could save money.

Wanting government services but not wanting to pay for them is largely how we got into our current mess. Want to save the Alicias of the country? Then suggest how the Postal Service can economize some other way.

My suggestion: Instead of passing this burden. financial and emotional, on to small-town America, why not eliminate an expense that affects all of us, and not just every little crossroads town? Cut out Saturday mail delivery.

Couldn't we all live one more day without finding our mailboxes jammed full of the junk mail that makes the bills and the letter from Aunt Martha so hard to find?

How many more lost city folk looking for directions will have to be told to turn left "where the post office used to be" before all of us realize that not just motorists may lose their way? Sometimes a whole country can. As when it loses touch with its small-town roots.


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.