mailbox mail stockimage

Christmas Day couldn't come too soon for the “other” Santas.

U.S. Postal carriers and other mail services continued to comb the streets and byways of western Montana on Monday, scrambling to deliver the Christmas goods before Santa Claus showed up after dark.

Overtime hours are a fact of life and have been since the middle of November, said Ray Angel, a veteran Missoula postal carrier who seems good-natured about the inevitability.

“People would pay for an eight-hour day,” said Angel.

He had chains on the back tires of his mail truck as he drove and trudged through Monday’s fresh, wet snow to make deliveries on the University District mail route he’s patrolled for most of his 20 years in the business.

With luck, he said, he’d be finished before dark. The previous Monday he and others spent two hours slipping and sliding around the curbsides and sidewalks long after night fell.

On this day, Angel was sweating mostly the small stuff. He’d left the central post office on West Kent with letters, magazines and smaller boxes. Someone else was handling his bin of big packages, which he estimated numbered 40.

Altogether, Missoula urban and rural carriers distributed some 5,000 Christmas Eve parcels in Missoula and surrounding areas, Jack Hettick said. Between 30 and 40 of those were express packages, which is more than usual, said Hettick, the Butte postmaster, who is nearing the end of a three-month stint as acting postmaster in Missoula.

That was in addition to 25,000 flats and magazines and nearly 100,000 “sequenced” letters — those run through a machine, Hettick said.

But it all paled to the previous Monday, Dec. 17, when nearly 16,000 packages were in need of deliverance.

“They had people I know who started at 6 in the morning and worked until 10 at night,” Angel said.

Those who were surprised the past two Sundays to see the white mail truck pull up to their homes may not realize that’s how the U.S. Postal Service has been taking up some of the holiday slack. Year-round Sunday delivery has become a regular feature in more high-volume areas.

And the Post Office’s promise of overnight express delivery is for every day of the year, which means white trucks will be pulling up to some homes on Tuesday, even if it’s Christmas Day, and next week on New Year’s Day.

Nationwide, USPS expected to deliver some 200 million packages in each of the two weeks leading up to Christmas Eve and more than 900 million since Thanksgiving.

This is the second Christmas since Amazon signed its package deliveries over to the USPS. That has bumped volume to levels heretofore unseen, said Angel.

“I just saw Amazon said Black Friday sales were up 20 percent over last year. I mean, you could see it,” he said. “What I think a lot of people don’t realize either is that UPS and Federal Express also pull in (to the Missoula Post Office decks) every morning with a truckload or several truckloads of their own parcels.

“We do what they call ‘last mile’ delivery. I guess they figure it’s not worth it for their drivers to deliver them.”

Come Christmas Day, post offices across the region and the country will be closed. Only trucks with those scattered express deliveries will operate.

Angel, Hettick and the rest of the U.S. Postal Service world will take a Tuesday off for the first time in a long time.

“Yes,”said Angel. “But then Wednesday will be heavy again because it’ll be two days’ worth of mail.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian