He’s on County Road 1680 moving like a black-tailed jackrabbit under the big-bowl Oklahoma sky, a tiny dot in his Ford Ranger out on the edge of the world when the flying red stinger ants show up.
One, two, now three, they invade. Jim Ed Bull swats with a big hand. “They can hurt ya bad,” he says.
Other on-the-job nuisances include hail, mud, diamondback rattlers, wild boars, coyotes, bobcats, porcupines and skunks. Bull keeps on driving. Past stunted wheat fields of drought and disappointment, he rolls.
Fifty, 55, 60 mph. Turning up a driveway, he reaches out the window and, snap, the mailbox opens. Bull is a letter carrier with the longest postal route in America, 187.6 miles (301.8 kilometers) across some of the loneliest territory in the country. He’s 72, and part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force — those who work past their 65th birthdays.
Into the mailbox goes the weekly Southwest Oklahoma Shopper and a letter from Stockmans Bank, and slam, the door shuts tight. Snap-and-slam wasn’t always the soundtrack of Bull’s workday. He was a high school principal, coach and referee who retired in the late ’90s only to come back to a payroll. Now he’s one of 7.2 million Americans who were 65 and over and employed last year, a 67 percent jump from 10 years before.
They work longer hours and earn more than they did a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent are full-time compared to 52 percent in 2002, and their median weekly pay has gone up to $825 from $502. In the second quarter, government data show, Bull and his peers made $49 more a week than all workers 16 and older.
Retirement is rarely the discrete here’s-your-gold-watch event it once was. With pensions ever more scarce, millions face perpetual employment.
“It’s becoming the norm,” says Kevin Cahill, research economist at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging and Work.
Older Americans’ reasons for staying in the workforce cover the spectrum in the post-recession economy. Some need the money to live day-to-day, some want to build up battered 401(k) plans or put more away for their kids, some find that the daily activity organizes their lives in ways they can’t on their own, keeping them connected and useful.
For Bull, who has a pension and Social Security and a $62,000 annual salary, it’s mostly about family. With what his wife, Susan, a second-grade teacher, makes, they earn six figures. He says his working helps them maintain a comfortable lifestyle, and allows him to save to leave something substantial for Susan, who’s 17 years his junior, and for his grandchildren.
While Oklahoma’s economy thrives on a robust oil and gas industry, Bull worries about the two grandkids, and the prospect of their generation facing a staggering national debt.
Eddie Beard, 75, is a fellow rural letter carrier whose route is a mere 147 miles. A Church of Christ preacher, he came to the U.S. Postal Service 18 years ago for the retirement plan “because the clergy doesn’t have one.”
Lawyer Mike Henry, 73, a customer on Bull’s route, still goes to the office because he declared bankruptcy in 1987 after losing his Texas real-estate investments when crude oil prices plunged. “I need the money,” Henry says. He figures he’ll work “until I die.”
Like Bull and Beard, he harbors no resentment.
“It keeps me alive and alert and it gives me something to do where I can help folks,” says Henry, who estimates half his legal work these days is pro bono. “I have said if I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit.”
The longevity has a downside. Seniors are, in some cases, “crowding out” younger unemployed workers waiting for spots to open, says economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institute.
They’ve expressed their frustration to Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, an Alexandria, Virginia-based union with more than 100,000 members, including Bull. “The economy has had an effect of everybody staying longer in their current jobs,” she says.
Postmaster Jeff Real at Bull’s home office in Mangum says every one of his rural drivers has a backup, or sub, and they can wait six or seven years to get their own routes.
With military veterans and retirees from first jobs in the mix, the Postal Service abounds with grayhairs. Of 615,360 employees, agency data show 46 percent are over 50 compared to 39 percent at the grayest Fortune 500 company, American Airlines. Five thousand postal employees are 70 or more and 695 of those are exactly Bull’s age, 72. Another 223 are over 80.
Bull says the job keeps him youthful: “A guy guessed I was 55. I corrected him: 39.”
His improbable run stretches across the southern reaches of the Great Plains through and around the tiny towns of Duke and Eldorado where the emptiness makes the stars, the moon, the edge of a riverbed appear larger than life to the uninitiated.
The land moves north from the Red River, quiet and flat, its dusky iron-rich earth cracked and blistered by two years of drought. Wells dried up and wheat folded over and died.
Farmers recall with some anxiety stories from their parents about the 1930s Dust Bowl, when the sky turned black and deadly. Steinbeck found his characters here for “The Grapes of Wrath,” left with nothing, “hungry and restless, restless as ants.”
The rain that has come to Jim Ed Bull’s corner of Oklahoma this summer hasn’t made up for the precipitation that was lost.
The June harvest of wheat -- called winter wheat for it’s already long in the ground -- fell to 3.5 million acres statewide, 800,000 less than in the dry year before. The 150,000 acres of cotton planted this year were the fewest since 1909.
The county where Bull picks up his mail, Greer, and where he mostly delivers, Jackson, remain fiery red on the U.S. Drought Monitor map -- each of them 4 on a scale of 5.
“There wasn’t much good that’s come out of there this year or the last four or five,” says Mike Schulte, who heads the Oklahoma Wheat Commission, a state agency. “You’ve just got to be a really strong person to make it.”
In 36 years with three school districts, Bull counts his sick days on one hand -- five -- and tallies just as many in 13 years as a carrier, first as a substitute in 2000 and then as a full-timer in 2007. The temperatures he works in can swing 120 degrees Fahrenheit, from 115 (46 Celsius) in the summer to below zero in the winter’s wind.
Five years ago, the snow and ice were so deep on the road that his power steering gave out. He zigged and zagged and tore through an electric fence, leaving a hole for 50 head of cattle to roam free. He pushed on the gas, nudging the truck out of trouble and on to the nearest farm for help.
“You just never know what might happen,” Bull says over rib-eye and potato salad at his favorite steakhouse.
Bull stands without a stoop at six-foot-three, 215 pounds. His resting pulse is 43. He had his left knee replaced in 2009. He takes one prescription drug, Lisinopril, to regulate his blood pressure. A Southern Baptist, he neither smokes nor drinks, though he does favor an occasional plate of greasy ribs.
His facial features are long and angular and his complexion ruddy. In summer, he wears sneakers, dungaree shorts and a red T-shirt with a “Postal Worker” icon nestled over an eagle, his only identifier. (His truck has no lettering because “they already know it’s me coming.”) His white hair belies his energy. His arms are toned, his gait quick.
Still, by the end of the week, Bull is tuckered out. He says he hopes to keep going for another three years, if his health holds up. Daily, he confronts the aches, pains and muscle pulls of sitting for hours, steering with one hand and snapping open mailboxes with the other.
“I’m kind of weary by Friday,” he admits. “But then I can recuperate on the weekend.”
How does he do that? “I mow my lawn.”
Every day starts with as many as 50 push-ups and 50 sit- ups. Home is a neat and modern three bedrooms in red brick at the end of a small suburban development in Altus, big enough for the two grandchildren to spend the night. Seven sets of old golf clubs are tucked away in a backyard shed, proof of his love for the game.
He and his wife bought the house four years ago for $215,000. He has one son from his previous marriage, she has a son and daughter from hers. They met through her father, a preacher who thought enough of Bull to pass him his daughter’s number after Bull saw her sing at a church fellowship meeting.
“We looked at each other and something just clicked,” he recalls.
By 7 o’clock each morning, Bull is at the McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart around the corner from home. He checks his wristwatch as he chews a bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit. A dab or two of jelly makes it onto the biscuit. The rest he squeezes from two foil packets into his mouth, like astronaut food.
Bill Berry, one of the regulars, walks over. “Watch that mud today, Jim Ed,” the retired firefighter says. The rain has turned more than a few of Bull’s pathways into mailman quicksand, and once he had to be pulled out by a tractor.
“The dust and the mud, those are my enemies,” he says.
He warms his coffee with a half refill and heads for the parking lot. It’s 16 miles through long stretches of pastureland to the post office in Mangum, in the old courthouse. He’s been driving there since last year when his route was redrawn to become the longest. It was part of the agency’s effort to reduce costs and offset debt.
In Mangum, the empty streets and abandoned storefronts evoke the loneliness of “The Last Picture Show,” the 1971 movie adapted from Larry McMurtry’s novel about small-town Texas. Inside, Bull hurries to his work station, metal cabinets with myriad slots set at right angles, one cabinet each for Duke, population 424, and Eldorado, 446.
By 9:45, he’s separated the letters into five bundles about the size of bread loaves but a lot heavier. He’s ready to leave with the bundles, 100 weekly shoppers and eight packages when another carrier walks over with a stack that was inadvertently sent to his pile.
“Dad gummit,” Bull says.
At 10:04, he pulls up to the drive-through window at his first stop, The Shop Around the Corner, and passes the mail to the woman at the cash register. In turn, he’s handed a large Styrofoam cup of ice cubes that will sit on the truck floor and melt, generating his cold drinking water.
“Here we go,” he says. The Postal Service doesn’t supply rural carriers with vehicles, and Bull eschews modifications to his truck or special equipment. Instead, he sits between the two front seats, his body in the middle of the cab. His left hand holds the steering wheel, his left foot operates the gas and brake, and his long right arm inserts the mail.
Every rural route is assessed a time for completion. Using a formula based on volume of mail and number of stops — he has 198 — postal inspectors who followed Bull around for two weeks decided the route, including the sorting of mail or “casing,” could be done in 9.4 hours. That number determines his salary.
Bull opens a brown mailbox door twisted and bent. Inside is a week’s worth of bills and notices. Slam.
“Husband’s in jail,” he says in explaining the backup. When it comes to his customers, there’s not a lot Bull doesn’t know or see. One man has appeared in his front yard on three separate occasions this summer totally naked. “I don’t want to get too close,” Bull says.
By 11:30, he’s made about 90 stops and heads for Eldorado along some of his longest stretches without a single delivery. Past untamed mesquite, cottonwood, bois d’arcs and gray wooden windmills that bring up water for the cattle, he flies, dodging chugholes and more mud.
Obstacles like this and the sharp road gravel force an average of one flat tire a week, two brake jobs a year and the purchase of a reliable used truck every four. The Postal Service pays 73 cents a mile for maintenance and gasoline, a sum Bull says barely covers costs.
At one early stop, Audy Edwards is in his front yard. “How much you get here in Eldorado, Audy?” Bull calls out. “We had 2.55 inches last night,” Edwards says, referencing a rain gauge mounted on back of the box. “Another .30 this morning.”
Every drop counts.
Bull follows a slow-moving black car. “I hate to drive behind these farmers,” he grumbles.
His dad Hurshel was a farmer, a stout and strong man who married Bull’s mother, Ola Mae, in 1933. She died in 2009 at age 93. She’d been the high school valedictorian, as were each of their three children — Anita Louise, Jim Ed and Ricky Lynn.
All of them went to college and earned teaching degrees. Bull rose through the ranks to become principal of Mangum’s junior high and then the high school. As a student, he excelled in baseball and basketball, earning a scholarship to a community college. His dream was major-league baseball but the closest he ever came was coaching two high school players who were drafted.
Minutes after noon, he pulls a plastic bag from behind his seat with a bagged assortment of Slim Jim beef sticks, raisins, energy bars and peanut-butter-and-crackers. He settles on the raisins and points the truck to more open spaces.
“I’ll eat when I get home,” he says of the meager lunch fare. He leans over to turn on the AM radio. Talk host Sean Hannity on 1290 AM declares George Martin, acquitted in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, “had no duty to retreat.”
Bull likes Hannity. Financial planners who host shows too. “I hang on their every word,” he says with a grin.
He retired as a principal in 1995 and went to Arkansas to play golf at a course a friend owns, working part-time as a landscaper. He came home in 1998 to take care of his sister when she was diagnosed with cancer. After he married Susan, he began to rethink his finances. As a teacher, she’s entitled to a pension. Still, the age difference looms. He figures she’ll outlive him, and then there are the grandchildren.
“You couldn’t say I’m worried,” he says. “I just want to feel secure and not worry about my family.”
His earnings also allow the couple to do something they don’t like to broadcast: good deeds. That could mean delivering groceries to the home of a student who shows up to his wife’s class hungry or paying the fuel bill to help a family through a cold Oklahoma winter.
“He takes taking care of people seriously,” Susan Bull says of her husband.
That sense of duty gelled for him at 18, she says, when his world caved. His father, mentor and friend suffered severe whiplash roping a 500-pound steer. Bull’s uncle drove him to the hospital in his ’55 Chevy. For Bull, the pace was too slow.
“I would have floor-boarded all the way into town,” he says. On the last mile, Bull, in the backseat, cradled his father. As Hurshel Bull gasped for air, he uttered his last words: Take care of your mother and Ricky, the younger brother who was only two months and two days old.
“I promised him I would,” Bull says, choking back tears as he drives.
That was 1959 and his father, just 45, had been on the verge of a breakout year as a cattleman. Having put together enough money to amass what farmers call a section — 640 acres of prime pastureland — he was on his way to expanding the operation and lifting his family out of poverty.
His death, Susan Bull says, cemented her husband’s lifelong commitment to work and providing for his family.
Bull grips the wheel and looks toward the horizon. There’s just one stop left. A woman who lives alone gets the shopper. Snap, slam. He drives back to Mangum to fill out his timecard.
On the way home, he drops by his favorite rib joint, the All-American in the town of Blair. A plate of pork ribs and a large sweet tea in front of him, he looks down and prays.
“Thank you, Lord, for the food, for the rain and for keeping us safe another day.”
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