Sep. 13th, 2009

V-Mail

Sep. 13th, 2009 12:21 pm
hafoc: (Default)
The US Post Office is, among other cost-cutting measures, considering eliminating Saturday deliveries. This particular part of the collapse of our postal system as anything but a delivery system for supermarket sales papers is old news up here. Our post office often fails to deliver mail on Saturdays, apparently on a whim. Other days too from time to time, I suspect.

But you don't have to read much history to realize that the postal service that's dying today was about the biggest thing going not that long ago. The stagecoaches that first linked cities in Europe and America were established more to carry the mail than to carry passengers, and they traveled "post-haste" to do it. The Pony Express was created to carry mail. The great British ocean liners like RMS Titanic were many things, but the only feature about them important enough to be a part of their title was that they carried the mail-- they were Royal Mail Steamers.

The airlines got started flying airmail. Passengers were only an afterthought to them. (Some things never change.) In Earnest K. Gann's great book _Fate is the Hunter_ (which has nothing but the title in common with the movie by that name) Gann reports that when he started flying airliners he was REQUIRED to have a loaded revolver in his flight bag, because he was carrying the mail and had to be armed to defend it. The regulations had just been changed to allow carrying the gun in the flight kit instead of wearing it in a holster on the belt. Today, when some people turn green at the thought that an airline pilot might be allowed to arm himself, it must be a real shocker to find that once upon a time he would have been required to.

When I was a kid my grandmother showed me a crumbling photocopy of a letter she got from Uncle Fred when he was on Guadalcanal. The photocopy was all she ever got, because this was V-Mail. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V-mail for details about it if you want to.

You would write your message on a special form that let you include about as much information as would fit on a postcard, maybe. The Powers that Be would open it, read it, censor it, then have it photographed onto microfilm. They'd ship the roll of microfilm to somewhere near its destination, where they'd print out a small photocopy, put that in a special envelope, and send it on to the recipient.

It says something about how important mail was that they'd go through all this effort just to reduce the bulk of letters, to save space and weight for more beans and bullets. But that was a world where handwritten letters, where bags and bags of mail, were a huge article in transportation. Because for the common people, letters were all they HAD.

V-Mail was one of those little historical details about how World War II touched every aspect of everyone's lives at the time. But I it as something else. It was the first widespread practical use of the idea that sending the information on the piece of paper was as good as sending the paper itself. From thence, faxes, emails, and today's world. Where a handwritten note is a novelty, an exercise in nostalgia, a quaint form of rebellion. Where personal letters are not part of most people's real lives at all.

How the mighty have fallen. And V-Mail was the first sign of that fall.

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