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Claim to Fame #3

The Atlantic Monthly | June 2001  

Notes & Dispatches

 Cincinnati,  Ohio

Maginot Mailbox

Bat-hoisting vandals, beware

 BY WAYNE CURTIS

.....

About twenty miles east of Cincinnati  is a narrow, winding lane that features a handsome covered bridge and curves along a creek, through a valley of meadows and wooded hills. A few discordant  trophy homes appear here and there, but it's a mostly pastoral landscape, with  unassuming ranch houses, some horse paddocks, and modest fields of corn and  soybeans.

It wasn't the bucolic charm that struck me, however, when I  drove along the lane last winter. It was the desperate state of the mailboxes along the road. Most were battered and bent; a number were doorless and listing  sharply to one side. A green-plastic mailbox appeared to have been doused with a  volatile fluid and set aflame; one post sat decapitated. About half a dozen mailboxes were bungee-corded to their posts, allowing the owners to take them in  each day after the mail has been delivered and then set them out afresh the next  morning.

As suburban quality-of-life crimes go, mailbox vandalism ranks  somewhere above blue jays' eating all the bird food and below teenagers' driving a sport utility vehicle across a muddy lawn. But as anyone who has been so  victimized will tell you, it's a heartfelt issue. A mailbox is a very personal thing—it's the foreign office of one's home, into which uniformed couriers  entrust sensitive financial documents and the occasional handwritten communique.  To walk down the driveway and discover one's box crushed and canted, its door  lying in the road ten yards away, produces complicated feelings of despair and  vengefulness. At that moment an aggrieved homeowner understands, in a small way, how Margaret Thatcher must have felt when the Argentines occupied the Falkland  Islands.

 I had been invited on a driving tour of the area by Richard  Lee, who lives on the lane. Lee, as it happens, sells mailboxes through a Web  site (www. steelmailbox.com). His own mailbox  is constructed of twelve-gauge steel. It has a small dent in one corner,  apparently made by a tire iron, but it remains fully functional.

Although  mailbox vandalism occurs in many areas of the country, this tour and a later  drive suggested that the region around Cincinnati is home to an especially persistent class of bat-wielding hooligans. When I asked Lee why, he replied  simply, "We produced Pete Rose."

 Some have attributed a surge in this  form of vandalism to the 1986 Rob Reiner movie Stand By Me, which  featured a scene of teens playing mailbox baseball, in which a moving car serves  as the batter's box and a mailbox becomes the fastball. (Reiner included a disclaimer in the credits, noting that the activity was illegal.) History fails  to support this theory, however. Mailbox vandalism has been going on "ever since  there was a bat, a mailbox, and a car," says Tom Boyle, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. In a 1937 how-to book titled 1001 Ways to Use  Concrete, I found an illustration of a mailbox encased in an elaborate  concrete pillar. The text noted that among its many merits, the mailbox "cannot  be shot full of holes by an ambitious marksman."

 For quite a few years I've admired the resourcefulness of home mechanics who have welded together  steel cages, mortared layers of brick, or installed ramparts of disused plumbing  pipes to defend against marauding teens. (My favorite piece of handiwork,  spotted in Arkansas several years ago, involved two fifty-five-gallon drums,  several heavy steel beams, and at least 300 pounds of concrete.) But lately I've  noticed a change along the roadside: commercially manufactured anti-vandal  mailboxes are cropping up.  

This trend may mark the beginning of the end  of an underappreciated (and perhaps even unnoticed) golden age of homemade mailbox fortifications. Although that would be a disappointment to those of us  who occasionally stop to take snapshots of particularly impressive weekend projects, it must be admitted that many of the commercial offerings are also  worthy of admiration. Especially appealing are the spare, sturdy roadside bunkers produced by Veeders Mailbox, a firm that, not coincidentally, has its  headquarters just northeast of Cincinnati.

 “As far as heavy-duty goes, I'm pretty sure I was the first," says Jonathan Magro, who founded Veeders in  1978. Magro got into the business after he volunteered to make a replacement  mailbox for a neighbor. He bent a sheet of thick steel into an upside-down U  shape, welded a bottom and a back onto it, and attached a heavy door. Another  neighbor wanted one, and then another. A local newspaper published an article about his mailboxes, and Magro, who describes himself as a "barnyard mechanic,"  has been manufacturing vandal-resistant mailboxes ever since. (He refuses to use  the term "vandal-proof," owing to his respect for the ingenuity of reprobates, especially those who have enlisted two-ton bottle jacks in their campaigns.) 

Magro and his wife, Jenny, run the business from a small and charmless  industrial building in Loveland, where they employ three people to help with the  welding and shipping. In the past their products were carried in catalogues like Frontgate and Sporty's Preferred Living and sold through various Web sites,  including Richard Lee 's. These outlets eventually switched to competing products, and Magro says that this is fine with him. His own Web site (www.veedersmailbox.com) now accounts for about 90 percent of sales, and he retains a higher cut of the retail price,  which ranges from $190 to $361 plus shipping.

 Nationwide there are now a dozen or so manufacturers of mailbox-defense systems and vandal-resistant  mailboxes. The Pivoting Post Company makes an arm that swings the mailbox away on impact; this is supposed to preserve the mailbox  intact. Jandmar makes the MaiLocker, which has a peaked roof and a Darth Vaderesque aspect, and according to company literature, it is the product  of "several years of research and testing." EPM sells the Vandalgard, a hardened  encasement with a prominent dorsal fin which wraps around a pre-existing  mailbox; the company claims that the device will put "an end to damage from  baseball bats, rocks, water balloons, snow plow discharge, beer bottles, and shotguns."

 Much of the appeal of a Veeders box is that it retains the  pleasingly iconic form and proportions of a traditional sheet-metal mailbox: it  has the gracefully rounded top, the flat bottom, and the little red flag that  flips up. You could drive by one and not take particular notice. The chief  difference between a box for which you'd pay a few dollars at a hardware store  and a Veeders is the materials: a Veeders is constructed of ten-gauge carbon or  stainless steel, which is thicker than the steel used for highway guardrails. A Veeders customer from Indiana once reported that pipe bombs had been placed in  mailboxes along his street, including his own. "Although the blast we heard was  quite loud and the three -quarter-inch pipe was completely fragmented, the effect on the mailbox was not major," he wrote.

 Judging by the letters and e-mails Magro receives from satisfied customers, one of the motives behind  splurging on an expensive and durable mailbox is the hope that troublemakers will learn of it the hard way by swinging at it while leaning from a car  traveling at a high rate of speed. "We've had it now for some 12 or so years,"  one pleased customer from Massachusetts wrote last December, "and have often  been awakened in the middle of the night with the sound of a ball bat, pipe or  some other implement hitting the box, followed shortly thereafter by a scream."

 When he used to hawk his mailboxes at home shows, Magro was often  approached by vandalism sufferers who would launch into vivid descriptions of their dream mailboxes. He says, "People would take out pencil and paper and draw  World War Two tank traps"”devices that would impale the chassis of a car on a  hidden steel beam were someone to try to ram the mailbox. "Others wanted to know if I'd make them a mailbox with concertina wire around it." Magro declined such  requests, pointing out that liability issues would likely arise were someone to  build a mailbox system the intent of which was to maim or kill.

 At  Magro's suggestion I took a drive through Indian Hill, an affluent northeastern  suburb. On winding lanes and along major thoroughfares alike I spotted dozens of Veeders mailboxes, tidy and uncreased, lined up like soldiers against an unseen  enemy. This fortifying of the suburbs may strike some as an occasion for hand-wringing further evidence that an erosion in quality of life is creeping  from hard-bitten cities to once idyllic provinces. But I don't see it that way.  In an era when computer hackers are stealing credit-card numbers and nasty  animal-borne viruses are transgressing national borders, it's reassuring to know  that sometimes all it takes to get a good night's rest is just a stouter piece  of steel.

 

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All  rights reserved. The Atlantic  Monthly; June 2001; Maginot Mailbox; Volume 287, No. 6; pp. 26-27.

 

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