By ANDREW MCGINN
The plaque welcoming Mike Piepel to the U.S. Postal Service’s “Million Mile Club” reads, “For Attaining 1,000,000 Miles or 30 Years of Safe Driving Without a Preventable Incident.”
The key word there is preventable — it’s hard to overestimate the unpredictable nature of goats.
“Goats come out of nowhere,” Piepel, 66, explained recently, reflecting on a 31-year mail career that officially draws to a close Friday with a retirement open house at the Jefferson Post Office.
If mail carriers are society’s unsung heroes, delivering the mail six days a week free of charge through snow, rain and heat (which in Iowa is called October), then rural mail carriers like Piepel are almost criminally underappreciated.
It goes without saying that all carriers, regardless of where their appointed rounds take them, have to keep an eye out for dogs.
“Small dogs are always worse than big dogs,” Piepel vowed.
But for carriers who dare to venture past the city limits, take that Pomeranian and add horns and beaks (er, not like literally on a Pomeranian, though).
“I’ve been bitten by dogs. I’ve been pecked by chickens. I’ve been chased by goats,” Piepel said.
At one home, he recalled, a German Shepherd would greet him daily by tearing into his car’s bumper and biting the tires.
The owner thankfully never had to sign for a package, enabling Piepel to safely keep his distance.
But at farmsteads that required Piepel to leave his car, one that comes to mind had chickens — that is, inside the house.
“You’d always have this rooster meet you at the door,” Piepel said.
A man who travels a million miles will see just about everything and, yet, Piepel never ventured more than 12 minutes from home in any direction during his journey.
It required six different cars, hundreds of tires and give or take 60,000 gallons of gas, but Piepel logged all 1 million miles within Greene County.
To put that into perspective, Piepel could have driven to the moon four times — but, alas, there are limitations to even his 1995 Buick LeSabre (namely the heat shield that could withstand the re-entry to Earth; Buick chose to equip that year’s model with a tape deck instead).
It’s more realistic to say that Piepel could have driven to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and back 133 times.
Instead, he went to Farlin.
“There was a time when Farlin was overrun by snakes,” Piepel said matter-of-factly.
Snakes had descended on Farlin, he explained, due to a surge in the number of rats in and around abandoned grain bins.
There are still six stops in Farlin on Rural Route 1, each receiving the same care and attention as a mailbox in Bel Air.
Then again, Piepel only has to get the mail to the box. He’s a civil servant, not Saint Patrick.
A lady in Farlin once fretted to Piepel that she had to use a hoe to kill all the bull snakes between her front door and the mailbox.
What’s even more amazing about Piepel’s million-mile feat is that he did it driving on the wrong side, er, the right side of his car.
“I’ve driven a million miles on the wrong side of the car,” he boasted.
Admittedly, driving a car from the passenger seat with your left arm and left foot takes a bit of practice, and it sort of makes you wonder if mail carriers in the English countryside sit on the left side and drive with their right arms and right feet.
Even locally, though, rural carriers are increasingly opting to use vehicles made specially for mail delivery, Piepel said, with the steering wheels on the right side.
But after almost 300,000 miles alone seated on the right side of the LeSabre, Piepel has it down to a science.
“You’ve got to make sure you’ve got a lot of power steering fluid,” he said.
Surprisingly, rural carriers are required to drive their own vehicles. They’re federal employees, but every tire that blows, every belt that breaks, is theirs.
“I’ve had as many as two flats in one day,” Piepel said.
He inherited the brownish LeSabre from his parents, giving the appearance of an elderly driver or else a low-level drug dealer.
The long crack in the windshield, from traveling hundreds of miles of gravel roads, suggests the latter, while the cassette in the tape deck — “German Beer Garden Songs” — says the former.
The tape came with the car, Piepel said. He actually prefers the Allman Brothers, the Stones and books on tape.
“Everybody in the county knows that car,” said Piepel, a Bristol Twp. native. “Everybody waves. Everybody knows that’s Mike’s car.”
He’s driven in whiteouts and he’s been delayed by wipeouts, but virtually nothing can stop the mail.
And with enough stamps, the mail will reach its destination.
“People package up everything imaginable,” Piepel said, referring to the occasional watermelon or pineapple sent through the mail.
One box he delivered from Texas was full of live bees, three of them clinging to the outside of the box the entire time.
“I’ve delivered chickens. I’ve delivered ducks. I’ve delivered guinea fowl,” he said.
“I even delivered a body one time,” he added. “It was sent Certified.”
Now, before you go thinking you can mail a cadaver with Priority Mail, let us clarify — these were cremains he’s talking about.
Piepel has delivered several boxes of cremated remains over 31 years on the job.
One, however, left a lasting impression.
The cremains in question were en route to the man’s last known address.
“This is one I’ll never forget,” Piepel said.
Taking the box labeled “one human remain” up to the door, Piepel only needed the recipient’s signature to get the job done.
The dead man’s estranged wife answered.
“She said, ‘I don’t want that son of a bitch,’ ” Piepel remembered.
Return to sender.
“It’s just another box to deliver,” Piepel shrugged. “In the postal service, you deliver everything.”
Soon, they could be delivering on Sundays, too.
Seven-day delivery of Amazon packages is already underway in Perry and Boone, Jefferson Postmaster Pegi Erickson said, as people turn to the internet to buy even staples such as diapers and soap.
It might not be long before Amazon contracts with the postal service for Sunday deliveries in Jefferson and Carroll as well, she said.
Piepel, who grew up on a local farm and graduated in 1970 from Jefferson Community High School, started with the postal service in 1986 as a substitute carrier.
The following year, he began a 12-year tenure as Greene County auditor, an elected office, delivering mail on Saturdays.
Piepel holds a degree from Mankato State in anthropology — a fitting choice for a rural mail carrier.
From the upholstered bench seat of his LeSabre, Piepel has been able to study a withering culture.
“I remember thriving households,” he said, “and where once there were kids and livestock, you see these abandoned houses now. That’s the way rural America is becoming.”
Houses are now as far as three miles apart.
Piepel was reared on what’s now a Century Farm. He still delivers mail to the Bristol Twp. house where he grew up, but the census data doesn’t lie — rural Iowa is an increasingly desolate place.
In Greene County alone, which is considered 99.1 percent rural, the population between 1980 and 2010 dropped by 2,783 people, from 12,119 in 1980 to 9,336 in 2010.
Fewer people need fewer houses: According to census data, Greene County had 474 fewer housing units in 2010 than it did in 1980.
“You had two or three houses every section,” Piepel remembered. “Every 80 acres, every 40 acres, there was a farmstead. It was all families out there. They all had livestock.”
With so few inhabitants, people sometimes tend to forget that the mailman is just over the hill.
Piepel has rolled up on lovers intertwined in cars.
“Sometimes I’ll slow up,” he joked.
Once, when answering nature’s call by a tree, Piepel looked up to see a big yellow school bus full of kids passing by.
“All the kids start waving at me,” he said.
Still, rural culture isn’t solely about white picket fences and chickens in the yard. As long as people still wave at oncoming cars and are still willing to help a neighbor, then it never completely dies.
Piepel has been happy to oblige when asked to check in on someone’s elderly parents or even livestock while making his mail rounds.
“That’s small-town America,” he said, “where people still take care of people.”
Piepel’s attention to customer service hasn’t gone unnoticed by Erickson, postmaster in Jefferson since 2012.
“The customers call him at home,” she said. “He’s got a great relationship with people.
“He’s the epitome of the postal service.”