The U.S. Postal Service, once our country's gold-plated standard of service and efficiency, is going the way of the Pony Express.

In response to staggering financial losses and decreasing mail use, officials want to reduce service to five days a week by eliminating Saturday delivery, make wide-sweeping cutbacks of personnel and close hundreds of post offices.

Let me see if I have this right: The supposed answer to competitive pressures is to cut back service and make your business even more irrelevant. Sounds like the prescription for disaster in the making.

When I was a kid growing up in Summit Hill, mail was delivered twice a day to my parents' grocery store on North Market Street in the morning and again in the afternoon. A stamp was three cents, and we could count on overnight delivery just about anywhere in the northeast.

I confess to having a romantic attachment to the post office. When I was a 15-year-old ninth-grader going to Philip Ginter Junior High School, I was hired by the Summit Hill Post Office as a Special Delivery boy. Three times a day before school, over the noon hour and after school I would go to the post office to find out whether there were any special delivery letters or packages. If there were, I would deliver them on the spot.

Special Delivery was a service for urgent postal letters and packages. Essentially, it meant delivery from a post office to the addressee almost immediately, rather than waiting for the next regular delivery.

The special delivery stamp showed a uniformed young man who had just gotten off his motorbike delivering a letter to a home. I had neither a motorbike nor a uniform. I used my trusty Monarch bicycle to negotiate the streets of Summit Hill, which was nine-tenths of a mile long from the Catholic Church to the cemetery and a half-mile wide from Route 902 to Woodside. I wore my school clothes, except for an official U.S. Postal Service cap, and I carried identification in case the customer questioned my authenticity.

A special delivery letter or parcel could cost the sender anywhere from 13 cents for a letter to several dollars for packages, depending on the size. I would get a percentage of the cost as my fee. In addition, I was allowed to keep any tips that appreciative customers would give me for excellent service rendered.

For the most part, tips ranged from a dime to 50 cents. Occasionally, a customer would also invite me into her home for a glass of milk and a cookie or some other treat.

But there was this regular customer who always gave me a $5 tip every time he received a special delivery letter, which was usually three times a week. He also had to pay the special delivery fee, because his letters came COD (collect on delivery). As you might imagine, I was thrilled when I was handed a special delivery letter to take to this unusual customer.

He lived nearly four blocks from the post office on East Ludlow Street. The shades to the house were always drawn tight. There never seemed to be anybody else around, except him. I would knock on the door; in a few seconds, I saw the front-door curtain part by a few inches and saw him checking me out.

He would open the door just about a foot or two. "Special delivery," I would call out cheerfully. Recipients of special delivery mail had to sign a form and pay any postage due, so I would stick the form and a pen through the small opening. He would return it to me with the $5 bill and the COD fee he always had the correct change ready and I would hand him the letter. He never said "hello" "thanks" nor engage in any small talk. Of course, I would thank him enthusiastically for the generous tip as he was closing the door in my face.

I often wondered who this guy was, what business he was in and what was in those special delivery letters that he received three times a week like clockwork from the same Chicago addressee. (OK, I confess, I peeked at the name and address of the sender.) My two buddies at the post office Jake Llewellyn and George Zorochin who generally knew everybody in town, hadn't a clue as to who this enigmatic character was.

They speculated that maybe he was into some illegal activities or maybe even top-secret transactions, although there was nothing suspicious or unusual about the special delivery envelopes.

Thanks mostly to my generous benefactor, I made about $25 a week, which in 1954 was pretty good money for a 15-year-old kid for doing a total of about two hours' worth of work over the course of the week.

I kept the special delivery job for more than a year, then, when I learned how to drive, I looked for other work that would help with vehicle expenses.

As it turned out, on the last day of the job, I had a special delivery letter for the mysterious man on East Ludlow Street. After he had given me the customary $5 tip, I told him that it was my last day on the job and that I would not be delivering his special delivery letters to him any more. He reached into his wallet, then handed me a $20 bill and mumbled, "You did a good job, kid," and slammed the door, leaving me standing there dumbfounded.

These were the first and only words he ever uttered to me during the more than 14 months I had the job.