When I was a teenager, every summer we would go to a picnic hosted by the company my mother worked for. One of the features of the event was a watermelon-weight-guessing contest, and it was because of this game that I learned about a peculiar skill of my father’s.
Anyone who wanted to play would pick up the designated watermelon and guess its weight. I clearly recall the first time it happened. Dad walked up to the watermelon, picked it up, moved it up and down a few times, and said, “Twenty-seven and a quarter pounds.” People laughed at how precise his number was. After everyone had a turn, my mom’s boss revealed the melon’s weight. It was exactly 27.25 pounds. Dad’s on-the-noses guesses happened several years in a row.
You see, in the decades before UPS became a nationwide shipping service, the United States had the Railway Express Agency, and sometime in the years before I was born, my father worked for them. So he handled a lot of packages in his day and learned to judge their weight with uncanny accuracy.
My parents, decades after Dad worked for Railway Express, but still enjoying watermelon!
The agency was founded as the American Railway Express Agency in 1918, soon became American Railway Express Inc, and for most of its existence (1929–1960), operated under the name Railway Express Agency.
The agency shipped packages all across the United States by way of special railcars attached to passenger trains and by trucks to the nearest train depot from towns that weren’t on the railroad. After World War II ended, a coal shortage hit the nation, forcing the railroads to cut back on passenger service. That made the agency’s job of routing shipments more complicated because Railway Express didn’t have trains of its own.
The shipping agency faced other difficulties during the postwar years. Toward the end of the war, the federal government authorized the creation of a system of interstate highways, which would make truck shipments more feasible than before. Also, during the postwar boom, more families bought automobiles, and family road trips became increasingly popular. This caused a further decline in rail travel.
To keep its indispensable place in the nation’s economy, the agency acquired a fleet of refrigerated rail cars, known as reefers, for express shipments of perishable goods. That strategy bought the agency only a short-lived reprieve, however. Shipping by truck increased, and UPS began to ship by air. Railway Express failed to keep up, and in 1975, the agency (by then called REA Express, Inc.) terminated operations.
Because of the family history, in the new novel I’m writing, I’ve decided to have the father of my main character work as a package handler for good old Railway Express. The novel is set in the 1940s and 1950s, the last glory days of a bygone American institution.