Why Mailboxes?

What’s behind the vandalism?
Students, police offer their theories on mailbox smashing

– Headline, page 1, The Wayland Town Crier, March 22

This edition of my town’s newspaper chronicles an episode of mass mailbox destruction: mailboxes on “at least 15 streets” smashed in one evening.  The Town Crier states that this problem is with us generation after generation.  It goes underground for months at a time, but never disappears entirely.  The paper assumes male adolescents are responsible.

As the headline suggests, the facts of the case are secondary to the deeper mystery of the vandals’ choice of target.  The reporter, attempting to get to the bottom of the matter, interviewed high school students and town police officers. A laudable effort, but lacking imagination.  Adolescents are not going to want to appear too knowledgeable about the subject lest they come under suspicion.

However, the reporter’s failure to interview adult veterans of mailbox bashing meant the report lacks an historical perspective.  Here at last is a topic with which I actually possess an expertise, should the authorities be interested in a consultation.  Fundamentally, little appears to have changed in 45 years.

Let’s hear what two of the teens told the reporter.  The kids being interviewed say they have not assaulted any mailboxes themselves, but they know kids who have.  “It’s always on a whim.  Like a kid says ‘Hey, I have a baseball bat in my car,’” says Dave.

A teenager just happens to have a baseball bat in his car?  I’m glad I wasn’t swallowing anything when I first read that quote, especially chili or Jell-o.  Mike says, “It’s really random.  It’s never like we’re going to go hit this person’s mailbox.”  Bull mackerel, Mike; although not entirely untrue, your statement is misleading.  Dave and Mike are hoping to put the paper’s readers to sleep by passing off mailbox pounding as an un-focused, mindless prank.

Before I address the cultural and symbolic aspects pertaining to the choice of a mailbox as an object of assault, it will be useful to instruct the reader as to the tactical and strategic considerations that are second nature to an experienced mailboxer.

Mailboxing is a team sport.  You need at least two: one to drive and one to swing.  The ideal number is three, leaving one member to scan the neighborhood for possible witnesses.  Four is OK, but more means each member gets too little bat time, and there’s too much time stopping the car to rearrange passengers.  An experienced team can perform with ensemble-style precision.

A cop with a baseball bat - HeadStuff.org
A policeman, or “cop”, displays the tools of the mailbox bashing trade. via townnews.com

Next is the choice of weapon.  Wooden baseball bats are ideal, both for weight and length, to use from a moving car.  Sledge hammers are suitable only when both the combatant and mailbox are stationary, but sometimes necessary when masonry is involved.  Other hefty tools, such as pipe wrenches, may be used in select circumstances.

There are two reasons any particular mailbox is hit. The first, most common, is because it belongs to a known individual.  This should not be taken as to correlate with the quality of the relationship between mailbox owner and mailbox cruncher.  Sometimes a mailbox is wasted because the pounder is fond of the owner, or the owner’s offspring; maybe the mailbox wrecker finds the owner’s offspring intriguing, and wants to find out what the person will do with such a challenge, as a kind of study.  Then again, sometimes the perpetrator dislikes the addressee, making the act an aggressive dare.  Occasionally, a teacher or coach’s mailbox is singled out. Similarly, a teacher may be chosen because of being a favorite or because he or she is universally loathed; there’s no in-between.

Having walloped one or more targeted boxes, the bangers find that, as big an event as punishing a mailbox figures in their attenuated minds, the deed is accomplished in seconds.  The evening is young, and they’ve barely used their baseball bats, pipe wrenches, and sledge hammers.  Thus we come to the second reason any particular mailbox is selected: it’s handy.

There are those straight, quarter-mile stretches of suburban road in neighborhoods where each house is set on perhaps an acre of land, with the houses optimally placed at thirty or more yards from the road.  An experienced driver gauges distance and speed so that the batsman, leaning out of the front passenger window, is able to fall into a rhythm: bam, [two, three, four], smack, [two, three, four], whack, [two, three, four], etc.  The skill and precision required should not be underestimated.  In the darkness, the driver locks on to the next mailbox, judges where the box is weakest (depending on factors such as box material, prior damage, pole material, and bracing style), steers to place the car where the batsman can connect with the bat’s “sweet spot”– accounting for the length of the batsman’s arms and the location of the “sweet spot” on the bat – and watches for road irregularities.

For his part, the batsman must maintain a vise-like grip on the bat for two reasons: the vibrations that a piece of steel can send thundering through a bat at peak swing velocity plus the speed of the car can feel like electrocution; and, the bat can rebound, striking the car or a rear passenger, if one happens to be throwing up out the rear window.  Never, ever swing a sledge hammer at a mailbox from a moving car; they are too easy to lose control of.  Sledge hammers are for one-on-one combat: car stopped with lights off, neighborhood doorways under surveillance, the lone batsman approaching the mailbox.

Now, there are some dramatic factors peculiar to mailboxes at the ends of driveways that contribute to their selection as targets for mayhem.  Destruction of a mailbox is assumed by thinking teenagers to be a federal crime, and federal crimes have more cachet than state or local crimes.  In addition, mailboxes are far away enough from the house to make a clean escape probable, but close enough to make it exciting.

Every once in a while, somebody happens to be outside the house, or inside, but alert.  It’s rare, though, for anyone to actually witness a strike.  Generally, the violated party hears a loud bang, rushes outside to see a car driving away, but is unable in the dark to tell what exactly happened, unless the team carries on whonking neighboring mailboxes.  Then, if the witness can quickly locate shoes and car keys, you can have a really undesirable situation on your hands.

A mailbox is a reflection of its owners in the same, annoying way that anything else is.  Some are straightforward, businesslike.  Some are invested with character.  Some proudly carry a name, some just a number.  Some are neglected, and languish unseen until they are found one morning, battered and lifeless, on the ground beside the pole.  The mailbox is the manifestation of its owners that is in closest proximity to the world outside, the farthest outpost on the castle grounds.  And it is more than a mere symbol.  It is a link, literally, to the outside world.  The mailbox is the instrument of a daily exchange between the inhabitants and the world beyond.  Even as paper intercourse is being superseded by electronic communication, the mailbox retains its symbolic importance.  To destroy that link cuts the family adrift.

However, mailbox whamming is not a simple declarative statement.  Earlier I said the selection of a person’s mailbox for destruction cannot be assumed to be a mark of contempt; the mailboxes of friends or adversaries are about equally at risk.  In either case, though, the symbolic communication is the same.  There is an implicit challenge, and the act may serve as an important catalyst in the targeted teen’s developmental process of individuation.

An angry teen - HeadStuff.org
A teen shortly before going on a mailbox bashing RAMPAGE. via expertbeacon.com

Every adolescent knows instinctively that the discovery of the mailbox damage by parents will irrevocably change the relationship he or she has with them.  Upon its discovery, the parent will intuit that the child is implicated in some way.  The nature of the teen’s relations with those who committed the act is unknown, but the parent is stunned, left to wonder what else remains unknown about their offspring. The sheltered enclave of the family has been broken, and it was an inside job.  The teen is living by a code and in a complex web of interdependencies that rival the parent’s own world for its derelict sophistication.  The adolescent’s unconvincing and stammering explanations only amplify the alienation.

How the family organizes itself to replace the mailbox comprises a summation of the family’s past, and a treatise on its future.  Will the dad do the job by himself?  Will the parents hire it done?  Will they insist the adolescent do it her- or himself?  Will the parent and son/daughter fix the mailbox together?  Will the adolescent offer to fix it before the parents take action?

What can the parent expect next?  In spite of the teen’s assurances to the contrary, how can he/she be expected not to retaliate? Whatever the teen says is now assessed for credibility.  He or she has become suspect because there are other forces at work, and the parent has no reference point to gauge the strength of those forces.

The adolescent whose family mailbox was clobbered is at least as keenly aware of the trial as the parents.  In trying to reassure the parents, she will feel painfully exposed.  Suddenly, life is serious and everything matters, and the adolescent inhabits the void between family and friend, belonging entirely to neither.  She is on her own as never before.

About the best thing a teenager can do to retaliate and restore the cosmic balance is, in the tiny hours of a weekend morning, leave a package of condoms with a note saying “Thanks, Love, Lulu” inside the mailbox of each member of the assault team, leaving the mailbox door hanging open to enhance the chances a parent will notice and wander out to investigate, the following morning.

main image via townnews.com