By Alexe van Beuren
In February, Sherman Hillhouse assumed his new position as the postmaster at Water Valley’s Post Office. A sandy-haired and soft-spoken man, Hillhouse hails from Okolona, but now lives with his wife and four children in Pontotoc. His wife teaches sixth grade and his children are settled in the schools there, so they will not be relocating. Despite the commute, Hillhouse is happy to be here.
While Hillhouse was in college working towards an electrician’s certification, his father encouraged him to take the postal exam to become a clerk and carrier. A full two years after taking the test, the Post Office hired him.
“It’s a competitive process,” he tells me in his office, sitting behind his neatly ordered desk. “When I took the test in Tupelo, there were three thousand other people taking it as well.”
Hillhouse became a window clerk and mail carrier in 1993 in his hometown – just a few years after he had joined the National Guard. In the next twelve years, Hillhouse married, had children, and moved through the ranks of the Post Office, transferring to Tupelo as a carrier, then becoming a supervisor, and lastly, a manager.
“It’s a bit like the Army,” Hillhouse says, referring to the postal service’s distinct hierarchy.
During his decade and more with the National Guard, Hillhouse has learned a lot about Army procedure. One weekend a month, and two solid weeks a year, Hillhouse and the other men in his unit would be trained in construction and then– more intimidatingly– demolition procedures. While they were trained to blow apart bridges and take down buildings, actual demolition experiences were confined to blasting holes in the ground.
Every few years, Hillhouse’s National Guard unit would go on three-week overseas missions. By the time his unit was called to active duty in 2005, he had spent time in Panama, Honduras, Italy, and Peru, building roads for farmers and repairing buildings for the army.
Then came Iraq– three months after his fourth child was born.
Hillhouse won’t go into specifics about his time there; “you never know who might read this in Jackson,” but like most other ground units, he and his fellow soldiers were sent on patrols and occasional humanitarian missions.
When I ask how the people of Iraq reacted to his unit, Hillhouse shrugs. “The people in the south, the Shiites, they liked us, because they were the oppressed ones,” he says. “The Sunnis weren’t quite as happy.” He goes on to tell me the difference between the two parts of the city; the Shiites had electricity for two hours a day, the Sunnis for twenty-four. “There was a big difference in the standard of living,” Hillhouse says.
When his year of service was up, Hillhouse returned home. “I was glad to see pine trees and oak trees,” he tells me. “I breathed a big sigh of relief, and then I went back to work.”
In June, his unit returns to Iraq, but Hillhouse will not be going with them. “They had enough volunteers so that those who wanted to stay home could,” he tells me. “I have a family, and so I’m staying.”
Instead, Hillhouse will continue settling into his new responsibilities as postmaster. When I admit I’ve never been beyond the Post Office’s front room, Hillhouse escorts me to the loading area, where mail is sorted for home delivery.
There are seven city routes, five rural carriers, and two clerks; all in all, Hillhouse oversees thirteen people. While I’m there, a city carrier calls in that she’s running twenty minutes late– meaning that she’ll be dipping into overtime. “It’s a Monday,” Hillhouse says. “A Monday in the beginning of the month – that’s our heaviest time.”
“Are people upset about the new stamp prices?” I ask.
“I don’t think so,” he says, and chuckles. “I think they’re more bothered by the price of gas.”
When I ask our postmaster the most challenging part of his new job, Hillhouse pinpoints the retail window. “I didn’t have that financial responsibility before,” he says. “Taking inventory, trying to put out things that will sell – that’s all new.” He looks at me and links his hands. “This is the same post office it was before – hopefully, just run a little more efficiently.”