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July 2004

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ZipUSA: 33856

By Melba Newsome
Where do retired mail carriers go before they reach that great dead-letter box in the sky? Try Nalcrest, Florida, a small community along a sparse stretch of Route 60 east of Tampa where you won't find boring blue uniforms, change of address slips, six-day-a-week delivery schedules—or dogs.

That bothers Rich "Downtown" Brown, a wiry chain-smoking malcontent. Despite being bitten several times on his New Jersey route, he remains a dog lover. "I guess we're not allowed to have dogs because of all the old people," says the 60-year-old Brown. "They have walkers, and the dogs might have walkers too."

Of course, fear of dogs on walkers isn't the reason behind the ban. No one quite remembers what is behind it, though the town's general manager, Jerry Kane, believes the rule was implemented for "sanitary reasons."

Whatever the rationale, Brown sees it as a loss. He flips open his wallet to show off a picture of Kemosabe, the Siberian husky he had for 13 years before coming here. Now he makes do with Digger, the south end of a northbound plastic beagle he has staked in his garden. "He's the only and official dog of Nalcrest," Brown says proudly of his lawn ornament—which is the closest anyone here seems to come to civil disobedience.

On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, the town's population has swelled with hundreds of part-time residents fleeing cold weather. They trickle in to the auditorium for one of the community's seemingly endless fund-raisers. This time it's breakfast where, for $3.50, you get scrambled eggs, hash browns, sausage, toast, and all the gossip you can handle. "He looks awful," says one man of a recently hospitalized resident. "He's 80 years old, but he's still a nasty bastard!"

The softball doubleheader two days earlier is also a hot topic of conversation, particularly for Walter Oppermann, the self-appointed waiter who sprints between tables. The Nalcrest team won both games over the town's much younger maintenance crew, and Oppermann, also known as the Rabbit, was the designated runner for several of his teammates. ("We can't expect these guys to run the bases," he says. "Some of them have bad knees, and one guy is 83 years old.") The team is sponsored by Johnson's Funeral Home, perhaps because it's good civics—and perhaps because it's good business. After all, notes 15-year-resident Mable Latulip, "They call Nalcrest God's waiting room."

It's a familiar joke in any retirement community. But this isn't just any retirement community: Nalcrest stands out as an oddity, a town built for union retirees. The NALC in its name stands for the National Association of Letter Carriers, the union for city letter carriers whose longtime president William C. Doherty lobbied for years to turn 300 acres of uninspiring central Florida real estate into a four-million-dollar retirement community. Doherty turned the first shovel of dirt in 1962 and became one of the 500-apartment complex's first residents several years later.

Sure, the community's Lake Weohyakapka had an Air Force bombing range at one end, not to mention alligators. And what if it's so hot in the summer you can barely stand still on the shuffleboard courts? With an efficiency renting for under $75 in 1964, Nalcrest was nirvana for postal retirees. It remains a bargain: A one-bedroom rents for only $305, and dinners at Jay Bee's II, the town's only restaurant, average $6.

The natural surroundings attract as many people as the low prices and warm weather. With half the land still undeveloped, Nalcrest is as much a nature preserve as a town. Hawks soar overhead, sandhill cranes stroll through town and peck at their reflections in windows, and "owls are the size of fire hydrants," says Kane.

And contrary to what you might expect from a community of Cliff Clavens, no one sits around reminiscing about Sears-catalog-induced hernias or half-mile sprints just ahead of an angry rottweiler. They're too busy with the stereotypical senior activities—bingo, bowling, art class. It's a lot like being in college (no jobs, few responsibilities, lots of parties) without the midterms. Just ask George and Mae Glascock, who cruise around on a BMW motorcycle with a sidecar. Or the all-male Literary Club and Choral Society, where the name Jim Beam can be heard more often at the weekly meetings than that of Hemingway, who seems to be revered more for his drinking prowess than his literary genius.

"I love the sense of community here," says Annette Alversa, who moved from Long Island several years ago when her postman husband retired after 35 years. "I used to say, 'I'm never going to live down there with all those old people.' I woke up one day, and I was one of those old people."

Unlike Annette, and unlike most women in Nalcrest, Grace Porter did not come here as a spouse. When Porter became a letter carrier in the late 1960s, she was a rarity and is now among the first wave of female retirees. After 27 years of walking up to five miles a day along a Kansas City mail route, Porter moved here in 1999 to put her feet up in a warmer climate. "After I retired, I swore I'd never walk again, says Porter, "but I walk every morning at 5:45."

The post office remains a regular stop for Porter and fellow retirees. By the time the tiny storefront opens at 10 a.m., a small group has already gathered in the town center around the bronze statue of Richard Quinn, a president of the 115-year-old union. While they appreciate Bob and Edie Raymond, the couple who work behind the small window four hours each day, no one envies them what surely must be the most thankless job in America—processing mail for hundreds of people who are certain they could do it better.


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