The patriotism of July takes me back to that time in the 1980s when as a young lawyer I hung out with one of the most famous generals in US military history.
Though I suppose it is a stretch to call what I did in Charleston with retired General William C. Westmoreland hanging out.
What we did was bump into each other at the Post Office.
This was back when I was practicing law on the third floor of the old Rosen Building on Broad Street. My office was so small I could reach from my desk and open the window. Two blocks away on the corner of Broad and Meeting was the magnificent old post office.
Each morning I’d stop for my mail on the way to work. I rented the smallest postal box available, a narrow slot that could hold only a few letters. It was all I needed. Usually it was empty. Now and then I’d get a bill from Southern Bell or Carolina Power & Light.
What Size is Your Post Office Box?
All the other boxes on my row were tiny like mine. Down lower, on the bottom row, were the enormous boxes. They could hold tubs of mail.
That’s where I spotted General Westmoreland one morning. He had one of the enormous boxes. That first day he got so much mail a postal worker had to come from behind the wall and bring it out to him in a corrugated plastic crate.
Of course I knew who William Westmoreland was. Everyone in my generation did. He commanded US troops in Vietnam in the 1960s. To say he was a polarizing figure is an understatement. But he was touted as a presidential candidate in the late ‘60s, ran for governor in the ‘70s, and had the Ashley River bridge named after him in the ‘80s. Movie-star handsome, with ramrod posture and excellent hair.
And there he was, just a few feet away.
A Letter From Westlaw
I peered through the miniscule window of my postal box, and to my delight saw something inside – a solicitation brochure from Westlaw.
In those days, the post office had these wonderful tables of burnished mahogany and brass – there was even a hole where a century earlier an ink well would go – scattered throughout the gleaming lobby. I took my lonely Westlaw letter over to the table where General Westmoreland stood going through his massive pile.
My plan was to give him the Dale Carnegie treatment. So I extended my hand and introduced myself. He was perfectly polite. But it was clear he was uninterested in chitchat. And I could detect a whiff of suspicion as to why I had chosen his table instead of one of the half-dozen nearby that were unoccupied.
So I backed off and studied my Westlaw brochure. I read every word. I jotted a few notes on the envelope.
What I was really doing, out of the corner of my eye, was watching the general. I’d never sorted mail this close to a military commander before. I wanted to take it all in.
Turns out he did it pretty much the same way everyone does: by tossing the junk away and taking the good stuff back to the office.
The General Speaks
Over the next year or so, this became my morning routine. I’d get to the post office not long after it opened. Sometimes the general was there. He would always have a heaping Himalayan stack of mail, while I’d have a phone bill or a CLE postcard – on a big day, both.
I can’t honestly say he ever appeared overjoyed to see me. He never once boomed a hearty hello or bounded over for a warm embrace. After our first encounter, I don’t think he ever said my name – or anything else, for that matter.
But then one day around Christmas, with the post office crowded and most of the tables occupied, I joined the general at his table. He slid aside his Everest of correspondence to make room.
It just so happened that I’d gotten a package from my brother that morning. He had gone to an Atlanta Braves game and sent me a souvenir – a pen and pencil set shaped like baseball bats. I stood there in that grand, marbled foyer admiring my gift.
The general’s voice startled me. I turned and saw he was looking at my Atlanta Braves pen and pencil.
- That’s cool, he said.
- It’s from my brother.
He nodded knowingly, then went back to his sorting. That was the last conversation I had with General Westmoreland. Soon I would move out of my attic office into new digs. The general’s health declined and he stopped showing up at the post office.
But I still have that Atlanta Braves pen and pencil set. Looking at it reminds me of those long-ago days in the Port City, when I began each morning at the Four Corners of Law and dreamed of one day getting as much mail as General Westmoreland.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.