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Monday, February 16, 2015

Pier Pressure: At Lake Geneva, mail delivery a spectator sport

The first time I head ordinary folks were paying $14.95 (U.S.) to watch mail get delivered, one word leapt to mind: toplessness.

Wanton displays of nubile flesh. Had to be.

“Hugh Hefner must have a hand in this somewhere,” I thought, “and the results have to be something sinful.”

Well it turns out he did, but it isn’t.

The mail delivery at Lake Geneva involves nothing shameful. In fact, it’s as American as apple pie, as thrilling as the Fourth of July and as wholesome as a “Waltons” marathon on The Family Channel. Sure, as diversionary pastimes go, it sounds like it would be right up there with watching grass grow. But mail delivery at this scenic summer playground near the Illinois-Wisconsin border is a time-honored spectator sport worth of Evil Knievel.

As many as 140 customers a day pay to watch daredevil delivery women risk life and limb (not to mention an embarrassing dunking) as they jump from the front of a moving cruise ship to deliver the daily mail to on-shore mailboxes, and then dash back in time to catch the 23-metre Walworth II’s stately stern before it slips by.

“Yeah, its run, run, run or else you end up in the drink,” says Karen Cochenour, 20, a junior at Winona State University in Winona, Minn. She’s one of three contracted delivery women who bring the mail the way their shore-based counterparts would only if sufficiently motivated by a pack of hungry Rottweilers.

Cochenour, Heather Duerst, 20, and Jennifer Griffing, 19, were selected from dozens of candidates who fell to pier pressure. On the Geneva Lake Cruise Lines, being left high and dry makes you a winner. Their derring-do delivery can transform simple utility bills into breathtaking feats, make junk mail a joy, and set pulses racing with lusty lover letters long before said letters are opened. 

For us, it’s really exhilarating and it sure beats waiting on tables or making pizzas — and where else are you going to get a summer job where people cheer and applaud? They ‘Oooooh!’ and ‘Aaaah!” like it’s the Fourth of July. When it comes right down to it, all we’re doing is delivering the mail, but people love it.”

Lake Geneva — the town’s name begins with Lake, the body of water begins with Geneva — bills itself as offering “many things to do,but the perfect place to do nothing.”

Hugh Hefner once saw it as the perfect place to do whatever it was Hugh liked to do. On the beautiful rolling hills on the outskirts of town, he built the nationally acclaimed Playboy Club & Resort, the spot for swingers from 1969 to 1982. Since 1994, it has been the Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, a four-diamond family resort where the only real bunnies anyone can see frolicking are on the two PGA-quality golf courses. The only evidence Hef was ever here is best viewed from 450 metres above the ground: The man-made lake where families paddle and boat is a clearly visible image of Playboy’s world-famous corporate logo.

Downtown Lake Geneva, pop. 6,000, is a quaint hodgepodge of shops, bars and restaurants. The people are friendly and so honest that unattended roadside stands selling delicious sweet corn operate on the honour system. Great for breakfast is Scuttlebutts overlooking the lake. They serve dandy portions of Swedish pancakes with sides of spicy sausages. Also enjoyable through the day is Popeye’s, a local landmark, with its huge, smokey barbecue pits where spits of lamb, pork and chicken are carried with appetite-igniting aplomb to the rowdy restaurant next door.

The only place more bustling than the crowded summer streets is the 2,100 hectare Geneva Lake. At 13 kilometres in length, three kilometres in width and 44 metres in depth, it’s big enough to host the flotilla of sailboats, sport fishermen, jet-ski riders and the various excursions provided by Geneva Cruise Lines, which began operating its mail cruises in 1958. The tradition goes back more than 120 years.

Well-to-do Chicagoans named Wrigley, Sears, and Montgomery Ward began traveling to Walworth County to boat, hunt and fish back in the 1870s. As they began to settle into elegant mansions around the remote lake and its 42 kilometers of shoreline they began to demand regular mail service for the freshly dubbed “Newport of the West.”

Cruise Line spokesman Harold Friestead said: “Back then there was no door-to-door postal delivery around here and the dirt roads make the trip into town difficult.”

So a servant was sent to deliver the mail by steam ship. When postal service began home delivery in 1913, they too found it more convenient to locate the mailboxes on the piers rather than the road. Winter delivery can take more than double the 2 1/2 hours it takes for the cruise line to deliver via boat.

Today the post office continues to offer dockside service June 15 through Sept. 15 at no additional charge to the 60 shore dwellers who request it. It’s popular as well as practical. Many of the residents live more than a kilometer from the road and the post office won't deliver off-road. Here, their mailboxes are right off their piers and they get their mail right at their back door.

“It works out for the post office because they can contract with us for very little to serve a remote route, and it works out for us because lots of people will pay to watch the mail get delivered by boat,” Friestead said.

Most of the mailboxes are a short dash from the boat. It’s leap, run to the end of the pier, drop off the mail and dash back with a few seconds to spare. All except for the dreaded Yarmo Box.

Although the Yarmo Box is nothing more than a postal repository, the women speak its name with the same tone of dread POWs use to describe diabolical coercion devices. Indeed, for them, it can lead to cruel water torture.

Cochenour said: “That’s a toughie. It’s way up on the hill at the end of the pier. The Yarmo Box is touch and go.”

In an attempt to be accommodating, the kindly Yarmos once moved the mailbox down near the pier, but cruise line operators would have none of it.

“We told them to move it back,” Friestead said. “It makes the trip more exciting.”

If it’s excitement you want, Capt. Neill Frame, who’s captained the boat since 1969, said unleash a protective canine on the property for the daily runs.

“One memorable summer a family brought a large, very protective family dog and let it run loose,” Frame said. “We could all see the dog at the top of the yard as we drew near the pier. Everyone knew it was going to be close.

“The girl leapt off the boat and sprinted toward the mailbox. The whole time the dog was sprinting toward her. She dropped off the mail just as the dog reached the dock. She made it back to the boat just in time, but not before the dog gave her rear end a little nip.

“Boy, the crowd really cheered for that one.”

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