The longer route letter carrier, 72, among growing number in u.s. working well past 65 – the washington post electricity magnetism and electromagnetism

Fifty, 55, 60 mph. Turning up a driveway, he reaches out the window and, snap, the mailbox opens. Bull is a letter carrier with the longest postal route in the United States, 187.6 miles across some of the loneliest territory in the country. He’s 72 and part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force — those who work past their 65th birthdays.

Into the mailbox goes the weekly Southwest Oklahoma Shopper and a letter from Stockmans Bank, and, slam, the door shuts tight. Snap-and-slam wasn’t always the soundtrack of Bull’s workday. He was a high school principal, coach and referee who retired in the late ’90s only to come back to a payroll. Now he’s one of 7.2 million Americans who were 65 or older and employed last year, a 67 percent jump from 10 years before.

They work longer hours and earn more than they did a decade ago. Fifty-eight percent are full-time, compared with 52 percent in 2002, and their median weekly pay has gone up to $825 from $502. In the second quarter, government data show, Bull and his peers made $49 more a week than all workers 16 and older.

Jim Ed Bull, a U.S. Postal Service letter carrier, brings mail to his truck in Mangum, Okla. Bull, a retired high school principal at 72, is responsible for the longest mail route in the U.S. and is part of the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force — those who work past their 65th birthdays. (Tom Moroney/Bloomberg)

Reasons for staying in the workforce cover the spectrum in the post-recession economy. Some need the money to live day to day. Some want to build up battered 401(k) plans or put more away for the kids. Some find that the daily activity organizes their lives, keeping them connected and useful.

For Bull, who has a pension and Social Security and a $62,000 annual salary, it’s mostly about family. With what his wife, Susan, a second-grade teacher, makes, they earn six figures. He says his working helps them maintain a comfortable lifestyle and allows him to save to leave something substantial for Susan, who’s 17 years his junior, and his grandchildren.

Lawyer Mike Henry, 73, a customer on Bull’s route, still goes to the office because he declared bankruptcy in 1987 after losing his Texas real estate investments when crude oil prices plunged. “I need the money,” Henry says. He figures he’ll work “until I die.”

Like Bull and Beard, he harbors no resentment. “It keeps me alive and alert, and it gives me something to do where I can help folks,” says Henry, who estimates half his legal work these days is pro bono. “If I won the lottery, I wouldn’t quit.”

They’ve expressed frustration to Jeanette Dwyer, president of the National Rural Letter Carriers’ Association, a union with more than 100,000 members, including Bull. “The economy has had an effect of everybody staying longer in their current jobs,” she says.

With military veterans and retirees from first jobs in the mix, the Postal Service abounds with gray hairs. Of 615,360 employees, agency data show, 46 percent are over 50. Five thousand postal employees are 70 or older, and 695 of those are Bull’s age, 72. Another 223 are over 80.

Farmers recall with some anxiety stories from their parents about the 1930s Dust Bowl, when the sky turned black. John Steinbeck found his characters here for “ The Grapes of Wrath” — left with nothing, “hungry and restless, restless as ants.”

In 36 years with three school districts, Bull counts his sick days on one hand — five — and tallies just as many in 13 years as a carrier, first as a substitute in 2000 and then as a full-timer in 2007. The temperatures he works in can swing 120 degrees, from 115 in the summer to below zero in the winter’s wind.

Five years ago, the snow and ice were so deep on the road that his power steering gave out. He zigged and zagged and tore through an electric fence, leaving a hole for 50 head of cattle to roam free. He pushed on the gas, nudging the truck out of trouble and to the nearest farm for help.

Bull stands at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds. His resting pulse is 43. He had his left knee replaced in 2009. He takes one prescription drug, Lisinopril, to regulate his blood pressure. A Southern Baptist, he doesn’t smoke or drink, though he does favor an occasional plate of greasy ribs.

His facial features are long and angular and his complexion ruddy. In summer, he wears sneakers, dungaree shorts and a red T-shirt with a “Postal Worker” icon nestled over an eagle, his only identifier. (His truck has no lettering, because “they already know it’s me coming.”)

Still, by the end of the week, Bull is tuckered out. He says he hopes to keep going for another three years, if his health holds up. Daily, he confronts the aches, pains and muscle pulls of sitting for hours, steering with one hand and snapping open mailboxes with the other.

He and his wife bought the house four years ago for $215,000. He has one son from his previous marriage; she has a son and daughter from hers. They met through her father, a preacher who thought enough of Bull to pass him his daughter’s number after Bull saw her sing at a church fellowship meeting.

By 7 a.m. each day, Bull is at the McDonald’s inside the Wal-Mart near home. He checks his watch as he chews a bacon-egg-and-cheese biscuit. A dab or two of jelly makes it onto the biscuit. The rest he squeezes from two foil packets into his mouth, like astronaut food.

Bill Berry, a regular, walks over. “Watch that mud today, Jim Ed,” the retired firefighter says. The rain has turned more than a few of Bull’s paths into mailman quicksand, and once he had to be pulled out by a tractor. “The dust and the mud, those are my enemies,” he says.

He warms his coffee with a half refill and heads for the parking lot. It’s 16 miles through long stretches of pastureland to the post office in Mangum, in the old courthouse. His route was redrawn last year in the agency’s effort to reduce costs and offset debt.

By 9:45, he’s separated the letters into five bundles about the size of bread loaves but a lot heavier. He’s ready to leave with the bundles, 100 weekly shoppers and eight packages when another carrier walks over with a stack that was inadvertently sent to his pile.

At 10:04, he pulls up to the drive-through window at his first stop, the Shop Around the Corner, and passes the mail to the woman at the cash register. In turn, he’s handed a large plastic-foam cup of ice cubes that will sit on the truck floor and melt, generating his cold drinking water.

“Here we go,” he says. The Postal Service doesn’t supply rural carriers with vehicles, and Bull eschews modifications to his truck or special equipment. Instead, he sits between the two front seats, his body in the middle of the cab. His left hand holds the steering wheel, his left foot operates the gas and brake, and his long right arm inserts the mail.

Every rural route is assessed a time for completion. Using a formula based on volume of mail and number of stops — he has 198 — postal inspectors who followed Bull around for two weeks decided the route, including the sorting of mail, or “casing,” could be done in 9.4 hours. That number determines his salary.

“Husband’s in jail,” he says in explaining the backup. When it comes to his customers, there’s not a lot Bull doesn’t know or see. One man has appeared in his front yard on three separate occasions this summer totally naked. “I don’t want to get too close,” Bull says.

Obstacles and the sharp road gravel force an average of one flat tire a week, two brake jobs a year and the purchase of a reliable used truck every four. The Postal Service pays 73 cents a mile for maintenance and gasoline, a sum Bull says barely covers costs.