About twenty miles east of Cincinnati is a narrow, winding lane that features a handsome covered bridge and curves along a creek, through a valley of meadows and wooded hills. A few discordant trophy homes appear here and there, but it's a mostly pastoral landscape, with unassuming ranch houses, some horse paddocks, and modest fields of corn and soybeans.
It wasn't the bucolic charm that struck me, however, when I drove along the lane last winter. It was the desperate state of the mailboxes along the road. Most were battered and bent; a number were doorless and listing sharply to one side. A green-plastic mailbox appeared to have been doused with a volatile fluid and set aflame; one post sat decapitated. About half a dozen mailboxes were bungee-corded to their posts, allowing the owners to take them in each day after the mail has been delivered and then set them out afresh the next morning.
As suburban quality-of-life crimes go, mailbox vandalism ranks somewhere above blue jays' eating all the bird food and below teenagers' driving a sport utility vehicle across a muddy lawn. But as anyone who has been so victimized will tell you, it's a heartfelt issue. A mailbox is a very personal thing—it's the foreign office of one's home, into which uniformed couriers entrust sensitive financial documents and the occasional handwritten communiqué. To walk down the driveway and discover one's box crushed and canted, its door lying in the road ten yards away, produces complicated feelings of despair and vengefulness. At that moment an aggrieved homeowner understands, in a small way, how Margaret Thatcher must have felt when the Argentines occupied the Falkland Islands.
I had been invited on a driving tour of the area by Richard Lee, who lives on the lane. Lee, as it happens, sells mailboxes through a Web site (www. steelmailbox.com). His own mailbox is constructed of twelve-gauge steel. It has a small dent in one corner, apparently made by a tire iron, but it remains fully functional. Although mailbox vandalism occurs in many areas of the country, this tour and a later drive suggested that the region around Cincinnati is home to an especially persistent class of bat-wielding hooligans. When I asked Lee why, he replied simply, "We produced Pete Rose."
Some have attributed a surge in this form of vandalism to the 1986 Rob Reiner movie Stand By Me, which featured a scene of teens playing mailbox baseball, in which a moving car serves as the batter's box and a mailbox becomes the fastball. (Reiner included a disclaimer in the credits, noting that the activity was illegal.) History fails to support this theory, however. Mailbox vandalism has been going on "ever since there was a bat, a mailbox, and a car," says Tom Boyle, a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. In a 1937 how-to book titled 1001 Ways to Use Concrete, I found an illustration of a mailbox encased in an elaborate concrete pillar. The text noted that among its many merits, the mailbox "cannot be shot full of holes by an ambitious marksman."
For quite a few years I've admired the resourcefulness of home mechanics who have welded together steel cages, mortared layers of brick, or installed ramparts of disused plumbing pipes to defend against marauding teens. (My favorite piece of handiwork, spotted in Arkansas several years ago, involved two fifty-five-gallon drums, several heavy steel beams, and at least 300 pounds of concrete.) But lately I've noticed a change along the roadside: commercially manufactured anti-vandal mailboxes are cropping up.
This trend may mark the beginning of the end of an underappreciated (and perhaps even unnoticed) golden age of homemade mailbox fortifications. Although that would be a disappointment to those of us who occasionally stop to take snapshots of particularly impressive weekend projects, it must be admitted that many of the commercial offerings are also worthy of admiration. Especially appealing are the spare, sturdy roadside bunkers produced by Veeders Mailbox, a firm that, not coincidentally, has its headquarters just northeast of Cincinnati.
"As far as heavy-duty goes, I'm pretty sure I was the first," says Jonathan Magro, who founded Veeders in 1978. Magro got into the business after he volunteered to make a replacement mailbox for a neighbor. He bent a sheet of thick steel into an upside-down U shape, welded a bottom and a back onto it, and attached a heavy door. Another neighbor wanted one, and then another. A local newspaper published an article about his mailboxes, and Magro, who describes himself as a "barnyard mechanic," has been manufacturing vandal-resistant mailboxes ever since. (He refuses to use the term "vandal-proof," owing to his respect for the ingenuity of reprobates, especially those who have enlisted two-ton bottle jacks in their campaigns.)
Magro and his wife, Jenny, run the business from a small and charmless industrial building in Loveland, where they employ three people to help with the welding and shipping. In the past their products were carried in catalogues like Frontgate and Sporty's Preferred Living and sold through various Web sites, including Richard Lee's. These outlets eventually switched to competing products, and Magro says that this is fine with him. His own Web site (www.veedersmailbox.com) now accounts for about 90 percent of sales, and he retains a higher cut of the retail price, which ranges from $190 to $361 plus shipping.
Nationwide there are now a dozen or so manufacturers of mailbox-defense systems and vandal-resistant mailboxes. The Pivoting Post Company makes an arm that swings the mailbox away on impact; this is supposed to preserve the mailbox intact. Jandmar makes the MaiLocker, which has a peaked roof and a Darth Vaderesque aspect, and according to company literature, it is the product of "several years of research and testing." EPM sells the Vandalgard, a hardened encasement with a prominent dorsal fin which wraps around a pre-existing mailbox; the company claims that the device will put "an end to damage from baseball bats, rocks, water balloons, snow plow discharge, beer bottles, and shotguns."
Much of the appeal of a Veeders box is that it retains the pleasingly iconic form and proportions of a traditional sheet-metal mailbox: it has the gracefully rounded top, the flat bottom, and the little red flag that flips up. You could drive by one and not take particular notice. The chief difference between a box for which you'd pay a few dollars at a hardware store and a Veeders is the materials: a Veeders is constructed of ten-gauge carbon or stainless steel, which is thicker than the steel used for highway guardrails. A Veeders customer from Indiana once reported that pipe bombs had been placed in mailboxes along his street, including his own. "Although the blast we heard was quite loud and the three-quarter-inch pipe was completely fragmented, the effect on the mailbox was not major," he wrote.
Judging by the letters and e-mails Magro receives from satisfied customers, one of the motives behind splurging on an expensive and durable mailbox is the hope that troublemakers will learn of it the hard way—by swinging at it while leaning from a car traveling at a high rate of speed. "We've had it now for some 12 or so years," one pleased customer from Massachusetts wrote last December, "and have often been awakened in the middle of the night with the sound of a ball bat, pipe or some other implement hitting the box, followed shortly thereafter by a scream."
When he used to hawk his mailboxes at home shows, Magro was often approached by vandalism sufferers who would launch into vivid descriptions of their dream mailboxes. He says, "People would take out pencil and paper and draw World War Two tank traps"—devices that would impale the chassis of a car on a hidden steel beam were someone to try to ram the mailbox. "Others wanted to know if I'd make them a mailbox with concertina wire around it." Magro declined such requests, pointing out that liability issues would likely arise were someone to build a mailbox system the intent of which was to maim or kill.
At Magro's suggestion I took a drive through Indian Hill, an affluent northeastern suburb. On winding lanes and along major thoroughfares alike I spotted dozens of Veeders mailboxes, tidy and uncreased, lined up like soldiers against an unseen enemy. This fortifying of the suburbs may strike some as an occasion for hand-wringing—further evidence that an erosion in quality of life is creeping from hard-bitten cities to once idyllic provinces. But I don't see it that way. In an era when computer hackers are stealing credit-card numbers and nasty animal-borne viruses are transgressing national borders, it's reassuring to know that sometimes all it takes to get a good night's rest is just a stouter piece of steel.