Legendary Letter Carriers: Jack Macpherson of Tom Wolfe's "Pumphouse Gang"
Standing in The Shadow of Legend
I did not know the legendary letter carrier Jack Macpherson, often called "the coolest mailman in America," but I knew somebody who knew him. For the first time in this now three part "Legendary Letter Carriers" series, I have stepped into the shadow of one the subjects, this being the mythical surfer and leader of the Mac Meda Destruction Company, immortalized by Tom Wolfe's book The Pumphouse Gang.
So far it has not been easy digging up topics for Legendary Letter Carriers. In fact, my first two heroes weren't letter carriers at all, but Postal clerks. While at a loss for real mailmen to write about, the breeze sifting through my automobile vents during a drive home unexpectedly delivered a flash of inspiration. It was then that I remembered a mail-lady friend and her association with this marginally famous La Jolla, California letter carrier, and realized he would make a fitting topic for this series.
Perhaps Jack McPherson was not a hero in the true sense of the word. As far as I know, he didn't make the cover of the Postal Record's Hero of The Year issue. I don't think he rescued any babies from burning buildings. I don't think he stormed any beaches - except with his surfboard, of course, to keep the world safe for Democracy. Yet he did carve his own niche of fame into San Diego's surfing subculture. His deeds, though they won't make the feel-good pages of your Grandmother's Readers Digest, were legendary within their own sphere, and helped defined 60s culture. As such, he deserves to be recognized.
About Legendary Letter Carriers
This article is part of a series about letter carriers, or postal workers in general, who have achieved notoriety for doing something out of the ordinary. You won't find any Postal spree killers here, however, if that is what you are looking for. In creating this series I will be applying the term "letter carrier" loosely, broadly, and liberally. It includes any postal employee who has transported mail from one point to another, in an official capacity.
The Coolest Mailman in America
Jack MacPherson is sometimes called "the coolest mailman in America." He was known to deliver mail from his Porsche along his route in the Bird Rock area of La Jolla, California.
Small children always think the mailman is cool, of course, as he brings around letters and packages that seem to magically materialize from out of nowhere, but as these youngsters grow up and become jaded by the cruel realities of life, mail delivery is seen for the grunt work that it is, which kind of kills the mystique and romance of it.
Jack Macpherson restored some of that mystique and romance. Up until his death at the age of 69, he never became mundane. He lived hard, and partied hard, up until the end. His career as a La Jolla, California postman was as unconventional as the rest of his life story.
Jack Macpherson started delivering mail at the La Jolla Post Office shortly after graduating high school. He didn't retire until 1991, about 36 years later.
His postal career kept in step with his quirky character. My letter carrier friend who knew him said that Jack had stacks of uncashed paychecks on top of his refrigerator, which he occasionally had to be reminded by his supervisor to cash. One source claims he had so much money his nickname was The Bank of La Jolla, but because he had never written a check and had no credit cards he could not rent an apartment, due to lack of credit history. He finally wound up moving into a converted garage behind one of his postal customer's houses. The home owner refused to rent this room to anybody except Jack, claiming that she felt safe with him living there, in spite of his association with organizations associated with destruction. Jack was well regarded by the folks he spent decades delivering to.
Jack Macpherson's father was a rather well to do surgeon, so maybe Jack didn't particularly need the money. Maybe Jack delivered the mail because he liked doing it. He liked being outside, breathing the salty air rolling in off of the Pacific and interacting with the beach denizens who populate shore and surf.
Days of Destruction
Jack MacPherson was born in La Jolla, California, on October 20, 1937. While living in Hawaii, where his father served in the US Navy, young Jack witnessed the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Stowed away in a Dutch freighter, his family was transported back to California, where Jack spent the rest of his life.
Jack learned to surf at age 11. Somewhere along the line he made friends with Bob Rakestraw, the "Meda" behind Mac Meda. "Meda" was a favorite substitute swear word for Bob. Some sources say it derives from the local Portuguese Fishermens' expression for look, "Mira!" Others say it comes from the Spanish word for s**t, "Mierda!" However it originated, it became the calling card of La Jolla's fabled destruction company.
Jack MacPherson claimed that the Mac Meda destruction company was not so much an organization as an attitude. 10 to 20 Mac Meda members would gather to destroy condemned houses that were standing vacant in the proposed Interstate 5 corridor. Sometimes the assemblage would use sledgehammers. Sometimes the wildly destructive Rakestraw would bash his head through walls. Sometimes the Destruction Company would use a water heater as a battering ram to knock down chimneys. These orgies of destruction, always accompanied by a beer keg, were even attended by an offensive lineman of the San Diego Chargers football team, Jack Shea.
The Mac Meda Destruction Company appointed Albert, a Silverback Gorilla at the San Diego Zoo, as their club President. Albert MacMeda was listed in the La Jolla phone book. These irregular antics of Mac Meda carried the club's fame and notoriety to the present day, when its bumper stickers and T-shirts can still be purchased in La Jolla gift shops.
In spite of a propensity to party all night, and his legendary claim of drinking 18 beers a day, Jack Macpherson was a skilled athlete. He held AAU weight lifting records and almost made the Olympic team. He was one of the first participants of the 73 mile Tecate to Ensenda bike ride in Baja California, Mexico. Although his wild nights were consumed in drunken revelries, it is claimed that he never reported late to work.
Enter Tom Wolfe
Jack MacPherson's life achieved national, perhaps international legendary status when renowned author Tom Wolfe intervened in his life, although obliquely.
Tom Wolfe has become a household word for long-form journalistic masterpieces such as The Right Stuff and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, along with the bestselling novel The Bonfire of The Vanities, but he first achieved literary fame for his eclectically composed essays, such as those included in The Pumphouse Gang.
Wolfe was a typical east coast frat boy at Washington and Lee University, where he graduated cum laude, worlds apart from the shoeless, sandy-haired, sun baked surfers sharing garages or sleeping on the beach that he depicted in his review that made Mac Meda famous. Although Wolfe was definitely a child of the establishment, works like these caused him to be associated with America's growing counter-culture.
Wolfe was a leading light of the movement known as New Journalism, consisting of a group of avant-garde reporters experimenting with unorthodox literary techniques. By the mid 1960s, his writing had achieved a sort of cult status, mainly by turning over taboo rocks that mainstream America unsuccessfully tried to keep hidden. It was Tom Wolfe's desire to take a deeper look at the marginalized surfing subculture that took him to the rocky Pacific shores of La Jolla. There, like a cultured, proper representative of Western Civilization hacking his way through some dark, unexplored jungle, he attempted to make contact with Mac Meda.
Tom Wolfe Is A Dork
There is a copyright protected photo I could not, unfortunately, reproduce here, that shows the old Windansea Pumphouse with graffiti on the side reading "TOM WOLFE IS A DORK." This spray painted statement rather typifies what Jack Macpherson and the old-guard Mac Meda members thought about the author that made them famous.
Per a 2007 San Diego magazine article on the subject:
In the eyes of Jack Macpherson, who put the Mac in the legendary Mac Meda Destruction Company, there was little irony in the fact Wolfe named his article after a building designed for pumping human feces into the ocean.
“The book was a bunch of bullshit,” Mac opined during that winter 2006 conversation. “Wolfe got it all wrong.”
According to orthodox Mac Meda gospel, when author Tom Wolfe approached the leadership of the Destruction company in the parking lot of Windansea Beach, he was run off for being a square. The group's core members thought he was either a geek, a narc or a pervert, so they sent him down to the Pumphouse, where a "...brood of teenyboppers, outcasts and squares" assembled.
Therefore, the portrayal of Mac Meda being a stronghold of "trust fund baby" surfers so afraid of getting old that they commit suicide before they can approach the dreaded, clearly demarcated, geriatric age of 25, is inaccurate. The established Mac Meda members gathered in the WIndansea Parking Lot, from where they shooed the wannabes down into the pumphouse until they could prove their worth. It is because Wolfe only mingled among the upstarts in the sewage station that Macpherson is never mentioned in the essay, even though his name makes up half the group's title.
A Tribute Ten Years Too Late
Letter Carrier Jack Macpherson, legendary as a mailman, legendary as a surfer, legendary as an agent of destruction, passed away ten years ago, on November 16, 2006. His death was due to liver and kidney failure, most likely brought on by his hard-drinking lifestyle. His passing was a big event, covered locally by the Los Angeles Times, nationally by the Associated Press. Even New York newspapers said farewell to America's Coolest Mailman.
Perhaps most touching, however, was the tribute organized by local La Jolla surfers, who organized a Hawaiian style "paddle-out," for their departed friend. They eulogized him in fine style, then carried his ashes out past the breakers at Windansea Beach, which he made famous.
Maybe Mac didn't rescue any fallen, broken hip old ladies, or carry out any other similarly heroic deeds, but he was always said to have his couch ready and available for any among his multitude of friends temporarily displaced by the cruel circumstances of life. Perhaps he started off in a life of privilege, but he lived and worked among the less than elite masses. In his memory, The San Diego Union-Tribune said he "...had a knack for attracting people in search of a rollicking good time," but also noted he was "...a classic beach guy who was always nice to everybody...People gravitated to him. He's more of a legend now."