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He's got Christmas hustle

| Monday, May 14, 2012, 4:52 a.m.

A week to the day before Christmas, Dale Hartley is hustling.

Up and down hills. Steer left around a sharp curve. Slow down. Stop here. Wait and watch before turning left across traffic. Turn right here.

Hartley, 44, of Delmont is an independent contractor for FedEx Home Delivery.

On what may well be the company's busiest day of the year, he is running anchor on a cross-country relay team. Before the day is through, Hartley will hand off packages at 120 homes from Youngstown to Delmont from the hold of his white Chevrolet cargo van.

Hartley begins early in the long, dark days that precede Christmas.

He arrives at FedEx's Latrobe terminal shortly after 7:30 a.m. to begin loading his van. There is a method to this madness - last packages first, first packages last.

Inside the terminal office, FedEx's Latrobe manager Scott Hollabaugh has Hartley's itinerary in hand. Sophisticated mapping and tracking software help FedEx's cross-country truck network get packages to Latrobe without a snag.

Once a package reaches Latrobe, Hollabaugh can print out maps with turn-by-turn instructions for his drivers.

Hartley, who's been driving from the Latrobe terminal for the last 18 months, says that's rarely necessary. This is where the rubber meets the road and Hartley, a compact man given to few unnecessary movements, is ready to roll with little more than his itinerary and the mental maps he carries in his head.

"I don't like maps. I don't need them," he says.

In a matter of minutes, he is cruising Unity Township, traveling along the narrow, winding roads that cut through the countryside.

"The RDs (rural delivery addresses) kill us," he says, turning around in one country lane and heading back up the road toward a long gravel driveway he passed seconds earlier.

Running through rain, he knocks on the front door at his first stop and, getting no answer, heads around back. Moments later the homeowner opens the front door. Hartley darts back to the front yard and exchanges courtesies.

In and out. Stop and go.

The routine that defines his day begins.

The rain stops.

Hartley's van, bearing FedEx's blue and green logo, labors up long, twisting two-lane blacktops and slides down sharply curving threads of asphalt.

The clouds close in and the rain threatens again.

Hartley keeps a steady pace.

He is 12 miles into what will be a 200-mile day when he arrives at his third stop, a modern, two-story home decked out in wreaths and garlands.

No one is home. A package is tucked away discreetly on the porch. Paperwork is completed.

In and out. Stop and go.

Hartley is driving again.

Those mental maps of his come in handy. Communities like Baggley, Whitney, Ludwig, Penn, Grapeville, Lincoln Heights, Rolling Hills and Pleasant Unity are etched in his memory.

But even Hartley's best mental maps don't include unmarked, heretofore unvisited homes. Spy cameras in the Earth's orbit may be able to zoom in on just about anyone's back yard, but the life of a delivery man would be so much simpler if everyone marked their mailboxes, Hartley says, stopping along a rural road.

Stops like this one, where Hartley inspects a mailbox for information, aren't uncommon. But he would just as soon keep on moving.

"Time is money," Hartley explains, hoisting a package from the back of his van onto his shoulder.

In and out. Stop and go.

Hartley backs into stops, he explains, because you can see when something in front of you changes when you go to pull out. "You never know when a bicycle or a child is going to move in behind you if you have to back out," he says.

Safety is always a concern, even when Hartley has to pull off the winding blacktop of Millersdale Road and dart across the curving Hempfield Township artery to deliver a package.

In and out. Stop and go.

Darting and dashing are a big part of the job, especially when volume pushes up demand. Hartley, who dances as he sprints through yards and down sidewalks, explains it in terms of economy.

"If I run to and from every stop, it saves 30 seconds each way. Take that times 100. It adds up," he says.

And on days like this, when Christmas may be riding on his van, every little bit counts.

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