Postman's fear of AIDS stops their mail, but sparks others' support Scarlet Letters

July 28, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

Charleston, W.Va. -- When Pat and Fred Grounds moved into their new home a woman who lives down the street took over zucchini and butternut squash from her garden.

But one of their next door neighbors put up a 12-foot privacy fence.

The young couple across the way invited them to use the backyard pool anytime they wanted.

And the postman refused to deliver their mail.

Pat and Fred have full-blown AIDS. They trace their disease to treatments Fred received here in the early 1980s for his hemophilia. They came back home to this river town from Laurel, four years ago, already gravely ill. Now, as Fred edges ever closer to death, their mailman's refusal to touch their mail has thrust the couple into a sad and unsought celebrity.

Mail carrier Tim Snodgrass, who has been fired by the postal service, voiced all the fears and prejudices that survive about AIDS after nearly a decade of research, education and publicity.

He said he was afraid he could get AIDS from envelopes the Groundses licked or from cutting himself on their mail slot.

No one has ever reported getting AIDS from saliva. That's casual contact, say experts at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, and you don't get AIDS from casual contact. No mailman has ever contracted AIDS in the line of duty.

But no amount of explanation could get Mr. Snodgrass to deliver mail to the Groundses. Mr. Snodgrass argued that he wouldn't have to deliver the mail if there were a vicious dog in the yard.

Pat and Fred were shocked, but they were more hurt and disappointed than angry.

"Being compared to a vicious dog is a real hurtful thing for me," Pat Grounds says. "There's nothing vicious about me. There's nothing vicious about my life. I would never do anything hurtful to anybody.

"If Fred or myself thought that we were a menace or a harm to society, we would be the first ones to remove ourselves from society.

"I'll show you how much of a vicious dog I am," she says. "I'm concerned about this man losing his job over this situation, because I don't know if he's got a family. I didn't set out to hurt this person. He hurt himself by being ignorant."

For a decade, the public has been assured that AIDS is spread only through intimate contact with blood, semen, vaginal secretions or breast milk. You don't get AIDS from hugs, shaking hands, toilets seats, drinking glasses, or even a friendly kiss. It's not an airborne disease.

Yet people like the postman continue to shrink in fear from those with AIDS.

Just last month White House security guards embarrassed President Clinton and infuriated AIDS activists and lots of just plain compassionate Americans by donning blue rubber gloves to inspect the belongings of a delegation of gay elected officials.

"The whole thing highlights how far we've come and how far we've got to go," says Mike Nelson, a North Carolina alderman who was at the White House meeeting. "Here we are about to have this historic meeting with the first president who has invited gays and lesbians to the White House, and we're faced with this kind of prejudice at the door."

The lingering stigma associated with AIDS has touched the Groundses before. Pat has been barred from a tanning studio and rejected by a manicurist.

But the interruption in their mail delivery produced an outpouring of sympathy. Every day Pat and Fred receive letters of support from across the country. The phone starts ringing at 6 a.m. and doesn't stop until late in the evening.

"I wanted to reach out to you and share good thoughts and welcome you to write to me any time you want to know someone cares," a New Jersey clergyman says. A California couple encloses a newspaper clipping of their story and urges them to sue the Postal Service.

A letter from the Mesick, Mich., Post Office brings tears to Pat's eyes. "We would be happy to serve you and would do so with pride," writes Jacqueline Bourgard, the postmaster.

Another letter is sympathetic, but the writer hopes their plight will create remorse among gays for "their unhealthy lifestyle."

"But you know what," Pat says, "I don't blame my disease on the gay community. I appreciate the thought and the concern and the prayers, but I think that we're all created the same."

Pat and Fred Grounds have always been hard-working, community-oriented, family-centered, God-fearing, church-going people. Pat's father, John Johnson, is an ordained Pentecostal minister with his own church, Calvary Apostolic Church, in Gaithersburg.

Pat believes the strength of her belief in God protects her from bitterness and anger and, in fact, keeps her and her husband alive.

'God is not ready for us yet'

"Not many people live for four years with full-blown AIDS," she says, "and that's really a testimony in our lives to what God is really doing for us. It just makes me want to scream from the rooftops that God is not ready for us yet."

She and Fred, both 46, remain youthful looking, despite AIDS. But Fred's face is drawn and pinched behind a weedy beard and mustache.

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