Years after man walked on the moon, mail was still being delivered by walrus-skinned boats to Diomede.Occasionally, a cargo plane would fly over the tiny island village, and sacks of mail would be thrown out, tumbling hundreds of feet to the tundra."We couldn’t order fine china," said Francis Ozenna, city manager of Diomede.She is one of the island’s 147 mostly Ingalikmiut Eskimo inhabitants.Located 135 miles northwest of Nome and just more than two miles from Big Diomede Island, Russia, the village didn’t get regular mail service until 1982.Except for one year when it was underbid, Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska Inc. has provided the weekly mail runs to Diomede. The postal contract now is one of the oldest in the nation, and the only one that uses helicopters for delivering the mail.The postal contract is the most expensive in Alaska and probably the United States, costing more than $300,000 annually, according to Debbie Castignetti, a U.S. Postal Service network planning specialist in Anchorage.Little Diomede Island is less than 3 square miles in size, and the island’s rocky, steep slopes have prohibited the construction of a runway.Depending on weather, an ice strip is constructed in the village for a few weeks to a couple of months each year. During those times, a ski-equipped airplane owned by Bering Air is used to deliver the mail.Few floatplanes attempt the flight to Diomede thanks to its foggy skies and choppy seas.Since the inception of the mail contract, Evergreen pilot Eric Penttila has been ferrying mail to the island in the company’s Messerschmidt helicopter.A former U.S. Army helicopter pilot in Vietnam, Penttila said delivering mail to Diomede is not unlike flying under fire."Flying in the weather out here is just as challenging as Vietnam and it can be just as deadly if you’re not careful," Penttila said.During the Cold War, straying off course also could be cause for grave concern, as Big Diomede Island was heavily armed with antiaircraft weapons, Penttila said."Pilots could be penalized with violations from the State Department, or worse, when we weren’t buddies with the Russians," Penttila said.For years, Penttila used to land on the bow of a shipwrecked scow. A storm took the old barge away a few years ago, prompting the state to build a helipad where Penttila lands his Messerschmidt now.In addition to mail, Penttila has used the company helicopter for medical evacuations and search and rescues at sea.In 1993, he helped pluck a group of seven gospel singers out of the ocean off the coast of Nome after the visiting missionaries’ plane crashed.Penttila, 58, said he doesn’t know how much longer he’ll be flying mail to Diomede. His wife, Sharon, is a school teacher in Nome and will retire in about four years."We’ll take a look at it then," Penttila said.The helicopter pilot is well liked in Diomede and about the only face people see beyond the island’s boundaries."He is a very good person; he’s a very good pilot," said city manager Ozenna. "He’s a guy everybody respects and he knows the region and the weather and everybody trusts him."Before regular mail service, mail would come by a once-a-year barge, a rare air drop, or a few times a year by villagers using skin boats from Wales, 28 miles away on the western tip of the Seward Peninsula.Mail was sorted in Diomede and left on a pool table in the village’s recreation center.Today, a small post office is housed within city offices.Regular mail service, said Ozenna, has helped change Diomede, for better and worse."We’re more modernized now," Ozenna said. "Everybody likes the change."Diomeders have long been known for their ivory carvings and whale hunting. But those cultural activities are in decline."There are fewer skin boats on the beach, and we still have some great carvers here, but not as many," Ozenna said.Ivory carvers once used their wares for barter for everything from food to electricity, but money, mostly through welfare, has replaced that method of trade.Today, it’s typical to see mail-ordered packages from J.Crew or Victoria’s Secret among the more popular parcels from J.C. Penney’s, Ozenna said. Much of the mail also consists of food and other supplies, shipped from Anchorage Wal-Marts and Kmarts.Pampers and soda pop are popular shipments.Ozenna said much of the mail also contains welfare checks and food stamps. Jobs are scarce in the community, and less than a quarter of the population is employed.Mail sometimes contains drugs and alcohol, Ozenna said. Diomede is a dry village where the sale and importation of alcohol is illegal.Ozenna said she and other villagers had hoped that tighter security measures imposed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 would have quelled some of the illegal shipments, but that hasn’t happened."We hoped all the drugs and alcohol would stop, because the post office would be more cautious, but it still comes out here," Ozenna said.No law enforcement personnel are located in the community, so villagers police themselves."If we see a suspicious box, it gets reported," Ozenna said.Despite mail and other factors that have brought the Western culture to this Eskimo community, it still largely remains an odd American outpost.The village has satellite television, telephones and Internet, but none of the community’s 47 homes have running water or flush toilets, so the misnamed honeybuckets are standard.There has been talk by politicians and state officials of relocating the village to the mainland, but that’s an unpopular option with the locals, Ozenna said.The International Dateline runs through the Bering Sea between the two Diomede islands.Ozenna points out that residents just have to look over that line to see tomorrow, and the present, due largely to mail service, has caught up with Diomede."We have our walrus, bear, seal, fish, greens and berries here," Ozenna said. "Modern life, everybody is getting used to it. Everybody wants it easier. But in Diomede easy is a hard thing to do."