Allan "Tugboat" Gordon, a retired Navy chief petty officer, looks out over his Christmas-red string tie and tries out his growl: "I spent most of my life in submarines and now I work for a cat."

Not that Gordon, 77, is displeased at that fate; it's not just any feline celebrity he works for.Gordon handles the mail for Socks, the presidential cat, and he takes his self-proclaimed title of "secretary to Socks" seriously.

Chief Gordon presides over the "Socks Corner" of the sun-splashed room at the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home, which has served since last January as the volunteer-run White House Auxiliary Mail Room.

While he waited for a special visitor, Gordon showed off the hundreds of cat photos that cat lovers have sent Socks, thumbed through the albums with his favorite letters to Socks and bragged of the three visits Socks has made to see the mail room in operation.

Soon he was showing his treasured "cat books" to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who had come to say a personal thank you to Gordon and the scores of volunteer veterans who have sorted and responded to hundreds of thousands of letters sent to members of the president's family over the past two years.

"You have been working very hard in the mail room and we are very grateful for that," Hillary Clinton told the veterans at their mail-sorting slots around the room.

As of Saturday afternoon, the veterans had handled 1,018,998 pieces of mail.

"Our busiest month was July," said William Woods, 66, a retired Army sergeant 1st class who runs the mail operation at the home.

May E. Jodey looked up at the first lady, smiled and said the volunteer job has kept her energized.

"Every day I come down here and have my finger on the pulse of the nation," she said.

Signs on the walls give instructions for handling "milestone" mail, the requests the Clintons get to acknowledge birthdays, anniversaries, retirements and new babies, and "adult mail," which includes comments on issues and even threats.

A life-size cardboard likeness of the president gazes out at the mail room's bustle.

"It's the heart of the nation and it's fascinating," said veteran Lee Cruze of the letters she reads.

At one table is a life-size and working Socks telephone. It was awarded to the person who opened the millionth piece of mail.

Back at Socks Corner, Gordon is reading letters from fans.

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A favorite: "Dear Socks: Come to Colorado and I'll take you mouse hunting."

He displays the oversize postcard that is sent to everyone who writes to Socks Clinton.

Next to a photograph of the cat are the words: "Thank you for writing to me. I am honored to be your `First Cat.' "

It's signed with a paw print.

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