September 25, 2018 by The Citron Review
by Fred D. Smith
Roland’s world-wide assortment finally arrived, and he wasted no time unsealing the large plastic bag and dumping the stamps—half a pound’s worth (roughly five thousand, including duplicates) onto the dining room table. He would be feasting on this philatelic banquet—sorting, studying, admiring) for the rest of the afternoon.
“You are such a little boy, aren’t you?” said his wife, Greta, said as she watched him using tongs to place stamps, related in one way or another (by country, by theme), into glassine envelopes, and occasionally to reach for one of the massive volumes of his Scott Catalogue to check on the value or identity of particular stamps, penciling notes on slips of paper and slipping them inside the glassine envelopes. Roland wasn’t sure if her remark was a compliment or a criticism. It embarrassed him to share his love of stamps with his non-collecting friends (actually, there were no collecting friends, not any more); it was like telling them he loved fruitcake (which he did, and not just during the Holidays). Oh sure, FDR collected stamps (even designed a few of them), but he lived long before videogames, the Internet, and iPhones. In FDRs day—and all the way up to LBJ’s—stamp collecting was proclaimed to be “America’s favorite hobby.” Gimbels and Macy’s once boasted large stamp departments. Nassau Street, in lower Manhattan, was Stamp Row. And today? Aside from hearing about famous rarities like the Inverted Jenny, or the Mauritius “Post Office” errors, or the Brazil Bull’s Eyes, auctioned for stupendous sums by Christie’s, Siegel’s, or Harmer’s, stamps no longer registered on people’s psyches even though, ironically, the U.S.P.S. continued to issue lavish new commemoratives on a vast array of subjects (circus posters, the Simpsons, classic comics, Star Wars, Legends of Hollywood, you name it), in quantities much greater than was needed. It was shameless collector-catering (desperate, too, considering the multi-billion-dollar quarterly losses due to dramatically reduced use of first-class mail)—the snake feasting on its own tail to keep from starving. For most people, stamp-collecting was today as passé as Walkie-Talkies and Lionel trains. Never mind that stamps, like Lionel trains, like actual trains, had the power to transport people across eras as well as landscapes. But postage stamps, for Roland, were not about today; they were about yesterday, a time when people wrote letters by hand—long letters, and patiently, lovingly—and franked their letters with fascinating stamps, many of which were pictorial lessons in history, geography, and culture unto themselves. It was for these and many other reasons that Roland defiantly continued to pursue the hobby. But he did more than merely “collect” stamps (with the connotation of mindless hoarding); he studied them with the deep concentration of a scientist—their perforations (using a perforation gauge), their watermarks (using watermark fluid and a small black tray), the minute design variations. Stamps piqued his curiosity about innumerable topics like exotic species of birds and animals, especially from tropical or subtropical countries; or moments in a given nation’s history; or great political leaders or scientists: such stamps were springboards to in-depth learning. An Israeli stamp memorializing Albert Einstein in 1955, the year of the great physicist’s death, triggered for the teenaged Roland a fascination with relativity and nuclear physics. A large set of stamps depicting early aircraft served as kindling for a study of the history of aviation. Roland organized the thousands of stamps in his collection to fashion a mosaic of the world—a world largely bygone; a world that was becoming rapidly more alien to him. He was just as excited about exploring the countless mysteries of the world as he once had been more than half a century ago.
“Why yes,” Roland finally replied, looking up from the sea of stamps at his bemused wife. “I certainly am.”
A professor emeritus of English from Santa Clara University, Fred White enjoys writing across a spectrum of genres. Fred’s recent publications include poetry in Allegro, Analog, The Cape Rock, and Euphony; fiction and humor in Aphelion, Praxis, Beautiful Losers, Clockwise Cat, Limestone, and No Extra Words (podcast); and nonfiction in Gemini, Southwest Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, and Writer’s Digest. His most recent books are The Writer’s Idea Thesaurus and Writing Flash. He lives near Sacramento, CA with his wife, Therese (an attorney), and their two indomitable pussycats, Emily and Otis.