Maybe it’s not worth a constitutional amendment, quite likely an unofficial bipartisan understanding could handle it, but there definitely ought to be a hard rule that nobody could ever serve as secretary of state who had ever been a stamp collector.
Those magic little bits of colored paper have too much power to take the meanest, filthiest, most treacherous little fiefdom in the world – and make you fall in love with it. If a man were to love as many women as I do countries, there’s no society on earth that would fail to lock him up. And all because of juvenile stamp collecting.
Don’t assume that every country I now mention lives up to all the national wretchedness mentioned above, but I recall falling totally in love with Guatemala at the age of 10 merely because of the luscious shade of pink in their “Quetzal Bird” stamp. To this day, whenever I hear the name “Guatemala” a surge of fondness floods over me. Didn’t Freud hold that an adult would snap free of such childhood enslavement once led to realize its absurdity? Sorry, Sig! I’m still in love with Guatemala for letting me enjoy those pinks and greens and yellows as a young stamp collector.
Don’t ever try to rally me against Ecuador, either. In 1940 Ecuador came out with a stamp half the size of a playing card, showing the Ecuadorian and American flags crossed, and on each side of the stamp was an oval within which were the pictures of President Franklin Roosevelt and whoever was president of Ecuador. No child ever kept staring at baseball cards or other talismans of youth more intently than I kept staring at that stamp.
I remember thinking American stamps were unforgivably dull; endless parades of forgotten presidents, spinning wheels, “Whistler’s Mother” and the sesquicentennial of things like the cotton gin. I don’t believe “sesquicentennial” has ever been used in any context other than stamp collecting. I remember fearing kids in other countries would never fall in love with America like I was falling in love with their countries unless we started putting out some winning, upbeat stamps.
One thing I found off-putting about American stamps was, I could read them. I would drift helplessly into self-hypnosis just looking at the Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and Korean writing on their stamps. Even stamps of countries whose languages used our Roman alphabet sent tremors cascading down my spine as they announced their countries of origin with “Norge,” “Sverige,” “Suomi,” “Schweiz” and “Shqiperia” (Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Albania, respectively).
There even used to be a country called Tannu Tuva.
When the United Nations was formed, America, as though it had read my fears and leapt into action, came out with a breathtaking series of stamps displaying the flags of various members of the that new world organization. It took me a lot longer than it did most of you to realize this so-called “Parliament of Man” was nothing but a VIP lounge for dictators, mass murderers, torturers, thugs and thieves.
Crack cocaine and the like would have held no attraction for kids like me who could get high on a new volcano stamp from Japan or a new commemorative air-mail series from Iceland. When kids like me grow up, they should be allowed – indeed, encouraged – to enter the State Department and assist the secretary of state with research, advice and bits of international trivia that only stamp collectors could know, that might somehow prevent a war someday. But under no condition should former philatelists be given authority. We’re too riven by conflicts of interest.
Suppose, for instance, I were ambassador to the West African nation of Benin and they were to seize an American submarine that had accidentally surfaced too close to shore. Could you expect me to confront the foreign minister of Benin at his chancery and warn him of the consequences of toying with American lives and property? Forget it! While Benin was still the French colony of Dahomey, that spunky little nation put out a spectacular series of “tall” stamps, brilliantly and differently colored in the various denominations, depicting a young black man climbing a wind-bent coconut palm tree. Again, just looking at those stamps was a bottomless pleasure pit. And you expect me to slap their government with a midnight warning?
I’d more likely warn Washington to stay calm and offer financial aid to the Benin fishermen who were frightened when the sub surfaced.
The joys of colored bits of paper can be limitless. Occasionally I actually licked the front side of my favorite stamps just to taste the deliciousness of the ink or the colors and marvel at how that little sliver of paper had actually made its way from Russia or China or West Africa all the way to my bedroom in Greensboro, N.C.
When the curious woman asked the zoo attendant whether the hippopotamus were male or female, he replied, “Madame. That could be of possible interest only to another hippopotamus.”
Could the question, “Whatever happened to Tannu Tuva” possibly be of interest to anybody except another stamp collector?