Like most awkwardly shy children, I used to collect stamps. Even today a bright one will catch my attention although it’s been years since I actively sought them in a household not really important enough to receive much more than bills. To make up for not getting our own mail, I’d go to the local hobby store (not Hobby Lobby, thank you) and get those cheap packages of cancelled stamps from countries I’d never heard of. Using special strips designed for introverts, I’d mount them carefully over their black-and-white image in my stamp album. Looking at those carefully engraved pieces of miniature art was a way of traveling for a kid in a lower-income family who considered a trip to Pittsburgh the big time. I’ll still save a flashy stamp although the album was lost decades ago.
The other day I saw a Liberty forever stamp. Looking at the headlines, I think the stamp has been lying to me. The idea of liberty doesn’t seem to involve using “Nuclear Options” to stack the Supreme Court after illegally refusing a hearing for the lawful candidate our last true president nominated. Liberty doesn’t involve beefing up security so we can deport those we normally exploit and then firing our missiles at those we personally dislike. No, my philatelic informant seems to be sadly misinformed. Nothing is forever. Indeed, some of the stamps I purchased before the price went down are now more expensive than they need to be. We can always use the surplus to buy more missiles, I suppose. But wait, the price has gone back up! All reprieves are short-lived.
As I daily watch our government dismantle the freedoms we’ve so carefully built over the past two centuries, I glance at my liberty forever stamp and wonder what went wrong. When did hatred of others trump the desire to be free? When did the slimmest of crooked margins become a mandate? When did braggadocio become a sufficient substitute for intelligence? When you place “forever” as the value of a stamp, you no longer know just what it’s costing you. I was born in the age of the 4-cent stamp. Since 1885 the price had never gone over 3 cents. Stamps were more honest in those days. They didn’t say “forever” on them since, it seems, we all knew that nothing lasts forever. Not even liberty.
Reality seems more and more intangible all the time. Perhaps this is because I can remember a time, not so long ago, when sitting in front of a computer all day would have been unthinkable. Or maybe it is because when I stepped outside to go for a jog, I found a piece of yesterday’s mail lying on the front lawn. Not that it was terribly important, but it was a stamped piece of mail with my name on it. Soaked with dew. Unread. To err is human, so I wouldn’t have worried about it so much if it hadn’t have happened before. In my days of unemployment, I could hear the postal carrier come onto the stoop, talking away on a cell phone, negotiating the mailbox as if it were a nuisance. Then one day I found a bill that I had put out to be delivered on the sidewalk. The landlord once called, wondering where the rent was. We’d mailed it a week ago, but to this day, years later, it never arrived. I know I’m old fashioned, but a stamp used to mean something.
As a child I was a half-hearted philatelist. At the local hobby store you could buy photo-album knock-offs specifically for stamp collecting. Stamps were a promise from the government. I always considered the fact that they were engraved—like dollar bills and liquor bottle labels—to mean that they were serious. There was more than an implied contract here. A stamp meant delivery. Long I would linger over the empty spaces of my stamp album preprinted with the images of the missing stamps. I thrilled to find one of the Grange, although I had no idea what a Grange was. The one with the legend of Sleepy Hollow I coveted with all my youthful imagination: Ichabod Crane being forever chased by the headless horseman. Stamps from other parts of the world were virtually unknown in my small town. When they came, it was like visiting an exotic location in our own living room.
A few years back I noticed that stamps were no longer engraved. Printed on a printer not so different from the one that sits on my desk, they have lost their souls. Although their costs have continued to rise, they no longer guarantee delivery like they used to. There was a covenant involved. You licked the stamp, putting it in intimate contact with your body, and the government would ensure the recipient would receive it. I’m outside holding a soggy postcard with my name on it. This one made it to within just yards of its goal before falling, unnoticed from the hand or bag of a mail carrier. We all use email anyway, don’t we? I remember a day as a college sophomore when I had never sat before a computer screen. The world was right there in front of me, inescapably real. Something has happened since then, but I have to admit that I don’t miss licking stamps. I just wonder if reality has really changed.