Vail Daily columnnist: Jack R. Van Ens: Stamp-collector in chief
May 14, 2011
The world arrives at a stamp collector’s doorstep. Stamps commemorate pivotal historic events. These bits of colorful paper depict people whose lives changed history for good or bad.
Couldn’t U.S. presidents enormously benefit from stamp collecting? Franklin Delano Roosevelt did. FDR’s mother, Sara, started collecting stamps at 5 years old while living in China. She first transferred the collection to her brother Fred. He gave it to Roosevelt on his 10th birthday in January 1892. FDR enjoyed this hobby, building his collection to over one million stamps housed in 150 matching volumes.
His physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, estimated that the president spent over 2,000 hours on his stamp collection during his 12 years in the White House.
What other presidents glean from this hobby might save them from serious blunders, especially when dealing with territories where tribes have roamed for centuries.
When Asian experts conversed with FDR during World War II about what South Pacific islands Allied forces should invade fighting the Japanese, they were amazed at FDR’s command of geography. He pinpointed on maps obscure islands that few Americans recognized.
The president mastered this valuable knowledge largely from his devotion to stamp collecting. Stamps depict scenes within unfamiliar countries and open windows to their cultures.
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No stranger to traveling in foreign lands, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Washington, D.C., in May 1943 for a conference named TRIDENT. He and President Roosevelt outlined various strategies for Allied troops after Sicily had been secured. Churchill and Roosevelt met at the presidential retreat called Shangri-La in Maryland’s Catoctin Mountains, later renamed Camp David.
After intense conversations, Roosevelt excused himself in order to spend a few hours on his stamp collection before bedtime.
“I watched him with much interest and in silence for perhaps half an hour as he stuck them in, each in its proper place, and so forgot the cares of the state,” Churchill recounted.
When FDR sorted through stamps, it provided more than a passing diversion during pressure-packed days. This hobby helped deepen his friendship with Churchill.
The prime minister prided himself as a cosmopolitan traveler whose trips introduced him to the world’s diversified cultures. He met a fellow traveler in Roosevelt whose crippled legs, ravaged by polio, kept him seated in a wheelchair. But stamp collecting allowed the president to travel the globe, without leaving his wheelchair.
Studying events that stamps commemorate helps collectors learn about a country’s history and geography.
Roosevelt may have learned that Afghani officials in the 1870s wanted to stop citizens from reusing stamps by washing off cancellation marks. They clipped used stamps from envelopes, soaked them in water to separate paper adhering to the stamp. Then Afghans dipped the used stamp in a chemical soup that lightened the cancel. After drying and adding adhesive to the stamp’s back, these folks mailed another letter with it affixed.
To stop such fraudulent re-use, Afghani officials in the late 19th century said that a stamp had to be ripped in half before the ragged portion was affixed to a letter. Such jagged stamps on covers prevented rampant re-use.
These 19th century Afghan covers featuring ripped stamps serve as an apt metaphor for the torn conditions U.S. soldiers encounter in Afghanistan today.
The British who colonized India long ago arbitrarily drew a border on primitive maps between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. But tribes that have lived in this rough territory for centuries ignore these artificial boundaries. Some tribal youth from Pakistan join the Taliban and fight across the border dividing both countries. When the battle doesn’t go their way, they slip back over the border and melt into their tribal life before going to war again.
Collectors learn about such tribal customs from stamps. A culture in which loyalties are devoted to families and chieftains clutch power is the most difficult to convert into a fledgling democracy. These tribes have no historical experience of shared political power, necessary for growing a new democracy.
A middle class rarely emerges because tribes near the artificially imposed Afghani-Pakistan border shift from one camp to another. Families protect their warriors and hide them as civilians.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates admitted that the days for another swift and forceful counterinsurgency campaign, like in Iraq and Afghanistan, are over.
“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land force into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as Gen. MacArthur so delicately put it,” declared Gates in a West Point speech.
Or perhaps cadets and presidents should emulate FDR and become stamp collectors. By studying history, geography and culture that stamps depict, a president will wisely shun military strikes in foreign lands that non-philatelists often misunderstand.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.