Who knew stamp collecting could be a complex thing?

    People who collect stuff as a hobby often concentrate on some fairly weird things, but we have a real advantage for our loved ones: We’re really easy to buy gifts for.
    I, for example, collect Batman toys. My collection isn’t huge, but it’s not bad. Part of that is because Karon always knows what to get me for Christmas or my birthday. I got two Batman things this last Christmas and I was a happy little camper.
    Finding someone with a weird collection is always a slam-dunk newspaper story. I’ve interviewed people who collected matchbooks, Pez dispensers and toy soldiers. It’s always kind of a fun story to do.
    I have, throughout my life, collected some different things.
    My first thing was, of all items, hotel soap. My Dad was in sales, so he spent a lot of time on the road. He always brought me back a bar of hotel soap. At one time, I had two shoeboxes full of tiny bars of soap, although I wasn’t noticeably cleaner than any other kid my age.
    But my second experience with collecting should have put me off the hobby entirely.
    When I was in third grade, I collected stamps. One day, I had some money burning a hole in my pocket and wanted to buy something. In the back of a comic book, I found ads for several attractive purchases, including a bunch of stamps for not very much from the Mystic Stamp Co. of Camden, N.J.
    I had my sister help me order something, and for some reason she insisted I order the stamps (I really liked stamp collecting). So, I sent it off and waited like
Ralphie in “A Christmas Story.”
    A few weeks later, they arrived. There was a large manila envelope containing loose, exotic, cancelled stamps. It also contained more nicely packaged, uncanceled  stamps you could buy “on approval.”
    Now, as an 8- or 9-year-old kid, I didn’t know what “on approval” meant. I was about to find out.
    If you’ve never been a collecting hobbyist, “on approval” means that if you want to keep the stuff, you have to send more money. Otherwise, you have to send them back.
    I just thought they were cool, because they were in mint condition. I pasted a few in my stamp collecting book — including an uncanceled series with Hitler’s picture on them — ruining their value, and lost most of them.
    After a few weeks, I started getting letters from the Mystic Stamp Co. of Camden, N.J. The letters started out friendly: “Hey, Tom, hope you’re enjoying the stamps. Did you decide if you want to keep the ones we sent on approval?”
    I, of course, ignored them.
    The letters kept coming and the tone began to change. Finally, I got one threatening legal action. Even at that age, I knew stuff had gotten real.
    That realness was aided by my older brother, who took great delight in describing to me what jail was going to be like. (Coincidentally, he grew up to be a prison guard, and not in the kinds of places where recalcitrant stamp collectors are sent.)
    I became terrified. Then came Dad to the rescue.
    Dad sat me down and dictated a letter. The heart of it was an apology, and a line I remember even now: “I don’t think my third-grade teacher will let me out of class to go to court.”
    To this day, more than half a century later, I haven’t heard back from the Mystic Stamp Co. of Camden, N.J. Every few years, I’ll be going through a box of something and find my childhood stamp album. I’ll see those Hitler stamps and suffer a brief pang of guilt, but it’s been a long time.
    I spent my teenage years at a low level of fear, though. I secretly harbored dread that on the day I turned 18, there’d be a knock on the door, I’d open it and be confronted by two burly men with guns drawn. “STAMP POLICE! PONY UP!”
    Never happened, though. I wondered over the years if the Mystic Stamp Co. of Camden, N.J., had gone out of business, but I told this story at another newspaper and a reader sent me the company’s current catalogue.
    So, I may not be off the hook with the Stamp Police yet.
    Obviously, I had learned what “on approval” meant. I don’t procure Batman stuff “on approval.”
    Good thing, too. Worrying about the Stamp Police is bad enough, but I certainly don’t want Batman showing up at my door dunning me for money.
Tom Pantera is the news editor at the Wauneta Breeze. He has a passion for storytelling, obscure trivia and family. Email: breeze.editor@jpipapers.com

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