First-Class Mailings

A couple years ago I picked up a National Parks Passport Book, which is much like my coin collection in that it’s another thing in which I can put other things, until such time as I either lose the Book, or until I die and the executor of my estate finally throws it out. Unlike the coins, this one collects stamps, some of them the kind you lick, others the kind you just rub on an ink pad at a National Park gift shop and then smash into paper. This hobby has many benefits, beyond giving me a reason to nervously approach a cashier at a National Park gift shop and ask if they have the Passport Book stamp, and then repeat myself because I didn’t quite make myself clear, and then ask up to three other people while I wither and die of embarrassment before they find the stamp. For example, if I ever want to know on what day I visited Ford’s Theater and the Petersen House Where Lincoln Died I can flip to the appropriate section of my Passport Book, where I won’t find it, because I stamped those in my Letterboxing log book, which is a totally different ink-stamp-based hobby.

Anyway, I had a great chance to lose my Passport Book recently, when I visited my parents, who last year moved to South Carolina, catching South Carolina completely off-guard. We visited some of the National Parks in the area, as well as some lighthouses, since my love has a Lighthouse Passport Book good for another set of ink stamps, although the specific lighthouse we found had no stamp, which invokes an honestly complicated series of rules because it turns out lighthouse-visiting is a complicated hobby. The important thing is I left my Passport Book behind, and my parents eventually found it.

My father mailed it to me, and he packaged it himself. I should explain, the book is a little slimmer than a small paperback novel, the kind you might mail by buying one of the small-size bubble-wrap mailers and stuffing in and wondering if the self-sealing flap was going to come loose in actual mailing. That’s because you don’t share that side of my family’s heritage of over-wrapping.

I don’t want to brag but we’re really very good at it, if by “good” you mean “can routinely include so much packing tape that the package outweighs the delivery vehicle” and if by “delivery vehicle” you mean the “cargo-carrying Boeing 777 Freighter, piloted by elephants, who came to the airport right from the Mongolian buffet, which had just got a delivery in of ginger-spiced gravity”. That bubble-wrap mailer with the self-sealing flap you might worry about? Well, we’d put a layer of tape over that. And another one to cover the edge between the tape and the mailer. And maybe staple the envelope end closed just to be sure. And weld the staple in place. And glue a patch over the weld. When we put it in the mail, it’s never getting out again, and that’s not even considering what we do to make sure the address doesn’t get smeared in transit.

I don’t want it to sound like this package-wrapping thing is a chore or even unpleasant. It’s got an outright merry side. Every Christmas, for example, we bring out a present that my great-uncle Al gave to my father in 1949, and we all take turns trying to unwrap it a little more. We believe we’re nearly one-sixth of the way through it, and you can imagine how thrilled we are since various hints in family lore suggest it might be a model train with Jersey Central “Blue Comet” line livery. And someday some distant descendant might finally inherit these generations of family moments, and actually get it open, and then tuck the present aware somewhere, wrapping it up for safety.

My father didn’t take wrapping my Passport Book up to the greatest possible extremes, but it still arrived safe and sound and within hours of when the package tracking service said it would. It came as a neat little bundle, wrapped in the paper bag he got from the grocery, and wrapped again in more grocery-bag paper just in case, and I was able to get it open using just my fingers, the kitchen scissors, our pet rabbit’s incisors, the table saw, several cries to the heavens about the injustice of it all, and the smaller scissors I use to trim my moustache. Everything came through in great shape and I’m fairly confident that I haven’t lost the book yet.

A State Of Constant Change

I want to talk about something I think we’ve lost, but I don’t want to sound like I’ve come down with a case of being old and cranky so I’m going to start off with what I like about the change. And it’s about change, like how there’s varying patterns now in pennies and nickels and the whole State Quarters series. Although at this point it isn’t really State Quarters anymore. They’ve moved on to pictures of National Parks Plus Other Park-y Things because they couldn’t think of national parks that are in some of the states out there. And then there were State Quarters for places that aren’t states, like the District of Columbia, Guam, New York City, Munchkinland, and Paris. But I don’t know how to group all this into a single name so I’m going to call them State Quarters and if someone wants to tell me that Arches National Park isn’t a State, they can come up where I can credibly threaten to poke them in the eye.

Anyway the State Quarters and other stuff project has been fun because it’s encouraged my tendencies towards coin-collecting. I don’t have any good reason to collect coins, except that they are shiny things that can be put into piles of things, and when you look at it that way it’s a wonder anyone does anything besides coin-collecting. The habit offers the obvious benefit that whenever I get change in any transaction, for fifteen years now, I’ve had to examine every single coin, adding a quick touch of suspicion and wondering whether I’ve got enough Commodore Perry Victory Memorial coins. (This is a surprisingly tricky question: I’ve been to Lake Erie, and there’s Commodore Perry Victory Memorials every 46 feet of shoreline, at least on the United States side of things. I haven’t been to the Canada side of the lake but imagine they’ve got a couple Throat-Clearing Followed By Explanations Starting, “You Have To Understand” Monuments along the Ontario shore.)

And eventually all this coin-collecting will really pay off when someday, presumably, I will die. Then whatever poor soul is tasked with the job of cleaning out my junk will get to bring stacks of coins into the coin shop, bringing a moment of sadness to anyone in the strip mall who catches sight of them, and learn that all these carefully collected State Quarters can be turned into a whole $22.50 in cash. It should be $25.00 — Philadelphia and Detroit mints, of course — but the coin shop charges a premium for counting out 100 quarters, after all, and they’re pretty sure it’s supposed to be ‘Denver’ mint anyway.

Now, I don’t want to get too cranky about the way things used to be, but I don’t see how kids growing up can appreciate how weird it is that they keep changing quarters five times a year. I grew up when coins were done the correct way, in that they were almost all the same except now and then you got a Bicentennial Quarter. It was stable. Oh, there was a bit of excitement when they changed the penny from being copper to being a copper-painted lump of high-fructose corn syrup in 1982, but the only kind of exciting penny was the one that was stuck as if glued to the tile right beside the toilet and was turning horribly green and who knew what kind of horrible things might befall the person who touched it but it was a whole penny and if you had that and 124 more of those you might buy a paperback collection of Hagar the Horrible strips next bookmobile day.

Today even the penny isn’t perfectly stable, and you can’t do the trick of offering to flip a penny and pick ‘the side showing Lincoln’s face’ because you can’t count on the tails side being the Lincoln Memorial and having a teeny tiny little Lincoln face inside there. You never could, but if you were the kind of kid who dreamed of someday being in an Encyclopedia Brown story you were sure you could pull that fast one on somebody, eventually, someday, and even that promise is lost. Encouraging these piles of coins to last after you die is great, but think of what we’re giving up.

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