The Philatelist´s Son
D. E. Fredd
Waiting for change always seems to take longer than you would expect. Each work day evening the phone would ring between six and seven. Even though my mother was expecting the call, she always jumped at the shrill sound telephones back in the 1970s made. It was my father calling from Dugas’s, our local convenience store, to tell her he’d be home in five minutes. Considering he had an hour’s commute from Framingham to Townsend, Massachusetts, it seemed, to my childish mind, a waste of spare change to call when he was a few miles away.
“Your father is a creature of habit; there are worse things a man can do on his way home after a hard day’s work,” was my mother’s tight-lipped explanation.
My father was a CPA. He was employed by Snelling and Zellner, a prosperous firm with a main office in Boston and a satellite branch in Framingham. It was a job he hated but slaved away at year after year because the money was decent enough to support the family and his hobby.
Two weak toots of the horn always preceded his pulling into the driveway. When I was four I was riding my tricycle in an endless asphalt loop one October evening. He sped in but stopped well short of me. I didn’t think I was in any danger, but Mother and I received a dressing down as well as a laundry list of what could have happened due to our carelessness.
He entered the house each night lugging a bulging briefcase, a bedraggled Willie Loman look-a-like. Hat and coat went into the hall closet and then he slumped into a straight-backed chair next to the phone stand. My mother, who had taken nursing courses before marriage interrupted her education, had a blood pressure cuff and stop watch at the ready. He rolled up his sleeve and she began the procedure.
“This job is killing me, Joyce; old man Zellner wants the Kilgore audit by tomorrow afternoon.”
I think he was secretly happy when his pressure was high, but, whatever the reading, it was meticulously recorded in a yearly journal that was filed away on a shelf in his home office just off the kitchen.
After committing the day’s numbers to the ledger, he’d hold it skyward as if it were an offering to an all-knowing deity. “When I’m gone, this will be evidence of what they did to me. Even if they settle out of court, this will document what I go through each day.”
The talk at supper was a recap of the day’s injustices. Old man Zellner was out of touch with the real world. He was never the brains of the company; the long dead Art Snelling was, and since his demise, the second year my father worked for them, things had steadily gone downhill. I listened with interest when he explained the grey legal area he was often forced to venture into. What the ramifications were if the government decided to investigate and whose neck would be on the chopping block or in jail when the dust cleared. “It’s always the little guy, Davie, who ends up with the dirty end of the stick. You remember how Ford pardoned Nixon? That’s all the history anyone needs to know.”
My father’s hobby was stamp collecting. He’d begun at age eight with encouragement and advice from his grandfather. Most of our finished basement was his stamp room. Shelves were filled with albums and catalogues, protected from the New England weather by humidifiers. A large safe held the expensive acquisitions. This was a sacrosanct area into which mother and I were encouraged not to intrude. Right after their marriage she needed postage to mail thank you notes for wedding gifts and discovered an entire sheet of stamps lying unused on his desk. The International Souvenir sheet (Scott catalogue # 630) issued in 1926 was worth over three hundred bucks at the time. Her punishment was to contact all the recipients and ask them to return the canceled stamps so he could salvage some of his investment. I was forbidden downstairs because I was a little boy (reason enough) but also under the “apple doesn’t fall very far from the maternal tree” theory.
His other interest was music, especially of the Big Band Era. He had equipment in his basement sanctuary to handle records, cassette tapes and CDs, the newest delivery system on the market.
Right after supper he disappeared to his sanctuary. He claimed that stamp collecting was saving his life. Immersion in his hobby and music from bygone years were better than any tranquilizers (crazy pills) or blood pressure meds. From seven until nine or so he took his “mental shower” as he called it, washing away all the day’s pressure and worries.
While he was downstairs, mother and I watched TV. Unfortunately the sound system from his lair was right under the living room. Benny Goodman’s “Stomping at the Savoy” (Chick Webb’s version) or a Bunny Berigan trumpet solo drifted up through the wall to wall shag carpeting to mingle with a harrowing Star Trek episode. Despite my pleading, mother never once asked him to lower the sound and forbade me to turn up the set. I became an expert lip reader of both English and whatever language was spoken on Rigel IV.
Between nine and ten at night he surfaced. My mother measured his blood pressure once more. It was always lower. For Father’s Day one year my mother bought and I presented him with a battery operated drug store device that could take his pressure and read it out digitally. For a month he had her do it the old fashioned way and compared the results with his new machine. The unit was then deemed satisfactory. Sometimes, within an hour of being downstairs, he’d tromp up to the living room to proudly announce that he just measured a 130 over 85.
“And two hours ago I was headed for a stroke at 160 over 105. If I had the money I’d get everyone in the office one of these gadgets just to measure our pressure before and after a hellacious Zellner staff meeting.”
When the joy of stamps was over, often after my bedtime, he repaired to his upstairs “work” office. He labeled it his “Death and Taxes” room or the “DT’s” for short. It was a smallish, converted guest room where he prepared clients’ tax returns and finalized any company audit he was assigned, responsibilities that couldn’t be finished during the day. He usually called it quits around midnight to get enough sleep to face up to another day.
Our family vacations, such as they were, centered on stamps. Sunday was a big day for shows around New England. They were held in area VFW halls or hotel ballrooms. My mother knitted in the Holiday Inn lounge while I explored the lobby before settling down to do schoolwork or read a library book. I regret that I never was interested in stamps. He would have loved that. Once or twice I followed him around a show as he greeted old friends and dealers. These were old men with nicotine stained fingers and string neckties held in place with turquoise clasps. Their language (perfins, coils, intaglio press) was arcane. One had to know stuff just to begin to know stuff. The tiny scraps of paper were handled with tweezers while wearing white gloves and scrutinized under powerful magnification for the slightest fault. Once I drifted over to another function room where there was a coin show going on. Now there was visual excitement, but my father disdained the hobby in a pontifical manner.
“It’s like tennis versus badminton. They have a few similarities but there’s a world of difference. One can’t do both and be successful.”
I never did figure out which part of the metaphor was equated to philately. It didn’t matter; coins or anything for that matter had little interest for him.
As I’ve mentioned, weekday dinner conversation was akin to a patient telling his troubles to a psychiatrist. Yet on Saturday morning he got up early and hurried to his stamp room. By the time mother arose, prepared breakfast and called down to him, the mood swing from the night before was palpable. He’d bound up the stairs holding a glassine envelope in one hand, his beloved Scott’s catalogue in the other.
“What do you think of this stamp, Joyce?”
My mother would stop her food preparation, put on her reading glasses and stare at his exhibit. “It’s a nice color, and I’ve always liked that three quarter picture of Ben Franklin better than the profile.”
Mother’s opinion always included color and a pronouncement about the individual portrayed (James Monroe had a pleasant smile while U. S. Grant looked deeply troubled). I tore myself away from my oatmeal to offer up my two cents. “Is it rare, Dad, it looks old.”
He handed me the catalogue. “It’s the first United States stamp ever issued. Look up Scott #1 issued in 1847.”
I found the correct page, ran my finger across the line until I hit the column for prices. “Wow, $6,000 for a mint, never hinged one. That’s terrific. It’s worth a new car and big color TV set all in one.” As usual, I equated stamp values only in terms of material possessions.
Using tongs he took the specimen from its protective envelope and held it out for me to inspect. “Look at the back.”
I did but saw nothing wrong and shrugged to indicate such.
I checked the catalogue again. No gum lowered the value to $2,000. I slumped back before my congealing cereal.
He showed me the front of the stamp. “It has a manuscript cancel mark on it. It’s barely visible but under the glass you can see it.”
I grabbed the catalogue again. A used # 1 with no gum was worth two grand, but if it had a pen cancellation, the value was halved. One thousand bucks tops, but no one ever paid full catalogue value. Mother patted me on the shoulder just as she had consoled me when my border collie, Jud, came off second best while chasing a phone company truck. My father was in his glory.
“That Marty Bintner - who does he think he’s dealing with? He wants three thousand for this! Does he think I just fell off the turnip truck? I wouldn’t be surprised if this were a fake altogether. I could run a few tests, but it might be best to let sleeping dogs lie.”
My interest perked up at the prospect of criminal activity. “You mean they counterfeit stamps?” He never heard me as he was headed down cellar again, my mother yelling something at his wake about cold eggs.
In the mid-1980s I left for college. I was home during the summer grabbing whatever short-term employment I could find. My parents, creatures of habit, had changed very little. My father still complained about his blood pressure and the job that was slowly killing him, and my mother catered to his crackpot whims which now included foods and herbs that helped the problem. He spoke of retirement, but it was with the same pie-in-the-sky tone of voice that he used when speculating about ever acquiring the inverted Jenny stamp.
The year I graduated from Bowdoin, I came home in June to work on my graduate school applications. I”d fallen big time for Liz Sizemore, a girl I’d never given a second thought to in high school, but she had blossomed to the degree that when we met by accident the previous summer, I barely recognized her. She would later become my wife, but on that particular Sunday we toured the Lakes Region in New Hampshire and made excellent carnal usage of her uncle’s Winnipesaukee cottage.
It was after midnight when I pulled into the driveway. Mother had left the porch light on, and I saw that father’s basement lights were burning so he was probably still engrossed in his stamps.
I was headed upstairs for bed when I thought the music, a Bix Beiderbecke cornet version of “Riverboat Shuffle,” was overly loud for the late hour. Knowing my mother would never say a word, I decided to intercede on both our behalves under the guise of wishing him good night. I stood at the top of the cellar stairs.
There was no answer. I knew he was getting very hard of hearing which was probably why he had cranked the volume up. I went half way down. “Dad!”
I needed only a few more steps to view his stamp nook completely. He was slumped over the desk, his face pile driven into the blotter and contorted like a little kid making weird faces by pressing up against a plate glass window. The minute I touched him I knew he was dead, had been for several hours. I turned the music off.
I hadn’t been down here for a few years. He’d added a small refrigerator and two armchairs I recognized as having once been part of our old living room set. Nothing but the best of creature comforts for his stamp buddies when they visited. I sat in one of them to collect my thoughts. I could hear his stamp colleagues now, “At least he died doing what he loved best, Davie.”
But that didn’t seem right in his case. I knew what he would want, what he had predicted. I made a command decision. I picked him up using the fireman’s carry and took him upstairs to the “DT” room. I think the few minutes it took me were the most physical contact I could ever remember having with him. I sat him down at his desk, grabbed a few tax files from the “in” basket, placed them in front of him then gently laid his head on them. This was what he would have wanted. When the tableau looked satisfactory, I went upstairs to wake mother.
By three in the morning all the necessary authority figures for sanctioning any death had left. My mother looked like a tiny bird nursing a broken wing, starting to do or say something before slumping wordlessly back into the kitchen chair. The preliminary report was a brain aneurysm; death was instantaneous.
That September I began graduate school at Northeastern, driving in on certain days. I took a part time job at The Pizza Palace to keep busy. Father’s insurance and retirement packages left Mother and me in excellent shape. The house had been paid for long ago.
I invited a local collector over to assess Dad’s holdings. He offered us $7500 for the lot. I knew nothing about stamps except that the amount was close to highway robbery. We paid an appraiser, and he came up with a figure just shy of $500,000, cautioning us that we’d need to sell the collection piecemeal and be patient enough to wait for our price.
It’s been several years now. I haven’t sold one stamp. Mother died in 1996 so Liz and I inherited the homestead. We have a son, AJ, who is eight and seems interested in stamp collecting, which my Dad would love. I have yet to turn him loose downstairs on the more valuable specimens. Some nights, when I can’t sleep, I go to the basement, put on his music and peck away at some short fiction or poetry on my laptop. As I write this, a CD devoted to Hoagy Carmichael’s Greatest Hits is playing. One of my favorites, “In the Cool, Cool, Cool of the Evening,” is about to end. It brings back memories. Perhaps, if I’d changed and shown an interest in stamps, we might have been closer. Just a guess.