Editorial: On stamps, elections and the history of the world

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We’d inherited a cardboard cigar box filled with faded stamps, old coins and all the wonders of the world.

The 8- by 5-inch case was passed along last month from a friend who, himself, had come into it from a buddy named Briggs – 78, fighting a losing battle with dementia and trying to find homes for the valued possessions of his lifetime.

Rest assured the overflowing box, furnished by the long forgotten Headline cigar company – “the big news in cigars” – teeming with antique pennies and postage the world over, has found a home.

The 11-year-old boy in our house was particularly taken with the trove of paper, ink and copper, dusting off a rarely used magnifying glass to better reveal the mysterious origins of the thumbnail-sized loot which, collectively, numbered hundreds of postage stamps, dozens of century-old pennies and a 55-page Boy Scouts of America “Stamp Collecting” guidebook, copyright 1951.

The coinage was a set from the first decade of the “Lincoln penny,” beginning in 1909 when Teddy Roosevelt, in the waning days of his presidency, oversaw the transition from the Indian Head cent to the penny profile we know today, produced in commemoration of the 100th year since Honest Abe’s birth. These were among the first coins of this rendering ever minted, a mold that would remain virtually unchanged for 50 years, until the “tails” side in 1958 was re-envisioned as the more commonly recognized Lincoln Memorial. Yet there has remained one constant – the USA’s unofficial motto, on every coin since 1873, “e pluribus unum”: out of many, one.

The stamps were even more overwhelming. Page after page of postage from every longitude of the first half of the 21st century: From the conquerors to the colonized; the victors and vanquished; the sovereign, the suppressed.

The images on the wee squares of perforated paper are monumental when magnified: a star shining heavenly light upon a field worker in “Corea,” still cited in the collection as a “Japanese dependency”; the right profile of Adolf Hitler from 1942 – those simple, ominous words “Deutsches reich” inscribed at bottom.

Stamps from Abyssinia, Siam, Rhodesia, Tananyika, Zululand, Zanzibar – place names that today only exist in history books.

Pages replete with British colonies, British possessions, British control. Or better, the Irish Free State, listed under “British dominion.”

The stamps belonged to Boy Scout Donald Briggs, of Troop 99 out of Denver, whose completion of his collection in 1951 fulfilled requirements for his promotion from second to first class scout, entitling him to “all the privileges of that rank.”

Briggs’ collection didn’t hold postage from such soon-to-be headline-making lands as Israel or Vietnam, which were in their pre-stamp phases at that point, let alone such future post-Cold War stalwarts as Estonia, Azerbaijan or Kyrgyzstan. The century hadn’t played out its hand by 1951.

But it had enjoyed quite a run by the time young Briggs had gathered his assemblage of imperforates, commemoratives, semi-postals and coils.

From the advent of flight and the mass-production of the automobile to the wholesale human slaughter of the Nazis and the black rain of the Enola Gay, Scout Briggs was coming of age in epochal times.

It’s chilling to consider that back then the stakes for most people of the world were life or death; hungry or fed; sheltered, exposed; at peace, or at war. And yet even in the darkest days, there was something binding them – an unspoken agreement to “fight in the fields and in the streets,” as Churchill said; to go on to the end.

That the many could owe so much to so few.

That kind of fraternity doesn’t exist today. Today we recoil at the thought of owing anyone anything. Stand together? We fight amongst ourselves. It’s the same from Savannah to San Antonio to Sonoma. There’s a lazy convenience to such clashes. The stakes are smaller. We take umbrage, we resent, we keep score. And while we never really win, neither do we – god forbid – ever fully lose. Even when we think we command the armies of righteousness, we deploy them in the wrong battles: an ass in the White House; too many tasting rooms on the Plaza.

Some say we’ve become less human than we ought to be. But one wonders if it’s that we’ve become more.

But if Briggs’ stamps show anything, it’s that while the march of progress drags its feet, it steps forward nonetheless.

There’s an election next week, and the regressions taken in 2016 will begin their course corrections. Despite the unprecedented misanthropy of the last two years, there’s hope that the United States will emerge with more worthy leaders in Washington to stifle the debasement of the Oval Office.

Closer to home, the Sonoma City Council could shift to a majority actually willing to initiate real progress in the city – beyond the faux class struggles of wine-bar surfeit and mansions on a hill that so many in the 95476 zip code mistake as our most pressing issues.

The price-gouged renters, disenfranchised service workers, housing-insecure seniors and shadow-dwelling minorities of Sonoma wait with bated breath for a day when, once again, the many will have cause to owe much, to so few.

At a table in our living room sits a cigar box, a mesmerized 11-year-old, his magnifying glass and a 1947 commemorative stamp of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Who knows what awesome and terrifying worlds he’ll have seen decades from now when it’s his turn to pass the stamps to younger eyes.

Godspeed, Donald Briggs, scout first class.

From out of many, one.

Email Jason at jason.walsh@sonomanews.com.

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