WHEN THE current discord in Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union began to dominate the world news, the strange-sounding names of certain slices of territory and particular cultures, most of them in Eastern Europe, were familiar to me: Yugoslavia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, the Ukraine and Armenia, of course, but also Serbia and Montenegro.
I thought maybe I'd learned those names in school, and maybe I had. But something else was going on: I suddenly recalled that as a boy I'd collected stamps. I had pasted those countries' stamps in my stamp album.
How could I be sure? Where was the album? I called my brother Irving, with whom as a boy I'd been a stamp-collecting partner. He said he had no idea where the album was -- after all, it had been some 50 years -- but he'd look for it.
So he did -- and he found it! Sure enough, in that album, half a century old, I found those countries' names and their respective stamps pasted neatly under their headings, exactly as I had remembered them.
Leafing through the pages was walking through history. Here were stamps from countries whose histories had changed so dramatically that they were no longer countries. Here was Germany -- not East Germany or West Germany, but simply Germany. Here was Palestine, once a country with its own stamp. And Persia, now modern Iran. And White Russia, Schleswig-Holstein, Hejaz, Danzig (the German name for Gdansk in Poland).
Prussia, Azerbaijan and something called Orange River Colony -- I have all of the stamps, though none of the names appears as a country in my 1964 Rand McNally World Atlas. On they go, page after page in the album, countries which once owned their own land and their own souls and had their own postage stamps that said so.
The lesson of the experience seems to me to be two-fold.
Stamp collecting teaches (and reinforces a teacher's teaching) not only geography but history.
Second, stamp collecting today is not what it used to be. I checked around. Like many other hobbies, it is far less popular than when my brother and I were at it. The reasons are many and complex, but one does not need to be a sociologist to figure out at least one of them: Pop culture, as it gets invented, presented, dramatized and immortalized on television, in concerts, in the movies, on T-shirts and on toys, doesn't leave room for stamp collecting, which today would be considered a nerd's hobby.
When kids today are bombarded mightily and deafeningly with the likes of Ninja Turtles and Nintendo, rock music and boom boxes, how can one expect any one of them to want to go out and buy a stamp -- one with the unlikely name of Bosnia