WASHINGTON -- "Look, John," said the older cousin, "when you collect stamps, it will help you with your geography at school."
Stanley Parkes then handed his hardcover Mercury stamp album to 7-year-old John Lennon, who proceeded to rub out the previous owner's name and draw beards and mustaches on the stamped likenesses of Queen Victoria and King George VI.
"Typical John," Parkes said last week.
Parkes, a retired agricultural salesman living in Scotland, recently found himself in America for the first time. And for the first time in more than 50 years, he laid eyes on a long-forgotten stamp album enshrined in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.
John Lennon: The Lost Album is on display in time for two Lennon milestones -- the 25th anniversary of his death in December, and what would have been Lennon's 65th birthday today. The museum has scheduled an open house 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. today for the public to see the album. Fittingly, a Beatles tribute band will perform.
Not exactly original lyrics or signed art prints, The Lost Album does feature several Lennon signatures on the flyleaf and the mischievous de-facing of the British monarchy. The boy also listed his address of Mendips, the home he shared with his Aunt "Mimi." It's there in Liverpool where Parkes frequently visited Lennon, one of seven cousins. "We all grew up together. We were very close."
John Lennon was many things (a Beatle, primarily) but a child stamp collector? As any Yank knows, President Franklin D. Roosevelt collected and even designed stamps. But one wouldn't associate philately or stamp collecting with rebel Lennon. Then again, Lennon was an art school student before forming his first British rock band. Maybe the lad liked the miniature artwork found on collectible stamps.
"People started thinking of stamp collecting as somewhat stodgy. No one accused John Lennon of being stodgy," museum curator of philately Wilson Hulme said Thursday at a press preview of Lennon's stamp collection.
"All we're really saying is, give stamps a chance," Hulme said with a straight face.
Stanley Parkes himself was worth a visit to Washington. He sounds like a Beatle -- at least a Beatle cousin. He considered himself more like an older brother than cousin to Lennon, who had two half-sisters. Parkes not only gave his stamp book to the boy but gave him hundreds of Dinky Toys, popular miniature model cars.
Parkes believes Lennon collected stamps for about five years and favored ones from New Zealand, from which relatives would send him letters. Lennon's handwritten notes suggest the album contained 800 stamps at some point. There was no evidence, however, that Lennon benefited scholastically. "Not a tremendously keen student," as Parkes recalled.
Lennon grew out of his stamp phase and the rest is popular music history. Parkes forgot all about the lost album until he read an article in the British press this year. Someone was selling a John Lennon Stamp Collection for 30,000 pounds.
"My God, I wonder if this is my old stamp collection," Parkes said. The Smithsonian acquired the album and then e-mailed Lennon's cousin in Scotland, who was stunned. "What's Washington want with me?"
Washington wanted him to come to America to see his old stamp album. And there it is, under museum glass. Parkes took a good long look, posed for pictures, and graciously shared other memories. Post-stamps, a very famous John Lennon gave Parkes a leather jacket from the Beatles' early Hamburg days. But Parkes, needing a "tip-top" camera and video recorder for a family history project, auctioned the jacket.
He remembers John lending him one of his Ferraris for several months. Lennon didn't appear to miss the car.
"He was blind as a bat and a hopeless driver."
And this story isn't about stamps either, but Lennon invited his cousin to the Beatles' Abbey Road studios to sit in on their signature late-night recording sessions. A sort of fifth Beatle, Parkes has un-credited cameos playing the cymbals and singing a few "la-la-la's" on famous songs he has since forgotten. He remembers asking John about royalties. "You'll be bloody lucky to see that," his cousin joked.
The men stayed in touch over the years and shared happy memories of holidays spent in Liverpool and Scotland. In December 1980, days before he was gunned down in New York, Lennon sent a postcard to Parkes. He doesn't remember what stamp Lennon used. He does remember what he wrote.
"It's a bright, moonlight night tonight," Parkes recited in his Scottish tongue. "Come on, man. Send me a postcard," John Lennon continued.
"Life is short."