Going Postal

Last week I asked my husband to pick up some stamps, and he returned with the Duke Kahanamoku commemorative, because they were out of American Bats. I'd never heard of Duke Kahanamoku, and now I am licking the man's back. Who is this man, and how did he get on my stamps? Can I be on a stamp too?

I called the number for the U.S. Stamp Program and wound up talking to a spokesperson named Cathy Yarosky. Yarosky said that Duke Kahanamoku was a Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimmer in the early 1900s "known for his humility, grace and good sportsmanship."

"So he invented surfing?" I asked her.

He did not. Surfing was invented sometime in Polynesian prehistory. "He was considered the father of it," said Yarosky. I wasn't buying. Everyone knows you cannot give birth to a sport, particularly one that involves a finned, 12-foot board. Really, how did he get on a stamp? While Yarosky read from a press release about the Postal Service's 12 official criteria for Stamp Subject Selection (for starters, you must be dead for ten years), I got on the Internet and looked up Duke Kahanamoku. I found a resolution adopted by the councilpeople of the city and county of Honolulu, "urging the U.S. Postal Service to issue a Duke Kahanamoku commemorative postage stamp." Resolution 99-163 had been introduced by councilman Duke Bainum. It began to appear that the stamp was the fruit of one man's obsession--a plot to put men with the first name Duke onto U.S. postage stamps. No doubt Bainum was behind the 1990 Stagecoach stamp that starred John Wayne. The surfing thing was a red herring. In urgent tones, I told Yarosky my theory.

Yarosky sighed. It was the sigh of someone who has dealt with a lot of, as they say, American Bats. She referred me to the Citizens' Stamp Advisory Committee, the 14 men and women who decide which of the 50,000 different individuals and subjects proposed in writing each year by Americans with way too much time on their hands will end up on a postage stamp. She called the committee by its acronym, CSAC, which she pronounced "Sea Sack," bringing to mind those little waxed bags they hand out on boats in rough weather. No doubt there is a stamp for these too.

I no longer wanted to be on a postage stamp. I wanted to be on CSAC.

I asked Yarosky for the CSAC chairperson's phone number, but she could not give it to me. "You can write to her," she offered. Spoken like a true Postal Service representative. While she was reading out the address, I went on the Internet, found Chairperson Virginia Noelke's e-mail address and sent off a note to her. Yarosky was reciting the four-digit zip code addendum when Noelke's reply, complete with phone number, arrived in my in box.

I thanked Yarosky for her humility, grace and good sportsmanship, and dialed Noelke's number.

Noelke is a lovely woman, and CSAC is to be commended. They have kept Colonel Sanders and the Golden Arches off our mail, and they are not swayed by bribery: the sack of onions shipped to Noelke courtesy of the Colorado Onion Association did not result in an Edible Bulbs of America series. Who gets to be on the committee? People with "useful skill sets": historians such as Noelke, graphic designers, philatelic experts. Plus Karl Malden, whose skill set, according to Noelke, is "being someone in Hollywood." When a member with a particular skill passes away or resigns, the Postmaster General appoints someone to replace him or her. Karl Malden, for instance, replaced the similarly skilled Ernest Borgnine, who served on CSAC from 1975 to 1984.

Is there a writer on the committee whom I might one day replace? There is. His name is David L. Eynon, and I found his bibliography on the Web. It lists ten works of short fiction, all published between 1951 and 1954, leaving him, one might think, plenty of time for philatelic pursuits. So is there a chance for me, a tiny, postage stamp-size chance? Noelke suggested I get to know the Postmaster General. I have now left Postmaster General John E. Potter three phone messages and an e-mail. Perhaps I'll try writing a letter.

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