While living in Heidelberg, Germany in 1961 and 1962, a fair portion of my busy days at ages 12 and 13 involved stamp-collecting. I got into the fun habit of sending money orders to faraway post offices, asking the postmaster to send me back stamps for the money. I received in return some wonderful sets from Malta, Gambia, Sierra Leone, Gibraltar, Cook Islands — all over. Quite a thrill for a young fellow. Today the sets have increased in value, and some of the colorful, stamped covers sent back from those exotic post offices are worth something, too.
Pa was an avid stamp collector as well, but he didn’t get actively involved in this zany project. Come to think of it, though, he might have been the one to suggest the scheme. Where else would a 12-year-old have gotten the idea? In any case, when I asked him if he’d like me to order a set for him as well, he did go along with the game a few times, adding money to the total to cover his share.
Sometimes I got in a jam, and had to write follow-up letters and check with the post office. A particularly byzantine process started in the spring of 1961. I was planning to send money orders and letters to George Town, the capital of the Cayman Islands, and to Georgetown, the capital of British Guiana. But somehow, things got mixed up.
I found a typed copy of my letter to the Cayman Islands folded in my diary, dated April 8, 1961. It’s kind of cute:
My name is Frederick Fiske, and I am a devoted stamp collector. Having said this, I suppose you already know what I am writing about. I would like you to send me, as soon as possible, one variety each of the current issue, as many varieties as the five German Marks that I am sending you in a money order will pay for. …”
(The letter continues, but I must interject this comment. I already had
purchased the first two stamps in the 1953 series — the 1/4 penny and 1/2 penny varieties — perhaps at an inflated price from the Kenmore Stamp Company approval service, I decided in my 12-year-old, penny-pinching brain that I would try to save myself the cost of these stamps, which would be duplicates. And so I continued:)
“… If the current issue is the issue put out in 1953, would you please leave out the first two varieties … and if a more recent issue has become current, please do not feel obligated to send it to me, 1 each, as many as the money can pay for. Please send the letter back by airmail, as quickly as possible, using my money to pay for the return postage. Please use stamps on the letter.
Thank you very much. Sincerely, Frederick Murray Fiske
I mailed this convoluted and confusing letter April 10. (“please do not feel obligated …”?) A complicating factor was that German postal rules at the time apparently required that money orders be sent separately from the inquiry letters.
My diary entry for April 10, 1961 notes: Morn headache. Mathias is a bore. Sent m.o. to CAYMAN ISLANDS. People in P.O. didn’t know where it was. … (Hmmm. That should have been my first clue trouble was coming… )
On April 29, I received a puzzling response from British Guiana, dated April 19. As it happens, I saved the rather undistinguished envelope in my Worldwide Covers album (see right), with the note inside. It was a form letter with some blanks filled in, titled, “British Guiana Postage and Revenue Stamps.” It came from the Chief Accountant at the General Post Office, Georgetown, Demerara State, British Guiana:
“Mr. Frederick Fiske, … With reference to your letter no. ? ? date April 8, 1961, in connection with stamps on sale in the Colony, I am directed by the Postmaster General to forward a List of Particulars and Mail Order Form on opposite page. …” It was signed:
“I have the honor to be, (Sir or Madam), Your obedient servant
(illegible signature) Chief Accountant”
Though it was flattering for 12-year-old me to be addressed by an “obedient servant,” it made no sense at all that the letter came from British Guiana rather than the Cayman Islands — though today it seems clear enough that those parochial postal clerks in Heidelberg found “Georgetown” British Guiana before they found “George Town” Cayman Islands and simply misdirected my letter (but not my money order?). In my diary entry for April 29, I note: … Had Deutsch test today, and didn’t do too well (or too badly)! Got a letter from Georgetown, Br. Guiana (no stamps) ? Must have stopped there on the way to Cayman Is. Got new bikes! Mine cost $41.50. In aft. went riding (J, N and I). Home at 6, and bed at 11. Might send next letter to Africa.
Hold on. Did I really think the letter somehow stopped off in British Guiana en route to the Cayman Islands? I guess my 12-year-old mind figured the South American colony was a way-station for mail steaming from Europe to the Caribbean colonies. Let’s see what a map of that route would look like …
I went to Pa to get help straightening this out. He took the time to untangle the chain of events. Then he drafted the following letter, which I found clipped to my diary, in his neat, careful handwriting (very much like Kingsley Amis’s handwriting, I have discovered):
Postmaster, Georgetown, British Guiana
Dear Sir: With reference to your letter No. DPT: 953 c/168,
there has apparently been some confusion. My letter of April 8, to which you refer, was addressed to Postmaster, Georgetown, Cayman Islands, and was accompanied by a postal money order for 5.5 German marks, which amounted to nine shillings eleven pence in their currency. Apparently the money order has gone to the Cayman Islands and the letter to you. Could you please forward the letter to the Cayman Islands, so that the order may be filled. I am enclosing your mail order form, with postal money order for XXXX German marks. According to German postal authorities, the money order must be sent under separate cover. I hope that the error may be straightened out, and that I may soon receive stamps from both Georgetowns. Yours very truly (Fred: I’ll take them up to $1. You figure what you’d like, and we’ll add them together)
Have you followed me so far? I typed up a draft letter, and clipped a copy to my diary, dated May 3, 1961. What Pa and I had decided was to take the opportunity to order stamps from British Guiana, as well as get my original letter to the Cayman Islands, where it belonged.
My diary entry for May 5, 1961 notes: …Morn school. Out 1. Had new teacher sitting in at H.A.’s. Looks nice. Home after H-K’s at 5. Practiced. Mowed lawn. Worked with Br. Guiana letter, and bed at 9:45 p.m.
Diary entry for May 6: Morn school till 9:30. Then sent money order with Pa to Br. Guiana. Home for lunch. … Philohoehe for dinner … Got a little too much to drink … am rather lightheaded as I write this!!!!!!!
So things appeared to be set in tipsy motion toward resolution: The money order and mail order form were headed to British Guiana, and the Cayman Islands letter was soon to be forwarded from British Guiana to its intended destination. Good luck with all that!
Amazingly enough, everything worked out in the end, though not without further twists to the tale.
By June, I was growing impatient to hear from either British Guiana or the Cayman Islands. My diary entry for June 23 notes: … got new Hi-fi set. Wrote letter to Br. Guiana (again!).
On July 21 a reply came from Georgetown, British Guiana: “July 14, 1961
(To) Mr. Fred Fiske
Sir: I have to refer to your letter of June 24, 1961, enquiring after your order of British Guiana postage stamps of current issue and to inform you that the stamps were dispatched to you on June 2, 1961.
2. The inconvenience which may have been caused you by the delayed despatch is regretted.
I have the honor to be, etc. (illegible signature) Director of Posts & Telecommunications”
What the heck? The stamps were mailed June 2? My diary entry for July 21, the day the explanatory letter arrived, does not seem unduly stressed out, though: … Letter from British Guiana! … Hit home run. 2 in math.
Four days later, on July 25, a substantial envelope arrived from British Guiana. My ship had come in! The glassine envelope inside contained a sheaf of beautiful, exotic stamps — engraved, bi-color, mint-never-hinged, post-office fresh. My diary entry for Tuesday, July 25 notes exuberantly at the top: Morn sleep, work, letter from BRITISH GUIANA WITH STAMPS!! …
There was still the outstanding matter of the Cayman Islands stamps to deal with. Another diary entry, for Thursday, July 27, notes: … Aft. to movie, “Mr. Miller Ist Kein Killer.” Was good. Also sent letter to Cayman Islands …
On August 26, I sent a another follow-up letter. My diary entry for Aug. 27 hints at my disappointment at returning from an out-of-town family trip and finding no letter from the Caymans: … Put my stamps in Europe stock book. Only got a letter from Creech. Wrote him one, and also one to the Cayman Islands. Bed at 10:30.
On Sept. 16, out the clear blue sky and sea, the director of posts and telecommunications in British Guiana sent me the following letter:
“Mr. Frederick Murray Fiske …
Sir, I have to refer to your letter of August 26, 1961, and to inform you that your money order was received and cashed in British Guiana on May 31, 1961, and the British Guiana postage stamps of current issue which you required were posted to you on June 2, 1961.
2. Although the package was posted to you on June 2, it has been ascertained that the next available sea-mail from Georgetown, British Guiana was on the 26th June, the carrier being the S.S. Arakaka. It is to be hoped that you will already have received the stamps on receipt of this letter.
3. Your letter of June 24, 1961, was acknowledged on July 14, 1961, a copy of which is enclosed for easy reference. I have the honour to be, etc.”
Are you getting the picture here? Are you seeing how odd this is? It seems that once again, my letter to the Cayman Islands — this one mailed Aug. 26 — was diverted to British Guiana! Is this really standard procedure? (See route on map, above.) Is it something about the trade winds? Or the chronic deficiencies of Heidelberg postal clerks?
I’m not sure that the details of this last letter sank in at the time, but they have some clarity for me now. I am particularly intrigued by the delayed-sea-mail angle. I can just imagine my packet of stamps sitting in steamy Georgetown, Damerara State, British Guiana, starting June 2, waiting day after day for the departure of the packet-ship S.S. Arakaka; being loaded on board to begin the long steam voyage June 26, from the South American coast to Europe …
As I reflected on the preceding, I could not ignore a frisson of deja-vu — a ghostly echo from one of philately’s most famous stories … a story about another ship’s delay in carrying British Guiana stamps. This happened in the 1850s. As the story goes, Postmaster E.T.E. Dalton had 50,000 stamps on order, but the shipment from London in 1856 carried only 5,000 stamps. With supplies dwindling, Dalton arranged for the local newspaper printer to produce a three-value emergency set for the interim. The postmaster was not pleased with the result, however, and very few of the stamps were used. To certify authenticity, Dalton insisted each label be initialed by a postal official before receiving the normal cancel. Within eight to 10 weeks, new stamp supplies arrived from London, and the postmaster withdrew the provisionals. Today only one example survives of the one-cent, printed on dark magenta paper, bearing the colony’s badge of a sailing ship in black ink. When this rarest of stamps changes hands, which is infrequently, it goes for millions.
In my case, as in the 1850s, the ship eventually came in. And the director of
posts & telecommunications in British Guiana (signature illegible) was correct: By the time his last letter arrived in September — by airmail, not sea-post — I had my stamps. They had arrived July 25, you will recall, and they deserve words of appreciative description.
The brown envelope inscribed, “On Her Majesty’s Service,” bore two nice examples of the 1954 set. On the back were a pair of thick black wax seals, embossed with a crown and what looks like the letters “STAMP AND PO’S.” The envelope inside contained gorgeous stamps, post-office fresh, from one cent all the way to the $5. I gave Pa the complete set and kept the second set to the $1, which was as far as my money went.
As October unfolded, still with no word from the Cayman Islands, I went to the post office in Heidelberg to follow up. My diary entry for October 12, notes: Morn school as usual. Nance beat me in math test. … Aft. beat her in German test. Home 5, after seeing about my M.O. to Cayman.
I have no memory how I presented my case to the local postal authorities. Perhaps a receipt, carefully preserved? But something got jarred loose as a result.
On Oct. 26, a packet arrived from the Cayman Islands. In my Worldwide Covers album I still have the envelope, postmarked Oct. 23. That’s more than six months after I sent that first letter April 10, supposedly steaming toward the Caymans, but ending up instead in … British Guiana.
My cover album page also preserves a notification card from the Heidelberg post office that might help explain the delay in the Cayman Islands delivery. To be precise, however, I would have to decipher such phrases as “Nachforschungen nach dem Verblieb,” and “Nachforschungendegebuehr wurden by der Aushaendigung diesen Schreibens erhoben.” The gist of it, as far as I can make out, is that the Heidelberg P.O., in response to
my inquiry (“Ihrem Antrag”) of Oct. 12, was able to confirm that my money order (for 5.51 German Marks) had been duly received and processed in the Caymans. Between Oct. 10 and Oct. 23, the international postal bureaucracy was able to pry loose this precious packet of Cayman Islands stamps and send it winging to its intended destination, where it arrived after just three days. By the way, the card with the explanation from the Heidelberg P.O. was sent to me March 30, 1962 — more than five months after I got my stamps, and nearly a year since I sent out my first letter on April 10, 1961.
The post office can work in mysterious ways. …
The envelope from the Caymans was embellished with three of the beautiful stamps from the 1953 set. The cellophane envelope inside contained pretty examples of the set up to the 5 shilling value. All of these stamps have increased nicely in value. I only wish I could have coughed up enough German Marks to buy the set complete to the one pound, at face value, thus saving me a considerable outlay to acquire the missing stamps from a dealer later on.
I must add this piquant detail: the itemized list included in the packet (see right) shows that the postmaster (“… your obedient servant, etc.”) had thoughtfully omitted the 1/4d or 1/2d stamps, thus fulfilling my ridiculous request in the original letter of April 8, and saving me three-quarters of a penny for the unnecessary duplicates …
Dear Reader, if you have made it this far, I congratulate you for your patience and forbearance. There is one more little twist to this tale of international philatelic protocol, circumstance and whimsey. It involves yet another, thick envelope from British Guiana, also preserved in my Worldwide Covers album (see right). This one arrived April 3, 1962.
Before revealing the contents of this envelope, I must provide some context, starting with a request for stamps I sent Oct. 16, 1961 to Ascension Island, a tiny British Crown Colony in the south Atlantic, hundreds of miles off the coast of West Africa whose capital is … wait for it … Georgetown.
My diary entry for Oct. 16, 1961 notes: … Went to P.O. and sent M.O. to Ascension.
My diary entry for Jan. 1, 1962 notes receipt of a letter from Ascension, as follows: No stamps in the Ascension thing. They said that maybe I could send the money order inside the letter.
The envelope and letter from Ascension, preserved in my Worldwide Covers album (see right) and dated Dec. 4, 1961, reads: “Dear Sir, Thank you for your letter of the 15th October.
I regret to inform you that you did not enclose the money order mentioned in your letter, and until I receive it I cannot fulfill your order.
There is no airmail service from here to Germany. Yours faithfully, APDunne (sp?) p.p.Postmistress”
My diary entry for Thursday, Jan. 4 notes: … M. sleep till 8:30. Got up early so that I could have breakfast and not have to clear the table. In late morning got off shopping. Sent a correct M.O. (NOT a Postanweisung) to Ascension at the American Express. Aft. stayed around and worked on my album from Pa. …
I presume this means I absorbed the cost of the first money order, which would have been quite a blow, given my limited resources. The next diary entry I can find involving this matter is Tuesday, April 3: M.S.A.U. (diary code for “morning school at usual”). Home about 1:30. Letter from Br. Guiana for Ascension. All messed up. Night bed 9:30-45.
This is the thick letter I described earlier. As to its contents: I presume there was a cover letter, but maybe not. How to explain the bizarre circumstances of this mailing in terms suitable to an “obedient servant”? The heavy bond envelope went via London, whose circular date stamp of March 29 is on the back. It contains three items:
** My envelope mailed Jan. 4, 1962 to “Postmisstress (sic), General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” On the back is a circular postmark inscribed, “Jan. 7, 1962 — G.P.O., British Guiana.”
** An envelope “On Her Majesty’s Service,” inscribed, “Jan. 12, 1962, G.P.O. Georgetown, British Guiana,” addressed to “The Postmaster General, General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” This envelope presumably included the envelope I had intended to send to Georgetown, Ascension, but which ended up in Georgetown, British Guiana — just like my earlier letter to George Town, Cayman Islands. On the back of this second envelope was another circular date stamp, inscribed “22 Ene (Jan.) Aeropostal – Paraguay,” indicating that my letter had been misdelivered once again, this time thousands of miles south of British Guiana — to Paraguay!
** The third envelope was a larger size, white and flimsy, certainly large enough to contain both my original letter to Ascension and the follow-up envelope from British Guiana. It carried a circular date stamp, inscribed, “Aeropostal, Paraguay, 10 Feb. 1962.” This envelope, like the second one, was addressed to “Postmaster General, General Post Office, Georgetown, Ascension.” Interestingly, “Georgetown” was crossed out — apparently some official decided there were just too many Georgetowns involved! A registration sticker identified the sender’s location as “Asuncion, Republica del Paraguay.” And here comes a real shocker: A rubber stamp in the lower right corner declared: “Missent to British Guiana.” (see enlargement, right; apparently this happened often enough that it warranted a rubber stamp!) Sure enough, on the back of the envelope from Paraguay was another circular date stamp confirming arrival in British Guiana, inscribed, “Registered Airmail, 21 Feb. 1962.”
“All messed up” is right! Here’s a quick recap: It seems my first letter to Ascension, mailed way back on Oct. 16, 1961, arrived at its intended destination without the accompanying money order. My second letter, sent
Jan. 4, 1962, with a new money order, went to Georgetown, British Guiana instead of Georgetown, Ascension. (There was no way British Guiana in South America could be a way-station for mail to Ascension Island, well over 2,000 miles away in the South Atlantic Ocean.) Then the letter that was supposed to be forwarded from British Guiana to Ascension ended up in Asuncion, the capital city of Paraguay! (Ascension/Asuncion, get it?) Penultimately, the same letter, forwarded from Paraguay to Ascension Island ended up — back in British Guiana! Finally, postal authorities there disposed of the matter by packing all three letters in that heavy-bond envelope and sending it back to me, in Heidelberg.
This might have been enough to discourage a less intrepid philatelist. But not FMF! The day after receiving this confusing correspondence, Wednesday, April 4, 1962, my diary notes matter-of-factly: M.S.A.U. … Out 1. Home 1:30 on streetcar. … Smoked a cigarette, but it didn’t hurt, cause I didn’t inhale. Bed 9:30, after learning Deutsch poem. … Letter to Ascension.
I must have settled in for a patient wait, since the postmistress of Ascension Island already had forewarned me that there was no airmail service to Germany. Happily, the envelope from Ascension — with stamps — finally arrived June 6, 1962. It was worth the wait: In addition to containing a complete Elizabeth II set of 1953 (which has increased 20-fold in value since then), the envelope carried the set complete to the one shilling, with crisp circular date cancels inscribed “Ascension, 21 MY 62” — perhaps applied by a very accommodating Postmistress Dunne herself?Notice the “By Air Mail” sticker. You may recall that six months earlier, the postmistress wrote there was no air mail service between Ascension and Germany. Notice, too, that I apparently requested the letter be sent via the diplomatic APO address through New York City, which obviously did enjoy mail service from Ascension. My diary entry noted, rapturously: “… LETTER FROM ASCENSION! WONDERFUL. 10 stamps on the cover! Bed 9:30.”
TO BE CONTINUED