Category Archives: hobbies

Geek out: A visit to the National Postal Museum


From Great Britain, the first adhesive postage stamp

From Great Britain, the first adhesive postage stamp (All photos: DY, 2014)

During a quick trip to Washington, D.C. to speak at a program sponsored by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence, I proved once again why my nickname should be Mr. Excitement: Given a free afternoon, among all of D.C.’s many cultural and historic attractions, I chose to visit the National Postal Museum, adjacent to Union Station.

In other words, I spent my time looking mainly at old postage stamps.

Now, in my defense, I should explain that the weather was lousy, I didn’t have unlimited time, and both my hotel and the APA program were near Union Station. More importantly, on the merits, this museum is a hidden treasure for history buffs and stamp collectors alike. It’s also free, uncrowded, and can be enjoyed in an hour or two.

During grade school, I was an avid stamp collector. So even today I understood how neat it is to see a specimen of the Penny Black (above), the first modern postage stamp. And as a lifelong student of American history, viewing the Pony Express cover below stoked my imagination about the Old West.

It took blazing saddles to get the mail delivered in the Old West

It took blazing saddles to get the mail delivered in the Old West

You see, stamp collecting’s biggest fascinations for me were the stories told by the stamps themselves and the imagined journeys of the letters and parcels to which they were affixed. I learned a lot about history, geography, culture, and famous people of all stripes and colors through stamps.

An old railway mail car

An old railway mail car

As a young boy who loved trains and airplanes, stamp collecting played right into those affinities. At the museum, you can step right into the old mail car pictured above and imagine postal clerks sorting letters and packages as the train zips along the tracks.

You can also gaze at this vintage, post-World War I de Havilland biplane and picture the daring young flyers who pioneered early air mail delivery.

This was air mail, back in the day (Photo: DY)

This was air mail, back in the day

The cover below was the only piece of mail carried by the first airplane to cross the Atlantic Ocean from the U.S. to Europe in 1919. I read about this historic flight when I was a kid!

Here's when early air mail went right...

Here’s when early air mail went right…

The letter below also has great historic significance. It was salvaged from the wreckage of the Hindenburg, the famed German airship that caught fire and burned to the ground as it was completing its transatlantic flight at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in 1937. (You can watch a YouTube video of the Hindenburg’s final flight and demise here.)

...and when early air mail didn't go so well

…and here’s when early air mail didn’t go so well

Given that both sides of my family are from Hawaii, I’ve long been fascinated by Hawaiian history. Postage stamps are a part of that story, and some collectors specialize in them.

Early Hawaii had its own stamps

Early Hawaii had its own stamps

In fact, one of my stamp collecting keepsakes is an unused private parcel stamp from the late 1890s, for use on the Kahului (Maui) railroad line. My late Aunty Elaine gave it to me years ago when I was stamp collecting. When our family visited Maui in 1966, we went on the very last train ride of the old Kahului railroad, a treasured memory to this day.

Aww....what a perfect message for a stamp

Aww….I wonder how many cats auditioned for this gig?

I shouldn’t dwell solely on the older stamps, so here’s a more recent one that caught my eye. This adorable little critter was one of ten cats and dogs selected for a postal commemorative series celebrating the adoption of rescue animals.

About a decade ago, I attempted to get back into stamp collecting, but I found that work and other activities got in the way of this studious and more reflective hobby. Over the years, however, I’ve continued to pick up stamp issues and covers here and there. Somewhere within me the stamp collector still lurks, and this was proven to me again by my enjoyable visit to the museum.

My first storm chase tour, May 2008

Six years ago this month, I was embarking on one of the great adventures of my life: A week-long storm chase tour, sponsored by Tempest Tours, a professional storm chase tour company.

Okay, so maybe I exaggerate, but not by much. You see, ever since I was a kid growing up in NW Indiana, I had harbored a fascination with tornadoes. When I was very young, a tornado touched down in our town of Griffith, Indiana. Mom had my brother Jeff and me safely huddled in the basement. (I don’t know if we actually were huddled; it just sounds like the thing to do when a tornado is passing over one’s home.) Fortunately our home was not badly damaged, although I remember being bummed that our swing set was blown over!

Ever since then, tornadoes had this draw upon me. Well into my adulthood, I would have dreams about tornadoes (and still do). When I read a newspaper travel section piece about a storm chase tour written by novelist Jenna Blum (a bestselling author and now among my dear friends), I tracked her down and asked her whether this was all legit. She was effusive in her praise of Tempest Tours, so I saved up my money got out my credit card and signed up for their “Memorial Day Week” tour in May.

Our group of 20 or so converged on a “base motel” near the Oklahoma City airport, and we began our tour with an extended orientation on the art and practice of storm chasing, safety issues, and general logistics. Our guides were honest with us in saying that a storm chase tour cannot guarantee a tornado sighting; after all, Mother Nature is not in partnership with them. (Real storm chasing, you see, rarely involves hopping in a car or van and then quickly running into a bunch of tornadoes.) Nevertheless, they promised to do their best to show us some of the best stormy weather during our week together.

For our first tour day, it appeared that our best bet would be to blast into Nebraska, where the forecasts indicated some promising mischief in the skies for the next day. We loaded up our stuff and hopped in the tour vans for the ride north.

Within around 90 minutes of departing OKC, however, the radar picked up a small front in northern Oklahoma that had produced a supercell, a storm capable of spawning a tornado. And so began our first storm chase!

We had no idea that we had hit a surprise jackpot. This supercell would spawn multiple tornadoes. Our first sighting is pictured right below. I was awestruck; my heart was pounding with excitement.

Tornado near Hennessey, Oklahoma

My first tornado sighting, near Hennessey, Oklahoma

We spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening following this storm and watching numerous tornadoes. It was a singularly memorable day. Even writing about it gets my adrenalin going.

The typical chase day is not so dramatic, at least in the morning. Breakfast is followed by a morning weather briefing. Here, Bill Reid, veteran chaser and our lead guide, previews the day’s chase.

Morning weather briefing (Photo: DY, 2008)

Morning weather briefing (Photo: DY, 2008)

The late morning and early afternoon often involve a lot of driving to position the group for the most promising storm(s) of the day, paying close attention to evolving weather forecasts. Next comes more driving around the targeted area, followed by . . . waiting . . . waiting . . . more driving . . . and more waiting. You spend a lot of time gazing into the sky. It can be a very contemplative experience.

Looking skyward (Photo: DY, 2008)

Looking skyward (Photo: DY, 2008)

When you sign up for a storm chase tour, you start rooting for bad weather during your vacation. On days when the weather is nicer, or when your group is driving hundreds of miles to position themselves for a stormier brew the next day, you may stop at tourist-type places to see local sites, like the Monument Rocks in Kansas.

Monument Rocks, Kansas (Photo: DY, 2008)

Monument Rocks, Kansas (Photo: DY, 2008)

Tornadoes are not always easy to see, especially if they’re wrapped in heavy precipitation. Here’s a rain-wrapped tornado going through Kearney, Nebraska. Though the photo doesn’t capture it, we could see sparks of electricity from power lines as the tornado made its way through the town.

Rain-wrapped tornado going through Kearney, Nebraska (Photo: DY, 2008)

Rain-wrapped tornado going through Kearney, Nebraska (Photo: DY, 2008)

It’s not all about chasing tornadic storms. Looking into the sky while you’re in wide open spaces can be an awesome experience. Sometimes the views are simply spectacular. As corny as it sounds, it gives you a new appreciation for nature.

Evening in America's heartland (Photo: DY, 2008)

Evening in America’s heartland (Photo: DY, 2008)

Storm chasing is not for rank amateurs. It’s why I’ve paid good money to travel with, and learn from, some of the best and most safety-conscious storm chasers around. If we needed any reminder of the deadly power of these storms even for those trained in intercepting them, last May a massive tornado in El Reno, Oklahoma caused the deaths of three experienced, responsible tornado researchers, to the shock and grief of the storm chasing community. The risks posed by these storms must be honored.

I’ve been on four subsequent storm chase tours since 2008. Each has been memorable. While I probably won’t be chasing this spring or summer, I’ll be checking the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center regularly and turning on The Weather Channel when the skies get murky in Tornado Alley.

Pssst, buddy, wanna buy some “investment grade” baseball cards from the late 80s?

It is impossible to overestimate how truly worthless these cards happen to be

It is impossible to overestimate how truly worthless these cards happen to be

In my basement storage area, I have a trunk full of investment grade mostly worthless baseball cards from the late 1980s. In retrospect, it’s good that I was barely squeezing out a living as a public interest lawyer in New York, because if I had any more money to spend at the time, it’s possible I would’ve sunk it into buying even more baseball cards.

I know I’m not alone in this. During the mid to late 80s, grown men of various means spent a lot of money accumulating huge collections of cardboard with pictures of baseball players. Some, like me, dreamed that their prized acquisitions eventually would skyrocket in value, like so many vintage baseball cards from earlier in the century.

In fact, I even joined something called the Baseball Card Society, run by a fellow in New York who sent us “members” monthly packets of easily obtained new and recent baseball cards at premium prices, accompanied by “investment” letters and booklets that made this all sound like a serious and profitable business.

I wonder if famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith would’ve written about baseball card “investors” like me had he ever updated his humorous little book, A Short History of Financial Euphoria (1990), in which he detailed, among other things, the maniacal Dutch speculation over tulips during the 1630s.

Baseball card valuation 101

To understand the roots of the baseball card craze, let’s talk valuation. The value of baseball cards typically boils down to several key factors:

(1) Condition, condition, condition — A perfectly centered, mint condition baseball card is the ideal collectible.

(2) Subject — For baseball cards, it usually means the player depicted. The card of a popular future Hall of Famer is more valuable than a reserve player.

(3) Rookie — The term “rookie card” refers to the first time a player is depicted on a baseball card. Rookie cards are coveted by collectors.

(4) Scarcity — Less is more from a value standpoint, either because few were printed, or — in the case of so many baseball cards produced during the 50s, 60s, and 70s — because mom tossed them out when junior grew up and left the house.

Please keep these in mind as I boast a bit about my baseball card collection.

Showing off my “portfolio”

I begin with one of my most brilliant and bold speculative moves: My small pile of mint condition 1988 rookie cards of future Hall of Famer journeyman ballplayer Gregg Jeffries. I bought these beauties for a mere $5 each from…the Baseball Card Society! (Turns out they were a steal — from me!)



But aside from the occasional misses, there were the sure things. Like cards of superstars such as Mark McGwire, Jose Canseco, Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmiero, Roger Clemens, and more!!! Great players compiling epic statistics, all headed to the Hall of Fame, yes?!?!? Thank goodness I’ve got dozens of mint condition cards of each, including rookie cards. Forget the lottery; these babies are my ticket to the good life!!!

But…WHOOPS…these players and others ran into that performance-enhancing drug problem. Now their cards are worth as much as losing scratch tickets.

And there’s another big problem: The scarcity factor is a little, well, problematic. Even had these guys racked up their big numbers without the use of supplements, ever-expanding numbers of baseball card companies were pumping out millions upon gazillions of cards.

Consequently, there probably are enough Mark McGwire baseball cards out there to give a box of them to every person in the world. Even if every human being in India (plus their former lives) suddenly wanted to collect 1980s baseball cards, supply would still exceed demand.

Heave ho?

It’s about time I took a look at these boxes and boxes of baseball cards. Some, mainly the older ones from my childhood, and a few other cards that I bought smartly, have value. But the rest — including most of those late 80s cards — are worth next to nothing. Sounds like a late spring project, but until then, if you’d like a great deal on some vintage collectibles, leave a comment here and I’ll get right back to you.



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