Admirable Byrd

This past March marked the 60th year since the death of Rear Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr., USN (October 25, 1888 – March 11, 1957). Admiral Byrd had the privilege of being a naval officer during the time when the United States Navy was still involved in exploring Planet Earth.

Richard E. Byrd Commemorative Stamp, 1988, Scott Number 2388

Byrd was one brave soul. In his 68 year life span, he explored the North and South Poles, Antarctica, the Arctic Circle, and Greenland, but it was his exploration of Antarctica that proved to be his crowning achievement.

Byrd first laid eyes on the white continent on Christmas Day, 1928. In Little America, he writes, “In the distance, it appeared low and flat, not yet impressive, but there it was, the mysterious Barrier.” The Ross Ice Shelf on Antarctica became the site of Little America, the first human outpost on the continent.

Byrd’s explorations earned him the Medal of Honor, the rank of Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, dozens of lesser awards, and membership in the prestigious Explorers Club. The most significant achievement, in my view, was the four and a half months he sent alone at the Bolling Advance Base, 125 miles South of Little America. Byrd overwintered at the Advance Base, capturing meteorological data. Bolling was not an easy place to live. The hut where Byrd lived was buried in the ice to provide some protection from the howling winds and bitter temperatures which on a good day hovered between 50 and 75 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

Byrd cooking on the stove
Byrd cooking in his hut at Bolling Advance Base

Byrd was the sole inhabitant of Bolling Advance Base. He reckoned that a team would eventually disintegrate into factions punctuated by quarrels and disagreements. Better to go it alone.

To remain mentally sharp, he devised a system for handling the daily chores required for running the station in solitude, “If the time was not sufficient, well and good; let the job be resumed another day. It was wonderful to be able to dole out time in this way. It brought me an extraordinary sense of command over myself and simultaneously freighted my simplest doings with significance. Without that or an equivalent, the days would have been without purpose; and without purpose they would have ended as such days always end, in disintegration.”

Byrd’s Second Antarctic Expedition, 1933, Scott Number 733

Managing to stay warm in subzero temperatures required the use of a heater and stove. It was the stove that nearly killed him.

From the first day of Byrd’s long endeavor at Bolling, carbon monoxide had been building up in the confines of the tunnels and shack. The stove that provided warmth and cooked his meals was slowly killing him. The poisonous air brought Byrd to a condition close to death; so close that he recalled, “the fear was gone…. When hope goes, uncertainty goes, too; and men don’t fear certainties.”

Using the stove sparingly, and by forcing himself to eat Byrd survived until a rescue team could arrive. Without the stove for heat, temperatures soon droped to well below freezing inside the hut. With each passing day, death remained nearby, sure to last long after the poison ended Byrd’s life.  By sheer willpower, Byrd managed to survive an ordeal that would have killed a lesser man. Byrd wrote of his ordeal in Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure, published in 1938. His story retains its vividness even after 65 years have passed.

Ever the philosopher, Byrd’s last lines in the book are perhaps the most meaningful, “A man doesn’t begin to attain wisdom until he recognizes that he is no longer indispensable.”

Byrd, R. E. (2003). Alone: The Classic Polar Adventure (Reprint edition). Washington, DC: Island Press.

Byrd, R. E. (1930). Little America (1st edition). Putnam.


Stamps for Charity

2010 Mother Teresa Commeorative (Scott 4475)

The Sisters of the Holy Cross in Notre Dame, Indiana sort, clip and press postage stamps for sale to stamp dealers. The funds from stamp sales are used to support charitable endeavors. What a marvelous way to use a casual hobby to improve the lives of others. Read about it here: Your old stamps can help people in need around the world

The Thrill of High Places

Most casual stamp collectors are suckers for postage stamps depicting lighthouses. It brings a certain comfort knowing these sentinels stand on the shoreline and guide ships safely to harbor. That is, unless they use maps and Global Positioning Systems, and other modern navigational aids. The Cape Hatteras stamp pictured here is about 1.25 inches tall. The real Cape Hatteras lighthouse stands 193 feet above the sea, protecting ships far out beyond Diamond Shoals on the Outer Banks.cape-hatteras-lighthouse

North Carolina’s Outer Banks are a narrow spit of sand that protect the inland shores from Atlantic gales. Lighthouses were built at key locations along those sandy banks to protect ships from running aground. These sand dunes wrecked so many ships that the area off North Carolina’s shore is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic. Tourists fish and swim among the beached ribs and bones of dead ships along the shoreline. Lighthouses did as much as they could in that harsh and wild landscape to keep ships and sailors safe. You can still visit most of the lighthouses in North Carolina, and some still allow you to climb to the top – if you are brave enough.

Some say that a fear of heights is nature’s way of making sure that the smartest humans survive long enough to reproduce. I agree. Being slightly nervous in high places makes you less likely to do something reckless or stupid. The goal is to enjoy the view from the lens house, without being the feature of a memorial service.

Currituck Beach Lighthouse, Corolla, North Carolina

The Currituck Beach Lighthouse was built in 1875 and was left in its original red brick color. It was the last one built on the Outer Banks to warn ships of the dangerous shoals off Nags Head and Corolla. In the lantern room, 158 feet above sea level, a first order Fresnel lens emits a three-second light signal every seventeen seconds, visible for 18 miles, to remind seafarers where they are. Climbing to the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse requires some physical effort. It is 214 steps to the top gallery, but there are several landings along the way to rest.

The hardest part might be stepping out onto the walkway that encircles the lighthouse just beneath lantern room. The iron railing is sturdy, and you can get some great photographs of the banks. The self-guided tour inside the lighthouse costs $8.00 and is well worth it. The exhibits in the base of the lighthouse explain the history of the work of the lighthouse keepers.

So, you pay your eight bucks and start the climb. You get to the top, take a walk on the exterior walkway encircling the lighthouse just below the lantern room, and climb back down. You can do it all in about 15 minutes or less.

To be honest, aerial views of the North Carolina beach are not interesting, and often disappointing. Miles and miles of prefabricated, poorly constructed plastic and fake stucco beach housing occupy your vision. During the summer, a humid haze blurs out noteworthy objects at any appreciable distance. If you are climbing this lighthouse for the view only, you might be a little disappointed.

I think people climb this lighthouse, and many others like it, because it is a bit of a challenge in an otherwise unchallenging world. In the United States, we have built our society on the idea that “easy does it.” So, we have drive-up teller machines, computerized motorcycle games, and the internet for comfortable vicarious living. Easy credit, plea bargains, and GPS eliminate the need to think any further than the end of our noses.

I climbed that lighthouse with two friends because we have a fear of heights, and wanted to see if we could do it. The only bad moment in the climb up the inside of the brick tower was when we reached the doorway to the exterior walkway. A brisk wind was blowing through the doorway. The height made us uneasy at the thought of going out on the catwalk. We were willing to stand in the doorway and take photos from there, when a man and woman appeared on the walkway  to our left from around the curving wall of the lighthouse. We were wedged in the doorway, and they needed to pass. So, we turned and started back down when the lady spoke up.

“Aren’t you going to go around? The view is great.”

My two climbing partners and I looked at each other and back at the lady. She said, “You know, you have to go around at least once. Otherwise, you’ll really miss out on the fun.”

Obviously, my two companions and I were not about to chicken out at this point. We knew she was right. If we went back down the stairs, we would regret it. So we eased out onto the walkway and headed to our right. The photographer in our little team handed me his camera and said, “Keep shooting.” I pressed my back against the brick wall of the lighthouse and inched forward, shooting photos every two or three seconds. My two partners were wedged against my left side the whole time. We must have looked like Siamese triplets. Finally, the doorway appeared ahead, and we all darted inside the lens house.

We three brave and hardy souls climbed down the inside stairwell, feeling pretty good about ourselves.

The fear of heights is a learned thing. Somewhere in our past, we had a traumatic experience that led us to an unreasonable fear of heights. Bravery, on the other hand, is so rare among humans that we feel the need to recognize and reward it when it happens.

Everyone ought to go to the top of the Currituck Beach Lighthouse at least once. If for nothing else, it gives us a chance to learn how to be brave again.

Albemarle Sound, Looking Northwest from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse
Albemarle Sound, North Carolina from the Currituck Beach Lighthouse




Write a letter, and relax

Americans send 2.5 billion emails each year. We check our email, on average, about 36 times per hour. That averages once every 1.5 minutes. No wonder we feel wiped out all the time. Too much information, too fast.

Slow down.qeletter

Give someone the gift of your attention. Get out the paper, and write a letter – using a pen and the handwriting style that is uniquely yours. No one else has a “font” quite like yours.

I occasionally sit at my desk and write notes of appreciation, encouragement, and congratulations to my friends and colleagues. They often email me or call to say how much they appreciate the special effort to write a personal note.

Special effort.

We used to write letters by hand, as a means of normal communication. Now it is the exception tot he rule. So much so that when we do write something by hand, it draws special attention from the recipient.

So write a letter, put a stamp on it. Pick out a fancy stamp that you like. Walk down to the mailbox on the street corner, and drop the letter through the thin slot on the big blue mailbox. Or walk down to the mailbox on its post at the end of your driveway, open the door slide the letter in, and raise the red flag.

During the exercise of writing thgez4d1aothe letter, addressing the envelope, sealing the letter and affixing a postage stamp, and delivering said letter to the mailbox, DO NOT check your smart phone for email. The handwritten letter is the gift you give someone else. The respite from your smart phone during the time it took to write and mail the letter is your gift to you.


Ben and George

Ben Franklin Postage Stamp 1847
Ben Franklin 5 Cent Stamp, United States Post Office, 1847

The U.S. postage stamp was born on July 1, 1847. This red Franklin five cent stamp, and a similar stamp portraying George Washington were the first stamps issued by the United States Post Office.

The circulation of letters through a mail service existed long before the invention of the postage stamp. Ancient Neanderthals, in an effort to communicate with one another, probably left notes chiseled on rocks and drawing in caves to let their colleagues know that they were out to pick up some mammoth for supper. Over the years, rock became paper, because was far easier to fold and address. Then paper became electronics with the invention of email. Backing up to the paper era, our ancestors wrote letters that were hand delivered or pigeon-delivered. It was not long before governments figured out a way to charge people to mail personal infomation back and forth. After all, the mail system is a public service and a public service requires capital to operate. The postage stamp is one of the first user fees in history, right up there with horse rentals, bridge tolls, and ferry-crossing fees.

So the mail system predates the postage stamp by about a million years.

Prior to the invention of government-based postage systems, letters were delivered by private citizens or delivery companies. The recipient of the letter paid the delivery fee. The private mail system was expensive, and delivery companies passed along that expense to those who received the letter. This was just fine as long as you had the money to pay for the letter, but many people did not. Prepaid postage became the norm shortly thereafter.

Sir Rowland Hill, Postmaster General of Great Britain, devised the first pay-for-postage system by charging a penny for each letter mailed within the British Isles. The letter sender paid the fee. A small piece of colored paper was affixed to the outside of the

Penny Black postage stamp,  Great Britain, 1840

letter to indicate that postage had indeed been paid. The stamp was born. The first stamped letters began to circulate around May 6, 1840. The first stamp being the Penny Black, which was at the time, and still is, the most popular stamp in the world.

The United States picked up on the idea of prepaid postage in the early 1840’s. On March 3, 1847, Congress passed an Act to establish Post Roads “and other purposes.” Under that “other purposes” section, one finds the necessary language to create the postage stamp. On  July 1, 1847, letters needed an adhesive postage stamp affixed in order to secure its delivery to the intended recipient. Rawdon, Wright, Hatch and Edson, engravers and printers of New York City, printed Benjamin Franklin and George Washington on the first postage stamps. The first Benjamin Franklin stamps had a face value of five cents. President Washington fared a little better at ten cents. At first glance, it seems that five and ten cents is a lot to pay for 1 inch square pieces of gummed paper in 1847. That is, until one considers that, with that stamp on its cover, a letter could go from one end of the country to the other.

Most things created in 1847 have lost their usefulness. It’s true that gas masks and doughnuts, two inventions of 1847, still have merit, but most things have passed. The lowly postage stamp prevails. The United States Postal Service delivered 154 billion pieces of mail in 2016, and most of the had some form of postage affixed to the cover. The next time you affix a stamp to a letter, think of Ben and George, and the long history of the postage stamp.

“American Philatelic Society.” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
“Arago: 10-Cent Washington.” Arago. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.
“Postal Facts 2016.” 2017. Web. 29 Jan. 2017.