The war against loose ends

In a piece titled "Confessions of a Whiffle-Remover," Bill Vaughan wrote about his happy compulsion to tear perforated margins from the edges of postage stamps. Though he was not certain he had "the exact philatelic term," the late columnist of the Kansas City Star went into marvelous detail about the "superior or overhead whiffle," the "inferior or bottom whiffle," the "lateral" whiffles (left and right), and, fo course, the "double whiffle" that occurs when the whiffle-remover is confronted by the corner stamp on a sheet.

Vaughan grumbled a bit about his whiffle-compulsion, as one will about a fond habit. Whiffling, he pointed out, is not as easy as it looks: "The whiffle is hard to get hold of and remove without tearing the stamp itself. It takes a delicate touch."

Furthermore, what does a whiffler do with a whiffle, once removed? "Whiffles are useless," Vaughan confessed."Even if you saved enough of them to stuff a pillow, you wouldn't want to do it."

Yet logic counts for nothing with a whiffler. The reader senses that Vaughan could be manacled inside a locked chest under water, like Houdini, and if an inferior-whiffle stamp happened to float by, he would find a way to dewhiffle it.

It is our experience that the whiffler does not restrict himself to postage stamps. He is of a type -- the whiffle-removing persuasion -- and if a postage stamp is not lying around, he will show in other ways his passion to tidy up loose ends, to straighten out the edges of life.

Your whiffler, for instance, is likely to have a thing about sneaker laces. They will have to lie flat, without a twist in them, even at the knot. And a pattern must be followed, dictating which lace crosses on top of the other -- from left to right, or from right to left. Needless to say, the pattern must be consistent for both feet and, in fact, all the sneakers and flat-laced shoes one owns.

Your true whiffler will feel a strong urge to arrange everything at right angles -- the pens and pencils on his desk, the comb and brush on his bureau, the food on the plate before him. Neat zones of no-man's-land must separate one food from another. As he applies his butter, he will want in the worst way to keep his dwindling pat a perfect square. A fanatical whiffler will even try to square his mashed potato.

If he makes a blot in something so trivial as a shopping list, your true whiffler will tear it up and start over, even if the last item had been reached -- even if nobody else will ever see his shopping list. For the point should be understood: A whiffler whiffles only for himself.

Athletes, by nature, are whifflers. Football players are fussy about their shoulder pads. Hockey players have to tape their sticks just so. In baseball both pitchers and batters are forever tugging at caps, belts, and sleeves in search of some perfect arrangement. Tennis players try to fidget their strings into absolute parallel.

None of these acts is any more necessary than removing the whiffle from a stamp. Yet, deep down, your true athlete-whiffler believes that no ball can be properly thrown or properly hit without these preliminary rituals.

How shall we put it? A whiffler is a man who combs his hair before going to bed. With, it should be added, the conviction that he can never get to sleep otherwise.

Whifflers can be treated as comic characters, as Vaughan did in his splendid little essay (collected by Independence Press of Independence, Missouri, in "The Best of Bill Vaughan"). Or they can be glibly analyzed by psychologists, who, it must be noted, tend to be mental whifflers themselves, unable to tolerate rough edges in their all-too-tidy theories.

Whifflers deserve to be treated with a bit more respect. To whiffle is to send up a signal: One is cutting back the edges of the jungle -- neatly.

Removing the whiffle from a postage stamp may not defeat what Alexander Pope called the "dread empire" of Chaos. But civilization, we always say, starts with those fringes.

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