Recently, when I brought some returnables to a new recycling center in town, I was greeted by an echo from the past. After handing me my nickel per can and bottle, the proprietor asked, "Stamps?"
I threw him a blank stare. "Stamps?"
"Yeah," he said. "You know. Green Stamps."
Green Stamps? I thought he was kidding. "Aren't they extinct?" I asked.
The man immediately clicked his dispenser and plastered three 10-value stamps in my hand. "There," he said and went about his business.
I looked at the crisp new Green Stamps and was immediately awash in nostalgia. My parents collected these. Dutifully. I remember, back in the 1960s, helping my mother fill those flimsy booklets, licking whole evenings away until my tongue was a sticky mass. In my juvenile mind, of course, savings stamps were the ultimate in getting something for nothing. "FREE GREEN STAMPS" read the sign in our local A&P. Free! What more could one ask?
Not far from our home was the Green Stamps Redemption Center. Every few months I accompanied my parents there, where we joined other families roving among the cornucopia of shiny new products. The center was a great middle-class commons, solid proof that hard work (or a lot of food shopping) rewarded you with tokens of the American Dream in the form of a lawn chair, a set of eating utensils, an umbrella, bake pan, or any number of other items one could not possibly live without.
It wasn't until I was 10 years old that I was inspired to collect my own Green Stamps. And so, for what I thought would be only a short while, I became my mom's delivery boy, offering to race to the supermarket any time she needed a tomato or a quart of milk. All I asked was that I be allowed to keep the Green Stamps that accompanied the purchase.
I embarked upon my new venture with an enthusiasm that knew no bounds. Every day I would rush home from school and ask my mother what she needed at the A&P. Sometimes the pickings were good: a full bag of groceries. At other times she had to strain to think of something she needed. But no matter, I was ready to rocket off on my bike to pick up that scallion or packet of yeast - and my Green Stamps, which I carefully applied to the book I kept in the top drawer of my dresser.
When I wasn't shopping or going to school, I spent much of my free time immersed in the Green Stamps catalog, ogling the baseball gloves, snorkeling equipment, roller skates, and yes, new bicycle that could be mine if only my ardor for collecting the stamps didn't flag.
The thing was, I soon learned that it took an awfully long time to fill a book of stamps. I had been shopping like a lunatic for my mother for three months and still had only half a book. So I decided to pick up the pace by offering to shop for neighbors as well, declining their tips in favor of the coveted Green Stamps.
After some eight months, during which I learned the lay of the A&P aisles better than any other 10-year old on earth, I finally managed to save a whopping 1-1/2 books of Green Stamps. It wasn't nearly enough for a bike or a baseball glove; but it was exactly enough to buy a fiberglass Shakespeare spincast fishing rod.
And so, on a warm spring night, my parents drove me to the redemption center where I found that, even with kids, the Green Stamps people were good for their word. I handed them my book-and-a-half of stamps, and they presented me with a brand-new fishing pole. That was in 1964.
Flash to 1994. Thirty years had passed, during which I continued to esteem that rod over all others, even though its design had long been improved by so-called "superior materials." One hot summer day I was out canoeing with a friend on the Penobscot River here in Maine. We were on a broad stretch of flat water. I picked up my pole and explained its history to Tom.
"Unbelievable," he said, admiring the Shakespeare as the sun glinted off its yellowed but still-bright fiberglass. "They don't make them like that anymore. Can I have a look?"
I leaned forward to pass him the rod, he leaned forward to receive it, and - over went the canoe! We made out just fine, but the rod was gone forever.
Tom was profuse in his apologies, but I didn't feel too sharply the sting of loss. With Green Stamps back in town, I'm already on my way to a new fishing rod, one made with those new "superior materials" that have come along during the past 30 years.