As he hoofed along his route in Laguna Beach, Calif., mail carrier Len Cohen developed a curiosity about postal practices in other countries. He retired in February and moved to Bayonet Point, and his curiosity has grown into a full-blown fascination with all things postal.
Cohen's interest started seven years ago, when he was watching a television program about a pilot with a collection of airline patches from different countries. His daughter, watching the program with him, suggested he do the same thing with mail carrier patches.
Since then, the 62-year-old Cohen, who wears a gold watch adorned with the National Association of Letter Carriers emblem, figures he has pecked out more than 4,000 letters _ sometimes as many as 30 a day _ requesting items and information from postmasters throughout the world.
He now has 130 to 140 patches and other postal items from 80 to 90 countries.
Many of the patches are, to him, objects of beauty. "The most beautiful ones are my favorites, ones my wife would like to wear as jewelry," Cohen said. "But I won't allow it."
Besides patches, he has received postal hats, ties, a shirt _ and letters full of information about other countries' postal practices.
"The hobby became a beautiful thing," he said.
Now he wants to write a book titled And the Mail Did Go Through, about mail service around the world.
Cohen's research has turned up some unusual items _ and accompanying tales:
The Ivory Coast sent him a mail carrier's hat with holes in the front and back _ and reddish stains around the holes. A doctor looked at the hat and determined that the stains were blood. Ivory Coast postal authorities did not explain the mystery.
From Alaska, he received a photo of a postman being pulled by an elk-drawn sled. And he heard this tale of a dedicated Alaskan mail carrier who used a dog sled: The carrier, despite falling through thin ice into deadly cold water, managed to pull himself out and save the mail. He even continued on his route and made his appointed rounds.
In South Africa in the 1600s, specially inscribed stones on the beach were used as informal mail-transfer stations. Postal carriers would leave international mail next to the stones. Passing ships then would send boats to pick up the mail and drop off more.
In Romania, mail carriers were called on to be government spies. As they made their rounds, they also collected information about the citizens.
In the World II concentration camps in Germany, American prisoners went so far as to use torn-off corners of newspapers for paper on which to write letters. Bribed guards sometimes would act as their mail carriers.
Even back in Laguna Beach, mail delivery frequently was not an easy task.
There was no thin ice to fall through. But there were dogs.
Cohen remembers one troublesome German shepherd. After the dog attacked him, he told the owner, "If that dog attacks me again, you're not getting your mail."
So the owner kept the dog inside, until one day when it got out and attacked Cohen, who simply stopped delivering mail to that house.
The owner had to go to the post office every day for her mail, and after about a week she again promised not to let the dog out.
But the dog did attack again. It bit Cohen's mail bag instead of his leg. But Cohen took a stand by refusing to deliver mail to anyone on that street.
The neighbors, as Cohen had hoped, forced the dog owner to get rid of the dog.
"This demonstrates the power of the mail," Cohen said. "This shows how important it is to people that they get their mail."