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PRIVATE FACES, PUBLIC SPACES : A Full Life Measured in Square Inches

In a windowless store on Larchmont Boulevard, Kenneth Overaker sells old stamps. The walls are covered with them: perfectly etched images of soldiers, heroes, tyrants, lakes, mountain gorges, exotic scripts. Messengers from afar, 150 years of news, longings, business demands, franked in places never to be seen or known. Unnamed artists capturing in miniature the world of steamships and railways, explorers and adventurers.

It is a man’s place, this. Old men with hours to spare squint and rummage through boxes in search of some missing link, some prize to carry off. “Kenneth Overaker, Owner” reads the card. It is an old-fashioned word from a plainer time. He is nearly 80 now; his skin is soft, his face undemonstrative, his hands are smooth, his silver hair carefully waved. He has the air of a man who grew accustomed to smiling seldom.

The times he remembers are all hard ones: growing up in the Depression in Port Huron, moving from one furnished place to another, scraping to make ends meet. His father had once been a professional baseball player, or so people said. They also said that he had “died,” a way of saying that he had vanished, abandoned his wife, his 2-year-old son, his family and friends. Kenneth Overaker’s mother raised him alone, a clerk for J.C. Penney, making do.

He lived with his grandparents on their farm for a while, up in northern Michigan. But Port Huron was his world--a huge city to him then, on the tip of a great lake. He was 28 when he bought the weekly Quincy Herald, center of small-town (pop. 1,200) life, 170 miles inland from Port Huron. He was married, his son was a year old; he was a man of standing in his town. It seemed so simple then.

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He kept the paper open for 2 1/2 years. His wife was unhappy in the old, drafty log cabin and took his son with her back to Port Huron. He was alone and it was war-time. It was hard to be a young man in a place from which men were drafted. He remembers still the looks of hatred from a wife who worked in the bank he went to; her husband was overseas, and their business was lost.

But in the end, Kenneth Overaker lost everything, too. He sold the paper in 1944, bundled all his memories into his mother’s basement and set off again to seek his fortune. They are all gone--the first front page, the first byline, the big stories when Dillinger escaped, his Quincy treasures, swept away in one cruel flood.

He bought another paper once, in a coal-mining town in Pennsylvania. He stayed for three years, cold, bitter years of snow and strikes. And that, too went.

When he came west to California, with his wife and son, he gave up somehow. He became a dependable, conscientious, sensible man living a sensible life: 30 years of working for others, of being everyone’s No. 2. And if he ever thought back to the 28-year-old in Quincy, who had lost the advertising of the local stalwarts rather than use his paper as their tool, it must have seemed a small achievement from the vantage of a desk in a mighty city paper.

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His son drifted away, became a Muslim, changed his name, lost touch. “I never get a card from him at Christmas"--in those plain, quiet words a world of sadness and loss.

He started collecting stamps in the 1950s, casting around for something to share in the silence with a 13-year-old. He sold that collection to raise the money for his first trip to Europe, his last attempt to hold his marriage together. It made no difference: His wife left, and with her all the memories of their years together in Michigan, of their son when he was small and laughed with them still, of the night the old Quincy press gave out, of the man who had been young once and owned something.

He opened the stamp shop seven years ago. He sees customers there four hours a day, six days a week and “by appointment.” In the other hours he pores over his stamps, sorts his huge collections and marvels at this other life that followed his retirement, his working life’s ending.

He lives nearby with his second wife, who comes in to help him arrange his stamp boards, to line up the tiny, perfect pictures of kings with heads aloft, of heroes landing and enemies vanquished.

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He should keep his stamps in acid-free boxes. He should computerize, should push his prices up. He is surrounded instead by old shoe boxes, cigar boxes, yellowing envelopes and old men escaping into these small, square treasures.

Papers he owned and wrote for long ago have vanished now: the Quincy Herald, the Jackson Citizen Patriot, the Battle Creek Enquirer, the Carbondale News-Leader. Buried in time. Only the stamps remain, pictures of men who lived larger lives than he, perhaps--but no more enduring.


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