A British locomotive on a commemorative stamp poster is a “a generic image” and “was not chosen to represent the Transcontinental Railroad stamp image,” a Postal Service spokesman says. (Kevin Tucker)
Columnist

There’s an old Monty Python sketch about learning to fly that ends by cutting to a man sitting at a desk behind a name plate that reads “BALPA Spokesman.”

Commenting on the previous sketch, the man says, “The British Air Line Pilots Association would like to point out that it takes a chap six years to become a fully qualified airline pilot, and not two. I didn’t want to seem a bit of an old fusspot just now, you know, but it’s just as easy to get these things right. . . .”

It’s just as easy to get these things right.

I think that’s what undergirded my annoyance at the U.S. Postal Service for producing a T-shirt that appears to feature an illustration of a Soviet airliner (along with the words “United States Post Service”). An hour spent thinking, “I wonder what actual airplanes have actually carried U.S. Air Mail” could have prevented embarrassment.

After my recent column on that T-shirt, I heard from several readers about another Postal Service boo-boo involving a different form of transportation.

Now, I don’t like piling on the post office. I like the post office. It can’t be easy delivering 150 billion pieces of mail a year. The vast majority of the things I mail get where they’re going on time, early even.

When the Postal Service is being criticized for not doing enough to stop the flow of fentanyl sent by mail — as outlined in a recent Post story — then obsessing over a wonky T-shirt can seem silly.

Yet, it’s just as easy to get these things right.

Mike Hoyt of Silver Spring was among stamp-fancying readers irritated by a poster featuring an image of a steam train that went up in post offices around the country in May. The poster announces coming commemorative stamps, including ones celebrating Marvin Gaye, Ellsworth Kelly, Woodstock, frogs and military working dogs. The train on the poster itself is apparently related to a handsome set of stamps marking the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

It’s quite a nice steam train, but if you’re really into trains, you know it’s a British locomotive from the 1940s — an LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0, to be exact — not either of the trains involved in the setting of the famous Golden Spike.

Wrote Mike: “They probably hired the same young designer for whom all steam locomotives and propeller planes are the same.” (A letter of Mike’s on the subject was published in Linn’s Stamp News.)

Ed Warner, who splits his time between Rehoboth Beach, Del., and the District, noticed the poster, too. He pointed out that the British passenger train and locomotive are unlikely to have ever carried U.S. mail. The stamps themselves depict the correct trains.

“I bought a sheet of them,” Ed wrote.

Should we care? The stamps are right. Is it okay if the poster is designed to simply evoke vaguely trainish thoughts in our minds?

Kevin Tucker thinks not. He’s a stamp collector in Delaware.

“In my opinion, making these marketing mistakes speaks to a bigger issue inside of the USPS,” Kevin wrote. “Who is signing off on these projects? Who is giving the final approval?”

Postal Service spokesman David Partenheimer emailed: “The locomotive depicted on the poster is a generic image used to draw attention to the arrival of 10 new Postal Service Forever stamps. It was not chosen to represent the Transcontinental Railroad stamp image.”

Of course, journalists aren’t immune to these sorts of problems. Even before I became one I remember hearing someone say, “Whenever you read an article on a subject that you actually know something about, you notice all the mistakes.”

This is especially true when it comes to certain subjects. A colleague of mine once said, “When you write about the Civil War, you will always get one thing wrong and you will always hear about it from someone.”

I’ve found that to be true.

We live in an age when it’s easier than ever for our embarrassing mistakes to be broadcast around the world, thanks to social media and the Web. But it also should be easier not to make them in the first place.

Mistakes were made

As a drummer, it always bugs me when I see a drum set illustrated in a clumsy fashion: the tom-toms at weird angles, the high-hat cymbals all wrong. What jumps out at you in illustrations or articles? Do writers make the same mistakes on a subject you’re expert in?

Send details — with “Always Wrong” in the subject line — to me at john.kelly@washpost.com.

Reunited and it feels so good

These high school classes are reuniting in the coming weeks.

Oxon Hill High Class of 1969 — Sept. 13 to 15. Contact Skip Strobel at 202-543-5158 or tman46@verizon.net.

Winston Churchill High Class of 1979 — Oct. 5. Search “Winston Churchill Class of 1979” on Facebook.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.