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POST OFFICES BOG DOWN AS TALE INSPIRES REAL COLLECTORS

DEAR PROFESSOR: I'm not sure you want further copies of this story, since you're probably buried hip deep in them, but here goes.

For the past six months, I have seen references to Craig Shergold's attempt to break the Guinness Book's record for postcard collections.In the past month it has shown up daily. Computer nets are crawling with the story, one of which I enclose.

The State News, Michigan State University's student newspaper, recently published an appeal to send postcards to Craig.

Isn't this just the old "Postcards for Little Buddy" legend coming back to life? - KIM DYER, HOLT, MICH.

DEAR KIM: I'm not sending you my usual reply to this question, which appears almost daily in my mailbox or in the electronic mail I get on my computer. It begins, "Excuse the form letter, but I'm starting to get nearly as many cards as Craig!"

As an undergraduate at Michigan State, I wrote for The State News, so it's funny to catch them perpetuating a legend-loaded story.

As you mention, first there was "Little Buddy" (or rather, there wasn't, but people thought there was). The story about this mythical child who was pursuing a non-existent record started in 1982.

Supposedly, "Little Buddy," a leukemia patient in Paisley, Scotland, wanted to break the record for number of postcards received as listed in The Guinness Book of World Records.

There was no such record, yet millions of cards flooded in from well-wishers around the world, swamping the Paisley post office.

The appeal circulated by word of mouth, mail, CB radio and in the press. In 1988, attention shifted to an actual person, a young English cancer patient named Mario Morby.

In this case, life imitated legend as Mario set out to beat the record he had heard about. Responding as they did to the Buddy story, hordes of people sent cards to Mario, either directly or through foundations that adopted his cause.

Mario's name and his record of 1,000,265 postcards first appeared in the 1989 Guinness Book under "Collections." But the flood of cards kept coming. Computer nets began to publicize the appeal, and eventually some 3 million postcards arrived, much to the distress of everyone who had to deal with them.

Enter Craig Shergold of Carshalton, England, a 7-year-old cancer patient, who last September set out to beat Mario's postcard record.

People enthusiastically shifted their efforts to Craig, and by November he had over 1.5 million cards and a new record certified by Guinness.

In a December column, I suggested that readers stop mailing cards, since "Craig and his local post office are probably going to get much more mail than they can handle."

Besides computerized circulation of Craig's appeal, a chain letter began to be faxed through company channels, and each letter asked recipients to fax 10 more copies. (There is some indication that this fax letter has been circulated in Utah recently.)

Craig's postcard collection grew to 4.5 million, then 7 million and at latest report 10 million.

These numbers are hard to verify, but the problems are real. Since November 1989, news media have publicized Craig's parents' desperate new appeal: PLEASE STOP SENDING US CARDS.

Personally, I think the cards will continue to arrive until another child - either real or mythical - challenges the postcard record. It won't help that Guinness has decided to discontinue the category, since Mario's record appears in at least one edition of the book.

Meanwhile, Craig's surname in the rapidly multiplying appeals sometimes appears as "Sherbold" or "Schergold," and his first name is sometimes written as Greg. His illness is occasionally listed as leukemia or AIDS, and his collection is mistakenly described as containing get-well cards or holiday cards.

Craig's town is sometimes spelled "Carrshaltin," "Carsmalton," "Caterham" and even "Carsha Hon." His address varies from No. 55, 56 or 90 on "Shelby," "Selby" or "Salby" Road. His age is stated as 9 or 10.

You might say that these variations are merely typos, but they're also evidence of folklore preserving the postcard-collecting legend, until something comes along to replace it - like maybe yet another revival of the aluminum pop-tab collecting legend.

(C) 1990, United Feature Syndicate Inc.