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Who is the world’s most traveled man? Phileas Fogg? Pope John Paul II? James Bond? I’d put my traveling money on Stanley…. Flat Stanley. I don’t believe anyone’s clocked more miles than this diminutive road warrior. And why not? He’s small, he’s flat and he’s fun. Plus, kids love him. Maybe that’s why he hitched along with me on trips to France, South Africa and Jordan. Flat Stanley is one travelin’ man.
For those who don’t know him, Flat Stanley is a very colorful guy. Sometimes he’s blue in the face and sometimes kids color him red.
He’s usually cut from paper and his little arms are always stretched out as if to embrace the world.
Flat Stanley (nee Stanley Lambchop) started out in kids’ books 50 years ago. However, one night the bulletin board above his bed fell and crushed him flat. Hence, his two-dimensional attitude ever since. Not being one to succumb to misfortune, Flat Stanley made lemonade out of the situation and had himself mailed to visit a friend in California. He’s been on the road ever since.
These days, kids everywhere mail their Flat Stanleys to kids in other states, countries and continents. Hence you’re as likely to see photos of Stanley posing in front of the local library as the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids. No one has cranked up more air miles than Stanley and there are even whispers he has a different Flat girl waiting for him in every port, ready to paint the town with a full box of Crayolas.
Being the original International Man of Mystery, Flat Stanley has been spotted on the laps of Presidents, Kings and movie stars. Rumor has it he was jetting off from La Guardia on U.S. Airways flight 1549 when he and Sully had to make that miracle landing on the Hudson. Let’s just say Flat Stanley is a man of action.
My own little man of action, a second-grader at the time, introduced me to Flat Stanley and his penchant for adventure. I was doing a lot of traveling, and I saw in Stanley a kindred spirit. Here was someone who could understand my long days on the road and the distress of a missed connection in Nairobi. Stanley and I would book passage together and I would photograph his little self on my journeys. It would be a fun way to show my son where I was going.
Stanley Goes To France
We were off to Africa, which is usually a multi-part trip - you have to stop somewhere else on the way. Due to some obligations, we ended up shooting in Toulouse, France - at the giant Airbus Facility. They were building the world's largest passenger plane there, and we would get to climb aboard and poke around.
This would most likely be a first for Stanley - I'm sure he had flown every aircraft known but the big double-decker Airbus 380 wasn't yet in service. This was a big deal.
Wandering about the cavernous hanger where they assembled these monster planes (practically the size of two 747's) I reached into my jacket and brought Stanley out into the light. My crew was curious. I quickly made introductions. The guys always enjoyed some new diversion or curiosity, usually some sort of techie widget. But Stanley was… well, just a piece of paper. Everyone was intrigued.
Skinny little Stanley quickly captured their imaginations. (Who doesn’t want to do stuff for kids?). In an instant, he became everyone's surrogate son. Maybe this explains his popularity all over the world.
From then on, it was fun, fun, fun for Stanley. He posed by the big planes, got to visit the cockpit, rode down the banister from the plane’s upper deck, and even went for a ride in the giant A380 flight simulator. This is the original virtual reality machine. You could dial in hundreds of airports, routes and events. I perched Stanley on the Pilot’s headrest for the best view. Rolling down the runway for takeoff, we could even feel the bumps on the virtual asphalt below. What could be better than this?
On Safari With Stanley
Flat Stanley packs so light you can forget he's there. Sometimes this led to misplacing the little scamp. I had promised my son great adventure pictures with Stanley, so you can imagine the panic I felt when I couldn't locate him. I think I even had the crew scrambling around for him at one point. But he’d eventually turn up in a notebook or mixed in with the laundry.
So there we were, rumbling along a dirt road in deepest darkest South Africa… actually, it was a bright sunny day. Our Land Cruiser slowly edged up to a pride of lions devouring their kill. We had never seen anything like this. A balmy breeze floated over the scene, making everything seem disturbingly calm… almost peaceful. I suppose you can get eaten on a beautiful day just as easily as in a rainstorm.
After staring at and photographing this undeniable spectacle of reality, I suddenly remembered Stanley and slowly inched him out of my pocket. Not making any sudden moves, I gingerly held him out to pose. One of the guys positioned his camera. We tried to coordinate… quietly.
I whispered, “See the Lion? Do you have him? How does Stanley look?”
He whispered back, “Very brave.”
We went on like this for a few moments, moving, repositioning and shooting Stanley in “action” poses. I was stretching out of the vehicle to get the best angle, trying not to drop Stanley and also not disturb the man-eating lions twenty feet away. The things we do for our kids.
Our guide was amused and interested in Stanley. He had much younger kids, not of the Flat Stanley age yet, maybe three or four. He lived on this reserve. I was curious if he worried about lions and rhinos coming into his yard.
The lions weren’t a problem, they stayed away. But he and his wife still had to keep an eye on the kids when they played outside. It seems that there were certain large birds of prey on the reserve that could quickly swoop down and carry off a child. Now that would make a terrible Flat Stanley photo.
Sadly, we didn’t have an opportunity to travel on to Zambia, where that other famous African Stanley – explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley – stumbled upon the man for whom he had been searching and uttered the immortal greeting, “Dr. Livingston, I presume?”. We could have reenacted and bettered that moment with our iPhones, Dr. Livingston, reacting, “Flat Stanley, is that you?”
To The Holy Land
I brought the Africa photos to my son’s second-grade class. The kids were thrilled Flat Stanley got so close to the lions. They wanted to touch this pint-sized adventurer and look him in the eye. What a man.
I promised the kids I would take Stanley on my next adventure, to the Middle East. They weren’t sure where this was so I showed them on the big classroom map. They all wished Flat Stanley a safe trip.
Cut to the Gulf of Aqaba. This sparkling blue Gulf is in the middle of the Middle East. Four countries share its resort-like shores – Egypt, Jordan, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It seems that citizens of all religions and philosophies like to swim, sunbath and Jet Ski. On assignment, Stanley put in here first at the start of his Mid-East goodwill tour.
The crew was so happy again to be part of Stanley’s entourage; they even took pictures of me, taking pictures of Stanley. They were documenting the moment for themselves and loved ones. This was perhaps the first ever behind-the-scenes footage of an actual Flat Stanley shoot. All the glamour and excitement of what it’s like to be with Stanley when he looks straight into the camera and offers up that world famous smile. I could be mistaken, but I think they had plans to sell the material to ‘Extra’. Oh… papa-paparazzi…
Stanley of Arabia
You may know him as Lawrence of Arabia, but T.E. Lawrence served as a British officer who, with local tribesman, led the Arab revolt against the Ottoman Empire. It all began here in the Wadi Rum of Jordan where Lawrence was stationed. This is the largest wadi, or dry valley, in the country.
Stanley came here to soak up some of that mythic history. I posed Stanley… or, he posed me in front of a magnificent rock formation called “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom.” This name was taken from the book Lawrence wrote about his experiences here during the 1916 revolt.
I looked out over this vast plain of red Martian landscape and imagined hordes of Bedouin tribesmen sweeping by, swords drawn, their carbines raised – racing to battle the Turks. The two opponents smash together in a furious entanglement - scimitars and knife strikes, the pounding of men and hooves.
And in the middle of it all is paper-thin Stanley with his game smile, just trying to do his geography lesson.
“Be careful, Flat Stanley!”, I cry out, “You’re just a boy!”. And an imaginary one at that.
Though Stanley might not be a “real boy,” he has the heart of 100 men. He stood and posed proudly, the wind whipping at his tiny arms. We were atop Mt. Nebo. We had climbed here, following the path of the prophet Moses. Now Stanley stood just as Moses had over 3,000 years ago. We could see the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and what we thought might be Jerusalem.
It was here on Mt. Nebo, after wandering the desert 40 years, that Moses finally received his first view of the Promised Land.
Stanley too, had wandered about the world in an endless journey with his flock – untold numbers of boys and girls, wanting to reach out to other kids and their cultures. They were just naturally curious about the world - their minds and hearts open as they were born to be.
This might be why we all love Flat Stanley – he keeps our childlike excitement of the world alive. Standing there, looking out from Mt. Nebo, Stanley beholds and shares the great promise of a beautiful planet and its many gifts. Maybe that’s why Stanley is always smiling. And maybe that’s why kids keep sending him out on adventures… in his own little way, he's getting them ready for their own lives of adventure.
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