November 28, 2015

Letter From Paris: A Pope for the People

Pope Francis

Pope Francis

After nine months as the leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics, what changes has Pope Francis made in the people’s lives ? That question can be answered on different levels.

On Christmas Eve, the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris was absolutely packed, with standing (and sitting on the ground) room only. Believers and visitors from around the globe wanted to share the most important time of the church year. The senior prelate of the cathedral, who was celebrating the Eucharist, instead of standing solemnly at the lectern to give his homily chose to walk through the nave all the way to the back of the church. A photographer and a sound engineer followed the priest as he mixed with the people in order to record the event for the nationwide televised program.

From the very start, Pope Francis has been reaching out to the people, with simplicity and a joyful manner. His popularity was immediate and the crowds on Saint Peter’s Square multiplied. There is definitely a heightened fervor among the faithful and his style is spreading through the churches.

To understand the impact of Pope Francis on more substantive levels, one has to study his exceptional background. Born from Italian immigrants in Argentina, he is the first pope coming from the New World. At the same time, he has strong ties with Europe since he wrote his thesis in German. Besides that language, he speaks French English, Italian, Portuguese, and, of course, Latin.

But the most important factor is that he is the product of two intellectual currents existing in the catholic church: Jesuit and Franciscan. To become a Jesuit, one has to study theology and philosophy for 15 years. This Catholic order, founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, follows a strict obedience to the doctrine. At the same time, as a significant departure from his intellectual origins, he chose to be called Francis – a first for a pope.

This symbolic choice made him the spiritual heir of St. Francis of Assisi. This background explains why he combines an unshakable attachment to the traditional doctrine regarding, for instance, the celibacy of priests, the excommunication of divorcees or the rejection of abortion, with his intent to be the “Pope of the Poor” and his openness to others.

His first action will be to put the Catholic Church in order, following a number of human and financial scandals, which have shaken it over many years. Probably the easiest reform to implement will be to reorganize the Vatican’s administration and reduce the size of the Curie. With his own dislike for ostentation, he, himself, will be the best role model.

Finally, he has an immense potential of influence in international affairs. He seeks dialogue with both Judaism and Islam. Vatican specialists describe him as the most charismatic and powerful personality in the world, particularly after Nelson Mandela’s death.

It remains to see whether — and how – he will exercise this influence.

Nicole Prévost Logan, resident of Essex Meadows in the summer, Paris in the winter.

Nicole Prévost Logan, resident of Essex Meadows in the summer, Paris in the winter.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

Letter from Paris: Merkel Warms French Hearts

Angela Merkel

Angela Merkel

The integration of Europe moved forward this week following important events.

On Dec. 15 Angela Merkel was reelected for the third time as German Chancellor. Her victory was made possible with the coalition of her Christian Democrat party (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD).

The composition of her new government gives an indication on the future policies of Germany. Among the nine CDU ministers, Wolfgang Schauble will remain as the indispensable minister of finances and as such will guarantee a certain continuity. The crucial post of economy/energy will be occupied by an SPD member. So will foreign affairs, to be headed by pro-European Walter Steinmeier. It is interesting to note that for the first time a woman will be in charge of Defense: Ursula von der Leyen, 51, is close to Angela Merkel, French-speaking and a mother of seven. The ministry of immigration is also to be headed by a woman who, even more significantly, is of Turkish origin.

There is no deep ideological difference between the CDU and SPD parties. French analysts stress that it would be a mistake to assimilate the German social democrats to the French socialists. The former are “center left” rather than “left”.

According to tradition, Merkel’s first official visit abroad was to France. Her next stop was Brussels to attend the summit meeting of the European Council. Arduous negotiations led to important decisions – as important, some experts say, as the creation of the Euro currency.

Merkel will not abandon her general policy of financial discipline, but will relax her hard austerity line. Germany’s economic policy will be slightly less liberal. A minimum wage of 8.5 euros is to take effect within three years. The new program will reduce the number of “poor workers” and should give a boost to the domestic consumption. It will also alleviate criticism expressed by other European countries of unfair competition on the labor market.

A banking union and the European defense were the main topics of discussion. The creation of a banking union is intended to put a stop to the bailout of failing banks at the expense of the tax payers. So far financial support for countries in trouble like Greece or Spain has been supported by only 27 percent of Germans, and even less – 20 percent – of the French.

Merkel has always been against the “mutualisation” of the sovereign debts. The new directives give greater power to the Banque Centrale Européenne (BCE – Central Bank of Europe) over the banks in order to prevent speculative investments. The BCE will also oversee the creation of a “funds of resolution,” financed by the banks, which will amount to 55 billion by 2026. Brussels will only intervene in case of urgent crisis. Obviously it will be hard for many of the states to lose sovereignty over their own budget.

The other subject of discussion in Brussels was the European defense. For Germany, defense is almost a taboo and most European states – except France – are unwilling to interfere in foreign military conflicts. Some progress though was made in specific areas such as cyber security, refueling of planes in the air, the use of drones by 2025 and controlling piracy along the Somalian coast. A limited amount of logistical and financial support is likely to be welcomed, particularly by France, who acted alone in both Mali and the Republic of Central Africa.

The Franco-German ” couple” appears now to be returning to center stage. As seen from France, the new developments are generally well-accepted by economists and other specialists. Overall, they seem to be impressed by the pragmatic behavior of the Germans and believe the German vote was a smart one – indeed, a rare mark of approval to be found in French opinion of German politics.

Letter From Paris: Seasonal Signs in the City of Light … and Beyond

The Champs-Elysees in Paris with Christmas lights (file photo.)

The Champs-Elysees in Paris with Christmas lights (file photo.)

France is very festive at this pre-Christmas time. I just returned from a short visit to the village of Sanary Sur Mer on the Mediterranean. The grandiose gold and silver decorations contrasted with the bright colored “pointus” (small fishing boats) tossing about in the port.

Our next stop was Aix-en-Provence, which was also getting ready for the holiday season. It is a pleasure to look for shops wandering through the pedestrian streets of the old town and discover the 17th century architecture with its elegant courtyards and stairs. Rows of prefabricated chalets selling glühwein and regional pastries lined the Cours Mirabeau (the heart of the city) ending in an illuminated fountain. A hot chocolate in the old fashioned terrace of the Grillon cafe was a must.

If Paris ever deserves its name of the “City of Light,” it is at Christmas time. Each arrondissement has its own style of illuminations. They range from the elegant avenue Montaigne where trees and lights match the costly look of the main fashion houses to the more popular Bastille (where I live), which turn into an amusement park offering a stomach -curdling ride in the highest contraption of Europe.

The sight of the Champs Elysees is spectacular. This year the decorations consist of blue lights circling the trees. The computerized lighting of the Grande Roue (ferris wheel) overlooking the Place de la Concorde makes it look as if it is exploding in the sky. For many years, it has offered the best view over the city.  The Eiffel Tower stands aloof and sparkles for a few minutes every hour on the hour.

The Eiffel Tower decorated for Christmas.

The Eiffel Tower decorated for Christmas.

Borrowing a tradition which used to be more common in Germany and Central Europe, Christmas markets are now found every where in Paris. Their alpine look make up for the absence of snow. The esplanade of the Hotel de Ville attracts visitors with free skating ring and merry-go-round.

And, of course, there is the Christmas shopping, including the most popular toy of the year: the clone. I thought it was a good time for me to discover the latest and largest shopping mall in downtown Paris. The modernistic glass facade of Beaugrenelle is part of the group of skyscrapers built in the 15th arrondissement by the Seine river. As a sign of times, the budget of many families been has been reduced to 300 euros per person. As a result, shopping online and the use of newly-created second-hand supermarkets have exploded.

Oysters, foie gras and a good bottle of champagne are still the favorite with the French for their reveillon (meaning ‘the eve.’) On the 25th itself, the celebratory meal will be planned around a goose and end up with a bûche de Noel (Christmas log.)

HeadshotAbout the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

Letter from Paris: ‘La Conversation’

Nicole Prévost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

La Conversation” is the kind of play Parisians love: a brilliant exercise of actors just talking and conversing on all the subjects of their time.

The scene takes place in the Tuileries palace in 1802 between First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte and Second Consul Jean-Jacques-Régis de Cambacérès. Bonaparte is a young general of 34, impatient to acquire more power. Vladimir d’Ormesson, dean of the Academie Française (a learned assembly of 40 “eternal” members, whose role is to perfect the French language), wrote an imaginary dialogue carried out in an elegant style.

The tempo of the conversation is rapid. The topics move from the mundane to the lofty. At first, Bonaparte discusses food, then becomes animated when telling a funny anecdote of a family fight over a shawl. The conversation touches on Bonaparte’s relations with women, including a beautiful blonde he met in Egypt during the 1798 campaign. When he speaks about Josephine, it is with a tangible emotion.

Although Bonaparte’s seven siblings are hard to manage, he acknowledges how much they serve his ambition of becoming a ruler over Europe. A current exhibit at the Marmottan museum shows the striking personalities of his three sisters. Elisa, grand duchess of Tuscany, is an enlightened patron of the arts and a powerful brain. Caroline, the wife of dashing general Murat, is the ambitious and plotting queen of Naples. Princess Pauline Borghese was so incredibly beautiful as to be called the “Venus of the Empire”. She was also very generous and sold all her assets to accompany Napoleon during his exile on St. Helena.

The conversation flows along revealing Bonaparte’s personality, his ambitions and his accomplishments. Cambacérès just acts as a sounding board. Meekly he expresses opinions which are swiftly bulldozed by the first consul. Bonaparte is proud of his military victories like the Pont d’Arcole, or Marengo. He considers himself at the service of the French and for them has created a legal and administrative system (which still exists today.) He brought down the monarchy of the Ancien Regime and wants power, but not as a king. He looks at Rome, and what does he see? Ceasar and the Empire. Yes, this is what he wants: be the emperor.

In the small theater, a captivated public savors the references to their common historical past. The uninterrupted conversation is a refreshing break from the modern world of texts and smart phones.

About the author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

A Letter from Paris: Art Déco in the Air

Nicole Prevost Logan

Nicole Prévost Logan

“When Art Déco seduced the World” is one of the most popular exhibits of this season in Paris. It celebrates the artistic movement which bloomed in the 1920s and the 1930s. Monuments of that period can be seen around the world — from Moscow to Shanghai or Brussels and particularly in New York City.

What is Art Déco? In the lineage of late 19th century Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement, it is a celebration of “total art” forms with the use of multiple materials: glass, wood, ceramic, wrought iron, and the introduction of reinforced concrete. The style even included the production of furniture featuring textiles and fashion made famous by designer Paul Poiret.

The architecture and sculpture were characterized by geometric and stylized forms. Completed for the 1937 international exhibit, the Palais de Chaillot, also called Trocadéro is probably the most imposing monument of Paris and is built along classical, but very sober lines. It replaced the much-maligned neo-moorish former Trocadéro.

Art Déco was the artistic expression of modernism. It was emblematic of the relief felt after the end of World War I. Artists had a field day applying their creations to the most visible buildings of urban life like swimming pools or stadiums.

But what they enjoyed most were the department stores. Their elegant cupolas, grand staircases, decorated with colorful ceramic, their crystal chandeliers dazzled the new consumer class. In Paris, the department stores multiplied, including Le Bon Marché, La Samaritaine or Le Printemps. Les Galeries Lafayette even orchestrated the publicity stunt of a small plane landing on its roof.

Modern times meant an ever faster pace of life. Nothing was more dashing than a Bugatti sports car surrounded by elegant “flappers” ready to take the wheel. The new era also meant traveling the world. On May 29, 1929, the Normandie, the largest, most luxurious ocean liner ever built, made its maiden voyage from Le Havre to New York. The ship turned into a “floating embassy” — a showcase for the diffusion of French art around the world. Lalique, the master of glass carving, created the panels of the Normandie’s first class.

In New York, the 14 original Art Déco buildings of the Rockefeller Center still stand. One cannot miss the Alfred Janniot’s sculpture placed above the entrance of the Maison Française. The gilded bronze bas-relief represents the meeting of the American and the European continents.

Letter From Paris: Immigration Woes, Thanksgiving in France

Nicole Prévost Logan in Paris.

Nicole Prévost Logan in Paris.

The pressure of immigration into Europe is growing. Thousands of immigrants are seeking refugee status for economic or political reasons. The television showed an incredible scene of young men climbing over barbed wire like swarms of insects, falling down, being shot, to be followed by hundreds more. It was not a scene from the July 2013 Brad Pitt’s science fiction film “World War Z,” but of the electrified fence erected by the Spanish government to protect its borders from African migrants. Other walls exist around Europe. The next one will run along the Bulgarian-Turkish border.

The tragic drowning of 300 people near the Italian island of Lampedusa in October shocked the European opinion. The problem of immigration, if studied case by case, and not in terms of statistics, triggers strong emotions.

It was also the theme of “Welcome,” a 2009 French movie . A well-educated and determined 17-year-old boy from Kurdistan wants to join his girlfriend in England. For weeks he is stranded in an inhospitable refugee camp near Calais, in the north of France. During his first attempt at crossing the Channel hidden under a truck, he is caught by the police, almost asphyxiated by CO2 fumes, his head inside a plastic bag. His next plan is to swim across the English Channel. With the help of a compassionate coach, he learns how to do the crawl. At his first attempt, he is pulled out of the water by fishermen and brought back to France. He tries again, but, just in sight of the British coast, a police boat spots him. He drowns, while trying to escape.

Western Europe represents an Eldorado for all these asylum seekers. By granting various allowances to the new migrants, France has become particularly attractive . But its social structure is becoming unable to absorb the ever growing numbers. This year there were 70,000 requests for asylum as compared to 60,000 in 2012.

In October, the Affaire Leonarda (the case of Leonarda) illustrated the problems with the immigration policy in France and caused a political crisis. Leonarda is a 15-year- old daughter of a Kosovo national (Kosovo is located in the Balkan Peninsula of Southeastern Europe and recognized as a sovereign state by 106 member states of the United nations, though its status is still disputed.) After living in Italy for 17 years, with his Italian wife and seven other children, the man decided to move to France in 2009.

Since then he has made four attempts to obtain refugee status, all of which were rejected. The work load of the French judicial courts make the process so slow that the family had plenty of time to settle in France and put the children in school. Time was on the side of Leonarda’s family given the rules on naturalizations: children born in France of foreign parents become French automatically at age 18 after spending five years in France.

In mid October, as Leonarda was getting off the school bus, the police arrested her and sent her back to Kossovo with the rest of the family. The public opinion reacted in a fury, blaming the Socialist government of breaking the sacred rule of non-violation of the schools.

To the surprise of many, President Francois Hollande was the one to address the nation on TV. He started by saying that the police had broken no law in arresting Leonarda, nor used any violence. Then, during the last two minutes of his speech, in an unexpected switch, he concluded that, because of humanitarian considerations, he would let Leonarda return to France, but alone – an impossible situation for a 15-year old. His position satisfied almost no one.

A brief word on a more cheery subject — American expatriates in France are very attached to Thanksgiving and celebrate it between friends and relatives, usually on the weekend

Letter From Paris: Taxing Times in France


In spite of lively street scenes in Paris, crowds strolling in the Tuileries gardens, restaurant terraces full of people enjoying a copious lunch and long lines at museums and movie theaters, the ongoing austerity measures imposed by the Socialist government contribute to a morose mood in France .

In the past two years, new taxes have multiplied. More people have to file income taxes, some retirees are struggling to survive on their pensions, the Taxe sur la Valeur Ajoutée (TVA – the equivalent of sales tax in the US) on restaurants — after being lowered — is going up again to reach 10% next January. Corporate taxes have also increased.

The population was encouraged to invest its savings into special accounts. Promises of a guaranteed interest of 3 percent on these savings accounts have gradually vanished. It is today below 1 percent.

The northwest region of Brittany is in in uproar following a new “eco-tax” imposed on truckers, fishermen and farmers.

A tax of 75 percent on annual incomes higher than one million will hit particularly the stars soccer players, who threatened to go on strike for one week-end in November. When one knows how fanatic the public here is about its soccer matches, one might expect violent scenes.

The TV series called “A Village Français,” now in its third season, continues to enjoy top ratings. It shows how the average French people behaved during the German occupation. It depicts the whole spectrum of the population, ranging from despicable collaborators to courageous “resistants” with — in between — the vast majority just trying to survive and protect their families. The show is done with honesty, avoiding black and white judgments. By 1943 the French became more daring , as their spirits were lifted by the London broadcasts.

This is a great idea: for a small fee, courses in the English language are offered to the passengers riding the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV – high speed train) from Rheims to Paris – a facility to be extended to other railroad lines.

About the Author: Nicole Prévost Logan divides her time between Essex and Paris, spending summers in the former and winters in the latter. She will write a regular column for us from her Paris home where her topics will include politics, economy, social unrest — mostly in France — but also in other European countries. She also will cover a variety of art exhibits and the performing arts in Europe. Logan is the author of ‘Forever on the Road: A Franco-American Family’s Thirty Years in the Foreign Service,’ an autobiography of her life as the wife of an overseas diplomat, who lived in 10 foreign countries on three continents. Her experiences during her foreign service life included being in Lebanon when civil war erupted, excavating a medieval city in Moscow and spending a week under house arrest in Guinea.

Transportation: Slow Orders for Metro-North

Jim CameronNo, it’s not your imagination.  Service is getting even worse on Metro-North. And there’s no sign of short-term improvements.

This has been a terrible year for Metro-North and its 120,000 daily riders in Connecticut:  the May derailment / collision, the death of a track worker and the September “meltdown” because of a failed Con Ed feeder.  But the repercussions of these problems still affect us, months later.

Trains are late on a daily basis, even after the railroad adjusted the timetable in August to reflect longer running times.  What used to be a 48 minute ride from Stamford to GCT is now scheduled for 55 to 60 minutes.  But in reality, with delays, it takes more than an hour most days.

Why?  Because of “slow orders”.

After the May derailments, Metro-North brought in some high-tech rail scanning equipment and checked out every inch of track in the system.  Of immediate concern were the below-grade tracks in the Bronx, long subject to flooding.

Concrete ties installed between 1990 and ’96 needed to be replaced due to deterioration.  Ties and fencing were also replaced in a job so large that, at times, three of the four tracks were taken out of service.

Admittedly, it’s hard to run the busiest commuter railroad in the US with 75% of your tracks out of service, but the work was necessary and commuters were asked to be patient.  At last report, the Bronx work was 80% completed.

So that means train schedules will soon return to “normal”?  Sorry, but no.

It turns out that the Bronx is just one of the causes of the current delays, something Metro-North didn’t tell us.

With new timetables coming out on November 17th, some train runs may be improved by a minute (yes, 60 seconds), at best. It seems that all those high-tech track inspections since May turned up many spots where work is needed.  And until that work can be completed, the trains running over those tracks are operating under system-wide “slow orders”, in effect cutting their speeds from 85 or 90 mph to an average of 60 mph.  Don’t believe me?  Fire up your smart phone’s GPS next ride and see for yourself.

The railroad still blames daily delays on the work in the Bronx and wet leaves, but the truth is far worse.  At recent NTSB hearings on the May derailment, Metro-North admitted they are far behind on track maintenance, inspections and repairs in Connecticut but couldn’t explain why.  Until the tracks are fixed, trains won’t be allowed to run at full speed.

One thing they did acknowledge to investigators is that they don’t have the experienced staff to do the needed welding and repair work, having lost so many veteran workers in recent months to retirement.

The slow orders make sense.  Safety should always come first.  But why can’t railroad executives be honest with us about why we are suffering with these delays, how long they will last and what they are doing to minimize the disruption to our daily commutes?  Remember:  winter is coming, adding another layer of misery and delays to our commutes.

Sadly, my mantra from five years ago has proven correct:  Things are going to get a lot worse on Metro-North before they get better.

 JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at  or

The Shockingly Unthinkable Has Happened – A Library With No Printed Books …


It’s like going to the moon.  Unthinkable when I was a boy.  But it happened …

Now something else totally unthinkable to me has happened.  A brand-new library has been built but with zero printed books.  It’s filled with digital books– only e-books.  Can you believe it?

This isn’t a science-fiction fantasy.  That e-library is a reality, here on this planet and now, with its doors open to the public as I write.

It’s in Texas, in San Antonio, which is in Bexar County.  It was designed and built just for this radically new purpose, so it’s futuristic looking, of course.  Take a good look at the photo I’ve included.

Read full story on John’s blog

Jim Schneider the Super School Traffic Cop

IMG_0165Old Saybrook, CT– It’s a nice, sunny afternoon. I stand on the corner in amazement. Jim Schneider is the traffic cop here.The school day is over and the loaded school buses are filing out from the Goodwin School, one after another. Also parents who have picked up their kids. Soon teachers and staff will be driving out. It will be a hectic 40 minutes or so.

I say in amazement because Officer Jim is doing his thing. Right out there in the middle of the intersection, mind you. And nobody does it better. He’s 72 but as agile as an Old Saybrook High varsity tennis player. And just as determined and energetic.

I’m one of his fans. I stop by the town library on many afternoons. It’s just up the street. I like to stroll over at 3:15 now and then to watch him. He is really something to behold.

Read the full story here

Transportatation: Metro-North Meltdown

Jim CameronFirst of all, despite what some commuters may recently be thinking, the folks who manage and operate Metro-North are not stupid.  Inconsiderate and uncommunicative sometimes, but not stupid.

Metro-North managers and employees are railroad professionals, justifiably proud of the 96+% on-time performance they achieve on one of the busiest commuter line in the US.  They want to run a world class railroad.  But they can only achieve as much as the states of NY and Connecticut fund them to do.

In recent years our legislature gave MNRR $1+ billion to buy badly needed new railcars, a very visible manifestation to commuters that the state was investing in the railroad.  But sufficient funding for inspection and repair of the tracks, the catenary and our 100- year-old bridges is still lacking.

New cars are sexy.  Giving them safe tracks to run on and wires to power them, not so sexy.

What happened when Con Ed’s back-up feeder cable failed at 5:30 am on Wednesday Sept 25th was not an act of God, but human error.  The two agencies knew the main power cable was going to be out of service and calculated, very wrongly, that the single back-up cable would be sufficient.

This raises a number of questions:  Did Con Ed monitor that back-up cable for signs it might fail?  Was it wise to save $1 million by not constructing a back-up for the back-up?  Does Homeland Security know or care that the entire Metro-North and Amtrak Northeast Corridor were depending on this calculation? How many other power sub-stations are in similar danger?

The effects of this outage are many:  the inconvenience to 125,000 daily riders, the economic impact on those commuters’ businesses, and longer-term, the economic recovery of our state and nation.

Governor Malloy quickly called this outage just the latest black eye for our state in his efforts to attract businesses to set up shop in the Nutmeg State.  Even if they can tolerate our high taxes, do relocating CEO’s really want to rely on Metro-North to get their employees to and from work or fight the perpetual rush-hour crawl on I-95?

I fear some individual commuters may be reaching the tipping point.  There are plenty of other New York suburbs with good schools and more reliable transportation.  If fed-up Connecticut commuters decide to vote with their feet and move to Westchester or Long Island, they will take their taxes with them.  Remember that Fairfield County pays 40% of all state taxes in Connecticut, so anything that makes our neighborhoods less attractive, hurts the entire state.

And it hurts our house values too.  People live in the towns served by Metro-North because they need to rely on those trains to get to high-paying jobs in NYC.  When that trust is broken, those towns and their houses become less attractive.

If housing values sag, town taxes will have to go up.  The schools will suffer making our towns even less desirable for those leaving the city for the good life in the ‘burbs.

Reliable train service at an affordable price is what makes Fairfield County thrive.  When you begin to doubt the ability of the railroad to keep operating, let alone be on time, it may be time to rethink where you live.


JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is a member of the CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at  or

Deep River Residents Enjoy Homesteading Life in Maine

Richard and Maria on top of their new world, happy in their fields of wild blueberries.  Visible  below are their home and barn, and far back, Lake St. George. She picked the flowers on the walk up

Richard and Maria on top of their new world, happy in their fields of wild blueberries. Visible below are their home and barn, and far back, Lake St. George. She picked the flowers on the walk up

Liberty, Maine–Is it possible for two people in middle-age–late middle age –to change just about every aspect of their lives and find fulfillment in a new life style?

I said just about every aspect. Here is what I mean. To change the person they would live with. Where they would live. What they would do for a living. How they would spend their money. And so many other aspects that spin off from these.

Well, I know a couple who have done exactly that. And I have just seen them up close in this new life of theirs. Nothing on this earth is perfect, and that’s certainly true of human relationships. But from what I have witnessed of these two, I would say they are happy. In fact, surprisingly happy.

I am speaking of Richard and Maria King. Richard is from Deep River, Connecticut, which is my town. Maria is from Poland. They met online and then in Warsaw and quickly became convinced that they shared many aspirations.

Read the full story here

Talking Transportation: Public Hearings or Political Theater?

Jim CameronI believe passionately in open, transparent government.  The public has a right to know what their elected officials are doing and comment on it before it’s done, usually by way of mandated public hearings.

So I was thrilled to see that the Government Accounting Office has issued a 56 page report sharply critical of the Port Authority of NY-NJ for raising tolls without public input.

In 2011, the Authority jacked up tolls by 50% on bridges and tunnels three days after a single public hearing, held on a weekday during rush hour.  And even at that one hearing, comments were taken without an explanation of the proposal.

It’s as if the Authority went out of its way to avoid criticism, constructive or otherwise.  And for that the GAO rightly criticized them.

We’ve seen this same thing happen many times in Connecticut:

  • The CDOT plans a rail fare increase, baked into its legislative budget, then holds public hearings.  Nothing said at the hearings can affect the decision to boost fares (except possibly to cut train service).
  • The state’s Transportation Strategy Board holds a public hearing on a million dollar study of over a dozen different possible scenarios for tolling on I-95, asking for comments but without ever explaining what the study said.
  • The state chooses to develop land under the Stamford garage in a secret negotiation with developers without ever seeking input from commuters on what’s planned.

The formula is simple, but backwards.  Lawmakers decide what they want to do and then hold a pro forma public hearing to get comments from those who will be affected.  Too often the decision has been made and, for political theater, they just go through the motions of asking for comment.

Here’s a novel idea:  why not hold a public hearing first, asking constituents, commuters and customers what they think?  Explain to them the necessity of a fare hike or development plan and then ask for their reaction.

Decisions by government-run monopolies should be made with input from all the stakeholders, not a handful of bureaucrats.  That’s how you build a consensus in a democracy.

But there is good news.  Recently in my town of Darien the pattern was broken.

A planned parking rate increase at the town’s two train stations, Darien and Noroton Heights, came up for a public hearing before the Board of Selectmen.  A final vote on the plan was on the agenda for the same evening.

But a handful of dismayed commuters who knew no details of the plan (boosting day-parking rates by 66%), turned up at the hearing and protested. They said they had not been warned about the proposal, that commuters had not been told of the public hearing and they had a slew of complaints and concerns about other aspects of the parking lots and stations.

I guess I was the one responsible for that turnout, as I’m the one who posted signs at the station and leafleted cars in the parking lot, something I told the town fathers they could and should have done.

To their credit, and my surprise, the public hearing was continued for another week and the rate-hike pushed back until more commuters could be heard.  Signs were posted at the stations informing commuters of the proposals and the chance to be heard.

The Board of Selectmen was not required to do that, but they did.  And they deserve credit and our thanks for listening first and voting second.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 23 years.  He is a member of the new CT Rail Commuter Council and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or

A New Life in a New Land With Challenges Aplenty

Tarek and Elena  are all smiles as they get started in Quebec. They have faced  problems  before. He especially.

Tarek and Elena are all smiles as they get started in Quebec. They have faced problems before. He especially.

Longueil, Province of Quebec – I just had a wonderful visit with Tarek and Elena in this suburb of Montreal. Met their three cute little daughters, ages 3 to 10. They are brand-new immigrants from Ukraine, so eager to start a new life with much brighter opportunities.

I thought I’d be with them an hour or two. Well, it was more than three. So fascinating to hear what they went through to get accepted here, and how they’re making it. Not easy!

I got to meet Tarek and Elena when I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. They worked at Headquarters in Kyiv, the capital. He was a pharmacist in the medical department. I’d meet him when I went to see a doctor there. I served a full-hitch of 27 months so that happened quite often.

I found out he spoke French, quite a rarity there. He had to speak good English for that job, of course. But he was also fluent in Ukrainian and Russian, which I expected, but also in Algerian. Quite a feat! Sometimes I’d poke into his office just for a little chat in French with him.

His wife Elena was the travel assistant. She was Ukrainian and a university grad. She handled arrangements for Headquarters staffers and Volunteers on official travel. By plane, train, bus, or any combination. In Ukraine and to any other country. All my travel was on my own, and I traveled quite a bit, in Europe and even to China. She didn’t have to be but was always cheerfully helpful.

They had good jobs. They were both in their 30s. I took it for granted they’d be there till they retired. Imagine my surprise when I got an email from him a year ago. In French, by the way. He told me they were moving to Canada. Wow!

He asked me if I had any contacts in Montreal. They didn’t know a soul there. I said yes, and put him in touch with a couple. He was very appreciative.

More than once I wondered, Why did they make this enormous move, and with three little kids? Leave family and friends, and of course lovely Kyiv? What made them decide it was worth facing all the difficulties and challenges they were sure to run into in Quebec?

So when I decided to come up here in my van, I lost no time asking to stop by and visit. He promptly and enthusiastically said yes.

I had bad luck. I showed up an hour late, and through no fault of mine. I had hardly parked when all five came out to welcome me. They had been at the window, watching for me!

It was the first time I saw Lisa, Sofia, and Amalia. What sweet little girls.

I knew that Elena didn’t know a word of French, which is the official language here. That was something to cause them concern. And the little girls would be facing that challenge, too, plus other tough adjustments.

Well, Tarek filled me in about everything.

First, about him. He was born in Ukraine and grew up in Algeria, and that’s why he’s so good at French in addition to the native Algerian. His mother was Russian and his dad Algerian. They met in Moscow when they were students.

In Algeria, he decided he wanted to be a doctor. I asked him why. A lot of doctors go into medicine primarily to make money and enjoy prestige. That’s well known. “No, no,” he said. “I wanted to help people.” I believe him. He graduated from medical school in Algiers and passed the credentialing test and became a certified M.D. there.

There was a war going on. He wanted no part of it. He moved to Ukraine. He had relatives there. He found out that he couldn’t practice medicine there because of a crazy technicality. That’s how he got to work at Peace Corps as a pharmacist.

Along the way, he met Elena again. Love! Marriage! There three kids were born there.

So why did they decide to move to Quebec? “We have three kids and we wanted for them to have more opportunities in life, and grow up in a multicultural environment. We spent a long time deciding. We’d move to another country. It hasn’t been easy. But we’re very glad we made that decision.”

I said to him, “You were turned down by the United States, is that what happened.” In my work in Ukraine I had run into many people who thought about emigrating, and the U.S. was always their first choice. They thought of our country as Paradise on earth. I always agreed with them that we’re a very wonderful country, but we have problems, too. We’re no Paradise.

“No, we never considered the United States,” Tarek told me. That astonished me. I took it for granted that the U.S. had been their first choice.

“Why not?”

“It’s a fine country, but Canada is better. It is less aggressive, that’s for sure. Children can grow up with less worry about having to go off somewhere in the world to fight in a war.

“And Canada, like the United States, is made up of people with all kinds of backgrounds, but Canadians seem to be more accepting of one another. There’s less discrimination, it seems to us.

“Taxes are much higher here, but there’s more money spent on services for people. Canadians don’t have to worry as much about good health care, for instance. Or good care when they’re old. Or their children getting a good education that will be affordable. We researched all that. And that’s how we made our decision.”

I knew that he was studying to be a pharmacist in Montreal. “How is that going, Tarek?”

“No, not a pharmacist. That takes five years and leads to a doctorate. I’m studying to be licensed as a pharmacist technician. That takes one year full-time. I’ll complete that by Christmas.”

“Gosh, why assistant? That surprises me.”

“I just turned 40. I have to earn money! Elena is studying French full time in a College—a special program of preparation for immigrants. She enjoys it. Is learning French. Quebec history and culture. Many practical things. Important things.

“And I intend to be a doctor again. That is my dream. It is possible, though there are many steps and it will take time. I will achieve it faster this way. Five years in pharmacy school would make it impossible.”

I remembered that back in Ukraine, Tarek was completing a fellowship in radiology, including nuclear radiology, at a major hospital there. He’d be a radiologist now if they had stayed there. Imagine that. They’d have a good life over there.

I looked around as we spoke. They had a nice apartment on the first floor of a six-apartment building in a lower middle class neighborhood. It was safe and comfortable and clean and had all the basics. Even hot water and a washer and dryer and a TV and full computer set-up, but it’s not the place a couple with their credentials would normally live in.

Elena was a warm and caring person. She kept coming out with something for me. A cup of hot tea with mint and ginger. Delicious. Then she came out with a supper plate of toasts with scrambled eggs. She knew I didn’t eat flesh of any kind. She had some wonderful herb in those eggs. Then a piece of cake. Then a baked apple.

I kept thinking that had been a prestige job she had back in Peace Corps. I wondered about her feelings now. She did seem radiantly happy in her role and mother. The two of them certainly had a close and caring relationship. I could see that.

She spoke fine English, but I knew she didn’t speak French. In an email, I had asked Tarek if I should speak in English or French when I was with the family.

“French, please. It will be good practice for them.”

So French it was. I had to compliment her. I could tell she was following our conversation. Even joining in.

It had taken them three years to get through the admission process. A lot of suspense. They had to agree to a lot of things. One was to send the children to French Schools. Another was to arrive with $5,000 dollars—Canadian dollars–in their pocket. That’s a lot of money for Ukrainians. A teacher earns about $2,000 a year, as I remember it.

“That $5,000 is to keep an immigrant family going for the first three months,” he said. “If we had gone to Ontario next door, we would have needed $10,000. But Quebec is what interested us.”

He thought a minute. “It takes at least $20,000 per year to get by here. Just get by. We bought that nice computer in the living room because it was absolutely essential. We use it every day. It’s so useful so many ways, including my studies, of course.”

Elena spoke up. “I speak to my father in Ukraine every day! By Skype. On the computer!” She beamed as she said that.

I asked her, “Do you like snow? There’s an awful lot here!” I was sure she’d say no. I myself got tired of snow many years ago. Had to shovel too much of it. Drive in it too often. Many people feel as I do.

She laughed. “We love snow!”

They have no car. He takes a bus every morning, then switches to a subway to get to school in Montreal. Does it in reverse to get home. Takes an hour each way. They chose this apartment because it was close to all the important things. Thy walk, walk, walk. In 10 months they haven’t had the time or the money to visit anything beyond the range of city transit.

It’s a hectic schedule. He goes to classes every day. She goes to her own classes. The two older girls are in primary school. The youngest is in a day care. The weekends are precious.

With all those languages, what do they speak at home. Russian and French. Those are the most important for the girls right now. Hopefully the others, too, some day.

He brought up the subject of money again.

“It costs a minimum of $20,000 a year for a family to get by here. That’s a lot of money. And pharmacy school is expensive. We do get financial help. I receive a study grant from the provincial government. A check every month. But it is for a limited time only. I will have to pay back a small percentage of it. That’s all. And there’s also a program of family assistance. So much for each child. We receive that every month, too. It is very helpful.”

He smiled. “It is a challenge! We expected it to be a challenge. We are doing fine. My job prospects are very good. One step at a time. When I get a job, we will buy a car. I will take lessons. Elena will take lessons. And in due time we will be full Canadian citizens! Our little girls will grow up in a free and democratic society.”

And he would be a medical doctor, I felt quite sure.

I brought up the question of politics in Ukraine and in Canada. A natural question. But he didn’t want to get into it. I could understand that.

It’s only when he mentioned how he and Elena planned to take driving lessons that I realized they had never learned to drive. It really was a different world back there in Ukraine.

I felt so good to see what a good and loving home life they were enjoying, despite the difficulties. And how they were going all out to make it even better with their little daughters in this new world so different.

I was positive that if Quebec had extended such a welcoming hand to them, with assistance of this kind and that kind, it was because Quebec was sure that they would become very valuable new citizens.

Quebec was as determined to make a better future for itself as they were for themselves.

A win-win situation in the making!


Talking Transportation: Saving Money on Metro-North

Jim Cameron

Jim Cameron

Whether you’re a daily commuter, an occasional day-tripper or have friends visiting from out of town this summer, everyone can save money when you go into NYC on Metro-North by following this time-tested advice:

TRANSITCHEK:  See if your employer subscribes to this great service, which allows workers to buy up to $245 per month in transit using pre-tax dollars.  If you’re in the upper tax brackets, that’s a huge savings on commutation.  A recent survey shows that 45% of all New York City companies offer TransitChek which can be used on trains, subways and even ferries.

GO OFF-PEAK: If you can arrive at Grand Central weekdays after 10 am and can avoid the 4 pm – 8 pm peak return hours, you can save 25%.  Off-peak’s also in effect on weekends and holidays.  Your train may be less crowded, too.  These tickets are good for 60 days after purchase.

BUY TICKETS IN ADVANCE: Buy your ticket on the train and you’ll pay the conductor a $5.75 – $6.50 “service charge”… a mistake you’ll make only once!  (Seniors: don’t worry, you’re exempt and can buy on-board anytime without penalty). There are ticket machines at most stations, but the cheapest tickets are those bought online.  And go for the ten-trip tickets (Peak or Off-Peak) to save an additional 15%.  They can be shared among passengers and are good for six months.

KIDS, FAMILY & SENIOR FARES:           Buy tickets for your kids (ages 5 – 11) in advance and save 50% over adult fares.  Or pay $1 per kid on board (up to four kids traveling with an adult, but not in morning peak hours).  Seniors, the disabled and those on Medicare get 50% off the one way peak fare.  But you must have proper ID and you can’t go in the morning rush hours.

FREE STATION PARKING: Even stations that require parking permits usually offer free parking after 5 pm, on nights and weekends.  Check with your local town.

CHEAPER STATION PARKING:  Don’t waste money parking at comparatively “expensive” station garages like South Norwalk ($ 10 per day) or Stamford ($10 for 8 hours, M-F).  Instead, park at the day-lots in Darien or Noroton Heights for just $3.  But be sure to buy a scratch-off ticket in advance.

Once you’re in the city, you can save even more money.

METROCARDS:  Forget about the old subway tokens.  These nifty cards can be bought at most stations (even combined with your Metro-North ticket) and offer some incredible deals:  put $5 on a card (bought with cash, credit or debit card) and you get a 5% bonus.  Swipe your card to ride the subway and you’ll get a free transfer to a connecting bus.  You can buy unlimited ride MetroCards for a week ($30) or a month ($112).  There’s now even an ExpressPay MetroCard the refills itself like an EZ-Pass.

IS IT CHEAPER TO DRIVE?:  Despite being a mass transit advocate, I’m the first to admit that there may be times when it’s truly cheaper to drive to Manhattan than take the train, especially with three or more passengers.  You can avoid bridge tolls by taking the Major Deegan to the Willis / Third Ave. bridge, but I can’t help you with the traffic you’ll have to endure.  Check out to find a great list of parking lots and their rates close to your destination.   Or drive to Shea Stadium and take the # 7 subway from there.

The bottom line is that it isn’t cheap going into “the city”.  But with a little planning and some insider tips, you can still save money.  Enjoy!

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 19 years.  He is Past-Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or

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Enjoying Old Route 66. Or what’s left of it

Nothing I saw was this beautiful.  But some things I saw along 66 I’ll never forget.

Nothing I saw was this beautiful. But some things I saw along 66 I’ll never forget.

Hello, all. This is my 72nd day on the road and I am in Dayton, Ohio, a city which is a dramatic story in itself but for a later time.

I just  looked at my odometer. I have driven 3,675 miles and I am finally in the Eastern Times Zone!  So, I am getting closer. If I made a mad dash.I could make it home in two days. But I won’t do that. Still have places I want to see. And I’m still having fun.

If I had taken Interstates all the way home in the most direct way, I’d be home by now and would have saved a lot of gas money.
Yes, since the start, I’ve driven some short stretches on Interstates. Not because I prefer them. No, no, no. Only because it would be silly not to.

Whenever it made sense, I’ve chosen state roads–secondary highways. Some four lanes, some two. All in mostly good condition. but some bumpy ones, too. But, believe me, what a relief not to be tailed by a parade of huge trucks, which all choose the Interstates. What a relief to cruise at a calm 50 or 55 rather than frantic 70 or 75.  What a pleasure  to again see occasional houses and people and little businesses and even small towns.

Now, about Route 66

It was a historic highway. Truly historic.

Much of it is gone, yet I’ve traveled hundreds of miles on some of its remaining stretches. Some of it has been dull. But much of it wonderful and very worthwhile.

Familiar with it? Old Route 66 is sometimes called the Mother Road. Sometimes called America’s Highway.  As you may know, Route 66 has been celebrated, in fact immortalized, in countless books and movies and songs and videos. It’s as American as apple pie.

It was our most famous highway in pre-Interstate Highway times. It remains an indelible part of our romantic past.
It was built in the 1920s as our very first paved highway for its whole length–paved  for automobiles,  of course, which were the flivvers of those day. It was not a state highway. It was a U.S. highway. What a huge and important break-through that was.

It was our longest highway by far, more than 2,000 miles in all. It connected Chicago on its eastern end and Santa Monica on the California coast at the other.

Before it was created,  no way could someone in  a flivver attempt even a ride of 50 or 100 miles across that terrain…too many flats and break-downs. Let alone think of  crossing two-thirds of the USA! Which Route 66 made i possible to do, and quite comfortably.

It changed everything. Businesses boomed. Commerce took off between towns and cities and states. Markets opened up. People’s views of life and work and country expanded. We  became bigger. For the first time really, people became Americans instead of just citizens of this town or that county or state.

And a remarkable thing happened. All along Route 66 sprang up gas stations and restaurants and boarding houses and hotels–and then the newfangled motels.

Route 66 was a two-lane road in the beginning, sometimes black-topped, sometimes concrete. What a pleasure it was to drive on a smooth surface, and with no fear of having to ford a little stream or break an axle on holes and ruts.

Route 66 was impressively engineered with reasonable grades up and down. It offered solid bridges with no annoying planks to clatter when you crossed over. Astonishing road cuts in hills to make the going easier and safer.

It was as significant for the dawning Automobile Age as the transcontinental railroad had been half a century earlier.

Of course, Route 66 was imitated by other states for their highways. All built to similar high standards. And before long, all states agreed on common standards for their highways. Finally we had a system of highways making it possible to venture far and wide. What a feat!

Then bad things happened for Route 66.

President Ike Eisenhower came along and began pushing his idea of federal interstate highways. He said they were essential for our national defense, he said,  and, of course, for our expanding economy.

His Interstates would have even higher construction standards than Route 66 and the other state roads like it. The’d have understandable markings-be even-numbered for the stretches east and west, and odd-numbered for those north and south.

And free! Well, except for a few exceptions such as the Massachusetts Turnpike, which charged tolls.  It was my home state then. How Massachusetts  and the others—Connecticut was one–got away with that, I don’t know.

But! What happened is that Route 66 and its many imitators suddenly became painfully quiet.

People flocked to the new Interstates. They loved whizzing along with no traffic lights. Loved the easy on and easy off.  Loved traversing even large cities in  mere minutes, or just skirting around them. What time-savers the Interstates were. And they made road shipments of goods of all kinds so much easier and faster—even faster than the railroads could do the job.

But dire consequences, too. For one thing, countless communities shriveled up.” Out of Business” and “For Sale” signs began appearing.  It was a death sentence for some communities. And for many others, a humbling one—few people stopped by any more.

Some sections of the Interstates replaced sections of Route 66. In other places, the Interstates paralleled it. Route 66 became far less important. Fell into decline. So, after many years, Route 66 was “de-commissioned”! Route 66 is no longer a federal highway. How many times has that happened? Not many.

I got to really sample the old highway

Many sections still exist. I have ridden numerous sections of it. Now and then in deplorable condition—so bad I couldn’t wait to get off it. But in other sections, especially in creative-thinking communities, their sections of the old route were hailed for their promotional value for business in general, and especially tourism.

I’m pleased to tell you Route 66 has been a wonderful treat for me especially in Oklahoma. I’ve traveled it happily for mile after mile. So enjoyable. Through many small towns, some with populations of only one or two thousand.

I’ve stopped at small country stores to buy a few bananas or glance at local newspapers. Any excuse to poke around and stretch my legs. I’ve stopped to walk up and down a quaint main street. Explore antique shops and check thrift stores; what fun. Visit local libraries, of course—some tiny ones with just a room or two, and I’ve been welcomed at all of them.   Yesterday I stopped to enjoy a flock of goats in a small pasture–white bodies with brown heads. So identical they seemed factory-made..

I stopped again this morning, this time to enjoy cows in a lush field. About30 or them. I’ve seen lots and lots of cows. These were different.  Usually they’re all black or all brown or maybe all white. These were mixed, like us Americans!.

I took out my camera. Hollered at them to get their attention. They ignored me. Hollered again. Only one or two looked up, but just for a second. Then they got a signal, I swear. They all turned their tail and started walking away from me. I felt insulted. And I had made a U-turn to come back and be friendly and say hello. How impolite.

Things got different at the Oklahoma line.

Crossing from Texas into Oklahoma was dramatic. It’s the right word. For many days I had been driving over vast stretches of geography often with nothing in sight. No houses, no ranches, no trees, no people, no animals except a bird now and then.  Just a car whizzing by in the opposite direction once in a while.

Several times I stopped to take a picture showing nothing on any side. Nothing. Just endless flat land! That’s a strange experience, believe me.

The chane in Oklahoma was so fast. I began top see grass–green grass. And clumps of trees, small and then bigger. And even a little pond (wow!). Then groves of trees. Then a forest. Hey, it made me think of Connecticut. All in just a few miles! It’s as if somebody had drawn the  Texas-Oklahoma state line right there because they were  struck just as much as I was by the huge contrast.

I’ve crossed practically the whole state on Route 66. Along the road I’ve noticed numerous historic markers about it. It’s surprising how many pamphlets about it I’ve picked up, and about things to see along it.

I just remembered I should tell you this.

It happened at the Motel 6 in Santa Few, New Mexico. I had put up there for a week when I got ill.

I heard unusual noise in the parking lot at 8 a.m. I peered out. Many Harley Davidson motorcycles were parked out there. Unusual.Their riders were getting ready to take off. Men and women in their 40s and 50s in leather—leather helmets, boots, gloves, the works. The men sported beards and tattoos. The women huge earrings and tattoos. Quite a sight.

I opened the door. A big, burly rider was right there. “Where are you from?” I asked. “Where are you going?”

He said something but I didn’t understand. His strange accent. He noticed. Repeated for me.

“From  the Czech Republic! We are riding Route 66!” He smiled at the thought. A great adventure, obviously. He was so happy.Yes, riding Route 66 all the way.  It would take them 21 days.

They were packing their stuff into a big white van–their support van for the whole trip. In minutes, the lead driver gunned his throttle and they all started up. You should have heard the roar! And off they went.

I went online to learn more. Companies offer  motorcycle travel fans, and they advertise them here and abroad. A typical package includes the round-trip air fair, the rental bikes, the motel stays, the support van, and other basics.

But there are many extra costs. Gasoline, and insurance,  many meals, and fees at parks and museums and special amusements.

That 21 days could build up to $10,000 per rider.

I got to see Oklahoma’s two proudest cities

Route 66 took me through huge Oklahoma City and only slightly smaller Tulsa.  I arrived in both around 5:30 p.m. as planned. I wanted to arrive after most folks had gone home. Just to drive around slowly and savor the two cities.

For years, Oklahoma City was a big cattle town and Tulsa a huge oil town. You can still see many signs of this history in them. They have a lot more going for them now.  They are greatly diversified now, and you can tell they are prosperous.

Most Midwest cities have common features and I saw that clearly in these two. Their streets are laid out in grid patterns. In New England our street patterns are so wild and crazy. And Midwest cities have wide streets and keep them very clean. So many of our cities back home do not.  It seems a matter of pride for these cities. And these cities look fresh, safe, wholesome. Can’t say that about some of our cities.

Both have  big, tall buildings. But what big big city does not? Methinks it’s all about keeping up with the cities in your league. The way so many of us do our utmost to keep up with the Joneses.

The tallest buildings are the newest, of course, and they feature lots of glass and aluminum and stainless steel. The big buildings of the previous generation are less tall, and they feature fancy masonry and concrete. They didn’t have today’s technology back then.

It’s fun to speculate what the next generation of big buildings will look like. I’m sure architects are scratching their heads to come up with something different that will be bold and exciting. The temptation is to design buildings taller and taller . To me, such thinking is foolish. Those big buildings de-humanize us. Make us feel insignificant.  And they’re dangerous. I wouldn’t want to work or live way in one of those monsters.

As expected, both cities boast fine museums and shops and parks and restaurants. I would have given both more time and attention a few years back. I’m still interested, but it’s so hard so find parking spots now! Don’t giggle; I think you get my drift.

A day never, never to forget

In Oklahoma City, it was my Day 34. The sky was gray and threatening.  Sure enough, I soon felt a few drops, but coming down faster. My very first rain  in 34 days! It felt good. Then it came  down hard and I was so glad I had packed an umbrella.

Well, tornadoes hit the area, as you know, including a humongous one. It killed 25 men, women, and children or so in tiny Moore. Injured many, many more. Destroyed property in the multi millions of dollars. A huge calamity.

Strangely, I was very close to all that. Just 10 miles or so away. I say strangely because I never saw any tornado. I was totally unaware this big one was raging.. Then I saw two police cars whiz by at 80 miles an hour, red lights and sirens on.  I still didn’t know why. Very soon I got emails from family and friends worried about my safety. Some said they were praying for me. How wonderful. But that’s how I found out!  It was a pleasure to send out word I was fine.

Of course, the risk of so many tornadoes every year is scary. Oklahoma averages more than a hundred, more than any other state.  It’s a big state and tornadoes hit usually just small areas, but still.

I know that sales of pre-built steel Tornado Safety Closets are attracting buyers.They run $5,000 and up. People buy one for their basement and consider it a smart buy. And many people consider tornado insurance a must.

Who thinks of such things in Connecticut? Of course, tornadoes could hit us, too. Imagine what even a small twister would do to little Deep River!

Those poor Okies back during the Dust Bowl

More than once while driving through Oklahoma I thought of the awful Dust Bowl here in the mid-Thirties.That’s what they called that incredible disaster. Long periods of drought, poor agricultural techniques, and record-high temperatures–110 degrees and higher–led to the Dust Bowl–the topsoil got blown away! Massive crop failures. Bankruptcies. Countless families threw in the towel. Packed up what they could and headed west. Left Oklahoma and never looks back. An awful chapter in the state’s history.
Another disaster like that seems ruled out because of numerous improvements, plus the fact modern agriculture is so much smarter.

Now let’s hope the day will come when Oklahomans will say, “Tornadoes are a thing of the past! We know how to control them!”
Meteorology is making great strides. Science has brought us so many wonders that we once thought impossible. Science will triumph again. The question is, when?

Leaving Tulsa, I had to abandon Route 66.  It was heading northeasterly. I had to head east, toward the northwest corner of Arkansas.  I said goodbye to Route 66 with regret.

My impression of Oklahoma all the way across is that it’s a great big beautiful lawn. And that Oklahomans are nice people.
Well, I’m glad  I favored Route 66 . I got a much better look along it and got to enjoy the ride so much. It’s wonderful that Route 66 is being remembered so fondly.

If only we had done as much for our Route 1 from Maine to Key West, Florida! It was historic, too.


Talking Transportation: The July Gas Tax Increase

Jim CameronThis week marks the 30th anniversary of the Mianus River Bridge collapse, which killed three people.  That accident on I-95 in Greenwich was attributed to years of neglected inspections and maintenance, the inevitable result of penny-pinching in Hartford.

Will the recent Metro-North crash (which injured 76 passengers) also be tied to long-postponed repairs?

Last week, the CDOT’s Commissioner testified before US Senator Blumenthal that Connecticut has spent $3.2 billion in the last decade on the New Haven rail line, while Amtrak spent just $64 million.  And all that spending still couldn’t prevent the May 17 derailment.

But Commissioner James Redeker also said there’s another $4.5 billion needed to bring the line into a “state of good repair” in the short term.  That includes work on the catenary and replacement of four movable bridges, some of them 100+ years old.  Layer on top of this $130 million to meet the federal mandate for PTC (Positive Train Control), and you can see the problem.

Where’s the money to come from? 

Well, it will come from you and me.  On July 1st we will all start paying an additional 4 cents per gallon for gasoline, tax money that will go into the Special Transportation Fund (STF), supposedly to be spent on rails and roads.

But remember that it was Governor Malloy who (again) balanced this year’s state budget by raiding $110 million from that STF, something that, as a candidate, he swore he would never do.  Voters will decide if that makes Malloy a hypocrite… or just a pragmatist.  Either way, future Governors won’t be able to do it again as the legislature has voted to put the STF into an untouchable “lock box” starting in 2015, after the next election.

Over the past decade various lawmakers and Governors have stolen a billion dollars from the STF.  So not only are we about $4.5 billion short on needed funds for rail repairs, but the STF has been treated like a petty cash box and drained it at will.

How sad it is when we have to balance our state’s budget by taking money targeted for keeping our rails and highways safe… not to mention starting a state-wide Keno game, basically a “tax” on those ignorant enough to play it (with odds of about 9 million to one of winning the jackpot).

Kudos to Senator Blumenthal for pushing safety as a top priority.  Maybe he can also get Amtrak to start paying its fair share for running trains over our (state-owned and maintained) tracks.

But it’s not just our rails that are in bad shape.  This week the group Transportation for America released its annual report on the deterioration of US highway bridges:  one in nine of those bridges is structurally deficient and in need of repair or replacement.  In Connecticut, that number has grown, not declined, since last year.

Yet, our DOT is still moving forward with a half-billion dollar rebuild of the structurally sound Waterbury “mix-master” where Route 8 crosses I-84.  Why?

So, next time you’re filling your tank with the priciest gasoline in the Northeast, pick-up a Keno ticket.  You might have a better chance of winning there than ever seeing your taxes spent on improving transportation safety.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  The opinions expressed in this column are only his own.  You can reach him at  or

Zigging and Zagging My Way Home to Deep River

Veteran cross-country traveler John Guy LaPlante gives another update on his extraordinary journey by minivan from California to Deep River, Conn.

All alone on the road, for miles and miles, along a parched and empty land.  Ever experience that?  It can be the case on the High Plains of Texas.  Good thing I enjoy my own company.

I’m moving along happily, always ready to  jump off the Interstate  to go see something interesting.

As I write this, I have entered green and beautiful Missouri.  So refreshing to see real green!  It’s making me homesick for Deep River.

I have driven 2,285 miles to date. It’s surprising how little has gone wrong.

My adventure is continuing as well as I could expect.  As you know, I’m not doing this just to get home.  I’m crossing the USA  to enjoy the ride and have fun.

I keep a journal every day.  Just raw notes, hand-written.  I have done this for every significant trip and, in fact, many significant undertaking in my life for many years.  Our memory plays tricks on us.  Important to write down the facts.

The journal-keeping is a job in itself.  I’ve just finished my last entry for today at a Burger-King.  It’s 10:35 p.m. and it will close at 11.  I’m the only customer left in here.

I’ve been here for more than two hours–my typical evening routine.  A clerk—a nice young gal—is now giving me dirty looks.  Twenty minutes ago I went up and ordered one more thing.  An ice cream cone.  Mostly to keep her smiling.

I still have to find my way a few miles up the road to a Super Walmart—meaning one that never closes and sells just about everything, including full food and groceries.  Even gasoline at some, and always cheaper.  You may not know it, but it takes 600 employees—excuse  me, associates–to do the job in a store this big.


My road atlas tells me the Walmart is there.  That’s where I’ll sleep tonight.  I’ll be lucky to slip into my bunk by midnight.  In the morning, I’ll go in, use the bathroom, and buy a few things.  This trip would be impossible without Walmart.  I mean it.

My trip is fun, but there’s a heap of work (notice the Western expression?) to a trip like this.  Yes,  work.  I’m busy from morning until night.  I do take a nap every afternoon.  As some of you know, I nodded off on a highway some years ago.  In mid-afternoon.  Doing 65.  For just three seconds, maybe five.  Awful!  I ran of f the highway and bounced off the rear left corner of a parked car.  It had a flat or something.  The three in the car were standing off at the side.

My airbag exploded.  I smashed the windshield.  Police, ambulance, the works.  No injuries but I totaled my beautiful Buick.  Damage aplenty to the parked car.  I was not penalized in any way.  Talk about good luck!

If I had hit that car square, I’d be dead.  Once like that is more than enough.  I’m not embarrassed to tell you I take a mid-afternoon nap.

As I look over my journal, I see far more in my many entries than I can tell you about without exhausting myself typing it up.

So, this report is not complete.  The reason is that I’ll be sending you  reports soon about three big experiences I’ve had.  One is my cruising Historic Road 66 for hundreds of miles–the Mother Road, our first modern highway across a vast stretch of the U.S.A.

The second is about my four days in Bentonville, Ark.  It’s the small, very ordinary little town where Sam Walton started Walmart and where he continued to live all his life, although he got to be worth multi-billions and could afford to live in a palace in the glitziest spot that suited him in the world.

And how small  Bentonville is now the world capital of Walmart and Sam’s Club, which he also started.  And how Bentonville has been vastly and beautifully transformed because of all the Walton and Walmart money.  And what a good time I had exploring Bentonville and soaking up all I could about Sam.  Four days was too short …

The third was my visit of several days in Independence, Mo.  Another small and indifferent city.  And how that has been transformed by another remarkable man, Harry Truman.

President Truman was a poor farm boy who never went to college.  Getting into politics and rising steadily, he was chosen to run with Franklin Delano Roosevelt in FDR’s fourth and final presidential election.

How Roosevelt spoke to him only once after the election.  And how after only 82 days as VP, Harry Truman suddenly found himself President of the United States of America.

Everybody thought Harry was in deep, deep water.  I think he thought so himself.  But he startled everybody with a dramatically effective tenure of seven years.  A tenure with truly historic moments that brought great changes.

How he retired to little Independence, which he considered the center of the universe.  How to his dying breath he remained deeply in love with his wife Bess.  And how he steadfastly refused to make a dime off his service as President, contrary to numerous other Presidents.

And how today he is regarded as one of our truly great Presidents.

Well, Harry transformed Independence just as Sam Walton transformed Bentonville.

My time in Independence was too short, too.

But now, let me tell you some highlights of my trip as I mosey along from California across America home to Connecticut.  I hope these highlights will give you a good idea of the good time I’m having.

My first time in a pawn shop in 60 years!

Dumas in the Texas Panhandle is a nice, very neat little city of 15,000.  On Main Street, I spotted $EZPawn.  That’s how it spells its sign. I hadn’t been in a pawn shop since I was 20.  I stopped in.  Small but very clean and well laid out.  I was surprised.  Hundreds of items.  Only one clerk, Sonia, about 28.  Taking inventory.  I said hello and she smiled back.

I was amazed by the wide variety of stuff—electronics, tools of all kinds, musical instruments, household appliances, tools, cameras and binoculars and jewelry, auto stuff—just about anything of value.  But no clothing or shoes.


You’ll understand in a minute why I felt I had to stop in. Many pawn shops out here. None close to Deep River. We could use one.

I told her this was only my second time in, yes, more than 60 years, and she was amazed.  “So many people use pawn shops …”

$EZPawn is a regional chain, she said.  This store has been in business 40 years.  The only one in the area.  Solid reputation, she said.

“We do two things.  We lend people money on stuff they bring in, and we buy things from them.  Mostly we pawn.  Lend them money depending on the value of the item.

“And yes, prices can be discussed.  It’s a fact.  We try to work with people.  We hear lots of hard luck stories.  That’s expected in this business.”  I pointed to a nice electric drill, only $16.  And a small digital camera.  Only $8.  “Such low prices.  Are these things guaranteed?”

“We test everything.  Make sure it works.  And we give people 24 hours.  They can return anything.  After that, sorry!”

“What’s the usual pawn deal?”

“The stuff they pawn is the collateral.  We give people 30 days to pay back the money we lend them.  And two days of grace.  We charge interest, of course, but the rates are controlled by the state.  If they come in late to reclaim something, even one day late, sorry!”

“When you buy something, how do you set the price?”

“We look at it.  If we’re interested, we get a model number or a good description of it.  We go online.  To Google or Bing or others.  We check going prices.

“That’s our starting point.  Then we go up or down, depending on the  condition.  We try to be fair.  It’s the only way to stay in business.

“If something doesn’t move, we mark it down.”

“Do you yourself buy stuff here?”

“Of course!”

“An example, please.”

“An i-pad.  Excellent condition.  $199.”


“Yeah.  The price was good to start with.  And I got my employee discount.  But you said you used a pawn service years ago!”

“Yes, I did. I was 20.  I was crazy in love with Pauline.  A big college prom was coming up.  Had to take her.  She was counting on it.  I was short of money.

“My Uncle Jack had just come back from World War II.  He was a grunt in the Infantry, fighting through France and Germany.  Like every GI, he came back with souvenirs he scooped up.  Gave me a pair of German Army binoculars—Carl Zeiss.  World-famous name.

“Well, I pawned them.  Got enough money for the prom.  Pauline was radiant.  She was chosen prom queen.  I had 30 days to get those fine binoculars out of hock, as you explained.  Never came up with the money.  Lost the binocular!”

She laughed.  I laughed, too, but not as much as she did.  The memory still hurts.  I’m glad my Uncle Jack never heard about it.  It would have killed him.

“You learned a lesson!”

“And how …  I swore I’d never pawn anything again.  I never have.  But I’d buy a few things here. But I think I’d try not to think of how bad people must feel when they come in to pawn something.  They’re desperate, I’m sure.”

“Yes.  For sure.  But we do offer a good service.  Lots of people come in.  May sound strange but we have some regulars.”

Ever see a Sonic Drive-In?  I hadn’t.

I’m still in Dumas.  Cruising main street.  I noticed a Sonic Drive-In.  Its sign was so tall and the Sonic was so busy that I couldn’t miss it.  It was at least the umpteenth Sonic I’ve seen on this trip.  I pulled in.

A classic drive-in.  We don’t have them back home.  You nose into a parking spot facing the restaurant, park, and stay right there in your car.  Each parking slot has its own big bright menu offering a thousand choices.  Select what you want.  Pay with a plastic card right from your front seat.  Relax.  A clerk in a nifty Sonic outfit brings you your order.  Pay him with cash if you prefer.

You can enjoy the food right there in your car.  Or drive away with it as take-out.  Rain or snow won’t be a bother.  Not much of either of those here, anyway.  No need to worry about whether you’re dressed sloppily or anything like that.  Plenty of advantages to choosing Sonic.


Sonic has become the classic American drive-in. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Seem as popular as McDonald’s. For folks of all ages. Why not some Sonics in Connecticut?

But you can also go inside to order and eat, or eat on the covered patio.  My server was Ruben.  I saw his name on his badge.

Just out of his teens, I guessed.  I liked him right away.

“Ruben,” I said.  “Know what?  This is the very first Sonic I ever come in!”


“Yep.  We don’t have them where I come from.”  I explained a bit.

“Well, welcome, Sir!  We have an awful lot of Sonics out here.  Folks love Sonic.  All kinds of people come in.  Especially in the evening.  Our floats are half price …  We keep hopping!”

“This is nice service you give.  Do people tip you?”

He paused.  “Some do.”  But I could tell right away that tips are rare.

A huge list on the menu, as I said.  Ice cream items are big.  Soft drinks, too.  But burgers of all kinds, too, fries, corn dogs, salads, on and on.  Breakfast all day.

I told him I wanted to take a picture for my family and friends.  Sonic would be interesting to most to them.  Would he pose for me?

He didn’t like the idea but agreed.  A nice young fellow.  And I took a shot of him by the big menu.  He was smiling, which was great.  I showed him the picture and I saw he was tickled.  Then off he went back to work.

In a minute he came back with a big, jolly man in a Sonic shirt.  The manager.  Again I explained this was my first Sonic ever, and he could see I’ve been around a long, long time.  Nice guy.  He dug into his pocket and gave me a fat plastic coin.  Red and white, with the Sonic logo.

“This will give you a free Sonic soft drink,” he told me, and smiled.  “ We have a thousand combos of flavors.  You tell me your pleasure.”

I don’t drink such things, but I didn’t say that. “I’d love one. Got a dietetic one?”

“Sure.  What’s your favorite?”  He pointed to the long list on the menu.

“You choose.  Give me your most popular flavor!”

“Ruben will bring it right out.”  He shook hands (Ouch!), gave me another smile, and went back inside.  Ruben tailed him in.

A couple of minutes and Ruben was back.  He had my drink.  Cherry something, he told me.  I took a sip and licked my lips.  “Great, Ruben!  Thank you!”

Big smile.  He was pleased.  I was pleased.  Glad I stopped in to check out the Sonic.  I don’t think I’ll ever cash in that plastic coin.  I’m going to hold on to it as a souvenir.

~ ~ ~

Too often folks don’t appreciate their home town.  I think it’s so sad.

I’m still in Dumas. It’s a small town and I’ve taken a good look around.  I like it.

In town after town I’ve said to folks, “I’m just passing through. What should I see here?” Including here in Dumas.

They think and think.  They’re hard put to think of something good to tell me.

Twice here somebody has said.  “Go see our history museum!”  I’ve done that and I enjoyed it.   I’ll tell you about it in a minute.

It’s curious they can’t think of something worthwhile.  I believe it’s because they haven’t seen many places.  Don’t have much to compare their town to.  They’re blind to the nice things they have.

Here, for instance.  If they had gotten around more, they’d realize that for a place its size, Dumas is impressive.

It has a busy shopping center with just about everything that’s needed.  Fairly prosperous, I think.  One reason is that Valero—Valero Gasoline—has a very big plant nearby.

Two people told me another big reason.  Next door in small Cactus –that’s the town’s name–is one of the biggest meat-packing plants in the world.

Another is tourism.  It’s all-important here for sure.  All the hotels and motels and restaurants and shops of all kinds on the main street tell me that loud and clear.

I noticed that it has a hospital and nice schools and a branch of a community college and banks and a library, and even that nice museum and art center.  I’ll tell you about them in a minute.

Dumas is carefully laid out and the streets are in good repair and the houses are well kept on street after street that I’ve looked at.  Nothing ritzy, but nice, neat working-people homes.

On my way here for more than 100 miles I went through only three itsy-bitsy little towns.  Just three!  Not a big grocery store in any of them.  Not even a McDonald’s or Burger King or Subway.  How about that?  I was so happy finally to ride into a community that, small as it is by our standards, offers so much.  Dumas here, I mean.

True, I wasn’t asking these folks if they liked Dumas or not.  I was asking them what I should make sure and see.  If I asked if they liked it here, they might have quickly said, “Yes, sir, Dumas is a nice place.”  But maybe not.

Somebody should be doing more hometown PR for folks here.  But I believe that’s true in community after community.


I had no idea how hugely important the chuck wagon and the windmill were in making life better out here. How far we’ve come!

About that gem of a museum that few people bother to go see.

You never know when you’ll find a gem.  That small history museum which two people told me about was a gem.

This is a small city so I expected a small museum.  This was a big museum, in its own building, with a big parking lot.  Right on the main drag.  Right across the street from the impressive Visitor Center.  It stood out clearly from all directions.

The museum was the centerpiece of a huge outdoor exhibit with all kinds of big and interesting things.  Most related to farming, which is big here, and oil.

It was 11 a.m. on Wednesday morning when I pulled in.  Only one solitary car in the lot.  The museum is closed, I thought.  But it was indeed open.

A cheery woman greeted me.  “Come in, sir!  Come in and cool off!”  She had good reason to say that.  It was already in the 90’s.  “Enjoy our museum!”

One glance around and I knew I would.  The exhibits went on and on.  All truly beautiful.  This was not an amateur volunteer operation.

I allowed myself an hour.  But everything was so interesting that I went on for an hour and a half, then two.  I paused at this exhibit, then at that one.  So much to learn here.

I did skip some, just to make time.  An exhibit on women’s clothes over the years here on the High Plains.  Another on kitchen stuff.  Another on native wildlife, as well done as it was.

Some exhibits riveted me.  One on barbed wire.  We don’t think much of barbed wire but that was a key invention in the settlement of the West.  Finally a rancher could fence in his livestock.   Didn’t have to go riding all over the place on his horse to find them …

Amazing how many kinds of barbed wire got invented.  Hundreds.  Maybe thousands.  Each slightly different, but different enough to get patented.  The museum had tray after tray of samples.  A huge job to put this exhibit together.  It deserved to be in the Smithsonian!

Another on hand and power tools.  Tools that I never imagined.   The ingenuity behind all this! Another on farm tractors—they had a collection of hundreds of perfect toy models.  Again the ingenuity …  Another on windmills, another huge invention.  They harnessed the wind to suck water out of this parched land day and night.   The only labor involved was minor upkeep.

A ranch chuck wagon.  That sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it was another enormous invention.  It carried the cook’s whole supply of equipment and food on those long cattle drives over sometimes hundreds of miles.

The cook finally had a real kitchen on wheels, even a prep table.  And besides the food, the wagon carried the cowboys’ bedding and sparse extra clothes.  Fantastic.

The museum went on and on.  I could have spent twice as much time there, all of it exciting.  But I had to leave.  In all that time, I was the only tourist.

I was about to depart when that nice lady said, “Sir, you must go look at our Art Center!  You’ll see what talented artists we have here.”

I was pressed but I said okay.  The Art Center was very nice.  But it didn’t hold a candle to the museum itself.

I stopped by to thank that nice lady and express my terrific satisfaction.  She was the director.  I said, “How many people stop in?”

Without hesitation, and proudly, she told me, “Five thousand a year!”

I was appalled.  That was only 100 a week.  Aghast!

“You should have  50 thousand!”

She looked as me as if I were nuts.

“You’ve got so much going for you.  This is a four-star museum!  The town is so lucky to have it. A perfect location. You have such talent as curator and exhibitor.  The place has great visibility.  Wonderful easy parking.  Right across from the Visitor Center.  Close to all the big hotels.”

I couldn’t help myself. Started making suggestions of things the museum might do. Hey, for many years I was a PR consultant. Used to get paid to sound off like this. Many of my suggestions didn’t require a ton of money.

“So, so interesting!” she told me.  “I’ll mention them at our next board meeting.  Thank you so much!”

“This really is a gem.  All that’s needed is promotion.”

She smiled.  I smiled.  I walked out.  Somehow I got the feeling not much would change.  Hope I’m wrong.

~ ~ ~

About that meat-packing plant I didn’t want to go see.

A waitress was the first to mention it to me.  She said it was in the next town, Cactus.  That’s really the town’s name.  It’s a huge plant, she said.  A Swift plant, she believed.  Swift is a giant in meat-packing, of course.

I asked whether they did cattle, or hogs, or sheep.  Cattle, she said, but maybe the others critters, too.  Wasn’t sure.

I said, “Could I tell what they do there if I rode out to take a look?”

“No.  It’s just a great big factory, sort of.  Lots of semis, though—you know, big trailer trucks.  Bringing in animals.  Taking meat away.”

“Does it smell?” I asked.  I still remember when I visited Battle Creek, Michigan, long ago.  It’s famous for Kellogg and Post and other big cereal smakers.  The minute I got close I noticed a strange smell.  But I liked that smell a bit

Of cereal cooking, of course.  Being converted into corn flakes and bran flakes and oat flakes and rice flakes and all the others.  We never get to smell that.  In Battle Creek it’s part of life day and night.  The ovens are going all the time.

A big meat-slaughtering plant must give off a smell, I thought.  She smiled sheepishly. “Yes, it does.”

Maybe a good smell, but the way she hesitated, I didn’t think so.  Believe me, I have no interest in driving over there.  I don’t even want to think about what they do there.  I feel good that I’ve stopped eating animals.

~ ~ ~

 I’m so glad I didn’t skip the PPHM!

I’m in Canyon, Texas now.  It’s up there in the incredibly flat and treeless Texas Panhandle.  So sparse.  The High Plains, it’s called.  Look at a map of Texas and you’ll see why this is called the Panhandle.  Elevation more than 5,000 feet.  A strong wind all the time, it seems.  That wind must be razor-sharp come winter.

The wonderful museum I’m talking about is the Panhandle and Plains Historical Museum (PPHM) here.

This small town, by the way, is like my hometown in Connecticut, Deep River.

It is named Deep River because it is located on the Deep River, a small stream but it provided all the power for our big piano factory to do its work a century ago.  That factory was the high-tech center of the piano industry back then when every middle-class family had to have a piano in its living room.

The factory is a nice condo now, and I’m happy to live there.  Quiet corner unit.  High ceilings.  Great big windows.  I look down on the dam and sluice that drove the huge turbines in the factory.  Lots of sunshine.  Nice neighbors.  Well, 97 percent of them.  But that’s a higher percentage than average, I suspect..

Well, this town is named Canyon because there’s a huge canyon here.  It’s the Palo Duro Canyon at the nearby state park by that name.  The Palo Duro is the second largest canyon in North America.  I was surprised to hear that.  And I nearly skipped it …

This little town is about 20 miles south of Amarillo in the Panhandle.

I went out of my way to come here because of  the PPHM Museum.  That’s what the locals call it.   It impressed me in the AAA handbook about Texas.

The PPHM is a separate great big building on the campus of West Texas State University, which has a  campus more impressive than I expected.

It turns out that the PPHM is the biggest history museum in all Texas.  And Texas is the biggest of our 48, as we know.  And by far.  With huge cities, and many history museums.

Through no fault of mine, I got to the museum at 3:45 p.m.  And it closed at 5 …  Should I bother, I wondered?  Then I realized it would be closed tomorrow, Sunday.  So I went in.

The ticket seller saw my problem.  “Come in, sir!  Be our guest.  But you’ll have to rush.  There’s an awful lot here!”

He was so right.  What hit me right off was the scale of everything in here.  No teeney little exhibits about this and that.  All the exhibits were big.

Right off I beheld a real, full-size derrick to drill oil, moved here from its last big drilling job in Texas.  It was 87-feet high.   Wow!  A special wing had to be built for it.  Massive timbers.  Huge pulleys and gears—bigger than on the biggest steam locomotive.  Ropes and cables as big as a strong man’s bicep.  A mighty machine capable of punching a hole 3,000 feet into the Texas rock—a hole big enough to drop a cantaloupe down it.

I just had to stand back and stare at the cleverness and the huge size of it.  This at a time when the petroleum industry was just getting started here.  As we know, oil and gas were big in this huge state.  And still are.

That derrick exhibit set the pace for all the exhibits in the museum’s many halls.

Then a wonderful exhibit about windmills.  They still mark many parts of the parched West, using the force of the wind to draw water up from the bowels of the earth.  How they made life possible.  Some were incredibly huge.

It took skilled mechanics to keep them running smoothly.  Windmillers, they were called.  Look in phone books here and you’ll still see windmillers offering their services.

Here’s a fact that will surprise you folks back in Connecticut.   The windmill that opened the West to settlement was the invention of a Connecticut man, Michael Halladay, in 1869.  He took his idea West to where it was needed most, and it took off.

Then I went onto the remarkable geology of this part of the country, and its incredible Ogallala Aquifer.  That’s the water that the windmill made it  possible to suck up.

That aquifer is the huge and broad unseen reservoir of water that lays deep under this enormous state and its neighboring states, too.  But a reservoir that we are slowly and steadily draining to meet our increasing demands for water.  And I had never heard of it

The message is clear.  If we don’t get smarter about using water, we’ll run dry.  Guaranteed!

Then a super-size exhibit about the nearby canyon, the Palo Duro.  Another about the amazing weather that makes this area so difficult to live in—the dearth of rain, the frequency of violent tornadoes.  Texas gets a lot of tornadoes, which are often deadly.  And hail storms, too—hail as big as ping pong balls and even tennis balls.  So destructive.

Then the museum has a  super-size exhibit on the native people who migrated here and managed to survive by sheer wit and tenacity.  Another on its natural history and prehistoric animal life, so varied.

The museum was enormous.  I rushed and rushed, and was sorry when I had to quit.  I was the last person out.  I thanked the young clerk at the door, who was counting the money in the till.  “So, so glad you told me to come in,” I told him.

He smiled. “We’re very proud of it here in Canyon!”

On the way out, I felt it was so appropriate the PPHM adjoins the university.  As a student, you could easily get the equal of a bachelor’s in a lot of these subjects.  All you’d have to do is come in and soak up all this knowledge.  It would be a lot more fun than leafing through a dry textbook.

One result of my vist it that I made another trip out of my way the next morning.  I drove on the big flat empty land to look at the Palo Duro Canyon.  So glad I did.

~ ~ ~

Texas has its own Grand Canyon!

The Palo Duro Canyon outside small Canyon here is greatly touted, as I’ve mentioned.  Shoud I go?  After all, I have been to the Grand Canyon–the biggest in North and South America–twice.   To both North and South Rims.  Why go out of my way to see another hole in the ground?

I went.  Amazing.  I was on a vast, boring flat table land.  Nothing around.  Nothing.  Suddenly, this huge hole.  Really huge.  So impressive.  Why this hole?  How come?  It’s another of so many mysteries.

I entered the park, paid my admission, but still had misgivings.  Was I wrong?  I realized that the minute I reached the first overlook and stood on the edge of the 600-foot drop.  That’s a lot deeper than it sounds.


Sorry, folks. I wanted to take a photo that would show you how awesome this canyon is. This photo doesn’t do it. So use your imagination!

Gosh, much more vegetation down there than up top where I was.  Even great big trees.  I made out a paved road threading its way way down there.  Sun reflected off tiny cars down there …

The sun was perfect to study the canyon.  On its enormous walls I could make out the many different layers of geology…like a huge multi-layer cake.  Many different earth colors, especially a brilliant rust, but whites and grays, too.

To my surprise the road I was on led me way down there.  A sign said, “Go down in low gear!”  Glad I listened.  The road snaked down, going close to some frightening drops.  Here and there chunks of rock had tumbled down.  Imagine being hit by one of those boulders!

At the bottom I found buildings–all park buildings–and many hiking rails going off this way and that.  I saw some young people starting on them.  Not very smart.  They should have been wearing hats and sleeves.  And carrying water.  That Ol’ Man Sun was sizzling.

I knew there was a river down here.  That’s why the vegetation was so thick and green.  But I never got to see it.  Where was it hiding?

Other cars were down there.  People were picnicking and lounging and playing ball.  At the end of the road I pulled into a nice small campgrounds.  RVs and tenters there.  I parked under a tree–what a blessing!  Great big hickory trees, with wide branches thick with leaves beyond number.  So cool and refreshing.

Enjoyed a nice picnic lunch in my van, with the windows and big side door open.  So pleasant.  I even stretched out on my bunk.  Just 20 minutes.  But I got up a new man.  I love my van.

Then, slowly I turned course and drove up and out, gawking all the way.  The park seemed so much busier suddenly.  The ranger had told me 25,000 people a month come in.  Even more in the summer.

The reason hit me!  Nearly all those visitors live on that vast, flat, hot mesa up top.  No trees.  So little up there of interest.  They come down here for the beautiful trees and verdant growth and the refreshing breeze and the many shady spots.  I’d do the same if I had to live here.

On the way out I finally found out what Palo Duro means.  Hard wood!

And there’s a fascinating historical tidbit about the Palo Duro Canyon.  When the pioneers came here and discovered it, a very smart young guy rushed and claimed a chunk of it for himself.  At the very bottom, where, because of that river that I never got to see, it was green and lush.

He raised thousands of cattle down there where they grew big faster and brought prime prices.   He loved living in this hole.  He was the envy of the other ranchers who weren’t as far-seeing as he was.

The State of Texas took possession of the canyon  many years ago.  By eminent domain, I suppose.  A wise move, I think.  Now everybody can enjoy it.  Even somebody like me from Connecticut.

Hey, if we didn’t have the wonderful Grand Canyon in Arizona, all the huge crowds there would he here, enjoying the Palo Duro instead.  Gosh,you can’t drive to the bottom of the Grand Canyon!

It sure would have been dumb of me to skip Palo Duro.

~ ~ ~

I see a lot of big trucks here we never get to see where I come from.

Out here in the High Plains, you see the livestock trailer trucks coming and going.  What they are is giant steel cages on wheels.

Coming, they’re full of animals.  Cattle, or swine,or sheep—I believe the different kinds get delivered to different slaughter houses but I’m not sure.  Going, the trucks are empty–on their way to get another load.

Even more of these trucks at night.  Maybe it’s easier on the animals.  Maybe the lighter traffic is a factor.

When you see a loaded truck go by, you know the four-legged passengers are running out of time fast.

At these plants, they’ll be quickly shoved off to run a gauntlet of steel-helmeted men in white coats and pants, with heavy boots, and armed. Armed with stun guns and big saws of a kind you’ve never seen.

In minutes these animals will be dead.  With their heads and legs sawed off and their bellies ripped open to spill the blood and guts and excrement.  I’ve never seen it.  Never want to.  But I’ve read about it.  That’s enough.

Soon they will be meat.  Quickly loaded on big reefers kept chilled to a precise coolness for delivery to meat lovers all over the country and abroad.

I spotted such a truck in a rest stop.  Empty.  The driver was standing by the cab, relaxing with a cigarette butt.  I walked to him.  And smiled.  He looked me over.  Friendly enough.

“We never see trucks like this where I come from.  I’m from Connecticut.”

“Where?” he said.

I could see he knew scant English.  “Connecticut.  Con-nec-ticut.”  And I pointed to the East.  “Way over there. On the other side.”

He shook his head and threw up his hands.  It was clear he didn’t know where Connecticut is.

He told me he delivered 45 head of cattle in his truck.  Big ones.  Then he held his right hand down by his knee.  “120 little ones.”

A good job but not easy.  Had to load them on fast and safe. Didn’t want them to break a leg or something.  Had to take care not to brake hard.  Had to get them all to the plant in good shape.  Didn’t want to have one dragged onto the killing floor.

I noticed his soiled boots.  And his jeans.  Some of  the work involved was messy.  But it was a living.

He finished his butt, then stomped on it with his boot.  He started his truck, gave me a curt wave, and pulled out.  To get a rest at home and pick up another load, I’m sure.

~ ~ ~

It’s okay to slaughter cattle, hogs, sheep, chickens, turkeys.  But not horses, some think.

Back in New Mexico a few days ago, I spotted an unusual story in a big newspaper.  A long-time meat man was preparing to open a slaughterhouse to process horses.  Not for pet food.  And not for sale in the U.S.  For foreign markets.  He saw a good market for horse meat.  And it would help the local economy, of course.

Readers were angry.  Everybody thought the idea was horrible.  The paper wrote an editorial. “We will not tolerate killing horses for human food!”

Well, it’s a fact that many people in the world enjoy eating horsemeat.  In lots of countries considered highly civilized.

In World War 11, I remember horsemeat markets in the U.S.  I remember my Aunt Bernadette serving a big thick horse steak.  My Uncle Jack loved it.  I pretended I liked it.  Already I was building up my aversion to meat.

In France, “equine markets” are not an extraordinary sight.  I’m not speaking of years years ago.  I mean right now.

In my opinion, if you’re a meat eater, you should be open to eating any kind of meat.  Of course you can prefer this kind or that cut, but you should not be offended by some people enjoying all kinds of flesh.  I mean, from any animal.

It’s not that long ago that Americans ate buffalo.  You know what their favorite part of the buffalo was?  The tongue.  Who eats the tongue of anything now?

Not long ago that Americans relished all kinds of game.  Including rabbits and squirrels and crows and eel and anything else they managed to shoot or hook or trap.  And glad to have it for dinner.

To me, from what I have seen, it’s the Chinese who are the most rational about it.  They will eat anything with legs or fins or that crawl or slither.  And any parts of them.  Not just the white breast or a drumstick or a nice filet.

Visit a Chinese meat market and you’ll see ducks and turtle and gulls and octopus and squid and snakes.  And dogs and cats and bunnies.  Some of these things will be slaughtered on the spot for you to take home.  That way you’re guaranteed it’s nice and fresh.

~ ~ ~

 Eat Steak Tartare? Not me!

This isn’t completely relevant, but I’m reminded of a personal experience years ago.  On our first or second trip to France.  We were celebrating with dinner at a nice restaurant in Paris.

We studied the large menu.  Most of the items had little meaning for me.  I found it a guessing game.  I was a meat eater then.  But queasy.  I spotted Steak Tartar.  Sounds good, I thought.  Ordered it with a glass of red wine.  The others chose other things.

In due time the natty waiter appeared with my dinner and with a graceful swirl of his hand placed it in front of me on the gorgeous tablecloth.

“Bon appetit, Monsieur!” he said, and started back for the kitchen.

I was shocked.  Absolutely shocked.  What I was looking at was a neat mound of raw hamburg, crowned with a raw egg yolk!  Red, fresh hamburg!  With a sprig or two of parsley.

“Garcon!” I said to him.  “Wait! Wait!”  And he came rushing back.

“Please!” I said, throwing up my hands in disgust.  “Please take it back.  I did not understand.  I am an American tourist.  Cook it!  Fry it!  Please!”

Now he was shocked. “Monsieur! This is a classic dish. Delectable! Merveilleux!” And he kissed his fingertips—the Frenchman’s supreme gesture for delicious!

And couldn’t resist adding, “This is the very finest beef, Monsieur! Thevery finest!”

But reluctantly he went off with my plate, shaking his head in disbelief.  I hate to imagine what he said about me when he got to the chef.

My companions were totally sympathetic, by the way.  They were so glad they had not chosen Steak Tartar.

Well, he brought my dish back.  Fried.  I ate it. But somehow the evening was spoiled.

People at other tables had seen it all, of course.  I don’t think I helped the cause of Franco-American friendship at that fine restaurant.

For sure the Chinese would have been shocked by my behavior, too.

~ ~ ~

Well, I’m doing fine so far.

I’ve made it all the way through California, New Mexico, and Texas and Arizona in fairly good shape.  You’ll be hearing more about this the next time, as I told you up top about my traveling for long stretches on Route 66.

I’ve had plenty of small problems.  How can you get through an adventure like this without problems?  If I wrote a list, it would run right off the page.  The good news so far is that all have been small.

One small one persists.  I believe there should be a place for everything and everything in its place.  At home.  At work.  Everywhere.  I’ll bet you agree.

It’s vitally important on a ship, even more so on a little boat.  I know.  I’ve had small sailboats. It’s also vital in this nice van of mine.

The minute I started packing it for my trip, I found a perfect place for every single thing.  But a day or two later, I would find a better place for something and would make the shift.  And would do it again a day or two later.  And I’m still doing it, many days into the trip.

One result is that now I go reach for something and then find I put it in another place.  Oh, the frustration of it!

But I’ve become neurotic about it.  Can’t help myself.  I’m always finding a better place for the salt or my socks or my stash of extra cash.  Some mornings when I go searching for something, I feel I’m going nuts.

While I’m at it, let me tell you about my problem with GPS.  Mike Malvey, the nice guy who sold me the van, bought me a new Gamin immediately when I told him the bad news that the navigation system in the van wasn’t working.

I’ve experimented with the Gamin and I’ve given up on it.

“You what!” I can hear some of you yelling that right now.  “John, what’s the matter with you!”

It’s a long story.  Let me just say I have a big hearing problem.  Let’s leave it at that.

One result is that I’m continually searching for somebody that I can ask directions of.  Very hard.  For the simple reason that it’s rare to find someone on a sidewalk any  more.  Who ever goes for a walk on a sidewalk?  Do you?

But I persist.  Have to.  Otherwise I’d never get anywhere, despite those huge accordion-fold maps that AAA still hands out but hopes you’ll never ask for because they cost.  I have 14 of them, for every state I’ll transit, I also have my big road atlas, and my smaller road atlas, and all the AAA guide books I have for all the states.

But something dawned on me.  If I used the Gamin GPS, one consequence for sure is that I would get to speak to far fewer people.  I might cross an entire city or even an entire state without talking to anybody, except a gas station attendant or a clerk in a store.  That would be awful.  I’ve told  you that I count on Serendipity to get me into interesting situations.  Well, Serendipity would have much less opportunity.

I’m keeping my Gamin in the glove compartment for the duration.

~ ~ ~

 A wild idea I got.

My happy bottom line is that I’m still glad I’ve undertaken this trip.  I’m still having fun.  And I’m learning so much.  Including a thing or two about myself.  Yes, at my age.  That’s really exciting.

Just a few miles into Arkansas, my odometer rolled over to 2,000 miles.  That’s an interesting number.  Because the shortest mileage from Newport Beach, CA—which was my departure point—and my home in Deep River via Interstates is 3,050 miles, give a mile or two.

Well, my odometer will reach 3,050 miles long before I get home.  As you know, I’m zigging and zagging quite crazily.  How long before is the big question.

Maybe I should start a lottery exclusively for you, my friends.  Let you pick my total mileage getting home to Deep River.  The one of you with the closest number to my total mileage would win $500 cash.  Tickets only $20, three for $55.  (That would help pay for the humongous gas bill I’m running up.)

Sorry, I would not answer any queries about where I plan to go and what I hope to see before I turn off the key in Chateau for the final time.  Truth is, I’m tempted to change my route every time I look at the map!

All ticket buyers would be invited by email to a wine-and-cheese party at which I’d announce the owner of the winning number.  Perhaps you!  And let you all look over my beautiful and comfy Chateau!  I’d let you behold the luxurious accommodations she has provided me for my sleeping and eating and recreational comfort and pleasure these many miles.

And, oh, one more thing.  Even the emergency toilet which I invented!  Still haven’t had to use it, by the way.

And I won’t try to impress you by cleaning  up Chateau in any way or organizing things in her better.  I’ll let you see her the way she really is.  But I’m really not a bad housekeeper.  Chateau is truly my happy little home on four wheels.

I’m just joking about the lottery.  But gosh, it’s such a good idea that I may re-consider …


About Jains for Folk Who Know Absolutely Nothing About Them

I should have written that headline differently. I should have said, “For folks who should know something about Jains!” I’ll tell you why. Bear with me.

Jains are Indians—meaning India Indians. A small minority but India is one of the most populous countries in the world. So Jains are numerous. And the Jains have influence and power far beyond their numbers. They’re big in business and they are big in government and big in academia.

They have unusual but important beliefs. One is ahimsa. It means non-violence. No violence of any kind, in thought, speech or act.The great Mahatma Gandhi totally changed India by his non-violence. He wasn’t a Jain but he learned what ahimsa could accomplish from Jainism.

Read the rest of the story on John Guy LaPlante’s Blog

Home I Go, and Very Slowly – John LaPlante

Happy Ending: Mike, me, and Antonio as I prepare to drive off. In back is  my blue and silver beauty–van turned camper!

Happy Ending: Mike, me, and Antonio as I prepare to drive off. In back is my blue and silver beauty–van turned camper!

Newport Beach, CA — This morning at 9:30—after the massive freeways here have been relieved of their crushing commuter traffic—I’ll climb behind the wheel of my new little camper van and start the long ride home to Deep River.

I’ve been here far longer than usual on my annual get-away from the ice and snow of Connecticut. This has been my 18th winter here with milady Annabelle, lucky me. It happens that she has lived in this warm and sunny place all her life. (If some really icy place were her home, I suspect I’d make it up there to be with her.)

Anyway, tomorrow is when I get going. A kiss and embrace and I’ll start the engine, and with a final wave and toot, begin another long solo trip. One of many I’ve racked up.

The most direct route home is about 3,200 miles. No way will that be how I’ll go. I plan to zig and zag. Take as few Interstates as possible. Stop here and stop there, Look at this and that. See famous sites and little-known ones. Avoid the very big cities—I’ve seen many of them. Don’t want to put up with all the traffic and headaches getting in and out of them.

I’ll be camping most of the way. I expect to stay at a motel now and then. More to my liking would be a hostel, For a rest, a chance to soak my body and do my laundry and  hang out with some interesting folks.

I have no specific “must-sees” in mind. But I’ll visit parks big and small, and museums, I hope, and factories that welcome visitors, and for sure, senior centers and libraries and universities. And get to meet people. That’s a priority.

I’ll be driving on a California permit that gives me two months to get home. If it gets tough and isn’t fun, I’ll be home in two weeks. But I hope to make the most of the trip and get home on the last day of my permit. Why not? There’s no rush. I’m looking at is as maybe my last hurrah. And I’m leaving it up to serendipity.

I flew here in late December, which has been my routine for some years. And I expected to fly home, as usual. What the heck happened?

~ ~ ~ ~

I have to go back about seven years to explain. Annabelle and I did a house swap in France.  I got the idea deep in Chile while on my solo trip around the world. I met a French couple down there. He was an M.D. with a specialty in psychiatry. She was a professor of nursing. They were there for some light mountain climbing.

When he told me they came from Poitiers, I got excited. It’s a small city about two hours southwest of Paris. Famous for an ancient university. But more important than anything else for me is that the Poitiers area is where  my ancestor LaPlante came from—my great, great, great, great, great grandfather, I think.  He was a soldier in New France–the present Quebec. He was one of about 1,100 who arrived in June 1665. Their mission was to protect the colonists from the nasty Iroquois from what is now up-state New York.

The soldiers beat the Iroquois back and restored peace. After thee years the king recalled the regiment home. But there were only 2,500 or so colonists in New France—most living in what is now Quebec City. The troops were given the choice of staying—more strong Frenchmen were essential to get this tiny settlement going. My ancestor was one of the third who stayed in that harsh but welcoming new land.

But his name was not LaPlante then. It was Savignac. A strange thing happened. For some reason still debated. Many of those guys decided to take on new names. To symbolize a new life? Maybe.

He chose LaPlante. All it means is ‘the plant.” So, nothing romantic. Others chose other common words like that as their name—words starting with “La” or “Le.” But I know his name was Savignac because church records were meticulous—the records of baptisms, confirmations, weddings, and deaths. That’s why I also know he came from the Poitiers corner of France, and that his outfit was the Regiment Carignan-Salieres. Those were the names of two colonels.

My two new French friends in Chile laughed off the idea of a house swap when I first mentioned it. “Risky!” they said. “How can you be sure what kind of people will be moving into your house?”

Back in Deep River, I kept up an email correspondence with them. Sent them photos of our pretty town. And my nice little condo, And news about typical events. And we made the swap happen.

We swapped residences, of course—their home and my condo. And everything in them, of course—the kitchen stuff, the books, the computers, the TVs and other electronics, the whole works. Also their big VW wagon and my Buick sedan.  Plus their network of relatives of friends and mine—how important that turned out to be.  I joke now—everything except the ladies! We agreed on a six-week swap. I wanted 12 weeks. “Impossible!” he said. “I’m still practicing.”

It worked out fine in every way. They drove my Buick to Niagara Falls. We drove their VW to Paris—had a picnic lunch in it under the Eiffel Tower—and down through the rich wine country to the Med.

Oh, I was a Rotarian. So in Poitiers I went to the weekly meetings of the big Rotary Club there. Four times the size of our Deep River club. Annabelle came along. And that was marvelous.  I had a ball speaking French and really getting to know what life over there was really like. Annabelle had studied French long ago and was a good sport about it all.

~ ~ ~ ~

 A bit of background. I was born in the U.S.  My parents were immigrants from Quebec. I’ve been there often. Still have a few relatives there. So I have a great interest in Quebec..

I speak French well and enjoy using it. You have to use a language or you’ll lose it.  One thing I do is listen to Quebec radio via the computer. Streaming radio, it’s called. I listen to two fm stations, one in Montreal and one in Quebec City. They offer light classical music, and their announcers speak good French—contemporary French, with current idioms and slang. Wonderful.

So! I got the idea not of a house swap up there, but of a home stay. With a Quebec family for a month or so. To talk the language, enjoy the culture, experience their life.  I’d gladly pay. I wrote to the two stations, then to a big Rotary Club, then to a university. Didn’t get a single bite.

What to do? I decided I’d go on my own. It was now late October, and the weather was getting cold and the days short. I’d go for two weeks. Drive up. Annabelle chose to stay behind in California and I understood that.

Not long ago, I would have started on a trip like this without hesitation. But bad things have happened to me of late.  Nothing calamitous. But challenging enough to make me feel my age.

On the morning that I got into my Hyundai Sonata to start out, I looked in the mirror and spoke to myself.  “Is this wise? To go with no companion?  What if something goes wrong? Something could.”

And I spoke back to myself. “I really want to do this. Time is running out. I’d getter do it while I can. Something bad could happen at home. I’m going!”

And I turned started my car and headed north. I traveled some 1,500 miles in all.  Crossed into Quebec at a small custom station in Vermont.  Just a mile or two into Quebec I made out big Mount Sutton. It rises beside the small town of Sutton.

That’s where my grandparents lived. My grandfather Michel LaPlante had a maple operation on the flank of Mount Sutton. Tapped trees and made maple syrup every early spring.  On the rise on the opposite side of the village was his farm–an old-fashioned self-sufficiency homestead.  Thirty milk cows. Sunday was the day of rest but they still had to milk the cows twice that day, too. A vegetable garden and small orchard.

My grandma had a big cast-iron stove…baked a huge pot of beans every Saturday for the week. Served her large brood  21 hearty meals a week. She had a handpump for water in the kitchen. Every fall they filled the cellar with firewood they had sawed and split. There was an outhouse in the backyard.

On Sunday mornings my grandfather hitched the family horse to their Sunday carriage. The horse that pulled his plow and hay wagon. And drove them to the little Catholic church they could see in the valley below. They sat through Mass and then lingered on the church steps to greet and chat with their friends. It was their big outing of the week.

Yes, that little church where they had attended so many weddings and baptisms and funerals. I did that when I went with my dad and mom. And later as a grown man visiting up there.

So on this trip, Sutton was my fist stop. I had a nice visit with Tante Rosanne, the last of my aunts. She was so surprised and pleased! I visited  the church, then the church  cemetery. Saw a whole row of my kin resting side by side. Visited the farm, of course. The house had been knocked down and a beautiful expensive country home stood in its place. Sutton has become a famous ski resort, and this was the country home of a wealthy Montreal family. The barn still stood. It had never looked so good. But now it housed riding horses instead of cows.

I visited in the village and got into little talks. Sutton has been transformed. It’s a tourist town with cafes and art galleries and pricy restaurants. If my grandparents and parents could have seen this!

I went on to Montreal and Quebec City and half a dozen small cities. All familiar to me.  Stopped and looked and talked time and again. Stopped at mom-and-pop motels on most nights. But it was just me and the TV set. That’s not my favorite thing, even in French. But found three cozy hostels to stay in. I was so old I wondered whether they’d let me in. They did. Nobody looked at me crossways and I had fun. I spoke French all day.

On Quebec highways, tourist information stations are indicated by a big question mark. Yes, just a huge ?. I stopped at every one I spotted. For tourist advice, but that was my excuse. What I wanted was a little chat. It was magic when I mentioned I was of Quebecois descent. They made me feel like a prince.

I finally made it home to Connecticut with not a single bad thing happening to me. And guess what? I felt  20 years younger.

~ ~ ~ ~

 Here at Annabelle’s two months ago I began thinking of my return flight to Connecticut. And remembered my splendid road trip to Quebec. I wondered, why not drive home? Yes, why not? In the same casual and  relaxed way. And that’s how I got the idea of making the long ride home to Connecticut in a little camper.

I chose a good moment to mention it to Annabelle. She’s certainly chalked up a lot of adventures of her own. But she’s getting along in years, too. She declined. Understandable. She didn’t have the same interests of language and family

Then I spread the word to family and friends. Nobody was ecstatic. They advised caution.  Great caution. I’m sure some considered me nuts. That didn’t surprise me. But as I’ve said, doing it is important to me. And here I am, ready to go.

Oh, I had to find a camper.  A must was a rig that I could park in a single parking spot. So many are so huge! Offer nice amenities but what a challenge driving them around.

I started searching while I was in Morro Bay with my daughter Monique and her hubby David at Christmas. No big argument from them. Just “Caution!”

David was a big help in feeding me leads about promising vehicles. When I moved down here to Annabelle’s, he continued to send me leads. He made a hundred-mile round trip to check one out for me. He was disappointed.

A friend up there named Martha also steered me to a couple of possibilities. They didn’t pan out.

I searched here at Annabelle’s. Looked at this one and that one. Studied Craig’s List time and again. With Annabelle, I made a 120-mile trip up to the city of Riverside to check one rig that sounded perfect. Disappointing.

One day online I read of a 2002 Ford van called the Chateau. It wasn’t a camper. It was a seven-passenger van. It was loaded with nice features. Even a ceiling drop-down screen to watch DVDs. There were photos of the van. It looked terrific. The price was $4,900. Definitely in my budget.

It was for sale at an outfit called FamVans.  Just a 25-minute ride away. I called and spoke to a salesman named Mike Malvey.

He told me the Chateau model was the top of the line. Was in excellent condition. Had 180,000 miles on it.  Wow! That’s something to think about! But I went and looked. The photos had not exaggerated. It had a tiny scrape on one side. And a small ding in the front bumper, and another at the back. It was better than I expected.  I was excited.

I told him about my cross-country plan. He looked dubious. I understood that. I’m no kid. But I gave him details about some of my long-distance travels and her perked up.

“Tell me,” I said to him. “What’s wrong with this van?”

“There’s nothing wrong with it.”

That’s not a surprising thing to hear from a used-car salesman.

“Let  me explain how we do business,” he continued. “We have a complete staff here, including good mechanics. We check every vehicle. We sell 20 per week, week in and week out. More than a thousand a year. Have been in business more than 20 years. But I want you to check us out.”

He smiled. “Look! I understand your concern. Take it for a day. A weekend. Take it to any mechanic of your choice. Have it checked thoroughly. We’ll pay for that. Then show us his written report. We’ll take it from there.”

“Sounds good. But I don’t know any mechanic here.”

“No problem. We’ll take it to a Ford agency near you. They’ll do the checking. Give you their report. We’ll pay for it. Then you decide.”

Very fair, I thought. He did that. I got the report. The form had some 30 items on the check-off list. Every single one got checked off as “Good.”  Remarkable, I thought..

At my next meeting with Mike—yes, we were using our first names now—I asked about the whopping 183,000 miles. Who wouldn’t?

“That’s really much for a van of that age.  We got one in the other day. A Ford. Owned by an airport shuttle service. Its odometer said 900,000 miles. And still in service.”

I whistled at that.

I was curious about one thing. How come the Chateau looked so good. I put the question to him.

He turned to his computer. Looked up the Chateau. “This is the second time we sell it. The first time was when it was about 18 months old. We chose it to a Japanese man for family use. He traded it in for another. That’s the story. Not that unusual.”

“A Japanese man, you say. Well, I’ve been to Japan. I know how people over there take care of things.”

He nodded. “You’re probably right.”

“Well, I’ll pay $4,500.”

He smiled. “Sorry. The price is the price.”

“How about at least a senior discount?’

He smiled again. And shook his head. “Sorry. No.”

I test-drove it, of course. I used to drive a van of this size routinely at Incarnation Center in Ivoryton, Conn., when I was the director of its Elderhostel program. Often filled with passengers. That kind of driving all came back to me now.

I had searched for a high-rise model, with more headroom. In this one I couldn’t stand fully.  But adapting wouldn’t be difficult.

Mike and I discussed some details. I had no place to keep the van till departure time. I had to make modifications. Could I keep it at FamVans? I had no tools. I might need a hand on some jobs.

“Not a problem.  Keep it here. Just ask and we’ll let you borrow whatever you need. And we’ll help you find a young guy to help you as needed.”

One more question. Did I have to register it in California? I’d register it in Connecticut when I got home. It would be crazy to have to register it in one state, then the other.”

“We know the law. There is a simple solution. I’ll give you a document. You’ll have a permit on the windshield. You will be able to drive it to Connecticut with the previous owner’s plates. They’re on the van now. You’ll be allowed to make that single trip home. Nothing for you to do here. No California sales tax to pay. You’ll register and pay the tax in Connecticut. That’s all there is to it.”

There was considerable discussion, but that was the essence of it. We shook hands on the deal. I paid a deposit. It worked out just as he said. I kept the Chateau at FamVans for more than a month. He let me use his dealer’s plate to do errands with the van.

He introduced me to one of his workers, Antonio—Tony. Mexican. Born there. About 35. Working at FamVans for 13 years. Took a liking to him. He was talented and enthusiastic.  He called me “Senor John.” I liked that.

Nearly all the employees were Mexicans. They impressed me. And I liked the culture of the place. They worked hard. Seemed to enjoy their day. Were friendly.

One small detail. I spotted a popcorn machine in the office. It was filled fresh every morning. I love popcorn.

Mike was one of three brothers. His older brother was president. He was the sales manager. A younger brother ran the huge parts department.

FamVans had 200 vans and cargo trucks on the lot. Very busy. This was really a full-service place. Twenty workers doing everything from A to Z, including complete engine changes and rebuilds. Every vehicle got scrubbed and washed when it arrived. And spiffed up for delivery.

Antonio said “Yes, senor” to everything I asked.

Here are some of my changes to the van.  I removed one of the two big seats in the second row. I had the second one turned around, so it faced backward. I was going to remove the 3-passenger back seat. But I moved it back 18 inches and adapted it into a bunk. Got a 4-inch foam mattress custom cut for it.

Installed two three-drawer cabinets. Built a shelf along one side. Put in a one-burner propane stove and an ice chest. Even a homemade potty, for emergencies only. The carpeting was very clean. I put in carpet runners to keep it clean. Built a wooden step to rest on the ground by the big sliding door. Made it much easier for me to get in and out. Did this and did that.

Oh, important. Behind the back bench I installed a big plywood shelf. It was the width of the van and  two-feet wide. I could store suitcases and boxes under it. I had lots to take home. And loads of  everyday stuff on it. I am delighted with it.

The Chateau had tinted windshields. I liked that. People couldn’t see in. But the tint on the window by the driver gave a distorted view when I looked out at an oblique angle. That was a problem..

Antonio used a razor to make a crescent-shape cut and peel off that corner of the film. Excellent. Then did the same thing on the other side.  I asked why he bothered. “Not good if they look different, senor!”

Oh, I forgot to mention that the van had a gps navigation system. At the last minute it was discovered it had a problem. Not fixable. Mike gave me a new Garmin instrument. I’ve set it up.

Antonio made even more small changes that I requested when I picked it up. He installed two brackets for me. I’ll hang my clothes neatly on them.

I had one final request.  I asked him to drive the Chateau to the front of the lot and park it there, with the big FamVans’ sign showing right behind. And had Luis, the foreman, to

take a photo of Mike and Antonio and me side by side. They were busy but good sports about it. I wanted it as a souvenir of this very nice experience.

We shook hands.  I was glad I had tipped Antonio. He deserved it. Mike had kept his word in every way. We shook hands and promised to keep in touch. They were waving to me as I drove off.

I would be departing in three days. They knew that. Mike said, “If something comes up, don’t hesitate to call me.” This was a no-warranty deal. But his words made me feel good.

Well, tomorrow morning is the big moment. I’ll get home to Deep River when I get home. Maybe in a few days. Maybe in several weeks. We’ll see.

I’ve never lived in a chateau. But now I have a nice little one on wheels to live in.

Gosh, I’ve written a lot of words to tell you all this.  God bless you if you’ve reached this last paragraph!

Talking Transportation: Cruise Ships: The Devils on The Deep Blue Sea

Jim CameronIn the eight years I’ve been writing this column I’ve never found a reason to write about cruise ships, one of my favorite ways to travel.

Since my Dad took me as a passenger on freighters through the Caribbean when I was a kid right up to our now-annual cruises to the same area, I’ve always loved the high seas.  There’s nothing easier than driving to the pier in New York City, hopping on board and kicking back for a week.

A few years ago my fascination with cruising brought me to a great book, “Devils on the Deep Blue Sea” by Kristoffer Garin which detailed the formative years of the cruise industry, especially the start-up of Carnival Cruise Lines in 1972.  It was a rough start, but today Carnival owns 10 cruise lines (almost half the cruise ships in the world) including Cunard, Holland America, Costa, P&O, Princess and Seabourn.  At one point they even had their own airline ferrying passengers to Miami and San Juan, their biggest embarkation ports.

By segmenting the cruise market, just as hotels do, they offer everything from singles-filled party cruises to upscale trans-Atlantic “crossings” on the Queen Mary 2 (which is where I was while reading Garin’s book in 2006).

But more recently Carnival’s had some very bad PR.  Last year it was crash of the Costa Concordia in Italy (whose Captain abandoned ship).  Then, the February stranding of the 4,000-person Triumph for days in the Gulf of Mexico (without power, food or sanitation) was just the latest in a series of engineering problems.  Last week another ship, Fascination, failed a Center for Disease Control (CDC) health inspection, the fourth of their ships to do so this year alone.

Last week demand for cabins was so low that Carnival was offering cruises for $38 a night per person … less than the cost at Motel 6.   And that price includes all meals (assuming those CDC inspections don’t hurt your appetite).

Admittedly, this is a weak time of year for cruising, but Carnival knows it’s always best to sail with a full ship and make money on the booze and ship excursions.

In my view, the real problem isn’t Carnival or its ships’ safety, but the fact that they pay no taxes … and yet, depend on the US Coast Guard for their numerous rescues.

Micky Arison, son of the founder of Carnival (and owner of the Miami Heat), is the richest man in Florida.  Last year Carnival brought in $15.3 billion in revenues.  But they paid just 0.6% in US, state, local and international taxes last year while socking taxpayers for millions in US Coast Guard expenses for 90 different rescue missions in the last five years.

Senator Jay Rockefeller says Arison is a “cheater… treacherous and wrong” and wrote him asking to do the right thing and pay-up.  Carnival declined the invitation, prompting Rockefeller (the Chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee) to call their response “shameful”.

Shameful, perhaps.  But perfectly legal and the result, even Rockefeller admits, of sloppiness by Congress.  So, expect some grandstanding, a few hearings and maybe some face-saving philanthropy by Arison.   But don’t expect many changes in the cruise industry, especially in higher fares that reflect the true cost of being a “devil on the deep blue seas.”

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

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Talking Transportation: TSA – The Toughest Job in Transportation

Jim CameronWho do you think has the toughest job in transportation?  Airline pilots?  Long-haul truck drivers?  Metro-North conductors?    To my thinking, the toughest job is being an airport TSA agent.

Forget the recent furor over revised Transportation Security Administration rules soon to allow small knives in carry-on luggage.  The plastic knives the flight attendants distribute in snack packs in-flight are already sharp enough to slit a throat.  By not worrying about every pen-knife and nail clipper, TSA agents should have more time to concentrate on truly lethal weapons.

A far bigger threat to aviation security is liquid explosives and non-metal knives.  Ceramic knives are undetectable on magnetometers, which is why the TSA brought in those full-body scanners we love so much.

But I think the biggest threat to aviation safety is the public’s anger at the TSA agents who are just doing their job.  After a thorough TSA screening at an airport last month I saw an angry passenger literally curse at the agent.  That passenger wasn’t pulled aside and given a retaliatory body cavity search. To her credit the agent kept her cool and didn’t get into even a verbal fight.  Could you be so thick-skinned?

It’s been 12 years since 9/11.  Have we forgotten what can happen when determined, armed terrorists take over a plane?  The TSA screens 1.8 million passengers a day.  If just one of those fliers got an undetected weapon onto a plane and blew it up, imagine the uproar.

Remember the holy triad of service:  fast, good and cheap.  You can achieve any two of those, but not all three.  Clearly, the top priority is “good” security.  So in this age of sequestration we’re unlikely to see quality compromised for speed.

If you want to fly, put up and shut up:  put up with the long lines while the agents do their jobs properly to keep you safe and keep your mouth shut.

Passenger protests have brought some TSA screening changes which seem arbitrary.  Like the recent rule allowing passengers over age 75 to keep their shoes on.  Terrorists can’t be that old?

And what passes for the rare TSA inspection of Amtrak passengers is more for show than real security. Unless every bag is opened, the rare and random briefcase examination or quick dog-walk through a moving train seems to be just “showing the colors”.

What do all these TSA inspections do, aside from create long lines and frustrated fliers?  They turn up an amazing amount of weapons.  The TSA’s weekly blog makes for fascinating reading.

In one recent week alone the TSA intercepted 32 firearms, 27 of them loaded, and ten stun guns. There were clips of ammo, brass knuckles and (no surprise) sheer stupidity:  a passenger flying out of San Juan told the ticket agent that her bag contained a bomb and she was going to blow up the plane. After an inspection by the TSA, her bag didn’t have a bomb. But as a result of her threat, the ticket counter, checkpoint and terminal were closed for nearly an hour, inconveniencing thousands.

And there were, as the TSA blog put it, “consequences” for the flier.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

Talking Transportation: Gov Malloy Seeks To Kill the Commuter Council

Jim CameronShortly after he came to office, I wrote something critical of newly elected Governor Malloy.  Nothing new there.  I’d certainly questioned Republican governors in years past, usually to little response.  But this time the reaction was different.

A Malloy confidant, a senior State Senator from Fairfield County, took me aside and threatened me.  Not physically, but legislatively.  “You know, we could eliminate the Commuter Rail Council if you keep this up,” he said in Machiavellian tones.  “Bring it on,” I said, half-shocked at this political threat.

Well, it took a couple of years (and more criticism), but the threat has come true.  The Governor has submitted a bill (HB 6363) that would wipe out the existing Metro-North Commuter Rail Council and its 15 members.  In its place, a new Council would be appointed and the Governor, not the members of the Council, would choose its Chairman.

Further, the new Commuter Council’s mandate would turn from investigation and advocacy on behalf of fellow commuters to a PR advisor to the CDOT.  While the current Council has the power to request information and is required to receive cooperation from any state or local agency, that power would be eliminated under Malloy’s bill.

The Commuter Council isn’t the only pro-transportation group affected by the bill.  The CT Public Transportation Commission would also be eliminated along with the last vestiges of the Transportation Strategy Board (killed off by Malloy last year), the TIA’s, or “Transportation Investment Areas”.

This obvious power-grab by the Governor has so far gone unchallenged in the legislature, buried in a 66-page Christmas tree of a bill.  If it becomes law, my 15+ years as a member of the Commuter Council (the last four as its Chairman) will be history.

But why is the Metro-North Commuter Council singled out for such harsh treatment?

It’s not that the Commuter Council has been wasting state money.  We operate on a budget of zero dollars, even dipping into our own pockets to pay for design of a logo and pay for postage.  And I don’t think it can be argued that we haven’t been doing our jobs… meeting monthly with Metro-North and the CDOT to address commuter complaints and push for ever better service.

No, I think the real problem is that we’ve done our job too well, calling out CDOT, the legislature and yes, even the Governor, when they did things that we felt screwed commuters.  That’s our mandate.

I guess Governor Malloy didn’t like it when we pointed out that as a gubernatorial candidate he promised to never raid the Special Transportation Fund to balance the state’s budget, but then did just that when he took office.  And I guess he wasn’t happy when I noted that his budget took new fare increases from Metro-North riders but didn’t spend the money on trains, in effect making the fare hike a “commuter tax”.

And I’d imagine the Commissioner of the CDOT… the fifth Commissioner in my 15+ years on the Council… would be happy to see the current Council gone, critical as we have been about their Stamford Garage project which we see as selling out the interests of commuters to private developers.

It’s sad that the Governor feels the way to answer legitimate criticism is to eviscerate those who question him.  But I can promise you that his proposed elimination of the Metro-North Commuter Council won’t silence me.  Bring it on, Governor.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 22 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

Did Jesus have a wife? New evidence says “Yes.”

Dr. King shows the sample of papyrus at a conference of scholars in Rome. –from the New York Times

Dr. King shows the sample of papyrus at a conference of scholars in Rome.
–from the New York Times

Eagle Rock, CA  — Milady Annabelle and I were visiting Occidental College. She’s an alumna. It’s a fine private, coed college, one of the oldest on our Pacific coast. Just a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles.

We were strolling the beautiful grounds. I noticed a newspaper box and, news junkie that I am, took out a paper—the students’ Occidental Weekly! A freebie. Never saw it before.

A big headline on Page 1: “Former Occidental Professor debates possible existence of Jesus’ wife.”

Couldn’t resist it. Read it right there. Every word. Seems that Jesus did have a wife. Gosh! But the headline was mild compared to the story itself. In her talk to Occidental students, the professor wasn’t “debating” anything. She said she had strong evidence that suggested yes, Jesus did have a wife!

I handed the paper to Annabelle. She feasted on it. “Sensational,” she said.

Both of us had heard allusions of this over the years, whispers, so to speak. But nothing like this. Nothing this firm. And that’s why I’m sharing it with you now.

Imagine our learning of this in a student newspaper!

The professor, Dr. Karen L. King, had moved on from Occidental and was now a professor at Harvard U. Divinity School. She had had come back to give to give her talk about this astounding development.

And she had first-hand info—she had done the research to come up with it.

She had gotten possession of a scrap of ancient papyrus. Just a tiny thing—the size of a business card. It had pieces of Coptic writing on it. Translated, one of them stated, “Jesus said  (to his disciples), “my wife….” That’s all.”

Unfortunately, the rest of the sentence was missing.

The story we were reading was written by student Clark Scally—students produce the whole paper. I was impressed by it. I noticed Scally had also authored two other articles in it. A busy young man. To my eye, quite professional.

His story about Dr. King’s talk had a juicy tidbit. He wrote, “In the Gospel of Philip, discussed by (Prof.) King in her lecture, Jesus speaks of marriage and sexuality extensively. He also refers to Mary Magdalene as his close companion whom he kisses more often than his other disciples, much to the concern of Apostles Peter and Matthew.”

That tickled me. For the simple reason that over the years I have come to think of Jesus as a man, as a very great teacher, one of the greatest ever, but just a man. And this certainly makes him look manly. I like that. Besides. I had never heard it said that boldly before.

In her talk, Dr. King said that scrap of papyrus was believed to have come from the fourth or fifth centuries.

She said an anonymous donor who collected such things had given it to her at Harvard Divinity School.

She had made thorough efforts to authenticate that exciting bit of papyrus. Had shown it to numerous scholars. Had discussed it with them. Had double-checked everything as carefully as she could. Had slept on it. Had decided it was legitimate. But she said more analysis is going on.

Certainly she’s a lady and professor of high repute and attainment. She left Occidental to join Harvard Divinity in 2003 as the Winn  Professor of Ecclesiastical History.

Six years later she made history when she became the first woman to be the Hollis Professor of Divinity. It is the oldest endowed chair on our shores, dating back to 1721.

She has received research grants from prestigious foundations. Has written many articles and half a dozen scholarly books. So, she is no lightweight.

I find the titles of two of her books tantalizing, The Secret Revelation of John and The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.

She spilled this about Jesus and his wife at Occidental on Feb. 7. But that came after a storm of controversial announcements and newsbreaks about it.

Initially, Dr. King had traveled to Rome with the papyrus and displayed it to a group of New Testament experts. She came back sure that it was authentic, though apparently the scholars were not all agreed.

The Vatican blasted it as counterfeit. A columnist for Britain’s eminent Guardian newspaper disagreed loudly. Declared the papyrus document a fraud and explained why. It boiled down to a typo.

It is known that the notion that Jesus did not have a wife developed only a century after his death. It is said that numerous people of Jesus’ time believed that he was indeed married. How about that?

To announce her findings to the wide public, Dr. King staged a press conference at the Divinity School.. It got attention. The New York Times was there, among others. It followed up with a detailed story. And it stirred up scores of comments, pro and con.

I read many. Scholarly and impressive. Regardless what side they were on, these people seemed awfully knowledgeable.

I’m not sure what to believe. I’d like more than a scrap of evidence. But again, deep down I like to believe that Jesus was a married man. That’s so natural. That’s what most of us want to do and end up doing. More and more of us get married more than once!

And now we have men marrying men and women marrying women! Legally.

Getting hooked seems to satisfy an inner need.

The public reaction was more than Dr. King expected. She says shat she is not saying Jesus had a wife. She is saying that the papyrus said he did.

I found it dramatic that this red-hot story was appearing in the student newspaper of a college of strong Christian origins. Occidental was founded by staunch Presbyterians and was totally Presbyterian for a century or so. It has been liberalizing in the last decade or two. I wonder how the old-timers would feel about this.

For sure one would be the Rev. Dr. Hugh K. Walker, D.D. He was a long-time chairman of Occidental’s board of directors in its earliest days. He set the school on a firm path.

He was the minister of the leading Presbyterian church in Los Angeles.

Why am I telling you this? Because of a terrific coincidence. Dr. Walker was milady Annabelle’s grandfather on her mother’s side. And that’s why her mom and dad enrolled her at Occidental.

In fact, her dad also was a Presbyterian minister. But he gave that up and became president for many years of the Hollywood Presbyterian Hospital… in time also became president of the U.S. Protestant Hospital Association.

Occidental’s fine reputation has become even more widely known of late. A big reason is that it was the first college in our continental U.S. that young Barack Obama, freshly arrived from Hawaii, attended. He lasted two years, transferring to Columbia U. in New York.

That’s something Annabelle shares with him. She jumped after two years, too, and probably for the same reason—to experience a broader undergraduate experience. She went on to the University of California at Berkeley and graduated from there.

One more thing about Clark Scally’s piece in the Occidental Weekly.

At its close, he wrote: “A member of the audience asked Dr. King how she was handling the attention and its pressure.

“’I lost eight pounds in the first week.’ Dr. King answered.

‘The Divinity School arranged a panic button in my office due to concerns for my physical safety. Most of my job since this has come out is to throw cold water on everything.’”

I liked young Scally’s including this quote.  it shows that it’s not so easy to be a professor. At times you must really profess.

Maybe he’ll wind up on the New York Times someday.

Talking Transportation: The Great Train (Ticket) Robbery

Jim CameronIf you had a contract with someone and paid them in advance to do a job, only to find they never provided that service, you should get your money back, right?  Otherwise, by keeping the money and not delivering on the bargain, that person would be committing fraud.

Well, that’s exactly what Metro-North does to weekly and monthly ticket holders when it sells those tickets but cancels train service.  The railroad refuses to give those riders a refund.  That’s wrong.

For years the CT Rail Commuter Council has asked Metro-North (and its boss, CDOT) to rethink that policy, but they have refused.  We even approached Attorney General Jepsen, making a consumerist’s argument, but he wasn’t interested in helping.

Clearly, it’s not Metro-North’s fault when tropical storm Sandy or winter storm Nemo leave the tracks buried.  In some cases they can attempt substitute bus service, in which case refunds shouldn’t be required.

When the Commuter Council last year pushed for a “Passenger Bill of Rights” we asked for refunds when service was out, but the railroad said “impossible”,  though they did allow refunds on one-way tickets, which is not the problem at all.

One-way tickets are good for sixty days.  If the train’s not running, you can use them next week.  But weekly tickets are only good for seven specific days, Saturday through Friday.  If the train doesn’t run, you’re out of luck.

Look at the Waterbury line during storm Nemo.  Train service was halted Friday night and wasn’t resumed until the following Wednesday… four days.  A commuter who’d bought a weekly ticket from Waterbury to GCT paid $125 but lost 4/7ths of the ticket’s value and was denied a refund.

This year we’re pleading our case for fairness to the state legislature with the help of State  Representative Gail Lavielle of Wilton.  At our behest she introduced HB 5127 which would require Metro-North and CDOT to offer credit for unusable tickets when service is cancelled for more than 48 hours.  That credit could be made by extending the validity of a ticket, offering replacement tickets or maybe even a refund.

Fifteen commuters submitted testimony in support of the bill, making a very simple argument:  if the railroad can’t provide train service (or buses), ticket holders should be made whole.

When the airlines cancelled thousands of flights due to the blizzard, they honored passengers’ tickets on later flights.  When Metro-North cancelled trains, they just kept the money.

In his testimony on the bill, the Commissioner of the Connecticut Dept of Transportation said the refund plan wasn’t feasible.  And weekly / monthly commuters already get a discount, so why are they complaining?

And Metro-North, in one of its more arrogant moves of late, thumbed its nose at the Connecticut Legislature saying that as a NY State agency it was immune from Connecticut law.  That, in New York, is what they call chutzpah.

It’s not too late for commuters to support this bill by calling their elected officials.  Because while Metro-North deserves credit for much improved, usually on-time service, it should not be allowed to pick our pockets by selling us tickets when it cannot run trains, for whatever reason, but then keeps our money.  That’s just unfair.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or

Off to Germany at 68 with Great Hopes

He’s garaging his beloved bike. But I’ll bet he has his heart set on getting a second one when he returns

He’s garaging his beloved bike. But I’ll bet he has his heart set on getting a second one when he returns

Morro Bay, CA—My new friend Don is rushing to meet his new love.

I’m visiting my daughter Monique here. We say New Year’s Day is the golden opportunity to turn a new page and start a bright new life. Well,  Don is really resolved!

I met him because of the bike he was riding. I love bikes. Rode actively for decades.

But his wasn’t a bicycle. It was a tricycle. A recumbent—he sat low on a seat, not a saddle, leaned way back, and worked pedals not under him, but straight ahead. He seemed as comfortable as in a TV chair. He was towing  a neat little trailer.

Don was an unlikely rider– 65 or so. Six-four. Rumpled. Twenty pounds overweight. A mustache a bit out of control. Very sharp  eyes.

He was sitting with two friends outside Spencer’s, the local supermarket. It offers free coffee. They were sipping coffee out front in the sunshine. So, it attracts a lot of seniors. It attracts me. I like to take a walk and run into people. And I like a free coffee.

I paused. All strangers. I broke into their talk. Focused on him. “Quite a bike!|” I said. He nodded. But he was  busy talking with his buddies. I went on for my coffee and a bit of shopping. When I came out, they were gone. I was disappointed. This was two days before New Year’s.

I ran into him again three day after New Year’s. Downtown, a mile away. I was on a walk.  He was parked on the sidewalk, lounging on his trike in front of a store. He recognized me. But no smile. I began talking bikes again. Now he began talking. But in clipped sentences. Offered nothing more.

Said he had owned the trike five years. No longer had a car—didn’t need one—especially with the trailer. He could carry groceries, books, lots of stuff. He had a balance problem and the trike was much more stable than a bike.  And it had 27 gear possibilities—“I could climb a wall if I had to!”

I tried to guess his occupation. Not easy. He was big and muscular. But his hands didn’t show hard work. He was smart, but he spoke too few words to tip me off about his education. He had a friendly face but seemed determined not to smile.

“Got to go!” he said finally and pedaled away. Down a slope. Coasting, not pedaling.So nice and easy. I wished I could see him come UP the hill. How easy would that be?

My third encounter was again at Spencer’s. This time he hailed me! “Ah, the newspaperman!” What a change! And we had coffee together out front. He smiled a bit. I talked bikes again. And now he opened up.

“This is my all-around vehicle. Haven’t had a car in 20 years. I just don’t like cars. I like bikes. Good exercise. Cheap to own and use. Especially in this nice weather year-round here.”

I tried broadening my questions. “Don’t interrupt me!” he said. “I’ll fill you in. But let me tell it my way! I grew up in Kansas. Graduated from the University of Kansas. Moved out here. Went to grad school at Berkeley.”
Graduate school at the University of California at Berkeley–that impressed me. “For a master’s?”

He shook his head. “No, a doctorate.”

I pressed him.

“Yes, I have a Ph.D. In classical languages.”

“Oh? Latin and Greek?” He nodded.

I couldn’t resist. I began conjugating the Latin word for “love” in the present tense: “Amo…amas…amat…amamus….”  And I added, “I studied Greek, too.”

He put up his hand to stop me. “Yeah! Yeah! I became a teacher of Latin and Greek. Taught in quite a few places. Was fired at half of them…but I won’t go into that. I loved Latin and Greek. I was hooked as a kid! Am still fascinated.”

I jumped in. “Don, you’re smiling! You said you don’t smile. You’re smiling!!!”

He stopped me again. ”I don’t smile!”

But he was wrong. He had been smiling. He went on. “I’ve done other things. Picked olives in Greece for more than a year. Knocked around. I’m retired now. But!” Suddenly he was excited. “In four days I’m going to Germany!”


“Yes, Leipzig. Yes, my first time to Germany. All because of a website. It’s called Libri Vox—  It offers free audio books. You know, books you listen to. Volunteers read them and record them. Many languages. Including Greek and Latin. I’ve been listening to readings of old Latin writers on Libri Vox. Virgil. And Lucretius. And others.”

He told me that through Libri Vox, he had met a woman reader of Latin texts.  She lives in Leipzig, They have talked and talked.  Not only about the ancient authors. About all kinds of things.

“How old is she?” I asked.

“Half my age. Not a problem! We’ve discussed all that. And I am going to Germany to meet her!.”

He didn’t have to say any more. He had a dream. And his dream was to bring her back to California. And he was  determined. At 68!

“God bless you, Don!  And God bless her! I hope, hope it works out!”

He smiled. Broadly! Wow!

We shook hands.  I couldn’t stay longer. My daughter was waiting for me.

Now Don is over there. What a great New Year’s story. The rare opportunity for a fresh start. And he grabbed it. It’s inspiring, really. Don’t you agree?

Don said he’d e-mail me. I can’t wait. I’m praying for a happy ending. I’ll let you know. I hope she’ll take to a trike like his, too.

Talking Transportation: The Five Biggest Lies About Highway Tolls

Jim CameronLike it or not, get ready to pay tolls on our Interstates and Parkways.  Transportation officials in Hartford say there’s just no other way to raise badly needed money for over-due infrastructure repairs.  Tolls may not be popular, but neither are collapsing bridges.

In the last decade’s debate on highway tolling, here are the five biggest lies that opponents have used to stall the return of highway tolls:

1)    The Federal Government Won’t Let Us:  Also known as “We’ll have to return millions in federal funding”.  Not true, as US DOT officials told us at a SWRPA-sponsored meeting in Westport years ago.  The federal government regularly allows tolls to be used as traffic mitigation and revenue raising tools.

2)    Our Highways Should Be Free:  So should ice cream and donuts.  Nothing is free, including the cost of repairing I-95 and removing snow from the Merritt.  Gasoline taxes come nowhere near to raising the needed revenue. Driving is a privilege, not a right. It should come with a cost.

3)    Tolls Will Slow Traffic:  It’s not 1965 anymore.  Tolling doesn’t require highway-wide barriers with booths and gates.  Just look at the NJ Turnpike or Garden State Parkway, where barrier-free tolls using EZPass allow you to pay at 55 mph.

4)    Tollbooths Cause Accidents:   See #3 above.  This happened once, 29 years ago, in Milford, and was used as an excuse to end tolling in the state.  If toll barriers are unsafe, why don’t fiery truck crashes happen daily at the hundreds of other toll barriers around the US?

5)    Highway Tolls Will Divert Traffic to Local Roads:     This may be true, for about the first week.  If people would rather drive for free on the Boston Post Road than pay 50 cents to save an hour by taking I-95, let ‘em.  Few drivers are that cheap, or stupid.

Trust me, I know about tolls and toll booths. I spent three summers in college working as a toll collector on the Tappan Zee Bridge.  Back then the toll was only 50 cents to cross the mighty Hudson, but people still didn’t like paying it.  (Today the toll is $5).

Connecticut pioneered toll roads as early as the late 18th century.  But today our state is facing billions in over-due bridge and highway repairs.  And federal aid for transportation may be cut by a third. So why are we in this current mess?  Who’s to blame?  Us!

We’re the ones that stupidly pushed CT lawmakers to cut the gas tax 14 cents a gallon in 1997.  And we’re the ones making it political suicide for legislators today to say they support tolls, even though they know tolls are inevitable.

Pick your poison:  “free” driving on pothole-filled highways with collapsing bridges… or pay a few bucks for a safe, speedy ride.

I vote for the tolls.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or

My crazy trip to California! Part 2

Amtrak-trainIt was crazy! I thought I’d be flying on a Boeing. Instead, United Airlines put me on Amtrak!

In brief: I missed my long cross-country flight! Through no fault of my own. And other bad things sprang up, too.

First, a Flash Back: For nearly 20 years I’ve been taking off to California for Christmas and to re-unite with milady Annabelle. She lives in a sunny place with no ice and no snow.

Recently I sent you a post saying that I was all set for this big trip. Had booked my trip on tried and true United Airlines.

Told you that my getting to California always involves three flights: a short flight to a major air hub, then the long flight across the country to California, then a short flight to San Luis Obisbo. My daughter Monique lives 15 miles north of there, in Morro Bay.

But! My confirmation from United showed something totally surprising: my first leg was going to be not a flight, but a train ride on Amtrak! And this also surprised the people at Old Saybrook Amtrak—they had never heard of such an arrangement.

Now the sequel!

Well, that Amtrak ride provided by United was from New Haven to Newark Airport. Amtrak stops there. But how would I get to New Haven from my Deep River? That’s a good one-hour ride.

What turned out to be the easiest was to buy a ticket on that same Amtrak train from Old Saybrook to New Haven. That way I’d ride the train right to Newark Airport.

On my departure morning, my friend Woody Boynton gave me a ride to the depot in Old Saybrook. That turned out to be the best thing that happened to me all day. The bad things were still to come.

The train was already quite full. Every row of seats had at least one seat taken. So I chose a seat next to a small person. Success.

I had a lot of stuff. I had to have a lot. I wasn’t going for 3 days. I was going for more than 3 months!

So, I had a big suitcase jammed as full as United would accept without overcharge. Plus a big handbag also jammed full, and as big as I could squeeze into the plane’s overhead bin. Plus my laptop computer and many accessories jammed into its own shoulder bag.

Furthermore, I was wearing a warm zippered vest and winter jacket and a hat. And I had my walking stick, which I need for any serious walking–this would take much serious walking! So I was loaded down.

In New Haven, I stayed on the same train, of course. But the conductor had changed. He shook his head when I showed him my United confirmation. Was baffled. He pocketed the letter and said he would get back to me. He returned in 20 minutes and said I would not have to pay—he was satisfied the United Airlines confirmation was legitimate.

Some people love riding a train. I’m happy for them. I’ve used trains a lot, in the U.S. and other countries. I can’t get excited. Tracks are laid out to be the most practical…meaning to avoid all hills. Not to show us the best views and give the most interesting ride.

In cities, all you get to see are the worst neighborhoods…the backyards of the factories and warehouses, plus the backyards of houses in some of the worst neighborhoods. New York City is an example. Ride into New York City on a train and you get an awful impression. You’d say, “No way would I want to live there!” Well, that’s how I feel about it.

And the backs of the seats are so high that you cannot see ahead. It’s awful. If you’re 6’6” tall, you can. But I’m not 6’6”. And I hate being boxed in that way.

Plus, walking on a train in motion is dangerous! Much rocking and bumping even on an Amtrak com! There are times when you do have to walk and risk your life—to get to the toilet and the food car, and sometimes to get to an exit on the train. I’ll bet a surprising number of folks fall and hurt themselves in a year.

In my opinion, inter-city buses are much better. More interesting. More comfortable. On a bus, looking through a window gives you a more representative view of the country you’re riding across.

I’ve ridden Greyhound all the way across the country from the Atlantic to the Pacific three times, plus to other locales, plus nearly all the way across Canada. I favor Greyhound. It’s more of an adventure. It’s also cheaper, by the way.

Finally we were approaching the Newark Airport stop. An announcement said, “Next stop in 3 minutes!” By now every seat was taken. Many were getting off here. Many leaped up while the train was rocking along. Began grabbing their suitcases and stuff.

No way could I do that. I have a balance problem now—the result of going deaf in my right ear a year ago. I’d be nuts to dare stand before the train came to a dead halt.

When it did stop, I got up. The aisle was jammed with people. I had a hard time retrieving all my stuff. My jacket was pushed far back on the rack above. I had to get a tall guy to reach up and take it down for me.

Now everybody was pushing to get off the train. I was at the end of the long line, which was moving slowly. Just as I got to the door out the train, it closed! I tried and tried. No way could I get it to open. The train began rolling! I was frantic! My flight would be taking off in 1 hour and 40 minutes! Would I miss my flight to San Francisco? And my public talk in the morning?

At 10:30 a.m., I was booked to give a long-arranged talk at the Morro Bay Public Library. It’s the hometown library of Monique and David. They had arranged the talk for me. I give such talks quite often.

But a young woman had seen my plight. She ran to get the conductor. He wasn’t in our car. She rushed on to the next car. She came back and threw up her hands in frustration. Bless her! Finally he showed up.

“We gave you a 3-minute notice!” he told me sternly. He looked irritated. I’m the one who should have looked irritated!

“Impossible!” I said to him.” Too many people trying to get off! I tried! Do you think I would have missed the stop on purpose?!”

“Get off at the next stop!” he told me. He ordered to to sit down. I had been standing with all my stuff by the vestibule, leaning into a corner to make sure I didn’t fall. The tracks always look nice and smooth and flat. You expect a nice smooth ride. Not so!

“I’ll come back when we stop,“ he snapped. “I’ll tell you what to do then!” And he stormed off.

I kept hoping the train would stop at any minute. I needed every minute to make my flight! It took a long time, whatever it was…10 minutes, 12 minutes. The conductor returned just in time…ushered me off. I had so much to carry. He pointed to an elevator 75 feet away….told me to take it down…then walk across to the other side of the tracks…take the elevator up…stop at the ticket office on that side and explain…then take the next train back to the Newark Airport stop. But how long would all that take?

I did as he said. Walked to the elevator dragging all my stuff. Not easy. I was alone at the elevator. I pushed this button and that one. None of the buttons was marked. Finally the door opened and I got in with everything.

Inside, 6 buttons! Maybe 8! I was so anxious it was hard for me to notice. Not one said “Down” or “Up.” I kept trying for the Down button. No luck. Unbelievable. I looked for help. No help around. I kept stabbing the buttons. This was crazy. I was losing precious time. Finally, finally I got the car to start Down!

Somehow I got out. Dragged everything through the tunnel to the other side. Went to the elevator there. A woman was getting in. She held the door open for me, thank God. She pushed a button. We started Up. She did it all so easily it made me feel like a klutz.

Up top, I dragged everything into the ticket office. Surprising I wasn’t having a heart attack. The clerk was busy with a customer. More time wasting! Finally I explained to her. She shook her head unbelievingly. Made me, 83 years old and going on too soon to 84, feel like a naughty kid. Handed me a complimentary ticket.

In four long, long minutes the train pulled in. I managed to get on with everything. Found a seat near the door, lucky me. The train started. I kept looking at my watch. Rushed to get off at the next stop. Shouldn’t have rushed. Dangerous. But made it all

Big mistake! This was not a through train! This was a local! I had two more stops to go! What!!! No choice. More precious minutes drained by. Finally the next train pulled up. It, too, was a local, of course, so slower. I struggled and got on. I kept thinking, What’s the use of continuing this mad rush? No way would I make my flight. But I had to try!

A young woman had noticed my difficulties. And my anxiety. She was getting off at the airport, too. She had one suitcase of her own to handle plus a giant handbag. But she insisted on taking my big suitcase in hand. God bless her! She was no Amazon. Anything but. But at our stop, she hopped off. So nimble! With all that stuff! I had to be extra careful. Embarrassing.

On the platform, she said, “Let’s go! Let’s go !” I followed her as fast as I could without breaking my neck. She led the way into the big station. Found an Amtrak guy and explained my problem. “That way!” he said, pointing. She steamed ahead. I struggled to keep up. At one point I was 15 steps behind. Then 30. She kept looking back. Realized I was trying hard. Then we entered the terminal She led me right into the huge airport terminal.

She asked for directions. Led the way to an airport train. It rides a long circuit from gate to gate. No driver on board. All automatic. We had to wait for it. I asked her about herself. She had a foreign accent. I tried to guess what it was. Couldn’t.

She was sweet. Told me she was a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering at Rutgers University. Had won a scholarship of some kind. Mechanical engineering! She looked so feminine. The world IS changing.

She was from Turkey—Istanbul! She told me that very proudly. I understood. I’ve been to Istanbul. Such a grand city. Unforgettable. I mentioned the Blue Mosque. The Grand Bazaar. Istanbul—the exact midpoint between Europe and Asia!

She smiled appreciatively. She was pleased by my enthusiasm. Besides all that, this was a very happy day for her. She was ao excited. She was about to meet her mother. For the first time in nearly a year! It had been a long time for her.

Now she found a United official for me. A woman. I rushed through an account of my miserable story for us. She wasn’t the least bit flustered. She had heard every possible crazy story, I was sure. She asked me for some specifics, typed on her computer, peered on the screen. She didn’t make any comment. But I was sure the news wasn’t good.

She took me hand and put me on the train when it glided in. Told me where to get off. “Don’t miss your stop!” she told me pointedly. I couldn’t help noticing her emphasis. My Good Samaritan lady engineer patted me on the shoulder. “Now you will be all right!” she told me sweetly. “Merry Christmas!” And turned to head on.

I stopped her, “”Thank you, Miss! Thank you!” And gave her a peck on the cheek. She laughed. I could see she was pleased. She gave me a pat on the shoulder. And took off. I was sorry to see her go. Really was. I stepped on the train. Was lucky and got a seat. The doors closed. The train slid ahead.

I didn’t miss my stop this time. I was right by a United counter. Went to a clerk. She studied her computer.

“ You’re too late! Way too late! But let me see what I can find for you!” She kept scanning her monitor and working her mouse.. About to take off. And you still have to check your bag and get through security!”

Finally she said, “I have another flight for you. It’s to Los Angeles rather than San Francisco. Then a short flight north to San Luis Obispo. Not south, as would have been the case on your previous itinerary. You will get San Luis 2 hours and 10 minutes later.” She smiled.

“And it’s good news.” I could tell she was trying to put a bright spin on this fiasco. “You’ll still be able to get a full night’s sleep! And keep your speaking commitment at the library in the morning!”

I thanked her profusely.To myself, I thought, “It’s going to be a very short night!” And I had another urgent matter. I had to call Monique and David and tell them about this screw-up. And my new arrival time. I have no cell phone.

“No problem!” she said and placed the call for me. In a minute she said. “Your son-in-law is on the line.” And gave me the call.

I explained to David. He took it calmly. “No problem, John! We’ll be there to meet you!” he said. “Relax!” What a huge sigh of relief I let out.

The lady agent wasn’t finished. She insisted on walking me to the long United desk. Placed me in the shortest line. Got me signed in and my big suitcase checked. Then summoned a wheel chair for me. As proud as I am, I did not decline. I was bushed. She told me where to sit and wait and wished me good luck. I thanked her profusely. She deserved profuse thanks!

In eight minutes a big cheerful gal in uniform rolled up with a chair for me. I gladly got in. She took charge of my handbag, my computer, my walking stick, my coat, everything, and began pushing me. Fast.

“Where to now?’ I asked.

“To Security!” She didn’t waste a minute. Double-timed!

I was puzzled. Why Security? Didn’t pursue it. She worked me into the check-in area. Long lines waiting. She bypassed them all. Pushed me right to the head of the line at the far left. . Then into a special lane. Only two people ahead of me. Helped me get all my stuff into the plastic buses and onto the moving conveyor belt.

But I did not have to take off my shoes. Hurray! It’s a new rule for older people. A TSA agent ushered me through. Frisked me. Made me stand in a glass chamber. Ordered me to place my feet on two specific spots on the floor. Told me to hold my hands straight up. Stare straight ahead. I heard a click. Heard someone say, “Okay, sir. Now step ahead, please!” I completed the whole miserable process. Began gathering all my stuff on the other side.

But my attendant with the wheel chair had followed me through. “No time to waste!” she snapped. “Please sit down.” She took charge of all my stuff. She rolled me right down the long ramp. Right to the door of the plane. Now I realized the flight the flight was being held for me. Gosh! I got on. But not without taking a minute to dig into my wallet and give that hard-working gal something for her strenuous efforts.

The plane was jammed full. It turned out I was in a row of three seats. The flight attendant led me to my row half way back. Only the middle seat was available. The awful middle seat! A heavy woman was ensconced in the aisle seat.

Instantly the attendant ordered her to move to the middle seat. What’s this, I wondered? Well, the heavy lady had thought only two of the seats in the row would be occupied.Her ticket was for the middle seat. It was nearly take-off time. So she had eased herself into the better aisle seat. Hey, I would have done the same thing. Very reluctantly she shifted over. I settled into the aisle seat and got settled.

We took off. Every seat had a TV monitor. Once up at flight altitude, ! turned on a movie. I needed to relax! Something called “The Campaign.” A silly, crazy comedy but with a serious theme.

Two men campaigning for a seat in Congress. A long-experienced Congressman very slick and sleazy whose guiding principle was to win re-election at any cost, meaning to use any underhanded strategy he thought would help him.

And a nice guy, ordinary looking in every way, but a family man with a loving wife and kids, who was running because he felt Washington was a mess and he wanted to help the people in his district. Loved the movie.

Then my screen went dead. An attendant came, studied, tried to reboot it. My TV remained dead all the way across. Every other TV on the plane kept working fine.

The crew served us a beverage. Period. Not even the usual bag of peanuts. Then later they came around with cups of water.That’s typical airline service today, as we know.

Two thirds of the way across, the captain came on. “Tough winds ahead. Heavy turbulence. Stay buckled in! Buckle in tight, please! No standing! No walking!”

It was ominous. Scary. Dead silence on the plane. We waited for the awful bouncing to start. And waited. Braced ourselves. !t was a false alarm. Maybe the pilot circled around the heavy winds. Not sure. Felt no turbulence of any kind. And we landed in San Francisco right on time Amazing.

Now I had a 50-minute wait for my next flight. I parked all my hand stuff. With my walking stick, I spent the whole time walking a circle around the gate area I was in. Around and around. Needed the exercise..

By magic, another wheelchair attendant approached. Insisted I be seated. Rolled me down one flight on an elevator and out the rear of the terminal. Right onto the blacktop where the planes were parked. Dark out night. And cold out! Br-r-r-r!

Rolled me out to a much smaller plane a hundred yards away. It had only two engines. A turbo-prop , it looked like. Pushed me right to the base of the rolling stair that led up into the plane. I made it up to the top and in. Nice and warm inside. Good.

Just 40 seats at the most, I’d say. I was the first on. I took a seat right by a window. I knew we’d be flying up the coast. I wanted to look down on the coast, not out on the vast, empty Pacific. Another 15 or 20 passengers got on. One engine sputtered on, then the second, and we took off.

This was real flying–not the smooth, predictable, so powerful take-off of the big jets. This plane was surging and bucking and fighting its way up. Which I happen to enjoy. You knew the captain did not have this plane on automatic—which I know the big planes use routinely once they’re aloft. Maybe even on takeoffs? That for sure he had his hands on the yoke and was really steering this thing and bossing it.

I had chosen the good side. It was a clear, beautiful evening, with a perfect quarter moon. I enjoyed the the lights in cities and towns along the shore, with the long dark stretches in between. And the lights of ships and boats making their way below. The hour went by quickly, and the pleasure of this brief flight made up for the boredom of my long flight across the whole U.S.A.

We landed on time. I managed the long walk into the terminal and up to the main floor. Monique and David were there waiting. Big smiles and open arms. A nice ride home.

It was nearly 2 a.m. by Connecticut time when I got to bed—and I had gotten up at 5 a.m. I had been up 21 hours.

But I managed a solid seven hours of good sleep and got up to a good breakfast and a nice, sunny day.. And I made my speaking engagement at the library the next morning. Which went well.

If United Airlines ever offers me another ticket starting with a train ride, I’ll think six times before I accept it. You be cautious, too!

Talking Transportation – Connecticut’s New Railroad

Jim CameronLast week, China opened the world’s longest high speed rail line.  From Beijing the line runs 1,428 miles south to Guangzhou, roughly the distance from New York City to Key West.  At an average speed of 186 mph, the 1000-passenger, 16-car trains will cover the distance in eight hours.  Trains depart every 10 to 12 minutes in each direction.

Though construction of high speed rail only began in 2007, by 2015 China will have a national network of over 11,000 miles of high speed rail lines carrying more than 3 billion passengers annually.

Envious?  Sure.  Why can’t we build something like that in the US?  Lots of reasons.  But consider what we are building.

By 2016, Connecticut will have a new commuter rail line, its first in decades, running 60 miles from New Haven through Hartford and on to Springfield MA.  The $647 million project is fully funded ($388 million in Federal money, $259 million in state bonding) and is on, if not ahead of, schedule.

The double track line will eventually offer trains every half-hour, carrying an estimated 1.7 million passengers a year.  Today, Amtrak diesels chug along the line on a single track offering eight trains a day carrying 380,000 passengers a year. (PS:  It remains to be seen who will run this new state-owned railroad, Amtrak or some other operating agency.)

While most Amtrak passengers are connecting in New Haven to Northeast corridor trains, this new “Knowledge Corridor” line will offer not only seamless cross-platform connections to Acela, Metro-North and Shore Line East, but point-to-point service among its 13 stations.

At three stations there will be connections to CTfastrak (the new $567 million bus rapid transit system opening in 2015).  And at Windsor Locks you’ll be able to hop off the train, onto a shuttle bus and be at Bradley airport in just minutes.  Eventually there may be through trains north to Montreal and east to Boston via the inland route.

There are plans for 200 – 300 parking spaces at most stations.  But the real hope is that TOD (Transit Oriented Development) will work its magic and people will be able to live, commute to work and get back home without a car.

The economic potentials are amazing:  work in downtown Hartford or New Haven but live, shop and eat in Wallingford or Windsor and never have to own a car!  Already the land around the proposed stations is being grabbed up for development.

Another issue for the communities served by the new rail line will be the 32 grade crossings.  More trains will mean more gates dropping across busy roadways and more warning horns being sounded.

One thing the new rail line will not be is “high speed” (125+ mph).  Earlier hype about bullet trains running parallel to I-91 has been replaced with more reasonable expectations:  the new trains will cover the 60 miles between New Haven and Springfield just eight minutes faster than existing Amtrak trains (thanks mostly to raised platforms and less ‘dwell time’ at stations).  But what they lack in speed they will more than make up for in frequency of service.

For more information on Connecticut’s newest rail line, visit their website:

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

At the Supermarket, Use the “Scan It!” and be Done With it!

First: At the Scan It rack, shopper Debra Mals scans her Stop & Shop card, then picks up a Scan It device from one of the nests.

First: At the Scan It rack, shopper Debra Mals scans her Stop & Shop card, then picks up a Scan It device from one of the nests.

If you have the chore of doing the shopping at the supermarket, use a Scan It!

A Scan It! will save you time. Give you more control over your spending. And speed you out a lot faster, not even having to deal with a clerk.

The Scan It! is the latest digital device that I’ve come across. As we know, there’s been a frenetic roll-out of electronic devices–escalating every year and changing our lives in remarkable ways. I’m delighted to have discovered the Scan It! It’s already changing the way I shop.

(Note: The Scan It! with the exclamation mark is a registered brand name. But to make your reading easier, I’m going to delete the exclamation mark. You’ll appreciate this as you continue reading.)

I go grocery shopping only for myself, and I’m not a technological nut by any means although I do own far more electronic gadgets than I ever imagined. A cell phone that I use little, a computer that I use a lot, a hearing aid (just recently), which isn’t helping me much. Plus an IPod, an e-book reader (two!), a DVD player, a camera, all unbelievably “smart.”

In truth, I’ve gotten along fine without the Scan It. But I recognized the advantages of this remarkable device get in the blink of an eye. Excuse me. Make that “at its very first scan!”

Of all the digital marvels I’ve mentioned, the Scan It is unusual in an interesting way. You don’t buy it or lease it. You borrow it. And only for when you’re really shopping in the store that makes them available.

And it has another distinctive feature. Its purpose is not only to make your life easier. It’s to make that store more profitable. Yes, the Scan It will help you in several ways. But it will let that store make more money by ushering you through your buying spree faster and without needing a clerk at checkout. The store will reduce its payroll.

You can breeze into the store, pick up a Scan It, cruise the aisles and pick up everything you need, then check out at a self-service register. You’ll get it all done and walk out without talking or interacting in any way with another person. Except maybe a clerk in deli or the fish or meat departments if you want something special.

I came across the Scan It at the Stop & Shop in Old Saybrook. I buy at three or four supermarkets in the area–wherever I happen to be when I need to pick up a few things. To my knowledge, Stop & Shop is the only one that has adopted the Scan It. And they have it only in select stores.

I know I’ve got you wondering, What the heck is the Scan It? Let me tell you. It looks like an odd-shaped cell phone, but bigger. It is hand held, easy to use, not heavy, and you use it for every item you want. But the item must have a barcode.

Stop & Shop has a display of Scan Its right by its two front doors. Two racks of 24 of them, each in its own nest. Each one has the word Motorola on it, by the way. They are silently charging, awaiting you. You take one and use it as you wander through. And you leave it behind when you check out. You can put it back. If you don’t, the store will do it, and the Scan It will immediately pep itself up for the next borrower.

No charge of any kind for you to use it.

I was standing there studying one of the racks. Had never noticed it. I had seen a gal using a Scan It on a previous visit and I became fascinated. Now, all the other shoppers were just walking by, ignoring the devices, or not being aware despite Shop & Shop efforts to promote it. All 24 were there idling, so to speak, not getting the attention they deserve.

Then Debra Mals strode in and picked one up. Right next to me. She did it so fast and so naturally that I was sure she was a Scan It expert. My big opportunity! Maybe I could entice her to become my personal Scan It tutor. And I succeeded.

It took me only two minutes to explain that she could help countless folks around here who know zilch about the Scan It. How? Just by letting me walk around with her, see how she uses it, take a few pictures at key moments, and let me write this report for you.

What a good sport this Debra! An interesting gal. She is a dance instructor in the Old Saybrook Park and Recreation program. Lives in Old Saybrook with her husband Peter and their college-age daughter. Debra does all the shopping and does it all in just a single visit per week. She comes in with a shopping list, not on paper but in her brain, and, I found out, gets the job finished with supreme efficiency. Then out she goes, all done for another week.

I asked her one question after another. She was suspicious at first. Of course. Who wouldn’t be? Then she smiled. “Sure,” she told me. “More people should know about the Scan It.” And we started out. Before long, I could see she was enjoying our Scan It ramble as much as I was.

She said, “I discovered Scan It about two years ago. When they were brand-new. Well, I think they were new. I’m not a digital person. Oh, I use a cell phone and computer and things like that. I just saw how useful this thing was. And so easy to get the hang of it.”

Here are the basic steps she went through as we walked along.

The Scan It rack has a scanner dead center at chest level. She swiped her Stop & Shop member card into it. That’s all she had to do. The Scan It computer now knew her. Then she picked up a Scan It and we started down an aisle. She kept the Scan It in hand as she guided her cart. The cart was as big as they come. “I usually fill it!” she said.

Second step: She selected an item, shot its barcode with the Scan It, then put the item in her basket. The Scan It kept full details.

Second step: She selected an item, shot its barcode with the Scan It, then put the item in her basket. The Scan It kept full details.

She knew the store cold. She stopped in the detergent department. She found the kind she wanted. She held the Scan It as she would a pistol, and scanned the item’s barcode by clicking a button. And put the item in the basket. Actually, in a heavy fabric bag. She had brought several.

And that’s all she had to, in aisle after aisle. The name of the item was not important. It’s its barcode that was all-important. For custom orders, fresh seafood for instance, the clerk puts a printout with a barcode onto the purchase.

And that’s how she proceeded through the whole store. She went at it fast and smoothly and her purchases piled up in her cart.

What will she do when she gets to produce, I wondered. Bananas, say. Or grapes.

No problem. She knew a trick. In fact, she did need bananas. She picked out exactly eight. I wondered why eight. “One for every day of the week,” she said with a smile. “And one as a spare.”

Third step: For loose produce, she weighed it. The scale spit out a receipt with a barcode. She shot it with the Scan It.

Third step: For loose produce, she weighed it. The scale spit out a receipt with a barcode. She shot it with the Scan It.

Then she showed me the trick. She carried the bananas to one of the digital scales. Put the bananas on it. Quickly tapped in the data the scale needed: she clicked Fruits, then Tropical, then Bananas, then Print It. The scale spit out a receipt. The receipt gave the price per pound and the weight and the total price. And it had a barcode. She just scanned the barcode and that was it!

Now came the dramatic finale. She pushed the cart to one of the self-service checkouts. Each one has a Scan It “target”. She aimed her Scan It at it and shot it. I asked her why.

“This tells the computer to add everything up!”

Then she passed her Stop & Shop card under its scanner. Took only a couple of seconds. Magically her whole order flashed up on

the big monitor. She could see the total price and whatever tax was required. But this was no surprise: she had already seen that on her Scan It. She tapped “Okay.” Then she told me, “Now I can pay with cash, or a credit card, or a debit card.” She used a credit card.

Now I saw why she had brought in her own bags. She said, “This way at the end I don’t have to bag everything in their plastic bags. Besides, better for the environment!” She smiled and gave me a wave, and pushed her cart out the door. She had saved a lot of time. Excuse me. She would have if she hadn’t had to explain everything to me.

I’ve got to tell you I could not have found a better tutor!

Debra had also explained a few other things as we worked our way through.

“If I’ve put something in my cart and change my mind, all I have to do is take it out and then delete the item from the Scan It.

“And on the Scan It I can review the list of everything I’ve bought and make sure I haven’t forgotten anything. And if

I want to stick to a tight budget, easy!”


Final step: At the register, she shot a “target.” This told the computer she was done. It showed her every item and the total cost. She paid with her card. Then out she went in jig time.

Final step: At the register, she shot a “target.” This told the computer she was done. It showed her every item and the total cost. She paid with her card. Then out she went in jig time.

“Let’s say I don’t want to spend more than $50. I keep putting things in my basket and checking the total. Finally the total is $49.75. Then I spot the pineapples. They’re on sale for $2.50. A good buy. I want one! But it will blow my budget. How do I handle this?

“Simple. I review my purchases on the Scan It I and decide on something I can live without. The box of green tea, say. Click and I delete it from my list! Ads leave the tea behind. Then scan the pineapple and put it in my basket. My new total is $49.64. Problem solved!’

I stayed behind. I wanted some grapes and half a gallon of milk. I picked up a Scan It and started out. Nothing to using it. Now I saw other interesting features. On sale items, the device showed me the saving every time. I pushed another button and the device showed me six items on special sale for Scan It customers only.

One was a freebie: Muller Greek Corner yogurt with strawberries, 5.3 oz. I like yogurt. When I went for my milk, I picked up a container of it. Its price was $1.49. Who doesn’t like a freebie like that?

I discovered one more advantage. Some purchases can be embarrassing when you go and face a live checkout clerk. I’m sure you can think of some such items. Using the Scan It avoids that. No clerk will get to see what you’re buying.

It turns out that you can use your Ipad or Iphone or a device using Android to do the job.

Another thought: maybe the Scan It means so much to Debra that she would refuse to spend her money in any store without the device. If that is so, the Scan It gives Stop & Shop a strong competitive edge.

One thing I noticed on this whole experiment: I did not see any other customer using a Scan It. Remember, Stop & Shop has been offering the devices two years or more. How come such indifference? Is it because people are intimidated by the technology, which turns out to be so easy to use. I don’t know.

Got to tell you that I’ll use the Scan It the next time I go in that store. As I look back, I think it’s one of the best things in the retail food industry since the invention of the grocery cart back in the 1940’s, which I remember.

But I can look ahead, too. In 10 or 15 years, I see something else. No need for a Scan It. We’ll email our shopping list to our supermarket. If we’re not sure what we want, we’ll be able to examine each and every aisle of the store on our computer monitor. We’ll see every shelf close up, every item! We’ll type our selections on our keyboard and see how much they total! Then click “Send”!

At the store, a humanoid robot will assemble our order and put it on a truck which will take it to our door. I know Stop & Shop offers this service already, but with humans, not humanoids. But the humanoids are coming!

I won’t like shopping like that. I have other reasons to go to the big stores besides buying stuff. I like the exercise walking the aisles. And seeing people. So, so interesting.

Speaking of that, I know some folks found it very interesting to watch Debra tutoring me!

How My Flight Suddenly Became a Train Ride

I expected to fly out of Bradley. But United Airlines decided I should start on Amtrak!

Here’s what startled me. I just bought a three-flight trip to California. It always take me three flights to get to my daughter Monique’s. But the first flight on that ticket suddenly turned into a ride on Amtrak!

I didn’t plan it. Didn’t want it. It happened automatically. Has this happened to you of late?

It was time to book my traditional flight to my daughter Monique’s for Christmas and New Year’s.

She lives in Morro Bay, CA. I’ve been making this trip every year for 20 years or so.

The trip invariably involves three flights. I did the usual. What millions of Americans do every day. I sat at my keyboard and went to a travel search engine.

First Kayak. Then Expedia. Like 99 percent of us, I checked for the best deal. And the best time of departure. And the best price. Those are the essentials. The rest means little to me. I believe that the big difference among main airlines is the paint jobs on their planes.

The tricky part are the times of leaving and arriving. California is three hours behind us, of course. But other factors weigh in.

My wonderful sister Lucie in West Hartford invariably picks me up and drives me to Deep River. A flight at 9 a.m. seems reasonable on the face of it. But we’re told we must be at the airport 90 minutes before our flight. Right? And it’s a ride of one hour door to door from here to Bradley. It’s one hour for Lucie from home to here. Allow 30 minutes for contingencies. And allow her one hour to get up and breakfast and dress.

That means she must rise at 5 a.m. She’ll do it, and willingly. Has done it often for me. But I try to make it more convenient. You’d think the same way, I’m sure.

That’s the problem at my end. My daughter Monique has a time problem at her end, too.

She and her hubby David have busy days. Must rise early. Not unusual for the third of my flights to arrive in San Luis Obispo at 10 p.m. Even later. Their home is a good 30 minutes of fast driving from the airport. Allow 30 minutes at the airport to greet me, get all my stuff and me into their car. Then 30 minutes to their home. My plane may be late. It might be midnight when we walk in the front door. Not good. I do my best to minimize that headache.

Of course, the search engines offer flights that range from the ridiculous to the absurd. One such offered a departure at 2 a.m. and a price of $940. That’s in economy. Come on!

I went to a third search engine. CheapOair. Had never heard of it. Typed in the usual. Kind of flight: economy. Departure: Bradley. Destination: San Luis Obispo. Some in my family travel a lot. They tell me the best days from my point of my view are Tuesdays and Wednesday. So, I type in Wednesday.


I hit a grand combo. Departure: 9:10 a.m. Arrival: 9:05 p.m. On United Airlines. United is fine. With the usual three flights. The first to Dallas. The second to Los Angeles. The third to San Luis, as the folks there call it. Price: $395 one way.  That seems high to me, but with the huge price rise in gas and other things, I find it acceptable.

CheapOair Air tells me my purchase is non-cancelable. But that’s a routine notice nowadays. I buy the flight with my credit card.

I always buy this flight one way. No, I’m not migrating to California in my old age. After New Year’s, I always take Greyhound south to milady Annabelle’s. (For the record, I like Greyhound! Some folks call me nuts. But they should try Greyhound, too!)

She lives in Newport Beach, an hour south of L.A. I’m there with her till early April. She comes east to Connecticut when the weather warms up here. That, too, has been our routine for nearly 20 years.

So, in late January I sit at my computer again and play the Search-Engine Game again, but in reverse.


My flight confirmation from CheapOair arrived within minutes. Shock! I had specified Bradley as my departure airport, remember? CheapOair was telling me that my first flight would not be a flight. It would be a train ride! From New Haven to Newark! In Newark I would board a flight to San Francisco rather than Los Angeles. Then on to San Luis, arriving at.  Excellent!

But the train ride! I like trains. Have taken many, including a long one all across India and one all the way up from Singapour to Kuala Lumpur. But out of the question for a 3,000-mile trip across the USA.

I consider myself an experienced air traveler. I had never run into a situation like this. I recognized that a train on a short run like this might be a good idea. Lucie would not have to drive 80 miles or so to get me to the airport. I would avoid that awful take-off-your-shoes-please hassle at the airport. And all the waiting.

But, how to get to New Haven? Well, I have a friend who commutes to New Haven to work. I could bum a ride from her.  But she boards the train in Old Saybrook. Fine, though that would add an extra charge. But how would I get from the train station in Newark to the airport? Would there be a shuttle? How long would that take? In heavy traffic, might I miss my flight? That would add an extra expense, too.

I found an 800 number for CheapOair and called it. I got a man in India. I’ve been to India twice and have Indian friends. I can detect Indian English at the first word. I like Indians.  So not a problem. Furthermore, I admire Indians and Filipinos and Peruvians who man our off-coast call stations nowadays. They do a wonderful job at work that is truly daunting. Imagine having

I explained my surprise at the train ride. Told him I wanted a plane ride, not a train ride. Said to him, “I have never experienced this before!”

“I am sorry, sir,” he said with the greatest politeness. “One minute, please.” Well, it turned out to be several minutes. But I understand that, too.

He came on again. “I have canceled your flight, sir. I am returning what you paid to your Visa account. But you will be billed $14. That is for canceling your flight.”

“Please waive that $14 charge. Not fair. That train ride was a total surprise. How would you feel in my situation”?

“I am sorry, sir. Our rules prohibit that. Is there anything else I can help you with today?’

“No, thank you.”

That was that. I’d re-book again as soon as I had time. No rush. A day or two would make little difference.

But! As it turned out that train ride was indicated when I downloaded all those original details. In my rush, I did not notice that little item. I take the blame.

That evening I called Annabelle and told her the whole story. She was dismayed. She is an experienced air traveler, too. And had worked a long time as a travel agent. Things have changed enormously since those days but she’s still savvy. And my word “dismayed” was the right word.

“Oh, John, you should not have canceled! That was a better deal. In more than one way.”

“Yes, I know. But the problems. How to get from Newark to the airport…”

“The train goes right on to the airport. It’s just a few minutes farther along the track. Nothing to it! In fact, you and I did that once. Right from Old Saybrook to Newark. When we flew to Italy!”

I blushed. I actually blushed. But she could sense it way out there in California. I am sure. Of course! She was right. Now I remembered!”

“Call them back!” she told me. “See if you can re-book that flight.”

I found that 800 number again. I made the call. Got an Indian lady this time. Definitely young, but yes, a lady.

“I understand, sir. I’ll be glad to help you if I can. It will be a minute or two, please.”

Finally she returned to me. “Yes, that flight is still available. But the price has risen. It is now $444.

Shall I book it for you?”

“Is it available on Tuesday rather than Wednesday?” I have found that sometimes a one-day difference can change the price significantly. I’m a retiree. Such a change would not be a hardship. Nor for Monique and David in California either, I was sure.

She went offline for another “minute.”

“Yes, it is available. The price will be your original price, $395. But you will fly to San Luis Obispo from San Francisco instead of Los Angeles. And your new arrival time will be 7:54 p.m. Is this satisfactory?”


That airport change would be insignificant. Anyway, I wouldn’t get to see either of those cities. Maybe just a few lights down below if I happened to be sitting at a window on the right side of the plane. The new arrival time would make it easier for Monique and David. And me, too.

“Please book that flight for me, Mam. Thank you very much for your help. You’ve been very good.”

“My pleasure, sir.” Soon she came back on. “Your new travel arrangements are confirmed, sir. You will receive an onli. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

An idea had come to me. I said, “As you know, I had to pay a $14 penalty when I canceled. Can that be refunded to me now?”

“Let me see what I can do, sir. One minute, please.”

She came back on. “I have just returned $14 to your Visa account. All this will be confirmed to you. Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“No. I am very happy. Thank you.”

And that was that. Remember, that was a “non-cancelable deal.” I have to salute CheapOair. Don’t you agree?

Talk about coincidences. Two days later, in the New York Times, I read a long article about airline flights with railroad legs. Its headline was “Train or Plane? More Travelers Choose Both.” “Choose” was the right word only if they noticed the train ride on their ticket and approved.

It explained this whole new business was a common practice in Europe. Big cities there are much closer together. Trains travel much faster and more frequently. Yes, it’s a new practice here in the U.S. But becoming popular because easier and more convenient in some ways. Yet not commonly available because we have few railroad stations located within practical distances of major airports.

I have questions about all this, of course. United lost the first of my three air trips to Amtrak. Is United happy about that? I wouldn’t think so. Also Bradley International lost me as one of its passengers. Is Bradley happy about that? I wouldn’t think so. Is Amtrak being paid by United? Or CheapOair? I don’t know. But it’s all so interesting.

Please note: some of the small details above, of flight times and prices and such, may be off a bit.  I am writing this from memory.

We know that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Well, so is progress.

I’ll try in time to bring you up to date on how all this works out.

So now you know. Take a careful look at the tiny details the next time you okay a multi-flight trip. Before you book it!

Transportation: High Speed Rail in Japan

I am just back from two weeks’ travel in Asia where I have seen the past and the future of the world’s best high speed rail.  This week, my thoughts on Japan and next week, China.

It was 1964 when the Japanese introduced the world’s first “bullet train”, the Shinkansen.  Using a dedicated right-of-way (no freight, no slow trains), the Tokaido line between Tokyo and Osaka today carries over 150 million passengers a year at speeds up to 190 mph… not the fastest in the world, but easily the busiest.

Now on its seventh generation of equipment, I rode the Nozumi Express from Tokyo to Kyoto and was amazed at the service.  Like Grand Central Terminal, Tokyo’s main downtown station is a dead-end.  As trains arrive, passengers disembark and uniformed cleaning crews have about ten minutes to clean and freshen the equipment for the next run.

The Nozumi runs from Tokyo to Osaka, a distance of 314 miles, equivalent to the distance between Boston and Baltimore.  And it makes that journey in 2 ½ hours with trains every five to ten minutes!  Each 16 car train can carry up to 1300 passengers in first (“Green”) class (two by two seating) or second class (three by two… the Japanese are small).

Compare that to Amtrak with hourly Acela service in six car trainsets holding 300 passengers total.  Acela’s fastest run from Boston to Baltimore is just shy of six hours with an average speed of 90 – 120 mph.

The Japanese trains are so fast there is no need for a diner or bar car.  Instead, passengers can buy an “ekiben” boxed lunch from dozens of stores at the station.  Because all seats are assigned, passengers que up at the exact spot on the platform where their car will stop, awaiting permission to board.  When the cleaning crews finish, the doors open, passengers board and the train departs… always on time, and to the second.

As the conductor collects tickets, he bows to each customer.  Train crew passing through the cars always turn and bow to the passengers before going to the next car.  The ride is so smooth as to not be thought possible.  And arrivals and departures are to the second with average dwell time at intermediate stations no longer than 90 seconds.  And, of course, there is free Wi-Fi during the entire journey.

The first class fare on the Nozumi Express between Tokyo and Osaka is $186.  On Amtrak’s Acela, the Boston to Baltimore ride costs up to $279 for business class, $405 in first class.

Japan’s Shinkansen is the grand-daddy of high speed rail, but still among the best.  Next time I’ll tell you about the newest, and to my thinking, the world’s best high speed rail… in China!  And I’ll recount my 11 minute ride on the world’s only commercial maglev in Shanghai.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

Surviving Hurricane Sandy

Which candle do you think gives better light?The big one, right? That’s what I thought, too.

Yes, Sandy taught me a big lesson: how much light does one candle give? Oh, not as the centerpiece during dinner. And not on a birthday cake. In the pitch dark! For hours. I had no idea. It was an illuminating lesson. (Pun.) But not an illuminating experience.

History story tells us that one horsepower is the power of one horse. No idea what horse was used to figure that—its size or breed or age or gender or anything else. But it doesn’t matter.

Now how about one candlepower? Well, if 1 hp. is the effort put out by 1 horse, then 1 candlepower must be the light put out by 1 candle. Wouldn’t you agree?  But in practical terms, how much is that?

During the hurricane I learned the hard way. It’s shockingly, disappointingly little. Yet it’s mostly with candles that I managed to get through the three days of that ordeal. Excuse me, the three nights.

Like everybody else hereabouts, I made many preparations for Sandy’s hugely publicized and awesome arrival. One was to buy a couple more flashlights. Another was to dig out my stash of candles. I have a shoebox full, candles big and small, candles never used and candles partly used. Flashlights are more convenient, but candles have more staying power. And Sandy might knock out our power for days.

I live at Piano Works in Deep River. It’s called that because our big 4-story brick building was the high-tech center of the piano industry a hundred and fifty years ago. Mine is one of about 60 condos in the building. I live alone most of the time. I was alone during Sandy.

As we all know, Sandy hit our area with a huge wallop. Worse even than the unforgettable hurricane of 1938. Which I remember, by the way.  We were lucky at Piano Works. The gusts of wind were huge. I could see that just by peering out the window. Even at night. But with my eyes closed, I couldn’t even know Sandy had hit. Our big brick building had survived many big storms over the years.  I felt it could take anything Sandy threw at it, it seemed.

The worst that happened to us at Piano Works is that we blacked out. Everything electrical that we possessed went dead. Speaking for myself, that meant my lights, heat, telephone, TV, radio, stove, fridge, TV, computer, clocks, on and on. Same for you, undoubtedly. I didn’t list them in any special order. Except for the first. My lights. To me that was the most critical.

I took extra pains to prepare for the loss of my lights. I moved anything possible to trip over well out of the way. Footstool, piles of books, hassock, wastebaskets, magazine rack, bathroom scale. To trip and fall could be catastrophic. And I placed candles strategically here and there. A big fat one on my dining table. Another big one by my kitchen sink. Another in the bathroom. Smaller ones here and there also. I had plenty. Why not? I also put matches next to each one. I wouldn’t have to fumble for a match if one of my candles went out.

I own three fire extinguishers. I placed them strategically also. I also placed jars of water here and there. Water is fire’s natural enemy, right? Remember the Grear Chicago Fire and how that started when a cow knocked over a lantern in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn? I didn’t want one of my candles to cause the Great Piano Works Fire! This was no time to be lazy. Prepared I would be!

I also placed my flashlights with care. My condo is on two floors. I placed one at the top of the stairs I’d have to use to get out. Another by my bedside table. And so on. And I kept one in my pocket all the time.

Well, Sandy struck. What for me had been about 16 hours of light per day—daylight and electric—and 8 hours of dark suddenly became 12 and 12. Thanks to my planning, my 12 hours of dark included 4 hours of dark that were enlivened by tiny flickers of light from my candles throughout my apartment. The place looked nice and cozy. I thought, If only I had somebody to share this with!

But the candles made me nervous. True. Especially those out of sight. So, I blew out the candles that I couldn’t see from my living room. I sat in my favorite rocker there. Better not waste candles. Sandy’s aftermath might last a long while.I kept only two going. The big one on the table. And a small one on the table by my rocker.

The big one was 10 times bigger than the small one. The small one was the size of a votive candle. In fact it was a votive candle. If you’re not familiar with that, imagine a cupcake. A small cupcake.

The change in the room was dramatic. Dim! It took me a while to adjust. Now my place looked gloomy. And this gloom was emphasized by the sudden loss of something very important in my life. Music.

I realized more than ever how much of my day is brightened by music. I realized that I have music playing just about all the time. This was now so quiet. So still. So uncomfortable.  “Gloomy” was definitely the right word. But one thing surprised me after a while. The two candles gave me enough light to function in the most basic way. I could walk safely. I could eat okay—could distinguish tell the salt shaker from the pepper shaker.

But know what? The small candle gave off more light than the big fat one. I kept checking one against the other. It was true. Both had wicks the same size. The big one was made of red wax. As the flame sank deeper in the wax, it left a ring of wax that got higher. True, this ring turned translucent pink. Very pretty. Very romantic if romance happened to be key. Not this evening. Not for me alone.

But that ring kept the light from spreading sideways. The small candle was white wax. White wax reflected the flame better. As it burned lower, it left a much smaller ring of wax. I didn’t understand why but the flame always stayed level with the brim of the ring. It didn’t sink down into the wax like the other one. So it gave off more light sideways. Who would have bet on that? I was intrigued. I decided to experiment. For an hour, I would not use the flashlight I had on me. I would live by the light of these two candles. That’s all. Regardless of what I had to do in my condo.

Now I had to go to the bathroom. I chose the big candle. That made sense. (This was before I measured its output against the baby candle.) I had placed it in a saucer.  I picked up the saucer and headed toward my dark bedroom. The bathroom is off the bedroom. I moved gingerly. Oops!  The candle nearly slipped off the saucer. Imagine if it had fallen onto the carpet. Imagine if it had started a fire.

A lesson learned!  I clasped the saucer so my fingers keep the candle firmly in place. No chance of it falling. But now I noticed something else. The candle did not cast light on the floor. The floor was dark. Too dark.  And dark might conceal danger.  I put the candle and saucer back on the table. And picked up the small one. It was in a small glass of clear glass. My fingers could hold this one much steadier. Safer. But it didn’t cast light down, either. What to do?I held it slightly canted. That helped. But I risked dripping hot wax onto the carpet. I tried holding the candle much lower—down at the level of my knees and tried to walk that way. Awkward. Very awkward. Very bad.

So? I placed the candle right down on the carpet. Off to one side of my path, out of the way, but halfway to the bathroom.  The light was faint, but it made a big improvement. I could walk to the bathroom and back—in fact—anywhere in my living room—without fear of tripping. And with my hands free. Which meant I could carry something.

To test the light cast by the candle, I walked to my bookcase on the far wall. And searched for a certain book. It took me a minute but I had enough light to locate it. But not really a fair test. I knew approximately where the book was, and what size it was. But still. I was learning.

I was hungry. I hadn’t had supper. I picked up the big candle and placed it on the work counter I have across from my sink and stove. That is, right next to my fridge. And I placed the small candle by the sink. I already had a candle there, but it was dead now. I moved it out of the way.  I shifted both candles with their flames burning.

What to eat? I wanted something substantial. I picked out a can of baked beans. But no way to heat them. I remembered Vinnie—more about him in a minute. I opened the can, poured out half for myself, found some raw carrots and celery in the fridge that I had pre-cut into small pieces. I picked up a spoon and dug into my cold beans.

Now about Vinnie. Important for you to know about him.  Twenty-five years ago I had bought a big, 4-story brick building in Worcester. Bought it at auction. That was what I call the Real Estate Chapter in my life. I had read a book, “How to Make a Million Dollars in Real Estate in Your Spare Time.”  The book impressed me. I already had a going business. But I had a bit of spare time. And I liked the idea of making a million. I put what the book taught me into practice. Buying that empty, boarded-up building was part of that chapter in my life.

Suddenly I owned the building. Wasn’t sure what to do with it. Decided to convert it into condos. The condo craze was catching on. Hired an architect. He drew a plan. I converted the building into a new office for myself on the first floor, and eight condo apartments—two on each floor—above.

A big project. I had to assemble a work crew. The work started in late October, stretched all through the winter. A frigid winter. No heat of any kind in the building. The crew pounded away. Five rugged guys.

At noon they’d break for lunch. Would gather in one empty room in that great big building. Open their Thermos chests. Pick out hot chili, or beef stew, or whatever. Sit side by side on the floor, their backs against the wall, and eat. There in that frigid room. So cold that you could see your own breath. They’d also bring coffee and enjoy that with a donut or slice of pie.

Not Vinnie. He never brought a Thermos chest. He was 32 or so. Married with two kids. A good worker. He brought just a can of baked beans. A big can. He would plunk down next to the others. Open the can. Dig in with his spoon.He kept it next to the fat carpenter’s pencil in his overalls’ bib pocket. And eat his beans. Cold. Right down to the last bean and the last bit of juice. Didn’t even bring something to drink.

He worked for me five days a week, and brought a can of beans, same brand, every day. And ate the beans contentedly. With great relish. Just the beans. No bread. No veggies. Nothing else. He took a lot of kidding. It didn’t bother him. He’d give it right back.
“This will keep me goin’ nice all afternoon. You fellas should do the same. So easy. Saves lotta money. These beans are cold, sure, but they keep me nice and warm. You guys should do the same. But you’re too dumb! And hey, this makes it easier for my missus!”  I’d stop by now and then to say hello and check their progress. I saw this strange scene many times.

Now as I sat eating my own cold beans, I thought of Vinnie. He was right. This wasn’t a bad meal. Not bad at all. I had my veggies. A couple of ginger snaps plus a glass of milk.  The fridge wasn’t working but the milk wasn’t bad yet. And a crisp apple to bite into. Those beans would keep me warm.

Vinnie had taught me a lesson. The right attitude is all-important. Besides, I didn’t expect to have to eat cold beans five days straight as he did. I hoped not!

I hate dirty dishes in the sink. The water was still running, thank God. What a blessing. I washed everything and tidied up. The two candles gave me enough light. I enjoyed the dancing flames.

Came time for bed. I love to read for 15 minutes or so in bed before I turn off the light. I’m a creature of habit. I admit it. I decided to carry on my candle experiment. I blew out my big candle. Set up my small candle, still lit, on my bedside table. As close to the edge as I felt safe. So I’d be close to the candle. Changed into my pajamas and crawled in. It felt so good. I picked up—Noel Perrin’s “Solo,” which I was half-way through.

Perrin wrote terrific essays. He died about 10 years ago. Was a professor of English at Dartmouth up in Vermont. Was a city guy but bought an old, tired farm in the nearby village of Thetford. And took to farming. Got very good at it. Loved it. Became interested in energy conservation and environmental protection. Was fascinated by it. As a  hobby, studied it in depth. He was an expert of Robert Frost and his poetry, but started teaching this environmental stuff on the side at Dartmouth.Very avant-garde guy.

Heard of electric cars. This was some 30 years ago. Decided to buy one. Went to California to a small outfit that was turning out a few. Bought one. It could get only 40 miles or so on one charge. Installed solar panels on its roof as a booster when the sun shined. And decided to drive his new car—he named it Solo—clear across the country right home to Vermont.
A wonderful adventure. He had a hard time. The mountains were formidable. He actually had to buy a truck and tow Solo along some tough stretches. But finally home, he used Solo to commute to his classes at Dartmouth. Installed a solar panels on top of his barn to keep Solo’s batteries charged up. What a story!

Now I opened “Solo” to Chapter 9. Hard to see the type. I edged closer to the side of the bed. As close to the candle as possible. Still not good. I got up, and now using my flashlight, went to my pantry. Ripped off a piece of aluminum foil, then stapled it to a plain, manila office file. I propped up this reflector behind the candle, kept shifting the reflector for the best light on the bed.
Got back into bed, opened “Solo” again. The reading was tough going. I strained. Finished the chapter. But enough is enough. I closed the book and blew out the candle and pulled the covers way, way up. The room was definitely cool now. I pulled the covers right over my head. Wonderful.

I thought of Abraham Lincoln. How as a young guy he would study law books at night in his small, rough house. Study them by candlelight, mind you. Night after night, after a day’s work farming. And how he became the great man that we all admire.
I also marveled at the thousands of generations of people over countless centuries who were born and grew up and worked and lived and died with only natural daylight, so to speak. Oh, they had the light of the fire in their hearth, at night. That’s all. Firewood was precious. They used no more than they had to.

Candles were enormously expensive. And rare. Only the very rich could afford them. These folks got up just before the sun rose in order to make the most of the daylight. And went to bed quite soon after the sun went down. They stayed in bed far longer in the winter than the summer. Had to. They accepted that. No other choice. They knew no other life.

Imagine the world as a big onion. A huge, huge onion. Imagine that onion as the history of the world. Of mankind. And think of this: That thin, flimsy outer skin represents the only period of time in history when we have had real, reliable, effective artificial light, available by flicking a switch. All those generations of people under that outer skin never had it. Couldn’t even imagine it. Their first big break-through was spermaceti oil, from whales they pursued across the oceans. And that was only two centuries or so ago.

The next morning dawned gray. I looked out the window. The branches of the big trees were hardly moving. All the predictions were that Sandy’s powerful landfall would happen last night. I walked to the window. The storm seemed over. Could it be?
I had in mind only one thing. To get to Cumberland Farms the minute it opened. Gas would be running out. I wanted to tank up. Cumberland Farms was closed tight. An employee at the door said. “Go to Cumberland Farms in Centerbrook. They got gas. But don’t wait!”

I rushed there. It was jammed with cars and people. I did manage to tank up. Inside, I got a hot coffee. I had to wait in line for it.
Paying the clerk, I said, “What are you going to run out of first? Gas? Or coffee?” He managed a laugh. “We’ve got plenty of coffee. But gas? Not sure. We get our gas out of New Haven. And that don’t look good!”

I kept busy throughout the day, at this and that. I ate a cold lunch. Not the beans, by the way.n As night fell, I thought of supper. By then I remembered that somewhere I still had a one-burning propane camping stove left over from my camping days.  Plus a can of propane. In fact, two. They were small, but I wouldn’t waste.

Propane is notoriously dangerous. Where to set up the stove? I tried here and there. Finally I placed it right in my kitchen sink. That seemed safest. I put one of my fire extinguishers right next to it. And put a match to the nozzle. The stove fired up instantly–it  hadn’t been used in 15 years! Carbon monoxide can be a killer. But I planned to use it only 15 minutes. I didn’t even consider finishing my can of beans. I made myself a thick, hearty soup. Based on ramen noodles, I admit. Ramen noodles—that’s another great invention. I added chunks of tofu and spoonfuls of beans. Added chopped-up carrots and celery and some leftover cooked turnip and peas. Delicious!

The evening was young. I remembered Bob Johnson’s invitation. There are friends, and there are good friends. Bob is a good friend. We’re about the same age  tut have different backgrounds and that keeps things interesting. I knew Bob had electricity. “Come on over,” he told me. “Don’t be bashful.” Bob is a clever guy. He had anticipated. He has a big portable electric generator and he had it going.  He had lights, heat, the whole works. And I had just candlepower, so to speak..

I drove over. His lights were on. The only one lit up on the street, it seemed.  My arrival was a surprise, of course. But he gave me a great big “Hello! Come on in!” Our big topic was Sandy, of course. He was following the hurricane via the Internet!  progress.  He told me, “Just another hour or  so and we’ll really get walloped!” Scary! We talked and talked. He invited me to check my emails, which I did. How generous. I returned home. The wind was picking up. Trees and branches were swaying. It will be an awful night, I kept thinking.  Sandy was about to hit!

I lit only one tiny candle. It was time for bed. I pulled the covers up high over me.  Some light came in through the window. The branches were going crazy.  I kept thinking, What will it be like out there in the morning? In minutes I was sound asleep.
At dawn, I looked out first thing. How bad it was it? No shrill wind. Hardly and wind at all. No rain. The trees were still. Plain exhausted, I’m sure. This was the third morning—the height of the storm.! The storm seemed over. Gosh!

I had backed-up errands to do in Saybrook. I lost no time. I cleared my windshields of leaves and took off. Deep River was dramatically quiet. Few people out. On I drove.  I braced myself for Old Saybrook. The damage must be awful. But downtown was fine. I stopped by Burger King. Many people ahead of me. I heard about the huge damage along the coast. Two hundred people again had taken refuge in the high school gym for the night. I did my errands.

Then on to the Acton Library. It had been shuttered, of course. Now it was jammed. The parking lot was full. Every seat inside was taken. I understood. What’s more pleasant than a nice, welcoming library under harsh circumstances like these? I spent a long time there. Then I rode around a bit. I saw branches down. A tree or two. People were already out, raking and picking up. I drover closer to the coast. Much more tree damage. But I didn’t get to see any of the destruction and incredible that I later saw in the media.

It was nearly 6 when I returned to Deep River. A few lights were on, but isolated. These folks must have generators going, too. Cumberland Farm was dark.  The Town Hall had lights on but was closed.Our Deep River Library had lights, too, but also closed. But those lights boosted my hopes for Piano Works.  Then Piano Works appeared. A big black hulk, totally lifeless, against the night sky.

How could I explain that, with so many other lights on in town? I could not. What to do? I picked my way along the pitch-black hallway to my apartment with the narrow beam of my flashlight. Home, I lit a candle. Then another. What now? I was hungry. I lit my small burner and made myself a really decent supper.

The thought of  spending the long evening alone here by candle-light had lost its appeal. And I thought my experience with the candles might interest you. I decided to write it up for you. But where?  Impossible here. I blew out the candles, turned on my flashlight, and got to my car. And drove to my friend’s, Bob. His light would be aglow, of course. I brought along my laptop. He could watch TV. I’d sit in a corner and write this for you while it was fresh in my mind.

I was at Bob’s in five minutes. The whole house was black! What a disappointment. He must be at his son’s, Bob. What now? I really wanted to write this. To Burger King in Saybrook! It would be open. I even knew where I’d sit with my coffee.  There was a table and a chair at the far back—right next to an outlet. I could plug in there. Good. I needed an outlet. My netbooks battery would die in a jiffy.

I made my purchase and hurried to that favored table. Oops! A young guy was sitting there, his computer going, and it was plugged in. But it was a double outlet. Maybe I could plug in to the second outlet. But he had had something else connected there, too.

What frustration. A new idea. I returned to my car, put my laptop in it, and picked up a pad and pen. Chose another quiet corner. And began writing this the old-fashioned way. Longhand. And got it written. Well, in draft form.

By the time I was finished, it was bedtime.  I looked back. The young guy was gone. Maybe long gone. The plug was available. I had never noticed. So engrossed. I’d still have to type this. When power returned. That might be a few days off. Home I went. I expected nothing new. The same cold, bleak blackness. But! Piano Works had lights on. Not only at the front door. In many windows here and there. Wow! I Inside, the corridors were lit! had power in my place! I flipped on lights. Turned up the thermostat. After three days, life was back to normal. Hallelujah!

My experience was irritating. Yes, definitely. But I was so much luckier than so many others.  Some friends went without power for another two days.  And so many other folks suffered so much, as we know. Experienced devastating losses of property. Face a long struggle and severe financial challenges to fully recover.  If they all eventually do. Maybe you are one. I hope not. Two blessings.  One was that our local water supply did not seem affected. Mine ran strong and clean. And we didn’t have a severe cold snap. Like this recent one. That would have made Sandy even tougher.

And it made me appreciate Thomas Edison as never before. He gave us the modern electric bulb. How marvelous. Sandy reminded me of that. He gave us 100-candlepower bulbs! 200-candlepower! And with little risk of fire!

As I think back, Sandy taught me more than just what one candlepower is. I’m grateful for that.

PMLE – The Sun is now Sally’s Great Enemy

Boston—I had spoken to my dear friend Sally on the phone now and then but hadn’t seen her in quite a while. On a visit here I was stunned to see the horrors she has been going through lately.


As you know, we read of new medical breakthroughs all the time. Fantastic, incredible breakthroughs.

Well, it turns out there are also terrible new afflictions coming up all the time. Dreadful afflictions impossible to imagine.

Sally has an awful one. I never heard of it. She told me about it, but only after I noticed how strangely she dressed she was to go outside. It was a nice day—late September at its best. I had stayed with her at her townhouse overnight. Now, breakfast over, we were going out for a little walk.

The sun was behind a cloud for the moment. It was warm out and I was fine in my short sleeves. I had left my tie off and my collar was open.

But Sally was going out so over-dressed. She was wearing long pants. She had a long-sleeved blouse on with the sleeves and the collar buttoned. In fact, she had three layers on. Plus a long-sleeved jacket with the collar buttoned and in fact the collar turned up. Plus a scarf wrapped around her neck.

Sally will venture outside now only when protected to the maximum this way

She was also wearing long gloves, and had carefully tucked them into her jacket sleeves.

Finally she put on a hat. It had a big, wide brim all around. And just before she opened the door for us to step out, she pulled her jacket collar up as high as possible. Pulled the brim as far down all around as possible. And adjusted the scarf to cover as much of her cheeks as possible.

As I say, this was a nice late-summer day. I was sure that nobody, nobody else in all of Boston was dressed this way. Oh, maybe a nut. Or some criminal hiding from the law maybe.

I was startled by her get-up. This was not the Sally I remembered. And she noticed.

“Yeah, I know I look strange. I have a medical problem, John.” She said it matter of factly. As if not news. “It’s called PMLE.”

“PMLE! What the heck is that?”

“That was my reaction, too. I was surprised just like you when my doctor told me. I had never heard of it. It stands for polymorphous light eruption.”

“Polymorphous what?”

“Polymorphous light eruption. Yes, it’s an awful name. A real mouthful.”

“I never heard of it. And I’m up on such things.”

“I’m sensitive to UVA ultra-violet light. Sunshine! Yes, sunshine! I’m extremely sensitive to it. It does an awful job on me. I have to shield myself against it. I dress like this to walk to my office. I dress like this to do anything and everything outside. It has really, really changed my life.

“I used to love the sun. Now the sun is my enemy. I don’t dare step outside without an outfit like this. I go out as little as possible.” She took the brim of her hat and pulled it down even tighter.

“And it’s such a nuisance to have to dress this way. I plan everything so I go out as little as possible. Not just to buy a newspaper. Or to take out the rubbish. Or to chat with a neighbor. I’ve stopped all that.

“In the house I make sure I don’t let the sun shine in, ever. I’ve had a special coating put on all my windows to shield me. I need protection even when the sun is behind a cloud, like this right now. Yes, when I’m in my own house. It’s an awful way to live. But I have no choice. Otherwise I’d be a mess. In fact, I’ll show you when we go back in.”

Now, the truth. Sally is not her real name. I’ve called her Sally to protect her privacy. In fact, she insisted on that. She’s a professional lady. Sometimes people misunderstand. She’s trying to minimize her problem. Not easy when she has to take such extreme and publicly visible precautions.

I’ve changed some of her other details, too. All she’ll let me say is that she has a profession. “I’m lucky that in my work I have limited contact with the public.”

And she’s had a committed relationship with a man for ten years. “He’s supportive. Very supportive. I’m sure it’s very hard for him at times. So, I’m lucky that way, too.”

We had a good talk about all this.

A big outbreak. Very uncomfortable. It takes a while of no exposure for this to calm down

Inside again, I whistled when she showed me pictures of herself suffering from PMLE. Pictures of her bare back and upper chest. An awful rash. Never knew a rash could be so extreme and so devastating. Red, burning, itching skin. Very hard to live with.

She pointed to her neck and shoulders in one picture.

“This was at the height of one attack,” she said.  “But I have avoided this level of severity for 10 months. Thank God! By going out as little as possible. And you saw how I dress when I do.

“I take meds every day, too—two different anti-histamines. Sometimes I worry about possible side effects.”

It became even more fascinating when she told me background stuff.

“I was severely burned when I was 21. Sunbathing! I loved going to the beach.

“That seemed to be the start of this. Afterward I had odd reactions to being out in the sun. Red, blotchy outbreaks like this. I couldn’t figure it out. It was bad but I didn’t go around moaning. It got worse.

“I mentioned it to my primary care doctor, of course. He made suggestions. I was a good patient. Then I went to a dermatologist. Felt I had to. He figured it out. PMLE! That was a year ago. Bad news. I live with PMLE every day.”

It turns out you can have various degrees of it. There are light cases. Often they go away after a while. Then moderate cases. Then severe cases.

Sally discovered an online PMLE group. It has close to a thousand people.  All backgrounds. Many different places. Most in places with lots of sunshine. She checks in often. “We learn from one another.”

One thing she’s learned is no known cause for MBLE. It seems that her terrible sunturn years ago had nothing to do with her MBLE. That seems strange. Studies are continuing.

She’s found out that she must layer her clothes. Choose very dense fabrics. One layer isn’t enough. “The rays can penetrate!” In fact, she buys some items especially made to be protective against UVA.

She’s even had her car windows coated. So she can’t drive with the windows open any more.

She went on. “Summer is most difficult. All those clothes! It gets awfully hot. And I stand out a lot more. Some people stare. One good thing is that it’s very rare for anybody to remark about it or ask questions. I’m sure some are tempted.

“So, it’s easier in the winter. Much shorter days.  Far less sunshine. And I don’t stand out as much when I go out.”

She’s developed strategies to help her cope. Last January she and her man went to Iceland for a vacation. It’s farther north, of course. Only five hours of daylight a day. And such a relaxing place. A smile. “We had a grand time. It did me a lot of good.”

Again she paused.  “There are worse things, I’m sure. I believe that I have a severe case. I have no doubt about it. Now I’m slowly accepting PMLE better.

“Of course, I keep hoping that it will clear up. But so far I haven’t had any indication that it will.” She managed a thin smile. “What will be will be, I guess.”

I mentioned up top that MBLE is a little-known affliction. Let’s hope that none of us ever get to know it better. Personally, I mean.

Talking Transportation: The Gestalt of a Railroad

On a recent Acela ride to Boston I tried to explain to a seat-mate why our high speed train was alternately crawling along at 45 miles per hour in Metro-North territory, then screaming northward at 125 beyond New Haven.  I told him (a visitor from Switzerland used to amazing rail service) that a railroad is a great example of “gestalt”… that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

THE TRAIN:   We focus a lot on the age and capabilities of our rail engines and passenger cars in defining a railroad.  Sure, Acela is the fastest train in North America, running an average 125 mph in many areas between Washington and Boston.  But it is capable of much higher speeds, recently being tested at 165 mph in nighttime runs in New Jersey.  Even Metro-North’s old cars, let alone the new M8’s, can easily cruise at 90 mph.  I say “can” because they are capable of those speeds. But there are too many other components of a railroad that often make such speeds undesirable for comfort or safety.

THE TRACK:    Even Acela has a hard time in Connecticut because of old track and a century old right-of-way.  (Think of running a Lamborghini on a pot-holed local road.)

The track must be strong enough to support heavy trains.  In most places, track is welded for a smooth ride, avoiding the clickety-clack sound as trains ride over the joints.

The track sits on and is attached to a base plate which in turn sits on a tie, or sleeper.  For centuries these ties have been made of treated wood, but increasingly are built with concrete.  The ties sit on a roadbed or ballast, usually crushed stone, which distributes the weight of the train above while still allowing drainage. All of this requires maintenance and regular replacement of worn ties and rail to keep a smooth ride.

This is why even Metro-North’s newest cars bounce and creak as they ride along.  The rough ride isn’t the fault of the train but the roadbed.

And because our “right of way” follows the coastline, our tracks curve and bank as they meander along, causing further slowdowns just for the physics of the run.  The line from NYC to Boston has so many curves that a train makes the equivalent of six complete circles on that route.

THE SIGNALS:        Even the fastest trains in the world running on the newest and smoothest roadbed can’t keep up speed without knowing that the track ahead is clear.  And at 125 to 250 mph (US and world-class definitions of High Speed Rail), that requires a signal system that knows the location of every train within a matter of inches.

Like our century-old right-of-way, the ancient signal system on Metro-North is what’s preventing us from running trains at faster speeds and shorter headways (the time or distance between trains).

All US railroads are also struggling to meet a 2015 Federal mandate of “positive train control”, meaning that a train that runs through a red signal would be automatically stopped.

THE  POWER:    Whether Metro-North or Amtrak, our trains need power which comes in the form of electricity pulled from overhead wire, or catenary, some of which is almost a century old.  The railroad and CDOT are midway through a 30-year, multi-million dollar plan to update all of that wiring while still running a full complement of trains each day.  It’s like trying to change a fan-belt on a moving car.

So the next time you’re riding the train, give thought to the many components that make for a smooth, comfortable, speedy and safe trip.  The whole is truly more than the sum of its parts.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

Looking for a Special Indian by Lake Champlain

I stopped in Burlington, VT last week for the night. I was on my way back after a long day on the road from Quebec. I stopped because I wanted to see again something very special. An unusual sculpture of an Indian. I remembered that it was located in Battery Bark. It’s a lovely park on a bluff with a spectacular view of magnificent Lake Champlain.

It was dark out and drizzly. No moon. The lake was veiled in fog. I thought I remembered the exact spot. I walked yards and yards to it across the soggy lawn. Not there.

I continued looking.  Hoofed from one side of the park to the other.My feet were getting wet. Not to be found anywhere. Did it rot? Was it vandalized? Not a soul around to explain. Disappointing.

After breakfast the next morning, I drove right to Battery Park. I was on a mission. Gray out. Heavily overcast. I rode the road that parallels the park, slowly, staring out my side window, scanning the whole park. No luck.

I turned onto a side street at the end of the park. I man walking his dog was coming out of the park. Quickly I opened my window. “Tell me, sir, what happened to the Indian sculpture?” “Nothing that I know of. It’s still here.” And he pointed to the far end of the park.  I looked, but I couldn’t see it.

I got out and stood by his side. “See!” He pointed again. “Next to the man and woman walking!” “Yes, sure. I see it now.  Thank you very much!” And I shook his hand. And told him why I was interested. “Glad I could help you. That statue is famous. We all love it.”

Strange. It was close to where I had first looked last night. How come I missed it? Well, here it was. What a shame if it had been lost. The sculpture looked dark. Nearly  black. That is not the way I remembered it.

How can you not be curious about such a strange sculpture?

It’s a very tall, very slender sculpture. I walked to it. Now it looked better. In fact, it looked good. After all, it wasn’t made of marble or bronze. It was made of wood. Carved from a tree. That’s why I have never thought of it as a statue. To me it’s always been a sculpture. Also to Peter Wolf Toth, who created it, that is what it was. A sculpture. And he was carving it way back then when I ran into him doing it. In fact, I had forgotten his name, although I wrote about him and his sculpture and what he was up to when I got home.

I couldn’t remember exactly when that was that I happened to stop by. The plaque at the base of the sculpture said 1984. So that’ s when I saw him making it, in that spring of 1984, again on my way up, or maybe back, from Quebec.

I remembered it was a beautiful day. The sculpture was on its side, face up, supported by blocks.  A huge log is what it was. And he was working on it with mallet and chisel.  Working hard.  With great assurance.  He had a lot done. I could see it was an Indian man he was bringing forth from that log.

This guy was a genuine sculptor. An artist. It was obvious to me. He was working so deft and sure. He was a slim, muscular man, 35, maybe 40. I watched and watched.  I asked a little question. And another. He looked up, but only briefly. He answered, and kept answering as he chiseled away, little pieces and big pieces flying off. Didn’t seem to be annoyed. I noticed a strange accent. Amazing that he didn’t have a sketch at hand to guide him. He could visualize this Indian in his mind’s eye. He seemed happy with the nose and the eyes. How delicately he had finished them .

It was the sculpture of obviously a chief. I could tell by his native finery and his stately pose.  Exaggerated, of course. Had to be because of the limitations of the log’s shape. But noble. Fierce. Impressive. A great chief for sure.

This sculptor had a tent set up nearby with camping stuff around it. A woman was busy there. His wife, I speculated. This seemed to be their camp. Living here while the work was going on. This was a big project. Not a one-week or two-week deal. Months of work, it seemed to me.

He put down his chisel and mallet. I noted he had other chisels also. And other mallets. Axes, too.
He sat on the Indian.  Was taking a break. He answered more questions. He participated willingly. Was generous about it. He must have been pestered often by folks like me. But he didn’t give me that impression.

He was traveling around the country.  Creating an Indian sculpture in every state. He had already done quite a few. A huge undertaking.  He was born in Hungary. Came here with his parents as a kid. That explained his accent. His name was Peter Wolf Toth.  Strange name for an immigrant. Or so it seemed to me. I never thought to ask him about the Wolf part.

Somehow he had become fascinated with Indians. And their culture.  Their many cultures, I should say. Had met Indians. Became aware of all the misery they had been through. Admired them. These sculptures were his tribute to them.

In each state he studied the local tribes and their history and everything he could about them. His sculpture was never of a specific person. It was his representation of the general traits he saw among them.  With details specific to the tribe. And carved it from a local tree. Always a local tree.

He got help. Help was essential. I imagined all the preparatory work he had to do. Finding local Indians. Meeting them. Finding the right tree. Finding a site for it. Studying the tree and creating a design to get the most out of it. Getting permissions.  Setting up his local operation. On and on.

He managed to find help from different benefactors. Maybe a chamber of commerce. Or city fathers. Or some other organization.  Maybe individuals. I didn’t imagine he got rich doing this, although I’m sure he got plenty of local publicity. I imagined lots of folks came by to inspect and marvel.

This turned out to be his 47th Indian sculpture.  I marveled that he had been able to complete so many. Finally I wished him luck and said goodbye and continued on my way. You can tell that it was a great experience for me.  It was the first thing I thought of when I stopped in Burlington on this trip. No way  could  I continue on without pausing to check on the sculpture. I never saw him again. Never heard about him again.

Now, I examined the big plaque on the stone base that the sculpture is set up on. All this was done after I left, of course. So all new to me. The Indian’s name was Chief Grey Lock. The plaque gave many interesting details. I took a picture of it to show to you, and also of the sculpture.

No computers back then. No Internet. Now they exist, of course, and I looked him up online. Found plenty about him.  He picked up the name Wolf from a tribe that wanted to honor him for his work.

His first sculpture of an Indian was chiseled from sandstone. From then on, always a tree. Maybe wood was a quicker medium.
He created more than 74 public sculptures. Major ones (plenty of small ones, too.) Yes, one in every state. All 50. In some states, two, even three. No Indians in Hawaii, of course, so he used a native Hawaiian—one of the indigenous people.  That made sense. He went back to Hungary for a visit. Created a sculpture there of some great Hungarian saint.

As you see, I was greatly impressed. I was so happy to see his Indian still standing. There in beautiful Battery Park, the most beautiful in town. What a perfect setting. And to hear that local folks love it.  Of course I wonder whether there are still native Americans around in Vermont to appreciate how he tried to honor their ancestors.

I haven’t been able to determine whether he’s still alive. Still carving. I hope so.  Maybe you’re wondering, where is his Indian sculpture here in our state?

It’s in Groton. In storage somewhere there. No explanation why. I wonder whether our casino native Americans know that? Methinks they’d be interested in giving the sculpture its due. But we have two tribes. Two nations. Maybe there’s a problem in that. No idea. Just speculating. If you have a clue, please let me know.….

The Captain of the Mary E isn’t Just a Captain

Captain Matt Culen with one hand on the throttle, one on the wheel, and an eagle eye for what’s ahead

This isn’t just a story about the Mary E. It could be. She is deserving. So deserving that many stories have been done about her.

She is known to us hereabouts as the romantic, beautiful old schooner that ties up at the Connecticut River Museum in the summer and gives boat lovers two-hour excursion rides up and down the river.

She’s more than a hundred years old. She’s been the Mary E all those years though she’s had many different jobs and assignments.The live Mary E must have been quite a lady to the man who put her name on  the ship. When she comes here, she’s certainly the largest sailing vessel.

To me she’s the most beautiful thing floating in the harbor.  I think of everything else out there as a boat, some extremely pricey. But I think of the Mary E as a ship. There’s a difference.

She was launched as a work boat, not a rich man’s plaything. And she was built long before that wonderful but character-less plexiglass came along. Meaning built of good, proud New England wood.

Lots of folks feel they have to come and take a close look at her. Seniors like me. Couples with young kids. Dating couples holding hands. Having her at the dock is a big asset to the museum, I believe.

But really this story is about Matt Curlen. He’s the owner of the Mary E and her relief captain—he drives up from Pelham, N.Y,, to take over when the regular captain is off.

I went out on her last summer. My first time.

I love sailboats. I was a small-boat sailor for years. Owned several. My biggest was my 16-foot  O’Day sloop. Many fine times in it, mostly on lakes and harbors and bays. Never ventured far out.  I get seasick just at the sight of a big wave.

My longest was my 18-foot Grumman canoe. I liked paddling as much as I did sailing. I went paddling whenever I could.  But I had a sailing kit for it, too.  Which is quite rare. A  mast and sail and Dutch-style lee-boards and a rudder with a rope tiller. Wonderful. But strictly for lakes. Not salt water. Great fun.

Before long I realized she’d be good to row, too. So I put on oars. Then added rear view  mirrors on the left and right sides. Rowing can be hazardous. It’s hard to see where you’re going. I loved my mirrors. And I was right—my canoe was great fun to row. We lived near Lake Singletary up in Massachusetts. After work I’d row my Grumman all around the lake. My rear-view mirrors drew lots of attention.

But such  pleasures are no longer possible. That’s why I bought a ticket on the Mary E that day last summer. It was the next best thing for me.

I took a seat at the very stern. I wanted to be close to the skipper. Sail with him vicariously, so to speak.

Matt Culen was the skipper that day. I didn’t know his name. Didn’t know a thing about him.  He turned out to be a lean, pleasant, and totally focused guy. Really knew his stuff. Well, the passengers were on board and he and his crew of two were getting ready to hoist sail. Suddenly he noticed something wrong at the top of the taller mast. That mast is 45-feet high.

Faster than I can write this sentence, he skipped over to one of the ratlines— the rope ladders— and  scampered right up to the top. Like a monkey. Wow! He fiddled up there for two minutes, solved the problem, and scampered down. Then came back to the wheel, ordered sail up, and off we went.

But there’s more to my story. As I had hoped, I was able to chat with him.  Not a real chat because he was so busy. Sailing a big old-timer like this is a challenge. Checking the current and the tide. Calculating the best route to give the best ride with the sails up and get back at the right time. And giving orders to pull in this sail or let out that one—the Mary E can carry up to six sails.

On and on. I’m curious and ask questions. Can’t help myself. He did his best to satisfy me. It turns out the Mary E is not his day job.  His day job is also water-related, but so different.

Matt is a civil engineer, in fact, a P.E.—a professional engineer. And he has a specialty that makes him him spend time under water.  Yes, under water. Far more time under water than on the water skippering the Mary E. He is a diver. Diving is an essential part of his work.

It’s this contrast of sailing on the water and  then working under water that fascinated me. That’s why I’m writing this.

But all that was last summer. I looked forward to another ride with him. This summer she was late in coming back—a humongous repair problem. So my second ride was this Labor Day. The Mary E’s sail time was 3 p.m. but I came early in hopes of a real good chat. I was lucky. He had the Mary E all set and he had time. We sat in his Jaguar, where it was nice and quiet. And I pried out one detail after another.

He owns a company, Hudson Marine Inc., in Pelham Manor, N.Y. He started it. Its main specialties are Engineering Inspections and Underwater Construction.

He was born in Slovakia. He came to New York City when he was 12.  Lived close to the salt water.  Loved it. Quickly got a part-time job as a dock boy. As he entered his teens, be began thinking of a career in the military. The Navy, in fact.

What he told me next surprised me. For college, he went to the Citadel, a military school in South Carolina. He majored in engineering. There seem to be as many specialties in engineering as there are in medicine, and he opted for civil engineering.   When I think of civil engineering I think of highways and bridges and airports and tunnels and sewer systems and things like that. Never of anything under water.

Then into the Navy where he became a diving and salvage officer. The training was tough. He took to the work. He finished his hitch  and it led to his career. He’s been at it for more than 30 years.

He’s built up Hudson Marine with a crew of seasoned divers like himself. Matt is still an active diver, but now his role is more varied, of course. He’s got the whole business to run.

At one point, I said to him. “You know, professional pilots log their flight hours. A captain for Amerian Airlines might say he has 19,200 hours. You must log your hours diving.”

He nodded. “I used to but I stopped a long time ago. I’d be shocked to learn the total!”

I asked him for typical projects. He suggested  his website, He describes many of his jobs there. You may like to look at it.

When he started out, all divers wore the heavy, bulky outfits that have become familiar to us through books and movies. The massive steel helmets, the ballon-like suits, the weighted shoes Diving suits have greatly improved. But they’re still designed for heavy work down there, not just swimming around looking for interesting fish and snapping pictures of them.

Often  the diving is in awful water. Foul. Stinking. With terrible visibility and lots of junk around. Hazardous.

I said to him, “I believe that the Mary E is really your hobby. And your running her on excursions like this as a way to make your hobby help pay for itself.”

He smiled. “Yes, that is so.”

He has owned the Mary E for six years. So how did he become interested in her?

“I went on board for a ride,  and one thing led to another. And she became mine.”

He had sailed boats for fun but the Mary E took out passengers. He wanted to skipper her now and then. The skipper needs a captain’s license. So he took it upon himself to pass the Coast Guard’s certification tests.

Now it was time to go on board. Twenty people had signed up. He was pleased. His crew had arrived. The first was Devon Ford of Westbrook. She’s a friendly young gal just graduated from Boston University with a degree in marine studies. She’s still trying to find her niche and this job had sounded interesting.

The crew: Devon Ford and Tim Visel. Interesting in their own way

Matt introduced her as “my second mate.” He said it with a big smile. She seemed surprised to hear that. And pleased.

The fist mate did come along, gray-haired, in work clothes, with an air of know-how and assurance. “Tim Visel,” he said, extending his hand to me.

They helped the tourists aboard. Older people mostly. Many with cameras in hand. All obviously looking forward to a nice ride on the water on Labor Day. The day most of us think of as the end of summer. Vacations are over mostly, Schools have re-opened. Everybody’s getting serious again.

They took seats here and there along the sides. Some insisted on standing. I managed to get my seat at the stern again. Matt began giving orders.

Readying a ship this size and this old is work. This has to be done, and that, and that. His crew got to it. She has an engine, but for propulsion only. Everything else requires muscle.

The captain explains something. Devon finds it funny

The mainsail was hauled up. Matt pushed a button and the engine came alive with a nice purr. The mooring lines were pulled aboard. Matt checked the water for nearby craft. He peered ahead. So many people on board that he had to crane. He turned the wheel a hair  and slowly we left the dock. He had to crane throughout the trip. Lots of water traffic,

I asked and he said yes, this was the busiest day of the year on the river. Boats of all kinds. Mostly motor boats. Of all sizes. All pleasure boats. Work boats on the Connecticut nowadays are a rare sight.  There was a time when pleasure boats were very rare.

What was remarkable to me—and always is—is how few boats are actually moving on the water. There are thousands of recreational boats here. They crowd marinas and boat yards beyond number. But the great majority never seem to go anywhere.

A gorgeous day. Blue sky, nearly cloudless. A good wind—15 miles per hour, he estimated. Perfect, I thought. As always, tide and wind—those were the  key factors.

A great pleasure are all the sights

Matt decided whether he’d head up river or down, and how long he’d have to go in order to return reasonably on time. He headed south, toward the Baldwin Bridge. And we made a long, squished circle, making our way up toward Gillette Castle, then around to get back to the museum dock.

Shortly Tim Visel took a position standing at mid-ship, on the other side. Mot passengers were up there. He began talking. I couldn’t hear him, but I could tell he had lots to say, and he kept people’s attention. He’d be serious, then smile and joke, and point to this and that on the shore and the river.

Second mate Devon came along and I asked her about Tim. “He’s done a lot of commercial fisherman. Has spent a lot of t ime on the water. And he knows so much about local history!” I was sorry I wasn’t closer to him.

As it turned out, we had another crewman on board, Craig Carter. He relieved Matt at the wheel. He was a captain, too, he told me. Just helping a bit.

Matt went midships to talk to the passengers, too. He welcomed them and explainr how a ship like the Mary E makes the most of the wind. Especially sailing against it.

He returned and kept ordering sail adjustments. Kept his eye on a Garmin GPS. That electronic whiz showed him this stretch of the river in detail–its channel markers, landmarks, depth of water under us, wind strength. Indispensable nowadays.

He and Craig would peer at the Garmin and talk. And glance at everything else around.

How did the old-timers manage so well?

There was also a compass nearby, not needed here.

Truly a fine day. The passing boats were fascinating, and the people on board. Many waved at us. The lovely homes along the shore, homes that we never get to see from the road. The beaches and islands. The foliage of endless shades of green and yellow.

Many of the properties are calendar-worthy

A long string of geese appeared  overhead. I followed them until they went out of sight. I spotted three swans, too, far less than usual.

As always, the boaters having the most fun were those in the smaller boats, especially the small sailboats. Well, to my eye.

A lovely catboat skimmed along, gleaming white with s gleaming white sail. Just two women on board, skipper and crew. Moving along so nicely and so expertly. A thing of beauty. I kept my eyes on her.

But for us the wind became a problem. “Very tricky!” Craig told me.  So we used only the mainsail. The other sails never got put up. And the engine was on nearly all the time, but on idle. Just in case, I surmised. Important in a busy waterway like this.

Tim Visel happened to come close. We talked. What a surprise. He was a full professor of things marine and maritime. At the University of Rhode Island and then UConn. Then he had gone back to public education. Told me he had built schools of marine studies. Was now heavily involved with The Sound School in New Haven, part of the city’s public school system.

He dug out one of his business cards. “Sound School Regional Vocational Aquaculture Center. Timothy C. Visel, Coordinator.” It all sounded extraordinary. I tucked it in my pocket.

I asked him, “Why the heck are you doing this today?”

He smiled. “This is my son Will’s job. I’m subbing for him. He needed a day off.”  He went off to help Devon. We were getting close to the dock.

Matt got us back right on time. Tim and Devon helped the passengers  get off.  They looked happy and contented. I lingered. Wanted to have a few more words with Matt. But he was busy. He’d be taking the Mary E out again at 6 p.m.

Finally I got his attention. “I’ll be in touch!” I said. He gave me a wave.

For me it was a perfect thing to do on Labor Day. I was glad the Mary E was around to make this possible. Glad Matt had done all this expensive work to keep her running for years to come.

Captain Matt Culen. One ride finished, one more to go. A totally different life tomorrow

In a minute I glanced back at her. The museum dock would look bare indeed without her come fall.

Talking Transportation: The Bridgeport – Port Jefferson Ferry

Every now and then it’s great to see a transportation system that works really well.  Case in point, the Bridgeport (CT) to Port Jefferson (NY) ferry.

I’ve written in the past about some folks’ crazy idea that ferry boats are the solution to our traffic problems along I-95.  They are not.  But they do prove useful when they take you where the roads and rails can’t, like across Long Island Sound.

The first ferry ran this 18-mile route in 1872.  By 1883 permanent service was offered by a company owned in part by Bridgeport’s PT Barnum (after whom one of the line’s current vessels is named).  In 1980 all-season service began with the line’s largest vessel, “The Grand Republic”.

The Bridgeport & Port Jefferson Steamboat Company is 100% owned by Brian McAllister, a fourth generation seaman and tugboat czar who lives on Long Island.  You’ll usually see one of his tugs in Port Jeff’s harbor.

Each of the line’s three ferries is “RO-RO”, for roll-on, roll-off.  At Bridgeport, cars and trucks drive on from the rear and exit in Port Jefferson by driving off thru the raised bow of the vessel.  The ferries can carry between 90 and 110 vehicles and a thousand passengers.

The crossing takes about an hour and a quarter but you can save considerable time, tolls and aggravation by avoiding driving to New York City and crossing the Whitestone or Throgs Neck bridges.

When it began, the ferries carried food grown on Long Island to industrial cities in New England.  Today you’ll still see an occasional truck ferrying seafood, but most of the traffic is tourists and business people.

In season, all three vessels are in operation allowing for almost hourly departures.  If you’re bringing a vehicle a reservation is a good idea, though on most weekday runs you can just drive right up and catch the next boat.

The vehicle unloading and re-loading process is smooth and when passengers leave their cars they can join foot passengers upstairs at the snack bar or cocktail lounge.  In good weather the sundeck affords a wonderful view.  There’s Wi-Fi available on board and cell-phone signals are strong, even in the middle of the Sound.

In Bridgeport, the ferry dock is a two-minute walk from Metro-North.  But in Port Jefferson it’s about a 25-minute walk from the dock to the nearest Long Island Railroad station.  Taxi service is available at both terminals.

Fares aren’t cheap:  $54 for a car and driver, $15 for each additional passenger.  Foot passengers are $18 one-way, $26 for same-day round trip.  Seniors (age 60+) are $13 one-way, $18 for a same-day return.  Kids 12 and under are always free when traveling with an adult.

There was talk a few years ago of offering additional service from New Haven to Port Jeff.  More recently there was discussion of also running to Stamford and from there to NYC using a high speed ferry, but rising fuels costs sunk those plans.

The current ferries are hardly high speed… just 17 mph according to my GPS on a recent crossing.  But they’re a fun way to travel, avoiding the traffic mayhem of New York City when going from Connecticut to Long Island.

 JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see


Talking Transportation: Metro-North’s Ticket Rules Are a Rip-off

Metro-North’s “new and improved” fare policy taking effect on September 4th is neither new nor improved.  It continues to be a rip-off of riders.

Until 2010, you could buy a one-way or round-trip ticket and use it anytime within 90 days.  Convenient ten trip tickets were good for a year.  And unused tickets could be refunded anytime for free.

Then, in December of 2010, things changed for the worse:  one-way tickets were only good for 14 days and ten-trips for six months.  Refund any ticket and you’d be hit with a $10 service fee.

Why the change?  Metro-North admitted it wasn’t able to collect all tickets on trains and was losing money.  So rather than staff trains with enough conductors to collect tickets, they thought it wiser to penalize passengers.

How did these faster-expiring tickets hurt?  In many ways:

Some passengers who bought ten trip tickets for occasional trips found they’d expired, leaving them with four or five unused rides costing $10 or more apiece.  Ouch!

That was a mistake you’d only make once, so those passengers then abandoned the 30 – 40% savings of ten-trip tickets and had to buy one-ways.  Ka-ching!

That means many passengers must buy a new ticket before every trip, which means getting to the station early and standing in line.

But while passengers were inconvenienced and lost money under the new rules, Metro-North scored a windfall of millions of dollars in additional revenue… some of it, perhaps, from previously uncollected tickets, but how much more from tickets bought in good faith but unused because they had expired?

And $10 to refund a ticket?  By whose accounting?  The same agent who handles refunds doesn’t charge $10 to sell a ticket, so why charge for a refund?

The Commuter Council representing LIRR riders has a better idea:  tickets sold could not be refunded, but neither would they expire.

This September 4th, responding to “massive complaints” from riders, the rules will change, but only slightly:  one-way and roundtrip tickets will then be good for 60 days, not 14.  But ten trips are still worthless after six months.

To my thinking, tickets should never expire.  If there’s a fare increase, pay the difference between the old fare and the new one.  Otherwise, if you’ve paid for a ticket, you can take the ride. Period.

Conductors should do their jobs, placing seat-checks when tickets are collected so they know when new passengers get aboard and can then collect their tickets.  How often have you seen a conductor walk through a train crying, “Stamford tickets,” as the newly boarded commuters avoid eye contact?

Watching someone board at Stamford who doesn’t pay their fare is like watching someone shoplift.  We all pay for their theft.

The new M8 cars mean more seats and fewer standees.  It’s a rare Friday afternoon train that’s packed so tight a conductor can’t move through to collect tickets.  If you ride a train where fares aren’t collected you should report it.  A well paid Metro-North conductor hiding in their booth from angry passengers instead of collecting their fares is unacceptable.

We already pay the highest commuter rail fares in the US.  These unfair Metro-North ticket rules just make commuting less convenient and more expensive.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see


Talking Transportation – Amtrak’s Future in Connecticut

Amtrak, what passes for America’s national railroad, has some big plans for the future.  The problem is finding any consensus, let alone the money, on what those plans should be.

Before we detail their vision for the year 2030, here’s a snapshot of how Amtrak operates today.  Amtrak runs 46 trains a day through Connecticut serving 1.7 million passengers annually.  New Haven, the busiest station in the state, is also the 11th busiest in the nation.

Amtrak’s flagship, Acela, running from Boston to Washington, also stops in Stamford (and once-a-day in New London), while the slower “Northeast Corridor” trains serve Bridgeport, Old Saybrook and Mystic with branch-line trains running from New Haven to Hartford and Springfield.

Amtrak is also hired by the CDOT to run Shore Line East commuter trains between New London and New Haven.

Unlike the rest of the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak does not own or control the tracks from the New York state line to New Haven.  Those tracks are owned by the CDOT which pays Metro-North to maintain them and the overhead power (catenary) lines.  Amtrak pays a flat fee (far too low, says CDOT) to run its trains on “our” tracks, plus a little bonus money to the state for prioritizing its schedule over that of the commuter lines.

Connecticut’s section of the Northeast Corridor contains more miles and serves more stations than any other state from D.C. to Massachusetts.  And it includes several 100+ year-old bridges crossing the Thames, Niantic and Connecticut Rivers, crucial to inter-city service.  It’s old and expensive to maintain.

It’s hard to run a true high speed railroad on a century-old right-of-way.  In fact, Acela goes no faster than Metro-North (90 mph) between NY and New Haven and cannot engage its tilting mechanism on the many curves.

So, as Amtrak looks to the future, it’s thinking of building an entirely new line through Connecticut to connect New York City and Boston.  Rather than following the coastline (parallel to I-95) it envisions an inland route (parallel to I-84).

As the last phase of its 2030 – 2040 “Next Gen” high speed rail, 220 mph Amtrak bullet-trains (faster than the current French TGV) would bypass Stamford, New Haven and New London and instead zip through Danbury, Waterbury and Hartford.  “Super-Express” service would be non-stop thru Connecticut while “Express” trains would make brief stops in those inland Connecticut cities.  Northeast Corridor service would continue along the coast as either “Shoreline Express” or “Regional” trains.

Needless to say, Governor Malloy and the CDOT are not happy with Amtrak’s plan, especially given Connecticut (and the Feds’) investment in the New Haven to Hartford high(er) speed corridor.  They want the existing coastal corridor to New Haven to be served by the super-Acela service which could then continue north through Hartford to Springfield before heading east to Boston.  Put the trains where the people are, is their argument.

Amtrak thinks the coastal corridor is too old, has too many curves and would be too expensive to operate.  They think it would be cheaper to build a new line from scratch, and they’re probably right.

We are so lucky that, a century ago, a four-track rail line was built along Connecticut’s coast.  It was state-of-the-art for its time and could never be built today.  But for the 21st century, this line is obsolete.  Every serious high speed railroad in the world operates on a new, dedicated right-of-way, not some hand-me-down from the past.

So, good for Amtrak for bold planning for our future.  It’s time for our Governor and CDOT to get on board.  A new, inland high-speed route is the best way to go.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

Old Sturbridge Village – A $5 Friday

Old Sturbridge Village. For a few delightful hours I turned the clock back to olden times

I was itching to get up to Old Sturbridge Village again.

I love living-history museums.   I’ve had a wonderful summer. Already I’ve hit Mystic Seaport nearly next door—the seafaring village of the 1800s. And Plymouth Plantation up in Plymouth, Mass.—the Pilgrims’ first crude settlement.  But now Plymouth Plantation pays a lot more attention to the local Indians. They helped the Pilgrims to tough it through. Well, those who didn’t perish that first winter. Now Plimouth shows Indian life, too.  It’s the right thing to do.

I know both  places well. I always have a great time. So much to see. Best of all, the chance to experience those olden times. See how folks lived and toiled and coped.  For a few  hours to feel all that for myself.

So, recently, I got up and saw it was a fine day. Perfect for my Old Sturbridge Village treat. The village, which is all about life in the early 1800s, is the oldest of its genre in the country, I believe. It’s right above the Massachusetts line, so quite a ride.
I know that whole area well, but decades ago.  Back then I was the bureau chief in southern Worcester County for the Worcester Telegram & Evening Gazette and Sunday Telegram. A long name, I know, but it was a big paper, with morning, afternoon, and Sunday editions. Old Sturbridge Village was in my bailiwick. We visited it as a young family. At least twice, I think.

I left early. At 8 sharp. As usual I rode the back roads, meaning the slow roads, the delightful roads, all the way up. I’m a shun-piker. Stopped here and there at familiar spots and explored a couple of new ones. So it was noon when I pulled in at the village. Wow! The lot was jammed with cars. One quick look told me this was a much bigger place than I remembered.

A long line at the ticket office. I noticed the price to get in. $24! A lot, lot more than the price I remembered.  Prices nowadays are always a shock to me. I remember gas at 17 cents a gallon, apples at 3 pounds for 25 cents,  and movies for a quarter.

Of course, my paycheck was skimpy, too, by today’s standards—but for some reason that doesn’t weigh as much in my
memory. But slowly, grudgingly, I am adjusting to gas at $3.49 a gallon and Mac apples at $1.59 a pound and  movies at $8. Even the prices on my books are shocking to me, but, as I always explain, I don’t set them.

I waited patiently with $25 in hand. Oh, I saw I’d get a small senior discount.The clerk noticed my money and smiled and said, “Oh, sir, today is $5 Friday!”

$5 Friday! Just $5 for anybody! What a nice idea. Who doesn’t love a bargain? The village schedules a $5 Friday now and then. Behind me was a  family with three kids.  They’d be saving a bundle today. Maybe they wouldn’t be here if they faced the regular price. And this explained  all the cars in the lot.

Yes, a lot of people here. That might make it hard. As it worked out, not a problem.

I expected a lot of walking. All those paths winding through the village.  All the byways. Going into this house and that one.This visit was important to me. I was prepared to tough it. I had my  sturdy walking stick. It helps a lot.  I was sure I’d find a bench or a chair here and there. It worked out that way.

This was an agrarian village. Farming was the whole economy. Raising animals and crops. In the winter, folks did repairs and improvements.The entire focus was on wresting a living from the earth. Farming set the lifestyle. The minister, the shopkeeper and a very few others toiled at their specialties.  But even the blacksmiths and the coopers  squeezed in some farming.

I began walking. A gravel road, of course. No blacktop back then. A slight uphill, but not bad. So, no utility poles. No long wires looping through the village. No fire hydrants, of course. Or gas stations. Or supermarket. Or police or fire station. Or McDonald’s. Or beauty salon. None of all the things that we see every day and depend on. Strange. But I liked the beauty and simplicity and quiet of it. This was Old Sturbrige Village of the 1830s!

As I walked up the path, little signs made this clear.

Said one, “There were people here who lived  through the Revolutionary War.  And the War of 1812.”
Said another, “This was still 30 years abefore the Civil War.”

Another: “Factories were beginning to appear in Massachusetts, but this was an agrarian village.”

Another: “There was now a train between Worcester and Boston, but few people got to ride it.”

The signs set the scene and the tone. They were not the exact signs. I don’t remember them. I made these up to give you the flavor.

Tranquil and beautiful today. But a hard life back then

My first stop was at the Small House. Maybe it was the Smalls’ home. Not sure. Certainly it was very small. And modest. A sign said the kind used by a family of lesser means, or renters, or a colored family. I was surprised to hear about colored folks. But there were a few around, it sees.

A bonneted hostess gave me a smile. “Good day!” she said cheerfully. She was dressed old-fashioned, with skirt and sleeves covering every single inch even on this summer day. A nice middle-aged lady, sitting by the fireplace and knitting. We were alone in there. I saw a chair by her side. She read my mind. “Yes, please sit.”

I had her all to myself. I asked her questions, and she answered in depth. I mentioned the fireplace. “Just for cooking,” she said. “And a bit of heat in the winter. But just a bit. If you sat right up to it.  Winters in the house were very cold! I know! I’m here in the winter, too. Being cold was just another fact of life.”

There was a small book on the table. It intrigued me. “Go ahead,” she said.  ”Look at it.”

It was “The Frugal Housewife,” a tidy little volume by one Mrs. Child. No first name given, not even an initial. How about that? But very interesting. Life was so difficult, so different in so many ways.

But it’s words on the second page that I really liked: “Dedicated to those not ashamed of economy.”  How wonderful. More people today should be dedicated to economy.  I just read that the average credit-card indebtedness in the United States is more than $8,000, and most people never pay it off…just roll it over from month to month. Sad.

Others entered and she had to turn to them. My next stop was at the Friends Meeting House up the slope on the right.  Very small. Very basic. Not even a penny’s worth of ornamentation. I was surprised there were Quakers here. Dedicated to peace and non-violence. The small group would sit here in silence on Sunday mornings, all intent on communicating in individual privacy with The Spirit. No minister. All equal. If some felt so moved, they would say something aloud, a little prayer maybe, a bit of a hymn. Maybe someone else would be moved to say something. Maybe not. Then, spiritually refreshed, they would go home to pick up the grind of life and livelihood.

Over on the left was a barn with a few sheep behind the split rail fence. I ambled over. A pretty scene. On the ground beyond the fence a feather caught my eye, about eight inches long. A turkey feather, I think, though no turkey in sight. I wanted it. I manage to drag it close with my walking stick. dragged it close. Couldn’t reach it with my fingers on the other side of the fence. I wanted it. A man came along with a little girl, six or seven. I smiled at her. “Could you reach that pretty feather for me?”

She slipped her tiny fingers under the rail and snatched the feather and handed it to me. I smiled. “Thank you! Thank you!” I tucked it in my shirt pocket. I was so happy. I’ll tell you why in a few minutes.

I kept making my way. Yes, many here today. For sure, $5 Friday was the big draw. But they just made the village look busy and interesting.  Families but big groups, too. I’d seen big tour buses in the parking lot.

I came upon 30 teenagers sitting on a lawn, picnicking.  Asians.  I asked a gal, “Are you from Japan?”  Japan seemed logical. The Japanese are the most well to do over there.  “No,” she said, shaking her head. “China!” She was so happy.

Yes, the Chinese are doing fine these days.

At the Knight Store, loaded with the simple goods of those times, the bearded Shopkeeper chatted with me at length.
I visited many buildings. I enjoyed chatting with whoever was in charge. At the Shoe Shop. The one-room Schoolhouse—the teacher told me the pupils ranged in age from 5 to 17, and she was only 18. “That would not have been a problem,” she said.
On I went to the Blacksmith Shop. The Pottery Shop. The Tin Shop. The Freeman Farm with the fat pig snoozing in the mud, and the six cows enjoying their hay.

In the Farmhouse Garden two ladies in their long skirts were tending the plants. Really working at it. No making believe. I got the attention of the one close by. She straightened up and wiped the dust off her skirt. “Enjoyable work!” she said with a smile. “Truly it is.

“Tending the kitchen garden was woman’s work. The men were out doing the real hard work. At this time of year, haying. I’ve been doing it here for 20 years. Love it!”

A woman at women’s work. Men were busy toiling at the real muscle jobs.

I was impressed by these  villagers. They were all working  hard at their tasks. All were gracious.  Eager to explain and answer questions. I was impressed by how savvy they were about those those times and what was involved. They weren’t just “winging it.” They took courses and studied. Several said they enjoyed digging in even deeper on their own.

At some exhibits, there was no costumed villager on hand at that moment. But plenty of info on signs and in pamphlets.
At the Bank, which issued its own “ paper money,” by the way. At the massive outdoor kiln where hundreds of pieces of pottery were fired at one time. At the stone-walled Town Pound, where stray farm animals were kept until claimed by their owners—who had to pay the pound keeper for the service and care.

A big wagon came rolling along drawn by two husky horses. It stopped at the corner. A dozen people stepped out. It was a free sight-seeing ride around the village. The man with the reins up on the  front bench saw me coming. “Hop on, sir! Come rest yourself for a spell.”

I gladly took a seat up close to him. Others got on. He picked up the reins and said “Giddy up!” And his two big horses stepped forward, smooth and easy.

A nice ride. He paused here and there and explained, swiveling around and looking down at us, “That Mill Pond  on the left was all-important. Man-made. Imagine the hard work of that.

“The water ran in from that river,” he said, pointing to the right. “The provided power for the Saw Mill and the Grist Mill and other things. Everything in this village was organized. Smart people!”

“Are your horses smart?” I asked.
“And how!” he said. “They amaze me!”

I noticed that the horses knew where to pause to sip water. They pulled right up to the trough and stopped and began slurping.
And when the driver stopped to explain something, they’d patiently swish their tails. He’d say just one word and they’d stop. Another word and they’d  move forward. Another word and they’d back up. Yes, back up. That impressed me.

The Shopkeeper showed me the latest news from Boston. It arrived when it arrived. But few could read. Or had the time.

We crossed a heavy-timbered covered bridge. He said, “They found it up in New Hampshire. Took it apart and brought it here and put it together again.  Everything here is authentic. Yes, sir, authentic!”
I knew that was true for many of the buildings I had enjoyed.

We came to the end of the ride. Everybody got out. Except me. I looked  up at him. “Mind if I go around one more time?”
“Please do! Sit back and enjoy. There’s too much here to absorb it all in one visit!”
So, I made the winding circle with him again. He was right. I saw things I hadn’t noticed the first time. And major buildings that I would have loved to spend time in. The Sawmill. Gristmill. Bullard Tavern. Cooper Shop.  Others, too. But no time.
The village closed at 5 and I believe I was the last one out. In the big parking lot
my car was one of the few left.

It took hours to make one shoe. No difference between left and right shoes back then.

A good thing the park was closing. I was pooped. I wasn’t up to much more. The next time! Even if it doesn’t happen to be a $5 Friday.

Oh, now about my beautiful turkey feather. I’ve been writing for a living all these many years. Long ago, when I decided to get myself a business card, I thought hard about a suitable graphic to put on it.

“A quill pen!” I thought. “A quill pen would be perfect!”

I had an artist draw one for me. She based it on a turkey feather. I still use a card with the quill pen on it. Letterheads, too.
One birthday, a thoughtful person gave me a real quill pen with a pewter inkwell. An ornament I’ve kept on a bookshelf. The feather has become sadly ruffled. Now I have a dandy new feather. And it will be a nice reminder of my marvelous visit to Old Sturbridge Village.

Off to the Post Office to complain. Again!

Oct. 20, 1960. A historic event of national significance—the dedication of that remarkable facility. I was there in Providence, covering it for the Worcester Telegram-Gazette. But what a stunt the Providence Journal pulled afterward!

Deep River–I had long forgotten about the enormous Post Office event that took place  way back in 1960. Enormous because important to the whole country. At the left is the special poster designed back then to mark it.

That historic event came back to me yesterday in a strange flash.

I got home from my errands and found a new message on my answering machine.  From AT&T.

A computerized male voice told me AT&T had mailed me an important message and it had been returned as un-deliverable. “This was our second attempt!” the unhappy voice said.

I called that number and of course I waited for somebody to pick up. And waited. And waited. Finally I gave up for now.

My problem with the Post Office was not new. I had gotten three other complaints. I had complained at the Post Office just last week.

Right away I called the Post Office to straighten this out. Busy. Again 20 minutes later. Busy.  I did a bit of work. Called again. Busy. Damn!

I had to go to Old Saybrook. I’d be driving right by the Post Office. I’d stop in.  I was sure I’d have to wait my turn.

To my surprise,  I was alone.  The only clerk was busy checking something. I had been hoping it would be the clerk I had complained to last week. Not so. I waited. Finally she turned to me. “Yes?”

I explained. I gave her my name and address.

Told her that three days ago I had gotten a call from Life-Long Learning in Madison. They had mailed me a check for a talk and it had been returned  as un-deliverable. “What address did you use?” I asked them. They had used the correct address. Strange. Said told me they would re-send me the check. “Sorry for the trouble!” I said.

I told the clerk, “I just got a call from AT&T complaining about the same thing!”

Also told her that twice recently milady Annabelle in California had forwarded mail to me that had been forwarded to her for me from Deep River. True, I had been there with her for a long stretch but had returned home to Deep River three months ago.

And I had given the Post Office notice of those changes of address and proper forwarding instructions.

I also explained something else. “What’s puzzling  is that I am getting mail properly addressed to me. Why just some? Why not all?”

The clerk was all business, “I’ll go and check.” She said it in a tone that told me she was no stranger to such complaints.

She disappeared behind a partition. I waited a couple of minutes. She re-appeared.

She looked triumphant. She had discovered the problem for sure. “What is your address again?” I told her No. 228.

“I just checked with the clerk back there.  She said that just this morning she caught two letters going to you not at 228, but 111. She re-addressed both to 228. That’s the problem! Some people are using the wrong address!”

“No. 111 used to be my address. I lived there until about eight years ago. But the mail that is being returned is from regular billers.  AT&T, for instance. I get mail sent to 228 from At&T every month without a hitch. Why this all of a sudden?”

“You’d better check! I’m sure they’re the cause.”

I believed differently but didn’t say so. I suspected the Post Office was at fault. “I  certainly will check,”  I said. And I added, “We’re all human. We all screw up at times. I undertand that. I’m not angry at anybody. Just irritated.”

“But what you just said is NOT true,” she said stiffly.  “All this mail is being sorted by machines! Not people. By machines!”

“Oh, of course! I had forgotten. I will do some checking at my end. Anyway, we had a good discussion. Thank you for explaining!” And I left.

I went out to my car. Of course. Machines!  How come I didn’t remember that!  I should have. Long ago—52 years ago! — I had written a big story about the very first mail processed by machines in the USA. At the very first automated Post Office in the country.  The one in Providence! The one you saw in that poster up top.

It was such a big event in postal history that the Post Office had issued a special stamp. The stamp showed that very building you saw in the poster.  It was a regular first-class stamp. It sold for four cents! The Post Office sold 833,306 copies of that stamp on the first day.

I was a staffer at the Worcester Telegram and Gazette. The Post Office sent us one news release after another about the automated post office it was building. The world had never seen a post office designed to handle huge hauls of mail by machine. It was always done by human hands. This was a technological break-through. A big deal. It sent those news releases to newspapers everywhere.

It invited newspapers to come to Providence for a preview tour of this phenomenal operation.

Well, I got the assignment. I was a feature writer. This would be a huge feature story. And I was familiar with Providence.  I was born next door to Providence. Had gone off to school in Massachusetts. Then had come home to do graduate work at Brown University. I walked by the Post Office every day to get to Brown at the top of College Hill.

But this post office would be a mile or so away. The old Post Office would remain open. This would be a factory really. The only people in there would be postal workers operating these mammoth machines. The machines would spew out the sorted mail faster than the eye could see. And do it more accuraely.

If it proved itself (and all the officials believed that of course it would), it would be the prototype for others spotted across the country.

I looked forward to the tour. I loved being a feature writer.

Sometimes someone asks, “John, what’s the difference between a reporter and a feature writer?” Good question.

I’ve developed a pat answer that seems to satisfy. “A feature writer is an experienced reporter. Knows how to ferret out all the facts and write them up.  Like a good reporter. But a feature writer adds all the extra little facts and background and ‘color’ that give the story real human interest.”

Feature stories usually run longer. Are not always pegged to a certain event, although this one would be—the opening of this new factory. Top reporters usually cover a beat: police, or education, or politics, or business, or health, and so on. Beat reporters develop deep expertise. Feature writers cover just about anything. And range farther geographically to do their work.         The tour was two weeks before the grand opening day. I was one of a number of press people who showed up. Some of the biggest papers in the country were there. Some of the mid-size papers like mine from throughout southern New England. And little ones from nearby.

The new building was enormous.  It sprawled over 13 acres. It looked very strange. Like an egg carton turned upside down but beautiful in its own way. Big trucks would bring in the mail. Three miles of conveyor belts laced through the place. The specially designed machines would turn the mail face up. Sort it. Cancel it. The the belts would carry it out to the right trucks going to the right places. What a marvel!

We didn’t get to see the factory working. Everything had been set up. Everything was ready. The Grand Opening was coming up, and the mail would stream through from that day on. But we could see by the enthusiasm of the tour officials that this would be smooth and easy. And historic indeed.

The tour ended and all us dispersed, thoroughly impressed. I went back to Worcester and wrote my feature. The Post Office had supplied photos and we used some. My feature would be published  on the big day.

It was truly a grand day. I was not there. I had done my job.

I knew that the main speaker would be the postmaser general himself from Washington, Arthur E. Summerfield. And I knew what he would talk about.  How significant this was. A huge step forward. Progress!

I waited eagerly to see how other big dailies would handle it.  The Providence Journal-Bulletin especially. It was the usual big trio like my paper—meaning it published morning, afternoon, and Sunday editions. Bigger, but not that bigger.

I had another reason. I admired the Journal. Clever people there. I had written for it. It had a fine Sunday magazine. It was called The Rhode Islander. Its editor, knowing my Little Rhody roots, had asked me to come back and drive through Providence on all its numbered routes—Route 1, and 6, and 44, and others. The city had made big changes. I’d tell what I liked, and what I didn’t like if I found such. I did that. And I took the photos to illustrate it.

The headline said something like, “A Rhode Islander returns home and takes a fresh look at Providence.” I don’t remember the exact words. I hadn’t said a word about tis to my family and friends in Rhode Island. My piece was a surprise to them and it created a pleasant stir.

Finally I got a look at the Journal story about the big event. It was a good, straight story, like mine. But the Journal published a follow-up story a few days later. And I saw it. I was shocked. Yes, shocked.  Then I laughed. The Journal had done a clever thing.. But terrible and sneaky in one way. But important in another because it was a true public service.

Some editor had gotten a devilish idea and had pulled it off.

The paper had gone to a lot of trouble.  Had collected all kinds of stamps.  But not one of them was a legitimate postal stamp. They were tax stamps attached to cigarette packs. S & H Green Stamps (if you remember what they were). Other phony stamps of various kinds. The Journal had pasted them on numerous pieces of first-class mail addressed to itself. And waited to see what would happen.

And all this phony mail got processed by those fantastic new machines and got delivered to the paper. All those new workers were too busy running the machines to notice. Wow!

The Journal took pictures of this bad mail, made a montage of them, and published it. The headline said, “New Post Office Processes All the Mail!” Excuse me. I made up that headline. I don’t remember the original. But it was along those lines.

Imagine the consternation…the anger…the fury at the new Post Office!

Maybe scanning machines to detect bogus mail were already part of that factory. If so, they were not working that day. But for certain automated scanning devices  were soon making sure such mischief would be caught. And prosecuted.

Yes, prosecuted. Tampering with the mail is a federal crime. I never heard if the Journal suffered legal headaches because of that stunt. But the paper had made a big point. Machines are only as good as the designers who create them.  And as the workers who run them are trained.

When I go to Providence, sometimes I pass by that big, strange building. Still in service. Always think of the awful start it got. And smile.

Know what? Nowadays any mail mailed from anywhere in the U.S. to anywhere in the U.S. passes through a processing center. In our case here, it’s in Wallingford. If I drop a birthday card into the mailbox in front of the Deep River Public Library addressed to a friend three blocks away, that card will pass through Wallingford. Imagine that.

Today’s machines are descendants of those original ones. Better, I’m sure. But the system is still fallible. What isn’t?

So maybe a machine somewhere has been causing my mis-delivered mail. I hope it gets straightened out. I will keep my word to that clerk. I’ll ask folks to make sure they mail to me at 228, not 111. But she’s probably right.

A big coincidence! I just spotted a story in the New London Day. “Even Before Closures, Postal Service in Decline.”  It was a summary of a story in the New York Times by staffer  Ron Nixon. I looked up the original. Much more detail.

Nixon reported many complaints about mail service. From heavy users of the mail. Newspaper and magazine publishers. Utilities. Big fund-raisers. Mass mailing services. Said one business executive, “The problems only seem to be getting worse.” Many people are upset.  So, not only me.

The Post Office does have a major headache.

Have you had problems like mine?

How I Discovered a Compass was a Must – John LaPlante

I recently came home after visiting my son Arthur and his family just outside Ft. Lauderdale. That’s on the Atlantic side of Florida.

While there, they took me to Naples on the opposite side of the peninsula. To the west, on the  Gulf Coast.  We took I-75, which darts across the Everglades. . It’s the fast route. In fact, it seems the only route.

As we rode along, I reminded them what happened when I made this trip 20 years ago. What a crazy experience! They laughed and laughed

No sailor goes to sea without a compass. Well, nobody should set out on a long car trip without one, either. I found out the hard way.

I was on my big solo trip around the U.S. in my Volkswagen microbus, Dandelion. I called her  that because of her  warm sunny color. I had come to Ft. Lauderdale to visit them.

Here I am 20 years ago, setting out solo on my grand circle trip around the U.S. That mistake I made in the Everglades was a doozy.

Very pleasant. On my final morning I said goodbye at 7 and hopped onto I-75 west. It’s called Alligator Alley. So-called because plenty of gators in the Glades plus other wildlife. I left early because I wanted to dart across the peninsula to get to Naples on the Gulf Coast by mid morning. It was overcast. I like sunshine but the gray sky would make my driving easier.

The interstate was smooth, straight, and fast. And dull. It cut right through the Glades like an arrow. Swamps stretched far back on both sides.

Arthur had told me I’d probably spot gators resting on the shore at the side of the highway and I kept looking. How exciting that would have been. Nothing. The grassy vastness of the famous swamp was relieved now and then by tiny isles with a few trees. Boring.

So my only interest was in getting to Naples fast and enjoying the interesting Gulf Coast.

An hour out, half way across,  I came to a cloverleaf. On the left I could see a shopping center. A bit of civilization. Time for a break. I found a coffee shop. Enjoyed my coffee. Then stretched my legs checking out the few stores. In 30 minutes I was back on I-75. Still gray and gloomy. I’d make Naples easily by 10. Good.

I drove another hour. The Everglades stretched on but were getting more built up now. Finally I reached the outskirts of Naples and kept a sharp eye for road signs. I saw one coming up. I-95, it said.

I-95! But I-95 isn’t on the Gulf Coast. It’s on the east coast—the Atlantic. How could this be?

I was shocked when I found out. What I had done, of course, was make a wrong turn back onto I-75 after my coffee break. I had headed east instead of west. I had made a 180-degree mistake! I was right back in Ft. Lauderdale!  The clouds had hidden the sun. And there were no shadows.  Nothing to tip me off to my mistake.

I was too embarrassed to call Arthur and tell him.

I noticed a Sears. I went right in and bought an auto compass. $4.95—I remember. Mounted it on my dashboard. Then headed west again. Now I’d be lucky to get to Naples by mid afternoon.

What a little wonder that compass turned out to be. I‘d steer left and its needle would turn right. If I swung right, tt would compensate by moving left. It fascinated me.

Serious navigators would worry about deviation and variation. I was curious. Did  its needle always point north? I thought it might be affected up there on the dashboard by all the steel of Dandelion around it and the electronic stuff, too.I ran a little test.

I placed it on the seat beside me.  There would be less interference there. The needle spun wildly for a few seconds, then settled down. Same direction as before. Good. But  heck, what difference would a small deviation make? Very minor.

You are probably saying to yourself, “Baloney! I’ve been driving for years. I’ve never needed a compass! Will never need one!”

But I must tell your something. My compass turned out to be practical in other ways than just keeping me headed in the right direction in Dandelion. One example:

Let’s stay I’ve stopped at a restaurant in a suburb of a big city. Full, I return to my car. I want to get into the city. I’m confused. Which way? My map tells me that downtown is northeast. But which was is northeast? Instantly my compass shows me.

I pick a road that makes sense.

Abroad I carry a little compass in my pocket.  I decide to go visit a park. My map shows me it is southwest. I choose a trolley, say, heading that way. It twists and turns for 30 minutes and when we’re close, I get off. I stroll through the park and enjoy it. Exit by a different gate.  How to get back to where I started?

Well, I had traveled southwest. Now I know I should travel northeast. That’s valuable info. So I make sure I take a trolley going as close to northeast as possible.

Back then I wondered. Our cars came equipped with so many wonderful gizmos. Why not a compass as standard equipment?  I don’t know.

All this took place  years ago. Auto compasses are still available, I’m sure. But there’s been a wonderful new invention. I’ll bet you’ve thought of it already. The GPS highway navigation system! You may own one. So many people do. I don’t. But telling you about this reminds me that I should. A Garmin or Tomtom or Magellan. So many brands. For my next big road trip!


Talking Transportation: Is This Any Way to Run The State?

Usually, I have a lot of respect for our elected officials in Hartford. But what happened in the final hours of the legislative session in recent weeks is just shocking.  You probably didn’t hear about it because there are no reporters left covering the state house for what passes for newspapers and TV news in our state, but that’s another story.

Lawmakers know they aren’t being watched and are, therefore, not accountable.  (I do commend veteran reporter Ken Dixon’s blog for the gory details of what they pulled off.)

Working late into the night, in their final hours in session, our elected officials wheeled and dealed on dozens of bills, painstakingly crafted and considered in recent months.  By 3 am they were voting on bundles of bills they had not read, some introduced at the last minute, acting like bleary-eyed college students pulling an all-nighter.  This is the government we deserve?

Amidst this annual frenzy, the Malloy administration was also trying to plug a $200 million gap in the current budget.  Unwilling to raise taxes any further, they turned to rail commuters and motorists and picked our pockets instead.  But the session had started on a better note.

Thanks to State Rep Kim Fawcett (D-Fairfield), a previously announced 4% rail fare hike to take effect 1/1/13 had gone away during the writing of the new budget.  But at the 11th hour, Malloy’s budget team put it back… not to raise money to fix our trains, but to raise funds to close the deficit.  This was less a fare increase than a tax on commuters.  And it was Governor Malloy’s idea, rubber stamped by the Democratic majority.

But worse yet, lawmakers stole $70 million from the Special Transportation Fund, also to plug that deficit hole.  That takes money raised by gasoline taxes, which was supposed to be used to fix highways and bridges, and uses it to pay for everything but those efforts.

As I have written before, the Special Transportation Fund (STF) is less a “lock box” than a slush-fund, dipped into regularly by Democrats and Republicans looking for money but reticent to raise taxes.

When he was running for office, candidate Dannel Malloy decried such moves.  He said he would call for a constitutional amendment to safeguard the STF from such pilfering.  Not only did he not introduce such an amendment, he did the same as past governors, raiding the STP and making commuters pay for his budgeting mistakes.  In my book, that makes him a hypocrite.

Months earlier, we discovered that this past January’s 4% fare increase wasn’t going to be spent on the trains, but was going into the STF.  When State Rep Gal Lavielle (R – Wilton) tried, along with 20+ lawmakers, to get introduce a bill requiring fare hikes to be spent on mass transit, she couldn’t even get it out of committee.

Commuters:  the fix is in.  Your fares (the highest of any commuter railroad in the US) are going higher.  But the money won’t be spent on improving rail service.  Those millions will just go into the STF slush-fund.  And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

Of course, this is an election year.  So you might ask those running for State Representative and State Senator who want to represent you, why they allow rail fares to be used as yet another tax on commuters.

JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or .  For a full collection of “Talking Transportation” columns, see

Are Libraries Doomed?

John Guy LaPlante

I read something startling the other day., among other things, is our biggest retailer of books.  Bigger than Barnes & Noble even.  But last year it sold more e-books than print books.  Wow!

A recent report by the Pew Foundation said that 19 percent of adults in the U.S.have read an e-book.  I’m amazed the percentage is so high.

Some of you may already be buying e-books.  Some of you – even as passionate readers of  books as we know them, meaning books printed on paper – may not have a clue about e-books.

E-books are shorthand for electronic books, also known as digital book.  They are books meant to be read not on paper, but on a computer screen.  Or more recently, on specialized devices called e-book readers (e-readers).  In fact, these have become a rage.

E-books have been around for a decade, maybe two decades.  In fact, undoubtedly since the beginning of word processing programs.  Microsoft Word, notably.

If you could write a letter or a report or an article on your computer with Microsoft Word, why not a book? Sure.  But such a book wasn’t called an e-book back then.  It was just a long Microsoft Word document (.doc).  You saved it on your computer.

If you wanted to send it to somebody, you did it with a floppy disk and later, a CD.   The widespread arrival of the Internet and email made it possible to send it even thousands of miles in a minute or two.

Then Adobe developed the pdf—the portable digital format.   Very important because it preserved your document or article–whatever you created—exactly as you wrote it.  With the same typeface, same type size, same formatting (italics, paragraphing, and so on), the same everything in every detail.  A remarkable and wonderful breakthrough.

But—this just occurred to me—if you are reading this, you know a lot about this already.  After all, you are reading this as a digital file.  Suddenly I feel very dumb.

Well, it’s less than five years ago—Nov. 19, 2007,  that the first e-book reader appeared.  The Kindle.  That was an invention by  It sold for $399.  It was sensational.  It  sold out practically overnight.

It was also wonderful.  It fit in your pocket.  You could store more books on it than you could read in a lifetime.  You could buy them fron Amazon and receive them on your Kindle in just a couple of minutes.

It was as significant an invention as that of movable, reusable type by Gutenberg in 1447.  The Kindle and the e-book changed our reading habits forever.  It turned the book world topsy-turvy.

Today there are six Kindle models, varying in features and price.  The lowest-price is $79 and the top of the line  $199.  Incredible how the  prices have dropped.

In fact, there are numerous e-book makers and there are more than 30 different brands on the market. There is even the extraordinary kind called a tablet.  So-called because it is considerably bigger and lets you access not only e-books, music, photos. movies and connect to the Internet and perform other miracles,

The most sophisticated is Apple’s Ipad—a groundbreaking invention by itself.  A full-fledged computer.  It, too, has been selling like hotcakes.  The price keep changing—about $500 on up depending on features. Amazon selling for $600 and considerably more, depending.

In fact, Amazon’s $199 unit – the Kindle Fire – is a tablet, designed to cut into Apple’s market.  It has been said that Amazon prices its units even below cost.  All to stimulate sales of e-books.

As some of you know, in the last six years I have written three books.  Print books.  I also wrote one 50 years ago, but let’s forget that.  I would have written more books, I think, but life interfered.

And in the spirit of full disclosure I want to tell you all three will soon be e-books.  Why?  It’s absolutely essential if I want to make them available to the greatest number of readers possible.   And like all writers, I write to be read.

I never, never thought I would  own an e-book reader.  No need.  Now I  own two.  Use them hardly at all. Was intrigued by the technology, I guess..

Now back to my main topic today.  Public libraries.  I think they are imperiled.  I say this although I’m aware public libraries have more users than ever.  Yes, it’s true.  Even in this digital age.

National Library Week came and passed just recently.  April 7 to 13.  I missed it somehow.  What a shame.  National Library Week?  Hey,who notices?  Who cares?  Well, I do.  Libraries mean so much to me.

I’m worried about their future.  Not for myself.  The day will come before long when I’ll no longer need my library card.  But I’m worried for library lovers everywhere.

This is why I have gone on at length about  e-books.  Because I realize that if this e-book phenomenon continues … and certainly it will … it will kill public libraries.  Yes, kill them.

Well, certainly libraries as we know them.  Just as is killing off neighborhood bookstores as we know them.  Even giant bookstores.  Just consider that the giant chain Borders just went under.  For sure, a casualty of and the e-book revolution.  What a loss.

Just consider also: not only are books becoming digital.  So are newspapers—and look at how our newspapers have declined— because they began producing e-newspapers as well.  And then did the stupid thing of making them available free.  Now the papers are smartening up and beginning to charge for their electronic editions.

The changes are beyond belief.  Even textbooks are becoming e-textbooks.  Tablets like the Ipad are becoming standard everyday necessities for just about any man or woman who has to read and write in order to earn their living.

In fact, look at what just happened to the venerable, absolutely wonderful Encyclopedia Britannica.  Its 30 or so hefty volumes take up whole shelves on a bookcase.  Britannica just printed its last edition.  It, too, is going digital.

I gave my son Mark a set when he married just seven or eight years ago.  I love to see it on display in his living room when I visit.

But I don’t think he’s ever used it, and he is a university professor and a lover of books.  Why?  Because it’s so much easier for him to access this wealth of information online.  He does this online every day.

Still I’m glad he has the big set.  I consider it a sort of statue that attests to one of his core values.

The impending doom of our public libraries saddens me beyond words.  I love libraries.

What’s the problem?  Well, now libraries are providing e-books.  You can download one for two weeks, say. Free.  The libraries are even teaching people how to do this.

Aren’t they making the same terrible mistake that the newspapers did—committing suicide by being so generous?

Gradually the libraries will acquire more and more e-book titles.  The more e-books published, the more e-books the libraries will want to stock.  Library users will check out more and more e-books.  The libraries’ budget for e-books will swell.

The process will snowball.  The borrowing of print books will decline.  In time, the books in the stacks will gather dust.  In time, only e-books will be available.

And remember: e-books don’t take up space on shelves. They are stored in a computer. You could put a whole library of e-books in a computer.  Who is going to need a great, big library anymore?

This won’t happen next year.  But it will happen.

Many of you will say, John, how can you be against progress?  I recognize that this is progress.  But frankly, I’m glad I won’t be around to see the demise of the libraries.  That’s such a painful thought.

I consider the public library the most important institution in any community.  The only thing more important to me is the supermarket.  I admit this.  As much as I love books and reading, I love to eat.  But libraries come next.

I have visited hundreds of libraries.  Make that thousands. I’m serious.  All over theUnited States and numerous other countries.  I measure a community by its library.  A good library means this is an enlightened community.

A big thing I like about living here in the Connecticut Estuary is that fine libraries surround me.  My own Deep River Public Library, but also Essex and Ivoryton and Chester and Old Saybrook and Old Lyme and even farther.  And know what?  I get to all of them.  Some more often than others, of course.

Yes, how lucky we are.  Connecticut has one of the best library systems in the country.  I know.  Let me give you one example.

In Connecticut I can go to any library in the state, the Sharon Public Library up in the northwest corner, say, borrow a book by showing by Deep River card, and take it home.  To return it, I don’t have to take it back to Sharon.  I just return it to the Deep River Library.  It will get it returned to Sharon.

I spent much of the winter in Newport Beach, Calif.  Beautiful community.  Beautiful library.  I have a card for it.  One day I was in the Huntington Beach Library, just two towns north.  I saw a book I liked.  I wasn’t sure Newport Beach would have it.  I took it to a librarian and showed my Newport Beach card.  “Oh, we don’t do that here,” she said.

I go to a library just about every day.  Let me rewrite that sentence: I enjoy a library just about every day.  I will go to a library today.  I’m sure you are asking yourself, “What kind of nut is this LaPlante?”

Blame my Maman.  I was 8 or 9.  She was a young immigrant gal, French from Québec and woefully poor in English back then.  Working 44 hours a week in the big brick textile factory down the street as Papa struggled to get his little linoleum store going.  That was in Pawtucket, R.I.  That’s where I was born.

We spoke French at home.  I began to learn English only when I went out to play with the neighbor kids.  Began studying it in first grade, of course.

One day she took me on the bus downtown.  Led me up through the bronze doors of the Pawtucket (Slater) Public Library.  Managed to explain she wanted a card for me.  The nice lady librarian made that happen. then showed us the kids’ section.  I walked out with a book.  I don’t remember its title.  But I remember I didn’t understand all the words.  Maman took me back again.  I took out another book.  I became hooked.  I still am.

That was about the time she also signed me up at the Boy’s Club for swimming lessons.  Swimming also became one of my big interests.  I tell you this only because it tells you so much about my Maman.

Bill Moiles said it perfectly for me back in 1958, I think it was.  I was a rookie reporter at the Worcester Telegram.  He was a star reporter turned columnist.  I feasted on his columns.  One I have never forgotten because I agreed so heartily.

Those were the awful days when we feared the U.S.S.R. would drop an A-bomb on us.  Popular Mechanics and other magazines were telling us how to build underground shelters in our backyard and stock them with canned soups and flash lights and toilet paper.

“The bomb may fall,” Moiles wrote. “Catastrophic for sure.  But if the Public Library survives, we have a chance.”

I knew exactly what he meant. It’s all there, on those shelves.  Everything we need to know.  It holds true for any blast in the future.

The Pawtucket Public Library of my youth provided only two services.  It lent out books and let you come in and read papers and magazines.  Free of charge.  That’s what all libraries did back then.

This is the right moment to tip my hat to the great Andrew Carnegie.  He made his millions in the steel business.  But he went down in history as our greatest philanthropist because he used much of his fortune to get public libraries built all over the country—nearly 3,000 of them, most of which still exist, of course. Free public libraries.  What a sensational idea.

As we know, today libraries don’t provide only books. They specialize in “media”.  This is the new word that covers books, magazines, newspapers, music and movie disks, audio books, maps, and of late, e-books—information in all its forms.

They often have a children’s library, or a genealogical room, or a map collection.  Provide research assistance.  Host meetings.  Provide free computers for us to use, connected to the Internet, mind you. Provide photocopying and scanning services.  Operate used-book stores as a fund-raiser for themselves.  Some serve coffee; even have a cafe or even a restaurant.

Often city libraries have branches, even a library on wheels or a service for the housebound.

In all this, I must mention one more grand thing about public libraries.  They are such wonderful, welcoming places.  As we know, anybody is free to come in, sit down, and enjoy all the goodies.  How wonderful.

But there has been one sad development.  In some big libraries…urban libraries, for instance, even smaller ones such as in New London and New Haven … often you will come in and encounter many street people, homeless folks.

On the one hand, how good it is that they have such a safe and comfortable and interesting refuge.  On the other hand, some of these unfortunates–definitely not all–are slovenly and smelly.  Maybe it’s wonderful to welcome them in.  Maybe bad.  I understand both points of view.  Who will come up with a solution fair to the libraries and these poor folks?

Two months ago I was in Las Vegas.  Of course, I had to visit its municipal library.  Quite big.  Modern.   As I arrived, I noticed half a dozen men hanging around the front door, unkempt, smoking butts.  Inside, so many people that it was hard to find a chair.  Many like those I just mentioned.

Yet many were actually reading books.  I did see some who I thought were just putting on an act, hoping to fool the librarian at the desk.

But I walked down a hall and found a class in session.  Crowded with about 25 people.  The teacher was teaching English as a second language.  Some in there looked down and out, or close to it.  But I studied them through the door window.  All looked intent, studious.  And I had to think, How wonderful, this library…

Two weeks ago I was visiting in Sunrise, Fla.  It’s a very nice suburb of Fort Lauderdale.  Fine, new library.  I walked in at 10:15, shortly after it opened.

I noticed the public computer section.  It had about 20 computers.  Half of them were already being used. More than half by blacks, all adults (schools were in session).  Sunrise is a very predominantly white community.  I assumed most of these folks at the computers did not own one.

As I walked by them, I noticed most were doing serious things—I mean, not playing games or watching porno.  Again I thought, how wonderful this library!

I bless Benjamin Franklin for his brilliant idea of starting a lending library in Philadelphia.  He was the pioneer.  Other communities did the same.  That’s how our public libraries started..

This is the right moment to tip my hat to the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1935-1919).  He made his millions in the steel business.  Became the richest man in the world.

But he went down in history as a great man because he used much of his fortune to get libraries built all over the country—nearly 3,000 of them, most of which survive and have prospered.  Free public libraries,  What a sensational idea.

I have a story about another philanthropist for you. I was in the new, beautiful library in Québec City.  I asked a librarian if I could use a computer.  Showed her my passport.

“Obi, Monsieur!” she said with a big smile and pointed to one.  “You are American.  Our computers were made possible by your Monsieur Bill Gates and Madame Gates.  Their Foundation. ”

Bill and Melinda Gates have done this with their Microsoft money in many libraries and in numerous countries, it seems.

I have a bit more to say about them.  As some of you know, until two years or so ago, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.  I expected to find a few libraries there, but it has thousands.  It’s a civilized country. But most are way behind the times.

While I was over there, I read that the Gates Foundation was providing $27 million over five year to expand the use of Internet in the country.  They were doing this by providing computers and funding Internet services in libraries all over the country.  The first priority: to give instruction.

In essence, libraries are not about books and paper.  They’re about knowledge and information and literature and science and civilization and the life of the mind.   This is their purpose.  They achieve it with the books they lend us for free plus all the other services they provide, nearly all free.

The day when e-books will take over is coming fast.  As you know, Google is attempting to convert every book in the world into an-ebook.  Has already converted millions of print books.

This is 2012. Still 88 years left in this century.  I believe this sweeping change will occur long before 2100. Who is going to need print books?

And no big library will be needed just to store e-books.  They are just digital files.  They can all be saved in a computer.  In fact, they may all be safe on a digital “cloud” somewhere, to use a totally new digital concept.

ii) Librarians as a breed are not only famously caring and generous and serving.  They are very intelligent. They have cleverly adapted and made their libraries better for us since the very first.

Just think – they switched from candles to oil lamps to electric bulbs.  Some are now putting in solar panels. They went from a list of books maintained in a pad to massive card catalogs and the brilliant Dewey Decimal System.  Now even the smallest has a computer on which you can find any book easier and faster—even borrow one from another library.

Our librarians will find a way to make life better for us.  Their working in a library building as we know such is doubtful.  There won’t be a library for us to go to.

We’ll be ordering e-books and other media from them by computer.  They’ll send them to us by computer. Will do everything by computer.  Probably we’ll never see a librarian face to face.  In fact, the process may be automated.

I’m optimistic.  I’m all for progress. But I’m glad I won’t see this progress.  I treasure my memories of my good times in public libraries big and small, near and far.  Good times beyond count.

But do you think I’m wrong in these speculations?

My Woes with Newspaper Editors

I was one myself at one time. In fact, three times. But mostly a writer under the editor’s thumb. It’s always been a love-hate relationship.

Now a fresh incident has made me wince. And wonder.

A small matter, you might say, but not that small for me

It’s important for you to know I’m still sitting out the winter in Newport Beach, CA, a nice small city part way between Los Angeles and San Diego. Which means in one of the most pleasant year-around climate zones in the USA. Lucky me.

Now and then I get an urge to write a letter to the editor. Why? I sometimes ask myself that.

Newspapers don’t pay anything for letters, of course. It’s not a rewarding business in that sense. Editors on big papers get flooded with letters. They count on them, of course. Readers love reading letters. But space is at a premium (they say). Your odds of making the cut are bad. Sometimes you wonder why your brilliant, insightful, precious letter didn’t get in. Sometimes it defies logic. And there’s no recourse.

So why do I write letters? I’m not sure what Sigmund Freud would say about me. I have an easy answer. I find myself taking strong positions, and I like to have my say. I’ve had this itch for years. But I’ve never been a pest about it, or a nut, mind you.

This time I wrote a letter about a fellow named Jeffrey Hubbard, who is 55. It revolved around a sad and scandalous matter.

He’s the very recent school superintendent here, but before that held the same job in Beverly Hills upstate. He ran 31 schools with more than 3,000 employees. Hubbard was a top-notch administrator, a lot of people in the know say.

I wrote the letter to the Daily Pilot. It’s our local daily. It’s not a great paper, and not awful. It’s in that big gray zone in between. In fact, it’s owned by the Los Angeles Times, the giant paper hereabouts. It’s delivered to our door as a section of the LATimes.

Here’s what it was about. The School Department in Beverly Hills had hired an impressive consultant—Karen Anne Christiansen. She charged a lot but she got things done. And she was beautiful. In fact, sexy. And her regular contact in the department was its chief executive, Hubbard.

They hit if off. He thought highly of her services and rewarded her. Got her a bonus of $23,500. And increased her mileage expense account by hundreds of dollars. It all seemed on the up and up.

But then it was discovered some of their email messages were more than friendly. They were salacious—in fact, reported as “laced with sexual innuendo and double entendres.” Then it was discovered that some of the payments to her, while apparently open and above-board, had skirted some rules and regulations. In fact, had not been approved. That became a brouhaha.

The prosecution never charged a romantic relationship between the two—only “a special relationship.” But for sure many people concluded far more.

Hubbard insisted there had been absolutely no sexual relationship. He said the payments had been made through regular channels, and he assumed that they got the okay of everybody involved as they made their way through the system. Checks were cut for many suppliers. She was just another. What was the problem?

Well, charges were pressed. He and she were indicted. She went to trial first. Was found guilty. Is doing four years.

He got a leave of absence as he prepared for his date in court. But the schools paid his full salary during the five months that lasted. And one official after another, elected and appointed, came forward, spoke glowing words about Hubbard, and vouched for him. Their testimonials and solidarity were impressive.

The Daily Pilot covered the story from A to A. (Sometimes the Los Angeles Times did also. It was amusing to read an account in the Pilot, and then another in the same newspaper package delivered to us.)

The stories were good. As rich in detail as the papers could dish up. They became more frequent as the trial date arrived. Every story mentioned that this was a most serious offense, and Hubbard could get years in prison. Yes, years, just as his beautiful alleged accomplice had.

Throughout Hubbard projected a strong, confident stance. And his wife was standing by him—that was impressive. And the support from so many augured well–some community leaders were sitting in on the trial day after day.

There was speculation that he might get a short sentence. But every day the news was that California, and all its cities and towns, all its agencies and departments, right down to the local dogcatcher, were facing dire budget shortages. And here were these alleged gifts of honest taxpayers’ cash as payola in an alleged “improper relationship.”

One morning I picked up the Pilot. Its big headline at the top of the front page yelled: Hubbard guilty. Gets 60 days in jail. Ordered to pay $23,500 in restitution to Beverly Hills Unified Schools and $6,000 in fines.

I passed the Pilot to Annabelle. She read every word. People all over town were reading the story. Here it is as reported in a more detailed story:

By Lauren Williams

LOS ANGELES — Former Newport-Mesa Unified Supt. Jeffrey Hubbard was sentenced to 60 days in Los Angeles County Jail and given three years probation Thursday for misappropriating public funds.

Hubbard, 55, was not handcuffed while being taken into custody in Los Angeles County Superior Court. He showed little emotion.

Hubbard’s wife, Lupe, sobbed in the courtroom. When asked by Superior Court Judge Stephen A. Marcus whether he had anything he wanted to give his wife before he began serving his term, Hubbard replied: “Just lots of love.”

Hubbard was convicted in January of two felony counts related to a previous job as superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District. He used his position there to enhance the car allowance for and make payments to a former subordinate, Karen Anne Christiansen. Hubbard was acquitted on a third count.

On Thursday, (Judge) Marcus ordered Hubbard to pay $23,500 in restitution to Beverly Hills Unified and $6,000 in fines. He was also barred from holding a position of public trust.

Marcus said he had no doubt that the jury came to the right decisions.

“It was almost a perfect crime,” Marcus said. “If anyone knew how to pull this off, it was Mr. Hubbard.”

The judge speculated that Hubbard was motivated to give Christiansen extra money based on sexually laced emails exchanged between the two.

“I think he did this to help Ms. Christiansen because he liked her,” Marcus said. “He had a yearning for this woman, and she hypnotized him.”

Hubbard told the Daily Pilot after his arrest that he did not have an affair with Christiansen. There was no evidence of a romantic relationship provided by the prosecution during the trial.

Prosecutor Max Huntsman wrote in a sentencing memo that “Dr. Hubbard’s conduct was egregious” and said that he “took advantage of a position of trust to misappropriate public tax money designated for the use of schoolchildren.”

Hubbard’s attorney, Sal Ciulla, vowed to appeal the conviction. He said in court that he would file a notice of appeal after Thursday’s sentencing.

Before the sentence was read, Ciulla said that over the course of the criminal proceedings he has gotten to know Hubbard better than any other client and said he was a man of integrity.

The judge received 41 letters supporting Hubbard, including from some Newport-Mesa Unified school board members pleading for leniency at the sentencing.

School board President Dave Brooks, trustees Martha Fluor and Walt Davenport, and Deputy Supt. and Chief Business Official Paul Reed wrote letters of support, calling Hubbard an “upstanding individual” and describing him as “transparent,” “compassionate,” “knowledgeable” and “possessing a keen sense of justice and honesty.”

Brooks submitted a nine-page packet to the court. In a two-page letter, Brooks called Hubbard an “outstanding superintendent.”

“With this conviction his career has ended. He will no longer be able to work in the arena for which he was held in high regard,” Brooks wrote. “He may or may not have been popular with a small, vocal minority, but he is effective in administrating very complicated school districts.”

One letter, which came from Beverly Hills, asked for a stringent sentence.

Ciulla said he did not know when Hubbard would be released from jail, although Marcus speculated that Hubbard would spend less than a week behind bars because of overcrowding.

“Frankly, I want him to have a taste of jail,” Marcus said. “I do want to send home the message that it was wrong.”

End of newspaper report.

And right then and there it happened. I got that awful itch again—to write a letter to the editor about it. I sat down at my computer even before I ate my breakfast. I kept it short. This is what I wrote:

“Subject: Hubbard gets six months.

Dear editor: It seems agreed that Jeffrey Hubbard was a talented and effective administrator, and that his crime is a career-buster. What a shame. At 55! A loss for him and society.

My recommendation: After his first 15 days in jail, he should be given a job. It would be tragic and stupid to spend all that time at the usual solitaire, schmoozing, and TV.

He should report on a regular schedule to the warden’s office to be a consultant on what he sees wrong with jail (any and all aspects) and advise on how to fix such things. Much needs to be fixed.

Coming from a jailbird with sharp insights, this would be a valuable public service. And could be a career re-opener for him. A win-win!

Then I signed my name and gave my address and phone number. And sent the email.

Then I waited a day. Then another. Then I got an email from the editor of the Pilot, John Carvalis. I knew him only from pieces he wrote on occasion for the paper. They were good. He told me, “I plan to publish this Wednesday.” That was about it.

But I was satisfied. After all, writers write to get read. Not to get rejected.

Then two days later, I picked up the Pilot. And right there on the front page, but with a much smaller headline, was a short story. Its headline said, “Hubbard released from jail.”

I was shocked. Stunned. Couldn’t believe it.

Immediately I thought, What does this mean? Is Carvalis going to trash my letter? After all, it was far less relevant now. Hubbard was being freed. He was in the clinker not even long enough to have a load of dirty laundry to wash. He probably hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of the warden yet. And immediately I got that itch again. I sent Carvalis another letter.

Here’s what I wrote—the first half is the same but the second half is new:

Dear Editor,

About: Your big headline on Page 1 on Feb. 24: “Hubbard gets 60 days”

I had a quick reaction to that and sent you the following letter, which is still not published. I have added on to it a bit as follows (the new part is in italic):

It seems agreed that Jeffrey Hunter was a talented and effective administrator. And that his crime is a career buster. What a shame. At 55! A loss for him and society.

My recommendation: After his first 15 days in jail, he should be given a job. Tragic and stupid to spend all that time at the usual solitaire, schmoozing, and TV. He should report on a regular schedule to the Warden’s Office–to be a consultant. On what he sees wrong with jail (any and all aspects) and advise on how to fix such things. Much needs to be fixed.

Coming from a jailbird with sharp insights, this would be a very valuable public service. And could be a career re-opener for him. A win-win!

Now today’s one-column headline, at the bottom of the page , but still on Page 1, thank goodness:

“Hubbard released from jail”

And the subhead: “Former Newport-Mesa Supt released after serving only four days of a two-month sentence for two felony charges.”

My new reaction: Only four days! Shocking! Scandalous! Every news account from the start of the sad story to its end kept saying he could get years! But: when found guilty, already an exception was made–no handcuffs as he was led off to start his sentence. Now this! Just four days in the clinker. It stinks. Impugns our whole justice system. Makes citizens smirk. Makes us scream for an inquiry.

And makes it a hundred times harder for him to salvage his career.

John Guy LaPlante

And I clicked “Send.”

How would Editor Carvalis react? I suspected he’d use my re-write, but not sure. All I could do was wonder. He had sent me a nice note the first time. Maybe he’d send me a note now. No note.

Wednesday dawned. The day Carvalis promised to print my letter. Annabelle always gets up earlier than I do, though I’m not a late-riser. I jumped out of bed the minute I woke up. Annabelle had the paper open on the table. Open to the Letters page.

There was my letter. Carvalis had printed it as promised. But … it was my original letter, not my revised letter.

How come? No idea. And as I said, no recourse. I studied the page. There were only three letters on it, I mean above the many ads that made up most of it. Mine was the last. All three fit together nicely. Maybe Carvalis felt that he did not have the space for my revised letter, which was twice as long as my first one. And I’ll never know.

As always when one of my letters gets rejected, I ask myself, Why bother? Why make this effort?

But of course I know why. I want to have my say. I believe it has value. I care.

I’m positive I’ll get that itch again. This is who I am and what I do.

And of course, this is why I write articles like this one you are now reading.

For the record: most of my dealings with editors have been pleasant by far.

Concierge Medicine …. What the heck is that?

I’m writing this from Newport Beach, CA. I call this neighborhood “Medical Mecca.” One big medical building after another. Hundreds of doctors. All largely feeding off federal and state medical programs and private insurance plans, of course. And everybody involved is interested in his full share. Including our good Dr. Rubinacci

Have you noticed how the practice of medicine is changing? Gosh, I have.

There’s a significant new trend. It started 10 years or so ago. It’s still small, but it’s growing. Controversial, some feel. It comes by various names.

VIP medicine. Platinum practice. Boutique medicine. Retainer medicine.  Executive health care. Concierge medicine. There’s no shortage of imaginative ways in which interested MDs have been choosing to sell it to their patients.

It even has its own professional association. AAPP. That stands for the American Academy of Private Physicians (

I heard about it via our mail carrier.  I’m in beautiful Newport Beach, California, as usual waiting out the cold and ice and snow of a Connecticut winter. Well, not too much snow this year. That’s only fair considering last winter’s incredible downfall.

Milady Annabelle showed me a letter.  “What do you think of this?” she said. It came from our esteemed primary care doctor, Thomas A. Rubinacci, M.D.

I looked at the envelope. Letters from him were very rare. Usually only his name and address appeared in the top left corner.

I spotted something very different—the label “Concierge Medical Care.”

What oh what is this, I wondered.

Inside was an attractive two-color folder on nice coated paper. It had his photo on the front. He’s a good-looking guy. But it’s the first time I was seeing him in a suit and white shirt and tie. Usually I see him in the office with slacks and a golf shirt and loafers.

I like that. Sets a tone I appreciate. Casual and relaxed. Never, never with a white jacket and a stethoscope looped around his neck à la TV–the favored style for many docs these days.

With the folder came a letter. A long letter. Single-spaced. It ran all the way down the first page and down half the second page. Dr. Rubinacci had a lot to tell us about, whatever it was. I gave it immediate attention.

By the way, Dr. Rubinacci is not his real name. I’ve changed it. (If there’s a real Dr. Rubinacci somewhere, it’s an extreme coincidence!) Before I get into all the letter’s details, let me tell you a bit about him.

Doctors, doctors everywhere. Most of them trying to maximize their practice. How to do that? Dr. Rubinacci is going about it in a very different way

He’s about 45. To me that’s the perfect age for your doctor. He’s had plenty of experience and is on top of all the marvelous new technology. But he’s not thinking yet about hanging up his stethoscope. He still has plenty of energy and enthusiasm. By the way, “he” could well be “she.” Nowadays half the students in medical school are women.

(As some of you know, two years ago I completed a full hitch in the Peace Corps. I was a university teacher in Ukraine. Ukraine was part of the Soviet world till that fell apart 20 years ago. One thing I saw was that most doctors in those countries were women, even now. Medicine was considered a women’s profession—the way we used to look at teaching school. And still do quite a bit. And it’s similarly poorly paid.)

Dr. Rubinacci has top credentials. Credentials that would be envied by many other doctors. He is a graduate of a fine California state university, and of the highly regarded medical school of another state university. More than that, in college he made Phi Beta Kappa—the prestigious fraternity honoring distinguished academic work–and he graduated summa cum laude—that’s Latin for “ with very highest honors.”

He served his residency at a top-quality hospital, and then a two-year fellowship at another. He began practicing 12 years ago and set up his office nine years ago.  Now he shares office and staff with another internist with significant credentials, Dr. Anna Kraviska. I’ve changed her name, too.

He’s a Diplomate of the American Board of Internal Medicine. “The” professional society for that specialty. It doesn’t accept doctors into its ranks until they have passed its very stiff examinations. Not all of them pass it. I saw that for myself when I checked it online. Some doctors take it again and again. He passed it on the first try, and again with top grades.

I go to Dr. Rubinacci while I’m here because Annabelle introduced me to him. She’s had him several years, referred to him by a friend. So in a sense, for several years I’ve had two doctors, one in California during the winter, and one in Connecticut the rest of the year. Truth is, a few times I’ve talked with Dr. Rubinacci while in Connecticut because I wanted his input.

We like him because he’s smart, personable, and we can really have a good chat with him. So important. Some doctors can’t afford the time to chat, I’ve found out. We consider him not only our doctor, but also a friend. Of course, we’ve noticed that his time increasingly is at a premium.

Now about his letter. First, that expression, “Concierge Medicine.” That certainly has uppity overtones. Well, it does to me. Concierge is a new word in our dictionary. (By the way, it’s a French word meaning “building superintendent.”):

What’s a concierge to us Americans? A forever smiling and bowing fellow in a spiffy suit at a mahogany desk at an expensive hotel. He’s there to give you expert advice on anything you approach him about. You may be familiar with concierges.

You go to the concierge with your needs, problems, or concerns, as a guest. He’ll take care of it. Again, maybe she. Buy you tickets to a hit play. Give you sightseeing recommendations. Make a reservation for you at a hairdresser’s. Direct you to a Spanish restaurant if that’s what you want. Do just about anything legal. No fee, but tips are definitely welcome. Fat ones preferably.

To me, “boutique medicine” has similar connotations. Upscale. Luxurious. Expensive. Exclusive.

What did all this have to do with medicine?

Dr. Rubinacci was straightforward.  He was transitioning into a new type of medical practice on March 1. Same office. Same staff. But with a much reduced number of patients. That way he would be able to give more time. He’d be more relaxed with them, and that would be nice. He would continue to accept Medicare and other usual government insurance as well as private insurance and continue to process all those forms and assume the headaches of that whole process and accept those payments.

It was clear this was a difficult decision for him, and he had given it plenty of thought.

Why was he doing this?  His letter explained it in detail. And at the bottom of it, he invited his patients to come and attend a question and answer and session.

Annabelle and I phoned that we were coming. We were four couples in his wafting room at 6 p.m., the announced hour, and to my eye not one of us was under 70.He didn’t appear till 6:20, as he escorted his last patients out—an elderly man and woman, the man leaning on a cane.

He quickly sat down, and smiled, He didn’t apologize. We understood. And he got right down to business. No white jacket. No stethoscope. Again the golf shirt and the slacks. The Dr. Rubinacci we really knew. And oh, no cookies. No soft drinks. Which is what you expect at the very least when somebody is pitching you something.

Here’s what we learned. Right now he had some 3,000 patients. More than half of them were seniors.  And the seniors were the more active patients. Many of them came to him regularly, even often. Younger ones came much less. Sometimes just once every two or three years, for a physical.

His office hours were super-charged. He felt he was running from one patient to the other. He wanted to have a relationship with each of his patients, but in many cases impossible, despite his best efforts.  He was increasingly frustrated.

Medicare and the other government programs and private insurers were making more and more demands and requiring more forms to be filled out. He felt he was running a factory, though he never used that word. And he was making less money.

At one point, he said, “My wife is a dentist. And she makes more money than I do. And far fewer forms to process.”

I had checked some things.  Internists—primary care doctors–even those with the most difficult credentials to achieve, on average make less money than most specialists—cardiologists, radiologists, dermatologists, surgeons, and so on. Their practice is more of a rat race. And I believe that all this rankles.

What was he transitioning to? Concierge medical care.  He would have 250 patients, 350 tops. And they would pay a fee: $2,000 per year for one person, $3,500 for a couple..

He would give each patient all the time required. He would do a better job of handling the inevitable phone calls and emails. Even same-day appointments. And there would be more flexibility in the appointments.

His patients would sign a contract, but they could opt out at any time. They would sign up for a year at the stated price, and pay the annual fee in advance. II necessary he would accept semi-annual and quarterly payments. He said that he had not changed his prices since the start of his practice, and he did not anticipate he’d have to increase these annual fees.

He recognized that many of his patients would drop out. He didn’t say this, but of course they would have to. One of his goals was a much smaller practice. He had lined up another fine internist or two, younger of course, and they had agreed to take on the ones who left, if these agreed to these doctors, of course. Their records would be transferred for them.  One point he made was that older patients require more and more care. That seems natural. And he said he felt a moral obligation to serve his new “members” as long as necessary, always with the same high care.

Numerous questions were asked, and he answered them generously. He said he had had the idea a long time. He had worked under a doctor who was a pioneer in this concept at the very start of his practice.

He said that in the few days since his letter had gone out, his staff had signed up 50 patients. His letter said he had an Enrollment Coordinator. Dr. Rubinacci was confident that his starting goal of 250 would be met. And 350 definitely would be the max.

His letter made a strong point, “The first to respond will be the first to get in.” That sounded ominous. If anyone dilly-dallied, they might find themselves left out.

Afterward I did more research, all of it online, of course. I typed “concierge medicine” in Google’s search window and within a minute I got dozens of hits. Wow! There was plenty to read, plenty to think about.

I found that there are now lawyers who call themselves specialists in “boutique medicine law.” And I found that doctors thinking of this do need legal advice.

Medicare sets up rigid standards for what services can be charged for, and how. Every state has rules and regulations of its own. So does every insurance company.

No way can you charge more for “better quality service,” “better lab services or procedures.” And there are no-discrimination laws. And there’s the Hippocratic Oath—an oath that used to be usual for every new doctor but seems less so now. That oath mandates that the new doctor serve everybody who needs care, and care to the best of the doctor’s ability.

How do such traditional concepts fit in with these new concepts? Frankly, I’m not sure.

Some people find a selective practice like this repulsive. Unfair. They feel everybody is entitled to the same level of care. Others say, “More money can buy you a better car, education, house, retirement. Why not better medical care?”

To realists, this is the situation already, and has always been this way.

Dr. Rubinacci letter was a big surprise to me. I read it, then read it again. I knew immediately that Annabelle and I would be sitting in the front row at his introductory session. As it turned out, not necessary. We were just a small, friendly group. It was all quite relaxed. I sensed we were all there because first and foremost we esteemed Dr. Rubinacci. He was planning a series of these get-togethers.

Later I asked to see the contract we would be asked to sign, and he showed it without hesitation. I quickly noted that the contract was with both Dr. Rubinacci and Dr. Kraviska.  I picked up details. Besides husband and wife, he would include children—between the ages of 12 and 25—for an additional fee of $500 each per year.

People would pay up front. He listed several plastic cards. I paid attention to one stipulation that had not been mentioned: he retained the option of suspending any patient, even during the term of the contract.

If he did this, he would give a pro-rated rebate. He would have no need to explain his decision. I was sure he would not do this lightly. Nevertheless, it disturbed me. Some people might consider it “being dumped.”

And I added up the numbers.  The 50 patients already in hand would provide him nearly $100,000 in fees per year (remember, a spouse would pay $500 less). With his goal of 250, the fees would bring in close to $500,000. Nearly half a million!

Plus he would collect the customary Medicare and private insurance payments plus the co-pays and full fees of any patients without coverage.  And with his significantly reduced patient roll, his office overhead might be substantially cut. Maybe his insurance premiums cut also. On the other hand, for the same reason his various sources of insurance income would be diminished.

It would be interesting to find out how all this would balance out.

One new thought popped up.  Under his present set-up, if he takes a day off for any reason, he loses that day’s “take.” With his new set-up, the collected fees would eliminate this concern.  But if he and his partner, Dr. Anna Kraviska, cover for one another when one takes time off, this would not apply.  This is undoubtedly what they intend to do.

I know that when doctors and such retire, they often find another doctor to sell their practice to.  Dr. Rubinacci would be transferring hundreds of patients to one or more other doctors. Would he collect a fee for each? Nothing wrong with this, of course. But interesting to speculate about, don’t you think?

Of course, Dr. Kraviska will be doing the same thing. In fact, I believe she’s had a head start. So whatever I say here about Dr. Rubinacci applies to her also, it seems.

If Concierge Medicine can succeed anywhere, it’s right here. This is a very affluent community, by and large. One of the most affluent in the U.S. (Also one of the most Republican, not surprisingly.)

Many people here make tons of money. Many wealthy people retire here. Driving around and seeing some of the houses—thousands of them—many built high on the landscaped slopes with gorgeous views of the Pacific, can be a startling experience. Many are in gated communities—something in Connecticut that we are not really familiar with. Yet.

And there are numerous country and yacht clubs, so the concept of paying annual membership fees for such is well accepted. What’s one more membership? Especially one that will assure you more attention from your doctor!

I have seen a lot of changes in medicine over the years. When I was a little boy, I remember our family doctor making a house call to see my ailing grandpa. He walked into his bedroom with his scuffed black doctor’s bag. He had bandages and ointments and scissors in there. He took out a thermometer and a stethoscope. And those were the two high-tech instruments of those times! Oh, yes, I believe our little hospital did have an X-ray machine.

I was still in grammar school when I had to have an operation. A small one. I think it was to have my tonsils removed. I do have a bad memory of the doctor putting a paper cone over my nose and dripping ether onto it.  What a terrible experience! That awful smell. But I didn’t get to feel any pain. That was the height of anesthesiology back then.

Forty years ago I had to have my gall bladder removed. I was in the hospital more than a week. Good experience. No complaints. Today I’d be there two or three days, if that long.

A year ago I made a frantic visit to hospital emergency. I had called Dr. Rubinacci and he commanded me to do that. I had symptoms that made me think–and him!–of a possible heart attack. That’s when I encountered my first “hospitalist” ever.

Do you know what a hospitalist is? I didn’t. A hospitalist is an MD who is a credentialed primary care doctor who works in the hospital. Just the hospital. Your doctor orders you to the hospital, and at that point he the hospitalist (or again, maybe she) takes over. Makes all the decisions. Orders everything you need. Supervises every step. All while reporting back to your own doctor. When you leave the hospital, you return to your own doctor’s care.

That’s a new trend, too, far more advanced than that of concierge care, however. But like everything else, a trend that has plus and minus features.

I thought I had a good hospitalist.  But not many years ago, it’s Dr. Rubinacci who would be visiting me in the hospital, during rounds after his hours in the office. I remember when doctors made rounds twice a day. Sometimes seven days a week. That’s something that has just about totally disappeared.

Oh, my heart problem turned out to be a false alarm. My heart seems to be fine.

With the goings-on in Washington, plus new developments in the healthcare industry, we can expect many more changes, of various kinds, despite the loud protests of many groups. And now word is that our economy is improving. Wonderful. More people will have better incomes Maybe this Concierge Medicine will really catch on.

This is all encouraged by our American free-enterprise spirit. Some people get rewarded for being innovative and taking chances. And we admire that. But it hurts others, Can leave them behind. Squeeze them out.

I know you’re wondering, “What are Annabelle and you going to decide?”

All I can tell you right now is, “We’re still mulling this over. But for sure we would hate to lose Dr. Rubinacci?”

Talking Transportation: Next Stop Penn Station?

There’s discussion again about bringing some Metro-North trains directly from Connecticut into New York City’s Penn Station.  But will it happen?

As with many good ideas that seem so easy, this one also has been studied thoroughly and found to be problematic in a number of respects.  Governor Rell floated the idea in 2007 but it went nowhere, aside from an experiment by NJ Transit to run trains from New Haven to the Meadowlands.

Here are the reasons that daily commuter service isn’t yet possible:

INADEQUATE EQUIPMENT:  As any commuter on Metro-North can tell you, we don’t have enough seats for existing service to Grand Central let alone expansion to new stations.  It’s standing room only in rush hour and on weekends.

ELECTRICITY:  Our existing fleet of MU cars cannot take a left turn at New Rochelle and head over the Hells Gate Bridge onto Long Island, then hang a right, in through the tunnels into Penn Station.  The old cars’ overhead power catenary system operates under a different voltage than Amtrak.  And in third rail territory on Long Island, even our new M8 cars use a different kind of shoe to contact the third-rail power source.  The 2009 experimental direct train from Connecticut to Giants Stadium in New Jersey was actually run with New Jersey transit railroad equipment which was only available because it was on weekends.

CAPACITY:  Even if we had the cars with the right electrical equipment to make it over the Hells Gate Bridge and through the tunnels to Penn Station, there’s no room in the station… that the station is full-up serving Amtrak, the Long Island Railroad and NJ transit.  If and when the $6.3 billion East Side Access project bringing some Long Island Railroad trains into Grand Central is completed (many years from now), says the MTA, there might be room for Metro-North trains to access Penn Station.

CUT LIRR SERVICE?        Recently the MTA has hinted they might run some Metro-North trains into Penn Station, but it would have to cut Long Island RR service.  You can imagine the push-back that got, pitting one set of commuters against another.  (See more on our Facebook page).

Whatever the decision, it won’t be made by us here in Connecticut.  Once again, Connecticut is being told by the New York MTA what our transportation future will be.  Connecticut still has no say in the matter… not even a voting seat at the table, either on the MTA or the Metro-North boards.

Connecticut may be the MTA’s largest customer, hired by CDOT to operate Metro-North trains in our state, but when it comes to important decisions, like expanding rail service to Penn Station, the MTA is clearly in control.

Years ago Governor Rell acknowledged the inequity in this position, and promised to fight for a seat on the MTA board.  But nothing happened.  Nor has Governor Malloy said anything about this unfairness.

So, just why is a New York agency still in charge of Connecticut’s transportation future?

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM, but the opinions expressed here are only his own.  You can reach him at or

Michael Hart, I Never Heard of him – but he has Changed my Life

John LaPlante enjoying his brand-new ebook reader

After saying no, no, no time and again,  I have given in. I finally own an electronic book reader, or e-book reader, as it’s called, or even just e-reader. Those are new words to be included in any good dictionary.  They deserve to be. The e-book reader is such a ground-breaking and popular device.

Most of you know what an e-reader is, I’m sure. You may own one. If you/re drawing a blank, an e-reader permits you to read electronic, meaning digital,  books—books coming to you  by computer.  Not only e-books. Also electronic versions of magazines and  newspapers. In fact, you are reading this on an electronic newspaper. An e-newspaper!

How I got an e-reader beautifully with a big bow on it under the Christmas tree is a long story.  I’ll just give you the short version.

In early December, as usual, my daughter Monique asked me to make a Santa’s list for her.  I have never, never done that for anybody.  My attitude has always been, Let Santa decide if I’ve been a good boy. If yes, he can bring down the chimney anything  for me  that he chooses to and I’ll say a sincere thank you.

But too often one of his presents hasn’t been quite right. At times absolutely wrong.  Necessitating an exchange.  Monique had had enough of that. She told me,  “Dad, a list, please!!!!” Notice all those exclamation marks.I recognized her problem and finally acquiesced. ”Okay!”

I prepared a short list suitably mixed. I need very little, lucky me.But I put down small things and bigger ones. You understand, I’m sure. The biggest was an e-book reader.

For the record, I’ll tell you that I have never read an e-book in my life. I have never felt an urge or a need to read one.  I’m perfectly happy with old-fashioned print books. I’m amazed to use that adjective here, “old-fashioned.”  But I recognize that  millions of people are reading e-books. And thousands of books are being published as e-books as well. It’s an avalanche.  It does look as if print books are on the way out.  I hope not.

I love print books. Paper books! I have read hundreds…perhaps thousands….of them.  I have books all through my home. By my desk. By my bed. By my favorite chair. On shelves big and small. On the floor.  I’m continually moving books in and moving books out. I cannot live without books. I don’t want to live without books. One of the great tragedies for me would be going blind.

So why did I put an e-reader on my list? Glad you’re wondering.

I have friends who love books as much as I do who have bought one, and love it.  That has impressed me. At airports and other places where you have to wait, and on planes and trains and long-distance buses, I see more and more people using them. They make sense.  E-readers are small devices…you can tuck one in your pocket. yet you can stock them with thousands of titles.

Which is kind of crazy, well, to my thinking.  How many can you get around to reading? And as mentioned, also magazines and newspapers and computer docs, your own and from others. You can make notes on whatever you read!  You can quickly look up things through the magic of a computer’s  Find  function.

And I had a more practical reason. I am the author of three books. And at this very moment they are bing converted into e-books!

Some people like e-books so much that they buy only e-books. It’s true. Like every author, I write books because I hope they will be read. That’s the whole point. So I felt that I had to join the growing crowd.  From now I will be the author of books and e-books!

I have come to realize that e-books have distinct advantages. You can make the type bigger or smaller, as you please…can change even the font.

They cost less. Many e-books are free—and this will lead me to tell you about an enormously important man in a few minutes. I didn’t even know his name. I’ll bet you never heard of him either.

But I had another  reason to want an e-reader.. A terrific reason. All my books have many photos.  My Around the World book has scores of them.  My Around Asia book more than300.  My latest, my Peace Corps book, has more than 140.  Know what? They look sharper, better in my e-book versions than  my print books.

I used to think that it would be uncomfortable, even impossible, to read a book on a screen, which is what an e-book has.  I can’t use that argument any more.  Why?

Every day I read newspapers online. Magazine pieces, too. I look up articles in digital encyclopedias, wikipedia being one. Every day I look up something  on Google  or Bing or Yahoo, and they lead me to an incredible variety of websites. .Reading all this is not a problem. It’s so easy. Saves so much time. My eyes don’t seem to mind. In fact, it’s wonderful. I love it.

I have friends of my age or nearly my age who refuse to learn how to use a computer.  They’re intimidated by it. What an awful mistake not to give it a try. Well, my opinion. . I plead with then, cajole them. “It’s not that hard. You can do it. It will change your life.” I mean every word.

Bottom line, I asked Santa for an e-book because I had to get with it!  And I got one.  It turned out to be one of the new Kindle Fires.   The Fire is more than an e-reader. It’s a digital “tablet.”  And that’s a word that must be added to the dictionary, too–well, that new meaning of tablet.

A tablet is a super e-book.  For some people it’s a full, powerful computer. Can do much more than an e-reader…bring you movies…music…photos…permit you to surf the web and send and receive email…type on it quite easily…do other amazing things. The supreme example of a tablet so far is the Apple  iPad. But the iPad is a big thing.  No way can you tuck it in your pocket.

You can a Fire.  It doesn’t do everything the iPad does, but it’s the closest thing to it.  And it’s half the price, even less than half for some models of the iPad.

I was delighted with my Fire. But ….  I realized I  would never use some of those fantastic features.  So again an exchange. Poor Monique!  What I now have is a Kindle Touch. It’s called that because you do just about everything on it with just a touch of your finger. I’m experimenting with it and I must say I like it.

It’s only fair to mention there are a plethora of e-readers on the market, with more coming. And “smart” phones can also read e-books. But I can’t ever see myself doing serious reading on a tiny phone!

So I have joined the e-reader enthusiasts. It’s a new adventure.  How nice when you’ve gotten into thinking that your adventures are all over.

Now an incredible,  astounding coincidence.  Just as I was  unwrapping this beautiful gift, so to speak, I heard of the death of a man who has had an enormous impact on me—on millions of people like me….a man I had never heard of and whose name, if ever I got to hear it, would have meant nothing.

That man is Michael Hart, age 64, of Urbana, Ill.  He is the man who invented the e-book!  Notice, please, that I said the e-book and not the e-reader. Until quite recently, until the e-reader, you read e-books on your computer monitor. Not  difficult.

Michael Hart

Michael Hart devoted his life to making the e-book the the technical and marketing sensation that it is.. More than that,  he envisaged his invention of the e-book  as something that would  better serve anybody who likes to read, anywhere in the world that has computer service…potentially all of humanity.

It was his ambition to make books so available and so cheap that anybody could afford them.To make then free, if possible!

Here is what Wikipedia has written about him, as it wrote it. I also gleaned some from other online sources in the public domain.

Michael Hart’s father was an accountant,  and his mother, a former cryptanalyst during World War II, was a business manager at a retail store. In 1958 his family relocated to Urbana, Illinois, and his father and mother became college professors in Shakespearean studies and mathematics education, respectively.

Hart attended the University of Illinois, graduating in just two years. He then attended but did not complete graduate school. He was also, briefly, a street musician.

During Hart’s time there, the University of Illinois computer center gave Hart a user’s account on its computer system: Hart’s brother’s best friend was the mainframe operator. Although the focus of computer use there tended to be data processing, Hart was aware that it was connected to a network (part of what would become the Internet) and chose to use his computer time for information distribution.

Hart related that after his account was created on July 4, 1971, he had been trying to think of what to do with it and had seized upon a copy of the United States Declaration of Independence, which he had been given at a grocery store on his way home from watching fireworks that evening.

He typed the text into the computer but was told that it would be unacceptable to transmit it to numerous people at once via e-mail. It might crash  the system. To avoid that, he made the text available for people to download instead.

This was the beginning of what is now known world-wide as Project Gutenberg. Hart began posting text copies of such classics as the Bible and the works of Homer, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. As of 1987 he had typed in a total of 313 books in this fashion.

Then, through being involved in the University of Illinois PC User Group and with assistance from Mark Zinzow, a programmer at the school, Hart was able to recruit volunteers and set up an infrastructure of mirror sites and mailing lists for the project. With this the project was able to grow much more rapidly.

The mission statements for the project were:

“Encourage the Creation and Distribution of e-books.”

“Help Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy.”

“Give As Many e-books to As Many People As Possible.”

His overall outlook in the project was to develop in the least demanding format possible: as worded in the journal, The Chronicle of Higher Education, to him, open access meant “open access without proprietary displays, without the need for special software, without the requirement for anything but the simplest of connections. ”

Hart was an author and his works are available free of charge on the Project Gutenberg server.

He supported himself by doing odd jobs and used an unpaid appointment at Illinois Benedictine College to solicit donations for the project. He said, “I know that sounds odd to most people, but I just never bought into the money system all that much. I never spent it when I got it. It’s all a matter of perspective”.

Hart glided through life with many possessions and friends, but very few expenses. He used home remedies rather than seeing doctors, fixed his own house and car. He built many computers, stereos, and other gear, often from discarded components sacrificing personal luxury to fight for literacy, and for preservation of public domain rights and resources, towards the greater good.

The man who spent a lifetime digitizing literature lived amidst the hard copies in his house in Urbana stacked, floor to eye-height, with pillars of books. He led a life of near poverty, and “basically lived off of cans of beans.” He cobbled together a living with the money he earned as an adjunct professor and with grants and donations to Project Gutenberg.

Now volunteers around the world digitize books for Project Gutenberg in their spare time. Some  digitize many. That is how the inventory of free e-books is steadily being expanded.

Isn’t that wonderful?

Now why is it called Project Gutenberg?

Johannes Gutenberg, as we learned in school, invented moveable type—one of the world’s most important inventions.  Before that, documents and books were printed from hand-carved woodblocks. Yes, with the letters carved in relief  on wood so they would stand out.

Johannes Gutenberg 1398 – 1468 His technological break-through radically changed the world ... the way Michael Hart’s is.

Imagine the labor of doing that. Ink was applied to the surface of the letters and words, and these were impressed onto sheets of paper.

What he did was make individual letters and numbers, and these could be assembled into words and sentences and paragraphs. Then broken apart and, re-used to form new words and sentences.. A new technology which transformed not only printing, but society.

So, with more things being published, more people were encouraged to learn to read.

His technique was adopted everywhere. And with more people reading, more things were published. It was explosive. Reading had been an exclusive skill reserved for very few. Now reading was a skill  available to anybody interested in putting in the time to learn it..

His first efforts were crude but got better. He became so adept that he printed the massive Gutenberg Bible,  a crowning achievement not only of great skill but great beauty.

Here are some gleanings about  him, again from Wikipedia:

Gutenberg was a blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher. The key year was 1439.  It has been said that he started the Printing Revolution, the event which ushered in the modern period.

It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution and laid the material basis for the modern knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

He was the first European to print successfully, on a commercial basis, and was the first to print a book outside the Orient. Gutenberg’s printing technology spread rapidly throughout Europe, and of  course was refined and perfected by others. The process quickly replaced most of the manuscript methods of book-production throughout the world.

You see why Johannes Gutenberg was such a great man.  I believe that Michael Hart’s invention of the electronic book reader is an equally great invention.  It will usher in a new age. Transform the world.  He deserves to be as famous.  There should be statues of him. He is the Gutenberg of our epoch.

My print books are the results of Gutenberg’s genius. My e-books the results of Michael Hart’s. How fortunate am I as the author of both types.  How fortunate are all of us who read books.

Talking Transportation – Congress Tells Commuters…“Drop Dead”

Jim Cameron - Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council

Back in 1975 when New York City was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy, then- President Ford declined to offer help and the NY Daily News’ headlinescreamed “Ford to City: Drop Dead”.

Well, last month the US Congress said about the same thing to us users of mass transit.  In their quagmire of inaction, bickering and partisanship, they let expire an important tax benefit to commuters:  whether you drove or took mass transit, you used to be able to spend up to $230 a month in pre-tax dollars to fund your commute.  But by not acting to extend the law, that benefit dropped to $125 a month for riders of mass transit but increased to $240 a month for drivers’ parking expenses.

What?  Commuters who ride the train / bus /subway get screwed but drivers get a benefits hike?  Yes, friends, it’s all true and you have Congress to thank.

This isn’t a red-state / blue-state issue.  I see it as a “gray state” victory, the gray states being those paved with asphalt that have scorned mass transit.  Meanwhile, big city riders of the rails get penalized.

There’s something egalitarian about mass transit… millionaires riding in the same smelly Metro-North cars as blue collar workers.  People of color actually mingling with white folks!  It’s like we’re all in this together, sharing space, giving up our individual liberties (smoking, singing, traveling exactly when we want) for the greater good (less highway congestion, air pollution, saving money).

People in the gray states don’t understand that.  Theirs is a culture of selfishness:  my car, my space, my right to travel where I want and when, to heck with you.  Oh yeah, and the right to have free parking (or at least subsidized, as under this bill).

Connecticut commuters welcomed the New Year with a 5.25% fare hike on Metro-North (with similar fare hikes to come the next two years), thanks to the Malloy administration seeing rail riders as an easy target for “revenue enhancement”.  So losing this federal tax benefit is just adding insult to injury.

The Federal government doesn’t do much in terms of our commuter rail.  They didn’t pay a penny for the new M8 cars.  They don’t set the fares, determine the station parking rules or set the timetable.  All of those are state functions.

Sure, the feds did kick some Tiger III grant money to Stamford for station work, but aside from that, nada.

That’s why Senators Blumenthal and Lieberman are trying to restore this federal tax benefit, the one thing they can do to help us commuters.  They’ve been flooded with angry letters.  Their bill (S-1034) has 10 co-sponsors but so far hasn’t won support from their colleagues who matter, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and Ranking Member Orrin Hatch (R-Utah).  Not a lot of commuter rail in Montana and Utah, eh?

Time will tell if Congress can fix this mess.  I’m not optimistic, despite the best efforts of our Connecticut delegation.


JIM CAMERON has been a commuter out of Darien for 21 years.  He is Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM.  You can reach him at or