July 22, 2014

My Take on Embattled Ukraine

KievI’ve been getting one e-mail after another: “John, what you think about Ukraine? What’s it all about?  How do you feel about it?”   Why those emails?  Because many of you know that I served my Peace Corps hitch–the full 27 months–in Ukraine. And that was barely four years ago.

I never dreamed this awesome historic event would happen.  That I’d see the Ukrainian protestors —revolutionaries, in fact–storm into Kiev and topple the government. See their hated president abandon his office and take off to Russia to save his life. See the revolutionaries take over their parliament, the Rada. And set the country on a new and so-longed-for course—toward affiliation with the West and the European Union!

Read Full article on John LaPlante’s blog

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

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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

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

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!

 

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.

Adios!

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.

DSCN1230

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.

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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.”

“Wow!”

“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.

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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!”

“Honest?”

“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.

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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.

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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 …

Adios!

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!

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.

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!”

“Germany?”

“Yes, Leipzig. Yes, my first time to Germany. All because of a website. It’s called Libri Vox—www.librivox.com.  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.

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!

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!”

“How?”

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.

Bingo!

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?”

“Yes!”

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!

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.

Awful!

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.

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, www.hudsonmarineinc.com. 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.

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!

 

Are Libraries Doomed?

John Guy LaPlante

I read something startling the other day.  Amazon.com, 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 Amazon.com.  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 Amazon.com 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 Amazon.com 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 (www.aapp.org).

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?”

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.

The strangest New Year’s Day I’ve ever had…and I never expect another like it

John Guy LaPlante

All my life, like you probably, I have celebrated New Year’s Day in winter—most often in a cold, icy, snowy winter. Not a Florida winter.

Winter arrives on Dec. 21, of course, and New Year’s Day 11 days later, on Jan. 1. My saying this seems silly, I know, but I say it for a reason.

My seeing the New Year in, as for you, has often meant stepping outside into freezing  cold air that takes my breath away and then suffering in my frigid car until the engine begins to blow in wonderful hot air.

For many decades this was always the way  I experienced New Year’s Day. With just one exception!

That exception came eight years ago when I traveled around the world for five months. Yes, nearly all of it alone—147 days, 20 countries, 36,750 miles by plane, train, and for only $83 per day, with everything included, right down to every snack and phone call and all the visas required.  That trip was my present to myself for my then approaching 75th birthday.

It was a grand adventure. More than that, an odyssey. It led to my book, “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!” It’s a book still selling, and in fact, one that got to be published in China in Chinese—well, Mandarin, which is the principal language.

As New Year’s Day approached, I arrived in Durban, South Africa. That’s nearly as far south in Africa as you can go, and I had come a long way, all the way from Cairo near the Mediterranean in the far north.

I arrived on Dec. 28, I think it was, just seven days after the start of winter and three days before the new year dawned. However, I had crossed the Equator to get here and in fact was far south of it.

But the seasons are opposite on the other side of the Equator. Yes, it was December, but it was not winter. Summer had just started here and it was summertime, with long daylight, short nights, shirtsleeve temperatures, even bathing suit temperatures. How remarkable. How wonderful.

Durban is a big city. An impressive city. And I was here to enjoy it. I was lucky. I was staying in a nice hostel right downtown, the Banana Backpackers. Not hotel. Hostel. I was using hostels because they were cheaper (hotels for five months can get expensive) and I got an experience more true to my purpose.

Don’t ask me why that name. I never found out. And I was making friends. And I was making the most of the city, taking in everything I could—its bustling downtown,  its historic and tourist attractions, its museums.  It’s all in my book.

New Year’s Day was a great celebration here, too. It’s a big day all over the world.  I  read everything I could in the big Durban daily about activities coming up. English is the official language. There would be all the usual merry-making.  I was looking forward to it. Planned to enjoy it as much as I could.

New Year’s Day rose, bright and sunny and warm and beautiful. But none of my senses told me that this was New Year’s Day. This was so dramatically different. But my brain did.

Durban is right on the Indian Ocean, just north of where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans merge  below Capetown.  Durban has great beaches. I had not glimpsed them yet, but I knew they were gorgeous. I intended to get to them today. They were not far,  at the end of a broad avenue that nosed right into them. A cinch! I could get to them in just a few blocks.

But imagine my surprise. My stupefaction.  Thousands of people were planning to do the same thing. I noticed that the minute I stepped out of Banana Backpackers. People jammed the street, walking in from various directions.

So many! Amazing. The boulevard was closed to vehicles for the day. People were heading south on it in a broad torrent. They took up the whole width of the street. All going the same way, toward the salt water. Some on bikes but most hoofing it. Carrying all the usual stuff—towels, picnic baskets, folding chairs, parasols, toys. Many with children in hand.

Instantly I saw they were all black. Durban is a typical South African city. It has the usual mix of blacks and whites, but the blacks were there first and predominate. In fact, apartheid had been the law of the land until quite recently. Apartheid mandated the enforced separation of the races, the same as in many places  in our U.S.A. when I was young, but even more severely, I’ve read.

Right away I saw this was a black crowd. I could not see any whites. Of course, white people like nice, warm, sunny, summer beaches, too. Why this river of people was all black, I don’t know. And I didn’t find out. I still don’t know. But right away I decided, This is just too much! No way can I walk with them!

I gulped hard. I was so disappointed. But then I braced up. A main reason for this big and crazy adventure of mine–I knew some thought this–was to visit other countries, and the more different the better. I wanted to see what they were really like.   I was deliberately staying clear of the heavy tourist areas. I wanted to see the real people in their real everyday  life. So how could I chicken out now?

Uptight I was, but I stepped forward and slipped in among them.  I saw dark eyes studying me but I looked straight ahead and walked on.  I was uncomfortable. Nervous. Apprehensive. I admit it and am embarrassed to say so.  I was tempted to drop out and head back to Banana Backpackers.  What I was experiencing, of course, was plain, classic culture shock.

My head was battling with my emotions.  My head was telling me that 99 percent of these people were good, fine, no-problem people.  I knew that this was true of people all over the world. Yellow, brown, red, black, white, mixed. In every country the bad ones—the malicious ones—are a tiny minority. True, too, in  our U.S.A.

The only thing these folks had in mind was getting to the beach for a fine New Year’s outing.

My heart made me fearful, insecure, borderline panicky.  But I walked on.  I was feeling this way because they were so many and they were all black and I wasn’t used to this and there was no other white person around.  But on I went.

I wasn’t going to the beach to sun myself or swim.  I did like these things back home.  I was going because I wanted to see the Indian Ocean and smell the sea air and be part of the festivities and observe everything going on and get some exercise and see what a New Year’s Day was like in this country and how folks enjoyed it.

We got to the beach.  A great big, broad stretch of sand. The Indian Ocean stretched out ahead, clear to the horizon, with not even a tiny island in between.  A few pleasure boats, yes.

But know what?  The Indian Ocean didn’t look a bit different than many other stretches of salt water I have gotten to see.  The only reason I knew that this was the Indian Ocean was because I was told it was, period.

What I noticed was the great numbers of people.  Right away I thought of Coney Island. Who isn’t familiar with Coney Island?  I’ve never been to Coney Island.  But I’ve seen the photos of the  packed crowds on the Fourth of July.

For sure this huge turn-out would rival Coney Island in the Guinness Book of World Records. And of course all these people were black. But they were behaving just like white people would.

I became more relaxed.  I began walking around.  I roamed the beach.  I made my way between all these people.  Families in tight clusters. Kids frolicking and romping and tossing balls. Couples making out. People reading, snacking, applying suntan lotion, snoozing.

Not easy to walk in that loose sand. I made my way down close to the beach and walked along the shore on the packed sand, moist from the outgoing tide. Some people were in the water, swimming, splashing, floating, but quite few. Which is typical on any beach anywhere.

I walked a long way to the left, then a long way back and to the right.  Some people looked at me and followed me with their eyes.  Most people were too busy.  I had my camera and I began sneaking pictures.  I learned long ago it was not smart at times to face whoever I wanted to photograph and snap a picture.

I had developed a different way.  I would spot someone I wanted to focus on.  Then I would turn 90 degrees and face in this new direction.  But slowly I would turn my camera back 90 degrees. Very stealthily, all while gazing straight ahead. And click the shutter. Sometimes I missed the shot.  But often I got the good candid shot I hoped for.  Rarely did anybody catch on.

Now I got bolder. I even walked up to some people. Made sure I smiled. And asked if I could take their picture.  Nobody said no.

It was all pleasant. I was happy to be part of this. But this was a film camera.  And of course my roll of film got used up.

In all this, I did not come upon another white person. How come?  Maybe this was a traditionally black beach. Maybe there was a traditional white beach elsewhere.  But I thought of this much later.

Satisfied and content, I walked back to the Banana Backpackers.  I quit long before the others did.  There were just a few of us heading back. I was happy I had not caved in to my apprehensions and had had what turned out to be a most pleasant experience.

Back at the hostel, I found practically nobody around. That evening I ran into a couple of people and mentioned what I had done.  But they were foreign tourists, too. They were interested. But they had nothing to say that enlightened me.

Later I had another thought.  It was about black people in the U.S.A.  Men and women of all ages born there and grown up there. Like me. Just as much an American citizen as I.

And I thought of the many times when for sure they must find themselves alone among whites.  At times they must feel as alone and isolated and apprehensive as I on this New Year’s Day.  This is probably a common experience for them in our section of Connecticut where blacks are still a small minority,  although the situation is changing a bit. And surely they get used to it, adapt to it, and develop a certain comfort.

I felt these disturbing emotions just for a few hours on just one day.  I’m sure some of our blacks back home must feel it frequently, on and on, all their lives.

That New Year’s Day in Durban made me more understanding. More sympathetic.  I learned a powerful lesson. And the lesson has stuck. We’re all much alike. Little reason to be nervous among strangers.

I’d like to include some of the photos I took that day but they’re not at hand. Sorry.

Happy New Year to you, one and all!

Stone Deaf, But Still They Manage a Fine Conversation

Who knows what each day will bring?

I was returning from New London. It was 4 p.m. and I needed my coffee pick-up. I swung into a Burger King, bought a cup, sat down and opened a Newsweek I had brought in.

Quiet in there.  Just two men in a booth a dozen feet away. About 35. Engaged in a very lively conversation. But I couldn’t make out a word. There were no words! No sounds! They were talking in sign language. Were deaf. Not a problem.

They were enjoying their “talk.” Their “words” were flying back and forth. They were talking by making signs. Using their hands. Their fingers. Their arms. Amazing. And facial expressions. Frowning. Smiling. Raising their eyebrows. Expressing surprise. So many emotions. I kept glancing at them. Couldn’t stop watching. They didn’t seem handicapped.

One noticed me. It didn’t bother him. He kept right on with his buddy. He was used to curious people like me.

They left. They were still signing as they walked away. I left, too, my Newsweek unread. What I had just observed was more fascinating than anything I could have found in the magazine.

Now flash forward a few days. I’m at the Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook. I love libraries, stop in one wherever I am. Spend half an hour, more often an hour. Always a delight. I measure a community by its library.

This was my big find. An eye-opener

On the way out, I pause by the front door. There’s a bookcase there. It’s loaded with books the library no longer wants. Perhaps donations from somebody. Take one. Take two. They’re free. I always look. Often take one. Sometimes I read it, maybe just bits of it, then take it back for somebody else. Books have a long and strange life. Some I keep.

I spot a big thick one. “The American Sign Language Dictionary.” What an amazing coincidence!

I had no idea such a dictionary existed.

The cover shows four close-up photos of a woman. She’s signing, just like the men I had watched. I thumb through. 512 pages!  Loaded with words and definitions. Even synonyms and references to other words. From “abandon” all the way to “zipper.” Incredible.

But each word also has a small drawing of a man. Just the outline of a man. He’s making a sign for that word. For “devil.” Or “important.” Or “revenge.” Very clear, very explicit. Little arrows show the direction of his moves, even how he repeats the moves. Even what expression he uses with this sign or that one. Fascinating.

The cover claims the book has more than 4,400 signs and 6,60 illustrations! Imagine that! Featuring 1,100 new signs and 1,750 illustrations. And this is an “abridged edition”! “From “the most comprehensive and clearly written dictionary of sign language ever published,” according to a cover blurb by the Los Angeles Times.

I check. It was published in 1994 by Harper Perennial. A fine outfit. Written by one Martin L.A. Sternberg. A blurb identifies him as a professor at Hofstra University and Adelphi University, with a doctorate in education.

Martin L. Sternberg Sign Language became his life’s work.

The blurb says, “Deaf since the age of seven. Dr. Sternberg has spent most of his career working with deaf people.” Impressive. So, for six years he could hear—I suspect that’s harder to take than coming into the world deaf.

The price back then was $18, $25 in Canada. (Those poor Canadians!) It looks hardly used. I take it home. It’s mine for the taking. Who disposed of this—it was not a library discard. No idea.

Why do I want it? Well, a simple answer. I love dictionaries. I have a number of them. Conventional dictionaries. Pictorial dictionaries. Dictionaries of slang and idioms. Even a “thematic” dictionary, which lists words by subject, such as “medicine.”  In English and French and Spanish and Russian. Which may seem strange to you. Even a Latin dictionary that I used every day eons ago. As a kid I never thought I would develop such an interest. I look forward to poking into this one.

Long ago, I wrote a magazine article about a dictionary. In fact, exactly 50 years ago. A wonderful experience for me.

It was Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Completely new. Commonly known as the Merriam-Webster Third. Published by G.&C. Merriam. That’s a very fine name. That was back in 1961—yes, just half a century ago.

That dictionary made big headlines. It was a historic event. It was the first American dictionary that did not tell people whether a word was good or less good. It simply reported the various definitions a word could have. Sometimes they were many. A huge dictionary—three hefty volumes.

Merriam  achieved this by building a huge, amazing file of how words were actually being used.  M-W had a big staff of lexicographers and editors. They read an enormous variety of things and saved what they called “citations” from books and newspapers and other publications showing a word used this way or that way. And they paid experts out in the field to send in unusual examples. Words are like people. They change as they grow older.

Thousands of signs. All carefully illustrated.

A few minutes ago I went online to wikipedia.org and this is what I found. I include it because it’s so interesting.

After about a decade of preparation, G. & C. Merriam issued the entirely new Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language in 1961. Unabridged  It was edited by Philip Babcock Gove and a team of lexicographers who spent 757 editor-years and $3.5 million.

It contained more than 450,000 entries, including over 100,000 new entries and as many new senses for entries carried over from previous editions.

The final definitio, “zyzzogeton,” was written on October 17, 1960; the final etymology was recorded on October 26; and the final pronunciation was transcribed on November 9. The final copy went to the typesetters, R.R. Donnelley, on December 2. The book was printed by the Riverdale Press in Cambridge, Mass.

The first edition had 2,726 pages (measuring 9 in wide by 13 in  tall by 3 in , weighed 13½ lbs and originally sold for $47.50 (about $350 in 2010 dollars). The changes were the most radical in the history of the Unabridged.

Although it was an unprecedented masterwork of scholarship, it was met with considerable criticism for its descriptive (rather than prescriptive) approach. It told how the language was used, not how it ought to be used.

It was big news. Newspapers everywhere carried at least a few words about it. I was excited to read all this. I admit I had a personal interest. In September, 1943, on my first day as a fresham at Assumption Prep in Worcester, at age 13, I walked with my new classmates to the school bookstore. We were handed our books for the year. My stack included The Merriam-Webster Abridged Dictionary—Webster’s Collegiate. I used it for eight years (I moved on to Assumption College from Assumption Prep). I still have it. More than a thousand pages, and well-thumbed.

Right away I pitched writing a piece about the Webster’s Third New to my editor as a full feature piece and he gave me a “Go!”

Merriam’s office was in nearby Springfield. Still is.  I drove there and met Dr. Gove. Philip Babcock Gove was a distinguished-looking man in a double-breasted suit with a fine necktie. He spent a lot of time showing me around and explaining their procedures and introducing me to two or three of his many experts.   Later I returned with a photographer. This was a standard procedure on our magazine. He would take shots to illustrate my article. I would take along a draft I had written and  would double-check this or that.

(An interesting aside. On my first trip to any assignment, I would always be paid my expenses. On the second trip, the photographer always got the check.)

I uncovered something extraordinaty about the scholarly Dr. Gove. He had a small farm in nearby Ware. And he kept half a dozen cows and milked them morning and night.

We had to show that! He smiled and agreed. We met him there out in the country in his farmhouse. But now he had his bib overalls on and was out in the smelly barn sitting on a stool by one of his cows. This lexicographer with a famous reputation!

“My hobby!” he told me. He’d feed them their hay, clean out the muck, do it all. It turned out to be a great article. People can be so fascinating.

But back to my sign-language dictionary. Extraordinary, as I said. It was put together with the help of a dozen specialists in various fields. Some gathering business signs, some children’s signs, some Catholic or Jewish, on and on.

It turns out there is a specific finger sign for every letter of our alphabet. D, K, P, V. So you use these signs to spell out a word.

Then there are signs for a whole word—a whole concept. “Carrot,” say, or “rash” or “secret.”  Wonderful to see the imagination that inspired each and every one of these signs.

I thought to myself, “Who used this sign or that one for the very first time? Surely different signs came up for the same word or thought. Which ones fell into use along the way?”

Many words have sharply different meanings. “Opportunity,” for instance. The book shows four meanings, each with its own sign.

I checked for certain words, as I thought of them. Bankrupt. God. Idiom. Mail. Pollute. Round. Urinate. I found them all.

I looked for others but did not find them. But the book was published in 1994, and some of those words did not exist.

I also found phrases. A sign for “Go to bed.” Another for “Go off the track.” Another for “Go as a group.” Another for “Go by car” or “Go by train.”  But I did not find one for “Go by plane,” which I found strange. I’ll bet it’s in a newer edition.

I also checked for some sex words.  I remember doing that with my new dictionary when I was 13. In this one I found “intercourse” and “lesbian” and “masturbate’ and I am sure there were others.

Also naughty words, “four-letter” words, as I did back then. (Didn’t you?) None in this dictionary.

But remember, this sign dicitionary I had picked up was also an abbreviated edition. And it was the first one in the Computer Age. Dr. Sternberg explained this at the very front.

How were all these drawings created? What an enormous effort. Well,  the latest technology was used—a first. Here’s how Dr. Sternberg explained it:

“It involved making videotapes of the signs using different models and then time-freezing appropriate poses. These poses in turn produced computer-generated drawings—rapidly and accurately.”

Oh, I just stumbled on this: A CD-ROM edition of this book was also created. Not included in my book.

This specialized work became Dr. Sternberg’s career, it seems. The original Unabridged Edition took him 19 years to produce! Between that one and this one he produced two other editions. He had a career that was as daunting and meaningful as Dr. Gove’s.

I wondered about some things.  Deafness is a world-wide affliction, of course. So, such dictionaries must exist in other advanced countries. France, let’s  say. Germany. Russia. China. Well, I found out this dictionary is for American Sign Language.

I  think a scholar would have a ball checking the signs for words in those languages.  “Baby,” for instance. Or “Wheel.” Wouldn’t it be interesting to check for similarities and differences in signs in these different languages and cultures? Do deaf Chinese use the same sign for baby as Americans do? Do Russians use the same sign for wheel that we do?

I’m sure that originally each sign was the spontaneous creation of a deaf person who had an inspiration…an insight…a flash of imagination. As a person got older, he would use more and more signs of his own devise. As well as signs picked up from other deaf persons. Deaf persons must pass on signs to one another and the best signs survive.  I’m speculating, of course.

I think of a scenario: suddenly a family with normal hearing has a baby that is deaf. They are alone in their situtation; they don’t know any other family with a deaf child.  As the child grows, the family develops signs for  this and for that. So does the child. These signs do the job of communicating between them. These signs are unique to them.  So, there must be thousands and thousands of such unique signs out there. Think of the task of collecting them all and standardizing them.

This was the job that Dr. Sternberg took on. To me, his achievement is as monumental as Dr.Gove’s. Think of how meaningful it must be to anyone who is deaf.

I kept poking into the book, finding all kinds of interesting tidbits. On the back cover I found a local angle. Some glowing testimonials are printed there. One is from David Hays. Right from our own Chester. He opened the National Theatre for the Deaf there in 1983. Now it’s in West Hartford.

He wrote, “Four thumbs up. Martin Sternberg’s intelligence and passion for his subject gleams in this monumental work.”

Martin Sternberg was a giant, without a doubt. He did for the deaf what Louis Braille did for the blind. He was the blind French church organist who in 1825 devised the raised system of  dots permitting them to read and write.

I feel lucky indeed that I don’t need Dr. Sternberg’s precious book. But countless people do. And how lucky they are indeed to have it.

I’m so curious: did those two men who were “talking” so fluently back at Burger King pick up some of their marvelous signs from this dictionary?

And did the person who gave up my copy ever have to use it?

Coast Guard Band Concert – Outstanding

The first band back in 1925

I’ve attended 50 Coast Guard Band concerts, I’d say. All at the band’s home base at the Academy in New London. The recent one in Clinton was not only unusual but truly outstanding, and this is why I’m telling you about it.

One reason unusual because it was my first one not in the band’s Leamy Hall at the Academy. And outstanding because the audience was so big and so appreciative of the fine program and great playing.

It turned out to be the 23rd straight year the band was playing in Clinton. The band gets around a lot, but no other community in the U.S. has enjoyed as many of its concerts as Clinton. The performance established a new record in the band’s annals.

As usual in Clinton, it was sold out. Not that anybody had to pay, so “sold out” is the wrong expression.  Admission is always free.

It’s hard for me to recall, but it may have been the most beautiful I’ve attended.

The audience there agreed. At the end they all jumped up and applauded loud and long. The players must have gone home proud.

I’ve enjoyed just about every concert. The only time I’ve been disappointed has been the occasions when it has included avant-garde  or experimental music. Connoisseurs may savor that. I don’t. None of that in this concert.

Annabelle and I were lucky to get in. For out-of-town concerts like this one, tickets are required. Not so for Leamy Hall.  I guess this is to get a better idea of how many want to attend and to have better control.

This time I was late in reading a newspaper notice of the concert. Immediately I sent in my request for two tickets along with the necessary postage-paid self-addressed return envelope. I kept my fingers crossed. The tickets popped in just two days before the concert. Wonderful.

The concert time was 7:30 p.m. at the Morgan School, its traditional venue. We decided to be in our seats by 7.  Easier parking. Better selection of seats. We got there on time. Bur surprise!

The only parking site we found still available in the huge lot was way, way out in left field.  So, a long walk up to the auditorium for us. There a  great line of people, two wide, backed up from the front door right around the corner of the building and way up the side.  Incredible. We double-timed to beat others to the tail of it.  Lucky that it was not a rainy, miserable evening.

But the line moved along smoothly. A whole team was at the front door to usher us in and make sure we got a program and move us into the auditorium. All volunteers, I think, and well practiced.

Seven hundred and fifty seats in there and already they seemed all taken. Rather than rush ahead, I stood back and scanned for seats and spotted three down front. But people were streaming down the aisle searching, searching. Would they get to them before us? We scurried down and claimed them.

The three were about 10 rows back and in the plumb center. Perfect. Of course, we had to bother folks already seated in order to squeeze through to the seats, but we managed without stepping on any toes. Our seats couldn’t have been better.

Annabelle sat behind a slight teen-age girl but I plunked down behind a big, chunky guy. I had to crane to the left  of him for a good view. We both shifted one seat over. That wound up fine for both of us, especially me behind the little gal. I expected someone to squeeze in for the empty seat next to me but it remained untaken. It must have been the only empty seat that evening. I enjoyed it.

 

The band took their seats right on time. What a smart-looking outfit. Impressive in their sparkling, sharply pressed white jackets, the men in their blue trousers and the women in their  ankle-length blue skirts.

The band was started in 1925, Much smaller back then. It now has 55 members and is coed now, of course–that big change happened back in 1973, which is when the Coast Guard Band enlisted its first female musician.  Tonight they filled the stage. I made a quick count, 31 men and 13 women, it seemed. Not sure why the disparity.

It has two officers.  The director / conductor is Commander Kenneth W. Megan. He started as an arranger in 1975. That date surprised me—so long ago–but it’s the date lsted.  He became assistant director in 1986 and took over in 2004.

Chief Warrant Officer 3rd class Richard Wyman is the assistant conductor and announcer.   He began in 1998 as a sax player and took on his new role in 2004.  I am told they had to audition for those positions.

In a concert of some dozen pieces, Megan usually conducts one or two, and Wyman becomes the announcer for them. Then they swap roles for one or two pieces.Both fill both roles beautifully, in my opinion.

Old photos in the lobby at Leamy Hall show the band marching. I have never known the band to march.  The band marches very seldom. However,it always does the Inaugural Parade for each President and occasional other short marching events.

This is why a marching band uses only wind and percussion instruments, of course.  How can you march with a bass or a piano or a harp?  But those are instruments that are usual in the band now, though few. On this night the harpist was playing and the bass player also. But no pianist.

And in my experience it has always featured a singer, always female. Soprano Megan Weikleenget performed twice on this evening. She is a Musician 1st Class. No uniform for her. She was stunning in a beautiful off-the-shoulder blue gown. I’m sure nobody missed the fact that she is approaching motherhood quite soon.  I admired her for her poise.

She was excellent.  Great applause. She earned it.

To me it seems the band is morphing toward the symphonic. No objection from me though I like it just as it is.

I also noticed two musicians in civies—the professional musician’s black and white.  A man flutist and a woman bassoonist were filling in. I found out the band is awaiting new hires to take on those positions.

This is the band’s second set of uniforms in my 15 years of attending. I liked their old one, too, which was blue tops and and white bottoms, as I remember it. Not sure why the change was made. Maybe the old one got boring to them. It turns out the band has had a number of uniforms.

I should mention that it is classified a “premier” military band.  This means it’s the service’s finest band-its name band. It is the Coast Guard’s only band.  The other services—the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines—have numerous bands.

By the way, I understand that all new members train at the Armed Forces School of Music. It is on the Naval Amphibouse Base in Norfolk, Va.  In fact, it used to be the Navy Music School. The training lasts about  six months.  They learn how to salute and other basic military etiquette plus rules and regulations. Plus more specific music training.

The band’s role is to promote good will by spreading the word about what a proud and efficient and effective outfit the Peace Corps is. To inspire recruiting in the corps. And reflect its culture and tradition. And of course play at ceremonies.

It is usual for the announcer to recite how busy the Coast Guard is in an average day: how many rescues and interventions carried out, and contraband snared, and illegal immigrants blocked, and oil spills contained,  and so on. Which always impresses me.  It didn’t happen on this evening.

Many up there were familiar figures to me and Annabelle. I can recognize them as easily as Red Sox fans can spot their stars at Fenway Park. I root as heartily as  they do for the Sox, I’m sure.  The band does have legions of fans. I have friends who also never miss a concert.  I saw a couple here. I see many same faces at Leamy Hall.

I mentioned the band’s PR role. For this, the United States is divided into five big chunks and the band makes a two-week swing through each every five years.

The recent one was in California, with 13 concerts up and down the state.  I learned that one of its stops would be in San Luis Obisco, a beautiful “Spanish mission” city half way between L.A. and San Francisco.  My daughter Monique and her husband live only 15 miles north, in Morro Bay.

“This is your chance!” I e-mailed her.  “Get your tickets. Right now!” They did. Finally they got to enjoy for themselves what I’ve been telling them about.

This year was remarkable for another reason. The band traveled to Taiwan to participate for two-weeks in an international get-together of military bands.

Not its first trip abroad. The band often mentions how it played in Leningrad, Russia, back in 1989. Those were still Soviet times. By invitation, of courseThat was the first time an American band played there. It was a historic event and the band makes much of it, understandably so. It was the first American premier band to play in Japan. It has played in England and other lands.

It made much of its planned tour to Taiwan.  That would be whoppingly expensive, I was sure. When I read about it, I wondered, “How can the band do that now, when our country is staggering with debt and is in recession? How will this go over with people who think of that?”

Well, the band did it with private (non-government funds), whatever they were. But it was late in making that clear. My opinion.

Band members are chosen only after strenuous auditions and background checks. This is usual in the business. A typical audition will evaluate numerous competing performers, out of view behind a screen to assure fairness, and all culled from a list of applicants from all over the country, including leading music schools. They travel to New London at their own expense.

It’s a coup to get in. The band has an outstanding reputation. There’s another reason. A professional musician can lead a precarious life financially. The security of playing in the band is considered fantastic, especially in these harsh times.

I’ve wondered about the pay and the benefits. I found it easy to dig up a bit of this info on the band’s website, www. uscg.mil/band.

The band pays the same salaries as the Coast Guard pays similar ratings.  A beginner as an E-6 gets $46,032 ($50,784 with dependents). I was interested in pay for the higher levels also but couldn’t spot that easily.

Then there are allowances of various kinds, for family, housing, continuing education, and so on. Plus nice perks.  They can use the PX and get medical care at the Navy base across the river, for instance.

The band supplies the instruments, but they must not be used for non-band purposes.

The band also has a supporting staff. I looked for its annual budget. No luck. I’m sure I’d whistle if I saw it.

 

Finally the band struck up!  Chief Warrant Officer Wyman walked to the microphone with his usual polish and charm and made us welcome. (Generous applause.)  Commander Megan strode on stage and took a bow. (Generous applause.)

We stood and faced the flag and the band launched into the National Anthem, and that opened the band’s zillionth concert–oh, you know what I mean. They were perfect. Well, to my ear. Full disclosure: I can’t carry a tune. Yet I cannot live without music.

The concert lasted close to two hours, with an intermission. No time for the details, but the first half included pieces by Henry Fillmore, Modeste Moussorgsky, Ernest S. Williams,  Samuel R. Hazo, and Benjamin Britten. I know some of those may be unfamiliar, but their pieces were delightful.

It ended with the Service Medley. It’s a part of every concert. The band plays familiar snatches from the anthems  of the Army, Navy, Air Force,  Marines, and its own Coast Guard.

I would say that 75 percent of the attendees at any concert are senior citizens. I don’t understand why more younger people don’t attend. Well, during each snatch of  the medley, veterans of that service stand. The old soldiers, the old sailors, and so on.

I never stand.  The reason is simple. I never served. But I have felt bad. I have wished I could stand proudly, too.

Five years ago, a few days after a concert, I happened to read a short Associated Press story in The Day (I think it was The Day) saying that Peace Corps was actively recruiting older Volunteers. Older men and women have served but traditionally it has been a young person’s deal. The greatest number are in their 20’s.

But the Peace Corps suddenly had an important insight. It saw that older folks could contribute wonderful things in addition to patriotism and altruism, which seem to be factors.  Experience, for one thing, and determination, and maturity, maybe even wisdom. All true, of course. But why did it get smart so late?

A thought flashed up in my mind: maybe finally I could serve, too!

Oh,  I would never get to wear a uniform. The Peace Corps doesn’t have any. All I would get would be a pin for my lapel (and would have to buy it!).  But I was eager to check out the possibility. And that’s how I wound up as a Volunteer in Ukraine for a full hitch of 27 months. And how I just published a book about all that. It’s called “27 Months in the Peace Corps. My Story, Unvarnished.”

One day Peace corps notified me I was suddenly the oldest of 8,000 Volunteers serving in 74 countries in the world. All because I happened to turn 80 while in Ukraine. No big deal to me. “I’d rather be the youngest!” I replied.

Truth is that Peace Corps was a tough but very satisfying experience for me. A true adventure. So, I blame the band and its armed services medley for all that.

 

During the intermission I found Ellen Cavanagh in the crowded lobby. She was busy chatting in a thick group crowding around her. I got to speak with her. She is the executive director of the Clinton Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber was the sponsor of this concert. In fact, she was the one who invited the band back 23 years ago.  It has been SRO—standing room only—at nearly every concert.

She told me that tickets had been mailed out for all 750 seats. But some people don’t show up. She expects that. At 7:20, as usual, non-ticket holders were let in. And an extra 30 chairs had been set up at the back. She said, “So we managed to accommodate everybody, I believe.

“The concerts are always a great success. They are free, of course, but a big factor is that they’re always wonderful.”

But not really free, it turns out. The band’s budget doesn’t cover such trips afield. Organizations and communities interested in a performance must fill out a form to invite the band.

Decisions are based on various factors. Nobody must make any money off the concert. The concerts must be open to everybody—no discrimination. And the expenses must be covered: the bus for the band, the two trucks for the instruments, and the meals and lodging if necessary.

This concert’s program announced that funding was provided by Shore TV and Appliances of Clinton and Old Saybrook. Also that the printing was provided by Technique Printers of Clinton.

And the Clinton Board of Education and the Morgan School Administration were thanked for their cooperation,  with special thanks to Raymond Smith of the school’s music department and a crew of students he provided.

The second half was equally beautiful. First, the “Folk Song Suite” by Karl King. And then, what is not uncommon, three selections by the band’s five–piece Dixieland Jazz Band, always a great hit.

This group also had a stand-in, a fine guitarist. I noticed he had a well-trimmed beard. It occurred to me he’d undoubtedly have to shave that off if he wanted to don a uniform like the others.

The band has half a dozen ensembles…chamber, brass, jazz, swing, sax, and woodwind. They attract their own audiences. Annabelle and I have attended some of these smaller concerts. The ensembles are also an appreciated extra outlet for musicians with specific interests.

 

Next came an aria from the “Marriage of Figaro” by soprano Weikleenget, and then the rollicking “On the Mall” by Edwin Franko Goldman.

Mr. Smith, director of music at the Morgan School, picked up the baton for this piece. Very nice job. He has been the guest conductor for one piece since the beginning of the series. I was told that he had conducted it cold, although the band had rehearsed it.

Then Samuel Ward’s “America the Beautiful.”   A fitting finale.

The whole auditorium jumped up. Much, much applause. Bows by all the principals. Numerous acknowledgements of players. More applause–heavy applause. Another triumph for the band.

I’m sure it will be back in Clinton next year. For its 24th year!

This week it’s off to Washington, D.C., for a concert there. It’s a very busy outfit.

And it will be performing at Leamy Hall this Sunday. No tickets required.

Annabelle and I wouldn’t think of missing it.

My Big Idea Brought Back from Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress

Strange the way ideas strike. I like to say that my best ideas strike me in the middle of the night. But I got this one in broad daylight–walking out of our magnificent Library of Congress in Washington last week. It struck me like a bolt of lightning.

Boom! And there it has been at the top of my mind. The idea has been percolating and percolating. I feel I must tell you about it. Yes, must.

Milady Annabelle and I were there on vacation. I own a time-share. What that means is that I own a deed to a fancy apartment in a resort hotel in Myrtle Beach, SC. I own that apartment one week a year. Yes, an actual deed. But I’ve never even seen the place. I can choose the week—so long as I get the jump on the 51 other owners who can claim it one week a year.

Like so many other time-share owners, I swap it. There are numberless other resorts and hotels in the system. It’s easy through a central set-up. I do it with a call or two to an 800 number, or even online. So we can go here and go there. But you must remember: just one week a year.

I must tell you in honesty that a time-share is a lousy financial investment. I wouldn’t buy into it again. But every time we use it, I feel good about it. So it was in Washington last week. A good time!

Actually we were staying in a brand-new city (?) a 30-minute drive from downtown. It’s called Harbor National. Seems to be only 10 years old or so and is still developing. Plunk on the Potomac in Maryland just south of D.C. A total resort community. Very nice hotels along a waterfront strip with all the usual restaurants and galleries and clubs and salons and souvenir shops and apparel boutiques and so on.

A 30-minute commute sounds difficult for me, living retired in small Deep River in this tranquil corner. But it’s considered an easy commute in Washington. We did it every day. It was complicated by construction work, thoughtless drivers, and the tension of driving encircled by cars “cruising” at 75 miles an hour and even higher. Wow!

This visit of ours confirms a long belief. Washington is one of the most attractive tourist cities in the world. I’ve traveled a bit so I feel I can say this. It is so rich wonderful, memorable possibilities.

It’s our national capital, of course, and how impressive it is. So many look-see buildings, from our Congress and Supreme Court and White House right on down to the endless line-up of federal agencies in white marble. So many statues. So many monuments. Parks. Squares. Malls. Circles. Shopping centers. A gamut of restaurants beyond number. So many embassies. So many universities and colleges. So many fabulous museums. Our extraordinary Smithsonian!

When I was a kid, it was customary for high school seniors to go to Washington for a few days as part of graduation. What a good idea. Is it still the custom? I’m not sure. I hope so. Sad to say, the private school that I went to didn’t do that.

But I did get to Washington as a kid. It was a wonderful week. It happened after my sophomore year at Assumption College in Worcester. My classmate and buddy John Tormey and I thumbed there and back! Notice my exclamation point. Today thumbing is a no, no. In fact, illegal in many places. Forbidden on our Interstates—they didn’t exist back then. We were 19. I don’t remember if it was his idea or mine. I suspect mine.

We thumbed for the best reason of all. We had just a few bucks. We made it there in a day—a long day. How lucky we got: one guy carried us for a couple of hundred miles—an entomologist. He had to explain he was a bug scientist. What impressed us is that besides his fascination with insects was that he drove at a steady, relentless 50 miles an hour. Hour after hour. Like a machine.

We rented a room at the YMCA. No hostels back then. Plain but okay. Every day we’d be up and out early. We’d hoof and ride the trolleys and buses. We knew little about the city. We were total strangers. It wasn’t easy finding our way around and getting to places. We saw a lot but too little. We weren’t savvy.

Another memory: On a newsstand I spotted a nudist magazine. “Sunshine & Health” I think it was called. I didn’t know such a magazine existed. Didn’t know some men and women liked to go nude at the beach, in the sun. That was long before Playboy. Lots of photos, but very tame by today’s standards.

Late one night at the Y John caught me with it in my hands. Talk about embarrassment. He has brought it up a couple of times. Just can’t resist. But I remember he grabbed it for himself the minute he could. (In time he was the best man at my wedding, and I at his.)

Just the standing and waiting by the highway and hoping to nab a ride was a worthwhile experience. So was learning how to start and hold a conversation with complete strangers. I look back on it all as a fine and grand adventure. We grew up a lot. I learned more than I ever did in any course.

I’ve been to Washington a few times over the years, and always tried to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible. True for Annabelle also. Yet it’s surprising how little all that has amounted to.

This time we were so lucky in one way. One gorgeous Indian Summer day after another. Could not have been better.  Our first day was daunting. As every school kid learns, Washington was built as a city planned on paper by the French architect and civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant (what a strange name his: it translates to Peter the Child!)

That was an extraordinary event in the history of great cities. Most grow hap-hazardly.

(As I write this, I think of course of our Ivoryton next door to Deep River here. It, too, was planned on paper, every aspect of it—where the factory would be, where the executives would live, where the workers, where the churches would be, where the grocery store, where the library and social club, and so on.)

He would be astounded to see the result today. In a sense the city is a monster. It is so huge. It has so many buildings. And that’s all because we have so many federal agencies and institutions and services and everything else. And so many related private groups of all kinds, each with its headquarters.

The traffic paralysis! Because all of us insist on driving our own car. Which is wonderful. But also terrible. We found the downtown traffic horrendous. This despite the marvelous Metro and remarkable bus system. The parking inadequate.  You have to circle around and search and search for a spot.  There are parking garages, but there are long queues of cars getting in and coming out, especially at rush hours. And expensive!

A blessing was my handicap-parking permit. “What a sad day,” I said to myself when I got my permit from the Connecticut DMV. “It has come to this!” But how much I have gotten to appreciate that permit in these declining years. It was a godsend in Washington.

Our priority was the museums, and particularly the fabulous museums of the Smithsonian Institution, federally supported, as we know. They line both sides of a mall, one great museum after another. All four-star museums for sure. And all free, I believe, even in these days of strained budgets.

Despite our grand intentions, we got to visit only two. One was the History Museum. The other was the Natural History Museum. We went to each on two days. And we spent hours in each.  The exhibits were amazing. So interesting. So well done. So educational. So much fun.

Annabelle and I have similar interests and different ones. That’s natural, isn’t it? So we split up in these grand buildings now and then. I’d go off to one exhibit and she to another. This was to make the most of our time.  Yet both of us got to see only a small part of each museum’s offerings. Imagine that.

When we got tired, we drove around. So much to see. We found our way to this neighborhood and that one. Cruised by the great monuments, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and others.  Experienced Dupont Circle and upscale neighborhoods. We drove bumper to bumper through charming Georgetown. We poked into the sprawling black neighborhood that starts just to one side of Congress.

A must for us there was Howard University.  I believe it is our country’s premier black university, meaning the best-known one planned and built and promoted for blacks. I’ve heard and read about it many times. Who hasn’t? A much larger campus than I expected, with bigger buildings, too, most red brick. And lots of activity. Many students (more than 10,000). And a “Harvard Square” of restaurants and bookshops nearby. I was impressed.

On our drives we spotted the Supreme Court and the Library, of course. On one day we made an attempt at visiting both. No parking spots. We did research and found there was a BIG parking garage within striking distance. It’s on one side of Union Station. And we found there a Circulator bus that could carry us close to both institutions. The Court and the Library are located practically side by side.

It was a long wait getting into the garage at 8:30 a.m. And the only spot we found was on the top floor, which I believe is the top floor. Then a long walk out and through Union Station. But what a fortuitous sight that was. What a big and magnificent building. Worth a visit even if you have no need to catch a train. Recommended!

Then a long walk to the right stop for the Circulator. The Circulator is well named. It circulates through the city. Quite new. Fine buses. Inexpensive. The $1 ride is just 50 cents for a senior. (The garage cost us $22.)

Our first stop was the Library of Congress. We got off nearby. But the Library is three big buildings! We entered the closest one, the Madison, named for James Madison, our fourth president.

Surprise. We had to go through airport-like security to get in. Putting all our possessions into our tray. Everything except having to take off our shoes. We were spared that.

Surprise No. 2. I found the Madison to be just a very large but disappointingly plain everyday working library. A research library mostly—aides doing research for representatives and senators and other officials; men and women writing books.

Our time was limited. What I hoped to see was the Periodicals Room. “I’ll bet they’ll have every American newspaper and magazine in there,” I said to Annabelle. “And from other countries, too.”

We got to the Periodicals Room down a long hallway, then down another. But we weren’t allowed in. We needed a library card! That was Surprise No. 3. And only the highest officials can check out books from the Library of Congress—Surprise No. 4.

The other “secondary” library is the John Adams, named for our sixth president. We never made it to that.

Our priority was the main library, the first of the three, the Thomas Jefferson, honoring the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and other important documents, and our third president. In fact, it’s his personal library at his home Monticello that became the nucleus of the Library of Congress.

We got in, again after a security search. All Americans are welcomed in. The red carpet is out. Again, the security check.  Finally into that grand and monumental and magnificent building! Huge halls. Great columns. Marble aplenty. Paintings and statues and plaques. And so many visitors.

The Jefferson was designed to make a statement and it succeeds: that the Library of Congress is our national library, the repository of all our copyrighted works, the treasure house of our learning, the fount of our thinking, the finest library of the greatest democracy in the world.

We got started by joining one of the frequent tours, but hearing the leader was too difficult and quickly we set off on our own. Again the exhibits were spectacular.

There is a splendid replica of Jefferson’s library with thousands of his original books. Some were lost but there’s a huge effort to find replacements. I walked from one bookcase to another, scanning the titles.

Amazing the breadth and variety—he was interested in absolutely everything. He had books in many languages. Many in Latin (which I studied long ago). And so very many in French. This interested me. French was my first language, learned on the laps of my parents. I studied it many years, and I speak and write it.

Then the exhibits! Especially “The Founding of Our Nation.” The original documents, mind you. How impressive. I was surprised by the feelings of marvel and appreciation and  pride and gratitude that welled up in me.

We did our best to get a look at everything, but again, much too much. On to the Supreme Court down the street.

And it’s in walking out that I felt that flash of inspiration. My big idea! I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First, about the Supreme Court.

It, too, is a grand building, but on a much smaller scale. It is only 75 years old in its present building. It is so important to us because here, as we know, are pronounced the momentous decisions that at times preserve and protect our society and our lives but at other changes bring changes, some big. The Supreme Court’s decisions shape our nation.

We were directed into the great courtroom itself. At the front on the podium were the chairs for our nine justices, lined up behind the long table. We took seats. A young woman came forward, smiled, and gave us a talk about the court. She did it from memory, timed to an exact 30 minutes, but with enthusiasm and freshness. Very good. I enjoyed her.

We found our way to the cafeteria downstairs. On the way we passed corridors that were gated off. I peered down each one. Was this where Chief Justice Roberts’ office was? Justice Antonin Scalia’s? Ruth Ginsburg’s? No idea.

Nothing elaborate about this cafeteria. It was clear this is where the staff ate, too, not only the tourists. It was now close to the 4 p.m. closing time but we hadn’t had lunch and we made up for it. The food was good and the prices fair—those at the Smithsonian had been shockingly high, at least to my pocketbook. I suspected that the justices did not eat here. My bet was that they were served in their offices. And could order coq au vin or saumon aux champignons if that’s what they wanted.

Finally out we went, happy with our visits. And tired. Another Circulator back to the Union Station garage. Another long line of cars rolling out. Back to our National Harbor Hotel. Again a frustrating ride. So much traffic.

We checked out the next morning and made the long trip home to Deep River by dark.

I found our few days so interesting, so educational, so stimulating, and so important. Annabelle felt the same way. Our time in the capital made us appreciate all the more the grandeur and achievement and success of our country. That’s why that idea sprang to my mind.

I said to myself,  “Every young person should come here and experience this. They should do it as part of their college education. Not when they’re old like us. Such a visit would set them up for life.”

But how to do that?

We should develop a national program. We have thousands of them, it seems. Why not one more?

For the moment let’s call it Summer in Washington. Intended for college students, perhaps in the summer after their junior year. Not just a few days. That wouldn’t be enough. I thought, “Six weeks!”

It would be designed to cram in as much information as possible. About our history. Our democratic and federal form of government. Our guiding principles. The incredible range of our government activities and the ever-expanding role of government in our lives. The changing make-up of our country in numerous ways. Our increasing stature in world affairs. Would be designed to make clear and emphasize our national values. And our duties and responsibilities—and rights and entitlements—as Americans.

And it would have to be fun! That would be an absolute essential.

My son Mark’s summer experience in Europe in 2009 influenced me, I’m sure. He’s a professor at the University of Georgia. He took 24 students to four cities in Europe on a three-week educational tour: Frankfurt, Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague.

Each morning he gave his students a lecture on what they were going to see—a bank, a cathedral, a factory, a museum, whatever. But the emphasis was on business—all the students were business majors, as I recall it.  Then in came a guest lecturer from that city to further explain. Then off they went to look, understand, and appreciate. They also had plenty of fun. A great success.

“Summer in Washington” would be a significant summer. One that would affect the students in good ways for the rest of their lives.

They would room and board at area colleges in universities—just as in the way the wonderful Elderhostel Program started some 40 years ago. They have idle rooms and cafeteria space in the summer.

There would be a broad curriculum of lectures and tours. Every day they would visit a list of important places. The Congress, of course. The Library of Congress. The Pentagon. The National Post Office. The FBI. The Department of the Interior. The Peace Corps! On and on.

Also the Smithsonian museums and other important sites. The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. The new Martin Luther King Memorial. Arlington National Cemetery.  Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Every morning a lecture would precede the tour. The goal would be to explain, explain, explain.  From Monday to Friday, they would listen to a good lecture about what they would soon visit. They would do that visiting in the afternoon. And on the way there and back they would visit important monuments and sites. There are so many of them.

On weekends they would explore the city. Check out various neighborhoods. Drive by the embassies. And so on. Sightsee as much as possible. Rest and relax. But the overall emphasis should be on having fun.  Enjoying the whole thing. Being tourists in the finest meaning of the word. Education is easy when it’s coated with fun.

One week would not do. Much too short.  I thought six weeks would be right. Then I thought that it should be five weeks—five because that way two groups could be scheduled back to back more easily in the summer out-of-school time. With two sessions, more students could come.

It would be expensive. But it would be so worthwhile as a primal educational experience that it would justify the expense. So many students borrow their way through college nowadays. Well, they could borrow a bit more.

And there could be government assistance. After all, this would make all the students better citizens, better Americans, better voters—this at a time when the percentage of active voters year after year is less and less.

And there could be merit scholarships and fellowships.

It would be designed to have a big impact. A mind-opening, life-broadening impact.

It should be developed and publicized as a “must” for every boy and girl who wants a fine education—a liberal education in the finest meaning of the word. Even if what they’re majoring in is scientific or technical.

What I see is not a program of a few hundred students. I’m thinking of thousands every summer. A big program that would have a national dimension, bringing in students from every state and from our big cities and little towns. Not just rich kids. For every promising kid!

Well, it’s a good idea, you will say, but just an idea.

But we are surrounded with great things that were once just ideas.

It’s true of every aspect of our government, of course—our Congress, our Supreme Court, our very United States of America. Our Smithsonian Museum. Just an idea. Just a vision.

Think of our great break-through decisions and programs. The right to vote for every adult American, regardless of income, ownership of property or not. Free public education for all. Our Land-Grant universities. Women’s Suffrage. Social Security. The GI Bill. Medicare. Our Flight to the Moon. Again the Peace Corps—50 years old this year!  On and on. So many. Just an idea. Just a vision.

Every one of our great businesses—Ford, General Electric, Boeing, NBC, Microsoft, Pfizer, Google, The New York Times, Coca-Cola, Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon.com. On and on. They were just an idea. Just a vision.

Even our tiny businesses. These newspapers without trees, Valleynewsnow.com and lymeline.com and oldsaybrooknow.com. The corner grocery store. Joe’s Barber Shop. The Whistle Stop Restaurant. Just an idea. Just a vision.

So many of our good works. Our many hospitals and  private universities and research centers. The Red Cross. A.A. Goodwill. Seeing Eye Dog. AARP. Mystic Seaport. The Connecticut River Museum. Keyboard Park. On and on and on. Just an idea. Just a vision.

True all over the world.

All started with just an idea. A vague vision.

Will my idea take off? I wish I knew. It’s a raw idea. It needs refining. It needs PR. It needs lobbying. It needs money. It needs enormous leadership. But this is the kick-off. We’ll see.

I welcome your comments, your suggestions, and your criticisms. Send them to me: johnguylaplante@yahoo.com.

“Summer in Washington!” Don’t you wish you could be 20 years old and going to that for five weeks? Wouldn’t you be delighted to have your daughter go? Your grandson?

If you like my idea, you can do your bit right now: email it to all your friends. Ask them to do the same.

Daniel Halladay – The Remarkable Connecticut Inventor I’ll Bet You Never Heard Of…

For sure Daniel Halladay wasn’t dressed this finely when in his 20’s he was tinkering with what would become the Halladay Self-Governing Wind Machine

Hardly a month ago The New London Day reported how U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar had come to the area to preach the importance of building wind turbines practically off our shore. In Block Island Sound, specifically.

In fact, Salazar said the federal government was seeking proposals to develop energy farms out there—energy from wind turbines positioned in the waves quite far out, but within sight of our beaches.

Wind turbines are a hot subject. As we know, they are being built off the coast of Cape Cod right now, despite the all-out fight put up by Sen. Ted Kennedy. He thought they spoiled the view. And spoiled his sailing, I suspect, though that’s hard to believe. Futile fight, I’m glad to say.

I love the Cape, too. But I think the turbines are a smart idea and will be a pretty sight in the distant water.

I love the idea of wind farms. I’ve seen them—big spreads dotted with hundreds of tall turbines—in the West. I think of all the electricity they are producing for us and rejoice.

In fact, I think the turbines are not only beautiful. I consider them a monument to the ingenuity of man.

Reading that story in The Day, suddenly I found myself thinking of Daniel Halladay. I had read about him. He was an inventor right here in Connecticut 150 years ago.

If we have those fine wind turbines today, it’s because of the revolutionary windmill he invented–the windmill that dramatically changed life on farms and ranches in the Midwest and West for the better. In fact, all over the country.

In tiny Ellington up in Tolland County, he developed the machine that became sensational for pumping water. It made possible serious, extensive farming. And raising livestock for commercial sale. In time it got to be used for other purposes also. Farmers and ranchers everywhere put one up.

I’m positive you’re familiar with this windmill. They are an iconic part of the countryside out there. We’ve all seen them in the movies and TV and books and, for many of us, right out of our car window.

There are still many around, smoothly and steadily working.  Still being manufactured. I’ll bet there are still some in Connecticut. In other parts of the world, less developed, they are still common every-day machines.

Well, Daniel Halladay was the Henry Ford of that industry. He developed the machine, manufactured them, and sold them. Made possible the development of all that land. He had little idea what a huge impact his windmill would have when he rolled up his sleeves and went to work on it.

His machine worked fine. So efficient that it worked even in light winds.

Needed no expensive fuel—just some wind. It was affordable. Lasted for years. Needed no tending. It was self-governing! A man could go about his ordinary work with hardly a worry about it. And so adaptable to various purposes. What an amazing machine. Revolutionary.

This water pump was a key invention in the development of that huge chunk of the country. As important as the invention of barbed wire, which made it possible for a man to have a real ranch.

Daniel Halladay was a mechanic. He was born in Vermont, worked in other states, eventually settled in Ellington. A friend, John Burnham, repaired water pumps. The two talked a lot. Burnham gets the credit for suggesting using the wind to power a pump of some kind. But how to do that? Halladay began thinking and tinkering.

In time he developed the concept: a structure with a wind machine at the top. Connected somehow to a pump. Wood was the only material. So wood it would be for 95 percent of it. Not only the tower (it had to be tall for better wind), but also even the vanes at the top. Just a few key parts were iron and steel.

There were few investment bankers back then. He had to finance his project himself as he developed it. And safe to say that he had to squeeze time h from his bread-and-butter to devote to his newfangled machine.

He worked there in Ellington from 1954 to 1963. That’s when he worked all his basic ideas and started making and selling windmills.

Of course, windmills have been doing work for mankind for centuries. People built windmills in many countries. Often they were massive. They used sails to catch the wind, like the sails on a sailboat.

They were great machines in their own right. We’ve all seen paintings and pictures of them. But they took terrific human labor to operate. For one thing, somebody had to be on hand to shift them to face the wind whenever it changed direction. And to take down the sails when the wind got too strong. The machines needed lots of fixing. They were expensive to build. Each one seemed to be one of a kind.

It’s a fact that the Dutch brought windmill technology to America. Right here in our state, when they found their way up what is now our Connecticut River and set up in what now is Hartford.

And even more so when they established a bigger and more permanent settlement for themselves at the foot of the river that they named for their captain. I’m talking of New York City and the Hudson River.

Halladay faced numerous challenges. How to make his windmill simpler? Easier to run? Affordable?

He came up with one clever idea after another. He abandoned the idea of sails in favor of vanes.

He fabricated a “rudder”—a tail, so to speak. As the wind shifted direction, it kept the mill pointed right into it.

Before long he conceived a governor that adjusted the mill’s speed automatically—no danger of spinning out of control and destroying itself. He made it more and more efficient. So good that the windmill could run itself.

And he perfected the pump that would suck up the water, and how the energy should be transferred from the spinning vanes at the top down to the pump.

With the mass-production of steel, Halladay began using that instead of wood. I have seen many steel ones. Never a wooden one.

And it took less steel than wood to erect a strong, long-lasting tower.

And with more efficient production, the price got more reasonable.

Through ingenious and trouble-free linkage, his windmill—“weather vane” became the popular word–sucked the water up, hour after hour, day after day.

That was the main purpose. To provide water for livestock and crops. And very soon, water to refill the steam trains at key stations. Imaginative people put them to work as gristmills for processing grains and cereals, plus other jobs, including some industrial uses.

Burnham, Halladay’s buddy, was a great salesman. He became Halladay’s essential helpmate. They became a team. At first, sales were few.

A big problem was that Connecticut was far from where the new windmills were most useful—the Midwest and beyond. They shifted their operation to Chicago, and eventually Batavia, Illinois. Plunk in the middle of the market! The business became a great success and at its height kept many people working.

Of course, other inventors came up with refinements. Competition grew. Every farmer just had to own one. It was that essential. The human labor that it saved was incalculable.

They say that the greatest labor-saving device in the American home today is the washing machine—first for clothes, second for dishes. Back on the farm and the ranch at that time, it was Halladay’s windmill.

Then came the internal combustion engine.  And the electric generator. In came the Modern Age.

True to his nature, Halladay kept moving. He finished his days in Santa Ana, California, just south of Los Angeles. Many of his windmills got set up in that state.

But I’m glad that he spent his key creative years right here in Connecticut. It’s a pleasure to claim him as one of our greats.

With the development of electricity, people saw that windmills could generate that, too. They adapted Halladay’s machine to do that. Even today some homes way out there beyond utility poles use windmills—small, sophisticated ones–to produce their daily electricity.

Modern windfarm out West. Think of the kilowatts being generated. Salt-water windfarms are entirely feasible. Turbines can be set up in different patterns, of course. Farther apart, for instance.

Then came the marvelous wind turbines of today. All inspired by Halladay’s machine. There will be many more of them.

We should have a great big statue of Halladay here in Connecticut. Up in Ellington certainly. And maybe in Hartford where it would get greater attention. With a plaque on it explaining his giant achievement and his connection with the dramatic events of today.

I agree with what Interior Secretary Ken Salazar came here to preach to us.

The demand for electricity has never been greater. Who ever thought of  $4 gasoline? The electric power companies cannot keep up with demand—they keep reminding us to conserve, conserve! We need to put to work every proven energy-making idea we can think of that is safe.

I think Daniel Halladay—and his buddy John Burnham—would be beside themselves with delight to behold a modern windfarm. Yes, wind turbines even being erected in our coastal waters. How incredible! For a purpose they never envisaged—to harvest the wind to provide ample electricity for all our needs. Electricity—a strange energy they had no idea of when they started out.

No wonder I’d love to see wind turbines off Old Saybrook.

Hey, off the California coast and along the Gulf Coast I’ve seen those big platforms out on the water drilling for oil. I approve. What would we do without them?

The Burglar XYZ

Long dead and still unidentified.  But Oh! A startling development! 

It’s been more than a century since bank robber XYZ was blasted into eternity during a hold-up attempt at the old Deep River Savings Bank on Main Street. That bank is Citizens Bank now.

I’m familiar with other men widely known by their initials. JFK and FDR are just two. But that’s because these two were already famous as John F. Kennedy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, American presidents. But XYZ? He was a nobody. Or so it seems.

That startling crime made big news way back in 1899. It’s been 11 decades and the mystery about XYZ has never been penetrated.

Who was this little guy? Where did he come from? Did he have a family? Did he have a trade besides robbery? Townspeople were fascinated about it for days on end. They still are and there’s proof of this.

He was buried in Fountain Hill cemetery. Its first burial was in 1851. For years—for decades–it was the biggest and most prestigious cemetery in these parts. People were even brought in by train and boat to get buried in Fountain Hill. This was the resting place to be laid in.

All understandable.  Those were the days when the ivory and piano industries had made Deep River the Queen of the Valley. A proud and prosperous town indeed. You can see this in Fountain Hill—so many great and fine monuments. A very beautiful final resting place. Some folks visit it just to visit it. They know none of the inhabitants.

Bob Johnson and Shawn Nelson pay their respects. The tiny stone is at Bob’s feet. Notice the bouquet.

Fountain Hill Cemetery is a scant half mile from where XYZ was shot and killed. XYZ’s grave is in the farthest corner back. It’s the very oldest section of the cemetery. It’s a trick to find his grave. Up over the hill, down and around some slopes, then around a ravine or two and some great rocky outcroppings, then along a narrow, rutted road. The worst final yards in the cemetery. A hearse doesn’t carry anybody back here any more.

Finally there it is. A cut stone, but how tiny. About half the size of a shoe box, I’d say. A plain “XYZ” engraved on it. That’s it. The reason is simple. Nobody back then knew who he was. Nobody does today. He was lucky somebody thought of calling him XYZ.

This is where he rests. There’s a small bouquet of plastic daffodils adorning it. Faded. Pathetic. Looks  like it’s been there for years.

On XYZ’s left under a much bigger monument rests Timothy Hore Cole, a World War I vet. His neighbor on his right is Josef Hnilicka, also remembered with an imposing monument. Honorable men, I’m sure. Unlike XYZ.

Other monuments grace the tranquil green slope, which on this day is mottled with sun and shade. Back a bit up the slope is a fine, giant oak. Magnificent. As old as this old cemetery, I’m sure. Its great limbs stretch wide in a loving and protective embrace over all. Tranquility. Rest. Peace. I feel these.   Then I notice that not one of these many superior monuments has even a pathetic plastic daffodil on it to show somebody cares. Interesting.

I never would have found XYZ’s grave by myself.  My friend Robert F. Johnson took me to it.  He knows dozens and dozens of the people resting here. His wife Rosalie is here. So are his father and mother. Other loved ones also. Bob has lived in Deep River his whole 86 years.

Was a real estate agent here for decades? The busiest in town, I’ve heard. Sold hundreds of houses on these little streets and avenues and lanes. In fact, is still selling houses. I’ll bet he knows more people in town even today except maybe Dick Smith, who’s been our first selectman for 22 years.

I’m in my 80’s, too, but I’ve lived here only a dozen years.  Just a newcomer, but greatly interested. Bob is priceless to me. He’s always teaching me new and wonderful things about the town.

He’s made me appreciate Deep River more than ever. Not rich. Not poor. Not much phony about it. Nothing glossy. People maintain their properties. Turn out for elections. Support good schools. Respect peace and order. Work. Yes, a good town. And so pretty by the Connecticut River.

Well, Bob and I met Cemetery Superintendent Shawn Nelson up there at Forest Hill. Right at XYZ’s grave. He’s just 34 but he’s been superintendent for 12 years. It’s a big place–90 acres. Has different sections, of course, with much of interest. XYZ’s section was the original one. Fountain Hill grew and spread out from there.

Shawn handles it all. Keeps the whole place looking good.  Shows people around who are thinking of buying a lot.  Answers their questions. Digs the graves. Re-sets monuments when time topples them. Maintains all the records of who is buried there, and who with, and when that was.  Also keeps an eye out for those coming here  maybe for improper reasons. But that doesn’t happen often.

He surprised me when he said he was in the business since he was 8 or 9. “I grew up in all this.” His dad was superintendent—still is—of Pine Grove Cemetery in Middletown. So were his grandfather and grandfather.

“I’m the fourth generation in my family to be a  cemetery superintendent.”  He smiled when he said that. I could see the pride all over his face.

We talked about XYZ, of course.

Shawn said, “It’s amazing. Nobody knows a thing about him. Except that he was a bank robber. But I see people finding their way to this grave all the time. They come and stand here. Maybe they say a prayer. Some drop a coin down there.” He pointed to the ground.

“This guy has the smallest monument in the whole place!”

He pointed to the stone. “Look at it. It’s just of those stones that paupers get when they die. In fact, I think it’s maybe the only stone like it in the cemetery.

“But! Yhere are more than 6,000 buried here. But this guy gets more visitors than anybody else here! How to explain that?”

I thought of  robber Jesse James and others of his ilk. Are they famous beause they were outlaws…or because they were so daring…  Why? Why? Unfortunately I am not a psychologist. Maybe the psychologists would be puzzled, too.
“Look,” Shawn said. He got down on his knees and pointed. Scattered in front of the tiny monument was a bunch of coins…27 of them. A couple of quarters, some dimes and nickels, some pennies. Some had been there a long, long time, for sure. A couple looked just minted.

I asked him, “Why do you think people leave money like this?”

“No idea.” He paused. He was thinking it over. “Hey, he was a robber. He wanted easy money. Well, people are giving him money!”
I glanced at the coins. They didn’t amount enough to even buy a beer at Calamari’s Tavern a 15-minute walk from here.
“And look!” he bent down and picked up what I thought was a soda-can ring. It was a silver ring. A woman’s ring. Stone missing, it seemed. Possibly an engagement ring?
“What’s that all about?” I asked him.
“No idea. But I’ve seen it there for many years. ” He thought a minute. “Maybe it ties in with the lady in black who used to come here once a year. She’d visit the grave and leave a flower. She still comes, some say.”
“Lady in black?”
“Yeah. So they said. She’d come on the train. Young. Good looking. Wore a long black cloak with a hood.  Never talked to anybody. Would leave on the train.”
“Have you ever seen her?”
Shawn laughed. “No.”

Let me tell you how XYZ got killed. I struck gold—I went online and found a wonderful account. It’s “Legendary Connecticut” by David E. Phillips, published many years ago.  I recommend it to you. But pay attention to that word in its title, “Legendary.”  My dictionary defines the word as “of a story coming down from the past—popularly accepted as historical but not verifiable.”

Bank robberies were more frequent back then. There were two banks in town. The Deep River National and the Deep River Savings. Big banks for those times. The banks had seen several hold-up attempts  on them but none successful.
The American Bankers Association sent them word that an attempt was planned.  A big one…a band of robbers! How it heard that, no idea. The Savings Bank took action. It hired a security guard, Harry Tyler, who had a reputation as resolute and fearless. And a good shot.

He stood guard every night.  He armed himself with a Winchester. It was the biggest, best rifle back then. It was called a riot gun!   The weeks went by. He maintained his vigil.  Some folks said it was all just a phony rumor.

Very late one dark night—it was December 13—he heard a dog bark and bark. He saw four men approaching “stealthily.” He reached for his big Winchester. It was said this rifle could kill two people  close together with a single shot.

He saw one holding a revolver. Tyler didn’t wait. He took careful aim and pulled the trigger. The man with the gun dropped, dead. The others fled. The  victim had part of his face blown off. Later Tyler got $500 for his valor. A huge sum back then. That dog deserved a medal. At least a nice fresh bone.

XYZ at the undertaker’s. The fatal shot hit him on the other side of his face.

The undertaker held the body a few days, hoping someone would be able to identify the man. In his early 30’s, it looked like.  A fair build.  A big wide mustache. But a mustache was common. Nobody did provide the answer.

Not a word was ever heard from his accomplices or about them. The cemetery donated the plot for XYZ. A few curious folks attended the simple ceremony.

Oh, I should mention that sharp-shooter Harry Tyler is buried here also. About a rifle shot away. I should go check what his inscription says.

A few weeks after all this, a letter came in a lady’s dainty handwriting. She asked that the robber’s grave please be marked with just XYZ. Did not give her  name. The envelope markings were fuzzy. Was she the lady in black who came once a year for many years?

A simple wooden cross was put up with XYZ on it. In time, the basic stone marker replaced it. Shawn says the records do not say when. “Maybe the wooden cross wore out. Maybe the cemetery paid for the stone….”
The stone is weathering just fine. Those deep letters are good for another century.

All that was long before the F.B.I.  Even before finger-printing. And now we have DNA testing, which is said to be infallible.  DNA testing is the  convincing evidence in more and more trials—absolute proof. DNA testing has also freed prisoners who have been locked up for years for crimes they never committed.

Is it possible that DNA testing could finally identify XYZ, resting there six feet under for more than a century? And give him the name his mom and dad chose for him in the hope, I assume, that he would make that name famous some day?  But famous rather than notorious.

Well, it was time for the three of us to leave XYZ’s grave. Surprise.  Bob dug into his pocket , bent down, and placed a coin among the others. Another surprise: Shawn did the same thing.

But why? I’m sure they had a good reason. But it beats me. I did not. Later I felt a bit guilty about that. Hard to explain.
I hope XYZ is aware that Bob and Shawn did that for him.

NOW ABOUT THE STARTLING DEVELOPMENT!

At the Deep River Public Library I happened to mention to librarian Ann Paietta that I had just finished writing this story.

Her eyes lit up. “But XYZ was identified!”

“What???”

“I’ll show you!”

In minutes she handed me a paper.  “This is a photocopy of an article published in the New Era. The New Era was the big paper here in those days.”

I scannd it eagerly. It was dated Feb. 23, 1900. That was a bit more than two months after the shooting.

A headline said, “THE BURGLAR IDENTIFIED. His name Frank Howard, and was a Deep-dyed Criminal.”

A full column of reporting followed. It said that detectives of the American Bankers Association had been working hard on the case.

He was also known as Frank Ellis and Tom Howard. In another place, as P.E. King. He was traced back to Mancelona, Michigan, and to Albany, N.Y., and to Springfield, Mass. He was described as a desperate and hardened criminal.
In one robbery he shot a man (used a revolver!). The man recovered.  In a hardware store he blew up the safe but got little. One time he was pursued by two officers. They tried to arrest him. He drew his revolver and shot one man in the back (no mention how seriously) and took off. Was arrested later in the day “after an exchange of several shots. It was thought for a time that a lynching would follow.” No mention of what happened to Howard as a result of that. I wonder if he realized he might have been lynched.

The detectives also got info about the three who escaped after the Deep River try. “The same three men were in the gang that shot the watchman in the Bridgeport affair (?) a few weeks after the killing of the burglar in this place.”

Pretty good reporting, I think, given how much more difficult news-gathering was in those days. The New Era must have had a lot of subscribers.

Now the big question: After the circulation of this sensational article, why did it continue to be said time and again that XYZ was never identified?

I am not sure. But there’s a lot of fun in keeping a mystery going.

Squeezing Every Possible Mile Out of a Tankful of Gas

No wonder John is shocked! He remembers buying gas for 26.9 a gallon (Photo by John Ely)

I’ve set a new record for myself on the road. I achieved 24.8 miles per gallon of gas in my Hyundi Sonata in a test!

I’m sure this does not sound like much for you in your Prius. But for me, not bad. I’m accustomed to lower mileage.

I obtained my driver’s license at 18 and I looked forward to this test last week-a feat to cap my 64 years at the wheel. I was excited when I started the final arithmetic. But I admit I was disappointed with the 24.8 result. I had been driving with such constant care throughout the test of nearly 400 miles that I expected a more dramatic score. After all, I had used every trick I knew to maximize that result.

That 24.8 was for my mileage over 13 days. I re-did the arithmetic to make sure my answer was correct.  It was. I had been hoping for 30 miles per gallon. I had gone online. My Sonata is a four-door 2010. For it the Hyundai website claims 24 city/35 highway miles per gallon.

My driving was a combo, in fact leaning toward the highway driving. My heaviest driving was in New London on two visits, but I also made a round trip to Hartford.

I have the highest regard for Hyundai, but I believe reaching that claimed 35 mpg is as realistic as breaking the sound barrier. I’d love to talk to anybody who has ever gotten more than 30!

I have owned some 30 cars. I have driven hundreds of thousands of miles—more than a million, I figure. This is my best mileage ever, I believe, as modest as it is. It comes when gas prices are the highest I’ve ever coughed up. More than $4 per gallon!

I paid 27 cents a gallon when I got my first car in 1950 and that hurt my pocketbook so bad that I remember it to this day.

That was a snappy Terraplane coupe, by the way. Vintage ’38. Two doors; a single bench. I was a junior in college. It cost $100. My father gave me $50 and I scrounged the other $50 from my Aunt Bernadette. What a nice memory.

I remember when the price dropped to a wonderful 17.9 in a gas station war. Those wars sprang up like wild fire. They were wonderful for us consumers. Hated to see them end. I haven’t seen a real gas war in years. It makes me think there may be collusion now. How does it happen that gas stations in a whole neighborhood seem to display basically the same prices every day?

Anyway, I have become a careful driver and frugal. I consider it dumb not to be. I admit that during these stratospherically spiraling gas prices I’ve been even more watchful.

Everybody I know is complaining about these astonishing, numbing prices. It’s right near the top as our biggest topic of the day.

Truth is, I hear more about the day’s gas prices at the coffee shop than I do about Iraq and Afghanistan, which are much more serious.

And know what? Despite these incredible prices, I am astounded to see so much dumb driving on the road. Driving that wastes gas and that means money. Crazy!

Yes, I take pride in wrangling my dollar’s worth. It’s this habit that accounts in part for my untroubled financial life these many years.

Oh, I didn’t tune up my Hyundai Sonata for this trial. Didn’t check my tire pressures, which is recommended for top performance. No special preparations of any kind.

The idea to run a test hit me on the morning I paid $4.14 per gallon for a fill-up. Incredible! What American over the age of 30 ever expected to see such prices?

I immediately set my odometer at zero. And I did not use any new-fangled driving tricks. I used the same old tricks I have used for years. Some are known to many savvy drivers. You probably use some. But I think a couple are my own—things I’ve picked up by myself on the road.

Some are more effective than others, of course. But they all wring out more miles per tankful. I believe this although my close friend Woody strongly disagrees. I’ll tell you about him in a minute.

Interested in how I did it? Well, see how my tricks check out against yours.

First, I must tell you about an exciting experience eight years ago. My Uncle Jack—91 at the time—was a patient at the Rhode Island Veterans Home in Bristol, R.I. I visited him once a month. It was108 miles to Bristol, with two stops on the way. One in Westerly for a quick walk around beautiful Wilcox Park downtown—it’s also a superb arboretum. And a stop for coffee half an hour later down the road.

Oh, I am a shun-piker. Important for you to know this. I drive on our Interstates as little as possible. So to visit my uncle, I traveled on I-95 only to Rte. 234 beyond Mystic. I rode 234 into Westerly. Then Rte. 1 into Rhode Island, turning east on Rte. 138.

Then down the long hill to gorgeous Narragansett Bay and over the two great bridges across it to the eastern shore —the Jamestown Bridge to Conanicut Island, and  then the massive Senator Pell Bridge. Then dense stop and go traffic on 138 for about 15 miles to the old and narrow but graceful Mount Hope Bridge across scenic Mount Hope Bay. Then five miles or so of slow driving to my uncle’s.

So, quite a variety of roads.

It was exciting because I was trying a new game I made up. I got myself two rolls of pennies—100 in all. I wasn’t sure how many I’d need. And I put an empty tin can on the floor to my right. The idea was this: I would drop a penny into the can every time my foot touched the brake pedal. My goal was to get to the hospital with as few pennies in the can as possible.

A wonderful game. A game of skill and anticipation and fun. Yes, fun! My Rule Number One was: no risky chance taking! Do nothing to impede other drivers! Safety first!

Rule Number Two—obey the law. Drive within the posted speed limits—well, reasonably so (who ever respects every limit?) Do not run a red light. Stop at every stop sign. Do not cross a solid white line.

My score that first time for that 108 miles was 38 pennies.  And I was vigilant. It turned out to be so much fun and so instructive that I wrote a column about it. Later several readers told me they tried it. Very gratifying.

I played that game every time I headed to Bristol. My best score was 19. But there was a bigger pay-off. That game sharpened my driving skills. Anticipate and react. Again and again. That was the essence of the game. What’s about to happen and what should I do about it? I now anticipate at the wheel as a regular thing. It’s a wonderful habit.

Here’s an example. I’m coming around a curve and I see a green light a quarter mile ahead. Now, a quick decision! Should I speed up to make sure I’ll cruise through before it turns red? Or should I slow down (naturally, without braking!)  to glide to a halt in front of the light if it does turn red? Other cars going my way complicate the game. Of course, luck is a factor, as it is in so many aspects of life.

That 108 miles to Bristol presented many variations of this challenge.

One helpful trick I learned the hard way many years ago. One evening, backing up in the dark, I hit a lamp post. Just a gash on the pole, but a $500 accident to my car. Lesson learned!

Backing up is a dangerous maneuver even in broad daylight. We all have three rear-view mirrors but it’s impossible to view all three all the time. And the view is limited. Think of the many times you’ve read about a car backing up and hitting a child, for instance.

Besides, backing up is a total waste of energy…gas. I plan my driving for as few back-ups as possible. As we know, nearly every parking spot at every supermarket and shopping plaza in the country makes it necessary for us to pull into it and park. Then back out.

I search for a spot to park where I won’t have to do that. Easy. Every such parking lot is designed in double rows with cars parking nose to nose. If possible, I choose a row where two nose-to-nose spots are empty. I drive through the first spot and into the second one and park there. Later, in leaving, I drive out forward. Couldn’t be easier.

It’s essential always to drive with a light foot—light on the gas pedal and light on the brake. Besides, my kind of driving is much kinder to the brakes. Nice and steady; no wild spurts up and no frantic braking.

Another trick is to limit my speed to 60 mph on Interstates. These days only a terrible slowpoke does that. Like me. Very difficult to stick to 60—80 is usual now. Well, I’ll accelerate to 65 if a heavy-footed demon is tailing me.

These roads are designed for faster travel, which means higher speeds. But it’s surprising how fuel efficiency fades at higher speeds. It’s the old law of diminishing returns that comes into play.  Driving at 60 is more economical. And safer for sure.

Another is to make as few trips as possible. This means consolidating errands. Another is to not run the engine a minute longer than usual.  If I’m on my Rte. 154  in Centerbrook and I see our Scenic Steam Train approaching and tooting and the highway gates about to come down, I stop and turn off the ignition. I re-start only once the gates are back up.

Another is to tank up on gas every time and re-fill only when the gauge is approaching Empty. Stops for four or eight gallons at a time are wasteful in time and money. When possible, tank up in cooler temperatures, usually evening—you get more gas for your money. So I’ve read. Never make a special trip just to buy gas.

I practiced all these religiously during my test.  As I said, knowing Hyundai’s boast of 35 mpg on the highway for my car, I expected an even better result.

I told you I’m a shunpiker. I like to enjoy the ride. Like to look around. See everything. Shunpiking is a natural instinct for me. Some 10 years I drove solo to California in my Dodge Ram camping van. But not shunpiking. I used Interstates nearly all the way. So many boring miles!

Getting ready to return home, solo again, I got the idea of making the drive back with as few Interstate Highway miles as possible.

I studied the map and plotted a route.  Getting out of Los Angeles took me more than three hours! And that’s how difficult much of the trip was. In some stretches, everybody uses the Interstates! There seems no reasonable alternative. But I persisted and found my way.

Often I was all alone on narrow old roads for many miles. Through the West and the Midwest and the Great Plains. But I did see some incredible sights. No space here to tell you about all that. Well, I rode all the way across the country into New York State without a single mile on an Interstate! Then, how ironic.

Entering my Connecticut, failure! Without warning and without opportunity to turn off, I was led onto I-84. This happened twice! I succeeded for some 3,600 miles, then my accomplishment faded in the final 150 miles. But it was fun trying. I wrote an article about that also.

Now, about my friend Woody Boynton in Old Say brook. He’s a retiree like me and a fellow former Peace Corps Volunteer. A smart guy…a fount of info about a wide range of things, including mechanical engineering. He astonishes me every time.

I told him about this test of mine. And here is the shocking thing: he told me I was all wet!  He pooh-poohed many of my tricks. He said, “You may save a teeny bit. But all those tricks are largely insignificant. They don’t add up to much. What’s important is steady acceleration. And deceleration.” This part I agreed on. But he said it all with such authority that I was crestfallen.

Chagrined.

Hah! I hate to admit it but he may be right. Maybe that’s why my result of 24.9 was not better. If he is right, there was not much point in my being so diligent and fixated. Maybe I was being dumb in my own way.

Please help me. If you are an expert in this big subject of the day, please advise me. Is Woody right? E-mail me at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com. I thank you in advance, and will do so again in a personal reply to you.

If I come up with good info from you and others, I’ll share it with our readers.

There’s one thing I will not change my opinion about. I love my penny game. It has made me a better driver. Kept me more alert. And given me a lot of fun. Try it once. It doesn’t have to be pennies, of course. Many other things will work. Use silver dollars if you like. Let me know. Talk others into trying it.

Maybe together we’ll save a few gallons.

A new face for a new future

I recently read an astonishing news story about a surgical first in the U.S. It was datelined Boston.

Dallas Wiens, 25, a construction worker in Texas had been given a new face at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Not a simple face lift, which is common now. He got a total face transplant.

The surgeons had removed the face of another person—dead, of course—and sewed it onto his face.  No word what the donor had died of or who he was.  The operation was done for the best of reasons.  To give him a new life.  A better future.

Now about this man in Texas, Dallas Wiens.  He was severely burned in a power line accident in 2008.  He lost his eyesight and his face was turned into a horrendous nightmare.  He looked so awful that it’s easy to think he might have thought of ending it all.

A plastic surgeon in Boston came to his rescue.  In fact, it took a whole team.  The operation lasted 15 hours and was enormously complex.  They gave him a new nose, new lips, new eyebrows, new cheeks, new skin. They had to make everything fit right.  And they had to connect all the muscles and nerves that make facial features move and that convey sensation.

The surgeon, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, had had to wait until a face came along that would be a good match.  Finally he located one.  The tension of it all can last long after the operation.  The body can reject the transplanted pieces.

Nothing on our body identifies us as clearly as does our face, of course.  Many of us feel it important to change it, in little ways and big ones.  Often  for good reasons.  We get a new hairdo.  We dye our hair.  Get a wig or a toupe.  Grow a beard.  Change the color of our eyes through contacts.  Get tattoos.  Re-shape our eyebrows or shave them and paint on new ones.

Tan our cheeks under the sun or under a machine.  Or we lighten our skin a shade or two to pass more easily in our race-sensitive society.  We Botox our wrinkles away or have our nose straightened or our chin pushed in or pushed out..

Sometimes for nefarious reasons.  It may get done because somebody wants a new identity to escape the clutches of the law.  Some people have their finger tips changed, for instance.  Different tips mean different fingerprints.

It’s surprising how much surgery gets done to change how we look.  We make our breasts bigger or smaller.  Have body fat sucked off.  Convert our sexual parts to male or female.

We are familiar with many transplants.  I remember the first heart transplant—in South Africa.  Sorry, I don’t remember the name of the surgeon, or the patient, a man.  Surprised that I don’t remember.  That was front-page all over the world, of course, and that was only right.

Many other transplant surgeries were developed.  Some are routine now– lung transplants, kidney  transplants, other organ transplants, hair transplants, even hand transplants.  As we know, these parts are taken from one person and placed in another or moved from one of the body to another.  Skin and fat, for instance.

Sadly nothing could be done to restore Mr. Wiens’ eyesight.

It was just a year or two ago that I read of the world’s first face transplant.  What drama!  A new face was put on a woman in France whose face had been horribly damaged.  Of course that was headlined all over the world.  Apparently she has recovered and is enjoying her new face.  Let’s hope so.

These two face transplants were done to make these two people look better.  Be more comfortable in the presence of their loved ones and families and even strangers.  Make it possible to earn a living in plain view again—not having to find a job that keeps them out of sight.

Reading this story about Mr. Wiens, I immediately flashed back to a man who could use such an operation.  A woman, too.  Honest — if I had a face like those two poor souls, l’d high-tail it to Dr. Pomanac, too.

They had truly hideous faces.  The worst faces I have ever seen.  My sister Lucie felt the same way.  She was with me.

It was an evening six years ago in Shanghai.  We were there for the wedding of a Chinese friend, Wu.  The two of us were on a Metro train heading downtown.  The rush hour was over.  There were just a few passengers on board.  Lucie and I were sitting on a bench facing the center aisle, which ran through the car.

I heard the door on the left end of the car open and I looked up.  A woman was entering from the car behind ours.  I was shocked.  She had no nose.  Just a gaping hole where it was supposed to be.  No lips. Awful.  No eyebrows.  Yes, I was shocked.  So was Lucie.  It was terrible.  Impossible to describe how bad.

As she approached, she had a cup and held it out to this passenger and that one.  She was begging.

Right behind her came a man.  Just as hideous.  No nose.  No lips.  No eyebrows.  Hideous.  He was doing the same thing, begging.

They made their way so quickly that I had no time to react.  No opportunity to dig into my pocket for money if I wanted to.  Lucie reacted the same way.  We followed them with our eyes as they moved past us.  They had good-looking bodies.  Athletic and fit.  In their 30’s, it seemed.  Appeared to have no problem.  But very few people gave.  The two disappeared into the next car.  Must have been ready to cry with disappointment.

Right away Lucie and I turned to one another.  “What was that all about?!” I said.  She shook her head. “No idea. But how awful!”

My words shot out. “I never, never saw anybody like that before.”  The awe was all over her face.  “Me, either.  Two monsters.”

The next morning we kept our appointment with Wu.  He had come from his office to have lunch with us.  He is an engineer–the international marketing director of an  electronic products company.  He and I met seven years ago in Africa.  We’ve been friends ever since.

The minute I could, I brought up the two monsters.  Yes, monsters.  It’s the word that said it best.  I told him the story.  Lucie kept supplying awful details.

I said, “What was all that about, Wu?”

He had grown up in Shanghai.  If anybody knew, he would.  I was eager to hear it all.  Lucie was all ears.

He shook his head.  “I have heard of such people.  But I have never seen any.  There are not many.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I have heard stories.”

“Please tell us!”

“There are parents who do this to their children.  When they are young.  They do it with acids.  Maybe with a knife.”

“How awful.  But why?”

“The parents need money.  They want their children to go out on the street and beg.  To become professional beggars.  People will  be horrified and will give.  Will be merciful.   But John,  you said not many gave.  Maybe it does not work.”

We were disappointed, of course.  What a story.  The parents.  The life of these children.  Their terrible life now approaching horrified people and begging.

I had it on mind all through lunch.  I’m sure that when he left, Wu passed on our story to everybody he ran across.  Such an awful story.  So incredible.

As I read Mr. Wiens’ story, I imagined what the last two years must have been for him, so disfigured.  And I imagined what these two poor folks working the Metro riders in Shanghai would go to to get a decent new face from a surgeon like Dr. Pomanac .

Can you imagine how good Dr.Pomahac and his team must feel to have accomplished a miracle like that?

Oh, one more thing. Dr.Pomahac said that Mr. Wiens would not look like he used to, and not like the unidentified donor.  He would look somewhere in between.

That’s appropriate.  His new face is giving him a new life.  A new future.  Wonderful.  Why shouldn’t he enter it happily and excitedly with a nice new—and different–face?

Maybe a clever surgeon will find a way to give him new eyesight.  Maybe by transplanting new eyes into him.  Don’t rule it out, as crazy as it sounds.

I hope so.

Editor’s Note: John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer and journalist.  His award-winning columns and articles were previously published in the Main Street News.  He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!”  He completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine in early 2010 after a 27-month tour of duty.  John always welcomes comments on his articles. Email him atjohnguylaplante@yahoo.com

 

Deep River Rotary’s Elephant Goes Public

People rushed over to see it when the elephant arrived from Newport, R.I. last December.

Finally the statue of the elephant that will grace Deep River for years and years to come will make its first big appearance on Sunday, June 12.

The long-awaited debut will at the Deep River Rotary Club’s 38th annual Antique Car Show. The show will be at Devitt Field on Main Street from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The show draws many people. The club felt this was the right moment. The club purchased the elephant last December and is finalizing plans for it. It has wintered safely in the town barn thanks to the cooperation of the Town. The plans will be announced as they develop. And that will be as soon as possible. “There is huge interest,” said Hedy Watrous, club president. “I keep getting questions about it at the Whistle Stop.” It is her restaurant.

I can say the same thing. I am chairman of the project for the club. People keep asking me, “What is it all about? Where are you going to put it? When?”  Well, I’ll be standing there right by the elephant at the car show. I’ll field all the questions.  It will be shown mounted on its big granite pedestal. The granite was a separate purchase. The work was completed just recently at the town barn.

Some folks always bring their camera. So many interesting cars. I’ll be glad to take a picture for any person or family who want to be photographed patting the elephant or hamming it up next to it. They can’t do much harm. It’s made of bronze, which lasts and lasts. It’s one thing that impressed the club.

Why this statue?  For more than a century making things out of ivory was the big business principally in Deep River and also Ivoryton next door.  The ivory came from the tusks of elephants. It was the best material for many items. The best known of them became the keys that make up piano keyboards. This became a very big business—the Pratt Read factory on Main Street (now Piano Works Condominiums) is still the biggest building by far in plain sight.

Pratt Read made the “actions” for pianos—all the moving parts. They put these actions in pianos bearing their name. They also sold these actions to other makers all over the country for the pianos they were making under their name.
 It’s that business that made Deep River the Queen of the Valley back then. (Which it is becoming again, by the way. My opinion.)

Many folks in town know that and are proud of it. But many do not. Especially our young people.  To make this known as an everyday fact is the main reason Deep River Rotary is doing this.

It has another reason. The elephants had to be hunted for us to get this ivory, of course. It came from their tusks. We regret that today. It was considered all right back then.  So was killing buffalo—we nearly wiped them out. So was chasing whales for their oil. So was shooting and trapping fox and mink and beaver and other animals for their fur. So was killing many other animals for their meat and their skin (leather). That hasn’t changed, of course.

So the club sees this as an opportunity to pay homage to the elephant and recognize it for the huge chapter it played in our town’s history.   A lot of towns around here have a sailing ship proudly printed on their official stationery. Sailing ships were so important. They were important in Deep River also—they brought the tusks here from Africa.

We, too, show a sailing ship on our town stationery. Shouldn’t we change that to an elephant? After all, it’s a fact that no other town in the country can make the same boast about having been the capital of the ivory-working industry.

“Where will the elephant be put? When?” These are the big questions now. So is another, “Where did you find it?”
We’re deciding where right now. Six sites have been suggested. The place chosen must meet some important requirements. Be safe. Be permanent–we’ll have the elephant for a hundred years or more. Be easily visible to the public year-round. Have a well-maintained site (a neat lawn, for one thing). Have electricity for illumination. And water—the elephant spurts water from its trunk (it’s a fountain). Have easy parking. And others.

“When?” We want to get the project finished as soon as practical. There is more to it than it seems. We want to do it right. Probably late summer. It will be a big public event. Lots of fun. We’ll alert you all.

Where did we find it? At a store in Newport, R.I., called Aardvark Antiques. It is worth a visit by anybody happening to be in the area. Easy to find.

I’ll also be eager to pick up suggestions at the car show. I’ll write them down and pass them on to the club. As I said, we are all striving to do this right.

You’ll also have great fun checking out the cars. The show attracts many people. After all, this is the 38th annual one! (All the thought and work that go  into it is a story by itself.)

Admission is $3, free for children 12 and younger. It’s a big fund-raiser for the club. As always, every dollar is used for good works.

Centerbrook Architects

Finally I had the oppotunity to see Centerbrook Architects.  I’ve lived in these parts for 20 years and been aware of its reputation. I have long been intrigued and would have loved a tour of the place but never had the chance.

Well, it came up on a recent Sunday at an open house it held—but only for the 50 first responders.

I had heard about it only the day before. No opportunity to call in. I arrived at the announced 12 noon on the dot. I was admitted because of a no-show. Thank you, Mr., Mrs., or Ms no-show.

Centerbrook Architects is plumb in the heart of tiny Centerbrook. The village, part of Essex, is little known outside our area. But what is interesting is that Centerbrook Architects is known all over the country as leaders in its business. That business is planning and designing buildings and getting them built.

Buildings of all kinds. University buildings. Business offices. Laboratories. Government buildings. Museums. Hotels and resorts. Research centers. Libraries. Prestigious buildings for prep schools. You name it. Often for the biggest names in their fields. Even houses. Usually for people not widely known but of considerable means.

Why was I so interested? Centerbrook Architects has been the winner of countless awards, honors, and testimonials. It is featured time and again in books and magazines for excellence, reliability, and all-around good value. Its fees are said to be steep, but the word is it delivers a lot for the bucks it commands.

It has been in business for more than 50 years. Started in New Haven by Charles Moore, who was in his late 30’s, the dean of the school of art and architecture at Yale. With three young men who were his employees, all Yalies. It moved to Centerbrook in 1969. It has grown and prospered more than they ever expected, I think. It changed names a couple of times and became Centerbrook Architecrts in 1983.

It employs some 60 people nowadays, which makes it mid-size in their industry. Looking at a list of its clients and the variety and grandeur of their projects is an eye-popping experience. There are thick volumes full of gorgeous pictures and fascinating descriptions of their jobs.

Perhaps you know: it is housed in an ancient and nondescript factory building at 67 Main Street. Famous locally in it day as “The Bit Shop.” You wouldn’t look at it twice in driving by. But surprise—besides its reputation in architecture, Centerbrook Architects has transformed the old factory into an exemplar of high-tech energy conservation and utilization.

It is as green as green can be. Imagine, it even has a rooftop garden designed primarily for energy efficiency–but a nice place for a picnic lunch or a drink after quitting time on Friday. Its efforts at conservation have also won it good press.

It can be argued that this quiet operation nestled between Main Street and the Falls River is due the major credit for whatever fame little Centerbrook may have today. Many people in other states know the village only as the headquarters of Centerbrook Architects, and travel here solely for that reason.

Once in, I made my way up the long, ancient, creaky stairs to a big room. It was crowded. Obvious why only 50. That’s how many chairs could be squeezed in. I found a seat at the very back. Not good. I wanted to hear every word.

William Grover

A man stood at the front facing us. Behind him was a wall-size projection screen. He was old enough to be a retiree, it seemed–like many of us in the audience. In fact, if there were young people present, I didn’t spot them. He was dressed like us, meaning casually. Slacks, open-necked shirt, sleeves rolled up.  A bit reserved, but friendly. Definitely in command.

He was William H. Grover. “Bill” Grover. And that’s the way he seemed to be addressed by everybody, just “Bill.” He is 73 now. He was one of the four partners who founded the firm in 1969. He was 31 then, the oldest of them save for Charles Moore, the dean , whose idea it was.

They were tired of the urban lifestyle,  the parking problems there, and the crime. Bill Grover landed a job to design a subdivision of nice houses in Deep River close to the Connecticut River. Like the others in the firm, he was on the look-out for a suitable and cheap property that could be fixed up and provide the better professional and personal setting they were hoping for. He spotted the Centerbrook Manufacturing Company shop on Main Street. Yes, the firm’s home today.

It had an old, old history. Located there on the falls of the Falls River because it could provide the waterpower for its machinery. Way back, there had been a gristmill there, at that spot to use the river for the power it needed.

Centerbrook Manufacturing was an iron works—the developer and manufacturer of fine auger bits. These were the clever, spiral-shaped knives a s carpenter would use with a hand brace to make circular holes in wood. These beautiful tools are collectors’ items mostly today. That explains why it was called The Bit Shop.

It was a noisy and crowded place. Big machine tools. Forges. Massive hammers.  Pulleys and shafts and flapping belts. It provided a livelihood for artisans and workers and their families for many decades. It had just closed down.

The four eager architects dickered for the building and got it. The machinery and left-over supplies and junk were still there. They were talented and inspired and knew they’d have to roll up their sleeves and work hard. They got it cleaned up. Their capital was short and they got their infant business up and  rolling and finally growing with classic sweat equity. That’s the way it was for years and years.  “But fun, too!’ Bill said.

For many years they rented out surplus space. They had people running antique shops in there, lawyers, writers, this and that. Finally the firm took all the space.  They knocked down sheds and out buildings, and in 1982 they had big help from Mother Nature—more about this in a minute. In fact, what Mother Nature served up could have been a deathblow.

The solar panels that now cover the front roof give a clue. But they give little indication of how the gritty old factory has been transformed into a comfortable and efficient and hugely interesting white-collar work place. More about that soon, too. But it’s obvious it is still a very old building though finely maintained. The brick walls. The high ceilings. The huge beams. I was thrilled by the many ultra-modern features Bill kept talking about. But the feeling that I was in a  factory building  erected in the 19th Century never left me.

I suspect none of the four had any idea of the success their beehive would achieve. That’s what it was, a beehive of creativity. And is.

Since its start, planning and designing have been its core efforts. But in time it introduced a whole package—everything needed to get a building built. Fund-raising know-how for their clients, for instance. Some of these projects cost millions.

Yes, Bill Grover is retired now, I found out. I heard a younger architect speak of him as “partner emeritus.” He was running this open house, which was being held at the request of the Essex Land Trust. I believe most in the audience were Land Trust people. Later I found out he’s been a board member a long time–in fact, he’s a past president.

There were half a dozen staff architects in the room. Not a single one in a business suit, by the way. One told me they had volunteered to help at this open house as hosts and guides.. It turns out there are 45 architects on the staff. The other 15 people are support staff.

The whole open house was slated for one hour. And Bill did cover the whole fascinating story from A to Z in one hour. He has a wry humor, and he kept sparking laughter with a deadpan funny remark at the end of an explanation about the place.

At the end we were broken into groups of 10 for a walk through the rambling place. Each led by an architect. I was in the fifth group, the last. The one led by him, which made me happy. Many questions were being asked and we’d pause here and there a minute as he explained and pointed out. He was generous about answering. All very interesting. So we stragglers left 15 minutes or so after the hour was up. I believe I was the last one out.

Here are some of the things we saw on the tour. Two large, sprawling rooms where the architects work–the “drafting rooms.” The size of a gym, say. Nobody has a private office, not even the partners. They are all out in the open. Each, from the most senior to the newest,  is in a work space 7 by 9 feet, with desk, work tables, bookcases and files, computer equipment, everything needed around him or her. Yes, nowadays women are architects, too. But the separating walls are only about chest high.

The architect has a sense of having an office. Yet there’s a feeling of equality. But as you enter, or stand in your place, you can see everybody in the room at a glance, and what they’re doing.

Bill said this makes for better use of the space. It also makes it easy to confer with one another. Saves walking. Promotes all-around efficiency. I understood immediately. Right away I thought of  the city room of the  big newspaper where I used to toil . I could see it would be hard here for anybody to loaf. Nearby we saw conference rooms for small meetings, and for meetings with clients.

Bill took us into a room where the plan of a building was projected onto a big screen. With clicks of a computer mouse, Bill could flip the building so that we could see it from the ground, or from the air. On any side. He could slice through the building at any point, lengthwise or sideways, and show us all the construction details. Amazing.

“Most of the work is done by computers nowadays. CAD, it’s called—computer-aided design. Saves times and money. But we still do a lot of sketching with a pencil. That’s how we develop ideas. With quick sketches.”

He took us into the library, which was filled with hundreds and hundreds of books and magazines. And with a professional librarian, mind you. “It’s not efficient for an architect to come into here and poke around looking for something. The librarian can do it faster and better for us.”

He took us into the computer room. Computers and monitors and components filled shelves all around. Three experts work here, one a planner, one a programmer,  and the third a Mister Fix-It. Understandable. The building is jammed full with computers. Knock off the electricity and in an hour the place would be paralyzed.

He took us into the Model Room. Every client wants to see the plans being created for his building transformed into a real, three-dimensional model. With walls, roof, windows, doors, everything. This shop is where these precise models get built by an expert model-maker on staff. Looking at plans is rarely enough. 

Bill picked up a tiny model of a chair and held it in the palm of his hand. “We’re designing an auditorium. Well, we even designed the chairs for it. This is one of them. We can make a hundred of them—as many as we need, and put them in place for the client to get a realistic view.” Again, all possible with the power of the computer.

He led us into the Sample Room. Here are samples of all kinds of things that go into a building … all kinds of lumber, bricks, glass, flooring, ceramics, plastics, on and on. An architect can enter and study the stuff and make informed decisions.

He led us into a beautiful room at the back end of the building. Large windows looked out on the Falls River and the great dam just a hundred yards away, the water splashing over it, the pretty pond behind it.

“There was a lot of discussion about whose office this should be. Everybody would love a place like this. Well, nobody’s, we decided. “We have meetings in here.”

He took us into the basement. He wanted to show us the hydropower plant, installed by the firm. Did so proudly. Remember that the old grist mill used the Falls River for power? Well, so does Centerbrook Architects. Just a percentage, however, the extent possible. Just outside is the big dam that makes possible the pond behind it. It’s the water drop here that makes all this possible.

He went on to show us the state-of-the-art geothermal pump. The water in the pond has different temperatures near the surface and near the bottom. In the summer the water is cooler at the bottom. In the winter, warmer at the bottom. The pump takes advantage of this differential. It sucks in water to help heat the building in the winter, and cool it in the summer.  Bill’s delight in the system was obvious to all of us.

He kept coming back to that subject time and again. Energy conservation! The effort started slowly nearly 40 years ago. It intensified as the firm experimented and got smarter about it. Today Centerbrook Enterprise is a practical laboratory of how much can be achieved in husbanding energy. More important than ever as prices skyrocket and there is increasing talk of scarcity.

He took us up to the roof—the flat part, that is. This is where the garden is. On one side is patio furniture. But the primary purpose was to save energy and make the building more comfortable. This was achieved with plantings that provide insulation. He talked about “sedum.” Not a word known to me. Sedum is a plant perfect for this. Requires very little care.  It grows in 4-inch-deep polyethylene trays.

Got to mention the solar panels. They made big news when installed in 2006. They cover every inch of the various roofs where they could be practical. Again we saw how much they meant to him.

Centerbrook Architects has used every trick in the book that has proven its value. It recycles everything that it can. It makes all the compost it can. It has put sun-control film on its windows. It has installed lights everywhere in the building that can maximize its energy gain. One thing I noticed is that one side effect is that they give the place a more industrial look than some people might like.

He said that in total these efforts provide about 25 percent of the firm’s needs. All this started back in 1973—the historic gasoline crunch! “Save Energy” became the national cry!

Fortuitously, the firm got a job to design the biggest solar-heating building in the state. Also a house commissioned by NASA that would employ every bit of energy-saving technology known at that time. it picked up know-how bit by bit. I got the feeling if some proven new technology comes up, Centerbrook Architects will put it to use for itself here in a jiffy.

Now about Mother Nature’s big wallop. June 6, 1982—The Big Flood!  Huge rains. The Falls River ran over…. a catastrophe all the way down from Bushy Hill Lake at Incarnation Center (its dam fractured), down through Ivoryton into Centerbrook. Houses were swept away. The landscape upturned. Huge damages. The flood hit Centerbrook Architects and swept away a big building and six smaller ones. 

“A calamity! But we rebuilt. We rebuilt the big building. It’s one of our drafting rooms now. We raised it  by four feet.to protect it in the future.

“What is incredible is that we never thought of re-locating.  We stayed right here. It turned out to be an opportunity to make many things better.”

There were other crises over the years. Years of lean business. Our present recession has taken a big toll. Centerbrook Architects had to take the painful step of laying off 30 people, most of them architects. We all  do what we have to do.  Things are easing.

Bill is the only left of the original four. He is – now partner emeritus.. The other current partners are Jefferson B. Riley of East Haddam, Chad Floyd of Essex,  James C. Childress of Essex,  and Mark Simon of Stony Creek, all of long tenure.

The firm takes pleasure in many things. One of them is its long relationship with many clients. One is Quinipiac University, a newcomer in this corner of the world famous for institutions of higher learning of excellence. Quinipiac, located in Hamde, has been a client for 25 years. One project after another. It’s remarkable how the university is gaining in scope, stature, and reputation. It now has a law school. It will open a medical school in two years. Centerbrook Architects has had an important role in these efforts.

As you can tell, I delighted in the tour. Centerbrook Architects brings honor to us. But know what? To me Centerbrook Architects is a paradox.

The buildings it creates for sites all over the country are breathtakingly fresh and modern. The firm is known as high tech and even avant-garde.  You know just by looking at them that they are the last word in sound construction, handsome design, and real value. Yet its quarters that support all this work still look like … well, the old Bit Shop.

I asked one architect how clients react when they visit here. “They like it,”  he said with a smile. “They’ve heard about this. They’re interested in coming and seeing for themselves.”

It’s basic to Centerbrook Architects’ quirky charm, you might say.

If you’ve reached this far down in my report, obviously you are interested. A suggestion for you: go to www.centerbrook.com. You’ll be able to take a virtual tour of just about everything I saw. Maybe more. You’ll be fascinated.

The big thing you’ll miss is Bill Grover.

A New Face for a New Future

I recently read an astonishing news story about a surgical first in the U.S. It was datelined Boston.     

Dallas Wiens, 25, a construction worker in Texas had been given a new face at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.  Not a simple face lift, which is common now. He got a total face transplant.

The surgeons had removed the face of another person—dead, of course—and sewed it onto his face.  No word what the donor had died of or who he was.  The operation was done for the best of reasons.  To give him a new life.  A better future.

Now about this man in Texas, Dallas Wiens.  He was severely burned in a power line accident in 2008.  He lost his eyesight and his face was turned into a horrendous nightmare.  He looked so awful that it’s easy to think he might have thought of ending it all.

A plastic surgeon in Boston came to his rescue.  In fact, it took a whole team.  The operation lasted 15 hours and was enormously complex.  They gave him a new nose, new lips, new eyebrows, new cheeks, new skin. They had to make everything fit right.  And they had to connect all the muscles and nerves that make facial features move and that convey sensation.

The surgeon, Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, had had to wait until a face came along that would be a good match.  Finally he located one.  The tension of it all can last long after the operation.  The body can reject the transplanted pieces.

Nothing on our body identifies us as clearly as does our face, of course.  Many of us feel it important to change it, in little ways and big ones.  Often  for good reasons.  We get a new hairdo.  We dye our hair.  Get a wig or a toupe.  Grow a beard.  Change the color of our eyes through contacts.  Get tattoos.  Re-shape our eyebrows or shave them and paint on new ones.

Tan our cheeks under the sun or under a machine.  Or we lighten our skin a shade or two to pass more easily in our race-sensitive society.  We Botox our wrinkles away or have our nose straightened or our chin pushed in or pushed out..

Sometimes for nefarious reasons.  It may get done because somebody wants a new identity to escape the clutches of the law.  Some people have their finger tips changed, for instance.  Different tips mean different fingerprints.

It’s surprising how much surgery gets done to change how we look.  We make our breasts bigger or smaller.  Have body fat sucked off.  Convert our sexual parts to male or female.

We are familiar with many transplants.  I remember the first heart transplant—in South Africa.  Sorry, I don’t remember the name of the surgeon, or the patient, a man.  Surprised that I don’t remember.  That was front-page all over the world, of course, and that was only right.

Many other transplant surgeries were developed.  Some are routine now– lung transplants, kidney  transplants, other organ transplants, hair transplants, even hand transplants.  As we know, these parts are taken from one person and placed in another or moved from one of the body to another.  Skin and fat, for instance.

Sadly nothing could be done to restore Mr. Wiens’ eyesight.

It was just a year or two ago that I read of the world’s first face transplant.  What drama!  A new face was put on a woman in France whose face had been horribly damaged.  Of course that was headlined all over the world.  Apparently she has recovered and is enjoying her new face.  Let’s hope so.

These two face transplants were done to make these two people look better.  Be more comfortable in the presence of their loved ones and families and even strangers.  Make it possible to earn a living in plain view again—not having to find a job that keeps them out of sight.

Reading this story about Mr. Wiens, I immediately flashed back to a man who could use such an operation.  A woman, too.  Honest — if I had a face like those two poor souls, l’d high-tail it to Dr. Pomanac, too.

They had truly hideous faces.  The worst faces I have ever seen.  My sister Lucie felt the same way.  She was with me.

It was an evening six years ago in Shanghai.  We were there for the wedding of a Chinese friend, Wu.  The two of us were on a Metro train heading downtown.  The rush hour was over.  There were just a few passengers on board.  Lucie and I were sitting on a bench facing the center aisle, which ran through the car.

I heard the door on the left end of the car open and I looked up.  A woman was entering from the car behind ours.  I was shocked.  She had no nose.  Just a gaping hole where it was supposed to be.  No lips. Awful.  No eyebrows.  Yes, I was shocked.  So was Lucie.  It was terrible.  Impossible to describe how bad.

As she approached, she had a cup and held it out to this passenger and that one.  She was begging.

Right behind her came a man.  Just as hideous.  No nose.  No lips.  No eyebrows.  Hideous.  He was doing the same thing, begging.

They made their way so quickly that I had no time to react.  No opportunity to dig into my pocket for money if I wanted to.  Lucie reacted the same way.  We followed them with our eyes as they moved past us.  They had good-looking bodies.  Athletic and fit.  In their 30’s, it seemed.  Appeared to have no problem.  But very few people gave.  The two disappeared into the next car.  Must have been ready to cry with disappointment.

Right away Lucie and I turned to one another.  “What was that all about?!” I said.  She shook her head. “No idea. But how awful!”

My words shot out. “I never, never saw anybody like that before.”  The awe was all over her face.  “Me, either.  Two monsters.”

The next morning we kept our appointment with Wu.  He had come from his office to have lunch with us.  He is an engineer–the international marketing director of an  electronic products company.  He and I met seven years ago in Africa.  We’ve been friends ever since.

The minute I could, I brought up the two monsters.  Yes, monsters.  It’s the word that said it best.  I told him the story.  Lucie kept supplying awful details.

I said, “What was all that about, Wu?”

He had grown up in Shanghai.  If anybody knew, he would.  I was eager to hear it all.  Lucie was all ears.

He shook his head.  “I have heard of such people.  But I have never seen any.  There are not many.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“I have heard stories.”

“Please tell us!”

“There are parents who do this to their children.  When they are young.  They do it with acids.  Maybe with a knife.”

“How awful.  But why?”

“The parents need money.  They want their children to go out on the street and beg.  To become professional beggars.  People will  be horrified and will give.  Will be merciful.   But John,  you said not many gave.  Maybe it does not work.”

We were disappointed, of course.  What a story.  The parents.  The life of these children.  Their terrible life now approaching horrified people and begging.

I had it on mind all through lunch.  I’m sure that when he left, Wu passed on our story to everybody he ran across.  Such an awful story.  So incredible.

As I read Mr. Wiens’ story, I imagined what the last two years must have been for him, so disfigured.  And I imagined what these two poor folks working the Metro riders in Shanghai would go to to get a decent new face from a surgeon like Dr. Pomanac .

Can you imagine how good Dr.Pomahac and his team must feel to have accomplished a miracle like that?

Oh, one more thing. Dr.Pomahac said that Mr. Wiens would not look like he used to, and not like the unidentified donor.  He would look somewhere in between.

That’s appropriate.  His new face is giving him a new life.  A new future.  Wonderful.  Why shouldn’t he enter it happily and excitedly with a nice new—and different–face?

Maybe a clever surgeon will find a way to give him new eyesight.  Maybe by transplanting new eyes into him.  Don’t rule it out, as crazy as it sounds.

I hope so.

An Elephant for Deep River

Members of Deep River Rotary Club and representatives of Mt. St. John school looking on as the elephant statue is delivered

The news is that an elephant has come to Deep River. It has arrived from Thailand by way of Newport , Rhode Island , and it will be here to stay. And it’s all made possible by the Deep River Rotary Club.

But it is not a live elephant, which would have some difficulty in the winter weather of Connecticut . This one is bronze and will last at least a century, and probably much longer. It’s a statue–about one-sixth the actual size of the living African elephant it depicts. But it will be a reminder to visitors and residents of this river town of the important role played by elephants in the history of Deep River .

The Rotary Club believes that this bronze statue will help to educate young and old about the importance of the ivory trade to the development of industry, commerce, and culture in the Valley Shore area–and particularly Deep River . Here factories prospered, manufacturing piano keys and other ivory products, such as combs and buttons. Long before the development of plastics (of which these items are now made) these products depended on the importing of ivory tusks from Zanzibar and other ports in Africa .

Deep River resident, John LaPlante

The negative side of this story is that our industry depended on the hunting of elephants for their tusks and the use of slaves for the transportation of the tusks. As we remember with gratitude the role of this beautiful animal in the development of our community, we will also remember the price which was paid for our prosperity. The statue will continue to remind us of that story in all its dimensions.

John LaPlante, a resident of Deep River and a member of the Deep River Rotary Club, conceived the idea of bringing this statue to town when he stumbled upon it in the lot at Aardvark Antiques in Newport , R.I. He challenged the club to bring this iconic figure to a place of honor in our community, and he led the financial negotiations to acquire the elephant.

First Selectman Dick Smith and Doug DeCerbo, director of Mt. St. John admiring new elephant statue

First Selectman Dick Smith and members of the town crew traveled to Newport to bring her back, along with a granite block on which she will rest. A welcoming committee of Rotarians was on hand at the Town Hall, along with Marilyn Malcarne and a group of fifers and drummers to create a festive atmosphere.

Robert Johnson, who has been selling real estate in the area for more than 60 years, was on hand, too. He clapped his hands and announced that the would make the first contribution to what will be the Elephant Fund. “I love the statue!” he said. “What a great idea!”

The permanent location for the elephant has not yet been announced. Several locations are being considered, but a formal dedication and celebration will take place in the Spring. “It will be a lot of fund,” said John LaPlante, who recalled that the elephant is a reminder of the prosperous days when Deep River was known as the “Queen of the Valley.” “One thing is for sure. Deep River is becoming Queen of the Valley again. Everybody is noticing that. This is one more way to celebrate that!”

Bob Johnson the Deep River Phenomenon

Bob and Marilyn Monroe after a performance of the “Legends in Concert Holiday Show” at Foxwoods recently. Impersonators did Dean Martin, Stevie Wonder, Neil Diamond, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn. Afterward they came out to mingle with the audience. Marilyn is really show star Gailyn Addis. A wonderful show. Photo by John LaPlante.

Why do I call Bob Johnson our Deep River phenomenon? Well, for one thing ‘Johnson’ and ‘phenomenon’ rhyme, and I like that. But he really is a phenomenon of sorts.

Bob is really Robert F. Johnson. He is 85. But I think you’d guess 75. Tall, lean, raring to go.  Like most of us octogenarians, he has some complaints…sore back, painful foot. He’s had an operation or two of late. But he’s out and about every day, and still a Dapper Dan. His hair is always slicked down. His sport jacket buttoned. 

Now here’s a startling thing. He has been selling real estate in Deep River and environs for 64 years. It’s a record. Nobody comes close. And he’s still at it. “I like to keep the phone ringing!” he says, chuckling. Bob chuckles a hundred times a day.

He gave a talk about his life at the Deep River Rotary Club not long ago, and he kept the men and women around the big table chuckling also.

But now let me tell you about him the way he told us about himself.

First, I must mention he is a widower. His wife, Rosa Krieger, died three years ago. Alzheimer’s. It’s her picture right away that you see when he opens his wallet—age 39 when it was taken. A beautiful lady. Truly so. He met her at her brother’s in Manchester. He was a friend of Bob’s.  She was German. Visiting from Bavaria.

“I was 40. A bachelor. She was 39.  A bachelorette,” He  chuckles, “I got to take her out only three times.  Before she flew home, she said to me, ‘If you ever come to Germany, Bob, please visit us. She was living with her parents.”

 “I didn’t waste any time.” Chuckles. “I flew over for three weeks and she met me at the airport. I brought an engagement ring with me and she said yes. We were married in her church, which was 800 years old, on Oct. 28. 1965. We flew to Switzerland for our honeymoon. I flew home alone, which I didn’t like. She had to wait two months—legal papers, you know. We were married for 41 years.”

 He brought her to Deep River to live. She managed to adjust. Got to like Deep River and its folks. But she missed home. “We went back nearly every year. I always loved to go visit with her. She had a wonderful family. In fact, I lived there for a year. Beautiful  town. Good people. But I just couldn’t take to it permanently.” No chuckle this time.

Their son is Robert Xaver.  He lives in Killingworth with his wife Janet and children, Emily, Katie, and Lindsey. And their dog, Max. Bob dogsits Max when they go away. Robert X. speaks German fluently. “His mother always spoke German to him. That was a good thing.”

Deep River has always been home, sweet home for Bob. “I was born in my homestead at 14 Lafayette Avenue. I still sleep in the bedroom where I was born and still have the same mattress. Ha-ha!” (Not so about the mattress.) That’s why he calls his agency Lafayette Realty. It’s right around the corner from Main Street, close to Adams Supermarket and the Town Hall. You know what they say in real estate…Location, Location, Location! Bob feels he has the perfect location.

“My father was a big builder. He built our 8-room house in 1914 and he had only one helper. He dug the cellar at night with a lantern. I had two brothers and a sister, but they are gone now.”

His brother Erwin was seven years older. He was born with a short left arm. “It never fazed him. Very clever. Hard worker. A real entrepreneur.” Bob bring him up often. He teamed up with Erwin on many projects.

Erwin had the food concession for the three Pratt Read factories. They made all the working parts for pianos and sold them to piano companies all over the country. At age 15, Bob began selling lunches at the Pratt Read factories. He would start with the big factory on Main Street—now Piano Works Condominium. “I had a cart with sandwiches and drinks. I’d go to each floor and blow my whistle. People would come and buy .A hot dog was 10 cents. A coffee five cents. A ham and cheese sandwich 20 cents. Then I would go to the next factory, which is now Silgan. That is here they built the big transport gliders for World War II.”

He loved selling. Dealing with people. “When I was 15 years old I delivered the Hartford Courant. A few years later, Christmas trees. Also fireworks. Also gravestones.” Chuckles. “I really did. I also drove a taxi in Essex for a while.”
 He went to Deep River Elementary School, then Deep River High School. “I quit in my junior year. I didn’t like school. I enjoyed working and making money.” A chuckle. “But you shouldn’t say that. It’s embarrassing.”

“I always loved horses. When I was 15, I bought my first horse. Learned to ride it. Then a year later my second horse. I loved to ride them. And I rented them out for $1 per hour. Finally I raffled off the second one. I sold tickets for $2 and took in $154. A man in Middletown won it. I owned seven horses in all.

 “Speaking of raffles, at the Chester Fair a couple of years ago I bought an Elks Club $10 ticket for a raffle on a red two-eater convertible. I won it! It was valued at $28,000. No way could I ride that around town! I sold it back to the dealer.

“Speaking of being lucky, here’s another story. In 1938 I was 13 years old. I and two friends—both a bit older–were over by the Baptist Church on River Street. They later became state troopers. It had a large barn around the corner on High Street. . Those two began tossing rotten apples at the barn. What a mess they made. I was blamed, too. But I was just looking. Well, the parents were going to have to paint that side over. Guess what–the 1938 hurricane blew the whole barn down! I was lucky again!”

Some years later he bought a monkey. Susie. Thirty inches tall. But she was not much fun. And she never took to diapers. The messes! Finally Bob took her to a pet store. It would find somebody to love her. The owner called Bob two days later. “Mister Johnson,” he said. “Come pick up your monkey! We do not want her! She is a big, big problem.”
 He first flew across the Atlantic in 1958. Flying to Europe was unusual back then. John Colbert, co-owner of the town’s New Era weekly newspaper, went along. 

 “Propeller planes in those days. Our destination was Copenhagen. A long trip—24 hours from New York. John was looking out the window. He turned and said to me, ‘Bob, the seagulls are passing us!” Chuckle. 

“Just one stop—Iceland for four hours. We were gone for one month. And with the round-trip air fare, the Mercedes Benz we rented, gas food, drinks, trains and buses, the Oktoberfest in Munich, and of course the women (chuckles!!), the total cost for each of us was only $1,000. Things have changed a little since then, haven’t they?” Chuckle.

I myself, your reporter, have lived in Deep River eleven years. One day Bob called. “John,” he said. “Let me show you Deep River.” He wasn’t talking about selling me a place. I already had one. He took it upon himself to take me on a walk up and down Main Street. He had a story to tell at every house.

“That was the movie theatre. That was the A&P store. That was a pharmacy. We had three of them. That was Dr. Devitt’s house. Where Walgreen’s is now. That Devitt Field is named for him. The Whistle Stop was the Bob-O-Lou Restaurant back then. I built it with a pal. We ran it. A soft-shell crab sandwich was 35 cents. We sold the restaurant and went to other ventures.” There have been many.

He took me for a ride down Kirtland Street to the Town Landing on the Connecticut. Then back up River Street to the center of town. He pointed to 18 houses he had sold along that two miles. Two of them twice.

“I took to real estate and devoted myself to it all these many years. My first sale was an eight-room house for $4,000 in 1946. The second one was a two-family with six rooms each for $6,000. Erwin and I developed Castle View Drive in Chester. It was what had been the Kirtland farm. We called it Castle View because you had a nice view of Gillette Castle across the river. Lots went from $1,000 to $2,500. Erwin built the first house to get things moving. A total of 26 houses went up there. Very nice.

“I was a partner with him in building the first motor hotel in Old Saybrook. What we call a motel now. We called it the Old Saybrook Motor Inn but now it’s the Knights Inn.”

When the movie, “It Happened to Jane”, was made in Chester, he rented homes to the stars, Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Ernie Kovacs, and others. And I was an extra in the movie. Just one in a in a small background group. I did it for eight days. I had a nice Plymouth sedan. They also wanted it in the movie. I got $8 a day and another $8 a day for my car. It was a lot of fun.”

He is hard put to say how many houses and other buildings and lots and farms he has sold. He showed me a scrapbook. It was filled with newspaper clippings, some brown and fragile. His real estate ads. News stories about his ventures. Photographs. He shakes his head when he sees what real estate prices are nowadays. And is astonished when he sees how many buildings he knew well have been torn down and replaced. “It’s really unbelievable.” He’s phenomenal also in remembering names and dates and prices. They all pop right up.

He’s always up to doing something exciting. “When I was in Florida last winter, the local airport had on display B-24 and B-17 bombers. Those planes helped win World War II. They go all over the country. People go see them and can take a ride in them. I went up for a half hour. How those four engineers roared. That ride cost $400. But sure worth it.”

Many adventurous memories. Once, in Pennsylvania,  down 1,600 feet into a coal mine, then a two-mile trek under a river. Another time, a tour through the largest refinery in the world. In Canada, a visit to a huge pulp mill–trees being converted into rolls of toilet paper!

He and Rosa bought a house on a canal in Stuart, Florida,  near West Palm Beach, and went every year for 27 years. Now his son, Robert X., owns a condo there. Bob visits there. This year his car is being trucked down and he’s flying. “I just don’t like the snow and the ice any more.”

His travel fever was not limited to Europe. He has traveled all over the U.S and up into Canada and Mexico. Twelve islands in the Caribbean. Numerous cruises. Crossed the Panama Canal. “In Mexico I saw eight bulls killed in one afternoon. I never want to see a show like that again.”

He sold two houses last year. They were houses whose owners had died. He expects to handle a couple more like that. He would like some more listings. “I need the challenge,” he said. “And the fun of it. Yep, I like to keep going. Just like the Eveready Battery.”

A Goldilocks Planet

Yes, I like to look at the moon or the North Star on a beautiful evening, but I’m really not into things astronomical. But I just heard of something way, way, way up there—much farther away than our moon and sun and all the stars that we see–that has left me marveling, and for completely personal reasons—I feel a strange connection to it.

Have you ever heard of a Goldilocks Planet? Well, I never had until a few days ago. But I really paid attention when I heard that a Goldilocks Planet has been found. It’s fantastic. You’ll agree when I explain. Its scientific name is Gliese 581g. Yes, Gliese 581g. What a strange name. Please don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t. What is important is that it is the very first Goldilocks Planet to be found.

Why did this wow me? Because many years ago I interviewed a great astronomer who said that such planets exist. The name Goldilocks Planet was coined later by somebody else. What was enormously significant about his prediction is that he said that Goldilocks Planets could support life–life as you and I know it. And might! And that there must be others out there.

The great astronomer’s name was Harlow Shapley of Harvard University. I interviewed him for an article for the magazine of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. I was a staff feature writer on the magazine.

That was in 1956, I believe—I do not have my scrapbooks handy as I write this. Prof. Shapley is the one who made that big news by coming out and boldly predicting in print that one day a Goldilocks Planet would be pinpointed somewhere in the infinity of the cosmos. We would know exactly where it is!

I’m sure you’re wondering about that name, Goldilocks Planet, which is so much more charming than Gliese 581g. It comes from the children’s  nursery story, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Truth is, I never read that story, so I don’t know why this planet was dubbed “Goldilocks.” Enlighten me, please.

What is so dramatic about Gliese 581g? Let me tell you. In the million, billions, trillions, zillions of heavenly bodies, Gliese 581g is the first found that has the most important essential to support our kind of life. That essential is water.

Why is this so? Because Gliese 581g  has the right size and is the right distance from the star that it circles. Not too close, and not too far. This is how it was explained a few days ago by Dr. Steven Vogt, leader of the team that made the big find on Sept. 29. He is an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Perhaps you read or saw this same story.

He said, “Gliese 581 g is the first rocky, roughly Earth-size alien planet found to orbit its star in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ — a just-right range that can allow liquid water to exist.”

Harlow Shapley made his startling prediction in a new book. He had written many. I tried to check its title this morning, but did not succeed. Sorry. Anyway, I read a review of it in the New York Times, I believe. Or maybe it was the Boston Globe.

He was known widely for his writings. He was gifted in a special way. He could write fully on abstruse subjects for scientific journals. Then he could switch to a plain and fascinating style understandable by an ordinary reader like me.

At Harvard he was not only the senior professor and chairman of the astronomy department but director of its Astronomical Observatory. He had spent hours beyond counting at the eyepiece of its telescope.  But later, he didn’t have to do that. A camera would do that work for him. He made the observatory world-famous.

In this latest book of his, I was startled by what he was proclaiming: there was a planet out there with characteristics like our Earth. He was not saying that he had found such a planet. He was stating that statistics—an important branch of mathematics—assured us that there would be planets out there that could sustain life. Not strange and startling life unrecognizable to us, but our kind of life. With creatures human and animal that we see every day

I don’t remember his mentioning it, but what this meant was that if we somehow could get to such a planet, we could live and thrive on it. That was a logical conclusion. Remember, he was writing before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made it to the moon!

Back then I was a feature writer for the Worcester Sunday Telegram.  I had been a reporter and then I landed this wonderful job as a feature writer. Which was to find and write up a good feature story every week—a story that would interest lots of people because of who or what it was about. It could be about anybody or anything, just about.

But it had to be true. Factual. Interesting, but not sensational in the way of some tabloid scandal sheets. And the idea of it had to be pre-okayed by my editor and the story I turned in checked by him.

I was only 27 or so at the time. I contacted Professor Shapley—I don’t recall exactly how—and explained what I had in mind. Got to tell you I knew zilch about astronomy. Had never read a book on it, never taken a course.

What strikes me today is why he ever said yes–why he would take the time for a country bumpkin like me. The Telegram was a fine newspaper, the second or third largest in New England, but not the New York Times (what is interesting, however, is that it is now owned by the New York Times).

I expected to go to his office in Cambridge. No. He told me that he would be at his summer home in Peterboro, N.H.  Asked me if I could visit him up there. Sure! I got started early on the appointed day and drove up. A modest frame house surrounded by trees. And when I pulled in, I found Professor Shapley out among the trees, a clipboard in hand. I wondered, What the heck is he doing?

I’d like to say that he was a tall man with a distinguished mane of white hair, but I have no recollection. Time has dimmed all such details. What I remember is that he was a genial man and easy to talk with. Totally unpretentious. Nothing about him to provide a clue about his true identity as a leading scholar and scientist who was very different in a remarkable way.

And what was that? Well, he had written papers and books intended for fellow astronomers. In an astronomer’s lingo, with mathematical equations and tables of data. Writings that had been read and studied by fellow astronomers around the world.

But as time went by, he had started to write also for ordinary folks like you and me. Well, maybe not you, but certainly ordinary like me. All to provide enlightenment and give us an idea of the immensity of our universe and what it is like. And in his latest book, to tell us why he was convinced that somewhere way, way out there would be a planet like ours. More than one. With people like you and me, or very much like us.

So, what was he doing our here in his baggy pants and old felt hat? And clipboard? Poking around at the foot of a big maple? Of course, I asked him.

He smiled. What he told me was so unusual that no wonder I remember it half a century later.
“I’m studying the chipmunks around here. It’s a hobby of mine.  There are many of them. They’re a lot of fun to study.”

He lifted his clipboard and pointed to a sheet on it. It was filled with notations. No idea what he was recording. Maybe what size the furry little creatures were, what they ate, how many babies they had, how they adapted to the various seasons, whether there were different kinds.   Maybe he wrote all that up for some wildlife journal on the side. I don’t know.

If so, I would have found all that interesting enough to write a separate feature about him: “Harlow Shapley—Great Astronomer, Weekend Chipmunk Whiz!”

He invited me into his house and we sat in a sunny corner. He put his clipboard aside. And in a relaxed way…which made me relax, too…I admit I was a bit uptight…explained why he believed what he believed about the assured probability of extra-terrestrial life. And he did it in words that anybody could understand.

No way can I recall his exact words now. I wish I had a copy of my published article in hand! But they went like this:
“Our earth  circles the sun. It’s the Polish astronomer Copernicus in the 15th Century who proved that our earth circles the sun. What extraordinary news. For eons people believed just the opposite–that the sun circles our earth, and there are still plenty of people around who believe that.

“And our earth supports life–supports us–because it circles the sun at the right distance and with the right temperature range on it to have hydrogen and oxygen under appropriate conditions to form water.  Water is all-important for life. In fact, we—you and I–are mostly water. No water, no life. No water, no food.

“Astronomers have concluded that our planet Earth may be the only one in our solar system (in plain words, circling the sun) under conditions which make it possible for us to be born, grow up, and live our lives.

“But—and it’s a great big but—our solar system is only one in the universe.  There are many, many solar systems. They vary in size. Some have more planets than others, and these planets make their loops around their sun at varying distances from it—which means they have different chemical make-ups and different temperatures cold and hot, and so on.”

He made it all understandable to me.

Now here is the dramatic part. Statisticians—mathematicians who specialize in calculating the probability of happenings—can safely conclude that out there in infinity there are one or more heavenly bodies that replicate our planet.  And this is exactly what Professor Shapley had calculated. And this is why he was so sure he was right. This is why he had published that book.

Of course I was greatly impressed. I knew I was sitting across from a great man. I was so grateful that he was taking the time to explain all this to me, and that he was doing it so generously and patiently. And all without making me feel like an ignoramus, which is what I was. My nervousness had long eased, and I felt enthralled as I asked and listened and scribbled in my pad.

I don’t remember whether he offered me a cup of tea or coffee, though he must have. I was there quite a while. I do remember that he asked a lot of questions about me…about what my job was like and why I had chosen it as my vocation. Things like that. I could see that he had a consuming curiosity. Stars and planets. Chipmunks.  Ordinary Joe’s like me.

A cordial goodbye, and then I was in my car heading south toward home. I was elated by my time with him. But also uptight. Uptight because my job was only half over. The harder half was coming up. How to write all this down accurately and interestingly.  Without blunders, and without exaggerations. In complete fairness to him.
And all well enough to be worth printing in our Sunday magazine. We published more than 100,000 copies every week, and statisticians of another kind estimated that some 150,000 readers would look at the magazine…and see my story.

How many would read it?  Well, that was anybody’s guess. But my concern every week was that my editor would think highly enough of what I turned in to justify using all that paper and ink to publish it.

Just before writing this piece today, I researched Harlow Shapley on line. Dead many years now. And I learned something new about him. I knew that he had grown up on a farm in Missouri. And wanted to get away from it. He enrolled at the  brand-new School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. But it was  a year late in opening. What to do?  He decided to pick another field.

He studied the university’s catalog, starting with the letter A. The first subject listed was Archaeology. Later he explained. “That was too hard to pronounce!” The next was Astronomy. He could pronounce that, and that’s what he signed up for! He never got to study Journalism formally but he got very good at explaining things well, which is what Journalism is all about.

Maybe that is why he said yes to me that day, a young journalist who was doing the type of work that had once fascinated him so much that he aspired to do it.  Maybe why he spent so much relaxed time with me in his country house, away from the pace and formality of the great university.

Well, now we know that our universe is billions of years old. What fascinates me as I write this is that in the span of one person’s adult life—mine—I got to meet the scientist who made the amazing prediction that he did: “There’s a planet like ours out there!” And some 50 years later I got to read that the first Goldilocks Planet has been discovered–Gliese 581g!

And we know where is. In fact, I suspect “Gliese 581g” is the way it is pinpointed on some huge astronomical chart.

And we know how far away it is. Dr. Vogt said about 20 light years away.

How far is that? Well, I had forgotten how big a light year is.  I checked. One light year is six trillion miles. Let me spell that out–6,000,000,000,000 miles (I rounded it off). Now multiply that by 20! Not around the corner, eh?

We have reached the moon, yes. And we have plans to reach Mars before many more years.  But it will be a while before we get to Gliese 581g, won’t it? And a while before some of its inhabitants reach us.  Unless they are already on their way.

Who knows?

Oh, excuse me.  Some people,  but not the scientific kind, believe some of those folks are with us now.

John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer, journalist and resident of Deep River.  His award-winning columns and articles were most recently published in the Main Street News.  He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!”  He has just completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Ukraine where his 27-month tour of duty began last fall.  John always welcomes comments on his articles.  Email him at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

Senior Moments: WiFi at Libraries

Odd, the first time I noticed it.
 
It was a September evening just before I entered Peace Corps. I stopped by the Phoebe Griffin Noyes Library in Old Lyme. One of my favorites. Just one car in the parking lot. But the library was closed. I recognized the old car. Jack was behind the wheel—I’ll call him Jack.
 
I walked over to say Hi. He was hunched down. About 40. Walked to his own drummer. Worked at this and that, as he needed to. Fiercely independent. Sharp.

He was so intent that he didn’t notice me coming. 

The window was down. “Hi, Jack. What are you up to?” 
He had his fingers on a laptop keyboard. “Hi, John. I’m checking my emails.”
“Your emails? Out here?”
“Yeah. I’m tapping the library’s  wi-fi signal. Works fine. I do this often. No need to go inside.” 
 
It was all completely new to me. I had had no idea.  Wi-fi—Internet without wires. Without walls, so to speak.
 
I saw it again in Morro Bay, California. Was visiting my daughter Monique and her hubby David. I enjoy the little but very fine Morro Bay Library. It was late afternoon. Balmy day.  A VW Microbus was parked among the others, but close to the building.

I had a Microbus once. For about three years after I retired. Cruised the U.S. in it, even down into Mexico and up into northwest Canada. Sight-seeing, having fun, learning so much along the way.
 
One man in this Microbus. He had slid the broad side door open. Was sitting at the tiny table, working a computer. The radio was playing some Mozart. Was having a grand time.

I didn’t need any explanation now. I knew what he was doing. The library was open, but he was accessing its wi-fi. He preferred to be outside. His van had a Nebraska plate. I’ll bet he was looking up a library wherever he went on his travels.
 
I never saw anything like this in Ukraine during my 27 months of Peace Corps service. The technology just wasn’t up to snuff.  They had the Internet, but limited. I used public Internet shops, paying by the minute.

How happy I was when I discovered the huge downtown public library. It had only two Internet-connected computers, both thanks to uncle Sam. How delighted when I discovered them. Free! I kept it secret from my Peace Corps colleagues—didn’t want them in line competing with me for one. Finally my conscience bothered me and I told them. They reacted just as I expected, to my regret.
 
Well, I saw the same wi-fi behavior just last Sunday. Early morning. I went for  a walk down Main Street in my own Deep River. Our downtown is becoming so charming.  Deep River is really becoming the Queen of the Valley again.

Approaching our library, I noticed a man sitting in the sunshine on the stone wall in front of it. Right across from his gleaming parked Saab. His tee-shirt said Newport.  He was working a laptop. A tourist, I was sure. Again, I just knew–he was taking advantage of the free Internet. He had searched out our library to do this and was delighted to find it.
 
Wi-fi has become commonplace. When you buy that service, often you use a password to access it. Some people don’t bother. People like the three I have mentioned often troll for an un-protected service. Sometimes  they troll their neighbors do. Their computers indicate who is using wi-fi within a certain range, and what the relative strengths of the signals are. This way they get wi-fi free if they do sneak into somebody’s service. It doesn’t seem to be illegal.
 
I have come to believe that public libraries make the conscious decision to leave their wi-fi available this way. For anybody and everybody who wants it, even from outside. For them it’s just another way to serve the public. Libraries, how wonderful.  Few other countries approach us in the quality of their libraries. Take it from me. I’ve been to many.   How lucky we are.
 
I remember the first time I used a public computer in a public library outside the U.S. I was up in Quebec City. I discovered the big, splendid new library there. Ultra-modern in every way, including its architecture. I saw many public computers in one room. Many people using them.

I approached the librarian in charge. “I am a tourist from Connecticut,” I said in French.  French was my first language. Very comfortable using it…l enjoy using it. “May I use a computer.” 

“Oui. Of course,” she said with a smile. She wrote out a pass for me. “Here it is, with the compliments of Monsieur Gates!”

“Monsieur Bill Gates! What does he have to do with this.”

He gave us a grant that helped make all this possible,” she said. “I believe he has given such grants to libraries in other countries also.”

As it turns out, while I was in Ukraine I read that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was making a grant of millions of dollars for many libraries throughout the country over a period of years. Yes, to make the marvels of the Internet available to Ukrainians.

I believe the first company to make wi-fi available to its customers was  Starbucks. Starbucks was already providing free newspapers for customers to enjoy with their coffee. Free wi-fi was the logical next step.
Back from Ukraine, I made a happy discovery. Guess what? McDonald’s now provides free wi-fi in more than 12,000 restaurants in the U.S.
 
No wonder it’s the industry leader. I have enjoyed McDonald’s and Burger King for coffee and a pit stop for years. But I haven’t yet been in a Burger King with wi-fi. I am sure they will make the big leap. Will have to.
 
Public free wi-fi has become a standard amenity in many places. Hotels, shopping centers, airports,  universities, hospitals, resorts, book stores,  brake and oil lube shops, on and on.
 
This is when I discovered the new tiny enetbooks.  First came the laptop, then he notebook, now the enetbook…each one smaller. Had to have one. Bought a beauty. Has the standard software programs plus many bells and whistles. Even a tiny video camera (but I don’t use it…don’t want people to see what I really look like at times). Weighs less than two pounds.  Has everything except CD and DVD capability. But I don’t need these because I also own a Mac.
 
For nearly five years now–since the first week it appeared on the market–I have owned an Apple MacMini. It’s a full desktop processor.  Just the size of a cigar box, if you are of age to know what that is. Cigar boxes are not common any more.  My MacMini is full-powered…mighty! I even took it to Ukraine with me, but it was months before I found a place to live with where I could connect it.
 
Well, got to tell you that on my long zigzag journey home from California, where I arrived from Ukraine, I used my wonderful enetbook every day here and there…all kinds of places. All because of free wi-fi.
 
Hard for me to believe that I have been using computers for more than 40 years. I remember when all of us on the editorial side of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette received a memo from upstairs. It said all of us would get computers and we would have to learn to use them. Mandatory. “We will train you. Don’t worry!” The idea was frightening.

I was the editor of its Sunday magazine, “Feature Parade.” It wasn’t one that we just bought from a syndicate, all pre-printed, and just put our name on. We edited and published our own, with our own magazine staff and some free-lancers. I felt so intimidated by the new technology. But I got the hang of it. (But I am still learning every day.)
 
I remember my first portable computer. It was a Smith-Corona.  Laptops had not yet appeared. I used it at home and on the road. A bulky thing. It weighed 10 times as much as my little e-book. Nevertheless, marvelous. I remember the first time I walked into a public library with it. I walked it with an extension cord in my other hand.
 
I approached a librarian at her desk. “May I use this?” I said, and explained.
“Gosh, I’m not sure. We don’t have a policy for that.”
It’ll be for just 20 for minutes. Very quiet. No click-clacking of typewriter keys. Won’t bother anybody.”
“Well, all right. But I’ll have to report this.”
 
I set up at a table and went to work. She kept glancing at me. Finally she came and stood at my side and looked on.  “That is very nice, isn’t it!” she said approvingly. 
“Yes, I love it. They’ll become common.”
How right I was. That Smith-Corona of mine has become an antique.
 
And know what? Just yesterday I read in a newspaper—a digital newspaper, by the way, like this one you are reading—that the huge outdoor National Mall in Washington has been equipped with wi-fi.

More than 200 “hot spots” have been set up on its vast acreage. They disperse the wi-fi signal. Yes, right there in front of our Capitol.  People out there in the fresh air will be able to open their computers and connect to the world.  Without wires!
 
But not only laptops and enetbooks now. With Blackberries and their kind. With the so-called smart telephones of many kinds.  Millions now own one. Even the three oldest of my five grandchildren—the other two are less than four years old! All three are texting. That’s a brand-new word to me—typing with two fingers on the tiniest of electronic keyboards, sacrificing grammar and spelling to brevity and expediency. Maybe to you also. I don’t now how to text. That’s too newfangled for me.
 
All this is the fantastic result of the first half century  of this, our civilization-changing Computer Age.  And this is just the beginning.  I see the certainty—though I may not live to enjoy it—that entire towns and cities will have  free wi-fi. In fact, our whole country will have free wi-fi.  Someday the whole world. This I believe truly. Having a computer device to connect to it will be as basic and commonplace as wearing shoes.
 
I remember reading Buck Rogers comics when I was a kid. Buck Rogers was far-fetched and wonderful. But even Buck Rogers was not futuristic enough to keep up with this!

John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer, journalist and resident of Deep River.  His award-winning columns and articles were most recently published in the Main Street News.  He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!”  He has just completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Ukraine where his 27-month tour of duty began last fall.  John always welcomes comments on his articles.
Email him at
johnguylaplante@yahoo.com