July 28, 2014

Senior Moments: My Take on Embattled Ukraine

Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

The magnificent Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev.

I’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 the full article on John LaPlante’s blog

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

Library_in_Texas_622x350-1

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 the full story on John’s blog

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Enjoying Old Route 66 … or What’s Left of it

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

Nothing I saw on my travels 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 that’s 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 it 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.  They’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 change 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 also about things to see along it.

I just remembered I should tell you this.

It happened at the Motel 6 in Santa Fe, 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 100, 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 looked 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, Fla. … after all, it was historic, too.

Adios!

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Zigging and Zagging My Way Home to Deep River

Our veteran cross-country traveler John Guy LaPlante gives us 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. Often the case in the High Plains of Texas. Good thing I enjoy my own company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My time in Independence was too short, too.

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

~ ~ ~

My first time in a pawn shop in 60 years!

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

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

You'll understand in a minute why I felt I had to stop in.  Many pawn shops out here. None close to Deep River!

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.

Sonic has become the classic American drive-in. Hundreds of them, maybe thousands. Why not in Connecticut?

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.

I had no idea how hugely important the chuck wagon and the windmill were in making life better out here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You should have  50 thousand!”

She looked as me as if I were nuts.

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

 I’m so glad I didn’t skip the PPHM!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

Texas has its own Grand Canyon!

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

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

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

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

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!

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My First Week on my Long Ride Home to Connecticut

My first overnight at a Walmart’s, in Claremont, CA. That’s “Chateau,” my 13-year-old, 180,000-mile blue and silver beauty

My first overnight at a Walmart in Claremont, Calif.  That’s “Chateau,” my 13-year-old, 180,000-mile blue and silver beauty.

Blythe, Arizona – Here I was, approaching this tiny town.  Blythe is as far east in California as can be.  It was Day 5 of my solo transcontinental ride home to Connecticut. The sun was setting on one of my finest days so far as I approached Blythe on I-10—my destination for this day.  I saw it coming up.  It’s what I call a ”one-story town.”  I didn’t spot one building any higher than that.

I kept right on at 60 miles an hour with all the other traffic, waiting for the main exit to Blythe to announce itself.  Surprise!  I found myself suddenly crossing the Colorado River—which is a modest stream here—and confronting a big sign, “Welcome To Arizona!”  What?!

I had overshot Blythe.  That’s how small it is.

It was another mistake, plain and simple.  Mistakes, errors, call them whatever you like, are inevitable in the kind of travel I’m doing. I experience them every day.  I don’t go nuts over them any more.  The only solution is to “Grin and Bear It!”  Plus, “Maybe something good will come of this!”

Oh, I know what you smarties are thinking.   “John, if you had GPS, this would never have happened.”

Well, I do have it.  Brand-new, too.  A Gamin Novi 401. Finally I got it hooked up and going.  But it’s not calibrated right. That anonymous tenor persists in giving me one wrong direction after another.  I’ve unhooked the darn thing.  I’m hoping to run into a geek soon who will get it going right for me.

Besides, for these many decades of doing nutty trips like this, I’ve done fine with my trusty road atlas.  This mistake was all Blythe’s fault!  They should have a big sign up at the exit, “Stop! This Is Blythe!”

My intention was to “camp” in Blythe for the night.  My definition of “camping” in my old age is sleeping in my van and eating most of my meals in it.

One reason I chose Blythe is there’s a 24-hour Walmart here.  I’ve camped at a Walmart every night on this trip so far.  It’s perfect.

This way, I don’t have to drive miles out of my way to find a campground, then drive miles back in the morning.  Walmart is safe!  And so convenient.  Its 24-hour superstores—that’s what they usually are–offer everything I can possibly spend money on except gas.  Plus clean bathrooms … and Walmart is free … and welcoming!

I wish they had been around on all those big past trips I’ve taken.  And the many trips I took my wife and kids on.

I’ll be delighted if I can find a Walmart every single night on my 3,500-mile route home.  We now have 3,000 Walmart super-centers in the U.S., which never close.  I stand a pretty good chance.

~ ~ ~

As usual this trip isn’t a picnic.  It’s hard work.  I didn’t expect it to be easy.  It never is.  It keeps me busy from early morn till 10 or 11 p.m.  With naps as needed, I admit.  You’d be surprised at everything that’s required to do it right.

So far my ride is as good as I hoped it would be.  I love the challenge of it.  And I enjoy its many rewards.  One is running into interesting folks.  So far.  I’ve struck it lucky again … and this is one of my major goals.  And not a bad apple yet.

Another is to see—really, really see, with my own eyes—how our country is doing and changing.  And experiencing the sights, natural and man made, at times beautiful and inspiring, at times ugly and regrettable, and too often very dull and skip-able.

Important to remind you I’m driving an 11-year-old van with more than 180.000 miles on it.  Yes, that’s right, 180,000 plus.  She’s running like a top.  I feel it’s just broken in.  Honest!  Maybe I’m setting myself up for a gigantic disappointment.  But it couldn’t be sweeter running.  I’m delighted.

It’s a Ford seven-passenger Econoline van.  The model name is Chateau, which is—maybe was–Ford’s top of the line in vans. It’s loaded with amenities, some I love.  The tinted windows (people can’t see in).  The comfortable seats.  The electric this and that.  Other features, too.

My first little camper years ago—a VW “bus”— was Dandelion.  That’s what I dubbed her.  She was that color of beautiful yellow.  Notice, I said “she.”  After all, if we can give our boats feminine monickers, why can’t I do it for my lovely camper?

I deliberated and finally settled on Chateau as the name for this one.  It’s so appropriate.  This really is a wonderful and lovely little chateau, on four wheels, of course.  So from now on Chateau is “she,” too.  My poetic license!  You’ll get used to it fast.

She does have a few bugs.  The worst is the obstacle course I face to get from my driver’s seat to the back.  You have to be as agile as a monkey, but I’m no monkey.  And there’s no way to fix that.

The next is that I can’t stand in her.  I may get home permanently hunched over.  It’s made me think of the advantages of being a midget.

She has six ceiling lights.  I think if I go over a bump, they all go on. Sometimes even when I’m stopped for a while.  On my second day I had a dead battery.  Not a promising start.  But I have a AAA Classic membership—they’ll tow me up to 100 miles.  A tech guy showed up in 35 minutes, gave me a jump, and pointed out the troublesome lights.  Still they go on. I’m thinking of duck-taping them OFF.

I’m allowed only four road calls a year, and my year is just starting.  On my next night at Walmart, I bought jumper cables. Cheap insurance.

I have two keys to Chateau.  They look identical.  One works much better than the other.  The bad one will not open the doors every time.  Makes me very nervous.  I’m afraid of locking the good key inside, and what then? Methinks I need see a locksmith.

It takes a mighty flick of my wrist with the ignition key to start the engine.  Sometimes I have to flick hard twice, even three times.  If this keeps up, I’ll be buying a brace for my wrist soon.  Walmart stocks those, too.

I told you in my previous report she has a fancy, super-sophisticated entertainment system.  Even a TV screen in the ceiling in back to watch DVDs.  The system included GPS, too. But I discovered it was dead and the dealer that sold me Chateau, FamVans, gave me that portable Gain Navi instrument.

Well, now I find that the CD player is broken, too.  So now I can’t enjoy the dozen music CDs I brought along.  Got to do something about this, too.

The radio is fine.  But it’s a pain to search and search and not find a station I really enjoy.  Silence is golden.

Turns our that Chateau’s tires are oversize.  If I try a tight turn left or right, the front tires rub on the body.  Not good!  So tight turns are impossible.  Sometimes I can turn around 180 degrees only with two or three tries.  You wouldn’t like that, either.

She gulps gasoline like a monster. California is a $4-a-gallon gas state.  Maybe a few cents over, a few cents under here or there.  At one stop high in the San Gabriel Mountains on Day 2, $4.14!  I find that very painful.

I’m stopping for refills whenever I need $40 worth or so.  That happens more often than I thought it would.  Why stop so often?  I like frequent breaks.  And I try to work in as much exercise as I can . It’s a big step up into Chateau, and a big step down.

Besides, If I bought a maximum fill, the tab would be well over $100, and that makes me shudder.  Just consider, I remember a gas war when the price dropped to 17.9 cents a gallon!  I’d like a price war like that at least once a week  Sob!  Such price wars are history. How come?

But I’m delighted with the many changes and improvements I made to convert her into a mini camper.  My bunk with the foam mattress.  The clothes hooks I screwed in.  The drawers and shelves I put in.  How I planned the whole interior lay-out.  he whole list of little things I’ve done.  Chateau is tiny, but wonderfully efficient and comfy.

I’m still making changes every day.  One little improvement after another.  I call them my Robinson Crusoe moments.  Remember how shipwrecked Robinson used his wits to solve all kinds of problems and make his shipwreck life easier?  Well, that’s me in Chateau.  Each Robinson Crusoe moment, as simple as it is, gives me a glow of pleasure.

~ ~ ~

Here are some of the highlights of my trip so far. I’ll sketch them out briefly.  I found them so interesting that I hope to write them up for you one by one as I go along.  Patience, please.

Day 1. A symposium on three “isms” that I attended at Claremont-Lincoln School of Theology in Claremont, Calif.  The three are Buddhism, Sikkism, and Janism.  The Jainism segment was the one that drew me.  It’s a strange and impressive religion in India.  I am not a Jain, but I’ve had close Jain friends for 30 years and I’ve learned abut it through them.

Day 2. My day resting and exploring Claremont.  What a charming and delightful small community.  With seven colleges, mind you.  To me it’s THE small town to live in.

Day 3. My ride high up into the awesome San Gabriel Mountains for a white-knuckle ride along its famous Rim of the World road.  But so exciting, too.  A ride I won’t forget soon.

Day 4. My visit to Palm Springs, the man-made oasis out in the desert a couple of hours east of L.A.  Palm Springs is a small place but who hasn’t heard of it?  So many movie stars have bought fancy second homes there.  I’ve been to Palm Springs several times, thanks to Annabelle.  I much prefer the newer small communities that have sprung up around Palm Springs.

Day 5. As you know by now, I think, I’m not fond of Interstate Highways.  Of course I appreciate their practicality.  They’re great to get somewhere fast.  But they bypass so many interesting things and they are so dull.  I much prefer the far more interesting lesser roads.  I’ve been lucky at finding some dandy ones.  But I got lost!  Three times …

Day 6. How I find myself in tiny Mecca.  Strange name for a town here in California.  A town with a heavy population of Mexicans.  How I’m impressed by them.  And the library that serves them and the others in Mecca as well, of course.

Day 7.  I knew that the next 100 miles to Blythe would be a tedious and taxing ride.  But I managed to find an alternate route and then went and messed it up again.  But I got some nice rewards.

As always, I’ve met some interesting people along the way.  Including some truly Good Samaritans.  How lucky I’ve been.  I can’t wait to tell you about some of them.

I’ve wondered whether I’ve become too old to enjoy this kind of travel.  I’ve done a lot of it over the years and it’s been so much fun.  Well, I have good news. It’s hard.  Yes, it is.  No denying that.  But so far I am rejoicing.  It is shaping up as the grand adventure I hoped for.

Long ago I realized that Mark Twain was right.  That smart guy is the one who said that often it is better to travel than to arrive.  My whole point is not just to get home.  It’s to squeeze in as much pleasure out of every mile as I can.  And it’s working out that way.

Know what?  So far I’ve been on the road seven days and have traveled barely 500 miles.  That’s very little–only about one-seventh of the mileage I expect to run up before I roll into Deep River.  And the best parts of the route are still ahead.

So I’ve found myself wondering, When the heck will I finally be getting home?!  Labor Day?  Thanksgiving?  Christmas?  I leave it all to Serendipity …

~ ~ ~

A Post Script.  Just a few days ago I turned 84.  Yes, 84.  Which means that was  tip-toeing into my 85th year on Earth!!!

You have no idea how surprised I am to have made it this far.

I remember when I was 8 or 9 I wasn’t doing well and my mother had our family doctor come to the house and examine me.

I remember how he finally put his stethoscope back in his black bag and looked at my mom and said, “Madame, I am sad to tell you I don’t think this little boy will live to see his 30th birthday.”

Gosh, did he shake her up!  And my father when he came home!  As for me, 30 seemed a long, long time away.

Gosh, have I fooled him!

I’m going to be alone on the road for this birthday.  Not a problem.  I’m just looking forward to another nice day, my eyes filling, I’m sure, with one wonderful sight after another, as always.  It won’t be perfect.  Nothing ever is.  But it will be great.

I don’t need a birthday cake.  I’d be embarrassed to try to blow out all those candles.  How huge a cake would it take to hold them all?

Besides, I know I’ve got a lot of people cheering for me.  How lucky I am!  How really lucky!

Adios!

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 at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

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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!

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 at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

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Did Jesus Have a Wife? New Evidence says “Yes.”

John_LaPlante[1]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 when 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 was not “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 information—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.

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The Strangest New Year’s Day Ever

… and I never expect another like it

John_LaPlante[1]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 strange.

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!

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Are Libraries Doomed?

John Guy LaPlante

John Guy LaPlante

 

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 at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

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), which 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 Micrisoft 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 dial.  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 painfuI 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 Chesterand 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 thePawtucket (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. S wimming 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.

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 Quéébec 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.

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 libaries big and small, near and far.  Good times beyond count.

But do you think I’m wrong in these speculations?

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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. 

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.

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Squeezing Every Possible Mile Out of a Tankful of Gas

No wonder John is shocked! He remembers buying gas for 26.9 a gallon.

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.

John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer and journalist.  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.

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The Mystery of Mr. XYZ

Long dead and still unidentified.  But now, 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.

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

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 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 there 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 because 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 Dec. 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.

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

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 information 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.

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 at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

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