September 17, 2019

My oh my! I am now in my 91st year. Wow!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos

Yes, I just celebrated my 90th birthday. Very nice but not sure “celebrated” is the right word. Maybe “bemoaned” would be closer to the reality.

I believe that it is my last decennial birthday. You know, divisible by 10.

Anyway, there’s been so much follow-up that I’m days behind in posting this to you.  Sorry! 

And fair warning: this is a bit longer than usual.

 First, you may be wondering.  Why this mini autobiography of mine?

 Well, at 90 my time is running out. When my parents died, I regretted I did not know more about them. So many voids in

                                                            Here I am, still writing after millions of words and articles and essays and posts beyond number. I’ve surprised myself.

their lives before they married!

So I got the idea of writing a mini story of my life for my family. And then realized close friends might also enjoy it. And my list kept getting longer.

So then I thought, why not publish it as one of my blogs? And here it is.

Quite a few of you out there know bits and pieces about me, and maybe more. If you and others who may know very little about me begin reading even just out of curiosity, well, you may find it interesting, and may even learn a thing or two that could be useful.

If you have no interest, no problem. Trash it. I’ll never know.

I say “My oh my!” up top in the headline because I never expected to live this long.

I was not born in a hospital. Nobody was back then. I was born in my Ma and Pa’s double bed. That was in our second-floor tenement in the three-decker at 18 Coyle Avenue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. I’m surprised I remember the address.

I was their first-born.

Pa and Ma were immigrants from Quebec. Spoke French. They were in their mid-twenties. They had come down for the classic reason. A better life.

Separately, by the way. They met at a church social and fell in love.

The Toones, a kindly old English couple, lived on the first floor, and a Syrian family on the third floor. Strange name. I don’t remember it.

There was an Irish family across the street, and a Polish one two houses over. We all got along. No problem. This was America, Land of the Free, Land of Immigrants. So different from Quebec. And better, as Pa and Ma would tell me when I got older.

I started to pick up English when I went out on the street and played with other kids.

Pa and Ma’s English got better the same way. His got much better than hers. He got out and about much more, so she lagged.

But she got to read English easily. The reason was simple. She loved to read.

Now why I never expected to live this long. I was sickly. When I was about seven I got very sick. Ma was worried. Pa was worried. Pa told her to send for the old doctor. They had put it off because they were very careful about money.

How to do that? No phones back then. She went downstairs and somehow got old Mister Toone to do the errand.

Well, the doctor came. He was French, too. He asked questions, examined me. Finally opened his doctor bag, gave her pills for me and told her what to do. I did not get better.

Ma was praying to the Blessed Virgin for me. When Pa got home at night, first thing he’d do was come to me, put his hand on my brow and check me. Ma would be by his side. Anxious. I wasn’t getting better.

Finally Pa told her to get the doctor again. The next morning she went downstairs, knocked on the door, asked old Mister Toone if he’d go do that again.

The doctor came, talked with Ma, spent a long time looking me over, gave her more medicine for me.

He was frowning. He was resting his hand on my shoulder. Shook his head.

“Madame, I am sorry to say this. But I believe your little boy will not live to be thirty.”

Ma was shocked. I heard him clearly. But know what? Thirty seemed so far off that it really didn’t bother me. True story.

Gosh, have I fooled him.

But as the years rolled on, that notion of not living old sort of got locked into my thinking. Would I ever reach the ninety-plus that I am now?  That seemed as likely as my winning a zillion dollars in a lottery.

Of course I am delighted to have reached this very old age. And delighted about my life. I have had quite a few successes. But some reverses, of course, and some disappointments. Nothing is perfect, as we know. A quite happy life by far.

I was lucky right from the start.

I grew up in a loving family, as you can tell. Ma and Pa had more children. In fact, Ma had eight pregnancies, I’ve been

                                                                  Me on my wonderful and all-important trike. Fun, exercise, so practical. That’s my nice, comfy home, sweet home.

told.

Four of us — two sisters and a brother — made it to adulthood. Our younger sister, Louise, died at 32. And Michael at age 58.

My sister Lucie and I are the only ones left. I am older by eight years. We are very close.  I’m pleased to tell you that she is a wonderful person. Doing fine in every way. She is so gifted. I’m going to write about her one of these days.

Oh, one thing that was propitious was that Ma had her sister Bernadette, who was a few years younger, living right next door.

She and her husband Jack never had children. He was Irish. Their becoming a husband and wife was extraordinary in itself. Such French – Irish marriages were rare. Anyway, they became our second father and mother in effect. How wonderful that turned out to be.

But what is remarkable is that I, the first-born, have lived the longest. How is that explained? I cannot. Life is so mysterious.

One thing for sure. One huge piece of good luck has been that in time I fell into a line of work that I have enjoyed greatly these many years. Interesting work. Fulfilling work. I will tell you more about that in a few minutes.

Pa became a successful businessman.  Yes, he and Ma loved us. They showed it in so many ways. They saw to it that I got a fine education. Far better than they got. True for Lucie also.

Pa and Ma had a different schooling in mind.

But mine was a strange education. My siblings were spared.  At age 10, for the fifth grade all through the 8th, I was sent to a Catholic boarding school for French kids like me. In English, its name would be Sacred Heart Academy.  Run by Catholic “brothers,” so called.

Pa and Ma would come visit for an hour on Sunday afternoon.  If they skipped a Sunday, Aunt Bernadette and Uncle Jack would come. Some kids would rarely get a visitor.  I’d come home for Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter and eight weeks in the summer.

Very hard the first two or three months. I cried a lot. But I adjusted. I still have an old yellow snapshot I found in Ma’s things when she passed. It shows me at graduation. I was the top student.  But there were only 41 of us in the class.

Why did they send me away like that? In our circle, that’s what parents did if they were doing well. Besides, they had been spoiling me. You know, the first-born.  In boarding school I would get the discipline I needed. It did do the trick.

Pa and Ma had lots of friends. Favorites were Mr. and Mrs. Dubois. Their son, Yvon, was two years older than I. They had sent him off at 13 to a school called Assumption. Again, that was a prestigious thing. They sent me to Assumption, too. It was 40 miles away, in Worcester, Massachusetts.

It was a Catholic school, of course. Established by priests come from France to educate the sons of immigrants from Quebec. You went to it for eight years. Four years in its prep school. Then four years in its college. Both on the same campus. In fact, all in the same massive four-story brick building. Some 350 boys in all.

And during those eight years, one half of your education would be in English, and half in French. You learned to speak, read, and write them equally well. I appreciate that to this day. The teachers were priests and laymen. You graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

Please remember this about Assumption because I became greatly involved in Assumption as an adult, as you’ll see.

I win a big scholarship.

There’s another interesting side to this story. Many immigrant families like ours belonged to a large fraternal society with a French name. In English it would be the St. John the Baptist Society.

It was a non-profit. It sold life insurance policies. If you bought a policy, you automatically became a member.

And with its profits, the St. John the Baptist Society would carry on good works.

One of its major ones was providing scholarships to the sons of members to go to Assumption. The scholarships paid for half of everything at Assumption for eight years. Half of tuition, room and board, even books. Imagine that!

Every year on a Saturday in June, the society invited sons of its members to take a competitive test at Assumption.

Notice, I said the sons, not the daughters. That’s how it was back then. So many things have changed for the better.

The society had members in all six of the New England states, so the boys came from all those states. Getting them to Worcester and back was a big challenge for many parents.

It turned out the boys were the best students from their parochial schools. Typically 300 boys would report for the exam.  It consisted of a three and a half hour test in the morning, and another just as long in the afternoon.

Every year the society would award the scholarships in proportion to how many members it had in each of those six states. Perhaps 4 for Maine, 3 for New Hampshire and 3 for Massachusetts, 2 for Vermont and 2 for Connecticut, and 1 for  Rhode Island, our state. So 15 in all.

Well, that year another boy from Rhode Island and I got the very same score. What to do? I suppose the society could have given the two of us a test and used that to decide the winner. But the society that year gave each of us a scholarship!

(Over the years the society gave scholarships to more than 700 boys. It also gave grants —  hand-outs – to just as many. Very wonderful.)

Life at Assumption was challenging indeed. What happened was that after just three months my co-winner from Rhode Island was so unhappy, so homesick that his parents took him home.

Much happened in those eight years. I adjusted easily because of my boarding school experience.

In the high school I did well. Made the honor roll regularly. Was one of the four class officers, though never president. In the senior year I made the National Honor Society. Not sure that exists today but it was a big deal back then. I won the contest to be the speaker at our big farewell student party.

In the college I opted for the pre-med package, which included physics, biology, and chemistry. Mostly because Ma hoped and prayed I’d be a doctor.

In the senior year I was elected editor of our small college paper, “The Greyhound.” That was the college mascot. Why, I never found out.

Well, I enjoyed every phase of that — planning, assigning, editing, and laying out the paper. To be honest, the editing was very light, just checking grammar and spelling.

We had just a tiny budget. No ad revenue because no ads. The school gave us just a few dollars. So we could put out just two issues, each with just four pages tabloid. It was hardly journalism but it made me think of what was involved in putting out a real newspaper.

My Long Island summer had a big impact.

Yes, I was thinking of becoming a doctor. But at the end of my sophomore year, something happened to change that. My roommate Gil was thinking the same thing. He had an aunt who was a head nurse at Long Island Hospital in Boston Harbor. It was part of famous Boston City Hospital.

Yes, it was on one of the islands in the harbor. So named because it was the longest island. From our dock we could see the Custom House Tower in Boston two miles away, the very tallest back then. Hah! Now the Custom House Tower is dwarfed.

The hospital was big, with many buildings. Had 3,000 patients. Tunnels connected the buildings because the winter winds were so harsh and snowfalls so heavy.

The hospital had its own little ferry. It made two round trips a day to Boston. Everything came and went by that ferry.

The hospital took care of people with long, late-stage illnesses. Most were old and most were poor. They got mostly custodial care.

Gil’s Aunt Marge, a head nurse there, got us jobs for the summer. She had worked there for 15 years. She went about her work with a kind of missionary zeal. A wonderful lady.

Gil and I shared a room again. We got room and board and a small salary. I don’t remember how much. Maybe $15 a week. But that wasn’t bad for 19-year-olds back then.

We wore white pants and white shoes and a blue tunic. Very natty. We were orderlies. I worked in a men’s ward of 18 beds and Gil worked in another of 18.

A ward would have nine beds along one wall, and nine on the opposite wall. Each   bed had a small side table and a folding chair for patients who could sit.

We would ladle out food to the patients who could feed themselves, and feed patients who needed to be fed. Everybody got exactly the same meal. But maybe red Jello one day, green the next. Between the beds was a long curtain. The curtains could be extended for privacy as needed.

We would give patients their medicines. Bathe them. Change their sheets.  If in bed 24 / 7, turn them over to forestall bedsores, so very painful. Put them on the bedpan. Empty their urinal. Give them a haircut. Do whatever.

Most of the patients were going to die there. They knew that. The hospital had its own cemetery. Patients could see it from the ward. No headstones. Just numbered bricks marked the graves.

In the evening we had one nurse for four wards. She was always very busy.  All nurses were women back then. One evening around 10 one of my old patients died. I was shocked. I had never seen anybody die.

What to do? I ran and found her and told her. She told me she would send a professional orderly. And told me to draw the curtains on each side of the man’s bed. I had already done that.

By the way, all the other patients in the ward knew what was going on.

The orderly, a big man of 50 or so, arrived with a gurney. He said, “You take him by the feet.”

I thought he would lift the old man by the shoulders. No. He grabbed him by the head. I was shocked again. We dragged him onto the gurney.

He covered the patient with a sheet and said, “Come with me.”

We wheeled the man to the morgue. And put him in a refrigerator. I had a hard time sleeping that night.

In our fourth week I was promoted. My new job was exciting. Every morning I’d round up four patients from different wards. Go with them on the ferry to Boston. Hire a taxi. Take them here and there for specialized services not available on the island. At the end of the day, I’d take them back to the hospital.

On my fourth day all went well and I got my four back to our ferry dock early. One of my patients was a big guy. He walked with a cane. Was wearing a jacket. The big ferry from East Boston pulled it at the dock right next to ours.

The big guy said to me, “Hey, John, my brother is chief mate on that ferry. I’d love to go see him. He’d be tickled.”

I looked at my watch. “Can you be back in 20 minutes? Not a minute later?”

“Sure. Thanks!” And off he went, tap, tap, tapping with his cane.

I kept glancing at my watch. He got back at the last minute. Now he had his jacket draped over his free arm. Something didn’t look quite right.

On the ferry I got them settled below. We started. I went topside to enjoy the fresh air and the sights. Approaching the island I went below to get them. The SOB hadn’t gone to see his brother. He was swigging a bottle of wine. Had gone to a package store. When I tried to get the bottle, he started swinging at me with his cane. I barely managed not to get hit.

On the island, the story spread. I was demoted. The next day I was back on the ward. Damn!

Long Island Hospital was a good place. Its intentions were good. Patients, it seemed to me, were getting decent care. Medical care was minimal.

Many things happened that summer. As you see, good and not so good. One of the good parts was that I learned a lot about life. And about myself.

Back at Assumption I set a different course.

When Gil and I went back to Assumption for the upcoming semester, I dropped out of the pre-med program in favor of liberal arts. Gil became a dentist. I was thinking of journalism.

My senior year was a big year in big ways. One was that I graduated magna cum laude. Another was that through a blind date, I met Pauline. She was a junior at Annhurst College, also Catholic school, run by nuns, for girls who were daughters in French families like mine.

She was a beautiful girl. Smart girl. Fine girl. It was my very first date with a girl. It was her first date with a boy.

We attended the junior prom at Annhurst. And she was chosen prom queen! I was smitten. And she seemed to like me. In a flash we were in love. And in due time married. And we made it for 25 years.

But what happened was that over the years gradually but steadily I changed. She did not. She remained that very same fine person. But, yes, I changed a lot. In good ways mostly, not bad ways. But quite dramatically. And that changed the relationship. Strange but true. I’ll get around to explaining major ways I changed. Please be patient.

We have had three children. Never lost a child. Arthur, Monique, and Mark.  All very fine people. All have doctorates. All well married with fine spouses. We have five fine grandchildren. Can it be any better than that?

Time heals. Pauline and I are good friends. Speak often. This is the wiser way. I’m so grateful that this is the way it has worked out.

Now in old age I live here in California close to our loving daughter Monique. Now Pauline lives in Florida close to our loving son Arthur.

And if need be, we both know our loving son Mark would have us in a minute close to him in Wisconsin.

Pauline and I are both having birthdays this month. I will join in feting her, and she will join in feting me. How wonderful that is. And so is our son Mark. We’ll be feting him.

Another big change.

But there’s another long chapter in my life, and many of you are familiar with it. Twenty-five years ago I met Annabelle Williams from Newport Beach, California. She had signed up for one week.

Long story. It became serious. We never married. In my writings I always referred to her as Milady Annabelle.

Part of the year she lived with me in my corner of the country, and part of the year I lived with her in California.

She played a key role in all my major undertakings for many years, participating when possible, cheering from the sideline when not.

What made it good? I have a one-word answer: Compatibility.

She became gravely ill nearly three years ago, spent many months in hospice, and died in early March. She was 87.

Thanks to Monique and David, I was able to attend her memorial service and memorial reception. They were at my side.

I wrote about this in detail after her passing. If you are receiving this, I’m sure you received that.

ECCC — a happy chapter in my life.

When I retired, I heard of an interesting place in Connecticut, The Episcopal Camp and Conference Center. Operated by the Episcopal Church. ECCC offered nine different programs. They would attract 14,000 people a year.

A big one was offering interesting one-week programs for adults. You would take academic courses. Not for credit. Just for the pleasure of it. It was called Elderhostel. A national program offered in many parts of the country which has morphed into big Road Scholar. ECCC has given up Elderhostel.

You’d also have fun swimming and canoeing on its private lake. Hiking through its forest. Square dancing. Meeting interesting people. Going on escorted excursions in that beautiful and interesting corner of Connecticut.

I signed up for one week. Loved it. I returned as a volunteer, doing this and that, no pay, just room and board.  I got to teach a course. Then became director of its Elderhostel program. It changed my life. I worked there for some eight years, seven months a year, April through October.  Small salary. In the off months, I traveled a lot. More about this in a few minutes.

There was very little religion in its Elderhostel weeks. Just grace at meals. And an elective evening chapel program. Zero pressure to attend but just about everybody would show up, even Jewish people who had signed up for the week.

I conducted the service three evenings a week. No way could I give a conventional homily. I talked about things that would be uplifting and meritorious, free of deep religious context.

My ping pong talk was typical. It went like this: True story, I enjoyed playing ping pong with Elderhostelers. In one game, I hit a ball so hard that I dented it. And picked up another.

“John,” my opponent said. “It’s easy to fix. No need to toss it.”

“Impossible!”

“All I need is hot water.”

I was curious. Took him into the kitchen. He drew a pan of very hot water. Tossed in the dented ball. In a minute or two, the dent disappeared.  It was as good as new.

In my talk, I’d conclude thus:  “In that game, both of us saw that dented ball. I saw failure. He saw hope. And proved me wrong.” And I’d whip that perfect ball out of my pocket and flash it. “The lesson is, Never give up hope!” People would applaud.

What was amusing is that I more than once I got a letter addressed by Elderhostelers to say thank you when they returned home. Letters addressed to Rev. John LaPlante or Father John LaPlante.

The director of ECCC was a remarkable man named Andrew Katsanis. He took the job as a young man right out of divinity school. It was just another so-so summer camp. Transformed it brilliantly. Ran it for 34 years – his life’s work. I am still in touch with him.

That was an adventure. One of fun, fellowship, and friendship. Marvelous.

And that’s where I met Annabelle Williams – Milady Annabelle. In fact, she would play the piano at our chapel services.

Anyway, I left Elderhostel when I turned 70. I loved the place and the job but it was time.

That set the stage for my years in Connecticut.

All that was in a beautiful and comfortable corner of the state. That’s how I became a resident of Connecticut, buying a condo nearby in the delightful town of Deep River.

Deep River was wonderful for me in a number of ways. For one thing, I became active in the local Rotary Club. In fact, was made a Paul Harris Fellow, named for the founder. Not a small honor. But that’s a long story in itself.

What’s been driving me all these years.

Now finally about the line of work that has really been up my alley these many years. That I have enjoyed since Day I, and that I still enjoy to this day.

I have told you that at Assumption I was thinking of becoming a doctor, changed my mind, and began thinking of journalism. Ma took all that very badly. Pa, too.

In my final semester at Assumption, I took the Graduate Record Exam, and on the basis of that I was accepted by both Clark University in Worcester, a very fine university, and by Brown University in Providence.

I chose Brown because it was an Ivy League university and I could live at home and commute to classes. I’d take courses mostly in economics but also in history and political science and get a master’s.  An Assumption prof told me that would be a smart thing to do for a budding journalist. Told me that in just 10 minutes or so.

Brown had a weekly student newspaper, The Herald. Although I was a graduate student, I wrangled a job and became the layout editor. No pay, of course but I learned.

As a graduate student I was not allowed a grade lower than B. I took a mandatory course in statistics. Totally based on calculus. Statistics is the branch of math that is a basic tool for economists

Well, at Assumption I had taken calculus. It followed arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, which we all took. But I was sick when the calculus course started, missed classes for a week, never caught up.

The Brown professor gave me a C for the statistics course. That was it. Goodbye, Brown! So humiliating. But please remember I had no intention of becoming an economist.

By the way, if I had been a Brown undergrad, my performance of half A’s and the rest B’s except for that one damn C would have been deemed very respectable indeed.

I fit right in at BU.

Anyway I went on as planned to Boston University for a graduate degree in journalism. Which was my career ambition, as you know. Brown did not offer journalism.

I was in my true element there.  Was scoring high. In one course a Pulitzer Prize editorial writer at the Boston Globe was teaching us how to write editorials. One week he assigned a topic and we each submitted another editorial.

“Where is Mr. LaPlante?” he said at the next class. I put up my hand.

“Congratulations, Mr. LaPlante! Yours is the best.”

Wow! But I’m sure one reason mine was the best resulted from what I had learned at Brown in economics and political science.

Oh, in a course on feature writing, the professor told us to write one. I loved photography. One summer I worked taking pictures of little kids and selling the pictures to their Moms. And I wrote that up and sold it to a magazine called “Profitable Hobbies.” My first free-lance sale — $34, I believe it was.

And I still had a specific ambition. It was to own, edit, and publish my very own weekly newspaper.

Oh, back at BU I had read of a small newspaper which was publishing “offset,” a technological breakthrough. And instead of using a huge, expensive Linotype Machine, operated by men after a long apprenticeship, it used a small, relatively inexpensive Varityper. It was just a bit larger than a typewriter. And anyone who could type could learn to use it quick. I was good at typing.

And lo! A nearby business equipment store was selling Varitypers and offered free lessons. I’d go after class for an hour every day. I got good on a Varityper. As you’ll see, this paid off in due time.

And Pa and Ma paid for much of that education and preparation. To say it once more, how fortunate I have been.

The truth is that this line of work, writing, although enjoyable and truly fulfilling, has never made me wealthy. But I found ways to supplement it. Today I have zero financial concerns.

Over the years, one thing I have noticed is that many people get into a line of work that they indeed enjoy. It pays well. May give them prestige. Maybe as a doctor, businessman, lawyer, scientist, or in some other fine field. Then retire. They are glad they chose that line of work. But they never do it again. I’ve never stopped writing. These days, I don’t make a penny from my writing.

Now let me give you a better idea of the ways writing has shaped my life.

First, right after I got my Master’s in journalism at Boston University I landed a job on a small weekly newspaper, The Thomaston Express in the town of that name in Connecticut. In fact, I was the editor of it.

That happened because of a professor who got to know me and had faith in me. His name was Evan Hill. Enormously talented as a teacher, a journalist, and a writer.

For one thing, he wrote freelance articles for some of our leading national magazines. He went on to become the founding dean of the School of Journalism at the University of Connecticut.

We had a spring vacation coming up. Professor Hill told me he had a former student who owned a weekly newspaper in Amherst, Mass. Home of the U. of Massachusetts, by the way. He told me that this young friend and his wife would give me room and board and give me writing assignments. And I did that. That was long before work – study programs.

And that’s how I decided I’d like to have a small weekly someday. I was young and idealistic.  I felt that a good, strong weekly can make good things happen in a small town. Which is wonderful, I still think to this day

Well, Professor Hill also knew the publisher of the Thomaston Gazette. His name was Del. And he knew Del was looking for a new young editor. Del liked young editors because they were cheap.

They would break in at his Gazette, then jump to a bigger paper.

Well, on Professor Hill’s recommendation, sight unseen, Del hired me.

Del was paying me $50 a week. Pauline and I were getting serious.  I was living in a boarding house. Eating cheese sandwiches for lunch. Trying to save a few dollars. He promised me a significant raise in 12 months if I did a good job.

I worked hard. Was covering the bigger stories. Was producing a feature story every week—a first on the Gazette. Even a weekly column. Gave the paper a bright new look.

One week a hurricane hit. Streets were flooded. Big factory closed.  I worked day and night covering that. Pauline happened to be visiting. She saw the passion I was putting into the job.

Came the end of the year. Del was pleased. I saw that. Every week he’d treat me to a pricey lunch at the White Fence Inn, the nicest restaurant in the area.

I expected my $50 would be doubled to $100. He gave me a $5 raise. I was shocked. What a cheapskate!

I learned more than I expected to at the Gazette.  For instance, those fancy lunches. The White Fence Inn would run a nice ad in the Gazette every week. But would pay not in cash, but in free meals, which Del could use any way he wanted to, such as to dine and wine a potential big advertiser. Or impress an editor still wet behind the ears.

But I had an ace up my sleeve. There was a weekly newspaper in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, That was just a few miles from Pawtucket, where I grew up.

I see a big opportunity.

That weekly was The Star in Woonsocket, R.I., close to my hometown of Pawtucket. But Woonsocket had a successful daily newspaper, The Call. The Star was failing. It was up for sale. Easy to understand why.

Well, here I saw my dream of owning a weekly coming through. My big chance!

Pa had become a successful businessman. Was doing great. I told him about The Star. He had grave doubts. Understandably so. But I convinced him. And Pa made it happen. He put me in business.

I knew The Star could not survive as an ordinary weekly. I changed it into a picture / feature weekly. Nowadays a type common all over the United States, but which did not exist back then. I renamed it The Sunday Star

I was 26 years old. I had no real advertising experience. Well, I managed to hire an expert. Don, age 54. Twice my age. He had been selling ads for 30 years.

He saw tremendous potential in my fresh concept of The Sunday Star. But what was terrific was that he would sell on a straight commission basis. Terrific!

I put together a small staff. Just five of us. A gal setting type on my brand-new Varitype machine (! ! !). A paste-up artist putting the pages together. A Gal Friday who was secretary, bookkeeper, whatever. A young fellow who did this and that. And Don was out hustling. Started bringing in ads, big ads and little ads. It was wonderful.

I worked hours and hours. Gave the paper a whole new look.

I met a young guy who flew a plane and towed advertising banners. I made a deal with him. I would write a feature about his fascinating business and publish it with half a dozen photos. He would fly a banner over the city until he nearly ran out of gas.

My new jazzed-up edition would come out on Easter Sunday. His banner would say “Sunday Star Reborn Today.” So appropriate. It was the maximum number of letters he could tow. And he did that. A beautiful blue-sky day. Anybody looking up got to see it. I was very proud of that. Still am.

I would have The Sunday Star printed every Friday by a big local offset printer. “Offset” was new technology back then. For one thing, you could print better pictures, cheaper, too

Hired a guy with a truck to deliver copies to stops all through Woonsocket for the weekend. Weeks were going by. I would bill for the ads but no checks were coming on.

I was living at home with Pa and Ma and commuting the 17 miles to Woonsocket. Pa was giving me a personal weekly allowance.

And of course Pa was covering the rent, the electric bill, the phone bill, the payroll, the printer, everything. He was upbeat. But started asking lots of questions. His smiles were drying up. He was chafing. Who wouldn’t be? I wasn’t sleeping well.

Then the truth dawned. Don had been conning me. He’d go to an advertiser, offer free ads as a starter, and guarantee they would be a good investment. And he’d keep me in the dark about that.

The business the ads brought the advertiser was not enough. There has to be continuity for advertising to work.

After five months, the game was up. That was the death of The Sunday Star. I felt I got hit by a brick.

Failure hits me again.

It was a huge humiliation for me. One more. Pauline and I had become very serious, so doubly humiliating in that way. But she stuck by me. An enormous disappointment for Pa. In fact, it plunged him into a deep depression. Poor Pa! I felt a ton of guilt. Rightfully so

He had done all that because he loved me. Had confidence in me. But, sad to say, it had been a gross mistake on his part. He was a sharp businessman. He should have seen I was not qualified. Had zero business experience. He should have said No!

Some six or seven months went by. I was still living at home. Being supported by Pa and Ma again. No income. Thinking of myself as a balloon that had lost most of its air.

Applying to newspapers. A lot of tension. A lot of pressure. I worried Pauline would ditch me. She stood by me.

One day my Aunt Bernadette said she was going to Worcester to see a friend. Invited me for the ride. Might do me good. In Worcester, we went by the offices of the big Worcester Telegram & Gazette. I got excited. Explained. She dropped me off. I went into the T & G. Applied for a job. A week later was hired as a correspondent. That was the first rung on the ladder there

Dear Aunt Bernadette!

And Pauline was so happy, too.

I was back in the very city Assumption College was in. I had been reading the T & G at the college. I knew the city well, which was good.

The T & G was a morning, afternoon, and Sunday combo. Typical of many big newspapers across the country. In fact, the T & G was on the list of our 100 biggest papers, close to the bottom, but on that prestigious list. There were 1,600 dailies back then.

It took more than 800 people to put out those three papers.

The T & G became a long chapter for me.

Yes, I started as a correspondent in Athol, a small town 50 miles from Worcester at the very western edge of the county.

Steve Preston, my bureau chief, said nice words about my work. Said those words to editors in Worcester also. A good guy. He was old enough to be my dad, by the way.

I started free-lancing on the side for the T & G’s magazine, Feature Parade. Some big Sunday papers bought a nationally syndicated magazine and just printed their own name at the top of the front page. Quite a few still do.

But the Sunday Telegram published its own magazine. Very good. It was estimated 200,000 would at least glance at it on a Sunday.

It had its own editor, assistant editor, two full-time writers, a make-up artist, and a photographer.  But it bought additional articles, mostly from T & G staffers who would produce them on their own time.

I enjoyed writing features more than reporting news stories.  They had more heft. Were more challenging, in my opinion. So I began scouting possible feature stories, writing them up, and submitting them to Feature Parade.

The editor, Mr. Frederick C. Rushton (I still remember!), snapped them up. That was a great vitamin for my ego. And I liked the extra money.

The features had to be illustrated with photos. I was a good photographer but did not have a professional camera. Steve had a big Speed Graphic, which was standard in the industry. A museum camera now.

He would let me use it for my news stories, but my features also. Mr. Rushton would use three or four to go with one of my stories. He’d pay $3 per. I’d give Steve $1.50 for each for letting me use his camera.

By the way, I was boarding at the Athol YMCA, just a block from our office. Not fancy but affordable. I had weekends off.

I had a car now, again thanks to Pa. On Saturday morning I would drive 80 miles to visit Pauline at home in Putnam, Conn. Stay at a hotel there on Saturday night, $3. No way would her mom and dad let me stay and sleep on the couch. Improper! I’d go to Mass with her on Sunday morning, have dinner with her and her parents, go out for a ride with her after that, then in the evening drive the 80 miles back to Athol.

After six months or so I got promoted. A big promotion. I was thrilled. I was made the bureau chief in another section of the county. Just like Steve Preston.

In charge of two full-time correspondents and four or five stringers. I was now making $80 a week. But I was still writing on the side for Feature Parade.

Then I got transferred to another section of the county. One day I wrote a news story that made the front page of the Telegram. All editions. My first. A big deal.

I make Page 1 all editions for the first time.

I covered Town Hall in the town of Whitinsville. One evening I covered a meeting of the Town Finance Committee. Present were just the committee members plus half a dozen citizens and me. E. Kent Swift – I still remember his name!—was chairman.

He was president and chairman of the Whitinsville Machine Works, big, big factory, a great many employees, national reputation. A big man. The committee had been considering the town budget for the new fiscal year.

He handed out copies to everybody, including ordinary citizens, but not me. I stood up and asked him for a copy. He refused me. He knew I was covering the meeting for the T&G. Well, his refusing to go public was my lead paragraph in the report I immediately wrote and wired to the Telegram.

It was a two-column headline on Page 1 the next morning. My first time on Page 1, all editions. Of course, I got copies and cut out my report to send to Pa and Ma and Pauline and Aunt Bernadette. Even Del back at the Thomaston Express. And saved copies for myself.

The T & G had a monthly in-house paper it mailed to all 800 employees, “The Gossiper.” I made the front page on the next issue. I clipped that out, too.

I would call Pauline one evening every week. From a telephone booth, depositing coins. One day she told me the pastor of St. Mary’s Church had told her he would marry us on August. 18! Wonderful news. I went to work with increased energy.

Fortuitously at that very time, I got a call from Mr. Francis Murphy (Frank), managing editor of the Worcester Telegram. None of us ever called him Frank. It was always Mister Murphy.

He told me there was an opening for a writer on Feature Parade. Did I want it?  I said yes!  Mr. Rushton, the magazine’s editor, had recommended me.

Now consider the following. The Telegram was the morning paper. Its reporters would work from 3 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Some would work Saturdays and Sundays. Some on Christmas and the Fourth of July. Some with a working spouse…teacher or secretary or such … would rarely get to see her. Their school children either.

On Feature Parade I worked Monday through Friday 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. I proposed and wrote one feature story a week. Also did a few chores, such as editing the weekly food column. How wonderful!

I did stories all over Massachusetts and even central New England.  I would suggest them to Mr. Rushton.  All dailies within a hundred miles or so would swap papers. They’d pile up on a table on Mr. Murphy’s office. I’d check them every week. Prospecting for good stories.

I interviewed Scientists. Actors, Politicians. Beauty queens.  Business men. Authors (one was Evan Hill, my prof back at B.U., who by then was selling pieces to the Saturday Evening Post and such.) Fascinating work.

I’d phone them, arrange an interview, drive to wherever, come back, write my draft. Submit it to Mr. Rushton. He’d edit it. Make a suggestion or two.

Then I’d go back with our photographer. He’d take many photos, including some in color (new technology back then) as a possible cover photo. Sometimes he’d use multiple flash. I’d assist him with that.

At the same time I’d check with my interviewee to verify important facts, double-check everything, maybe pick up additional good info.

An interesting detail. I would use my car for the initial interview. The Telegram would pay my mileage and such. On the second trip, with the photographer, in his car. He wanted the mileage.

I wrote many cover stories. I reveled in the work. I’d save copies of everything of mine that Feature Parade published. I now have a bound volume with all my articles. It’s seven inches thick. Weighs pounds.  I have another, nearly as hefty, of my work as FP editor.

Being a staff writer on the magazine was the most varied and interesting reporting and writing on those three newspapers, in my opinion.

Pauline and I got married and rented an apartment in small Webster (4,000 people), where I had been bureau chief for that whole area of the county.

She got a job teaching at the town elementary school. Our son Arthur was born there. Also our daughter Monique. Things were going well.

I find new opportunities.

While on Feature Parade, again I found ways to beef up my take-home.  Pauline and I had taken up camping. It was inexpensive, wholesome, lots of fun. Equipment was getting better. State parks had campgrounds, but more private camp grounds were opening. Family camping was really catching on. We loved it. A big organization was thriving, NEFCA, the New England Family Camping Association.

One day I went to see Mr. Murphy again, our managing editor. Told him all this. Suggested a weekly column. He liked the idea.

He said, “But who will write it?”

“I will.” He said okay. My work week ended at 5 on Friday. I would stay at my desk and write my column. It was called “Camps and Camping.”  I had researched and interviewed for the column during that week.

I wrote it for 10 years without missing a Sunday. I wrote some 500 columns. One week I was in the hospital for something. I wrote it from my hospital bed.

One year I was the guest speaker at NEFCA’s annual convention. They gave me an award for promoting family camping as a fine and wonderful and commendable family activity. I still have that impressive plaque.

Oh, in covering those small towns, I saw a lot going on. For instance, big changes. In those small towns, in their early years, there was more interest in the town itself. More people would attend the annual town meeting, when big decisions got made.

Of late, some towns were having a hard time achieving a quorum. What to do? They’d have the fire chief blow the very loud firehouse whistle. Everybody could hear that. It meant, “Come vote!”

Well, I wrote that up and mailed it on spec to The Nation Magazine. A national magazine! The editor bought it. As you may know, The Nation publishes to this very day.

The Sunday Telegram also had a section called “House and Home.” Big papers still publish such a section. Every week, Nick Zook, the editor, would run a feature about a nice home on the front page, with a jump to an inside page. I produced many for him.

I’d find an interesting home, call the owners (some did not want the publicity), go look at it on my time off and turn my story in to Nick. He’d send a photographer to shoot a lay-out. That paid me $30 per.

Pauline and I had been thinking of owning our own home. We had been apartment tenants.  In fact, having one built. Yes, things were getting better. We had bought a one-acre lot in Auburn, very nice nearby town. Out in the country. Fresh air. A nice view. Pauline had started teaching in Auburn.

One day I toured an attractive home. The owner surprised me. Said, “This is a HILCO Home.”

“HILCO Home! What’s that?”

“Hog Island Lumber Company in Philadelphia. They build components of the house in a factory, then deliver them to your lot on a big truck. They have a catalog of plans. And a free architectural service. You can choose the plan and style you like best, then make changes. No extra charge.”

I told Pauline about that the minute I got home. Called the company. Asked for the name of local buyers. We visited three, asked a lot of questions, liked the answers. Bought a HILCO home and erected it in Auburn. More difficult than expected. That’s a long story, too. But with a happy ending.

“Have a nice photo taken of yourself.” 

Anyway I was very busy. Finding writing jobs that would fatten our savings account, and enjoying the work.

Fred Rushton, our editor, became ill. I sat in for him for nine months. No extra money. One morning with no pre-announcement he returned to work. I was astonished.  A month later, ill again. Out four months that time. I edited the magazine again. Felt I was making significant improvements. No raise in pay.

One day Mr. Forrest Seymour, a Pulitzer Prize winner who was our editor-in-chief, called and asked me to come up to his office on the fourth floor. The top floor of our building. Most of the executives were up there.

He said to me, “John, go down to the photo department and have them take a nice picture. We’re going to run it Sunday to announce you’re the new editor of Feature Parade.”

This was big news I was hoping for. I’d get a raise! But I didn’t want to seem crass. I did not ask how much. I said, “Mr. Seymour, does this mean and I can take Pauline out for a fine dinner?”

“By all means, John, you do that with her. Yes, do that.”

I was being paid weekly, at the end of the week. But now I’d be paid monthly, at the beginning of the month. Also I might get a bonus at Christmas.

I wondered about the new pay set-up. Getting paid in advance. Finally I asked another editor. He said, “John, haven’t you figured it out?  This way you can’t just up and resign. You have to announce you’re quitting, but still have to work a full month afterward. This way they have time to plan and adjust.”

Finally I got my first new paycheck. I didn’t want to open the envelope in public. I went to the men’s room. My raise was a mere $20 a week!  Appalling. Immediately I thought of Del back at the Thomaston Express.

And I was feeling I was as high as I was going to go at the T & G for a while. This although finally I was on the executive payroll at the T & G.

And I had a bad feeling. Then as now, my profession of journalism, as important as it was and is, paid terribly.  What to do?

I make a huge career change.

One Monday morning I got a call from Assumption College, my alma mater. I had been teaching an evening course there two evenings a week. But the call was not about that.

Father Babineau, the director of planning, said to me, “John, we’re growing.”  Which I knew.  “We need a director of public relations. PR people are going in to see you all the time to peddle stories. Could you recommend a couple?”

“Sure, Father. Be glad to. I’ll call you in a couple of days.”

I followed through.

“Father, I have the ideal candidate for you.  He knows PR, he knows the Worcester area, and he knows a lot about Assumption.”

“Who’s that?” I could hear his excitement.

“Me!”

And it happened.  I had been at the T & G for more than a dozen years. I gave my one-month notice and started in the next phase of my career.

I was there four years. I wrote and placed news releases. Started and produced the college magazine. Planned, designed, wrote and produced brochures and booklets. Was promoted to director of institutional development, which oversaw fund-raising and  I developed other ideas.

For instance, for Assumption’s 50th anniversary, I wrote, illustrated, and designed a special tabloid section for publication in the Sunday Telegram.  That got real attention.

My income jumped sharply. I had a one-month vacation instead of just two weeks. Free tuition for my children. Qualified for a fifty-fifty TIAA CREF retirement account (from which for many years to this day I have received a monthly check), enjoyed the work, and felt I was doing significant work. But it didn’t have the fun and excitement of my newspaper work.

One summer, enthusiastic about traveling and camping, I arranged for Pauline and me and Pa and Ma to tour a good chunk of western Europe in a small RV I rented in England. Wonderful adventure.

Back at work at Assumption, I wrote a five-Sunday series that got published in the T & G and also the Providence Sunday Journal.

Excellent though Assumption was, deep down I was bothered. I had failed in business — The Sunday Star. But I had a vision of another business– a public relations and publications consultancy.

I bounced it off Pauline. Very hesitantly. She could have said don’t be foolish. You have a good job. A prestigious job. Solid retirement plan. Free college tuition for the kids. All of which was true. So, steady as you go. But she gave me her blessing.

At age 42 I start business No. 2.

I started the business, at home, to economize. Alone.  It grew. I hired a secretary. Eventually I had a staff of five full-time in a very nice new office. John Guy LaPlante Associates, 5 State Street, Worcester, Massachusetts

Developed an excellent clientele. Ten or eleven hospitals, including a psychiatric hospital. A junior college. A Catholic prep school. Two public school systems. A very large nursing home. A couple of banks. Other businesses. Ran the business 16 years. I had two which remained my clients all those years.

One of my clients was a general medical / surgical hospital. It planned to morph into something new, a specialized hospital for alcohol and drug therapy and recovery. The president liked my ideas.  Invited me to become director of marketing. Urged me to come on board.

My three kids weren’t interested in my business – all became professionals. I was getting older. I said okay. Sold my business. Well, that hospital marketing job, so promising, fizzled. There were poisonous cliques. I was happy to leave after some 18 months.

I was in my sixties. That started my retirement. But I never retired in the conventional meaning of the word. I went on to new ventures.

As I look back, I see my life as a succession of adventures. I never intended it to be that. But that’s what my life turned out to be. But what is an adventure?

Well, here’s my definition. An adventure is an undertaking that stands a very good chance of success. That’s why we undertake it. But also a risk of failure. Serious failure.

Many attempts of mine have been successful adventures. The hospital marketing job was an adventure that turned sour.

The Sunday Star.  The T & G. Assumption College. John Guy LaPlante Associates. These were all successful adventures.

But this mini autobiography is getting far longer than expected. I have much more to tell you more. I’ll make things shorter, if you don’t mind.

What is wonderful is how books have changed my life. When I was in prep school, I read “Robinson Crusoe.” You’re probably familiar. Wonderful fiction.

Robinson, a sailor from England, gets marooned on a small tropical island. He’s totally alone there. He salvages stuff off his beached ship, slowly makes a life for himself, learns how to do this and that, years go by, discovers there’s another man there, a black man named Friday, more years go by, gets rescued and returns to England.

What an engrossing tale. What wowed me was how he persevered, how he used his wits, how he learned to do new things, how he never got discouraged, how he coped.

When I finished the book, I was a new boy. A better boy. I was inspired.

Numerous books have had a great impact on me.

On the side I start business No. 3.

At this time I came upon a new book, “How to Make a Million Dollars in Your Spare Time.” Buying and managing income properties. Sad that I don’t recall the author. I liked the idea of making a million. As busy as I was, I could squeeze out some spare time.

Following his instructions. I bought a six-unit apartment house and learned the business.  One time, at auction, I bought a hundred-year-old brick building, four floors, boarded up, It was just across the street from the side of the huge and majestic Worcester County Courthouse. I saw potential.

With the aid of a talented architect I converted it into nine condos.  A new concept back then. The one on the street floor became a new office for me. The one above became a lawyer’s office. Still is.

The neighborhood had been slipping. The building turned out to be very handsome. My project re-energized the neighborhood. At one time beautiful maples lined State Street. All gone. I got new ones planted.

Curious? You can take a look.  Google 5 State St., Worcester, MA.

Another time I bought a two-story building, added a third floor, and converted it into six condos. In time I had 27 units. That was an adventure.

Yes, I’ve had some successes. But my greatest success was one I never mention. Only a few people who knew me long ago, such as my children, are aware of it.

My success was inspired by another book.

When I was a young man, I was obese, very obese, to the point that I was declared 4F (un-usable) during the massive drafting of recruits for the Korean War.

The day came when I finally was able to lose that massive weight. And keep it off. The book was a 25-cent paperback, “Eat and Reduce by Dr. Victor Lindlahr.  Not “Starve and Reduce!” Without a doubt, the most important book that I have ever read, and I have read many, many.

Dr. Lindlahr told me how to do it. Made me feel I could do it. Assured me I could do it. And I did it. I lost nearly a hundred pounds. Yes, that has been my greatest achievement.

But somehow, mysteriously, deep down I am embarrassed, ashamed, about that painful time in my life. I’ve kept it mum.

I should gloat about my success, give talks about it, convince others by publicizing my experience that if I could do it, they can, too.

I should have written a book about it. I’m an expert on the subject.

I’ve never been to a psychiatrist. I should have long ago, to try to understand my shame, my hesitation. Not a pill psychiatrist. A talk psychiatrist.

I still have Dr. Lindlahr’s book on my bookshelf. To repeat, my most important read ever. He was not an M.D., by the way. He was an osteopath.

Yes, I have had big adventures.

Traveling around the world with a buddy for my 75th birthday was one. It took us a full year just to get the necessary visas. We started by flying to Japan. He quit after three weeks. How could I go on alone? Seemed impossible. But I did it. I completed that whole great, big, trip. That was an adventure.

Then taking a trip to a dozen Asian countries. My sister Lucie, wonderful gal that she is, accompanied me more than half way, to Bangkok. That was decided before we started. She had an event back home she couldn’t miss. That was an adventure.

Joining the Peace Corps at age 77 and flying off to Ukraine for 27 months, and having to study Russian (I was such a lousy student that I thought Peace Corps would send me home). And then at age 80 becoming the oldest Volunteer of some 7,000 in 75 countries around the world when 20 percent of Volunteers were quitting and coming home early, well, that definitely was an adventure.

You know, planning and writing and publishing a book by yourself is a daunting job. Most authors have an editor and assistants and often a consultant.

As mentioned, I have built a house. Well, I believe that writing and publishing a substantial book is more work than building a house.

Yes, writing a book is an adventure. I have had three such adventures: My “Around the World at 75, Alone. Dammit!” My “Around Asia in 80 Days, Oops, 83!” And my “27 Months in the Peace Corps, My Story Unvarnished.”

Why did I say “Oops, 83!” in the title of my Asia book?  Someone, I don’t remember who, went around the world in 80 days. I thought we could do Asia in 80 days. Oops, I miscalculated.

For the record, I have written another book, my very first, about our family camping experiences. Not published. Could not find a publisher.

Also another “Doctor, Help!” I began it 15 years ago. A detailed account of my experiences with doctors and hospitals and such over the years. Put aside half-finished because of other pressing priorities. Never resumed. So, a failure, you might say.

Certainly my travels over the years have been remarkable. Consider. I have been to all 50 states, some numerous times, some many times. I have been to 8 of the 10 provinces of Canada. And to Quebec and Ontario numerous times.

I have been to all the countries of Europe with the exception of the three Scandinavian countries up top. Some several times.  To France 10 times.

Mexico four or five times (during two summers I drove alone 15,000 miles through the country, up and down and from the Pacific to the Caribbean).

I have been to China four times. India twice. Brazil twice. To five countries in Africa, from Egypt and Morocco at the top right down to South Africa. Also the island of Cyprus. Also the Bahamas.

Of course I have had some scary moments. Have been robbed a few times. Was knocked flat on my face on a busy street by a drunk one frigid night in Ukraine. On a train in India – the only non-Indian aboard. I believe — I feared for my life. But here I am hale and hearty

Yes, these extensive travels, most of them alone, were an adventure. There were genuine risks.

One of the big lessons they have taught me is that most people in the world, of whatever race, religion, citizenship, or type of society, meaning capitalist, socialist, or communist, are good people.

Oh, I did tell you I have changed. Remember?

Not in bad ways. In good ways. Well, so I believe. Not because I was dazzled by a vision or hit by lightning. It has been a process.

How have I changed? Well, I grew up Catholic. I went to Mass every morning for years. Slowly I began questioning some dogmas. Today I think of myself as an agnostic.

I have two dear friends I went to school with years ago. They are priests. Good priests. This will be a shock to them. I’m sorry about that.

Again a book inspired me. It was John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley.”  Charley was his poodle. He bought himself a pickup camper, quite new back in 1960. And set off on a road trip all around the United States. His wife declined, so he took Charley.

On Saturdays he would pull into a campground, make friends with his neighbors and chat.

On Sunday morning he’d go to a nearby church. Just about any church, but of a different denomination every Sunday. Just to observe and learn.

I decided to do the same thing in my travels. I hit many churches. Did the same thing with Milady Annabelle later. She grew up Presbyterian. Her father and one of her grandfathers were Presbyterian ministers.

She enjoyed the variety of churches we checked out as much as I did.

In my travels in other countries I did the same thing now and then.

I’ve attended services in churches of just about every Christian denomination, even the Salvation Army – my latest has been our local Seventh Day Adventist church. Nice people. Vegetarians, by the way.

I’ve also attended services in a synagogue, mosque, temple, some more than once.

Going to church is a nice thing to do. People feel uplifted, whatever the creed. Feel a heartening togetherness.  Go home feeling good.

As for me, if I decided to become a regular, I believe I would choose the U-U’s – The Unitarian Universalists (Wikipedia!).

Here’s another 180-degree change in my thinking.

I have come to believe something that I never thought I would believe some years back.

I believed that we are born and we live our life and die when the time comes.

Now my thinking goes as follows.

Every day we make countless decisions. What to wear. What’s the first project at work. Where to go for lunch. What TV show to watch in the evening. And so on.

And as time goes on, big decisions. Where to go to college. What to major in. What first job to accept. Whom to marry. How many kids to have. On and on and on. All through life.

True of you, me, people all over the world.

So why can’t we make the most important decision of all? Which is when to die? That never comes up because it is so far-fetched, so outlandish. Many religions do not permit it. It’s a sin. We have no tradition of it. It goes against our culture. It is stigmatized.

I believe I have the right to decide. I believe you have the right.

I believe it can be a wise decision. Dying can be such a long and nasty process. Dying can be so expensive. Dying can be so hard on loved ones who have to take care of you until your last breath.

I know of two people who have checked out. In an easy and undramatic way.

One was Scott Nearing, an author I admired (Wikipedia!) He turned 100. Decided it was time. Went to bed. Stopped eating, but took water. He died in a month, his wife Helen holding his hand.

Another was an old Jain nun in India when I toured the country with my two Jain friends. (More about this in a minute.}  We visited her in a convent. She was in bed, very frail, but aware. A nun was sitting at her side, reading to her. The old nun was doing exactly what Scott Nearing did. People thought that was admirable.

I have no intention of taking my life. But who knows?

On this subject I have a little story I tell. Total fiction. It never happened. It goes like this.

I run into an old friend, Harry. And he says to me, “John, did you hear the awful thing that happened to Sam?”

“Sam?! What happened to Sam?”

“My God. A massive attack! The poor guy didn’t even make it to the hospital! And he was only 84 years old!”

Know what I think? Too bad. But that’s not a bad way to go.  May be perfect. Sam’s future might have been difficult indeed.

Another great change in my thinking.

Like most of you, I grew up eating beef and chicken and pork, but not fish. Pa and Ma did not eat much fish.

When I was 15 or so, I had a traumatic experience. Long story. I will keep it short.

Pa drove up to Quebec to visit his family and took me with him. They were farmers. They depended on that farm for all necessities to get them through the year.

Well, among their livestock was one great big hog. I loved that hog.

One morning I walked down to the barn and was totally shocked to see what was going on.

Pa was there with my grandpa and uncle Armand. Working hard.

They had taken my hog out of its pen and had tied a rope to its rear hooves. Had pulled it up high on a pole. Its head was down by my grandfather’s chest. It was squealing. Screeching for its life. Terrified. Grandma must have heard it up at the house.

Grandpa took a big knife and slit its throat. Blood started pouring into a bucket on the ground. Uncle Armand took the bucket up to my grandma. She had her big cast iron stove ready. She was going to make blood sausage.

Grandpa took his big knife and slit my hog’s stomach. All its entrails spilled out.

It was just awful.

What I didn’t realize was that they depended on that hog to get through the coming winter. One hog every year. I learned that long later.

That was the start of my becoming vegetarian.

Many years later I went to India for seven weeks with Sulekh and his wife Ravi, who were dear friends. They were Indians (Jains / Jainism is an ancient religion akin to Buddhism) going back for a visit. Total vegetarians based on their religious belief in “ahimsa,” absolute non-violence. Do not hurt any living thing! So I also had to be vegetarian for those seven weeks. It was either that or go hungry.

That clinched it for me. I got to like the food they were eating. And I liked the idea of not hurting any animals.

I am the only vegetarian in my family. They do not hold it against me although I am sure they find it strange.

Being a vegetarian is an excellent idea. A huge and proven benefit is that it’s a very healthful diet. It’s one reason I am doing so well at ninety.

Going vegetarian has been a great adventure.

I’ve changed in other ways also. And for the better.

Well, while I’m at it I’ll tell you about other beliefs that have surfaced in me and changed my lifestyle. You might call them core beliefs.

One is that a lot of people want the best of anything and everything. The best this and the best that. Even if they have to scrimp and save to get it. Even if they have to borrow.

I sometimes want the best, too. Years ago I was hot into photography. I was frantic to own a Leica M3 camera, the famous German camera that was the best 35 mm. camera in the world. Pricey, of course. I scraped up and bought one. But second-hand. Didn’t have the money for a new one.

But my splurging like that is quite rare.

Much wiser as a way of life, I think, is to settle for what’s good enough. Because purchasing “what’s good enough” is good enough. It makes for greater happiness.

Here’s another. Pay cash. Yes, as a rule of life. I learned that early.

Pauline and I were engaged. Her birthday was coming up. What to buy her? I bought her a complete set of Farberware pots and pans. Quite new back then. Practical, un-romantic me.

But I didn’t have the cash. I bought the set $5 down, $5 per month at an extreme rate of interest. I scrimped and saved and paid the balance in 30 days. That lesson endures to this day. (I believe Pauline still has some of those Farberware pieces. She knows how to make good things last!}

Of course I have borrowed money at times. Mortgages for real estate, for instance.

Well, I’ve had a Visa MasterCard for 27 years. I use it for big purchases and small ones. Use it every day, even just to buy a cup of coffee. It’s easier than using money. To the best of my memory, I have not spent a dime on interest in all these 27 years. That’s another of the things that make me sleep better.

Another belief is to take calculated risks. Notice, I said calculated. Because if you’ve really pondered it, there’s a good chance that you will succeed. If not, you will learn an important thing or two. And that will serve you well.

Another is, don’t be afraid of strangers. Everybody is a stranger until you say Hi.

Here’s one more. I have found that the great majority of people all over the world, regardless of color, race, religion, or nationality, are good people. The chance of somebody harming you is small.

Travel!  As much as you can. It’s very important. Travel is educational in countless ways. It will broaden your mind. Give you a broader view.  Will teach you so much. About other peoples and where they live, how they live, what they believe in, how they rule themselves.  Besides that, it’s fun.

To get the most of it, you have to live at their level. Stay in low-budget places. My first choices have always been hostels. You meet more people. Learn so much more. Make new friends

Eat in restaurants they eat in. Do not isolate yourself in a room on the 14h floor of a deluxe hotel and eat in its 4-star dining room, with the chambermaid and the doorman the only locals you’ll get to have a word with.

So at age 90, what is my life like now?

Well, I live alone in this nice, small city of Morro Bay (11,000 people) on California’s Central Coast where there is no ice or snow and no 90 degree summer days.

I live in a mobile home in a mobile home park restricted to people 55 and older. It’s called Morro Palms Mobile Park (we have palm trees). No children here.

There are eight or nine mobile home parks hereabouts. This is the very nicest, by any standard.  Including location, location, location. It’s convenient to everything important to me

I never imagined I’d live in a mobile home. In fact, I think I looked down on people who live in mobile homes.

But this is perfect for me. I have a living room, kitchen, dining area, bedroom, bathroom, and office. Have range, fridge, microwave oven, washing machine and dryer, all the bells and whistles.

I have made numerous improvements.

Matter of fact, all mobile homes in our little community here, are very nice. People are proud of them. You can tell by their plants and little yards. I consider mine one of the nicest.

I call my daughter Monique and her hubby David every morning at 8 or so to chat. If I fail to make that call, they’ll come here in a jiffy. They live just 10 minutes away. I see them often. Now and then they take me with them into San Luis Obispo. They invite me for dinner, always insisting on my taking home delicious left-overs.

One of my wonderful Christmas gifts from them every year is a monthly cleaning and straightening out. Very thorough.

They pull in and give me a gentle push out. And go to work with vacuum cleaner and mop and dust cloth through the whole place and then put everything back in tip-top shape for another month. How wonderful.

Oh, I must mention I am now totally deaf in my right ear and use a hearing aid in my left ear. Know what? Probably you do not. If you lose hearing in one ear, you lose directionality. With your eyes closed, you can’t tell whether a sound is from in front of you or back of you or left of you or right of you or from above you.

Your body balance is also affected. Our ears are also a sort of gyroscope that controls the balance of our body. I’ve learned that the hard way.

I have a hard time walking and walk with a cane. But at a supermarket, pushing a grocery cart, I’m steady enough to get all my shopping done.

I have had dizzy spells. Three weeks ago I had a bad one when I got out of bed and went crashing down on the floor, tummy down.  A small cut on my hand, but no broken bones.  I had an awful time getting back up. But my right hip is sore and I limp. I’m having that spot X-Rayed to determine whether I have a fracture.

For two years I have been wearing a Great Call fall alert device on my chest. If I fall, I press the button on it, reach a Great Call responder day or night who will swing into action. She has my profile, which tells her first to call Monique or David, plus other options.

And it has GPS sensitivity, can tell quite accurately where I am, at home, or in a store or anywhere else, even a hundred miles away.

Oh, I do exercises every day.  Physical exercises. Every morning for years I did a whole program of stretching exercises every day. Now I do them Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday, and skip Sundays and Thursdays. I love Sundays and Thursdays.

And I do mental exercises, although writing ain’t a bad one. I do chess puzzles. I rewrite captions for the crazy cartoons the New Yorker Magazine is famous for.

And I write poems. Real poems. Limericks, for instance. Which to me means they must have a definite rhyming pattern, a definite structure, and most of all, must make sense. A lot of poetry is crap. I’ve sent my limericks and other poesies to family and friends.

In fact, just yesterday I got a limerick from an old friend, John Aschieris. Composed by him:

My occasional friend named LaPlante

Would never say that I can’t

The world he has traveled

He never gets frazzled

You might say he’s a true gallivant

Isn’t that nice of him? And wonderfully impressive?! Well, John is impressive. He’s a dentist, long retired in southern California. But does many good works. By the way, he’ll be surprised to see his limerick here.

For instance, he volunteers to help students at the local dental school who need a hand. For years he’s held a weekly clinic to advise parents about possible dental problems their Johnny or Sarah may have. And he writes classic limericks!

Well, I do one type of mental exercise for a while, then another, then another.

And every year I make New Year’s Resolutions. Some consider that crazy. I don’t.

For years and years I pedaled a bike. Now I pedal a trike.

In my seventies I took a spill. Sold my beloved bike. Now I have a beloved trike.

Yes, a tricycle. It’s safer. And it has a big cargo basket in back. It’s not perfect. It’s slower. Hills that were easy on a bike are impossible now. But it keeps me mobile.

I pedal to the library, the supermarket, the senior center, the bank, the post office, the drug store, McDonald’s or Burger King for my afternoon coffee, and other shops.

Oh, I can make it down to the Embarcadero, our waterfront. It’s all downhill. I can get down there in 10 minutes. But I can’t get back up.

I’m known as the old man with the bike. Always the bike, not the trike. I never correct them. Oh, well.

Our library is open five days a week and I’m there five days a week, mostly to read three of the newspapers. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Tribune out of San Luis Obispo.

Our Senior Center offers lunch five days a week. It’s a good lunch. I go every Tuesday and Friday. Usually 35 people or so. Four are homeless. I know them well, have a thorough understanding of what homelessness means. Truth is, I enjoy the fellowship as much as the lunch.

Have given several talks at the center. I taught a course there: “How to Write Tour Life Story.”  Sound familiar? Had no idea I’d soon be writing my own.

Have been signed up to address the RAMs (Retired Active Men) at their monthly breakfast meeting in June:  “Serving in Peace Corps in Your Old Age.”  These are active men. One or two may be inspired to check out Peace Corps.

Just recently I went on a bus excursion organized by the center to two interesting museums 25 miles away.  And wrote a report about that for the center’s monthly newsletter.

I do not watch television, which seems totally un-American. I do have a TV but use it only to watch an occasional DVD from the library.

I read in bed every night before turning off the light. Usually a book.

Recently a neighbor had a hospital bed for sale. I bought it just to make my book reading easier. It has a digital remote control handset. I use the handset to make the head of the bed go up or down, or the foot of the bed go up or down. Usually I use a combo. I love it.

More and more I dictate rather than type. For instance, much of this was dictated on my so-called smart phone. It became my first draft. There’s always a second, and a third. All in an effort to make my writing as interesting and effective as possible. “To write well, rewrite!”

Of course I am still writing and blogging. The blogging is getting more difficult because of the technology involved. Coping with this digital headache is as daunting as my studying Russian in Peace Corps was.

Our library is open five days a week and I’m there five days a week, mostly to read three of the newspapers. The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Tribune out of San Luis Obispo, the  beautiful major city 15 miles south of her which is our county seat.

I do not watch television, which seems totally un-American. I do have a TV but use it only to watch an occasional DVD from the library.

I read in bed every night before turning off the light. Usually a book.

Recently a neighbor had an electric hospital bed for sale. I did not need a hospital bed. I bought it just to make my book reading easier.

It has a digital remote control handset. I use the handset to make the head of the bed go up or down, or the foot of the bed go up or down. Usually I use a combo. I love it.

More and more, by the way, I dictate rather than type. For instance, all this was dictated on my so-called smart phone. Dictation is not as simple as it sounds but it works.

As you’re well aware, I am still writing and blogging. The blogging is getting more difficult because of the technology involved. For me this technology is a headache just as learning Russian was in Peace Corps.

Old, one more thing. This may surprise you. I am an inventor. I invented something that is protected by an official U.S. Trademark: “MedGown.” Yes, it’s a garment.

I am sure you are wondering, how is it possible to invent a garment? Well, let me tell you.

L0ng, long ago, back at Long Island Hospital, patients wore johnnies. That’s what a medical gown was called back then and still is. Here in California it’s called a medical gown.

When I was 30 I was ill and had to check into a hospital. or so, I had to go to a and I had to go to the hospital. They have me put on a johnny.

Five years ago in Connecticut I was hospitalized. Same old johnny. I decided to design one. It’s gone through several iterations. Everyone who’s seen it likes it, or so they say. I’m proud of it. Rightfully.

A month ago I was hospitalized again. The same old johnny!

If you’ve been hospitalized, I am sure you have the great pleasure of wearing one.

The old johnny was very practical.  One size for everybody. For man or woman. It has no collar. No pockets. No buttons. A couple of cords to hold it together. Very short sleeves, ending above your elbows. And just one size for most people. A small one for children. A bigger one for very fat people. Cheap to make and easy to launder.

Opening in back was a fantastic idea. Easy to put it on a patient in bed or to take it off. Easy for a patient to use a bedpan or a urinal. Or the toilet down the hall.

My MedGown is a vast improvement because of its six distinctive features.

It still opens in back, but you can walk without having to use your hands to keep it closed and keep your butt from showing. Still fits man or woman. Still one size for nearly all.

It has a collar. Lots of people feel cold. The collar can be turned up. And it provides a touch of style, which women like.

The sleeves are longer, six inches short of your wrist. Lots of people are embarrassed by purple spots on their arms. No longer a problem.

It has two pockets. You can carry your cell phone or cough drops or a pad and pen or a pack of tissues.

Behind each pocket is a slit. Easy for doctor or nurse to slip the wires through to connect you to this medical gadget or that one.

A big feature is that it’s easy to check a patient in any part of his or her body. The wide sleeves can be pushed up. From the back, each shoulder can be pulled down for easy viewing.

Easy for the same reasons when a patient has to go for an X-ray or a CAT scan or anything else.

One nice feature at the front bottom of the gown it a button. At the back side is a matching button hole. You can button the gown together. This makes it into a simple pajama. At night in bed when you toss and turn, this will keep the gown from riding way up to your belly button. As can happen with a johnny.

My MedGown is a real winner.

Me, a talk show host!

Oh, I nearly forgot. Here in Morro Bay I was surprised to find myself on the air every Saturday on a local community radio station, 97.3 fm. No paid commercials! Supported by contributions.  The station calls itself The Rock because of the huge rock – ancient volcano – that rises out of the sea at the entrance to our harbor.

At a dinner party I met Bob Swain, a retired chiropractor, who I found out hosted a weekly show on preserving good health on 97.3. He noticed I was a vegetarian. He interviewed me about that on his show. It went well.

I said to him on the air, “You know, Bob, being a vegetarian ain’t easy. In fact, there are three bad things about being a vegetarian.”

“There are? John, tell us about them, please.”

“Well, the first is that if you’re invited to dinner at someone’s home, you can say, ‘Please do not make anything special. I’ll be fine.’ But they always do make something special.

“The second is, if you go into a restaurant, you’re choices on the menu will be extremely limited. Maybe zero!”

“And what’s the third, John?”

“Everybody thinks you’re crazy!”

He laughed. But there’s a lot of truth in what I said.

A month later, a guest canceled and Bob asked me to fill in. This was about the fine health care Peace Corps Volunteers get. It went well.

Hal Abrams, the founder and director of The Rock, offered me a weekly show of my own. And I said yes. I’d interview people who had expertise on something or other, who were articulate, and listeners would enjoy our chatting and get something out of it.

Like an iceberg, 90 percent of my show was “under water.” It was a challenge every week to find a good guest discussing a subject that would be interesting and truly informative. It took being up on local news. It also took phone calls, even cajoling. It involved a warm-up section. Most had never been on radio.

Sometime to do a good job I felt I had to ask a difficult question. And to be fair, I felt I should not sock my guest with the question. I made sure to say I was going to ask it. Their reply was up to them. I had a couple who declined.

Back then I was living six months here, and six months back in Connecticut. In my absence a deejay played music.

When I returned for my third year, I noticed a veterinarian had taken over my slot. Lots of people have dogs, cats, horses. And he didn’t depart at the end of six months. Oh, well. That was an adventure, too, as modest as it was.

Well, I know this has been a long report. I’ve had a lot to tell you. Writing it hasn’t been easy. Should I say this? Or not? Am I creating a bad impression in some way? Or not? Will my readers think I’m bragging? Or not?  Have I overlooked something important? Or not? Will they think I’m nuts for divulging all this? Or not? Will I be sorry?

Chances are some of you will be bothered by this or that. And some won’t.

All I can say is, I’ve done my best. If you’re still with me on all this, God bless you. If not, I understand.

And now I’m finishing my third week of my 91st year. Wow!

Time marches on. And how!

My long, long adventure continues. It will end before long, of course. Hope I have a nice, quick, decisive heart attack. Whatever, it will be interesting to see how it ends,

I’ll send you a blog. Providing, of course, I can access a blogging app over there on the other side. Meanwhile, all the best to you!

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