March 25, 2019

Off we go on a house swqp to France / Second half

By John Guy LaPlante

NOTE: Annabelle and I did this house swap nearly 15 years ago. I published this account back then. I recently decided to publish it again because I learned house swapping is more popular than ever. Not only to France. To many countries. I thought it might get some of you interested in a swap.

It was a great idea back then. A true win, win. It’s a great idea now.

I published the first half a month ago. I’m late in sending you this second swap because as we know, life has an irritating way of screwing up our best laid plans. Sorry about that.

Please remember that all prices mentioned are the prices in effect back then.

If this interests you, just Google or Bing “house swapping” or “home exchanges” in whatever country you have in mind and you’ll be off and running.

Poitiers , France —  Already Annabelle and I have been on our own for a week now and our house swap is working out fine.

Dr. and Madame Diaz – Paco and Mimi – whose large house is far bigger than we need – are now n my town house in Deep River, Conn., and happy. He’s a psychiatrist and she a professor of education. But he did send a frantic email back yesterday.  “Your place is an icebox!  How do we turn on the heat?”

Well, who expected such a cold spell in May? But really I should have explained how our thermostat works  It just wasn’t on my long check list.

Poitiers is a very old and famous university city. It’s a great pleasure to be here, so much history, so much culture, s0 French.

We’re getting used to their big VW van on the narrow streets and can now find our way downtown and back.  At the giant Leclerc’s – the French version of a Super Walmart – we know exactly where to head to get to the wines and cheeses, and then to the detergents and paper towels.

Downtown we know which streets are pedestrian streets – no vehicles allowed… just walkers. Wonderful.

We go downtown for two hours nearly every day, and always between 12 and 2. That’s because parking is free in those two hours, the lunch break. And we are lucky – we always manage to find a handicap parking spot.  What a blessing.  Annabelle qualifies because of recent surgery and, to our astonishment, her U.S. handicap windshield placard is accepted here.

Downtown Poitiers is a delight. It teems with pedestrians, which in our old-fashioned view is what a downtown is supposed to be like. A lot of people walking around make a downtown so much more interesting. And the downtown is dotted with truly ancient buildings.

The city’s great pride, the famous church Notre Dame La Grande, dates back to the 10th century. The cathedral and several other buildings go back nearly as long. It is common for buildings to be 300 and 200 years old and still be in daily use.

At the same time, right next to one of these antiquities could be a swanky, ultra-modern shopping galleria with gleaming escalators and sparkling shop windows.  Quaint boutiques and little shops line up shoulder to shoulder on the cobbled streets.  There is a regular outdoor farmers’ market, and there are street musicians playing for tips…and hopeful beggars, too.

On these sorties Annabelle and I split up for an hour or so.  She checks out these shops and I head for the Mediatheque. It is a striking contemporary building, which means it boasts plain lines and huge panes of glass. It used to be called the Bibliotheque, the Library.

But now it is called the Mediatheque to acknowledge its rich offerings of books but its many public computers and collections of CDs and DVDs. The French are really with it!

I like to scan the International Herald Tribune and Le Monde and La Croix, two of France’s big dailies.  Oh, I know I could read these in Paco’s study on the Internet but I like going to the library to read the real papers..  Excuse me, the Mediatheque. Not because there’s a shortage of books here in the house. I estimate Paco and Mimi have at least 5,000 books and 1,000 CDs and DVDs. I like to read the real printed papers.

I was in the Periodicals Room yesterday and I remembered Charles DeGaulle’s famous quote when he was having a big headache at the Elysees Palace one day. “How can anyone govern a country whose people make 350 kinds of cheeses,” he complained.  Well, the French seem to have that many periodicals also.  And that many varieties of wine. And bread.  Astounding!

This reminds me of prices here.  In my last article I complained about high prices.  It is still my impression that most things here are more expensive than back home.  Far more. But many cheeses and breads are much cheaper.  We bought a nice Camembert for 2 dollars, and good wines are available for 2 or 3 dollars per liter bottle.  (Sorry, I cannot find the dollar sign on this French keyboard.) And some for astoundingly more, of course.  In fact, I spotted a white wine for less than one dollar.  I could not resist buying it. I had to see whether it was drinkable.  It was.  I would buy it again.

Annabelle and I have discussed prices here a lot.  Who wouldn’t?  They look high for a good reason.  Let me explain.  Back home I will buy a meal in a restaurant for 15 dollars, let’s say. Then the waiter will tack on the 6.5 percent tax.  Then I will tack on the 15 percent tip.  But I will still go home thinking of it as a 15 dollar meal. Isn’t this your thinking, too?

Here the same dinner will cost much more…25 Euros, for example. That would be about 31 dollars. But when the tab is handed to me, it will have a tax of 19.6 percent buried in it…not as a separate item! And I will not add on a tip because here the service charge is also buried in the tab.  But I go home thinking of it as a 31 dollar meal.  Not a fair comparison. I felt I should explain this.

There is a reason for that huge 19.6 percent tax, by the way.  This is more of a paternalistic country than the U.S.A. is, with more generous social programs.  This week I talked about it with Dominique, a social worker.  He happened to mention he has 52 days of vacation a year.

I thought I heard wrong. 52 days…that seems incredible!

“No, that is what I receive,” he repeated.

That becomes very costly for the government.  And that is a major reason why many French goods are pricing themselves out of international markets.  They are too expensive for many people in many other countries to afford.  And a big reason why there is such a shocking rate of unemployment here, about 11 percent.

Still talking about high prices, I must say our strategy is hard to beat for cost-conscious Americans coming here.  It is to swap houses.  And cars. And computers.  The whole schlemiel.  No way could a wonderful vacation like ours become cheaper or easier.  The same is true for Paco and Mimi in Deep River, of course.

Sure, there is risk involved.  You could deal with a bad party and find your home a shambles when you get back.  That can be minimized with proper investigation beforehand. Yes, they might burn a favorite pot of yours on the stove, or run up a lot more miles on your car than you expect, but if you are going to worry about things like that, you might ask for a security deposit. Not a bad idea. Neither of us did that. As it turned out, it did not become a  problem.

A house and auto swap like ours cancels the biggest expense of a trip abroad.  So even high prices like those here have only a minimal impact.  Definitely recommended!

The big question all through France right now is the referendum which will be held at the end of the month on the proposed European Constitution. Twenty five nations in the European Union are all pondering whether to accept or reject the constitution, but France is one of the few putting it to the people as a referendum.

Here it is called the Oui ou Non Question, meaning the Yes or No Question. Yes if you are for it, no if you are against.   It is dominating everything — the media, public life everywhere, private conversations.

It is a complex matter, with much at stake. It seems to boil down this way. Vote Yes if you believe in an integrated Europe…one that may someday become a United States of Europe…even at the cost of some big sacrifices by France.  Vote No if you resent having to help support some of the poorer countries and fear giving them a vote equal to that of your own illustrious and powerful country.

It is a big question worldwide. The highest powers in our country are waiting in suspense and our markets…our stock markets plus many other kinds…are stalling as they await the outcome.

Annabelle and I hosted a small dinner two nights ago. Five guests. I was dumb and brought up the Oui or Non matter.  Renee, an elderly high school teacher, quickly pronounced herself a Oui.  Michel, the retired director of a museum here, let out a loud Non.  Within two minutes they were glaring at each other!

Right away I asked whether Annabelle had overdone the sour cream in her wonderful Boeuf Bourguignon, which she had not. I was so relieved when Renee and Michel both caught on. “Perfect!” they exclaimed.  I will not make that mistake again.

Our big outing this week was a drive to a hamlet called Chizelle.  It was a two-hour drive from here, just outside the city of Surgeres, which is on the way to the big city of New Rochelle on the Atlantic coast.  Actually we were going to La Rochelle.  That is where my paternal ancestor sailed from in 1665 to go to New France, which is now Quebec.

Why Chizelle? My son Mark spent six weeks there one summer in high school some 20 years ago.  He came over on a student exchange. He lived with a family named Gorioux.  They operated a large hog operation, raising hundreds of hogs for market.  The Goriouxs had six kids of their own, and Mark fell right in.

He worked with the others at chores and had plenty of fun on the side…picnics and bike hikes and visiting around.  A wonderful summer and a terrific learning experience.  He came home thinking the world of the Goriouxs.

Annabelle and I decided to stop by, without announcement.  We found the tiny village and the beautiful manor house and I knocked on the door.  A lady answered.  I mentioned my name, Monsieur LaPlante, and started explaining….

“Mark!” she said.  She remembered!  She was Madame Gorioux. She mentioned how Mark had left a farewell note on his  pillow the morning he departed to come home.

She welcomed us in.  We thought we’d be there for 10 or 15 minutes. Hello, how are you, au revoir!  When she heard we were on our way to New Rochelle, she insisted on putting us in their big Peugeot and taking us on a guided tour.  She even took us into the Museum of Discoveries, which we had planned to visit.  Wonderful afternoon.  When we got back to her home, Monsieur Gorioux was there.  Retired now, but still busy.  A friendly man with rosy cheeks and lots of good questions to ask about our country and people.

Well, they invited us back, and we returned on Thursday.  It was a holiday, and some of their kids, now adults of course, could come over and meet us, and with their little children.  Fine dinner.

Then I asked if we could visit the hog operation.  Christophe has taken it over from his Papa.  Christophe was Mark’s special pal way back then.  He took us to see it.

“It will stink!” he warned us.  Still I insisted.  Yes, it did stink, but everything was as clean and well-organized as could be.  A huge operation, with more than a thousand hogs, all in indoor pens. Christophe buys them when they are piglets only days old and keeps them for 180 days, when they are fat enough to head for their destiny.  New piglets arrive every week, and big hogs get shipped off.

They are fed a diet of blended cereals and other nutrients that pile the pounds on fast.  Excuse me, the kilos. It is all high tech and far more complicated and challenging than you would think.

Christophe, like Mark, headed off for university when he came of age.  “But I always knew this is what I would do someday,” he told me.

“It’s a tough business but a good life.  We live out here in the countryside.  It’s peaceful, quiet. Good for our children.  We will never be rich but we are comfortable. I am my own boss. It makes me feel good to do this work well. And I am helping to feed the French!”

Their farm has hundreds of acres of tilled fields. Right now the spread is devoted to peas, for livestock, not the people kind.  Christophe said he sows the fields in a four-year cycle…peas, then wheat, then corn, then colza.  I may not have the sequence right.  But the rotation is a science-based calculation, designed to raise the biggest and best crop year after year while always maximizing the fertility of the land. The fields are a thing of beauty,

In my first report I talked about the beautiful brilliant fields of colza around here, stretching to the horizon in some places. It is used; as I said, to make a delicious and cholesterol-friendly table oil.  I explained that in English colwa is rapeseed…something I was not familiar with.  Well, Len Poulin, one of my readers, very agriculture savvy, just sent me an email.

“We have colza oil here at home..  We call it Canola.  It seems the marketing people here thought that something called rapeseed would never be popular.  They came up with Canola. The Can part stands for Canada, where it’s grown a lot,  and the ola part for oil.”

I have enjoyed colza so much here that I was planning to take home a big bottle.  No need now.  Thank you, Len.

Got to tell you that France is beautiful and impressive in so many ways.  And with their big VW we did have a chance to explore the southwestern corner of the country we were in.  We drove to Paris one day, spent the next day touring what is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, came back the third. We took other tours, for instance down to Bordeaux, famous for its vineyards. And we enjoyed other wonderful meanderings.

Paco and Mimi did the same thing with my Buick. They drove all the way to Niagara Falls. Another time, down to New York City. And of course, here and there in Connecticut.

Yes, Annabelle and I went into this as an economical and wonderful win, win. And that’s what it turned out to be. What a great pleasure it is to think back on it!

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Off we go on a home exchange!

By John Guy LaPlante

Oops, make that off we went on a home exchange.  To France!

By we, I mean Milady Annabelle and me back in 2005. We were of retirement age, of course.

We were innocents in all that. Now there are companies and clubs that facilitate pulling that off. They charge for their services but countless people decide it’s money well spent.

Are you familiar with home  exchanging? Well, thousands and thousands of Americans swap every year with people in countries all over the world practically. More than 180 countries!

They swap not only houses, but condos and apartments.

They swap with folks living in big cities and middle-sized cities and little villages. Whatever they fancy.

We swapped my condo for a palatial home. Well, nearly palatial to us. With a man and his wife in Poitiers, a centuries-old and prestigious university city in southwestern France. Yes, a condo for a big home!

We swapped not only our homes. We swapped automobiles. Computers. Everything except the ladies, I tell people with a chuckle.

How lucky we were! In two ways, the right couple and the right property.

Now an alert. I have much to tell you so I am presenting it just the way I wrote it up and got it published in a newspaper back then that I wrote for a lot. Which was in two lengthy and detailed reports.

You are receiving the first report now. The second one you will get in a few days. This will give you the time to mull if home-swapping would be a great adventure for you. As it wonderfully turned out to be for Annabelle and me.

If you’re curious, just Google or Bing “Home swapping” or “Home exchange.”

And know what? I got the idea and the opportunity while traveling solo in Chile deep down in South America. My oh my!

So, here is my Report No. 1.

Off to France for a few weeks.  Prices are sky high,

but our house swap is minimizing the sting.

I write this from Poitiers in France.  I arrived yesterday on the TGV – the super-fast train from Paris, a two-hour ride.  Being here is a dream come true for me.

I’m here on a house swap.  I’m swapping my small condo in Deep River for their very big house here. I’ve got the better deal. “They” are Fernando and Violette Diaz, in their late 50s, I’d say. Both retired. He was an M.D. with psychiatry his specialty, and she a professor of education.  They are being ultra-nice to me.

We’ll be together for 10 days, so I’ll have the advantage of a thorough orientation before they take off for my town of Deep River, Connecticut.

I’m here alone but Milady Annabelle will be joining me in a week.  She is visiting her daughter and family in Dallas. There’s another reason also for her arriving late. I speak French. She does not. She will come two days before Paco and Mimi – yes, we’ve reached the nickname stage – will fly off to Deep River.

“I’ll get to meet these wonderful people,” Annabelle says, “but I won’t feel like the odd person out.”

The three of us here have hit it off and already we’ve plunged into what is really a wonderful, never-ending conversation. It’s good for both of us, but better for me.  They are instructing me in everything – how to get around the city, where to shop, what things to see. And briefing me about so much – the history, the customs, the trends.  Already a terrifically enriching experience, as good as – in fact, better than I had hoped.  This will consume every day until they leave May 1.

I’ve tried to organize things for them back home. I’ve lined up people to help them – my sister Lucie, who also speaks French of course,  plus good friends. As many French-speaking friends as I can recruit. Paco speaks some English; Mimi does not.

If you speak French and would like to make wonderful new friends, please call them.  You will find my name in the Deep River section of the phone book. Paco will answer the phone. It’s that simple.

Yes, this is a dream come true. You see, Poitiers is the area where my LaPlante ancestor came over from in 1665. He was a soldier in the Régiment Carignan-Salières. They went to France, now Québec, to protect the small colony of 2,500 people from the fierce Iroquois attacking them from what is now New York State. They did that.

When the regiment was called home three years later, half of the soldiers decided to stick it out in Québec. Yes, very rough, especially in winter, and surely they would miss their families back home, but they felt the chance for greater freedom and opportunity worth it.

My ancestor married in New France. Far too few women there.  As the story goes, his bride was either an orphan or a girl of the streets,  shipped over for that purpose in a boatload by the King.  The bachelors stood in line on shore.  The gals stood in line on the ship.

The first one down the gangplank linked arms with the first man, then the second with the second, and so on. They walked over to the priest, waiting to hear their marriage vows.  That’s how it was done.

“God himself is selecting the two of you to become one,” they were told.  And that’s why I exist, of course.

That saga is one I’ve become well aware of.  It’s a prime reason I’ve long thought of coming here someday. There is a museum about that whole story nearby.  It’s at the top of my “must do” list.

My opportunity to come came up in a strange way.

I was on a day-long bus ride in Chile during my Around the World tour 15 months ago. Two more people got on, a man and a woman. Only two seats were left, one being next to me.  She sat in the other, and he plunked down next to me. The two of us soon had a grand talk going. In French. Told me he and his wife were here to do some light mountain climbing.  He said he was from Poitiers. I really perked up. Poitiers! Eventually I mentioned a house swap.

“Good idea,” he said, “but a person has to be sure about the person he’s dealing with.”

Yes, indeed. I got his address. Back in Deep River, my hometown in Connecticut that is right on the great unspoiled Connecticut River, I got to work. I began sending him info about how delightful and historic Deep River is , plus the endless opportunities  in the area. And behold! He and his wife agreed to swap. And we worked out all the details.

Now about my trip over here. I bought a round-trip flight Newark-Paris on Orbitz.com.  The best deal Orbitz suggested, definitely a good one, was on Continental for $549.

On Tuesday morning I took the commuter train at 9:15 to New Haven, and there changed to the train heading to Grand Central Station, New York, all for just $15 with my senior discount.  Then an express bus to the airport, normally $12, but only $6 for me.  So, quite a bargain for $21 in all.

To be honest, the train was grimy and the ride not smooth, in fact surprisingly rough for one stretch. The bus ride, right to the door of my terminal, was excellent.  A bonus was that the bus gave me more interesting views, particularly of Manhattan from the Jersey side of the Hudson. I must say Newark is a sparkling, marvelous airport. Well, I think so.

Our Continental Boeing was jammed but the flight excellent, the crew attentive.  I had ordered a vegetarian dinner not really thinking I’d get it on such a cheap ticket, but I did. We took off at nearly midnight, but I dozed only an hour on the six-hour crossing, at dawn just before landing..

A gray, cool morning in France.  That was a disappointment. Charles de Gaulle, a very impressive airport as you would expect in France, is on the outskirts of Paris. I felt it too much trouble to dash into the city, then dash back for my train.  That was okay. I’d been to Paris half a dozen times.

I had hoped to take a Eurolines bus to Poitiers, but not available. Eurolines is the Greyhound Bus of Europe, so to speak, but better. Most of the time I prefer buses, but that’s a topic for another time.

Paco had given me specific instructions: take the TGV, the very fast train, right from the airport to Poitiers.  I checked and on this day the TGV was the only choice. I bought my ticket but had to cool my heels for more than three hours, a long time. So I scouted, poking into various shops.  I read just about the full LeMonde, the great Parisian daily.

And I got into a couple of conversations.  One with a mustached Australian, in Paris on a sales mission.  Hoped his light French would be good enough. Another with a husky Norwegian with grimy fingernails but fine grooming. Told me he was just back from western Africa. He had  been summoned there to repair a big ship with a nasty diesel engine problem.

What struck me was his perfect English. “All Norwegians learn good English,” he said. “We begin at age 4 and keep it up all through school.”

Finally the train.  Superb.  Remarkably clean, remarkably smooth.  I didn’t feel it when it began rolling.  We cruised easily.  Much faster than 100 mph, I know, but I’m not sure how much.  It often does better than 150.  Much faster than our touted Acela.  A great ride.

The problem was that I had an assigned seat, one where I and my seatmate faced the couple opposite us.  That can be very bad if they’re not up to some conversing. These two were stolid.  After a while I didn’t know how to avoid the eyes of the fellow facing me. Bad, bad.

We made eight or ten stops. Interesting.  The land was flat.  This was the great agricultural plain, with magnificent fields stretching to the horizon.  I was amazed by vast fields aflame with yellow flowers.  So thick they seemed an endless, gorgeous yellow carpet.  Van Gogh would have gone wild with his paint brushes here.

When I asked, the fellow across from me told me it was colza.  Had never heard of colza.  My little dictionary told me colza was rapeseed.  I’m not familiar with rapeseed.  Used to make a table oil, Paco told me later.  The good kind, low in cholesterol.  Beautiful in the field.

Paco was waiting for me in Poitiers.  Big smile, hearty embrace. “Bienvenu!” he said. “Welcome!”  He led me to his big blue VW van and we got to his house in less than 10 minutes. Mimi greeted me with a big sunny smile.

Oh, I must tell you.   The train ride was twice as long but took me about 40 minutes less than my ride to Manhattan.  This was a much better train and ride, as I said. But it cost a whopping 45 Euros — $61.75, in fact, and that was after a 25 percent senior discount.  Remember, I paid $21 back home.  That was the beginning of my severe sticker shock.  So far everything seems far more expensive.

Here are two more quick examples.  A gallon of 87 octane gas is $8.75.  A cup of coffee is $2.  Remember, prices here are in Euros now.  The Euro and the dollar were even just a few years ago, when the Euro was introduced.  Today the Euro is worth $1.35.

Paco believes the Euro has led to this inflation, at least in France.  The Euro is the currency of the land in 15 countries, I believe. I plan to talk more about prices and the cost of living in a later report.

That’s what makes this house swap so wonderful. It makes our trip so economical and affordable despite the inflation.  As I mentioned, we’re also swapping cars.  I eat with them at their table.  At this minute Mimi is doing my small laundry along with theirs in their washing machine.

I am writing this on their computer in Paco’s study.  They’re always asking if everything is fine.  Couldn’t be better!

Paco and Mimi will love our low prices in Connecticut.  Low to them, that is, if not to us.  I hope they’ll live it up.

We’re hitting it off.  It’s early in the swap, of course.

Paco takes me out twice a day.  Sometimes we take his car. Most often we go on walks.

Poitiers is a city of about 80,000.  It is an old medieval city, heavy with history and rich with charm.  It has an acclaimed university, centuries old.  It has thousands of students.  Right now they’re off on vacation, and Paco breathes a sigh of relief. They’re great kids.  Just that it’s nice to have a break.

Poitiers is worth plenty of words, and I’ll pour them out later. For now I’ll simply say it’s a fine destination, perfect for what Annabelle and I have in mind.  Which is to soak up the very best of everything French for a few weeks.

Paco and I have been having wonderful talks.  We go on and on, about so many things.  Mimi is always busy cooking and puttering, but she’s constantly listening and often offers comments. Definitely a sharp lady.  She smiles and laughs a lot. Her students must have loved her.

A fine cook, too.  Honest French food.  A zucchini cream soup this noon, made from scratch.  Then two cheeses, a creamy one and a hard, nutty one, served with chunky bread and a salad of lettuce and olives.  With a robust red wine. Then a crème brulée for dessert.  Finally an espresso coffee. How good it is.

Paco cleaned off the table.  I offered to do the dishes.  I was serious. I wash the dishes, I mean by hand, in Deep River. Mimi smiled but said Non, Non, Non!  She was utterly serious, too. But maybe I’ll get her to give in.

Hope…and trust…are what this whole undertaking is all about.  So far, it couldn’t be better.  I’ll keep you posted.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Please remember, dear reader, that was back in 2005.

You’ll be receiving my second report in a few days. You’ll see in detail how Milady Annabelle and I made out on our own in Poitiers and environs. A bientot, as the French say. Until then!

 

 

 

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Eyeglasses needed. One pair.

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — Our Senior Center in the lobby has a Lions Club eyeglass box.  About the size of a double-size shoebox.

It’s  for members to drop in their old eyeglasses when they’ve bought a new pair. Eventually a Lions Club member stops by, carries off the box, and leaves a new box.

The Lions Club does this to make eyeglasses available free to people who can’t afford a new pair. It’s a wonderful thing.

On my last visit I saw sitting there just yards away from me an old man. He needed a shave. His clothes and sneakers were scruffy.

Could be he wasn’t one of our members. Maybe just a gent who had heard of this and had come in hoping.

He had the box on his lap. Was trying on a pair, then another. Saving one pair, rejecting another. Till he reached the last pair in the box.

Mind you, in full view of people coming and going. So embarrassing, I would think. Not to him, it seemed. He was focused one hundred percent on his search.

Some of the glasses were for ladies. He skipped those, of course. One problem was obvious. He had to find not only the most appropriate lenses. But also the most appropriate frame.

Kept at it until he reached the last pair. Never glanced at me.

Finally he chose one pair and tucked it in his pocket. It made me think maybe he needed them only for reading.

Both the lenses and the frame were less than perfect, I’m sure. He was walking out with a compromise and was okay with it.

I wondered what the Lions would think of this. Probably that it wasn’t a problem. After all, that’s why they provide this fine service — to help poor people.

How they go about this, I have no idea. Maybe all their glasses go to Americans, but maybe to people in Haiti, or Timbuktu.

Anyway, as I walked out, I had one question on my mind. How could this be taking place in the year of Our Lord 2019, here in California, which has the six largest economy in the world, after the USA, China, Japan, and Germany.  Imagine that!

Well, one thing is clear. Unfortunately, it was obvious that old guy was one of those not doing so well in this great economy of ours.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Larry Truesdale, Scientist! And artist!

By John Guy LaPlante

with 5 photos

Morro Bay, CA — He truly deserves those two exclamation points.

In his early 70s, Larry is retired as a scientist. But not quite. He does it part-time. And as an artist, he’s also part-time.

Carole checks a paper Larry is editing that was submitted by a scientist in Vietnam.

Let me explain in a simple way. Imagine it’s a work day, any work day.

In the morning, Larry will be working at his computer as a scientist. He is an Associate Editor of ACS Combinatorial Science, a journal of the  American Chemical Society.  Its journals are top-tier, international journals. They have an international readership and papers are submitted by scientists in other countries.

Generally they are the preferred journals in  which to publish scientific discoveries.  He became an editor by invitation in 2010.

He’s also an emeritus member of the American Chemical Society after a distinguished career in chemical research and development.

In a few minutes, I will tell you about that in detail. I found it interesting.

Now imagine it’s that same day but in the afternoon. Now Larry is the artist. His medium is not paints or marble. It’s wood. This is why he calls himself an artisan rather than an artist.  He works on revealing the hidden beauty Mother Nature hides in her woods of the world.

But those who buy and even collect his exquisite creations consider him a true artist. I’ll also tell you about that in detail.

Now notice that I have not been calling him Dr. Truesdale although he did earn a doctorate  in chemistry. And he’s a scientist with a distinguished reputation nationally and even worldwide.

And he has done this concurrently at times with his work as an industrial researcher.

As you’ve noticed, I’ve been calling him Larry. That’s because just about anybody here who knows him at all calls him Larry. There’s absolutely nothing uppity or standoffish about him.

He’s a genial, friendly, sports shirt and jeans fellow who enjoys meeting people and chatting with them.

One of Larry’s early passions was scuba diving.  He began shortly after graduating from high school in Cupertino CA.  Nearly every weekend he would go diving somewhere along the California coast, initially focusing on Santa Cruz and Monterey and then expanding to all points south as he moved to San Diego and Los Angeles for his B.A. and Ph.D.

He became not only familiar with the underwater coast, but with its coastal communities. He chuckled. “Scuba diving played a major role in keeping me fed as a student.”

One of the unexpected lessons of all this was that the Central Coast became his preferred place to retire in. At first he thought it would be Pismo Beach. “With  the wisdom of years and the reality of expenses, I chose Morro Bay!”

How did I get to know him? Through his wife Carole, also very talented, but in different ways. She was a seasoned “talent” on 97.3 FM, The Rock. It’s our nonprofit, advertising-free community radio station. It’s called The Rock because of the huge, famous monolith at the entrance to our harbor .

Carole did a very popular weekly show. She called it “Let’s Talk Food and Wine.”

I was a new “talent” on The Rock. In fact, a tyro  talent. I hosted a show called “Gabbing with Old Guy John.”

The big question: what can this piece of wood become?  He’ll decide, then get to work.

Each week I’d gab with a local person who knew a lot about some subject of broad general interest. But who was also good at talking. Not  just say yes, no, or maybe.

And my show would air just before Carole’s. And because I was inept at running the “board,” you know, working the various switches and controls. Carole, bless her heart, would do that for me. That way I could concentrate on “working” my guest.

And through Carole, I got to meet Larry. I was so impressed that I soon had him on my show as a guest. We discussed health care, the pharmaceutical industry, and the Federal Drug Administration.  Listeners got a lot out of it.

A bit more now about hum. He is a native Californian, born in the Bay area (San Mateo). He did his undergrad studies at the University of California San Diego and earned his doctorate at the University of California Los Angeles. He then did a post-doctoral fellowship at MIT in Massachusetts.

He did all that heavyweight work under the direction of eminent scientists. Some world-renowned. “After 23 years of schooling and at age 28, I finally went to work at a paying job.”

He told me something I found extra interesting. ” In college I majored in chemistry and minored in economics. I enjoyed them both, John. They both dealt with big, real-world problems affecting millions of people.

“Finding real-world solutions to them is challenging. On the one hand, developing new or better projects. On the other, producing them more economically.

“So why did I choose chemistry rather than economics? Because it was an intellectual plus a hands-on activity.”

He got his first job in 1975 at Allied Chemical Central Research in Morristown, New Jersey.  The problems they faced were scientifically challenging, but the pennies per pound issues that needed to be solved were not what he calls 

Carole checks a paper Larry is editing that was submitted by a scientist in Vietnam.

“my bag of tea.”

After four years , he decided to join Hoffman LaRoche in Nutley, New Jersey. In their labs for six years he worked on vitamins and pharmaceutical drug products to improve human health.  This involved both doing and directing research.

Ultimately, over a span of 35 years he worked at four nationally known pharmaceutical companies and between those positions he helped start four new ventures.

He told me he was continually tackling bigger, forefront scientific and financial problems while taking on greater responsibilities.  Eventually he was directing a staff of 75 scientists and several multi-million-dollar projects in pharmaceutical technology.

His final 10 years were with Pfizer Pharmaceutical in their San Diego branch. There he was directing global projects with budgets in the hundreds of million of dollars. I whistled when I heard that.

By the way, during some of those years he was also an adjunct professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey and San Diego State University.

Meanwhile he was writing or co-writing dozens of learned papers, breaking new scientific ground. And giving invited lectures around the world.

”You know, John, all those papers had to be submitted to journals for publication. So now as an editor, I understand the nervousness and anxiety scientists go through to make their findings known to the world. I can feel sympathetic.””

Some of his exquisite pens. Carole checks for the most beautiful.

He’s also been a speaker at conferences for scientists. Sometimes THE speaker. He told me that one time he was invited to speak in Moscow, not just to Russian scientists, but to a gathering of European pharmaceutical scientists.

He noticed what I was thinking. He smiled.”Yes, I spoke in English. It was translated because my Russian is very poor.”

Now let me tell you about Larry, the artist.

He told me, “Back when I was in middle school I took what was called ‘shop’ classes. You know, where you get to learn the basics of carpentry, draftsmanship, wiring, auto repair, and so on.

“But sad to say, a lot of folks today don’t consider that very important classwork. I think that it is. It gives kids an idea of what they might like to do in life. Or not like to do.

“Well, I made a garbage can and carved a bowl. I was proud of them. And I did that with my hands. I liked that a lot. I thought it was a lot more important than building model planes and gliders, which was just fun. And that had much to do with my becoming a woodturner.”

But first, he became a woodworker. Still is. He took me to his home. A lovely, very modern, large two-story house. Lovely, take my word for it.

Larry did much of the work in modifying it to his and Carole’s tastes.

He moved walls. He installed doors. He built closets and shelves and cabinets. In fact, he built the fine open staircase to the second floor with wonderful cherry woodwork.

Well, now about his woodturning. He led me into his shop, a one-car garage. I looked around for a full three minutes.

Here are just a few of his creations. Notice the variety. And that  smile! A happy man!

The centerpiece was a massive lathe. The walls were lined with the largest array of woodworking tools that I have ever seen. All meticulously positioned.

On one wall, dozens of woodworker’s chisels with razor-sharp blades, narrow and broad, some flat, some curved.

In corners here and there, large stockpiles of assorted blocks of wood. Some lighter in color, some darker. Many of them exotics from many parts of the world. Many rare, many I have never heard of. All in readiness for whatever new project he might undertake.

My quick impression: Larry would need a lifetime, maybe two lifetimes, to transform all those blocks of wood into finished items.

First, he donned a woodworker’s jacket, making sure every button was fastened.

Then he said, “John, please stand back while I do this.”

Then he turned on the lathe. He already had a block of wood locked in the chuck. Now with his long woodturning tool precisely poised in both hands, he deftly positioned the blade against the block. A whirlwind of chips began to fly. Whew!

I got the idea. I saw the fine and precise way he would transform this raw block of wood into the final work of art he had in mind.

Later he showed me samples of his finished pieces. Some small, some large. Some of a uniform diameter, such as for ballpoint pens.

Some of compound diameters, such as for beautiful, one-of-a-kind salt and pepper shakers. Many embellished with exquisite inlays in various colors, some totally unique. Intended as proud possessions. Or impressive gifts. Or collector’s pieces.  He even had some beautiful Christmas ornaments made from rare woods and sea urchin shells.

It’s not surprising that an interesting assortment of his pieces are offered for sale at the Suite 1 Gallery on the Embarcadero down on our waterfront. Lots of tourists there.

Well, I believe my telling you only about Larry Truesdale, Scientist, would have been reason enough to justify this post.

And that telling you about Larry Truesdale, Woodturner / Artist,  definitely merits those two exclamation marks I added up top.

Agree?

END

 

 

 

 

The Remarkable Shanks String Quartet…and ditto family

O

Their business card shows what an interesting group the brothers are.

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos

Morro Bay, CA —  Yes, they’re four young, gifted, enthusiastic brothers performing as a quartet based in nearby San Luis Obispo.

I saw them in a concert at our Public Library a year ago.  Thought they were terrific.

Well, they performed again recently. I made sure to attend. Again a fine concert. If they return, I’ll be there again. By the concert’s close I decided I’d write them up if at all possible.

Up top you saw their photo. Bet you had no idea they’re brothers.

I got in touch with Joseph, at 24 the oldest. It turned out he’s the manager and the spokesman.

That seems natural with his seniority.

But quickly he said, “I want to make a point about that. The four of us work together. We all have equal input. An equal say in everything. We like it that way.”

It made me feel they are a caring foursome.

Then, imagine my amazement to learn they are four of such a large family. They have three brothers and two sisters. All younger. All musical. All playing an instrument or two.

Yes, nine with the same mom and dad, and this at a time when the average family has only two kids. I’ll bet they’re the only such family in the USA.

I guessed that for sure their dad and mom were musicians. Well, I was right. Their dad is an organist and pianist and their mom plays the piano and sings.

But in his case, I was only half right. He is also the pastor of the Community Baptist Church in San Luis Obispo.

Another interesting tidbit. All nine live with their parents in the family home. I’d love to see that.

What an interesting and wholesome story this was turning out to be. In fact, phenomenal. And it got better.

Joseph – (he told me nobody calls him Joe. I had called him Joe. He nicely corrected me)—said the whole gang went or are still going to school at the San Luis Obispo Community School, which is operated by their dad’s church. It’s an elementary school and a high school. So 12 years in all.

And he said, “From the first day in the first grade right up through all those years, music was just as important a subject as writing and math and history. Really was!”

In that way it sounded quite like the school I went to for 12 years long, long ago. With one big difference.

For me, the music part was the difference. My mom paid for me to take piano lessons on the side. She was musical and Insisted on my learning. The teacher, a nice old lady who earned her living teaching piano, gave up on me, and she was right. Zero talent.

So all the Shanks kids grew up listening, enjoying, making music, and that’s the way it is to this day.

They had grown up playing piano first, taught by their dad. Then violin, taught by a remarkable teacher named Don Charles. I’ll tell you about him also. Then each gravitated to the instrument they play now. Which worked out beautifully for a quartet.

For many years all four have played in the San Luis Obispo Youth Orchestra Symphony

Joseph insists on giving credit to Carol Kirsten, one of its conductors. She saw their talent and offered to coach them in sessions after a concert. They got good enough to perform individually and then in two’s, three’s, and four’s.

They’ve played for weddings, funerals, birthday parties, Elks Club, Rotary Club, Chamber of Commerce, competitions, master classes

Examples of their music are “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba,” “Canon in D,’” and quartets by Beethoven, Mozart, and Haydn, “Air on G,” and various light entertainment pieces..

I also put in a call to their parents and got to speak with their mom, Julie. She was surprised by my interest. As we chatted on, it t got more and more interesting.

She told me he husband was one of three children. She one of nine.

“That sort of set me up for a large family of my own! When we married, Randall and I prayed the Lord would bless us in that way. He did! But we had six sons before the first girl! Then two. What good news that was!

“We are a Christian family. In the full sense of the meaning. All our children have biblical names.

The two girls, Amethyst and Emerald, are named for ‘gem stones” in the Bible.”

Yes, all nine studied at the church’s school. She taught them there in the various subjects. In effect, she home-schooled them.

Interestingly, she is also an RN and still does occasional nursing

“I must explain one thing,” she told me. “These many years, our children have had a remarkable teacher who made it possible. Donald Charles. He is such a fine teacher and made it so affordable.”

Now’s my chance to tell you about Mr. Charles. I phoned him and he filled me in. He learned the violin as a boy and has played and taught violin all his life, and has played in a variety of groups, ensembles and symphonies these many years, until quite recently. And at age 88 still has ten students,

He lives in Paso Robles, some 30 miles from San Luis Obispo. Mrs. Shanks calculated that at one point, over some 10 years, the family made 323 trips, taking four children at a time, for individual lessons from him. Over 1,200 lessons in all for their nine children. Nearly 20,000 miles back and forth.

And think of the investment in time and money, even at Mr. Charles’ reduced rates. All while the older children were getting involved in music in the San Luis Obispo area and needed rides and attention.

Now let me tell you about the four in the quartet individually. And it will be easier if you keep the photo of their business card in mind. I’ll tell you about them from left to right.

The first is Timothy, 21. He plays violin. He and Titus on the far right are twins. Both are sophomores majoring in music at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo.

Next to Tim is Philip, 23, violin. He’s studying nursing at Cuesta Community College here.

Joseph is next. He’s a senior at Cal Poly. He told me, “I’m trying to decide. Either I’m going to go to grad school for a master’s in music. Or I’m going to apply to join the California Highway Patrol. Yes, surprising, I know. But police work has interested me for many years.”

And fourth is Titus, cello. Like his twin brother, he’s still deciding about the future.

Now about the quartet. Joseph said the idea of it developed slowly.

“We’d be invited to perform at school. Maybe individually. Maybe play together at a party. We got busier. But school always came first.

“Our parents always encouraged us. Loved the idea of our performing together.

“Finally we realized we needed a name. And we came up with ‘The Shanks String Quartet.’

“And you know, performing together turned out to be fun. And we started to earn a fee!” He smiled. “That was appreciated. We were all still in school!

“More and more, folks are becoming aware of us. We don’t advertise. It’s word of mouth. You know, people recommending us. We’ll get a call to do somebody’s birthday. Or a wedding. Or a civic group of some kind. And so on. It’s great.”

I asked about their two concerts at the Morro Bay Public Library.

“We performed that first time. Then they invited us back. It was their initiative. And we received a fee.”

That’s got to feel good.

So it seems inevitable the quartet as it is now will change. As one brother leaves for career reasons or whatever, I would imagine one of the younger siblings would take his place. The youngest is Emerald, 11. Hey, with two girls in the family, it could become co-ed. So the quartet may be around for quite a while.

I like that idea.

Many of you, I am sure, remember the wonderful Ed Sullivan Show on TV.  Imagine what Ed would have done with this quartet on his show!  And with all nine kids and Mom and Dad! And even Don Charles! I really believe he would have put the whole gang on his show.

        All eleven Shanks, with Dad at the far left and Mom at the far right.

I told you I’ll bet they’re the only such family in the USA. Think I’ve made my case?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

What’s being homeless really, really like?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – Well, I’ve met an expert. A real expert. He’s been homeless twenty years. Zeke. That’s what I’m calling him here. I’ll tell you in just a minute about Zeke and how he sees what’s a huge and sad problem.

I see quite a few homeless folks here a in this nice, little city.  Close up. I know a dozen of them, men and women. That I talk with.

Zeke was homeless but not typically so. He surprised me by how he looked at it. In fact, astonished me.

Some are retirees. I know a man and a woman, not related, who have problems upstairs.  It’s obvious. Two fellows who are barely old enough to vote. But don’t—they don’t have an address. I don’t think there is a typical homeless person.

Los Angeles has thousands – I read about them in the LA Times time after time. They’re a huge problem. Hundreds live in a downtown neighborhood. Sleeping on the sidewalks. Begging. Using drugs. Urinating and defecating in any corner. Doing petty crime.

It’s just the same in any city, big and small like here, and some even smaller. We have homeless all over the country. Homelessness is a national problem. Yes, here in the richest country in the world.

Maybe some are homeless because they’re lazy, shiftless. Maybe too dumb to work for a living, even if the work is unpleasant but it might be a stepladder up. Here’s one example–a young fellow I see often, about 22.  Seems fit and able. I think he’s plain lazy.

Or maybe because they’ve done prison time and that has black-balled them. I know a man in his late fifties that happened to. Maybe homeless because of sheer bad luck – lost their job because of a layoff, or went bankrupt because of huge medical bills.

For sure some are homeless because they’re addicted to alcohol or drugs. Maybe both. I’ve heard some sell their monthly food stamps from Uncle Sam at half price so they can buy booze or meth.

I know two homeless women. No idea why. Maybe for reasons specific to being women.

I’m convinced that 95 percent don’t want to be homeless.

But I know one man in his mid-40s who truly does want to be homeless, ever since he dropped out of high school, hear tell. No idea why he wants that life. Smart. I often see him reading a  book, always serious non-fiction. He buys one for 50 cents at a thrift store, then buys another. He calls himself Pete. No last name. I think Pete is not his real name. 

Fascinating. He has an old, old bike, just a basic single speed that you wouldn’t give him $20 for.He’s a little guy but I’ve seen him pedaling that bike up very steep grades. With all, and I mean all, his earthly possessions  on that bike, in pouches and even a plastic bucket, everything very tidy. He gets by nicely, thanks to his cleverness and the generosity of others. He opted to be homeless. Yes, his type is rare.

None of them seem to go hungry. Some get by on a small Social Security check. Those on food stamps find it hard to get by on them. But by the way, they’re not stamps any more. They’re an electronic card that Uncle Sam reloads every month.  

We have two Protestant churches that give out bags of food from the Food Bank every week. And St. Timothy’s Catholic Church is known for handing out a bagged meal to anyone who stops by the office and asks.

We have a community center that every Monday evening feeds a hundred and fifty. You don’t have to be homeless. But most are.

The big, big problem is finding a place to sleep. I know a man who sleeps in a hidden “camp” in the woods. Another man in his car. Also a woman in her car. It never freezes here, but the temp drops into the 40’s at night, and there’s always a cold wind from the Pacific a mile  away. Mustn’t be pleasant.

They do have places during the day to be under a roof but only briefly– our one McDonald’s and one Burger King, both open late into the evening. Often I see homeless there, especially in the evening and when it’s raining. They buy a coffee or soft drink and nurse it for hours, it seems. I’ve never heard of one being asked to leave.

 Our Albertsons Super Market has a lounge, with tables and chairs. It’s intended for people who buy “take-out” and want to eat it right away right there.  It has a TV set always on. Always the same channel. Some homeless sit there for hours, never buying a thing. Some recharge their cell phones there. Albertsons never says a word, I’m told.

There are three that frequent our public library. I go to the library the five days a week it’s open. I see them.  It’s air-conditioned in the summer, heated in the winter, has clean bathrooms. Some read a book or newspapers. Really read. One fellow takes a book, any book, and just pretends reading. One uses a computer. The homeless are welcome. Libraries are wonderful places.

The big fear here for the homeless is the police. “Loitering” is a misdemeanor. A homeless man or woman, deemed to be loitering, can be arrested and tossed into jail for three days.

Now finally about Zeke.

I met him at our McDonald’s. But I didn’t spot him as being homeless. Didn’t seem the type.

I stop in every evening, around 7 usually. Always with some magazine in hand. Buy a coffee. Sit and read. It’s a nice part of my day.

I spotted Zeke in a corner alcove twenty feet away. Alone at his table. A big guy. Heavy black beard with some gray. Tattoos. Dressed totally in black, even his hands in black gloves.  With a hood pulled up over his head. But why, here inside where it’s nice and warm? He was totally engrossed. No, not in reading like me. He was drawing something on a thick pad.

I’d glance at him now and then. He had a dozen pens laid out on the table.  He’d draw a line. Focus on his drawing. Drop his pen. Choose another. Focus.  Draw another line or two. Focus. Draw again. He was totally wrapped up in what he was doing..

He hadn’t ordered a burger or anything. Just a coffee, like me. He’d take a sip now and then.  Get right back to work. 

I went back to my magazine. Then had to get up to go to the john and walked by him. Noticed his work. Abstract. Very abstract. Lots of black. Little bits of color.

Returning, I paused by his table. He had drawn what looked like a feather and painted it a smooth, intense violet.  But that was surrounded by other odd shapes, most in solid black. He had separated them with an odd shape of white here and there.

Finally he looked up and I said to him, “Gosh, you’re not an amateur. You’re a real artist.”

 “You think so?”

“For sure. I can tell you are.”

“Thanks, buddy. Nice to hear that.”

I had noticed something else. A big duffel bag on a chair next to him. And a stringed instrument in a waterproof bag. The key end was sticking out. A guitar, it seemed.

Certainly he wasn’t a Morro Bay man just in for a coffee. And not a tourist either.

Sizing me up, he said, “Want to take a seat?”

 I nodded. He shifted things to let me sit facing him. I asked about the painting he was working on.

“I’m trying to get the rhythm of it right!”

Quickly he pointed to this shape in this color and that shape in another color and the white shapes in between.

Well, there was a time long ago, for three or four years, when I sketched and painted, also. Just an amateur. But I had a passion for It. And I knew the challenge of it. I got to know a couple who were real artists. They painted for a living.

But this was the first time I ever heard of a painter interested in the “rhythm” of his painting.

I asked if he was cold. I was looking at his gloves. And the hood that covered everything except his face.  “No. no.  It lets me focus better.” He pointed to the light over his head as a problem.

He leafed through his art book. He wanted to show me his work. .One painting after another, all abstract and in the same way.. All with a lot of black.

Well, it turned out he was homeless. But he shook his head when I used that word. “Not really. I’m not homeless. I’ve got my tent.”  He wasn’t joking. He meant it.

We sat and talked for more than an hour. But quickly it turned to his being homeless. He had some interesting insights.

I got around to telling him about myself as a writer and how I blog now. Told him I’d like to write up his story. My readers might  get a deeper take on homelessness. And some readers would send it to somebody else.  And some of these would send it to somebody else. There’s no telling how many would get to see it. Hey, the publicity might help him in some way.

I often do the same thing  when reading something that might be interesting to somebody I know. I forward it. It takes just a minute.

“So, are you interested, Zeke? What do you think?”  I  half expected to hear him say that’s nice, but no thanks. 

“Sure. Not a problem!”

“Wonderful!” I told him  I’d give him a fake name. That’s how he became Zeke here.

“No. No.  Use my full name!”

I said no.  I told him that in a situation like this, I  had found out once or twice that identifying my subject could result in unforeseen, unintended consequences for him or her. Bad ones.

“Okay.,” he said. “Now I understand. Thank you.  Shoot!”

I drew him out. I was tempted to take notes but did not. That could put a big damper on our chat.

But before I tell you about all that, here are important facts about him that surfaced

He’s 48 years old. A native Californian, born in a tiny town a hundred miles or so east of here. Good father and mother. He got a lot of education, right through community college

He quickly became aware of his talents.  Art. “I’ve never not been an artist,”  he told me. Then music. He pointed to his instrument.  He said the brand name. Meant nothing to me. “Very, very fine guitar.” Then added, “And I’ve never not been a musician.”

I was impressed by how he phrased those statements.

He said some years back he used his musical talent to land a good job as a sound technician. Didn’t mention exactly what that involved. Then he said, on the strength of his meticulous drawings, landed a job as an architectural draftsman. “I was making a hundred grand a year, plus bonuses!”

“Wow!”

“But then the recession hit. Nobody was building. Architectural work was drying up. There was no work for me. Suddenly I was out on the street. On my ass.

“I was scared to death. Then little by little, I began to cope. And one day, know what?  I realized landing on the street was the most liberating thing! Yeah! I was liberated. I could focus on living. Not fixating on money.”

It sounded preposterous. Crazy. A kind of rationalization maybe.

As I listened, some things he said I found troublesome. He was married. Twice. And he had two sons. And he lost contact with his two sons. “I think of them every single day!”

Anyway, It turns out he does earn a bit of money.

 He plays his guitar down on the Embarcadero. That’s our waterfront.  It draws lots of tourists. He mentioned one of the many restaurants down there.

“When I feel it’s busy down there, I go to that restaurant. They know me. Leave me alone. There’s a good spot on the sidewalk in front of it. Take out my guitar, start playing. And I sing. I put my guitar case on the sidewalk, close to me, you know, open. I put in a dollar or two.  That tells people I like to get paid for the entertainment I’m giving them.”

He said he also sells a painting now and then. His prices are low. I mentioned I liked the one he was working on very much. He tore it out of his pad, signed it, and gave it to me. “It’s yours, John.” I was reaching in my pocket for my wallet. “No, no!” He waved off any offering from me.

“And oh, I go fishing, too.”

“Fishing?”

“Yeah.”  He works as assistant to a long-time commercial fisherman. They go out on his 30-foot boat for two or three days, a few miles offshore, wherever the eels are.  Just eels.  Said he never gets seasick.

They haul them in by the hundreds. The thousands. The  eels get shipped off to South Korea on ice. Always South Korea. The people there love them.

“It’s hard labor. Very hard. Can be dangerous. But I work for a great guy. He really knows the business. He pays me in cash the minute he sells his haul. And he comes looking for me when he’s going out again.” 

 He said he’s gotten good at being homeless. Had to. Talked a lot about this.

“I’ve learned a lot.” he told me.” For one thing, I never sleep at night here in town. I stay up! Cops are hard on people sleeping at night in public places. They can book you and put you in jail.”

“Jail?”

“Yeah! It’s okay to sleep during the day on the beach or a public park. No problem. But at night! Three days in jail!

“Hey, it happens to just about everybody sooner or later. Jail is not that hard. You’re not behind bars. You’re in a great big room. Maybe a hundred other men there. A real bed to sleep in. Three squares a day. TV. Play cards.

“Then you go to court. The judge lets you go. And you get a bus ticket back.

“Most people on the street can expect to spend two or three weeks a year in jail. It’s a fact. Well, till they smarten up. You know, you have to be smart to survive living like this.”

He also has a bike. He pointed it out to me at McDonald’s. We could see it from where we were sitting. Much better bike than Pete’s. He explained how he loads all his stuff on it. He pedals “home” to a hidden spot in the woods. Has a tent there and some camping stuff.

He had to smarten up about that, too.

“You have to keep the tent under a tree, you know. When it rains, it’s easier on you. The tree shelters you quite a bit. Out in the open, you’d get drenched far worse. Yeah, in the tent.”

It turned out he was describing a whole culture. A way of living, not only of getting by but surviving.  Not only with society and the law, but with other homeless people.

There are bad ones. “One time I went back to my camp and found out a whole pad of my paintings had been stolen. It was in a bag I kept there. I think I know the guy!   Why did he do that? How could he ever hope to sell them?

“Yeah, we all know one another here. The regulars. We’re a tribe. Yeah, a tribe unto ourselves. We help one another if we can. I’ve given a few bucks to somebody really hard up. More than once.”

And he kept on talking. It was getting late. Finally I said, “Got to go, Zeke. Glad to have met you. You’ve told me a  heck of a lot. Very interesting.

“Look, I’m going to go home and write this up. I’m sure I’ll make an error or two.. Suppose we get together again? Then I can double-check some of these things. I hate to make mistakes.”

“Sure. But hey, it’s really okay to use my name.”

I shook my head. vigorously.  Smiled. “No!”  I shook hands with him. “Have a good night. It looks like a cold one”
He nodded. I went back to my magazine and my coffee. which was c
old now. And left. He was fixated on his pad again. A nasty night. I turned up the collar of my jacket.

 I was sure he’d stay till McDonald’s closed. I’d hate to be in his shoes.

I saw him again two evenings later. He was in the same corner. Working on another painting. Another abstract. He’d draw a little. Focus on it. Draw a bit more.

He invited me to sit down. A good session.  I double-checked a few things. “You’ve taught me a whole lot, Zeke.  Thank you.”

“My pleasure, John. People just don’t know what it’s all about. What it’s really like. The good. The bad. You’ve got to live it. Ain’t easy. It’s not for the weak.

 Home and in bed, I thought about him. And about homelessness. He called himself liberated. Really? Some liberation!  I wondered what a psychiatrist might say. But I saw no reason why I should not take him at his word.

Anyway, there are incredible consequences to being homeless. Some homeless don’t even know who the President of the United States is. And don’t care. Even the name of the mayor here. Or when the next election is. Anyway, they can’t vote–again, no address. The only thing they’re sure of is the day of the month Uncle Sam will reload their food card.

About health care, some are covered through Medicaid, which is called Medi-Cal here. But some are not.

What happens when they get sick or feeble? What will happen when they die? Some must wonder, especially older ones. It must weigh on them.

Yes, it’s a national problem. What to do about it? Many proposals get made. There’s even the new wild idea that Washington should pay everybody an annual income.  Everybody. Any adult.

Sounds far-fetched. But many other proposals were once considered far-fetched. Every citizen having the right to vote. Every citizen being covered by Social Security. Food Stamps. Obamacare.

I saw that Zeke has something I’ve never seen in anyone else on the streets. It’s his two passions. Art. And music. Maybe they explain, in part or totally, this strange way he chooses to live. So unthinkable for us normal folks.  To us, so tragic and abhorrent.

But hey, we might be in that fix some day. Or a loved one.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

Yep, I make New Year’s resolutions!

By John Guy LaPlante

Right now I am sitting here scribbling. Carrying on a ritual of many years– decades! A ritual that many folks go through but stop doing. No need, they say. They snicker when the topic comes up.

I disagree. I do it and for a simple reason. It works. The word  “resolutions” sounds too serious — too daunting a commitment. So I call it my to-do list for the New Year.

I believe that thanking ahead, anticipating, planning, is the way to go. Much better than doing things hit or miss.

It’s not that difficult. I do give it thought in the week before New Year’s. Right now, as a matter of fact.

Then I pick up my pen and get started.

Know what? I’ve found the first to-do that comes to mind is probably the most important. So I jot it down as No.1 on my list. And the second is probably the second most important. That’s No. 2. And so on.

I have learned that this quick instinctive recollecting is a marvelous way to go about the task.

And what’s interesting is the first ones on my list turn out to be the ones that I’ll follow through on. These resolutions become realities. And how satisfying that is. And the bottom ones I’ll get started on, sure, but may give up on before they lock in.

This year I’m giving my list more thought than usual. Why? Because in 2019– in fact on April 26th — I will be returning 90!!! ! All these apostrophes show you how huge an event this looms in my psyche

For one thing, I’m quite confident this will be my final decade on this earth. The probability of this seems to be guaranteed.

In fact, this piqued my curiosity. And I went to Google and asked.

Google, I said, what are the chances of a man turning 90 of reaching 100?

And Google had the answer for me in just a few seconds. Well, not quite. The best it could do was to give me the answer for a man of 80. Here’s what Google came up with.

A man of 80 has less than a 30 percent chance of making it to his 90th. And only 3 or 4 of those who get to 90 will make it to 100.

Gosh, that doesn’t sound too good, does it? But it bears out what I suspected.

But ladies, are you listening? Well. I have good news for you. Your odds are a teeny bit better.

But unfortunately there are other things we must consider in these calculations.

How many men reaching 100, women also, will be able to get out of bed? Be able to do the things that gerontologists call “the activities of daily living”?

Such things as being able to bathe? Dress themselves? Make their meals? Use the john? Handle a knife and fork? Make a phone call?  On and on. Most important of all, will still have their mind? The answer seems to be miniscule.

Which convinces me — in fact, has convinced me for some years now — that it is possible to live too long.

Think I’m crazy? Think I should make an appointment with a psychiatrist? No, no, no. I have made this very point to a friend or two or three by telling them a fictional story. Yes, it’s a story I made up. Here it is.

I run into an old friend and he says to me, “John, did you hear the awful news about what happened to Everett?”

“Everett?! What happened to Everett?”

“Awful! He had a heart attack! Didn’t even make it to the hospital!”

“Oh my God! How awful!”

But, dear readers, how do you think I feel about that? Really feel?

I feel that Everett may be a very lucky fellow. May have been blessed to die so fast and so suddenly. Because getting old can be such a bad and terrible experience. Better skipped. For the person, man or woman. And for the family that has to see him or her through it.

I’m not making this up. I have seen it close up, and more than once. In fact, I have a very close friend who’s going through it right now. Is in hospice. So sad.

Know what? Just a few days ago I went in to see Dr. Schingler for a routine physical. Excellent doctor. Knows me well. And again gave me the good news that I expected. He saw no need to see me for another three months – March 23 is my next appointment.

This when I know some patients go in to see him every week or two. That’s quite typical. How lucky I am.

But at this latest appointment I had something new to spring on him. When he was just about finished, I handed him a document. A legal paper called My Advance Health Care Directive. Prepared by my lawyer.

Familiar with it? In lawyer’s language it says that if I get very sick and I’m hurting and my prospects are very poor and I have to be kept alive by being connected to machines and they’re taking desperate measures to keep me breathing, I want to have all that turned off. Enough is enough.

Notice? I used the word if. A better word would be ”when.” It might really happen.

Dr. Schingler questioned me carefully. Wanted me to explain in my own words.

And I told him what I just  told you.  “If I get very sick and I’m miserable and may be in pain and I can’t do anything to help myself, and I’m losing my mind, and I’m going to have to be force-fed and kept wired and connected to machines to be kept alive, I do not want any of this stuff to be done. I want all that to be disconnected. Just pull the plug!”

Satisfied that I was serious and understood, he said, “John, I’m with you on this. I will make sure this is in your file here.”

He looked at it again. Noticed my lawyer’s name. “Good man,” he said. “He does my work, too.”

By the way, I also gave signed copies to my daughter Monique and my son Arthur and my son Mark. I wanted them to know. They were not surprised.

I have signed many important documents in my long years. This was one of the most important. I felt good about having gone through with it.

But know what? As I drove home, a little voice inside me said, “When that moment comes, will I say, ‘No, no! Please, doctor, please! Do everything you can to keep me alive. Please!’”

Life is so precious. Dying is s, so scary. We’ll see.

Anyway, as my great 90th birthday approaches, I’ll give you further thoughts about all this.

Of course I’m confident there will be a party for me. That will be great.

But I’m saying, ”Don’t get carried away. Don’t have a cake with  90 candles on it. Gosh, no! Just nine. I want to make sure I can blow them all out!”

Meanwhile I’ll keep working on my to-do list. I haven’t failed in years. I’ll have it done by New Year’s Eve. I want to step into my Ninth Decade ready and running. Not stumbling into it just hoping for the best. Hit or miss..

If you’ve never prepared a list to motivate you and make the year better for you, or gave up doing it, why not give it a go? You still have time. It will pay off.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Christmas 5,000 long, hard miles away.

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – In a Third World country, mind you, with a dramatically different culture and background. For more than two years. An adventure and a half, as they say.

In fact, I lived through two Christmases like that. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. Not all of you are familiar with that 27-month chapter in my life — the  real challenge of it.

Well, as you may know, Peace Corps is a young person’s thing. From its very beginning nearly 60 years old. For twenty-two year olds. Twenty-five year olds.

Some 15 years ago Peace Corps smartened up. Older men and women!  Peace Corps started recruiting them. They have life experience. Wisdom. Well, maybe. May be yearning for an adventure. And may want “to give back.”  Well, some.

I heard about that and applied.  I was 76. I had grave doubts. Was I up to it? Would my family pooh-pooh it and gang up against me? I had many responsibilities. Could I mothball them for 27 months and somehow manage to pick up the pieces at the end of my hitch?

That’s the normal hitch. Such a strange hitch, 27 months. Why not 24? Or 36? Well, for the first three months you’re a Trainee in the country you’re posted to. Peace Corps was serving in more than 75 countries, not France, or Switzerland and such. All “exotic” countries.

You attende school in that assigned country six days a week. Studied its  history. Its culture. And its language very intensely. If you passed, you put up your right hand at an impressive ceremony with many dignitaries, take an oath, and become a Volunteer. Yes, Volunteer is always capitalized. It’s a proud title.  And then you’d go to work for 24 months..

I had a good idea where I’d be sent. I speak French. It was my first language, picked up from my parents who were immigrants. Started to learn English when I went out to play with the neighboring kids. And all up through elementary school and high school and college I went to schools where much of the  teaching was in French. Yes, here in the U.S. So I speak and write French well.

So of course Peace Corps would send me to a country where French would be useful. Maybe Haiti, Morocco. Vietnam. Equatorial Africa. Because the French had played a big role in those countries and some people, especially older ones, know some French. I didn’t want to go to Equatorial Africa. The others would be okay.

I was wrong! Peace Corps sent me to Ukraine in Eastern Europe. It’s a former republic of the USSR – known to us as the United Soviet Socialist Republics. Russia and 13 other republics. Ukraine was struggling to make it on its own as a democratic and capitalism-leaning country.  We went there because it contacted Washington and requested Volunteers.

Ukrainian is its official language but I’d be working in a section where people spoke Russian. So I had to study Russian. So difficult was that that I began to think Peace Corps would send me home. But they kept me and I had a successful 24 months as a university-level teacher of English.

A great many university students all over the world are eager to learn English – American English, not British English. They see the USA as THE country in the world. Some dream of emigrating to it. So that’s what I did, teach them English.

But Volunteers are expected also to find and work at an important something or other of their own choosing. I worked at several big projects.  I also became president of our senior Volunteers in Ukraine. And as such visited all major areas of the country.

In fact I turned 80 in Peace Corps and was congratulated by Washington for being the oldest of some 7,500 in more than 75 countries globally.

My oh my!  Astonished, I asked what had happened to my predecessor. “Oh, we had to medically evacuate him.” !!! Enough said.

If this interests you, I invite you to read my 500-page book. “27 Months in the Peace Corps; My Story, Unvarnished.”

I said unvarnished because nothing is perfect, right? I wrote that book as a tutorial for anyone interested in serving in Peace Corps and learning what it’s really, really like. The good and the not so good. And of course for anyone else intrigued about the Peace Corps.

For my first three months, I lived with a family chosen by Peace Corps, trained by Peace Corps, and paid by Peace Corps. As did all my fellow Trainees. As Volunteers, most move into an apartment on their own. I chose to live with a second family, and then a third.  As a paying boarder. I felt each would provide me with a different window to look out on what life in Ukraine is really like. I was right about that.

Oh, we’d be paid by Peace Corps. It was about $300 a month, in hryvnias. The hryvnia is the Ukrainian “dollar.” That was about what a Ukrainian would earn doing the same kind of work.  In my case, as a university-level teacher. Truth is, it was hard to scrape by on that.

But this is about my Christmas over there. No, my two Christmases, as I said.

Lots of snow and lots of ice. Much more than my home state of Connecticut, where snow and ice are the norm. But over there they didn’t do a really good job of clearing it. The ice! I was so afraid I’d slip and break a hip or something.

I expected Christmas to come on December 25. After all, Ukraine is a Christian country.  But December 25 was just another workday. Their Christmas is on January 6.

What I’ll be belling you now is based on my Chapter 26: “Getting thru the holidays. They’re happy but sad, too. It’s sad for Volunteers all over the world.”

As Christmas approached, my thoughts kept drifting back to the USA.

And my family and friends back home were thinking of me. I began receiving Christmas letters and cards from them.  Each one I got brightened my day.

We had been keeping in touch with emails. Receiving real mail, mail with stamps on it, emphasized to me how old-fashioned this slow mail is.

 An email arrived in minutes.  But normally it took 10 to 15 days for a letter to get to me. My folks back home did not realize this.

And because it was the Christmas rush back home, the mail was taking longer — parcels even 4 to 6 weeks.  I was getting letters and parcels.  How very fortunate I was. But a good thing nobody was sending me a home-made cake.

Speaking of gifts, that first Christmas a friend sent me a jar of peanut butter. Not available in my city. So thoughtful! The postage? An incredible $18!  Yes, for one jar.

Yes, December 25 was just an ordinary day in Ukraine, with shops open and everybody working.  But it was the winter school vacation time, so as a teacher I had days off.

Feeling forlorn on Christmas morning, to change my mood I headed to the huge and wonderful municipal Korolonka Library. It was open of course.

Soon I got absorbed in what I was doing there and by the time I headed home I was feeling much better. Thank goodness.

But truth is, my loved ones were so dispersed from the Atlantic to the Pacific that even if I were back there, I would not have been able to be with most of them.

Of course I had been planning to call them on Christmas. It just could not come fast enough. That would be the big highlight for me.

It dawned clear and cold but sunny. Right after breakfast I took a trolley to the post office. In Ukraine the post office ran the telephone system. I would make my calls there.

I made sure to keep the time difference in mind. Seven hours between my time and Connecticut time, and 10 hours for California.

The post office had a big telephone calling room. Along one wall, ten telephone booths like our telephone booths of years ago.

I joined the queue of callers. Finally I got to one of the operators at the long counter.

 My Russian was just not up to a conversation. So I simply handed her three 100 hryvnia bills — approximately $60–and said “Cay Shay Ahh” — that’s Russian for “USA.”

She wrote 6 on a slip of paper for me and I went to Booth 6 and began making my calls.

I called milady Annabelle in California. A wonderful chat with her.

Then my three kids. First, Arthur, my oldest, in Florida. The phone rang and rang. Nobody picked up. Shucks.  I wanted so badly to speak to him and Marita, my daughter-in-law, and my three grandkids. I did leave an upbeat message.

Next my daughter Monique and her hubby David in California. They both picked up phones, which was great.

Then I did reach my son Mark and his wife Stacie in Georgia. Darn, their two little kids were already in bed.

Then I called my sister Lucie and her son J-C in Connecticut. No luck. That was a downer.

All in all, good chats. Loving. Upbeat. I had only good news for them and ditto they. What was amusing is that they had all said one thing. “Dad, your voice is coming in so clear! It’s like you’re just next door!”

Finished, delighted, I walked back to the cashier. She checked my time on the phone, then gave me half my money back. About $25. If I had known that, I would have talked a lot longer.

I was so happy. I walked back into the frigid cold but I was so pleased I didn’t mind it as much.

Now of course I must tell you about the Ukrainians’ Christmas. As I said, it’s on January 6th, a major holiday, like our Christmas.

But one thing about it intrigued me.  Ukrainians as citizens of what had been part of the Soviet Union practiced atheism. No God!

Or pretended to. What happened is that religion went underground.

People told me that even in Soviet days in some villages the people managed to keep their ancient churches open and to worship in them. Their religion never got crushed.

People in the cities also tried to preserve their religious tradition, but had to veil it and carry on as non-believers.

For most people, it was dangerous to admit being a believer. The best way to success…to a decent life…was through membership in the Communist Party, which, by the way, was open only to a select few.

The Communists had to believe and support the Communist Manifesto. Had to be followers of Marx and Lenin. Had to tow the line. Had to reject religious faith and profess atheism. Some did so sincerely. Others put on a show.

Yet I met one a few who said matter-of-factly, “We had to go along. It was the only way.”

I did get to meet atheists. Nice people. In fact, one was a fellow teacher at school.

 She told me, “John, I don’t believe in God. Or a God. My family does not believe. It is that simple.”

Yet as their Christmas approached, I saw a great excitement in the people. Even my friend the atheist was caught up in the excitement. She smiled. “It is our culture!”

 At that time I was living with the second of the three families I got to board with.  A Mom and her 19-year-old son.  They were true believers.  They went all out on their Christmas, and they involved me in every part of it, from breakfast to dinner, all very festive and special. Even insisted on taking me to their Orthodox Church for its Christmas service.

A great, old, magnificent church, many people, several priests, all heavily bearded, even the youngest priest, only 25 or so, in gorgeous vestments. Great solemnity. The drama of it. Fine organist, enthusiastic choir. Everything impressive in so many ways. Memorable. I truly felt all these folks were true Christians.

In one way I was glad they had a separate Christmas. It emphasized this was a uniquely different and interesting culture, well worth experiencing.

Yes, I spent a second Christmas in Ukraine. It was much easier. I was more accustomed to everything, including the harsh weather. . Still many letters and cards and gifts. But there was a big difference.  At home, with my third family now, I had the blessing of a great and marvelous technical breakthrough. Skype!

Familiar with Skype? No longer such a great need to go the post office. I had an Internet-connected computer. So did some of my contacts back home. Again I paid attention to the time differences. Through Skype, I could see them and talk with them! And it was free!.How wonderful! 

I did go to the Post Office to call those not on Skype. And that was worthwhile and wonderful. But imagine seeing and speaking with someone with little attention to the passing minutes!

Skype!!! It made life much easier for many Volunteers, and available any day of the week.

Peace Corps isn’t easy.  I want you to know that.  Typically, I got to  find out, close to  a quarter of all Volunteers returned home early.

I served the whole hitch. It was worth the effort. It taught me much. I made many friends. It made me feel proud. I recommend it to promising young people, and speak about it to older folks I feel might be receptive.

For younger people, it sets them up for positions of service and leadership. On a job application it carries great weight.  In my opinion, it’s worth far more than a master’s degree, though many Volunteers do go on for more education, even right on to a doctorate.

And it’s surprising how many former Volunteers use their experience to launch careers in government service and international affairs.

Ten years have passed since I served. And I’m still in touch with some former students and fine men and women I was privileged to meet and associate with. How about that?! And I read everything I can about Ukraine in the news, and there’s a lot, and too much of it not good.

Now Christmas is just hours away.  And I’m here in central California. No snow, no ice. There are palm trees in my neighborhood. Flowers in my yard. The Pacific is iust a mile away. Some people are at the beach or in the harbor boating and surfing. It’s a wonderfully different world.

And I’ll be calling my family and friends again. And connecting with them online. In fact, I’ve been at it for several days. How good it is!

And now It’s my pleasure to wish each and every one of you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! With many more to come! Whoever you are and wherever you are.

Do spread the word about Peace Corps.  And why not consider it for yourself? Remember, Peace Corps wants mature applicants. Yes, they’ve smartened up. Do keep that in mind when you make your New Year to-do list. If I can answer any questions, let me know.

~ ~ ~ ~

Don’t you want to live to be a hundred?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA –Well, don’t we all? But know what? We might be better off if we don’t.

As we know, we’re living longer, at least in the more advanced countries. Better food, better sanitation, better drinking

Centenarian Victor Duerksen, a “victor” in the very best sense. 

water, better working conditions, better medications and medical care, and better all-around everything.

One thing which would improve our chances would be fewer wars, and fewer people having to bear arms.

Right now the latest census tells us two percent of us will live to be one hundred. Women stand a better chance than we men.

For many of us, becoming centenarians may be bad news. The prospects can be grim.

We can get there but be unaware because of Alzheimer’s.  We may be incapacitated – to use the definition of gerontologists, unable to manage “the activities of daily living.” Meaning unable to walk, dress up, use the john, bathe, feed ourselves, cut our toenails, on and on. May be institutionalized, in assisted living, or in long-term care, or a nursing home, or even in hospice.

If once married, we’ll most surely be a widow or widower. Will probably have lost loved ones along the way, siblings perhaps, even children and grandchildren. May be very poor, especially if a woman. May be so unhappy with our lot that we’d welcome saying a final goodbye.

Well, I have met the Great Exception! Peter Duerksen, a pastor in the Seventh Day Adventist Church. That’s what I call him. Yes, the Great Exception. Because he’s on his way to a hundred and one (!)  and has missed not all of these terrible realities. – that would  be just about impossible – but most

Well, I’ll tell you about Pastor Duerksen. And then you can judge for yourself whether he deserves my calling him the Great Exception.

But first, how did I meet him?  It was a strange start.  I have a friend –Dick – who’s aware I’m a vegetarian. And knows I’m always on the lookout for interesting people and things to write up.

“John, my friend.” he said one day, “Why don’t you come with me to the Seventh Day Adventist Church Saturday. Interesting service. Nice people. Always a big buffet afterward. It’s 100 percent vegetarian!”

“Sounds good, Dick. Never been to a service in that denomination.  But you mean Sunday, don’t you?”

“No. It is Saturday. At 10:30.”

Well, it turns out the Adventists – that’s what they call themselves – are a bona fide Christian denomination. But they  observe the Sabbath, which is the seventh day of the week, which is what is ordained in the Bible.

And not on Sunday, which of course is the first day of the week, per our modern calendar. Which is when all other Christian denominations hold their weekly services, methinks.

And – this is interesting – they call themselves the Adventists because Christ proclaimed He would come back one day, and they pray for and live in anticipation of this great advent.

So I said “Sure, Dick. Count me in!”

He was totally right. I’m not much of a church-goer these days. But I did enjoy the service. Lots of hymns, with everybody, everybody joining in, meaning me, too. Members calling themselves Brothers and Sisters. And I got the feeling they meant it.

I did notice most of them were on the mature side though.

And a positive and uplifting talk. Not just a five-minute quickie. More like twenty-five minutes.

And yes sir, afterward that bountiful and wonderful vegetarian dinner. Potluck, with everybody bringing this or that, and most of it home-made. And very good vegetarian it was, with some dishes new to me. I had seconds of a couple of things, which is rare for me.

And Dick was there, and he fit right in, and was terrific in introducing me around.

I think some thought I might become an Adventist, and hoped that. Understandable. But not my intent.

Men and women in their Sunday best — retirees, now happily so. A Hispanic couple in their 50’s. One black lady, about that age also.  Two elderly ladies, widows undoubtedly. One guy, elderly, thin, in what seemed a shawl, with a long pony tail and equally long beard. Very friendly.One fellow, maybe two, who looked homeless. And oh, a well-dressed couple with two teen-agers. Another with a three-year-old.

In chatting, a lady in her 40’s told me she attends every Saturday, and on Sundays attends the Christian Church – that’s what it’s called – just down the street. Said she’s a Christian, the two churches are Christian, and she enjoys them both, so why not?

I met the gentleman who had preached. The lady who played the organ. The fellow who passed the donation basket. For all of them, being friendly seemed to be a way of life.

So I enjoyed the mix. And to me it said something very nice about Adventists. I wish all Americans could be like that, but it ain’t so.

At table, I was sitting next to an old man. Very old man. Seemed a nice fellow.

“Sir,” I ventured. “This is my first time here. I’m in my ninetieth year. You look a bit younger. (What a fibber I can be.)  May I ask you how old you are?”

“Why, of course. Thank you, but I’m older than you. I’ll turn 100 in three weeks. What is your name?”

I told him. I marveled — he was one hundred. And still functioning!  It was the first time I meet a man that old in such good shape.

His name was Victor Duerksen. And that’s how we became friends. I do think we are friends.

He told me he is a pastor in the church. And what a remarkable career he has had! But right now as I tell you about all that, I want you to notice the reasons I call him the Great Exception. Okay?

He walked with a walker, sure, but he didn’t need help. He was well dressed. He had all his marbles. He chatted with people. He had a good appetite. He needed no special attention. And he was having a good time.

I said to him he looked quite hale and he said, “Yes, I’m fine. Quite fine.

“But I had to give up my driver’s license 14 months ago. I was still driving, no problem. But my doctor refused to sign a letter saying I was in good shape. Told me not to take it personally. Said he’d refuse to give any old man or woman a letter like that. You know, 95 or over. Well, I accepted that.

“Folks give me a ride when I need one. Like today. And I live in San Luis Obispo!” (That’s our big city 15 miles south.)

Not sure how it came up, but he said in World War II when young men were being drafted, he reported for duty. But as an Adventist, he refused to bear arms. “So they made me a medical corpsman. Went overseas. And that’s what I did.”

Later, looking over the church bulleting more closely, I saw him listed on it as Pastor Victor Duerksen. Yes, at age 100. It was obvious his career was far from over.

He mentioned he’d be the preacher in three weeks, on the occasion of his 100th birthday. I jotted that down on my calendar.

I drove home thinking of him. I liked him. Was pleased to have met him.

And three Saturdays later went back for his big birthday. I arrived a few minutes late. He was sitting up by the altar. But had a strange hat on. Looked like a baseball cap, but with the visor cut off. I hadn’t seen that the last time. Looked odd.

The service was conducted by Elder Art Bonilla, according to the program in my hand. He was spirited. Lively. Hymns, several again, everybody standing and joining in. Then the moment for the sermon. I thought Elder Bonilla would  preach.

No. Pastor Duerksen walked to the pulpit. Using his walker, haltingly but steadily.  A small man, but fit. Determined. Then, standing at the pulpit, before saying a word, he scanned all of us, left to right, smiling and making eye contact with us.  It was obvious he was practiced at this.

“Good morning!” he said cheerily. But quickly touching his strange hat with his right hand, he asked, “Do you like it?” Not waiting for an answer,  “Well, I have skin cancer up there  now. Have to use medicine up there, don’t you know, and have to keep it bandaged. But it’s going to be okay.  Anyway that’s what they tell me. Hope you like my hat” And he smiled again.

And launched into his sermon. I checked the program. Could find no title for it. But what he did was talk about passions. Faults. Deficiencies. All human. How they can afflict us. Anger.  Jealousy. Prejudice.  Dishonesty. Laziness. Betrayal. On and on. Defining each. Giving examples. And giving practical advice.  A good talk, not only for Adventists. For anybody. For me.

And this turned out to be his 100th birthday celebration! He didn’t say a word about that. At the festive meal, we all sang “Happy Birthday!” And he was presented with candles, not 100, no room for that many, and he blew them all out. Lots of applause. Lots of good wishes.  Lots of good vibes.

I got to chat with him, just as I had hoped. “Pastor Victor,” I said, “From everything I’ve heard, you deserve your first name, Victor. You really are a victor!” And I went on a bit.

Then  said, “As for me, well, I’m a writer, yes, still a writer even in my old age. These days I like writing about people  and things that interest me. Like you, sir. I’d love to get together and chat with you.”

He looked at me sharply. “Sure. But not sure why you’d want to write about me.. There’s nothing that special about me. But I like having visitors. Come by any time.”

Gave me his address and phone number. I went a week later, calling first. “I’ll be here,” he said. “But take your time.”

A mobile home, a double-wide, attractive, in a well-maintained mobile home park. I parked. Wasn’t sure I had the right mobile home. A young woman came out. She had been on the look-out, escorted me. Many potted plants on the veranda. Very neat inside.

Pastor Victor was in a lounge chair, his legs straight out. Fully dressed. A cute small dog on his lap. He was gently stroking it. No bandage on his head. I was pleased to see that.

He said, “Pull up a chair. That one,” pointing to an upholstered chair.

Brenda, that was her name, was puttering in the open kitchen a few steps away. About 50, efficient and pleasant. She was his daily caretaker. Later she told me another lady came in at other hours, slept in, so he had coverage 24 / 7.

We talked, he and I, for more than an hour.  He spoke without hesitation, though twice mentioned he didn’t understand this fuss of mine.

He was a Californian by birth, raised in the Seventh Day Adventist faith. He had graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder. Was interested in helping people.  He became a registered nurse.  Liked being an Adventist so much he studied for the ministry. In his early 20’s he was ordained, authorized to baptize and marry and so on.

And he set out on what he called a double vocation. To spread the word about Jesus.  And to heal people spiritually and medically. He spent his whole career doing that. Always as an active pastor, and all while serving as manger of a number of hospitals, all Adventist, all over the world. Often for years at a single assignment.

In Palestine, Egypt, Puerto Rico, Mexico twice, China, Thailand, Santa Domingo, Japan, I believe. Sometimes working at more than one hospital in some of those countries.

“It was very, very good,” he said. “Exactly what I wanted.  Never tired of it.”

He married June. They had two sons. They were married 25 years. One of his sons died. He married Eileen, a widow. She had one son and two daughters. They were married 42 years. She died not long ago. Her two daughters – “my gals” – live in San Luis Obispo. That’s why he and Eileen settled there.

On all these assignments he took his family along.

He made no fuss about what he did on those assignments. But I could imagine all the challenges. Dealing with the climate differences. Learning the language. Attempting to understand the culture.  Adjusting to the new standards of living. Making his way around the new city.  Meeting community leaders.

And always doing his best to make his family comfortable and content about all this.

And at the hospital, being the C.E.O. Maintaining high standards for the best of care, budgeting, hiring, fund-raising, expanding the hospital’s reach. And of course, by setting an example and preaching, spreading the word about Jesus and The Seventh Day Adventists.

For years at a time. Then being assigned to a hospital in another country and doing it all again.

Of course, finally I asked how he felt about getting so old now.

He threw up his hands again. And shrugged. And thought a minute. “You know,” he said finally, “I’m not really interested in more years. This is my life now, sitting in my chair here.” He patted the puppy on his lap. “I’m ready. I’ve had a good life. The kind of life I hoped to have. Doing the work I wanted to do.”

I was doing my best to remember  everything he was telling me. I made no effort to take notes. I felt doing that would have spoiled our chat. Finally I asked  to take a picture or two. He shrugged, throwing up his arms again. In a sort of bafflement, but said okay.

I took a couple of pictures with my smart phone. I showed them to him. He nodded. I felt he was pleased. The one up top was the better one.

I got up to leave. He was getting tired. We shook hands. He gave me a nice smile. Remained in his lounge chair. I understood. “Come back anytime. I like company. Yes, do come back. I’ll be here.” Smiled again.

Brenda walked me out to my car. Very kind of her.

“Pastor Duerksen is a very, very good man,” she told me.

I nodded. I knew that.

~ ~ ~ ~

Later I boned up about the Adventists. The church was started in New England about 160 years ago. So quite recently. It is now an acknowledged Christian denomination … believing of course in the divinity of Jesus Christ. But yes, unique in observing the Sabbath. It now has a membership of 20 million, in countries all around the world. That amazed me.

I believe some other Christian denominations would be delighted to say the same.

What also amazed me is how many hospitals it operates. Even medical schools. Here and abroad, in country after country, and still spreading. This was all new to me. Perhaps to you, too.

Oh, being a vegetarian is not a core requirement. But Adventists gravitate to it as a humane (you know, not killing animals to eat them), healthy, and economical lifestyle. The very same reasons I’m a vegetarian.

If you want to see more fascinating stuff about them, just go to Wikipedia.com.

I was so grateful to my friend Mike for inviting me.  He had said, “Nice people. Nice service. And a nice big pot luck dinner afterward. Vegetarian!”

He was totally right.

The big surprise was meeting a centenarian gentleman who had lived his life exemplifying what an Adventist should be and could accomplish. My opinion. And who felt a hundred years is quite enough.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

Auto-Camping across the USA and back 58 years ago. Me!

This was the report I wrote of our grand adventure.  I followed it with more articles along with a series on the national parks and monuments we got to visit.By John Guy LaPlante

Yes, yours truly. With my wife Paulie and our two little kids.

All the way from Massachusetts across to California and back — 11,200 miles in a fast 42 days. Most of it was great. A few things went wrong. I wrote a zillion words to finance it. It seemed a zillion!

It was 1960. I was 31, a writer on Feature Parade, the magazine of the Worcester (Massachusetts)  Sunday Telegram. Circulation 100,000 every Sunday. An  estimated 150,000 taking at least a look every Sunday.

I yearned to see the USA. Had never been farther west than a few hundred miles from home.  I was a young dad with two little kids.

Well, with an elderly friend handy with tools, I built a folding tent trailer —  a newfangled thing back then but so wonderful for a young fellow eager to Go West!  But had to do it on a tight budget. Couldn’t afford a factory-made one.

And I wanted Paulie to share the adventure. We’d face a special challenge. We had our little Arthur and Monique behind. Unthinkable to leave them behind. Somehow we’d manage.

And I’d write stories about all that. Well, because I was a writer and that’s what writers do. Also because it would be the way to pay for our adventure. That’s the way I looked at it — a great. marvelous adventure.

Truth is, my folks and Paulie’s and some of my newspaper colleagues opined it was a wacky idea. Paulie thought the same thing when I brought it up. How fortunate I was she sided with me. I’m sure she had her fingers crossed.

But I got only two weeks of vacation. What to do?

I talked Fred Rushton, my editor, into letting me tack four weeks onto my two weeks coming up, those extra weeks without pay. And — this was key — agreeing to publish my travel reports at the magazine’s going free-lance rates. He took a week to think it over. Imagine my suspense! Then said, well okay….

Paulie taught second grade in public school, so she had the summer off. Perfect.

So with her at my side… and Arthur, just two and a half, and Monique, just one and a half, in a play pen I built for the back seat of our station wagon… and every spare inch jammed with supplies, we set out for California. Or bust. That was a few years before our little son Mark joined our family.

What kind of writing did I have in mind? First, I’d do personality profiles, but with people along the way who had a strong connection to Worcester.

For instance, an actor in Hollywood who grew up in a Worcester suburb. The manager of the L A. International Airport; he had jumped to that big job from being manager of our Worcester Airport. A young couple, neighbors of ours in Dudley, who had migrated to California, for good. And so on.

It’s that local angle which had convinced Fred Rushton to go along.

Second, I’d write about our experiences along the way, good and not so good. And also impressions of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park and other famous tourist meccas. And some far less known but worth knowing.

By the way, that long ride of ours was long, long before our fantastic Interstate Highway System. It was slow roads all the way to the Pacific and back. Through mountains and prairies and deserts and agricultural lands. And into huge cities and little towns.

Enormous hard work. For one thing, I had all these appointments that had to be respected. On this date in Detroit for this one, and on that date in Malibu for that one.

And of course we had have to find a campground each night, set up our tent trailer, cook our chow, put the kids to bed. Then get up early, rush and get ready, break camp, and hit the road again. And rush on to the next appointment.

Hard on Paulie for sure. Whenever I went in to interview someone, and take some pictures, which could take a while, she had to sit in our station wagon and mind the kids. A good sport.

We slept under canvas every single night. Some things went wrong, of course. Wouldn’t be an adventure without the possibility of that.

And lots of tension for both of us, it developed. Paulie had her way of doing things and I had mine. We both did our best to be patient and forbearing.We managed to return home on our scheduled 42nd day still happily wed.

One thing went very wrong. I hurt my back hard one night lifting a corner of our trailer with my two hands. Every night I would jack it up to make it level for a decent night’s sleep. This time I was tired and in a rush. I skipped the jack. In Polson, Montana, right on the shore of magnificent Flathead Lake..

Went to bed in great pain. At 2 a.m., excruciating.  Needed to get to a hospital. Paulie ran to a couple in a tent a hundred feet away. Total strangers. Woke them up. Explained. The startled young guy said, “I’ll drive him!”  What a Good Samaritan!

That was one of the joys of the trip — meeting so many fine people and of all backgrounds.

Well, no hospital in Polson. But were told by a parked cop there was a chiropractor nearby. Had never been to a chiropractor. I was leery. Rang his doorbell. He was sound asleep upstairs but came down to check who was ringing at such an unholy hour. Well, he did a fine job.  Had to return for two more treatments. It set our schedule back three days.

Arthur and Monique were angels all those many miles. Except Arthur one morning. We started driving. Paulie looked back to check the kids. Arthur didn’t have his shoes on. Where were they? We couldn’t find them. We had driven 20 miles or so.I made a U-turn and we went back to our campsite. Found the shoes. He had thrown them out the window!

Yes, our journey did turn out to be the wonderful, fantastic adventure I hoped for. We covered those 11,000  miles. Good weather and bad weather. Saw wonders of all kinds. Not a single encounter with a bad hombre. Came back on the 42nd day, just as planned. Triumphant and delighted. Both of us.

Recently I gave my daughter Monique a fading copy of the first big article I wrote about it when we got home.  It was the “play” article –the major article–in Feature Parade that Sunday. It ran four full pages, along with photos,  all by me. It’s the one you saw up top.

Monique surprised me by scanning it and emailing it to members of our family. Very nice of her to do that. Some had little memory of our adventure, and in the case of our in-laws and grandkids, had never heard of it.

Monique also sent me a copy of it. Reading it, I had an idea. Maybe some of you would find it interesting.

By the way, that article was just the first of at least half a dozen full-length Feature Parade articles I wrote about our trip. Also a series of some 20 articles ab0ut national parks and monuments we visited. These were published one Sunday after another in the Travel Section of the Sunday Telegram.

Reader response was enthusiastic. Fred Rushton and Nick Zook, the editor of the Travel Section, were both tickled.

Got to tell you again all those thousands of words were pounded out by me, yes, on a free-lance basis, on the side, separate from my regular writing assignments for the magazine. A darn god thing I could type with all ten fingers!

Well, in time I became editor of Feature Parade Magazine.  As boss, I had a constant stream of six issues in the works. For example, at 8:45 on this coming Friday night, the magazine would be printed for inclusion in the nearly two-inch-thick Sunday newspaper.

We published a morning paper, the Telegram. And an evening paper, the Gazette. And the huge Sunday Telegram. An enormous job. It took a payroll of 850 people to get all that done.

Different sections of the Sunday paper–the Travel Section, the House & Home Section, the Week in Review Section, the Book Review Section, and other sections, would be printed  during the course of the week. It was the only way.

And the sixth magazine in that rigid schedule of six issues at any one time might be for the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, say. So what would be a good play article to tie in with Labor Day?  Should be something new, fresh.

It might take special expertise in business or economics to write it.  So who should I get to write it?  And what should be the big front-cover photograph to kick it off?  What pages should I run the story on? And so on.

You know, I found the work so interesting that sometimes I had a hard time falling asleep at night.

But why am I telling you all this? Good question. I thought you might like this brief insight into that kind of journalism.

Of course, it’s virtually impossible for you to read my actual story as seen in that photo of it up top. If you’d like to read the article, please contact me and I’ll try to make that possible.

I said we took the trip because I yearned to see the U.S.A.  It did that. But know what Tha just fanned my yearning to travel.  I went on traveling and traveling, as some of you know, and most of it solo.

Around the world. Across the Equator and back up. Around Asia. To every country in Europe except the topmost three.

To India twice. To China four times. To France 10 times. To Mexico several times. To Brazil twice, and to several other South American countries, including Panama. To all 50 states, some several times.

And I’ve written about all of those travels. Again, that was a main incentive. In articles and books.

Well, I’ve asked doctors if they think I might have caught travelitis when I was young.  And never got over it. Travelitis? They tell me they’ve never seen a case of travelitis. Well, okay.

The good news, I tell them in case they ever diagnose it in someone else, is that travelitis totally vanishes in old, old age. Just fades away.  How about that?!

~ ~ ~ ~

 

I go visit Carl. Inmate 4389616. I’m shocked.

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — He’s a friend. Well, sort of.

Never have I been to a prison. Nor a jail.  This is a first. And what a first. So awful I end up doing something unthinkable.

San Luis Obispo County Jail. Grim and full. But why so few visitors? Strange.

Had to. I said he’s a friend, sort of. We meet now and then.

I’ve called him Carl but that’s not his name. I’ve also changed other things that might ID him. He’s in trouble enough.

Carl’s close to 70. A white man like me. Strapping, yes, and fit. Pleasant. Likes to bat the breeze.  A nice guy. You’d probably consider him a nice guy, too. A regular church-goer, it turns out.

But basically homeless. I say basically because he has an old, battered pick-up camper. It’s running and registered. Well, till now. His home for some years, I believe.

I don’t think he could get a thousand dollars for it, but it’s everything to him. Otherwise he’d be sleeping in the woods somewhere. I know some homeless here who do that.

And he keeps an old bike chained up at the back. He parks on a quiet side street. Rarely the same place twice.  Cops are

The warning leaves no doubt. In two languages. The penalties are serious.

tough on homeless here. Pull them in for “loitering.”

He takes down his bike and pedals around.  It’s common to see him doing that. His long, thick white hair held in place by his old felt fedora, which he’s never seen without.

As always, he’s got his big purple sunglasses on. He even wears them inside so they’re prescription, I guess.  Anyhow, he loves pedaling around. And he pedals hard. Not many old gents do that. Plus it saves gas.

I like to chat with people. I’ve chatted with him half a dozen times. He’s interesting. One time he said, “Hey, John, I lost my padlock for my bike. Need one bad. Know anyone might have a spare?”

I understood. His having the bike stolen would be a loss. But how can you lose a padlock? Well, I had one and gave it to him the next time I ran into him. He was genuinely surprised. “Thank you, John. Thank you, my friend!”

Another time he spotted me and said, “John, have you got $10 you can spare? Gotta buy gas to get out of town at night.

The waiting room. Surprise: nearly empty on a Saturday! Visitor Window is at far end. The wait time was awful.

You know… the damn cops! You’ll get it back. Count on it!”

I had a spare ten and handed it to him.  Again, big thanks. But I felt I was kissing it goodbye.

One day he spotted me and hurriedly pedaled over. “John, my friend, I just got my social yesterday. Been looking for you.  Here’s your ten! You’re a good guy, John.”  My respect for him zoomed way up.

In our talks he had found out I was a vegetarian. He said, “John, I go up to the Xxx Xxxxxxx Church. Kinda small, but nice people. I like the service. Makes you feel good, you know.

“And they always put out a big spread afterward. You’d have no problem sticking to vegetarian.  But why do you eat that way? Anyway, I’d be glad to introduce you around.”

“Sounds great, Carl. Count me in.”

A bit of background. I was raised Catholic. Some years ago, for three months or so, I would go to a different church

Vising room. I sat on this side. Carl on the other side. Scene of great frustration for both. Then I couldn’t get out!

service just about every other week. Presbyterian. Methodist. Episcopal. Unitarian. One time, Mennonite. And so on.

One Saturday I even went to a synagogue. There were spare yarmulkes in the lobby. I put one on my head. No problem.

A wonderfully broadening experience, visiting all these churches, to say the least.

All because of John Steinbeck and his “Travels with Charlie.” The eminent writer got himself a truck camper, much like Carl’s but fancy. That was something new back then. He wanted to tour the country and size it up. And write up his experiences. His wife turned him down for the trip, so he took Charlie, their poodle.

On Saturday he’d pull into a campground. Meet and chat with other campers. On Sunday morning he’d put on his white shirt and tie, don his blue blazer, and go to church somewhere. Always a different church. Would have a fine time. Learn interesting stuff. And he did write and publish that wonderful book about it all. A best-seller.

So that’s why I quickly said yes to Carl. I had never been to a church of that denomination. It turned out just as he described. A beautiful small church. A small congregation. Only 40 or so. Wonderful feeling of loving togetherness from beginning to end. But a long service – an hour and a half. Followed by that wonderful buffet spread.

Carl was there, of course. Greeted me. Did introduce me around. Knew quite a few of them. Leaving, I said, “A great idea, Carl! Thank you.”

Later he told me folks there had been extra good to him. He needed dental work. They sent him to a dentist and picked up the bill for him. How about that?!

Oh, he mentioned one time he’d park in the quiet lot in back at night. As a regular thing. He’d be alone back there. Less chance for the police to see him sleeping back there. The church said that was okay.

I have two or three friends who know Carl. Ten days or so ago, one, Patrick, said, “John, hear about Carl?”

“No, what about Carl?”

“He’s in the county jail. The police had a warrant. They grabbed him! He failed to make the monthly check-in with his probation officer.”

I picked up details bit by bit. Carl was a registered sex offender. He had told somebody, “She was cute. Under age. But I felt she wanted it. And I did it.” That was a felony. Trial. Was found guilty. Did a lot of time.

He was a very young man. It changed his life for the very worse till this very day. I’ll explain in a few minutes.

Over the years he also did time for other crimes, much less grievous. Not sure why or for how long. The details are hard to come by.

I decided to visit him in jail. I thought he’d be pleased to see a friendly face. And of course I was curious.

Thought I could just stop by and get in to see him. No, no. A big deal. Had to make an appointment. Online, mind you. Fill out a long form about myself. Get checked out. Finally got an appointment: Saturday at 12 noon, but I had to be there at 11:15 at the latest.

Thought that on a Saturday it would be a busy place.  The jail is at the end of a long, winding dead-end road. It’s obvious they wanted to play it down. It looks like an industrial building, with a few touches and lots of fencing and security around. It’s big – more than 600 inmates.

Only two cars in the visitor parking lot. Yes, on a Saturday. I made my way in. Long, narrow, deep room. Rows of red plastic chairs for visitors. Fluorescent lights. Registration Window at the far end.

Only three visitors. A middle-aged woman, sitting, brooding, obviously forlorn.  Another  middle-aged woman, heavy-set, tattoos, with a teen-age girl next to her. Sitting and not saying much. Three females waiting to see their locked-up menfolk. I felt bad for them. Imagine the young gal growing up with memories of this!

I walked to the Registration Window. A heavy glass plate. A uniformed officer on the others side, a woman. She nodded. “Driver’s license, please!” She was speaking through a sound system.

A steel drawer slid out in front of me. I dropped in my license. The drawer slid back in. The officer picked up my license and typed in a computer.  Gave me my license back. “Twelve noon. Please take a seat.”

“What will happen, please?  Where will I go? This is my first time.”

She pointed to a steel door over on the right, set in at a right angle. That’s why I hadn’t seen it. “Twelve noon!”

I took a seat. Looked around. A literature rack. Many pamphlets. All related to Alcoholism and Narcotics Addiction. Their symptoms. Where to get help.  On and on. Obvious that many inmates have a problem of this kind..

I saw a sort of vending machine. I took a look. You put in coins. Lots of coins. For a specific prisoner.  The money would pay for their calls out, at so much per minute.  No coins, no calls out, it seemed.

Oh, I had looked up why somebody got locked up here. It would be on a criminal complaint, so locked up awaiting trial. That is, unless they put up bail or got bailed out by a relative or friend or by a professional, expensive bondsman.

But many here were serving time after being convicted. The largest number, I think.

Carl was here awaiting trial. He couldn’t make bail. And no way could he pay a bondsman.

I had also looked up jails versus prisons. Especially the differences. Interesting. But I’ll let you Google or Bing that.

Why did I have to come so early? Seemed unreasonable. I fretted. I read some of those pamphlets. I did learn stuff.  Finally it was 12 noon. But nothing happened.

What’s this? I walked up to the woman officer behind the heavy plate glass. She pointed to the steel door.  “Open it. Go inside.”

I walked through the door. Very heavy.  I thought the two women and the teen-ager might come in, too. But they didn’t. A long, narrow room. I was alone in there.

The room was split lengthwise. Big panels of thick glass divided it in two. Fifteen steel stools were bolted down on my side. Fifteen matching stools on the other side.

Where to sit? I sat on No. 12 and waited.  Each seat had a phone. Each matching seat on the other side had a phone. Nothing happened. I waited five minutes, it seemed.

Finally Carl walked in from the far end. Alone. Saw me. Sat on the stool opposite me. Same long, thick shaggy hair. Same purple glasses. White T-shit. Orange jump suit. He nodded and smiled a wee bit.

Said something. I couldn’t hear. So he picked up his phone. I picked up mine. He spoke into the phone. I listened on mine. Nothing. He frowned. Searched for what to do next. Nothing worked. Frustrated, he held up one finger, meaning “One minute!” and walked out.

Finally returned with a male guard who gave instructions then walked out. Carl picked up his phone again. He looked at a wrist band on his left hand. Studied it. There was a number code on it, it seemed. Picked up the phone and tried. Didn’t work. Tried again.

Greatly frustrated, he again held up one finger and strode out. Finally returned with a different guard, female this time. That surprised me – a woman guard with all these men. She instructed Carl. He tried. Tried again. Zero.

I felt like screaming at her, “Why don’t you just do it for him!”

Poor fellow. Couldn’t get the sequence of numbers right or something. All the while I was holding the phone to my ear. Finally, finally, he spoke and I heard him! Whoopee!

He was sitting now. Gave me a glance but then dropped his head, held it in his hands. Long seconds went by.  It was clear. Total frustration. Total despair.

It occurred to me that in his various jailings here, this was his first time receiving a visitor. His total phone failure said it all. Must be true of a lot of inmates.

“How you doing, Carl?”

He looked up. Grimaced. Jabbed his thumb down. Muttered….

“Can’t hear you, Carl!” Yes, I have a hearing problem, still….  “Carl, turn up the volume, please!”

Bit he was having a hard time hearing me, too! He fumbled. No better. So it went. At least for me the whole session became a guessing game. This is what I made out:

How long will you be here? No idea. Waiting for a court date. Hope it’s soon.

Are you in a cell? No. Most of them are. I’m in a large room. About 80 men. No privacy.  Big TV set, pre-set, on all day. That’s good and bad.

The food? Pretty good. We go to a cafeteria.

Your biggest worry?  What the judge will decide. Anxiety big-time.

Other worries. Yes, my pick-up camper. In storage. Costing $100 per day! How will I be able to come up with that kind of money?

Sleeping okay? Big problem. At least twice every night, we have to all get up and stand in front of our bunk. They take a count. Make sure we’re all here. Awful. It’s driving me crazy.

Should I notify anybody? Yeah. For sure. Anybody who might know me. And tell them how awful this is!

With the lousy phone set-up, this had become an ordeal for both of us. And now not much left for either of us to say. I pointed to my watch, said I had to go. He nodded. Hung up his phone. So did I. Dropped his head. Long pause. He stood up. Gave me a tiny wave and walked back into whatever it was back there.

I looked at my watch. We were entitled to one hour. Eighteen minutes had gone by. I stood up. I was the only one in the room. No other visitor had come in. This on a beautiful Saturday, mind you. And 600 inmates here.

I walked back to the door. That big, heavy door. Tried to open it. It wouldn’t budge. Tried again. Impossible. Was I locked in? There was a grate next to it. Maybe I was supposed to speak into it. I spoke into it. Nothing happened. Spoke again. Nothing.

My God! Was I a prisoner in here, too!?

What to do? I strode to the far end to the heavy glass panel that you couldn’t see through. With my cane I tapped, tapped, tapped on the glass.

A man’s voice. “Go back to the door, when you hear an alert, push!”

I heard a low alert, pushed, nothing happened. I waited for the man’s voice again. No voice. Walked back to the window. Tapped, tapped, tapped.

“GO BACK TO THE DOOR. WHEN YOU HEAR THE ALERT, PUSH!!!”

I heard, went back, pushed with all my might, and the damn door opened!

I was furious. I strode to the female guard at the Visitor Window. The two women and the teen girl had left. There was just a new woman here.

I suspected the female guard was aware of the whole damn, crazy experience.  I burst out, “This has been awful! Awful!”  I wasn’t yelling. But I was damn loud. “People gotta know!”

She didn’t say a word. I couldn’t even see if she was watching.

I was getting even madder.  “Hey, I’m going to call the newspapers about this! The Trib and the New Times! Both of them!”

Now the guard stared at me. But not a peep from her. No, “Oh, that’s too bad!” No, “I’m sorry!” And that irritated me!

The new woman had come right up to me. “Do that!” she said. “Call the papers. I’m with you!”

“You a visitor?”

“No, I’m an R.N. here.  Just coming on. But you do that!”

“I will! I sure will!”

I got home and was still fuming. Rare for me to explode like that.

And the R.N. had applauded me when I said I’d call the newspapers. That told me a lot. She was on the payroll. She must know the problems.   A lot of people must have a lot of frustrations about going to visit at the jail. Hey, how come such a terrible turn-out of visitors?

The next day I followed through on my threat. Left a detailed voice mail for the editor of The Tribune. Joe Tarica. It’s a daily. Serves the whole county. Does a decent job despite the financial squeeze all daily papers are living through these days.

Then reached the editor of the New Times, a weekly. It features exposes, loves to splash a new one. Camilla Lanunh. She listened carefully. Asked many questions. I hung up feeling good about her.

My message to both: “You must do a story. And the right way is to check out the whole process. But not by going and showing your press pass \and asking a jail spokesperson a lot of questions. No, no, no.

“Go and test the system. From a visitor’s point of view.  Act like just another first-time visitor trying to get to see an inmate. Find out how difficult it is to set up the visit, then go through every step. From your first minute in there to your last.

“Look up an inmate in there. That won’t be hard. Hey, look up the one I went to see, Carl Zwink! Then go through the whole awful ordeal to get in to see him.

“Experience how awful the phone system is. I hope you’re alone in there with Carl. Or whoever else you choose. Try to get out afterward. And write it all up!”

Remember, dear reader, what I told you way up top. My experience was so bad that I felt I had to do something dramatic about it. Just had to! Well, this was it.

The next day I got a call from Matt Fountain from the Trib. Joe Tarica, the editor, had told him to check me out. I recognized his byline—a top journalist. Listened carefully. Said, “I’ll look into it. But it’s got to wait. The election. Other stuff. Thanks for sharing!”

Back in Morro Bay, I passed the story around to people who know Carl. Called an  elder at the church. He thanked me and said they have a member who visits people locked up in the jail and the prison. He’d get in to see Carl.

Oh, must tell you we also have a very large state prison here. It’s called The Men’s Colony. How’s that for a euphemism?!

It’s for felons, right up to murderers.  I’ve heard some criminals would rather do prison time than jail time. The prison has more programs of various kinds for prisoners than the jail does. More interesting. More helpful.

A few days later I was pedaling my trike through our shopping center grounds and I heard a loud “John! John!”

I looked. It was Carl. What?! He came running over. “Yeah, John, here I am. They let me out. Gave me a bus ticket.  So glad to be out of that damn place! Look!”

He showed me his right wrist, then the left one. “Look! I was in handcuffs! You can still see the marks!” He rubbed both wrists, vigorously. It seemed to help.

“Thank God, Carl! So happy for you. Congratulations! But what happened?!”

“I had a good public defender. He did a great job. He convinced the judge. The judge even eased a couple of the probation rules for me! Am I glad to be out! Boy oh boy!”

I’ve seen him a couple of times since. He knew I wanted to write a story and publish it as a blog post. I had to explain about blogging. He’s even more eager now.

“People gotta know! Use my name, John. Tell them about me and how I’ve been treated all these long awful years! How it’s ruined my life!”

“Yes. Yes. That’s what I’ll do. But I won’t use your name, Carl. I’ll disguise you. If I used your name, believe me, you might get very upset about the way some people react. This is a small place. I’ll do it my way. I insist!”

And that’s how we stand.

Here are some things I’ve learned.

He got his pick-up camper out of hock. But it cost him $1,000. And he still has $3,000 to pay. No idea how he’ll raise the dough.

He can’t drive it. His license has lapsed. He didn’t have the money to renew it. So it’s parked in some quiet corner. He uses it as his little house.

And his bike is missing. Got to buy a cheapie. Meanwhile, he’s riding the local bus here and there.

Still has to meet his probation officer every single month. Must not miss! But the public defender got the judge to loosen up on a few things.  But not enough.

His old mother lives in a neighboring town. He’d like to go visit her. But he can’t. He’d be too close to a school. Prohibited!

The main bus stop here is right at the little park on Morro Bay Boulevard, the main drag. But he can’t step on that park. Maybe kids there. Prohibited!

There are more than a dozen places in this small city he can’t go near. All prohibited!

Who can live like that? In a way, he’s living in a jail of a different kind. No steel bars. But the prohibitions are steel bars.

And local police know about him. If they caught him straying, they’d cuff him in a minute, book him, and give  him a one-way ride to the jail again.

Anyway, Carl had only a couple of bucks in his pocket. I lent him $95. What I had on me. “Thank you, John, buddy! You’ll get it back!”

It was cold out. I wondered where he’d sleep. He didn’t know. He said he’d figure something out. A man hitting 70.

I went to that little church with him again. I gave him a ride there, then drove him back. We did the service. Then the buffet. People were very nice to him. If they knew, they didn’t let on.  I was impressed.

I asked him why he didn’t let the garage that had impounded his pickup camper keep it, and thereby spare himself the $3,00 he was still obligated to pay. No, no. that camper is his little home, sweet home.

“I’ve been a freelance house painter all these years, John. A damn good one.  You know, my bread and butter work. But I’m also an artist. I like to paint nice pictures. I have a lot of paintings. They’re in my truck.”

Well, I’ve been thinking about Carl a lot. He did a stupid thing nearly 50 years ago. He admits it. He paid the price, and what a price, and he’s still paying it. And I remember his agonized protest:

“But I ain’t a criminal, John. No way! I got friends. They know I’m a good guy!”

Sure. But sadly Carl has not been 100 percent clean. He’s served time more than once, for this petty crime, then that one. He’s invited some of his suffering. As I said, the details are hard to pin down.

I do admit I’ve had a doubt or two. Who wouldn’t? Maybe I’m being conned by him. Maybe there’s a lot of dirt he’s not letting me see. But deep down I don’t think so.

For sure the biggie has been that encounter with the pretty teen-ager long, long ago.

And I’m thinking, there are registered sex offenders…and registered sex offenders. Men, sure, but women sex offenders also. Some who are much worse offenders than others.

Shouldn’t there be a sliding scale of some kind?  A stiff sentence for someone with a whole string of offenses …maybe against little children as well… true rapists, true sadists, violent and vengeful, incorrigible, a proven menace to society.

But should a youth of 20 or so, for a single offense, with a teen-age girl who seemed to want it, be branded with that for decades on end?  Someone who committed no true rape. Did not threaten or torture.  Did not do it a second time, or so I assume.

Who may be going to sleep at night in his old age worrying that that sex crime might be the headline event in his obituary one of these days?

Is that right? Can’t there be some way for someone so branded to be truly contrite, to finally shake that off … the awful label of Registered Sex Offender?! All in order to be a good and productive and reputable citizen again?

Hey, that’s how the people in his little church see Carl. Why can’t all of Morro Bay get to see him this way?

I’m no expert. But why is it that some expert hasn’t sounded off about this?

Do please tell me if you know of some true expert who has sounded off. Please.

Carl must soldier on with his enormous and unrelenting burden. It’s not like a backpack you can take off at the end of the day. There’s no let-up.  But I hope his jail days are finally over. For good. Pray God.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

$8,097 for just six hours in the hospital. Wow!

The Urgent Care Center that David rushed me to.  Monique pulled in a few minutes later. That became the first step of that long and $$$$ night.By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – Yes. Unbelievable!

I had been waiting for the statement from French Hospital for some time. I had been a patient a few weeks earlier. Finally I got the statement. Looked right away at the bottom line. More than $8,000! Wow!  And I hadn’t even been an inpatient. Just an outpatient. A whopping mistake for sure! Must be somebody else’s statement.

Here’s the whole story. First, there’s nothing French about the hospital. It’s named for a person by that name. A lot of people get confused.

Right away I called my daughter Monique to tell her and her husband how much. David answered. She also picked up. They were the ones who rushed me to French. Had been there every minute of that.

“Well, I just got the bill. Take a guess how much. Make it high!”

“Three thousand,” David said. “Maybe three-five.”

“No, no. Eight thousand ninety seven dollars! Would you believe?!”

David whistled. Monique said, “Well, medical care IS expensive.”

“Sure, we all know that. There are complaints all the time.  But this is outrageous!”

“Yes, it is,” David said. Monique agreed. Who wouldn’t?

Well, let me tell you exactly what happened to me that night. Then put yourself in my shoes..

First, things you should know about me. I live alone. I am in my 90th year. Some of you know that but maybe you don’t. I believe I’m considered a fair and reasonable person, not given to snap judgements or blowing my top.

Now specifics about what I went through that day. It was July 17, about 4 p.m. and I was in bed. Highly unusual. I was feeling awful. My dentist had yanked a tooth two days before. Maybe that was part of it. Anyway I was miserable. Dizzy, nauseous, exhausted. So lousy that I called Monique. David picked up. He said she was at work. I told him my bad news. He got the picture right away.

“I’ll be right over, John!  I’ll make a quick call to Monique and let her know.”

They live less than 10 minutes away. He rushed over. Came right to my bedroom. Saw I was darn miserable.

“John, we’d better go to Urgent Care!”

I had been thinking the same thing. I nodded. “Yeah, David. That’s a good idea.”

The Morro Bay Urgent Care Center is three minutes away. It’s an independent, stand-alone operation. No hospital here. The hospital is in San Luis Obispo, the big city a few miles south.

David  helped me dress. First, I made sure to put my hearing aid in my left ear. My right ear is dead. Zero. He eased me into their car. Helped me up the steps into the office. It was about 4:30.

The receptionist welcomed me. Gave me a form.  A very long form. Which I filled out. Monique came rushing in. “What’s wrong, Dad?” I filled her in. “Probably a minor thing,” I told her.

An R.N. appeared. “What’s the problem, sir?” I explained. David added info of his own. Monique gave other details about me. The R.N. walked me into an exam cubicle. Looked me over. Took my temp, my blood pressure. Asked me for a pee sample, did other things.

“The P.A. will be right in,” she said. P.A. meaning Physician’s Assistant. No M.D. here.

The P.A. was a he.  In his 40’s.  Jeff was his name, I believe. Relaxed. Pleasant. Went right to work.  More questions. Did an EKG. Other tests. Finally he said, “You might have had an MI, sir.  I want you to go to the hospital.”

“An MI? That’s a heart problem, isn’t it?

“From what I can tell, yes, you may be having a heart attack.”

“Can’t be!”

“Maybe so. But we’ve got to make sure. Call 911 please.”

‘”Why 911?”

“The Fire Department will come right over. They’ll take you in their ambulance.”

“I don’t need an ambulance. My daughter and her husband will take me. Gosh, it’s only 15 miles. They’ll get me there as fast as any ambulance.”

“They’ll have a paramedic on board!  You might need a paramedic’s attention.”

“Let me think about that a bit.”

“Well, okay. If you insist. My notes will say I recommended an ambulance.”

Now I was getting even more antsy. Was I that sick?!  Monique and David weren’t smiling, I noticed.

The P.A. didn’t wait for me. He went ahead and called 911. Connected with the Fire Department. It’s only a few minutes away.

The firefighters arrived fast. They’re all trained as paramedics, it seems. These days I’ve heard firefighters respond to more medical emergencies than fires.

One, the leader, it was obvious , checked me.  A bit like the P.A. Was quite thorough. Even did an EKG. My second. Told me they’d take me to the hospital ER. Their ambulance was at the door.

The crew had brought in a stretcher for me. “Let’s go,” hc said.

“But a quick question, please. How much will this cost?”

“About $2,200. Don’t worry. Your insurance will probably cover it.”

“Thank you. Thank you very much. But I’m going to say no.  My son-in-law here is parked right outside. They’ll get me to French in no time.”

He stared at me. “Okay, if that’s what you want.”  I could see they don’t get turned down often. They began packing up. “Good luck, sir,” he said.

Monique and David gave me a hand. Got me into their car. And off we went.

I thanked the Urgent Care staff. They had done an excellent job. Glad we have it in Morro Bay. I’d spread the word about that.

We got right to the door of the E.R. in just 25 minutes. Even with two red lights. Monique rushed in to explain. Came back with an attendant. He was pushing a wheelchair. Helped me get seated. It was about 6 p.m.

At my age I’m familiar with hospitals and emergency rooms, believe me.

As expected, lengthy preliminaries. A long form to fill out.  Name and all that. My health insurance–Medicare and Blue Shield. Next of kin. My primary care physician. On and on. Documents to sign. For sure they certainly didn’t think I was in dire straits.

Finally I got wheeled down the hall and into an examination room. Monique and David had to stay behind.  An R.N. introduced herself. More questions.  Then the process got serious.  Scans. Blood draws. Hooked me up to an IV. Did this and that.

A doctor came in and introduced himself. “I’m Doctor Malcolm,” he told me pleasantly. I’ve changed his name. He was relaxed. I relaxed a bit. In fact I was feeling better.

I asked if Monique and David could join us and he said sure. Greeted them nicely. I answered his questions and Monique added a lot of info. She asked questions of her own and he answered. He didn’t act rushed and I liked that.

“Well, we’ll get right to work,” he said. Added he’d be back later, after he got all the test results and evaluated them.

As we know, everything in medicine is a specialty today. Everything. He wasn’t just an M.D. He was a board-certified emergency room physician. He was in his 50’s, I’d say. The perfect age, in my opinion.  Old enough to be thoroughly experienced. Young enough to still be keeping up with medical developments. I felt good about him.

Some of the tests involved big machines.

I was alone in the beginning. Then Monique and David came and sat with me. I rested and relaxed a bit and dosed and they stayed with me through all that.

Dr. Malcolm came back very late, close to midnight. In fact, midnight came. Monique and David were still with me. I asked if they could listen in.

“Sure. Absolutely.” And gave them a smile. A friendly fellow Dr. Malcolm.

He looked at me. “You’re going to be all right, sir. But you have two problems.” I held my breath.

The first was dehydration. That was certain. The second was tentative. Possible angina.

I could accept the first. The second, no. Angina hurts. I didn’t feel any chest pain. Ever.  Even when I rode my trike hard, which was every afternoon. I told him that. He nodded. “That’s good.”

“But we have to make certain. I want you to see Dr. Schingler soon. I am sending him all my findings.  And I want you to see a cardiologist. To definitely do that!”

Dr. Schingler (true name) is my primary care physician. Knows me well. I like him. We have a nice relationship. But the cardiologist? He gave me her contact info. Yes, a lady. No problem with that though I doubted strongly I had a need. But I said yes, I’d go see her. I wanted to be cooperative.

Monique and David had been listening to all this. Monique had asked questions of her own. David added input. Dr. Malcolm was patient and pleasant. I liked him.

And I had been greatly impressed by all the technology I’d just been through. I saw them doing routine things but with ways and equipment all new to me. Ultra-technology, that’s what I thought it was. Fantastic technology. And I told him so. He  nodded and smiled.

There was one other thing. Very interesting. Dr. Malcolm had trained back in Massachusetts, in fact, in Worcester. The second largest city in New England.  And talk about an interesting coincidence. Just at that time when he was training, I was an editor at the Worcester Telegram-Gazette. The T&G was the big morning and afternoon and Sunday newspaper that served that whole area. We got chatting about all that.

And there was a wonderful store back then, sold all kinds of stuff, unique, enormously popular, people shopped there from all around. It was called Spag’s.  Spag was the owner. He loved spaghetti! People loved Spag and his store. I was a regular there.

Dr. Malcolm smiled. “I remember!” he said, nodding. “Yes, Spag’s!”

But getting back to all that technology, I had an important point to make. “Yes, it’s all very, very impressive, this high-tech stuff, Doctor. Except one thing, There’s still one thing here that’s still old-fashioned. Very old-fashioned.”

He stared at me. He was wondering if he had heard right. “And what’s that?”

“It’s this,” I said, and pointed to the johnny I was wearing. The johnny  that I had been told to change into when things got serious.

“Doctor,” I said, “this johnny hasn’t changed one bit. One bit in more than 50 years!  Oh, maybe the cloth is better.  But it’s really the same, same  old johnny. It really is.?

If, dear reader, that word is not familiar to you, “johnny” is what it’s called back where I come from. I’ve found in other parts of the country they just call it a hospital gown.

Well, way back when I went to a hospital when I was just 20 or 21, I was given a johnny to put on.  I’ve had to go to hospitals many times over the years. Same old johnny every time. Unchanged.

Dr. Malcolm was all ears.

And I told him when I was in a hospital back in Connecticut, about four years ago,  I had had to put on a johnny again. Looked at it and thought, I can do better than this!

Did some serious thinking. Designed a new johnny. Had a seamstress make one,  then another, then a third, each better. And finally came up with my current johnny, which I must tell you still closes at the back.

That’s the essential feature that has made the johnny so popular these many years. But mine is improved also in several important ways.

For one thing, you no longer have to walk around with one hand in back to keep your fanny covered!

In actual fact, my design’s important innovations  became such a dramatic breakthrough that I applied to the U.S. Department of Patents and Trademarks to protect the name I had given it. Which is MedGown. Spelled just like that.

And told Dr. Malcolm  I’ve been working to promote the MedGown. Far better for patients. Far better for doctors and nurses also.

He had been listening intently. Maybe he thought the old design was just fine. Maybe because he never had to wear one. Truth is, health professionals who have seen it have complimented me. Overdue!

But no time to tell you about all that here. If you’re interested, let me know and I’ll tell you the whole story.

Anyway, all this chatting had taken a lot of minutes. It was close to 1 a.m. when we left. In parting, Dr. Malcolm wished me good luck. A nice fellow. I was pleased to thank him for his concern and expertise, which were very real.

Monique and David took me home.  This ride back was a lot more relaxed though David is never a slowpoke. They helped to get me ready for bed, then said goodnight. I was feeling a lot better. They had come through marvelously for me again. Lucky me.

In the morning I called them, as usual. They both picked up. “I’m feeling much, much better,” I told them. “But you know, maybe there was no need for such a big to-do.”

“No. No!” Monique said. “That was the right thing to do.” David said the same thing and added. “Rest today. John. Rest!”

“I will!” And I meant it.

I did follow through and saw Dr. Schingler. He had read Dr. Malcolm’s report.  He checked me over. He told me,”You’re going to be okay, John. But do go see that cardiologist.”

I did see her. I’ll call her Dr. Robbins. I did go see her for a treadmill stress assessment. I had gone through one some years ago.  Knew what if was all about.

When she saw me for the first time, which was on the morning for the test, she paused. Said they could get the same results in a different way, without putting me on the treadmill. I could see she thought I wasn’t up to the treadmill.

But I said, “I’d really prefer to do the treadmill, Doctor.” She said okay. She wasn’t enthusiastic.

Well, I did remarkably well on the treadmill. I could see she was impressed.  My daily workout on my trike has been fun and good in several ways. That was the main reason I impressed her. When I got the results, it confirmed what I thought. No heart problems.

Well, as I said, it took days, but finally my statement from French Hospital arrived.  And  you know I was stunned by the huge $$$ bottom line.

I called French immediately. Asked for “Billing.” Finally reached the right person. She listened.

I mentioned I had been in Emergency about six hours. And much of that had been waiting for this and waiting for that.

“You were here two days, sir!”

“No, no. Just six hours or so.”

She insisted. “The record shows you were here two days!”

“No, no, no. Just six hours or so!”

I saw I was up against a brick wall.  Finally I said, “Please send me an itemized statement of every test, every service that I got at the hospital and was charged for. And the dates. And when can I expect that, please?”

“Certainly. We’ll be glad to do that. It will take up to 15 business days.”

“That long?”

“Yes.”

“Well, okay, I guess. Thank you.” That ended the conversation.

Well, I have it in hand. The hospital’s final breakdown:

–          Laboratory. Four tests. $162.

–          Lab / Chemistry. Six tests. $3,357.

–          Lab / Hematology. $581.

–          Dx / X-Ray / Chest. $210. (Dx – what is that?)

–          Emergency Room. $3,021.

–          Pharmacy. $108.

–          EKG. $658.

–          Grand Total: $8,097.

Now, dear reader,  please tell me. What ordinary Joe or  Jane can make any sense of all that?!

I’m especially curious about that charge of  $3,021 for the Emergency Room. That’s a biggie! I wonder what exactly, precisely. was that for, in detail?! Hard for me to imagine. Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, the statement clearly says that I was there two days, July  17 and  18. In actual fact, I was there  just that one hour on the 18th when Dr. Malcolm signed his report and we chatted about Worcester and all the technology and my MedGown. The statement acknowledges all the services did take place on the 17th.

So as I understand it, I wasn’t charged for the second day that I thought I was being charged for. Thank God.

Thank God also  that I skipped the Fire Department’s ambulance ride. You heard the more than $2,000 estimate I was given for that. Also thank God I declined Dr. Malcolm’s suggestion that I remain in the hospital for monitoring and further treatment. Imagine how the final dollar total would have ballooned!

I haven’t mentioned the Urgent Care’s bill. The fact is I did not remember paying a bill from it.  I stopped by a couple of days ago.  Was told Medicare had paid for it. And how much was that, I asked.

“Just $56.”

Had I heard right? “Yes, just $56.” In its tiny way that was as incredible as the hospital’s huge total.

And here’s what the final breakdown from French Hospital showed:

Medicare paid the big part. The exact sum is not mentioned. Blue Shield, my secondary insurance, paid the lesser part. That isn’t mentioned either. So what did I  wind up having to pay? Just $50!

So, you may be wondering,  gosh, why have I gone through this awful process of investigating and complaining? With such a small copay, hardly worth the effort.

You’ll probably think I should have dismissed the whole horrible thing and have thanked my lucky stars for my fine coverage. Right? Why bother?

Well, I feel Medicare is being shafted. And so is my secondary provider, Blue Shield. And so are we taxpayers and insurance buyers.

Well, I’m not a solitary example. There are many other folks. Thousands. With far more expensive and disturbing hospital experiences than mine. I firmly believe there’s a lot of tightening up that’s needed through the whole system, and at every step.

You agree now?

I just did a bit of math. Six hours is 360 minutes, right? And $8,097 divided by 360 minutes is $22.49  per minute.  Okay, maybe that bit of arithmetic was kind of a crazy thing to do. But I just had to satisfy my curiosity.

I feel like sending a report about all this to both the president and CEO of the hospital. And to my U.S. senators and congressman. And the director of Medicare and the director of Blue Cross. And even Dr. Malcolm. And a couple of big newspapers. That would give all of them something to think about.

But maybe those in the hospital business would just say, “This is what good care costs, Buddy!”

Truth is, one more concern is running through my mind. Were all those tests really necessary? For instance, the EKGs duplicating those by Urgent Care and the paramedics. And other expensive tests by the hospital. Really necessary? Maybe yes. Maybe not. Oh, perhaps necessary in the opinion of the doctors and others who bill for them.

Why so? For some of them — I certainly will not say all —  the juicy profit incentive may be hard to resist. My opinion.

I’ll bet every day countless Americans are stunned to receive whopping medical / hospital statements like mine. And even worse. Bitterness and cynicism and resentment are the result. Very sad.

Especially when we find out a number of other countries provide better medical care for far less money.

That’s an established fact, folks.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

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