June 23, 2018

This great gadget could save my life.

By John Guy LaPlante

The one that I wear on my chest. As you see in the photo, it’s just a small, silvery steel box hanging on a black cord.

No religious significance. No political significance. Nothing like that. So what the heck can it be? I know people wonder.

I wear it all day long. Hope I never have to push that little button for real.

They are too polite to ask.

 I would love to be asked. My mystery gadget is so important to me, and so potentially important to you, that I would love to explain. In fact, to a lot of people. This is why I’m blogging about it. 

Just recently I was speaking to Brady Lock at our Senior Center. ”Brady, ”I said, ”Possible for me to speak about this thing at our upcoming dinner meeting?”

“Sure, John. Some of our seniors could really use one of those things.”

He’s right.  So what is it?

It’s an emergency medical alert. A Great Call Lively. The Lively is marketed by Great Call, which also markets a popular flip phone called the Jitterbug. Designed for seniors. Easy to use  Inexpensive. Good, but not good enough for me. 

The Lively is a leading medical alert. There are dozens of makes. You’ve probably seen their ads.

From my research I think the Lively is the best. I want to assure you that I have no financial interest in the company. I’m speaking about it objectively.

Now and then, when I see somebody I know who I think can use a Lively, I talk about it. I even give a demonstration, which is always quite dramatic.

First I explain why I have a Lively, and why I wear it every day from the minute I get up to the minute I go to bed.

Of course I have to get up during the night to go to the bathroom. I make sure to take it with me. Just in case.

Why? Well, I am very old. I live alone. My body balance is deteriorating. I walk with a walking stick. I might fall. Might not be able to get up. Might need help desperately.  Maybe during the day. Or at night. 

 What to do? I would press that button in the center of the Lively. And in a few seconds a voice would come on. Might be a man. Might be a woman. Would tell me their name and then ask, “Are you reporting an emergency?”

And I would say, ”No. I am not. I am just showing a friend what the Lively is all about. How it works.”

And he or she would say, ”Fine! Wonderful! We appreciate that. Thank you.”

But if it were a genuine emergency, they would ask what’s wrong and if I could, I would explain, and they would spring into action. Help would be assured. I will explain how they would help in just a minute.

But if I were in a bad fix and could not explain, still they would snap to it. Here’s how.

When I signed up for the Lively, they asked me for a lot of info. My name, address, phone number, email address, age, medical problems, the name of my primary care doctor, other data. And most important, the names and contact information of the people they would need to alert in an emergency.

In my case, my loving daughter Monique and her hubby David, who live just 15 minutes away. Both know they are my emergency contacts. They insisted on being recorded as such.

Great Call calls all that my “profile.” Very important.

If I had a stroke, say, and could not explain what was wrong, then they would contact Monique or David or do whatever else they deemed appropriate.

But maybe it had not happened to me at home. Maybe outside somewhere. Say I was driving my car, was 40 miles from home, felt dizzy, and pulled over and pressed the silver button. The responder would come on and take whatever steps would work best.

If I could not explain where I was, or just mumbled, my Lively has GPS — global positioning technology — which could locate quite accurately where I was, and help would be dispatched.

Of course, the Lively works only where cellular service is available and that is in populated areas. If I were on a dirt road deep in a canyon between mountains in New Mexico, maybe not.

I could use it in many ways. If I messed up my meds. Or wanted to talk to my doctor asap. Misplaced my smart phone and wanted to contact Monique.  You name it. The responder would try to help.

Great Call says it’s waterproof. You could wear it in the shower. I haven’t tried that. I keep it within reach.

Oh, one more important detail. The Lively comes with a small electric charger. I keep it on my bedside table. Charge my Lively every night.

So how much does this service cost? You are dying to know, I’m sure. They have a few plans, one basic one, some with bells and whistles. In my case, less than the senior cup of coffee I buy at McDonald’s every afternoon.

To me, truly Great Call Lively is a smart life insurance plan. It could really save my life. And wonderful for Monique and David also. They worry less.

Sure, I’ve pushed that silver button a number of times but never for an emergency. Just to make sure it’s working properly, or to give a demo.

As I said, there are numerous other brands. They all advertise. You may have seen their ads. I’m sure they all do the job. But as in so many things —  TV’s, washing machines, cell phones, cars, mattresses —  some are better than others.

If you are interested for yourself or somebody else, just contact Great Call at greatcall.com or call +1-866-300-0041.

I like my Lively. Have confidence in the company. Have no intention to switch. Hope that I never have to push that button for real.

I look forward to speaking about all this at the Senior Center. I plan to actually push the button and call Great Call. Yes, folks always find that dramatic.

Maybe that will save the life of one of them someday.


I look forward to your comments. Read them all. Enjoy it even more when you include a bit of news about yourself. Have a great day.



I read the fine print, strange me

By John Guy LaPlante

It seems a lot of people don’t. Do you? Well, I do. Get a lot of it. Enjoy it.

What do I mean by the fine print? The small, small words printed on so many things that we buy. Prepared foods.

Of course it had fine print and I found it.

Medications. Publications. Products.  Name it and it probably has fine print.

Now you may be wondering, why do they make it so small?

Good question. I’m speculating. Maybe they don’t want us to read it. Maybe a law compels them to print whatever it says. Maybe for our protection and safety. Maybe for their protection. Maybe for whatever reason.

But whatever the fine print says, often, as I said, I learn something. I am so darn curious. It seems strange maybe, but often I do have fun reading it.

Let me give you an example.

I just bought a package of razor blades at Dollar Tree. As you know, everything they sell is $1. Seems so crazy. I don’t know of any other retailer that does that. Do you? Dollar Tree was born doing that some 30 years ago. When they had only one store.

Now there are 14,835 Dollar Trees in the USA and Canada. And 176,000 employees. By selling just $1 stuff, they will rake in more than $22 billion this year. They are a Fortune 150 company. Imagine that!

Well, I found they offered six different kinds of razor blades. Some for men and some for women. Some with two blades per razor, some with four, some with six. Other features also. Of course, some packages contained more razors than others.

I believe Dollar Tree sells good stuff. No junk. It’s a basic policy for them. If you don’t like it, bring it back for a refund.

Our Dollar Tree in Morro Bay is small, as most are, but it does big business.

And they honor that guarantee. No wonder their stores are so popular.

I selected a package that said, “Ten Count / Unites.” Unites is the French word for saying the same thing as “count.” Must mention there was an acute accent on the “e” in Unites, but sorry, on my computer I don’t know how to insert an acute accent.

So yes, 10 razor blades—just 10 cents apiece. I use one once, then chuck it. Hey, sometimes I get to use one twice. Whoopee!

The brand was called Assured. The plastic bag was attractive. There was a “window” in it so you could actually see the working end of a razor. They were made of blue plastic. I noticed the women’s model was pink plastic.

The heading on the package said Twin / Double. Double because in French that means “twin.”

In smaller type, it said “Lubricating Strip.” You know, it makes the razor glide over your skin.

Then “Stainless Steel Blades.”

What’s this with the French? Why French? Simple. Remember, Dollar Tree has stores in Canada. Many French-speaking people up there. In fact, Canada has two official languages, French and English. That’s why Dollar Tree uses French and English on all its packaging. It has to.

Now for the fine print. After all, that’s why I’m writing this. I found 12 lines of it. The print was smaller even than the small print newspapers routinely use.

First, the name of the importer of these razor blades, Greenbrier International Inc. and its offices, one in Chesapeake, Washington, and the other in Barnaby, British Columbia. So truly it’s an international company.

The bottom line: They would be sold in the U.S. and Canada. 

The next fine print was the most interesting of all. Those tiny twin blades were made in South Korea! But the razors were assembled and packaged in Mexico!

From that I jumped to the conclusion that if packaged in Mexico, then the plastic bags are manufactured in Mexico.  But maybe not.  Maybe from the U.S. or China or Timbuktu!

I also wondered, why aren’t these razors also sold in Mexico?  After all, there are millions of Mexicans and they’re right next door to us. Maybe they are sold down there.  Mexico’s only language is Spanish, so I would think all the words on the package would be in Spanish.

Getting back to Greenbrier International, maybe it also imports a lot of other merchandise for Dollar Tree.  After all, Dollar Tree stocks its stores with hundreds of items. Many from China, as we know.  Some from Bangladesh and India and many other countries. I’ve read that Dollar Tree buyers scour the world for items that it can sell for just $1.

Which raises an interesting point. Yes, the company was started some 30 years ago. From its very start, as I’ve mentioned, every item was just $1.  In 30 years there’s been a lot of inflation. How has the company coped?

Several ways. In some cases, they’ve found manufacturers in cheaper countries. In many cases, by selling fewer items—razor blades, let’s say—per package, or ounces per bottle or container.

In some cases, by dropping some items from their inventory. For instance, I’ve noticed they now sell far fewer kinds of tools than years ago. In fact, the tool department is smaller.

Now about Greenbrier International. Maybe it’s an affiliate of Dollar Tree, or a division of it. Or maybe Greenbrier is a company unto itself and also imports stuff for other retailers, maybe even giants like Walmart and Amazon.

Another interesting question to me is, how many packages of razor blades does it sell per year? Is it a million? Could be. That would mean taking in$1,000,000! So how many men and women shave with Dollar Tree razors regularly? I’ll bet Dollar Tree knows.

So, the next question is, how many pennies of profit will Dollar Tree make on each package of razors? Will it be the same amount on my package of 10 as on the package of six? Four? Two? Maybe yes, maybe no.

How much will Greenbrier make? How much will the South Korean manufacturer of the steel blades?  The Mexican company doing the assembling and packaging?  How much will the companies transporting all those raw materials to Mexico and then the finished razors to the U.S. and Mexico? And finally getting them to those thousands of stores?

One other thought. Dollar Tree is very savvy. Very sophisticated. I wouldn’t be surprised if it stocks some items with zero profit. Zilch. Maybe even at a loss — as “loss leaders,” so called. Because Dollar Tree believes the terrific PR of it—convincing us it indeed sells real bargains — is all-important. It’s our believing that which makes its stores so popular.

Here in my little Morro Bay, Calif., I believe that Dollar Tree is the most popular store in town after our three food supermarkets. I have no solid data but I’ll bet I’m right. Maybe even more popular than one or two of our food supermarkets.

Dollar Tree in many ways is remarkable. By the variety of the products it offers, by the huge restocking that it does routinely to maximize sales  for Mothers’ Day, The Fourth of July, the Graduation Season, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Christmas, New Year’s, and so on. Other retailers do that, sure, but not so intensely.

Oh, this may surprise you. Dollar Tree also sells online. Yes, to individuals, groups, anybody who wants to buy in larger quantities. For instance, a school teacher for her classroom.  Maybe you love their nugget pretzels but your store often runs out. Well, stock up online.

As you can see, Dollar Tree’s story is an incredibly interesting one. To me, a fascinating one.

Now the final question. As inflation continues, as it’s expected to, how long can Dollar Tree maintain that crucial $1 strategy? The day will come when Dollar Tree will have to re-brand itself. To Double Dollar Tree or something like that. Or surely it will go out of business. That would be bad news for fans aplenty.

That’s happened to other famous chain stores. Montgomery Ward died. It seems Sears—for a long time famous as Sears Roebuck–is dying now. Same story with A & P supermarkets. And numerous other popular brands.

Now about reading fine print once again. If you, too, read it, great! If not, maybe you’ll give it a closer look now.

To me Dollar Tree’s story is all part of the great saga — the great success — of capitalism and free enterprise. How it serves both sellers and buyers. Both sides. Which is one of the things that make us so fortunate to be living in the good old USA.

And notice, please, I didn’t write that in fine print. I put it in bold. It deserves to be put in bold.

~ ~ ~ ~

As always, I look forward to your comments. I read them all. Enjoy them, whatever you say. Especially when you also tell me a little about yourself.





I just finished my toughest test ever!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos

Morro Bay, CA – It was California’s written driving test.  Pass it and I would continue to drive. Fail it and I would be grounded. Imagine! Well, I did pass it but by just a hair.

In fact, this was a retake. I flunked it the first time.  So humiliating! What anxiety that created!

The tutorial. Notice how it’s dog-eared. That says a lot.

Now consider the following. With 20 years of formal education behind me – kindergarten through graduate school – I’ve never, never passed a test with less distinction.

I knew sure some people taking it had just a GED – you know, a general equivalency diploma because they never graduated from high school — and  were passing it on their first try. Yes, embarrassing!

As most of you know, I now live here in California. California says I must now have my Hyundai Sonata with Connecticut plates registered in California. Well, I did that.  I also must have a California driver’s license, this though my Connecticut license was good till 2023. No ifs, and, or buts.

Registering my car here turned out to be a snap.  I had to buy California insurance coverage. That was a must. I got several quotes. An AAA policy turned out to be the best deal.  And through AAA I could also arrange to register my car at their local office instead of  at a CA Department of Motor Vehicles office.  That cut through what I was sure would be much red tape.

Unseasoned drivers here must pass a behind-the-wheel test with a CA DMV examiner aboard. But as a licensed driver, I would be spared that. All I had to do was pass the written test. No problem. Or so I thought.

After all, I have been driving for more than 70 years. I just did a quick calculation and have figured I’ve driven more than a million miles.  Maybe two! Have lost track of my many cars. I have crisscrossed the USA time and again. Have driven through five provinces of Canada. Some 15,000 miles through Mexico. In half a dozen countries in Europe.

I taught my wife-to-be to drive. Also my three children. I’m proud of their skill.

In all those years behind the wheel, I’ve had a few accidents. Of course. Remember, some of that mileage was through snowy and ice-slick winters. A lot on tough roads and in tricky situations. But never an injury to myself or another. And never have I been arrested. Nobody manages that without a lot of good luck. Still, I do have hefty bragging rights.

Not that I took the challenge of the written test lightly. The tutorial for it covers 114 pages. I went through the tutorial page by page. Made notes of tricky items. Plus the DMV offers a number of online practice tests.  I took every one.

Then off I went for my appointment to the local office in San Luis Obispo, the county seat 15 miles south. And brought all the requested paperwork. It included my birth certificate, proof of my residence here, my current driver’s license and a few additional docs just in case. And my credit card in my wallet.

It was my first visit to a CA DMV office. It’s a whole building. The parking lot was full. I have a handicap placard. But all

Every possible situation gets explained. The wording of  some questions is a problem.

the handicap spaces were occupied. The only space I finally found seemed 75 yards away. That’s a challenging walk for me now, even with my walking stick.

I made it inside. It was jammed. More than a hundred customers, I estimated.  Long lines. Nearly every seat in the waiting area was taken. This will take forever!

Not so. I was lucky. Thanks to my obvious old age, I got red-carpet treatment. All senior citizens get it, it seems. Well, decrepit ones. I was directed to a special desk just for us.

A pleasant young woman got me through all the formalities. Took a thumb print of me – not the finger-printing of all 10 fingers that I went through when applying for my Peace Corps service—on an electronic gizmo. Just my right thumb. And in a minute she had my whole file up on her computer. She scrutinized all the documents I had brought. No problem. That was a relief.

She made me take a vision test. I had my glasses on. I passed it. My license would say I must wear glasses

She asked if I wanted to be registered as an organ donor. I said yes. My license would show that also.

What I was applying for was a Class C license. That’s the usual license for most drivers. There’s also a Commercial License and a Motorcycle License and several others.

Now for the test. An assistant ushered me to a computer and showed me how I could warm up on it with a few sample questions.

There would be 36 questions. I had to get 30 right. Every question would have three possible answers. All based on info in the tutorial. No nasty trick questions. Only one of the three would be correct. If I answered one wrong, the computer would announce “Error!”

I was uptight. Definitely, absolutely I wanted to continue driving.  Giving it up was unthinkable. But I felt I was ready for the test. I started it in earnest.

I got questions one, two, three, and four right.  This will be a snap. After my fifth question, “Error!” What?! I thought I had answered it right.

I continued. I was doing fine again.

But after my ninth, ”Error!” What?!

I began reading every question twice, three times. In all my schooling I had graduated from every phase with honors. I wanted to “graduate” from this with honors.

Well, on I went.  Then ”Error!”  And another.  My confidence soured. I wound up with seven! Awful.

The whole test had taken just 15 minutes or so.

But not all was lost. The computer reset again. I found out I could take the test again. Right now.

I started again. Proceeded with the greatest care. I’m embarrassed to tell you so, but I failed this one also. I was shocked. Appalled.

At the desk I was told, no problem.  “Just come back and take it again.” I drove home in a very dark mood.  I decided I’d do the re-take in three weeks.  I had other important things to do.  And I wanted to ace the test the next time.

So of course I went through that tutorial with a fine tooth comb. And the online sample tests also.

But suppose I fail again!  That thought kept coming up. Suppose I fail again!

Even in bed at night. Sppose I fail again!  What will I do then?

I consoled myself. It won’t be the end of the world. Heck, no!

After all, I still had my completely valid Connecticut license.

My daughter Monique and her hubby David at times took me along on their shopping trips. They’d be glad to expand that, I was sure.

I could keep my car and find somebody to drive me, for pay.

Truth its, these days I did all my routine “driving” on my trike. I lived close to downtown. Used my trike every day – pedaling to the library, the post office, the supermarket, the coffee shop, on and on. Pedaling was great exercise. In fact, the only real exercise I got now.  And great fun. Sometimes I’d go a whole week without starting my car!

Some folks saw me so often on it that they knew me just as “that old, old guy with the three-wheel bike.”

And a friend came up with a terrific suggestion. “John, use Uber” I’m sure you’re familiar with that—the taxi service provided by ordinary men and women using their own cars. You summon one with an app on your computer or cell phone.

He said to me, “Think about it, John! You could sell your car and pocket the money you get for it. Cancel your insurance. Give up the registration. No more annual tax. No more gasoline to buy. No more routine maintenance expenses.  No more car washes.  No more worrying about being stopped by a cop. Or having an accident. Hey, think of all the money you’ll save!”

A brilliant idea, I thought.  Kept it in mind. Finally decided I wanted to keep on driving. A driver’s license spells independence. Freedom. And I felt my honor was at stake.  All I have to do is pass that damn test!

I got back to work on that tutorial and the sample tests.

One of the problems, I was convinced,  was that the testing has little relevance to everyday driving.  Many drivers – most, I dare say –go on and drive with little knowledge of and little respect for the fine points made by California DMV.


Do we really have to know that anyone over 21 found with an alcohol level of more than 0.08 percent is in big trouble?  And under 21 with a level of more than 0.01 ditto? Of course not. All we have to know is that a suspicious police officer can insist we take a sobriety test. And if we fail it, trouble indeed!

The whole point being that it’s risky to drive and drink, and much smarter not to drink.

Do we really have to know that the only vehicle that must stop at a railroad crossing is a truck carrying hazardous materials?  All others must slow down, look left and right, and never attempt to cross if they see something on the tracks or just beyond it preventing complete passing.

That if we abandon an animal on a highway we can be fined up to $100? Even also be sent to jail for up to one year? No. All we have to know is that doing that is illegal and we will be be fined severely.

Do we really have to know that we must pass a bicyclist in a bicycle lane by at least 36 inches, and not the other margins mentioned as a possible answer. No. Just that we make sure to pass safely.

That the most dangerous time to use our brakes is not during a routine rain, but when a rain just starts? No. What’s important is that we must slow down and use extra caution.

I studied hard. Returned for the re-take. Felt I knew the material cold.

Surprise, the clerk asked me if I wanted to take the paper test or the computer test. I had thought every test was on the computer. “Which is easier?” I asked. “Paper,” she said.  “I’ll do paper,” I told her.

She sat me down at a table and handed me the test.  Same format. A question and then three choices. Check the proper one.  But no “Error!” warning now.  I was confident of my answers except in three  questions. I re-read them.  Still I was unsure. Just because of their working. They were ambiguous. Whoever  composed them never got an A in logic or sentence structure.

Bottom line: I got four wrong, so I passed! But I was disgruntled. I went to a clerk and insisted on seeing my mistakes. Upon examining them I concluded I could make a righteous complaint that three of my answers were valid.

So I did ask to speak to a supervisor about those questions but was told , “Impossible, sir! You have to get in touch with Sacramento.” Sacramento, as you know, is the state capital. She gave me a form to fill out and mail. I took it home.

Maybe I will. I have sound objections. I would like to argue my answers were correct. But maybe I won’t. It probably wouldn’t change a thing.

Finally I asked to take my graded test home.  I already I knew I would blog about this experience.  I could include the exact wording of those troublesome questions and my answers for you to decide for yourself.

“Sorry, not allowed,” she told me.  Of course! Because I could have made a bundle selling them to people worried about passing the test!

And oh, before I was handed my new license, I was asked for my Connecticut license, yes, with still four full years left on it. The clerk punched three holes in it.

Remember how I thought I could continue driving with that license if I had failed the California test? Not so. That would have been illegal. Well, I’m saving it as a souvenir.

Then a nice surprise. I had my credit card out to pay for my retake. “No, no,” she said. “You paid the last time.” I smiled – my only smile during the entire miserable experience.

I was joyous on my ride home.  Joyous – that’s the right word. But my “errors” rankled.

And extremely careful now how I drove. The experience did teach me the importance of safe driving. I’m serious. I drove more carefully now. Strove to drive exactly as specified in the tutorial.

The fact is, I did not have a right to drive. I had a permit to drive! I had forgotten that.

At the same time I was amused by how many drivers on the road with me were routinely and blissfully ignoring the legalities they had to know to get their license.  Scandalous!

DMV officials must go nuts observing this when they are out driving routinely.

Yes, I lost a lot of sleep over that test.  But given my age it is sure I’ll never face another. Ever. A nice thought. Comforting. But not so nice in another way.


As always, I look forward to your comments. Thank you in advance.







“Have you had narrow escapes, close calls?” Me?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA – Yes, I have.  Several. Scary close calls.

This came up when I spotted a poster on a bulletin board.  Glance at the photo.

Interesting, don’t you think?

That outfit called The Reboot was announcing its upcoming meeting. A strange name, The Reboot,  but that wasn’t explained. The Reboot is all about what it calls ““Storytelling Re-Imagined.”

The Reboot has been around for a year but this was the first I heard of it.

Its storytelling theme changes every month. For May it would be “Razor’s Edge. True stories  would be told,  without notes, of narrow escapes, close calls, flirting with disaster, taunting fate, and laughing in the face of danger!”

Anybody wanting to tell a story could send in an email saying so.

Well, definitely I’ve had narrow escapes and close calls. But I never laughed in the face of them. No, sir. Too scared!

I was fascinated. The Reboot is a club, well sort of. The storytellers – all amateurs– stand up and tell stories. Applause is all they get for it. Admission is free.  You can go once or every month.

It meets every third Friday of the month at the Top Dog Coffee Bar on Main Street from7 to 9 p.m. A friend told me they get a full house every time. “John, better get there at quarter of!

Hey, maybe the Top Dog hosts it for the PR value of it and the business it generates.

I read the poster one more time. I can do that!  I decided on the spot. I shot off an email saying to count me in.  But it turned out I was one volunteer too many. They had already filled their slate.  Well, I’ll blog about my close calls!  And here I am.

I thought and thought and settled on two close calls for you. The first I’ll tell you about is “Gwalior.” That’s the city in India where it befell me. The second is “La Carretera del Diablo,” which is deep down in an offbeat corner of Mexico.  That’s Spanish for “The Devil’s Highway.”

Gwallior is little known to us Americans but famous to Indians for its huge and historic and important fort. Lots there to look at and think about and learn from.

This was some 30 years ago. I was on my first trip to India. Two dear Indian friends here in the U.S., Sulekh and Ravi Jain, were going back for a visit. Sulekh was a PhD engineer.  How we became friends is a wonderful story but for another day. I’m pleased to say our friendship is still very much alive.

Anyway, now and then Sulekh would say, “John, one day Ravi and I will l take you to India!”  Ravi is his wife. I thought that was just well-intentioned hot air.

But one day off I flew to India with them. A whole month, as I remember it. We toured far and wide. A spectacular adventure.  At one point Sulekh and Ravi were going to be tied up for a couple of days. Sulekh suggested I take the train to Gwallior. “Fantastic!”  he said.

He arranged to have a young relative accompany me. He’d me my guide and helper. Nice fellow. I don’t recall his name. I’ll call him Suraj.

It was a train ride of four hours or so. Suraj got me to the station in good time.  It was jammed with Indians, men in turbans and women in saris. In that great throng I spotted a lone white man. About 30, tall, in dungarees and sneakers, a huge backpack on the floor by his feet. An American, I’ll bet. I walked right over.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m John. From Massachusetts. Taking the train to Gwallior with my friend here.”

Yes, he was an American. He told me he was taking the same train. Had just finished a full hitch in Peace Corps and was going home the s-l-o-w way. Loved foreign travel. Solo. I marveled at that. I had no idea that one day I too would serve in Peace Corps…and would find out that most Volunteers have a genetic streak to adventure-travel. Just as he was.

The train pulled in.  Many cars.  In one way trains in India are like trains in Europe. A long corridor runs down one side of each car. Not down the center. The cars at the front are first class — they have cabins for four…well, six skinny Indians. The cars at the rear are second class.  Just row after row of wood benches, Suraj told me.

We all got aboard. Suraj and I had a cabin. My new friend headed toward the rear.

Two big toots and we started. There would be several stops. We had the cabin to ourselves. I sat by the window, facing forward. Any others in the cabin would have been traveling backward. Suraj sat by my side. I spent every minute looking out the window. So interesting.

Oh, Ravi, bless her heart, had warned me never to drink faucet water.  Always boiled water, always!  Told me  to buy hot tea from vendors. That way it would be safe. She had given me a bottle full. No longer hot, of course. I took a sip now and then.

About half way, we made a scheduled stop. I spotted a lot of young men outside demonstrating. Wow! They were focusing on our train. Why, I had no idea. Suraj had no idea.  Lots of angry yelling, big scrawled placards, clenched fists. Awful. Scary. We were safe inside.  But some kept coming close. Very close. I saw two approach right below our window. They were trying to crawl under our car. I saw one pull out a wire he had yanked free. The other did the same thing.

Things quieted.  The demonstrators had backed off. Still the train didn’t move. Many minutes went by. Thinking of the ripped out wire, I wondered if other demonstrators had done the same thing. Have they disabled the train? Suraj said he’d go out to the platform to try to find out what this was all about. My bottle was empty now. He would buy me a refill.

I sat alone.  I was worried. How long will we be stuck here?  A long time went by. No Suraj.  Things had quieted a lot. I decided to get off, too. I wanted to check on my Peace Corps friend. Is he okay?  A lot of the demonstrators were still around. They had congregated on the platform side. No yelling now. No chanting. They stared at me, an obvious foreigner. Were muttering.  I was nervous but walked on to the end of the train. No sign of my friend. Saw a big log had been placed across the tracks! Couldn’t spot my friend.

Now 15 or 20 of them appeared and surrounded me. Were yelling something. Angry words. They glowered at me.  The leader, hefty, frowning, came right up. Stuck his face within a foot of my nose. Was yelling something. Shook a fist. His buddies were yelling something. Were making fists. Will one of these guys hit me?  Drive a knife into my side?

Suddenly an older man made his way through them. Waved them back. Spoke angrily to them. They stepped back. He took me by the arm and walked me back to my car. They followed me with their eyes.   I stepped aboard and returned to my cabin. I was so grateful to my Good Samaritan.

But no Suraj! Where the hell is he?!  I sat and waited. It was supposed to be a 10-minute stop. More than an hour had gone by.

Suddenly tumult at the back of the car. It seemed one or two of the demonstrators had gotten aboard.  I didn’t dare look out the door. Were banging on the doors as they came forward. Every door, it seemed. Are they looking for me? The white man? I bolted the door.

They were coming closer. Yelling.  Banging on every door.  They came closer. One banged on mine. I didn’t make a sound. Hate to say so but I was huddled in a corner, my arms coiled around myself. Terrified. He tried my lock. It held. He moved on.  They were still yelling and banging. Then quiet. Seemed they had gotten off. Thank God!

Finally Suraj popped in and handed me my bottle of tea. I yelled at him. “Where have you been?!” He said he had had problems. Was worried about me. Took his seat. I calmed down. Time went by.

Suddenly, with not a toot, the train started. A miracle! I thought of the youth ripping out the wire. I thought others might have been doing the same thing. Thought of the big log across the track. But what about the Peace Corps Volunteer? I never found out.

We had another stop before Gwallior. No demonstrators at this spot. But I was still worried. I told Suraj we were getting off and taking the next train back. He protested. I insisted. We had to wait a long time for a returning train. Got on. No problem. Demonstrators all gone. We made it back safe and sound.

So, I never got to see Gwallior.  A big disappointment. Later Sulekh told me the agitators were demonstrating because state universities were shutting them out. India is made up of rigid social classes. They were in a lower class. Were fed up. This demonstration was state-wide. Never found out if they got any satisfaction.

Well, that was back then. Things have improved. I did go back to India some years later on my around-the-world trip.  No Sulekh and Ravi with me this time. I crossed the whole country from Kolkata (formerly called Calcutta) to Mumbai (formerly Bombay). Nearly all of it by train.

Through Delhi the capital again, of course. Went north all the way to ancient Varanasi on the great and sacred Ganges River. No problem. Not a single close call. A great trip.

Hey, maybe my close call on my first trip would have been too long to tell about at The Reboot.

Close call No. 2 — “La Carretera del Diablo”

The Devil’s Highway. Have you heard of it?  Well, l traveled it. If you drove it, you’d recall it, too. It’s a narrow, scary, dangerous road across craggy mountains from Durango to close to Mazatlan on the Pacific. No wonder it’s known as the Devil’s Highway.

This was some 10 years later. I was on my second big solo tour through Mexico. On this one and the previous one I rolled up 15,000 miles down there during two consecutive winters. Winters are mild down there.

Again I was driving my wonderful VW microbus. Sightseeing. Meeting Mexicans well to do and poor and chatting with them in my pitiful pidgin Espagnol. Snapping pictures. And sending back reports to a paper in Connecticut, which was my home sweet home then.

The VW was my wonderful little home on wheels. I’d make and eat my meals in it. Well, most of them. Write up my day’s doings and details in my journal on the same little fold-down table I ate on. Sleep in it.  Quite comfy. Perfect for me.

I was pushing along on the narrow, cliff-hugging blacktopped highway between those two cities.  Alone on the road much of the time.

Now and then I’d pass through a town. Then the highway would become its  main street. That was blacktop, too. All the side streets seemed to be dirt.

In the evening I’d see the lights go on in the humble houses.  Just plain bare bulbs most of the time. This was not touristy Mexico. Anything but.

I’d strike up a little chat whenever I ran into a likely person and they would be as interested in me and my strange wanderings as I was in them.  My Spanish was awful but nobody complained. I thrived on it.

I came into a bigger town with a Pemex gas station. All gas stations were Pemex stations. The government ran them. No competition.  (Just recently private enterprise has been allowed.)  I checked my gas gauge. Was all set. Pushed on. Left all houses behind and found myself on the same two-lane carretera, going uphill now on the narrow, winding road.

The sun was getting low. By one bad curve I spotted four small white crosses. Four persons had been killed in a vehicle accident here. I was familiar with such crosses. They are common on highways in Catholic countries.

Just beyond the crosses, on the same side, I saw a black slope coming down toward the highway. Black because it was solidified lava from long ago. That’s perfect for tonight. I drove in a hundred feet or so – drove up I should say. Turned off the engine, cooked my supper, scribbled in my diary, and readied my bunk.

Then I walked down to look at those crosses. Two men’s names and two women’s. Same date on all four.  Two vehicles must have collided. How awful!  Returned to my VW. It was dark now. Slipped into my sleeping bag and called it a day.

In 30 or 40 minutes I heard a vehicle pull in! I looked out. Its headlights focused on me. And I saw a bright flashlight walking up toward me. And whoever it was had  a revolver pointed at me.  My God! A bandito?! A hard rap on the driver door. What to do?!  I was in my shorts . I scrambled up and sat in the driver’s seat. I had locked the door, of course. Opened the window, but just a hair. Tried to mask my fear.

“Policia! Abierte la ventana!”   I opened it a bit more.

A big guy. Forty or so. Big black mustache. I saw his uniform. Not a bandit. What’s this all about?!

He asked for my driver’s license. “Uno momento!” I said. I had to go back to my pants and pull out my wallet.  I showed him my driver’s license and registration. He focused his flashlight on them. Asked what I was doing here. Put his gun away. I told him I was heading to Mazatlan. Was spending the night here.

On the floor by my seat I had a three-ring binder. It had copies of travel articles I had published. I showed it to him. Pointed to my byline on several. It was the same as the name on my license and registration. He flipped through it. He understood.

“Muy pelligroso, Senor!” He told me.  I understood that — Very dangerous! He explained. Yes, there were bandits around. Thieves. Hungry, grasping fellows who might see me as easy prey. I had to get out of here. “Immediamente!” Right now!

No, I could not continue west. Curves. Cliffs. Too dangerous at night. I had to go back to the town I had just passed.  “Go to the Pemex station. Stay there for the night. You will be safe.”  He looked at his watch.  “But hurry! They will lock up in 50 minutes.”

I thanked him. Felt like giving him a hug. Rushed and dressed. Pulled out. He had started his cruiser. Was waiting for me to leave. Making sure.

I drove as fast as I could down that twisty road. Got to the Pemex.  I explained to an attendant. The only one. He nodded. Told me where to park. Said he was about to put up and lock the chain for the night. No cars could enter. People, yes, but no cars. I’d be chained in too, of course. Said he would then go home. The chain would be taken down at 6 a.m.

I drove as far back in the station’s lot as I could. Didn’t want to attract anybody! Finally went to sleep. I was still worried. Will some bandito walk in and come check me out? Two banditos?  Sleep overtook me. I woke up at dawn. The chain was still up. The attendant showed up. Same guy.

I didn’t need much gas but I tanked up to show my appreciation. And I put a couple of dollars – real American dollars – in his hand. You should have seen his grin! Heard his ”Gracias, Senor, Gracias!”

I started up the long, twisty highway again. Passed those four tragic crosses. Glanced up at my brief campsite and drove on. Silently thanked that officer who had somehow spotted me and checked me out. Warned me. And told me what to do. A very good guy.

Hey, if he hadn’t done that, maybe I too would have wound up with a white cross of my own down there on La Carretera del Diablo!

Well, I didn’t get the chance to talk about this close call either at The Reboot. Maybe the audience would have enjoyed hearing me. I hope you have.

~ ~ ~ ~

Again I look forward to your comments. Do you have a close call of your own to tell me about? I’d like to hear it.








How good is your WQ? Yes, your WQ?

I had fun checking my map of the world … discovered so many interesting things!

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — Not your IQ. No, no. You may think I made a typo. I did not. If you read stuff like this, for sure your IQ is above average.

By WQ I mean your knowledge about Our World. Our Earth. Is it pretty good?

My WQ is far better than I ever thought it would be when I graduated from college, say. In fact, though some people have traveled far more, I’ve amazed myself. Here’s a quick outline.

In the USA, to all 50 states, so that includes Hawaii and Alaska. In Canada from British Columbia and the Yukon all the way east to Nova Scotia.  In Mexico all the way from our border right down to nearly Guatemala and from Mazatlan on the Pacific through Mexico City to Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico.  

In South America to eight countries, from the biggest, Brazil, to perhaps the smallest, Uruguay.

In western Europe to every country except Iceland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. In eastern Europe to Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. Farther east, to Greece, Turkey, and Lebanon and even the island of Cyprus.

In Africa, to Morocco and Egypt and south to Kenya and all the way down to South Africa where the Atlantic and Indian Oceans touch.

 In Asia to ten countries from Japan, and the biggest, China, right down to Cambodia and tiny Singapore.

In India from top to bottom and east to west.

 I’ve crossed the Equator, of course. That’s interesting because the seasons are the opposite to ours. If it’s summer for us, it’s winter down there, and vice versa.

I’ve been to some parts more than once. To Canada more times than I can count. To France 10 times. To numerous countries more than half a dozen times. To China four times. To India twice. Ditto many other countries. To many of these places, I traveled solo.

I’ve had wonderful adventures. Have seen great natural wonders. Have met people in a fascinating array of cultures. And I’ve had some close calls. Which is to be expected.

As I say, I’ve impressed myself. But some people have traveled much more widely. I see this every time I pick up an international travel magazine. In fact, I’ve missed more countries than I’ve been to.

And I’ve written about all these wanderings. So yes, I know a bit about our world. But I’m no expert. Far from it. There are many more places I’d like to visit but that has become the impossible dream.

So it’s not surprising that I have a map of the world on a wall in my office. That’s a picture of it you saw at the top. I made it as big as possible to give you a decent look at it—I’m going to talk about interesting facts about our world.  You may know them. But I didn’t. I’ll get to that in a minute or two so stick with me.

 I put up that map when I moved in nearly four years ago. It’s big  but I rarely look at it. You know how it is. Yesterday I did take a look.  I wanted to  look at Chile. I just got an email from a friend down there in South America and I wanted to check the parts of that amazing country that I had been to.

Then I kept looking.  I fixated on the map. It’s surprising the surprising and interesting things I discovered. Never noticed them before. It was an eye-opening experience for me.

This is why I’m writing about it. In fact, I took a picture of the map for you. And I’ve made it as big as possible on this page. I suspect you’ll be interested, and I want you to be able to double-check as I write about this discovery of mine or that one. I can improve my WQ and so can you.

As a starter it’s astounding how much of the earth is covered by water.  Salt water, in fact—close to 75 percent of it! And I’ll bet 75 percent or more of us on Earth have never gotten a glimpse of it.

Also astounding is how close we are to Russia.  Take a look at our Alaska, high up in the northwestern corner of the map. Notice that it’s just a hop and a skip from its western tip to eastern Russia.  So close to Alaska that the Russians got there before we did. In fact, in Alaska I have visited an ancient Orthodox Russian church in Eklutna, Alaska.

Oddly more commercial flights from North America and Europe are transpolar flights – across the North Pole. They save time and expense. I say oddly because it seems so unthinkable. In a plane, unless you have a window seat, which wouldn’t help much, you’d never know the difference.

Nowadays it’s feasible to fly around the world – and at its widest diameter – by commercial airline in a week or so! That fact does deserve that exclamation mark. But only someone with a platinum credit card who would delight in boasting about that would attempt it, for sure.

Just imagine what Christopher Columbus or Marco Polo or Ferdinand Magellan or the other ancient adventurers would ever think of that!

To make this topic of mine today more interesting for you, I’m going to proceed in the form of a quiz. I’m going to ask you a question and will ask you to come up with the answer. Then I’ll provide the answer. You may have fun keeping score.

How many oceans do we have? What are their names, and how big are they in descending order? Pause now, my friends, and think……

Answers: 5 oceans. In descending order, the Pacific by a huge margin, then the Atlantic, Indian, Arctic, and Southern. Plus some big seas.

Question. How many continents – big land masses – are there? Name them in descending order. Pause now and think……

Answers: 7. Asia, Africa, North America, South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Oceania (Australia being the biggest chunk of that by far).

Now look at the six biggest countries. Which is the biggest? What are they in descending order? Now pause and think……

Answers: Russia, Canada, USA, Brazil, Australia, with India seventh.

Speaking of our country, look at our southern neighbor, Mexico, which looms so much in our news nowadays.  Yet Mexico is just a little squiggle – it seems we could squeeze four countries like it between our two ocean shores.

On each continent, what is the largest city? Pause now and think……

Answers: In Asia: Tokyo / In North America: Mexico City / In South America: Sao Paulo in Brazil / In Europe: Paris / In Africa: Lagos in Nigeria / In Antarctica: McMurdo Station (just some 1,300 people; one of three scientific stations we have down there) / In Oceania: Melbourne, Australia.

What is startling to me is Europe, and how small it is in comparison to other sections of our earth. Especially given that arguably it has been the most important in the development of civilization, well, as we know it. What is its biggest city?  And how many countries does it have? Pause now and think……

Answers: Not London or Moscow. It’s Paris. 24 countries.

What’s amazing is that it seems all those European counties could be tucked into our United States.

Looking closely at the map, do you see one country that from the point of geography seems an absolute freak?   Pause and look……

Well, to me it’s Chile, which I spoke about a minute ago. Look at it. It’s just a very, very  long sliver squeezed in between giant Brazil and the Pacific. Don’t you agree that in that way it can be called a freak?

Now let’s have fun assembling a geographic jigsaw puzzle, so to speak. First, take a look at the Western Hemisphere, from Canada at the top down through the USA and right down to the bottom of South America.

Now look at the Eastern Hemisphere, from Europe down to the bottom of Africa.  Now imagine placing your left hand on one hemisphere and your right hand on the other. And imagine sliding them across the Atlantic Ocean toward one another and tucking one into the other. No, they would not be a perfect fit, but definitely a pretty good one, don’t you think?

Now take a good look at the Indian Ocean. Notice Africa on the left side, India at the top, and the islands of Indonesia at the right. Next look at big Australia down below at the right. Now imagine sliding Australia up through the Indian Ocean and fitting it in between those three large land masses.  A pretty good fit, right?

I wish I had a geologist / geographer / oceanographer at hand. I’d ask him a question that just popped into my mind.  Is it conceivable that at one time eons ago this is what these sections of the earth were like — one huge, solid hunk of real estate? And some mysterious and enormous force spread those chunks of land apart?

 If you know the answer, please do let me know.

My map is maybe 10 years old. But it’s surprising the changes that have taken place or are.

The Crimea in Ukraine is now part of Russia.

Great Britain wants out of Western Europe.

Scotland keeps talking of saying goodbye to Great Britain. Ditto Catalonia from Spain.

All this said, most of us Americans never get to travel more than a couple of hundred miles from where we were born. Nothing wrong with that. But ….

And keeping in mind that the greater part of our earth is covered with water, it’s remarkable that most of us never get a glimpse of it, whether the Atlantic or Pacific or Gulf of Mexico. Or even our Great Lakes. Nothing wrong with that either. But ….

Well, still looking at that map on my wall, I’ll venture a bold prognostication. I predict that in a century – okay, make that two centuries – Canada, the United States, and Mexico will be a single country. And I’m tempted to say the same about the even more numerous countries of South America. You may think I’m nuts. But that’s okay.

Given the enormous strides in communication and ease of travel and expansion of international commerce, such geographic consolidation makes sense. Don’t you believe geography can trump politics?

Now finally check your WQ. How did you do? I found it fun. If you’ve read down this far, I’ll bet you would, too. I’ll also bet that your IQ is way above average.

~ ~ ~ ~

I look forward to your comments. I read them and love it when you tell me something I didn’t appreciate or realize. Which happens. And I enjoy it even more when you add a few words about yourself.


I’m 89 today and kicking. Wow!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 1 photo.

Yes, Wow! And today is the very first day of my 90th year! I have reason to tag on that exclamation mark. Don’t you agree? But you know, I never, never expected to live this long. How lucky I am!

But a friend says I’m wrong about my age. Wu Bin in Shanghai, China, strongly disagrees.  We became friends in Nairobi,

Here I am still doing the work I’ve enjoyed decade after decade. Lucky me.

Kenya, more than 20 years ago. And we are friends to this day.  Back then he was just out of university as an electrical engineer. And he’s the whiz who got my Around the World Alone book published in China.

Wu insists that I am really 90 today. Now he is a big shot in a company developing and manufacturing LED lights that get sold around the world.

He just sent me an email. ““John, you’ve been to China four times now. You know that when we have a baby, we consider that little boy or girl one year old!”

“Yes, Wu, I do remember that. So thank you. But know what? I don’t like the idea of being a year older than I thought I was. Not one bit! And being in my 91st year instead of my 90th.. It was already scary. Now it’s even scarier!”

Well, I was joking a bit there. Now I’ll get serious, Yes, I’ve been most fortunate. My life, like the life of everybody else—which means yours, too, of course — has been imperfect. But it could have turned out more imperfect. As we know, so much in life is not within our control. All in all, I have great reason to rejoice and celebrate.

I’ve been fortunate in many ways. You may not be up to hearing all this, but I’m going to list the ways.

So no more joking. Here’s how.

I enjoy good health.

Of course, I’ve had sicknesses and accidents and serious losses. A great loss about five years ago was total loss of hearing in my right ear. It was more than loss of hearing. It was the loss of directionality. If I don’t see where a sound is coming from, I can’t tell if it’s from the left or right, in front or behind me, or from up above. Also—I didn’t realize this—our ears are the gyroscope that controls our balance. Lose one ear and you will have a balance problem. I’m constantly aware of that.

I live alone. I may fall because of poor balance, or trip on something, or slip in the tub. So I wear a Great Call medical alert device every minute I’m up. Inside and outside. It hangs on my chest. If I fall, I’ll press the button on it. Within seconds I’ll reach a 27 /7 Great Call respondent. He or she will say, “Are you reporting a medical emergency?” And I will say yes. They have my profile. Much info, including the name and phone number of my loving daughter Monique who lives nearby. If they cannot her, they’ll try others on my profile. Even  my primary care doctor.

If I fall away from home, through GPS,  Great Call can locate me. It will also help me if I get lost on the road somewhere, feel dizzy, and so on. It costs less than the price of coffee per day. It’s really a life insurance policy. More people should become aware of it.

As or my  primary care doctor, I just saw him. . He is excellent. He told me he feels I’m  doing so well I don’t have to see me till mid-July. How about that?! I’m aware a lot of old people have to see their doctor every week or two.

I take some credit. I watch my weight, don’t smoke, rarely drink alcohol, do limbering exercises, eat few sweets, do regular limbering exercises, and am a vegetarian. I make it a point to do fun things. It’s hard for me to walk now. I make up for that by pedaling my tricycle every day. Which I find great fun.

I had loving parents.

Arthur J. Laplante and Marguerite Bourke were immigrants from Quebec. They met at a church social in Pawtucket, R.I. Many French-Canadians in Pawtucket. He became a salesman in the Shartenburg Department Store. Mr. Shartenburg felt my Papa with his outgoing personality could attract Francos as customers. He was right. In just two years Papa opened his own store. Yes, it was small — just linoleum and bedding. But in six years it became a big one – two sprawling floors – selling just about anything you might need in a home. Then sold it and started buying three-deckers and renting them out. Then also started selling house and car insurance.

Maman, just back from their honeymoon, returned to work in the weave shop of a textile mill.  In two years she became a full-time mom.  In eight years they moved from a three-decker into their own home. Then, just as I was finishing college they moved into a lovely Cape Cod colonial with a fireplace in the living room. It had a fine lawn and beautiful white fence and trees and even an in-ground swimming pool. Unusual back then. They enjoyed a cruise to Bermuda. They bought a winter home in Florida. Yes, America, truly the land of opportunity!

They loved me. And all my siblings. Did a fine job of raising us. Pa had a temper, but it blew up seldom.

I grew up knowing I was loved. Maman showed it day in and day out in every way. He did, too, by giving me – all of us – wonderful opportunities. Back then I took the opportunities for granted. Then I smartened up and saw how blessed I was.

I grew up to have an enterprising streak – plunging into challenging projects and working hard to make them succeed. By example Pa programmed me to do that.

I’ve had the longest life span in my family.

Pa died at 73. Maman at 83. The one exception was her sister Bernadette – my dear Aunt Bernie – at 94.   I was the first born of eight children. Born in my parents’ bed on the second floor rented tenement in a three-decker at 18 Coyle Avenue.

Mr. Clark and his family lived on the first. Mr. Archambault and his family on the third.

Rose-Marie died at six months— obstructed bowel. I still remember her little white casket in the parlor.  Lucie was next, my dear petite sister, nine years behind me. She and I are the only two remaining. The eighth was Michel. He was born 16 years after me. Died at 55 in agony after having a leg amputated below the knee. Diabetes.

Lucie is now retired after a fine career as a high school teacher of French in West Hartford, Conn. We are close and speak often.

And here I am, the first-born and now the oldest survivor. How to explain this? How? Yes, how? Logic would insist I’d be the first to die. Then the others in the order of their birth. Ha!

I got a fine education thanks to my parents. Education they never dreamed of for themselves. We were Catholic. After four years in parochial school, I was sent off to a Catholic boys’ boarding school 30 miles away. I was 10 and went there for grades five through eight.

I was sobbing and screaming when they dropped me off. Came home only for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and summer. But I got used to it. I graduated first in my class. Had to get used to living with my family again. Well, that summer.

Why did Maman and Pa do that? They thought I’d get a better start in life. And in their social circle, it was an impressive and envied accomplishment for parents to be able to provide such a start.

Then eight years full time at Assumption Prep and College in Worcester, Mass., 45 miles away. The two were on the same campus, in fact the same big building. I went through the eight years with a 50 percent scholarship from a Franco fraternal society, the USJB. Won it in a competitive examination. Elected a class officer every year. Named to the National Honor Society in the prep school. Graduated with high honors from the college.

So 16 years in Catholic schools, with half the courses in English and half in French. We learned to think, speak, and write in both languages.

I entered college as a pre-medical student.  My mother dreamed of me as an MD. But in biology, I was queasy about dissecting a frog. Hated the lab work. I developed second thoughts. And I was chosen editor of our tiny college paper.

I had discovered I enjoyed writing. I found it was fun to think up articles and write them, hand out assignments, edit the stories, lay out the little paper. Some of the articles were in French, by the way. And that’s how I came up with the notion of journalism.

One of my priest teachers, hearing of my ambition, advised me to study economics and political science. He spent all of 10 minutes suggesting that. And I promptly took the National Graduate Record Exam, and on the basis of that got accepted by Clark University in Worcester and Brown University in Providence. I chose Brown because closer to home and was Ivy League.

The economics department had about 50 students. I was one of them, with a master’s degree my ambition. More than half were aiming for a PhD. Nearly all had majored in economics in college. I also took a couple of courses in political science.

The grades were A, B, C, D, and F.  For us graduate students anything below a B was a failing grade. A single failing grade and you were kicked out.

I had had only one one-semester course in economics. It was taught by a lay professor who had emigrated from Italy. Spoke broken English. He lectured In Italian-tainted French. We had no textbook. All we had were the notes we took.

I was good at math. Had courses in algebra, geometry, trigonometry, and calculus. But for calculus—again no textbook–I was out sick for the first three classes and never caught up.

I returned home to Pawtucket proud and optimistic. I would be living at home for the first time in 12 years. And commuting to my classes at Brown, taking two buses each way and trudging up and down steep College Hill. Now and then my Aunt Bernie, who lived bright next door, would let me take her Oldsmobile. I loved that.

Well, at Brown, I got a single C, in statistics, which involves calculus. I found out that this was an essential tool for an economist. But becoming an economist was not my goal, as I’ve explained. I got A’s and B’s in all my other courses.

One of my professors was Hyman Minsky. He knew I was planning to be a journalist. One day he called me in to talk about a paper I had written. He complimented me — said my style was a bit rococo and I felt he liked that though it was the first time I heard the word and didn’t know what it meant — and I walked out beaming. Professor Minsky became famous for an economic theory he developed. Google him if you’re curious.

Anyway, that single C ended my Brown career. Of course, many Brown graduates proudly graduated with a much lower yet honorable grade average than mine,

I wasn’t used to failure. That failure smarted.

Focusing on my true ambition, I applied to the Graduate School of Journalism at Boston University, was accepted, found myself in my element, enjoyed it, and graduated with a master’s. That was the terminal degree in journalism at that time. I made that 50-minute commute by train five days a week.

And went to work. Some call ii the business of journalism. Some journalists to this day, successful ones, never took a single course in journalism. But that’s rare now.

One of our professors was Donald Murray, an editorial writer on the Boston Herald. He gave us assignments on editorial writing.

One day he returned our papers to us. And said, “Who is Mr. LaPlante?” I raised my hand. “Congratulations!” He said. “There were some fine papers. Yours was the best.”

Interestingly, shortly before our class graduated, Donald Murray won a Pulitzer for his editorials at the Herald.

I had been named to Sigma Delta Chi, the professional journalism fraternity. And that’s what we felt we were entering, the profession of journalism.

Got to tell you my Papa paid for all that schooling with the exception of the scholarship to Assumption I had won. He and Maman encouraged and supported me whole-heartedly. How fortunate I was.

I wound up in the work I enjoy.

I went to B.U. with a single ambition: to someday own and publish a weekly newspaper in a small town.

On my own, apart from my journalism studies, I would read up on everything I could find about weekly newspapers. There were hundreds of them. And there were startling technical breakthroughs.

One was the Varitype Machine. It was a fancy, enormously sophisticated typewriter.  With it you could change type fonts. It had an interesting variety of fonts. And it could justify lines of type– make then fill out to be flush on both sides of the column. Just how it’s done to this day in all newspapers.

That was accomplished back then by highly skilled and well-paid workmen operating Linotype machines — huge machines using molten lead. Machines costing more than luxury cars. The Linotype operators had to apprentice many months.  Today to see a Linotype you have to go to a museum.

Well, within walking distance of our school was a business office machine store, Burroughs I think it was. And it sold the newfangled Varityper. And offered free lessons on using it, with no pressure to buy one.

The Varityper justified through a double typing. You would set the column width you wanted. Would type a line and then tab over and retype the line. The Varityper spaced out the words to make every line even. The double typing was clumsy and time-consuming, yes, but It did the job. The Varityper cost just a fraction of a Linotype. Any good typist could master it fast. I got good at it. The day came when I bought one. More about this soon.

At B.U. another professor was Evan Hill. He taught reporting. He had been wounded in World War II and walked with a severe limp. He didn’t let it slow him down.

Was a perfectionist. Preached objectivity, fairness, thoroughness, clear writing. Had worked on weekly newspapers and had edited a couple. He took a liking, to me, especially after hearing of my interest in weeklies. Most of our class wanted to work on dailies, the bigger the better.

Spring break was coming up. He took me aside, told me one of his graduates was the publisher of the Record-Journal in Amherst, Mass.  Amherst was the home of Massachusetts’ flagship state university, UMass. If I were willing, he – I believe his name was Timothy  Woodrow —would welcome me into his home with his wife, feed me, take me with him to the office,  and give me reporting assignments every day.

If I turned in decent copy, he’d edit my reports and publish them with my byline. How about that?”

I had a wonderful “spring vacation” at the Record-Journal. I returned to classes even more intent on owning a weekly.

As a class project during another break, Professor Hill took a dozen of us to a weekly in Lakeville In northwestern Connecticut for a week. Professor Hill knew that publisher, too, We’d put out a special supplement for the paper about historic houses in the community. He was our editor for that, giving us assignments, editing our work, and producing an insert that became a valued souvenir for many subscribers.  A great experience.

I kept in touch with him. He left B.U. and became a full-time freelance feature writer, getting published in the Saturday Evening Post and other quality national magazines.

A few years later, when I was a staff writer on the magazine of the Worcester Sunday Telegram, I drove up to New Hampshire to visit and interview him. I’ve forgotten the town’s name. He lived there with his family and had an office in a downtown building. I wrote a cover story about him as a big-time magazine article writer. He told me I did a good job.

Shortly before graduation, Professor Hill told me of a friend who was the publisher of the Thomaston Express in Thomaston, Conn. The town is famous as the home of Seth Thomas Clocks. He told me Cesario DelVaglio was looking for a new young editor. The job could be mine. I accepted on the spot, without ever meeting Mr. DelVaglio or getting to Thomaston.

Thomaston was a hundred miles from Pawtucket. I reported for work by thumbing to Thomaston.  It took me nearly five hours. And I met Del for the first time. That’s who he was to everybody, Del, a big, hearty Italian who was all business.

He sold all the ads for the Express, schmoozed with anybody who was somebody in Thomaston, and also operated a job-printing business at the Express—letterheads, brochures, business cards, and such.

“Make the Express interesting,” he told me. “Do a good job and in six months I’ll give you a raise.”

The Express occupied a small gray building. It was just a block from Main Street and the Town Hall, so I could walk there easily.

He drove me to a small, modest house three-quarters of a mile away.  Introduced me to Mrs. Beardslee, a widow, who lived alone. She would rent me a room and supply the sheets, blankets, and towels, $11 a week. She’d serve me breakfast if I wanted, 35 cents a day. Do my laundry. I said yes to everything. And started work.

Thomaston had about 5,000 people. It was a one-industry town, Plume and Atwood, a brass manufacturer.  Little news ever emerged from there. I never heard of labor problems, business problems, accidents, promotions, or lay-offs. I didn’t have the moxie to go probing. Anyway, didn’t have time for that.

The Express was a tabloid. The news hole was 500 column inches. That’s what I had to fill every week. I was editor and sole reporter. We had three or four outlying neighborhoods with a correspondent in each. They were elderly matrons who knew every soul, and sent in a column of neighborhood doings every week.

They were stringers. A journalistic word. They clipped out their column every week, then glued it to the tail of the previous one, and then to another couple and at the end of the month sent in their string. Del paid them so much a column inch. I’d check their spelling and amplify something if I felt it was needed.  We had a high school coach who wrote sports stories. The rest was up to me.

At the Town Hall, I introduced myself to the Town Clerk, the Police Chief, the First Selectman (mayor), School Superintendent, Librarian, and others.  All nice to me. They all knew this was my first week on the job right out of school, a total stranger in Thomaston, and saw I was as green as an unripe banana. They didn’t expect much.

Every week I went in looking for news — marriage intentions, police arrests or accidents, school announcements, all the bread and butter news of small town life.

In my third visit to the Police Chief, he said, “John, my boy, this is a nice quiet little town, you know. No need for you to come by. If something happens, I’ll call you.”  In my time there, a big police story never developed.

We published on Thursdays, and on Wednesdays I’d work till 10 p.m. wrapping everything up. Laying out the pages, cropping and sizing photos, writing headlines and captions, arranging the “jumps”—continuations to other pages – making sure the layout was clear and simple, and no goofs.

There were five of us. Del. Gus, the earnest, cigar-puffing compositor. Eddy, who ran the humongous Linotype.  Ray, who was the pressman. And myself. They too kept their fingers crossed about me. I was just “the kid.”

On Thursday morning Gus would call me to his “stone.” That was a big, heavy steel frame. He knew what and how many ads would be on each page. Only Page 1 did not have ads. I gave him a layout for each important page. He would fill it with all the metal components — headlines, articles, captions, and so on. Then he’d “lock up” the chase. The paper would be printed from that chase.

Gus would call me over. “John, this story’s too long by an inch and a half.” And I would duly cut out an inch and a half. It might take a bit of re-writing.

“John, this one needs another three quarters of an inch.” And I’d write three quarters of an inch more.

Then Ray would load the chases on the flat-bed press and get it running. The building would vibrate. He’d hand-feed one sheet of paper through at a time.  The page would print, then slip over a long horizontal pipe with many tiny holes along the top. They’d emit small, even gas flames. That would dry the ink. Then the sheets would pile up at the end of the press.

More than once I saw a sheet catch fire going over. Ray would grumble and curse, grab a broom and beat out the fire, clean the mess, then start the press again.

Every week we’d publish on time for the paper boys and taket a big canvas bag of papers to the Post Office for our mail subscribers.

I was a good photographer but Del insisted all pictures would be provided by Milo Puwalchek. Thirty-ish, smiling, a gentleman. Milo ran a portrait studio on Main Street.  Wedding photos, promotion photos for Plume and Atwood. He took the pictures we needed. His only pay was the printed credit he got for each one , “Photo by Milo.”

That was another swap Del had worked out. For Milo did it was his total advertising program.

I’d stop by to chat with him in his studio.  His wife and assistant was Maria, very able, very sweet. They became my closest friends. Milo did not have a car, but I did now.  We started going out to dinner once or twice a week.

One time my parents came to visit. They were dying to get a look a Thomaston and how I was living. I took them to Milo’s. He insisted on shooting portraits of them “on spec.” They’d pay for them if they liked them. They did. I still have a set of them. More than 60 years old. As beautiful as new. I treasure them. Impossible for me to ever forget dear Milo.

About that car. After my third week In Thomaston, my parents astonished me with a brand-new Ford Victoria sedan. A belated graduation present, all thanks to the prayers and cajoling of my Maman.

I had weekends off. Now I could drive home to Pawtucket on Friday evening, and next day drive 35 miles to Putnam, Conn., to date beautiful Pauline, my very first girlfriend. We had met in a blind date arranged by friends for her junior prom at Annhurst College. And I could do a much better job of reporting.

Once a week, a nice treat.  Del would take me to lunch at the White Fence Inn. A beautiful, long-established, four-star restaurant. Always a fine meal and a great chat. Del always picked up the tab.  Later I found out that was another of his deals. He was swapping ads for the White Fence Inn in the Express for dinners there.

One day a spectacular happening. After enormous rains, the river overran its banks. Some sections of town had a foot of water and it was still raining. Huge devastation. I went all out covering it. Worked endless hours. Got little sleep. I was a journalist. That’s what journalists do.

I transformed the Express. A full, no-ads editorial page, with one or two editorials every week. Plus a full, detailed feature story with photo on that page. Plus a column by me of chit chat and observations, “By JGL.” Interesting stories on Page 1 and inside. I gave the paper a clean, distinctive, appealing look week after week. I was proud of myself.

Lots of papers publish “boilerplate,” prepared news stories sent out by PR people pushing this or that. It’s a cheap way to pad out a newspaper. In my time not an inch of it got into the Express.

Came the end of my sixth month. Del had made no further mention of a raise. We had a fine relationship. I liked him and he liked me.  I didn’t waste a minute. I brought it up. “Yeah, John, you did a good job. You deserve a raise. $5 a week!”

I nearly fell off my chair. I had expected a jump from $50 to $!00 a week. Wow! A lousy $5. I gave him my notice.

My own weekly

I had heard of a paper for sale in Woonsocket, R.I. Not a town like Thomaston. A city. The Sunday Star. Just 12 miles from my home town of Pawtucket. It was a newspaper – it covered local news. But Woonsocket had a big daily, The Call. The Star couldn’t compete.

I was 25 years old. I had a vision for it. I would change it into a feature weekly   — lengthy articles, rich in detail, with lots of quotes, each with several photos – of interesting people, happenings, undertakings, lifestyle. The concept is commonplace nowadays. I had never seen such a paper. Then The Star could compete hard against The Call in a different way.

(I must say today’s concept has one added feature. You don’t buy the paper. It’s free. Advertising is the sole support.)

How could I afford to buy The Star? I could not. I didn’t have a dime. I convinced Papa, Sure, he was hesitant and doubtful and cautious. But he discussed it with a cousin, a highly successful businessman in Woonsocket. My father handled all the Pawtucket business for him—all clients that he signed up. The two interviewed me. Grilled me. They left the room. They came back. Papa said, “Well, okay … I guess.”

I went to work. The Star had a small suite in a fine, prestigious building.  I was owner of the paper, editor, employer, Varitype operator, well, for a while. Yes, I had immediately bought one. All the typesetting and printing were jobbed out. Now only the printing would be. I hired a trucker to get the paper out every Saturday afternoon to be available on Sunday.

I would live at home in Pawtucket, supported by my parents, bless them. And commute to Woonsocket.

I hired a secretary, Marie. I taught her how to use the machine. She was talented. Learned fast. I also hired an artist / paste-up man, low-key Lucien. Both hard-working. This would no longer be hot metal printing. This was new “cold type,” so called.

The Sunday Star would be supported by paid subscriptions and store sales. Store sales were 99 percent. And as always, mostly by paid ads. I knew nothing about newspaper advertising. Only that the more, the better.

One day a man, smartly dressed with brilliantly shined shoes, handed me a card and introduced himself.  He beamed, pumped my hand. I remember his name, even his middle initial, and I will never forget him, but I will call him Mr. Smoothy.  He had 35 years in the business.  Told me my concept for the paper was brilliant. Predicted a golden future. He would be my advertising director. Sure, of course, he knew I was just starting out but hey, he would work simply on commission.

My prayers were being answered!

I worked hard and late. I was elated.

I started writing features.  Very early I found a dandy. I met a guy who flew a small plane out of our local airport and would fly advertising banners around them. For pay, of course. A great feature.

Recalling Del’s business stunts back in Thomaston, I now pulled one of my own. If he flew a banner of The Star over the city till his gas nearly ran out, I would wow our readers with a super feature about him and how he got into that and does it.  (In fact, I would never charge anybody for a feature.)

I took the pictures of him at the airport, prepping the banner on the ground, attaching it, taking off. And it all happened. My story was the play story – two and a half pages, six photos.

I had found his banner could carry 24 letters and spaces. All big enough to be visible from 1,000 feet – I don’t remember the exact altitude. And he’d tow this banner around on Easter morning.

I composed the message: “SUNDAY STAR REBORN TODAY”. Exactly 24 letters and spaces! It turned out to be a perfect-weather Easter.  My ad was a perfect tie-in. Countless people must have seen it. I was watching, of course. Published it as the cover feature the following Sunday.

I had big bills. Rent. Staff. Routine expenses …telephone, electricity, supplies, and so on. Printing was the huge one. I took only walking-around money for myself. Pa made up the  deficit every week.

Mr. Smoothy kept breezing in. Always smiling. “I just landed another full-page ad, John! And I expect another!”

It was all bogus. He’d go to a prospect and say, “This guy LaPlante is hot. He’s creating a different paper.  A terrific paper. I’ll tell you what. I’ll give you a full page ad FREE. You’ll be impressed by your sale results. You’ll be happy to become a regular advertiser. And we’ll give you a good discount.”

And I paid him his commissions for those ads.

But none of those businesses ever signed a contract for more lineage.

I’m not sure what he told people exactly. But I think what I just wrote comes close.

I watched the circulation sales carefully. It turned out that even my distributor was falsifying the counts. In five months the game was up. One day Papa told me in French, “No more, Jean-Guy!” His voice reeked with pain and disappointment. “This isn’t working. You can’t keep this up.”

I lost my staff. My Varitype machine. My office furniture. All my supplies. Even my camera. My reputation with my landlord and the Woonsocket people I had been dealing with. I walked out with only the “Master’s Degree in Journalism” diploma that I had on the wall behind my desk. Oh, and my Ford Victoria.

It’s with the greatest difficulty that I write this today. Very painful.

I thought I was putting out a great paper.  Apparently not. I am positive Papa made a terrible mistake in supporting my idea. His love for me overcame his common sense. Sure, I was a hard, eager, energetic worker.  But I had zero business experience. And was extremely naïve in the ways of the world.

It was a full four months before I found another newspaper job.  A time of stress and worry for me. And though I never heard a word of reproach from them, for Pa and Ma, too.  I was still living at home and they were supporting me. I wonder whether I would be as supportive.

Then, thanks to my dear Aunt Bernie, I landed a job on a big newspaper, the Worcester Telegram and Gazette, a metro paper covering all of central Massachusetts. It took 850 people to publish the T & G seven days a week.  It was on the list of our 100 biggest newspapers.

I went on board as a reporter, and over some 16 years moved up through an interesting variety of editorial  jobs — a bureau chief, feature writer, columnist, and in due time the Sunday magazine editor, an executive position. Every step was a challenge. As a whole, good years.

Way at the top of this piece, I mentioned I have been fortunate because I’ve found work I’ve enjoyed. Very true. So many people go through life working at what I call bread and butter jobs. They can’t wait to hit retirement. And when they do, they never do that kind of work again.

I’m still doing this work today, as you can clearly see.

Gosh, I’ve written far more here than I intended.  And I still have much more to tell you about my good fortune in having reached ripe old age. I’m going to take a break and give you a break too, by stopping right now. And I’ll take up the tale again for you before very long.

And I’ll be very interested to know if you’ve read these 5,546 words right down to here. If so, I compliment you for your fortitude. Obviously you’re interested.

I hope you make it up to a happy 90, too.

~ ~ ~ ~

Again, I welcome your comments. I read them all, good and not so good. Email me at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com or johnguylaplante@gmail.com












Tragedy struck, and that led Alma to God

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos.

Morro Bay, Calif. – At first I thought she was a kook or nut or something.

I have a big habit. In late afternoon I pedal my trike to our McDonald’s for a coffee. I bring a magazine or two. Coffee in hand, I plunk myself at one of its small tables, open my Time or Family Handyman or Smithsonian—borrowed from our public library— sip my coffee and read. It’s a highlight of my day. For variety, I do the same across the street at our Burger King now and then.

Well, one day I spotted her, also alone at a small table. A lady in her mid-40s, matronly and dark-skinned but lightly. No food. No beverage. Totally engrossed. She had a huge book open – volume is a better word — with a big notebook open next to it. She had pen in hand. She was scrutinizing the book and taking notes.

The pages of the big book were plastered with stickers. Blue, red, yellow, pink stickers. Notes scribbled on them. Line after line of the volume were

Alma and daughter Zeann at work at McDonald’s.

underlined in black or blue. Whole paragraphs high-lighted with a yellow marker. Oh, well. None of my business.I went back to my Family Handyman.

Two or three days later, same thing. There she was. Again engrossed.  I had a hunch. Now I was sure. That big book was a Bible.  Was she studying for a divinity degree or something?  Oh, well.

The next time, same thing. But now a pretty teenager was sitting at the next table, but had moved closer to her mom, well, so I assumed. Also with a big book open, but smaller. A Bible, I thought. It, too, had stickers in various colors. She also was reading and taking notes.

It was busy today. But the table this side of the woman was vacant. Good. I  was so curious. I squeezed behind it so I’d be right next to her. She paid no attention. What the heck was she up to?

I leaned toward her and caught her attention.  “My, oh my!’ I said with a smile. “You are working hard! That’s the Bible, isn’t it?”

She looked at me.  Still held her hand.

“Are you a minister?”

“No, no. Yes, the Bible. I study it every day. I love God!” She tapped it with her hand. “And I’m struggling to get to know Him better!” Now she tapped her chest several times.  “Knowing God is so, so important to me.”

“Please tell me more. I’ve seen you working like this several times now. I’ve noticed how terribly important it is to you. I‘m fascinated.”

And she told me her story. Needed little nudging. Was bubbling with enthusiasm.

Well, her name is Alma.  She is a teacher here. Spanish. Lives here with her husband and their three children. Excuse me. Two now, so sad to say.

Her story turned out to be a long one.  Grew up in Mexico in a small town, like ours here, but poorer. Was raised on a ranch. Her dad was a cowboy.

Alma and her hubby Bayrn promised three things.

He moved the family north, to New Mexico, for more money. A better life. It’s a story familiar to us.

She was 11.  She liked school and dreamed of becoming a teacher. Got into the University of New Mexico. She met a guy she liked. Studying chemistry. He was from Morro Bay.  As a senior at our high school here had heard nice things about that university. Love! Marriage!

Eventually Bayrn – yes, unusual name — moved her and their kids back here. He no longer does chemistry. She teaches half time in our Del Mar Elementary School.  She and Bayrn have started what they call their Spanish In Action program, They run the program in three schools after the regular school hours. The parents pay. It’s a small business. Alma and Bayrn are ambitious about it.

A remarkable story. I enjoyed it. Now I put a hand on her Bible. “Please tell me more what this is all about.”

‘”Sure.” She shifted to see me straight on. “Understanding God is my passion now.  Yes, passion! It’s the most important thing in my life. Well, you know, after my family.  I study here at McDonald’s because no husband, no kids, no TV, no dog. Usually I come alone.”

She smiled. “McDonald’s is just perfect! But, I do the same thing across the street sometimes.”  She pointed that way. She meant Burger King.

I told her that I blog. Enjoy writing about interesting people and topics. And this looked interesting to me. “Would you mind?”

“You think this would really interest people?”

“Yes, very much. ”  She smiled. And nodded. And I got right to it. “Have you always had this great big passion?”

“No.  Oh, I believed in God.  But that wasn’t knowing God! There’s a big difference.  It happened when my little boy died.  His name was Kaeden.  Our only boy.  A wonderful, wonderful little boy. Kaeden had asthma, which is not that rare, of course. We took him to a doctor and he gave us medicine and we treated him. Well, people live years and years with asthma. But Kaeden became very, very sick. And died. It was very fast. So fast. He was only five!”

I thought I had misheard his name. Asked her to repeat it. “Kaeden. Yes, an unusual name.”

She looked me straight in the eyes. Her voice rose. “I was crushed! I felt a big knife had been driven into my heart. Nothing this bad had ever happened before. It made me sick. I couldn’t work. I cried.

“Of course I thought about God. Felt I should know Him better. And that intensified my interest in the New Testament.”

I put my hand on hers. “Thank you so much for telling me about Kaeden.  Yes, so tragic.  I can see how badly you hurt. I feel so, so sorry for you.”

She was quiet a minute. ”I had an aunt who used to say a few words from this book often.” She tapped it. You know, when things weren’t so good. She’d say, ‘If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,’ which is very tiny, ‘you can battle anything. Anything!’ I have never forgotten that.  But I wondered, was it really, really true?”

She paused, “I’ll show you the exact words. Just one little minute!”

She ruffled though some pages. “Here it is.” She lifted off a blue sticker that covered those lines.

“It’s a bit longer. It’s from Matthew 17:20.” And read the passage to me. “He (Jesus) replied: Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this the mountain, ‘move here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you.”

Alma looked at me again. We were on a first-name basis now. “I felt I had no relationship with God. God my Creator! I wanted a relationship with Him.  I needed it. He told me it was possible! I bought a Bible and here I am.”

That was a few years ago. Well, she wore out that Bible.  She bought this beautiful leather-bound one.   She says she has read it 18 times. By the way, the Old Testament part in the first half has 34 books and runs from page 1 to page 1039. It’s the part that is the basis of the Jewish faith. The New Testament, about Jesus’ ministry and teachings, has 27 books and runs from pages 1043 to 1353. She’s done a lot of reading!

Meanwhile, watching us and listening had been her daughter, Zeann, Alma reached over and put a hand on her shoulder. “Zeann is our precious, wonderful daughter,” she told me. “She is a sophomore at the high school and on the honor roll. Look at this book she’s studying! European History! And it’s a college-level book!”

Zeann smiled. Blushed. Very sweet.

Their oldest, she told me, is Syler, 19.  He was the valedictorian at his high school graduation two years ago.  Received a grant and is a sophomore at the University of California Santa Cruz and is doing fine.

By now Alma knew I was serious about writing this up. She saw all the notes I was jotting down.

“Alma, such unusual names. Your husband is Bayrn. Your first son Syler. Your poor little boy Kaeden.  And she is Zeann. Are these names from the Bible?

“No. No. We made them up. Bayrn and I. We did it together, one at a time. We feel every person is distinctive. We wanted them to have distinctive names.”

Reminiscing more, she told me that a very good year was 2011   ”I became an American citizen! And was baptized at the Nazarene Church in Los Osos.”  Which is a town next door.

To do a good job, I felt I should chat with her husband.  She smiled and nodded. “No problem. Bayrn is such a wonderful husband!  You’ll like him.”

She then confided something in me. “It didn’t take long for us — him and me — to feel we were right for one another. But we had discussions.  We agreed on three essentials.” She smiled.  I would cook. But he would do the dishes and the laundry. And no screaming, ever! And now, that we love God together!”

We met two days later again at McDonald’s. The three of us.  Bayrn is a giant of a man. Has a quick and warm smile. Likes to let her do the talking. I could see his affection for her. How she was truly very dear to him.

I said to Alma again, and to him now, that it’s easy in my line of work to make mistakes, and I work hard not to, and I wanted to double-check many of the details. And we did that. It went well. She was happy. And so was I.

Pedaling home, I thought about all this.  Tried to summarize it. And these words came to me. “Alma suffered this great, incredible, life-changing tragedy. And that’s how she found God.”

That doesn’t happen to many of us.

~ ~ ~ ~

Remember, I welcome your comments. Read them all. They add greatly to my pleasure in scribbling this way.

How lucky we are to speak English!

By John Guy LaPlante

With one photo.

Yes, indeed. Because English is now the world’s most popular language. The one so many people in so many other countries can read as a second language. And which so many others are trying so hard to learn.

At one time French was the big international language. Hah!

Now this gives us a great advantage when we travel abroad —  a better chance of being understood and more ease in getting around. More books and technical and scientific papers originating in other countries getting translated into English and becoming available to us here. All of this giving us reason to be very proud.

It sounds incredible, but our globe supports 6,000 languages. Thank goodness we Americans don’t speak 5,999 of those as our birth tongue. Well, most of us. We’ve had the good fortune of growing up in English.

What a richness of English lies between these covers.

By the way, here I’m not speaking of British English or South African English or Australian English or Indian English or even Canadian English, which have big differences. I’m speaking of our English. Yours and mine.

I just mentioned Indian English—the English of India. Yes, India has English. What?!  A strange story. India is big – a third the size of the U.S but 1.3 billion people. Many sects. Hindi is the major language but 779 others. So how to speak to someone of a different sect? If you got higher schooling, you use English.

How come English? Well, England ruled India for many years and imposed it. Hindi is India’s main language but English is an official language,

spoken by 150 million. I’ve seen that for myself. Thanks to Indian friends, I’ve made two long trips  through through India. Got to most areas, north, south, east, and west.  I often managed to understand and to be understood.

So their English works, sure. But it isn’t our English, believe me. There are so many differences in inflection, vocabulary, pronunciation. And slang! But it is genuine English.

Our English – our American brand – is the world’s second most spoken language. Mandarin, China’s most important language, is the world’s largest. The next are Spanish, Hindi, Arabic, Bengali, Russian, Portuguese, Japanese, German, French.  And people with those as their mother tongue make it a priority to learn ours.

As we know, China has grown into our most important rival economically, and that has great significance in many facets of Chinese life.

Here’s how I see China today. It may sound outlandish but I feel comfortable in saying it. I’ve been to China four times. The fourth just four years ago. I have good friends in China. This happened to me because one of my books—“Around the World at 75, Alone, Dammit”—was published there. In Mandarin. Our English is their most popular foreign language.

These days, millions of Chinese are studying our English. In their schools. And also here in the USA. Do you have any idea how many Chinese are studying in our universities? I checked. 350,755 last year. More would come if they could. And that’s been the trend for years and it’s certain to continue.

Sure, more Americans are studying Mandarin. But by comparison darn few.

So here’s my take on China today.  The last century – the 1900’s –is when we became the biggest and most influential country on the globe and therefore the most formidable. I don’t think anyone will dispute that.

Well, we have 82 years left in this century, right? I believe China will eclipse us. This is China’s century. I feel it would be smart for my  grandchildren and great- grandchildren to study Mandarin. And if you buy stocks, smart for you to buy into a Chinese mutual fund.

All this said about our national  language, I must now say that not all of us in our 50 states speak the same English.  Go to Bangor in Maine, or El Paso in Texas, or Atlanta in Georgia, or Salem in Oregon, or Honolulu in Hawaii, or Anchorage in Alaska, and particularly the smaller towns  in those states, and you’ll be surprised by the different flavors.

I was born in little Rhode Island and spent most of my years in Massachusetts. Well, years ago I attended a professional conference in Phoenix, Arizona. There were attendees from all over the country. After our keynote speaker finished – he was from Michigan, I believe – questions were invited from us. A man got up and asked one, then a woman. I stood and asked one. You should have heard the laughter that erupted!

They were laughing at my accent.  Yes, my accent. “We know where you’re from!” one man laughed. Which was Massachusetts. I was laughing, too, and yelled back, “Hey, you’re the ones who sound funny!” And I meant it. After all, it’s always the other person who has the accent, of course. Never us. Haven’t you experienced that?

But the accent differences were much, much sharper when I was a boy.  It’s radio, and then television, that flattened out our English.  Nowadays the accent that most national radio and TV people on the air aspire to pick up is that of educated southern New Englanders – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. That’s a fact.

Now let me tell you a bit about my language experiences in other lands.

Quite often in China, I’d be approached by two or three teenagers.  A girl would say, “My name is Betty.”  That was an assumed name, of course. And then would ask, “Where are you from?” Very sweet. And I would tell her. Then, a boy would say, “I am Dick. Do you like China?” And I’d say “Yes, yes, yes!”

They suspected I was American and they wanted to practice their English.

As many of you know, I served 27 months in Peace Corps, which is a full hitch. In Ukraine. Went to school six days a week for the first three months. Russian, the history of Ukraine, its culture. Russian because that would be the language where I’d be stationed (though Ukrainian is the main language.) Agonizingly difficult. Felt I’d be sent home. But they kept me.

There I taught English at university level.  In my everyday life, at a store or whatever, whenever I started to say something in Russian, the clerk or somebody else might jump in and start speaking English to me. They wanted to practice. They understood the enormous importance of English.

I saw its importance in country after country in my travels around the world. Hostels were always my first choice. Every hostel invariably had guests from other countries.  Australia (a common occurrence), France, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, wherever.  Mostly young people. And many spoke English, at least a little.  Because they knew its convenience in world travel.

Though English is incredibly difficult. For them probably as difficult as Russian was for me. Let me give you just one little example of the difficulties. How many ways do we pronounce a word with the letters ou?  Now have fun – pronounce ours, then yours, then ouch, then touch, then through, then enough, then rouge, then wound. See! And this is just a starter.

Yet we mastered all these difficult subtleties, slowly, one at a time, because we were born here and grew up in the language. Yes, how lucky we are.

God bless America! God bless our English!

~ ~ ~ ~

Again I look forward to comments from you. I read them all. Don’t hesitate. Truly I’m eager to hear from you.







So how much is your peanut butter today?

By John Guy LaPlante

With 4 photos.

I love peanut butter, too. I’m not sure of the price today. It could be up or down. After all, as we know, just about everything at the supermarket goes on sale sooner or later.

But I have a neat system. I call it my “per unit game.”  It’s really a game and I love it.

Familiar with it? No? Well, you should be. You’ll save lots of money. And you’ll have fun playing it, too.

That is, if you like saving your pennies. I do. I insist on buying quality stuff, but at the best price. Pennies can add up to dollars fast.

Not everybody feels my way. I know a lady who pays scant attention to prices. She just snatches whatever she wants and drops it in her cart. If peanut butter, maybe the most expensive. And that’s it.  She enjoys playing bridge and Scrabble. But the per unit game? Nothing doing. Maybe you’re like her.

Let’s use peanut butter as our first example today. Peanut butter is so popular. As usual, there are many choices. Which to buy?

Now relax please. You can learn the per unit game in five minutes or so. The game is ultra-important because peanut butter comes in many brands.  And each brand has several varieties. Creamy, nutty, with honey, and so on. It also comes in several sizes. Most have the standard everyday price. But every week some will go on sale. So if you don’t insist on a certain brand and want to economize, what’s the best buy for you today?

The per unit game is the answer.  Paying it every time you shop is so important that I’m going to repeat it: per unit pricing.

Every supermarket stocks thousands of products.  And at least 95 percent of them are subject to unit pricing.  Here

Peanut butter! As usual, we are given many choices. Which should we buy?

in California, where I live now, unit pricing is a state law. Most states have a similar law. Maybe all 50 now.  Well, they do if they want to make sure their people get a fair deal.

The per unit price tells you how much an item costs per ounce or per pound or per quart or per whatever it is measured.  And it’s supposed to be posted near the item.

BUT—please notice my emphasis—the unit price is the tiniest price on the sticker! Much smaller than the other prices. You may have to squint. Why is it the tiniest? Something in me believes management doesn’t want me and you to pay attention to it.  But maybe I’m wrong.  Ha!

I’ve taken pictures for you. Look at the one of all the shelves of peanut butter. Some 100 different possibilities there. I counted 23 on sale. What’s your pleasure? Well, have fun choosing….

Now look at the second photo. It shows only two jars. Both on sale. Let’s assume you want the best buy. As the big numbers on the sticker show, one is normally $4.49 and is on sale for $3.99.  So 50 cents less.

It contains 18 ounces. It’s a mix of peanut butter and jelly. Now look close. Its normal unit price is 25 cents per ounce. So multiply that by 18, which is the price being advertised.

The other jar is $2.99 marked down to $2.49, so also 50 cents less. But it has 16 ounces. not 18.  And no jelly.The normal unit price is 18.7 and the sale unit price 15.6,  Not sensational. Still it’s a saving.  You decide.

Oh, you want to keep looking? Okay. As you see, there are others on sale, and in different sizes. Checking their unit prices will be the fastest and smartest way to go. Whether you’re checking different brands or sizes or ingredients.  Neat, I think you’ll agree.

To understand the game even better, look at the photo of the two fridge items. One is Open Nature Sorbet and the other Haagan-Dazs. Quite

Now check what I wrote and learn to play the per unit game.

different products.  If you choose the sorbet you’ll get more than if you will ice cream. The sorbet is $3.99 per quart marked down to  $3.50 but you must buy two. Its unit price is $7.98 cents reduced to #3.59. The ice cream’s unit price is $13.03 per quart reduced to $11.42. So the sorbet unit price is much cheaper.

Now one more: Signature Diced Tomatoes. Look at the photo down below.  Signature is the store’s house brand. House brands by and large are considered fine quality. Normal price of $1.49 on sale at 89 cents. Its normal unit price dropped from 10.3 cents per ounce to 6.2. This seems as good a bargain as you’ll find. You may want to take home several cans.

Playing the game may sound trivial. But if you shop once a week and have a family, you can go home with extra dollars. At year’s end you will have saved enough for a bigger and better TV set or a splurge weekend at a luxery hotel.

As you can tell, I enjoy the game. And know what? Now just about everything I buy is on sale.  Yes, indeed. I rarely have to pay the full price. Sure, it’s taken me time to reach this stage. At first, whenever I spotted a good buy in peanut butter, as one example, I’d buy not one but three or four jars. And so on.

And I did that with one item after another. Now I have a closet filled with my bargains and can choose from a wide variety. Which of course translates to more freedom in planning my next meal.

By the way, it’s good to have extra food in storage. You never know when some catastrophe might strike and leave stores closed for days.

The unit prices tell us these Signature diced tomatoes are one of the better buys.

Some items rarely go on sale. At my chain supermarket here, bananas, for instance.  For a long time they were 69 cents a pound (10 cents more for organic). a few weeks ago, the price jumped from 69 to 79. Bananas are a big seller. Many customers buy bananas regularly. I always have bananas on hand.

Sales must have plummeted. I say this because the store in a very short time dropped the price right back down to 69. That was a smart PR move. It takes just a few small things like that to drive good customers to a competing store.

So why am I writing about this? My Reader’s Digest, March issue,  featured on the cover as its most important article “40 Supermarket Secrets You Need to Know—An RD Special Report.”

Of course I read it. And checking unit pricing is not one of those top secrets!  I check unit pricing every time I shop. An awful omission. Incredible. It should have been Secret Number 1! And that’s how I got inspired to write this for you.

Well, the strategy for a chain supermarket’s sales is a very interesting topic but I must save it for another day. Heck, I’ll tell you a thing or two about that right now.

Of course,  as you may be aware, big chain supermarkets are sophisticated. Smart.  Efficient. Know what they’re doing.  That’s why so successful.

Here’s one example. At my supermarket, the sale for all items starts the minute it opens bright and early every Wednesday. And ends on Tuesday

Now this example makes the unit game a wee bit more interesting

night. Then prices jump back up to normal. True for the hundreds of stores in the chain, I believe. Week after week.

And on the next Wednesday, the store will open with a new list of items on sale, again for exactly seven days. And that will be the strategy all through the year.

Staging these sales requires enormous planning and hard work.  Somebody at headquarters decides what will go on sale and at what prices. Much of that decision results from product availability. For produce, different harvest seasons. Produce not only from our country but from Mexico (a lot) and Costa Rica (bananas and other produce) and Hawaii (pineapples and other ) and Canada (many products with maple syrup as a small example) and Portugal (olives and other) and so on.

And at holidays, customers expect big sale items.  Christmas, Thanksgiving, Fourth of July, and so on.

For sure every store will have to be supplied with additional inventory because more people will buy. The sale prices have to be set. All these sale items with new prices will have to get printed up for newspaper ads and their website and the thousands of flyers they have to have ready for customers to study.

Well, on Tuesday at midnight, with the staff gone home and all customers locked out, an expert crew will come in and get started.  They will have to rip off all the old sale prices–a big job in itself– and post the new ones–another big job. Some aisles are six to eight shelves high. To apply the new prices, the workers will have to reach high and squat low. Hard work. And get it all finished before the store opens in the early a.m.

Not many of us customers realize that. We have little idea how much work all this involves and how costly it is. But the chains do it for good reason, of course. Customers want bargains! The bargains keep us coming back. Many are itching to know what the sale items and their prices will be. And the chain is praying that the volume of sale items scooped up will make up for the reduced prices and all this work.

And here’s something else you may not know. Many manufacturers and distributors of these various products pay the stores for better positioning.  Ever notice what gets placed on the shelves that we face at the beginning and end of every aisle? Well, chances are that the chain is collecting “rent” for those. Even getting paid extra to place items at eye level on those shelves. Why? Because that’s where many customers do most of their picking.

Well, to get back to peanut butter, I wasn’t sure what the best deals would be this week. Now I know. But I’m going to pass. I still have three jars at home.

But there’s one more thing I must do.  I must write to Reader’s Digest and point out their awful goof!  How they didn’t list unit pricing in their top 40 Supermarket Secrets. It should have been Number 1! I hope I get a reply. If I do, I’ll let you know.

~ ~ ~ ~

Again I look forward to your comments, good and not so good. I do enjoy them. By the way, some of you send me comments that are a delight. Thank you. I tip my hat to you.


Did I confuse you?

By John Guy LaPlante

Could be. If so, I’m sorry.

I’m referring to the blog post you just got from me: “Do your duty. Vote! But maybe better, don’t vote.”

I went on about that at length, stressing the importance of voting on issues and candidates we are familiar with. And refraining when we don’t have solid info.

And I concluded in saying about myself in latter cases, “But that’s what it might be my duty to do. Not vote.” I thought that was crystal clear. This is where I may have erred. You may have concluded I would not vote at all. No, no, no!

I have been voting since I came of age. I  have no intention of stopping now.

I should have said, “my duty to do when I’m not clear about an issue or a candidate.”

I have this grave doubt because of the dearth of responses from you. Unusual. And the chiding from a couple of you.

If I misled  you, my apologies.

Do your duty, all of you. Vote …

By John Guy LaPlante

But maybe better, don’t vote. I’m serious.

I’m no longer a Connecticut citizen. I’ve moved to California, as many of you know. I’m registering my car here and applying for a California license and want to vote as a Californian.

Hey, I’ve been voting since I turned of age. Of course I want to continue.

After all, it’s essential to vote. That’s preached to us at every election. It can make a whopping difference. We’ve all seen how a key election can switch fast and decisively. Somebody wins by one or two votes. Somebody loses by one or two. The majority always wins!

That’s our core belief as citizens of our democracy. We the people have the final say. So, let’s make sure and vote!

But know what, I’ve come to realize that may be bad advice. I know that makes me sound awful. But  hear me out.

Democracy as a way of running a country isn’t even 300 years old. How come it’s such a late comer? Well, it was long thought that giving the people the right to vote defied common sense. What?!

Sure. What has made sense since the dawn of man, mind you, is the belief that the strongest and smartest should make the decisions. Joe Average and Betty Ordinary and their likes just weren’t up to the responsibility.

These smartest and strongest began to be called kings or dictators or czars or bishops or archdukes or even the sons of God. And they ruled from the top down. Those below them kowtowed. Or else.

And these at the top were so smart and strong that they believed their successors as leaders should be their sons.

After all, they inherited the same smart and strong genes.  And on it went.

Then some radicals began saying the people should decide. The people should choose their leaders, and for a fixed turn. That was called democracy. What a wild idea. Every person was worthy. Every adult would have one vote. All should speak their piece. And anybody who felt he could be a leader should have the right to run for the job. If most people decided he was good enough, he’d get it.

So now it could be from the bottom up. Crazy?!  This defied centuries of thinking. Such an unnatural idea it was. But it took root. The French Revolution turned the world upside down believing that unnatural idea. Our founders built our USA on that unnatural idea. And our country made history as the first in the world to start out practicing that.

But still some protested. Hey, they said, take a look at all the natural differences among people. Men were different from women with different capacities and different roles. Some were older. More intelligent and savvy. Some were younger. Some not very smart. Some less experienced. Some barely able to run their own life.

Some were brilliant and some were morons. Some hard-working, some lazy. Some were kind and considerate and broad-minded. Others were narrow-minded and vicious, even criminal. On and on.

So exceptions began to be made. Whole classes of people were excluded. Women. People just off the boat from a different country. People who looked different. Blacks. Hispanics. For a while, Japanese, even Japanese born here. People with different religious beliefs.  People under a certain page.  The feeble-minded. People who could not read. Men who refused to take up arms when called upon.  On and on.

And different countries, even different states, set up different rules. After all, that was the smart thing to do.

Even today that  kind of thinking  seems to make sense. How can an 18-year-old have the wisdom of a 48-year-old?  How can a woman spending her days at home taking care of the kids and doing the laundry and cooking the meals make big decisions with the smarts of the man of the house. After all he was the one leaving every morning to compete with other men and earn enough to support his family and make a good future for them?

How can a person who knows only a few words of English be allowed to vote? How can a drop-out from the sixth grade be as savvy as a university graduate and have an equal vote? How can a simple Joe Blow toe the mark with someone who can start a business, run a factory, manage a bank, practice medicine or law, publish a newspaper,  fly an airliner, become an officer in our armed services, teach economics or computer science, author books, invent important things?

How could the votes of all these people of varying ability have the same value?  One person, one vote.  So crazy!

This bothered many.  What to do?  Well, one thing was to educate everybody.  A great idea!  And so we built schools and made going to school compulsory.  At first, just grade school. Well, then to the age of 14, or maybe 16. Then through high school. And we even taught them civics—how to be a good citizen, how to do the right thing.

And we built public colleges and universities. And we gave those who completed this schooling a piece of paper certifying they had completed it—a diploma, a degree. And this way, gradually and steadily, we’d develop more good citizens capable of making smart decisions affecting all of us.

Of course, people who ran for elections wanted to do their best to get elected. Did so honorably. But some did bad things. Falsified – stole – votes.  Paid others to cast their votes for them. Browbeat people to make them vote the right way.  Not nice. Often illegal. But the important thing was to get everybody to vote.

Somehow we felt all this would work out. The end results would be satisfactory. It would be the will of the people. Overall our country would be blessed with progress. We’d elect good leaders and we’d pass good laws.

Nonsense. Some voters cast their ballot with only the faintest idea whether to vote for or against. They will vote for someone or something on a mere hunch. On the basis of a few soundbites or headlines or billboards.  Suggestions from neighbors. They may decide on how a candidate has voted on one or two issues but ignore his performance on dozens of other issues.

May decide on the basis of how the candidate speaks or looks.  Or on the 140-character tweets he sends out helter skelter. Maybe because he did them a favor or gave their baby a peck on the cheek or sent them a New Year’s calendar or a computer-generated birthday card.

Remember here “he” also means “she.”  But aren’t these things that I’ve described part of the way democracy works?

Yet somehow our country lurches along. Being an enlightened and responsible voter is a formidable challenge. It sounds impossible. Certainly it is difficult. But it’s what each of us should attempt.

Now look at me. I am going to be a citizen of California with all the rights and privileges and responsibilities thereof. I want to be a good citizen. Cast wise votes.

But know what? There is so much about California that I do not know.  California is so huge.  Should be three or four different states — there are such humongous differences between various sections. Has an economy bigger than 90 percent of all the countries in the world. Has to deal with an ongoing cornucopia of problems. Faces enormous challenges on many fronts.

Yet my vote as an octogenarian will be worth just as much as that of an octogenarian who was born here and lived here all his life!

And what do I know about all these California problems and challenges? Enough to cast a sensible vote? Well, maybe for whoever is going to run for governor.  And U.S. Senator. That’s about it. It would be foolish to believe or act otherwise.

How about here in Morro Bay, my new home town? There is so much that I do not know. I barely know the names of the mayor and the city manager and the police chief. The fire chief? Sorry. Those in the City Council? They are mere names in the newspapers.

How about our big issues?  I know what they are.  Well, I think I do. Broaden our economy beyond tourism and beyond attracting retirees to move here. Developing a better public water supply. More affordable housing. Providing better inducements to keep young people living here. Deciding what to do about the homeless among us —  this is a nice place to be homeless so we have quite a few.

Oh, I read about these problems.  Hear about them. But they are complicated.  Controversial. Involve lots of $$$. Will have an impact for years to come.  On our people and taxes and progress.

Yes, I am going to have the right to vote. But should I vote?  On some of these issues, definitely not. I would be hard put to stand up and explain in plain English how I’d justify my vote.

What I hope is that all who do vote have studied these issues in depth. And know more about the candidates than I do. And if they’re running as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents. And are voting with solid conviction. I said Independents. Hey, do we have any nowadays?

So as you see, I’m at a loss. What to do?  Well, what my conscience tells me to do is, sit it out, John. Don’t vote on some of these issues. Or some of these candidates. Voting for them would be just as smart as flipping a coin for heads or tail. Not smart. Dumb.

Yet somebody could point a finger at me. Lecture me. “Hey, John, you’re not doing your duty!”

Oh, well….

But that’s what it might be my duty to do. Not vote. And that’s my decision.

P.S.  Here are a couple of quotes that I found interesting.

“Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others that have already been tried.” – Unknown

“Democracy is rife with imperfections. It works only because most of the time the imperfections cancel themselves out. Though far too often they don’t.” – Unknown

What do you think?!

~ ~ ~ ~

As always I look forward to your comments. I read them all. Good or not so good. I do so because you’re writing them out of conviction, of course. These days. hearing from you is the one and only reward I get for scribbling these posts.



No Airstream for me all these years but!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos.

Morro Bay, CA – Well, yesterday at Albertsons supermarket I spotted a super-duper RV. And what marvelous memories it sparked. RVs are common in this scenic tourist mecca. I see them every day. But gosh, this baby was fabulous!

Why so? Most RV’s look like, well, ordinary RVs. As usual I was getting my exercise on my tricycle and I spotted this

Look how sleek and beautiful!

beauty. It was parked. Whoever’s RV this was was shopping in Albertsons. I made an abrupt halt.

It had an aerodynamic look. Just missing the wings, that’s all.  A beautiful sculptured body, sheathed in gleaming aluminum. Not a scratch anywhere. Sculptured is the right word. Look at my photos. The long window on each side made it look longer and sleeker. I walked all around it. It looked brand new right out of the dealer’s showroom.

By the time  I got to the rear of it, I had a hunch. Could this be?  I spotted its make. Yep, this was an Airstream. My hunch was right.  And it had a California plate, which looked brand new, too.

Back at the front, glancing up at the windshield hoping to peek at the  inside, I saw a handicap placard hanging. Well, I have a handicap card, too.  Lucky me. He too must be an old guy. But his wallet was certainly a lot fatter than mine.

Strange though. Every Airstream I’ve ever seen has been a trailer, and I’ve seen many. They are special to me, as you’ll see.  This was not a trailer. It was an RV. A Mercedes RV!

That make, Airstream, invoked Wally Byam. He was the creator of the Airstream. That was way back before World War II.

Mercedes Airstream Interstate!

Wally Byam designed and built and sold them. Many makers were building trailers back then. More and better highways. Gas was cheap. More people could afford one. But he made the Airstream the best. It was THE trailer to aspire to.

Wally Byam  was also a marketing whiz. He got the brilliant idea of organizing owners into his Airstream Club. And he would lead them on caravans. His big  car and Airstream were at the very front. Long caravans, lasting weeks, with two or three dozen rigs, even more. Across the United States. Through Europe. Once even thousands of miles through undeveloped Africa. Those Wally Byam caravans were played up in magazines and newsreels. What a buzz they created.

My memories raced back to the 1960’s. And right then and there I decided to take pictures of this beauty and did that. And blog about it. Because way back in the 1960’s I dreamed of owning an Airstream.  I felt you’d be interested.

I waited. The owner didn’t come out. I hoped to chat with him and his missus. He wouldn’t be traveling alone.   So I continued pedaling up and around.   Somehow I missed them. When I circled back, I saw the Airstream driving off. Darn!

Yes, way back then I was hot for an Airstream.

I was 33. I was a journalist at the Worcester Telegram-Gazette in Massachusetts. A staff writer on that metro paper’s Sunday magazine.

One day after work I stopped at Charlie Glowick’s gas station to tank up. He was pumping, of course. That’s how it was back then.  I spotted something I had never seen at the far side of his lot. It was a tent set up on what looked like a utility trailer. The trailer had an extension flaring out about 20 inches on each side.

“Charlie, what the heck is that?”

“It’s a tent trailer,  John. It can sleep four. Folds down nice and neat. They’re new, you know. You can go off to a state park and camp. Or private campgrounds around. There are more and more of them. You can go for a weekend or a month. It’s great fun. And it doesn’t cost that much. Great as a family thing.”

“How much is it?”

“No, no, John. Right now I’m renting them, that’s all.  Got three of them. Just $60 a week.”  I was earning $97 a week, so quite a sum. Still…

He didn’t say all that in one breath. I’m summarizing. I paid him and hurried home. Pauline had supper nearly ready.  “Hurry, hurry, dear,” I said. “I just saw something terrific. I want you to see it!’

But we had little Arthur and Monique. “You get them ready. I want you to see this before Charlie Glowick closes! I’ll clear the table.” She had no idea what I was talking about.

He was still open.  He showed  us everything. How the drawer on each side was really a double bed. How the drawers slid and locked into place.  How there was storage space under the beds. How the whole thing folded down.

“Of course, you need a trailer hitch,” he said. “But considering, that ain’t a big deal. I can put one on for you if you like.”

We had a four-door sedan. He said that would work out fine.

I was eager to say yes. I looked at Pauline. I saw her thinking.  And thinking.  We knew peanuts about camping. Had no equipment.  And little Arthur and little Monique—she was barely out of diapers!  I waited. Pauline still didn’t speak. Finally! “Okay, John. We’re just renting. Not buying. Right?” I nodded.

I had a week of vacation coming up in two weeks. “I’ll put you down for that,” Charlie said. “You’ll have a great time. Make sure and take pictures!” I gave him a deposit.

Forthose  two weeks we talked over where to go. Made lists of what to take. We were on a budget. Didn’t want to go out and buy stuff. We did have a camp stove and ice cooler. We’d just borrow stuff from home. I did go to Sears and bought an 8 mm. movie camera for $24.95, I think it was. Expensive. All new to me.

And we set off for Shenandoah National Park in Virginia, 400 miles away or so. In the Blue Ridge Mountains. About a third of the way there, we pitched camp in Squantz Pond State Park in Connecticut $3 for the night, I believe. It was getting dark out.

It had trailer spots, each with a plank picnic table and stone fireplace. A busy place with people camping at just about every spot. A water spigot nearby. A washroom with toilets 500 feet away. Quite clean.

Set up the trailer, Simple supper. Took a while to ready Arthur and Monique for bed. We were tired.  Well, I slept with Arthur at my side and Pauline  with Monique. Yes, it took some adjusting.

Up early, I went out  to get breakfast going. I had my office leather shoes on. The grass was wet. I had never experienced dew. My poor shoes. We had a lot to learn….

Ready to go, we took a ride around to look at the park. Beautiful. Well maintained. The pond itself was beautiful. Ponds are small. This was big! For a minute I thought we should stay right here. (Do Google Squantz Pond State Park. Or Bing it.)  We could have a great week right here.  Didn’t bring it up. On we went.

We made Shenandoah National Park by the next night. Our very first national park to visit. So beautiful. So interesting. What a good choice.

Fine weather. Much to see, including picturesque little towns.  The kids were sweet. No problems. Lots of  fun. Lots of togetherness. Pauline got into it as much as I did. My little movie turned out to be a good idea. It did capture lots of nice memories. A fine week. By the time we got home, we knew we’d like to do more camping, and with a tent trailer. Charlie  Glowick had steered me right.

But we’d have to wait. A tent trailer of our own was out of reach.

Well, it so happened we did acquire one.  We had a Sears Roebuck Catalog. Remember its famous catalogs? They came out every year. Plus smaller seasonal ones? We were Sears catalog customers.

Well, they had a tent trailer for sale. Obviously a Nimrod but with their own name on it. It was meticulous described. All the dimensions, quality of the tent, how it folded, on and on. Very tempting. But too expensive.

With all those precise dimensions from the catalog right at hand, I decided to build one. I was a journalist. My tool skills were laughable. But I was so eager.

I remembered Fred Walsh nearby. A retired school shop teacher. (Do we still have shop teachers?) Mr. Walsh was very handy and had lots of tools. I showed him the picture from the catalog and explained what I wanted to do. Finally he agreed to help me.

I went to an auto junkyard and told the owner what I was looking for. He showed the rear end axle of a  junk car. He said he could take that and weld a simple frame on it out of angle iron. To the exact Sears dimensions I showed him. His price sounded good. I said yes and he did it. Included a tow bar, of course.

We did the rest in Mr. Walsh’s backyard. He did all the smart stuff and I all the dumb stuff. He did the major stuff alone during the day. It was summer and I’d rush and go work on it after supper. It all went quite well. The plywood drawers slid in and out fine. We sheathed the body with shiny aluminum. Beautiful!

He was pleased with it. I was proud of it. All possible because of him.

But now I needed the tent and poles for it. So I contacted Sears and ordered a tent like the one on the trailer in their catalog. I told them a long one. I said I needed a replacement tent, along with the tent poles. Okay, they said, but send us the serial number on your trailer.

“What?!” I panicked. But I went back to Charlie’s gas station. Lifted the serial number from one of his, changed a few digits and sent it in. Sears sent me the tent and the poles. (Hope I don’t spend too much time in Purgatory for that!)

But, if you think about it, Sears got to sell  a tent and poles it would not have sold otherwise. And I learned a thing or two.

Well, my hand-made rig, with all the stuff I had to buy and the check I wrote out for Mr. Walsh, turned out nearly as expensive as the Sears model! Oh, well. But we were so excited about adventures coming up! Along with little Arthur and Monique. Never possible until this.

We did a lot of weekend camping. We’d leave right after work on Friday and head for a great weekend.

At a state park on Cape Cod. $2 a night. Or another in Rhode Island—Burlingame, very fine—for seashore splashing in the salt water, then swimming the salt off in Burlingame’s pretty lake. We loved it. So did our little two.

We’d cook supper on our camp stove and dine on a park picnic table at our site. Toast a few marshmallows. Fun. Togetherness. Affordable.

We did so much of it and in so many places and my enthusiasm continued so high that n time, I started writing a column for the Telegram. It was called “Camps & Camping.” It ran every week in the Sunday edition. It was an add-on to my regular job for a bit of extra money.  I did it just as much for the fun of it.

No exaggeration now. I wrote it for 10 years without missing a Sunday. Once I wrote it from my hospital bed when I got laid up. I developed lots of regular readers. Amazing how family camping was catching on!

Now fast forward. I’d been promoted to staff writer on the Sunday Telegram’s own magazine, Feature Parade. To me, it was the best writing job at the Telegram. I got two weeks’ vacation a year. I asked Fred Rushton, our editor, for four weeks off—six in all. The extra four would be without pay.

“Why, John? Some problem at home?”

“No, no.” I told him I wanted to take Pauline and the kids on a six-week round-trip to California. She was teaching school. That would work.  My dream trip! And I’d write stories about it for Feature Parade. And he could pay me for them at the mag’s standard free-lance rate. He hemmed and hawed, then said okay.

We did it—11,000 miles all the way to California and back.  Wonderful! A few things went bad, but we made it home safe, sound, and pleased.

And of course we used our home-made tent trailer. But I got a new Falcon station wagon. I set up the back seat as a play yard for our two kids. And off we went.

Along the way, I mailed Fred half a dozen major Sunday features with  photos, every feature with a central Massachusetts peg. I had a small Olivetti portable. I loved it.  I’d set it up at our campsite and type away.

When we got back, I also wrote 22 columns with photos about national parks we had explored. Those ran in our Sunday Travel Section. I produced them at home all while carrying on my regular Feature Parade work. I was a busy boy.

In time, on the side, I wrote a book on all this. It was a memoir about our family camping experiences.  Some Telegram pals I showed it to thought it was great. But I never got to sell it.

My mistake was that I sent it to major book publishers. The biggest in the business. The rejection slips hurt. Thinking back now, I should have sent it to a niche publisher. Live and learn.

Many road trip adventures followed.  With Arthur and Monique, and then  little Mark, our third. But In time, sad to say, Pauline and I split.

Over the years, many trips.  I retired. I switched from the tent trailer to RV’s. So this was camping quite different. It was RVing. Camping on four wheels.

My first RV was the fabled, fabulous little VW Westfalia. A used one. The first and best of its genre. The one that turned legions of folks into RVing. I had long given up on ever owning an Airstream. The Westfalia was tiny, but I’d be traveling solo.

Mine was an ’87. I paid $1,100, I believe. Just a few weeks ago I spotted one. Same vintage. Looked absolutely brand-new. It was parked. Just had to speak with its owner. He told me it was totally restored. Bought it 18 months ago. Had paid $33,000 for it! He said, “I use it to go fishing in the Cascades.” Wow!”

Well, in it I explored much of our USA. Wrote many free-lance pieces as an ongoing series for the Worcester Sunday Telegram.

The Boston Globe in its Sunday travel section published a long summary of one of these coast to coast trips. On Monday morning, a friend named Brian called me and said, “John, I read it. The paper was two inches thick. And yours was the longest in the whole paper. I checked!”

I laughed. “Thank you, Brian. You say the longest! But for sure the best, too, right?” He laughed, too.  He didn’t dare disagree.

I wore that Westfalia out, then bought another.  Criss-crossed not only through our 48 states. In two-long summer trips, I traveled 15,000 miles all through Mexico. From its border right down to the bottom. From Mazatlan on the Pacific Coast to Tampico on the Gulf of Mexico. I ran into so many interesting people. A few things went sour, of course, but what great travels.

Articles about all those  got to be published here or there.

My latest big trip was four years ago. By this time I was driving a Ford E-Van.  I had converted into a one-person camper.  I was then living here in California — six months here, six back back home  in Connecticut.  It was time to head back.

It would be a 3,000-mile ride on the Interstates. If I drove 300 miles a day, I’d get home in 10 days.  Fairly easy. But I wanted to go slow and see a lot. I totaled 5,273 miles and it took me 101 days. A fantastic finale to my roving days.

I’ve locked in a ton of memories with all the articles and columns and blogs I’ve pounded out about all that and other topics over the years.

Which brings me right back to Wally Byam and his beautiful Airstreams. And the fabulous Airstream RV I spotted in the Albertsons parking lot. If only Wally could see it! How pleased he would be to see Airstreams till leading the pack. How he would applaud this model’s comfort and luxury.

I did go online and check out that model, the Interstate. Its price was $176,000. And now add on the sales tax and the insurance. How about that?!

I hope that well-off old retiree and his lady get to use it for more than just a weekend or two at places like Squantz Pond State Park. They should do our whole 48, plus Alaska!

Well,  my dream of owning an Airstream remained just that, a dream.

But what wonderful family camping and RVing I’ve gotten to enjoy! Over so many years … so many decades!

These days I’m so happy just pedaling around on my little trike. It’s nice and warm and sunny out now. So  I’m going to break and enjoy lunch and then take a spin on it. My first stop, the public library. And who knows, maybe I’ll spot something interesting at Albertsons.

~ ~ ~ ~

As you know, I welcome your comments, good and not so good. I read them all. It’s my big pleasure these days in doing this. Send one now.  Johnguylaplante@yahoo.com or @gmail.










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