April 21, 2018

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.










My friend Bill Alpert, impassioned fiddler!

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — My oh my, how passions can drive us! There are two kinds, as we know, good passions and evil ones.

Bill playing a tune for a very unusual shopper–read about him in my story.

 My new friend William Alpert has a passion that drives him. A beautiful one. It’s music. More than that, it’s making music. More than that, it’s making music with his violin. And as a concert violinist.

 Those close to me say I have such a driving passion. They are right.  It’s writing. More than that, it’s writing words that others might enjoy. 

Would you believe? That Bill—he prefers Bill—fell in love with  the violin when he was in the sixth grade—only 11. And he’s just made it into Social Security and he is still fiddling. Hey, I’d bet he plays seven days a week.

He’s told me amazing things. One really made me marvel — he’s been playing the same violin for 31 years. The very one he was  playing when I first met him two weeks ago. He had held it out proudly for me to look over. I know zilch about violins.

He said, “It’s a Caressa. Made in France in 1901. Very, very good!” I put in that exclamation mark because that’s the way he said it. Imagine, a violin more than a century old.

“Your bow, too?”

“No, a bow is usually a separate purchase. Each has to be just right for you. The bow has to have the perfect action, weight and balance. I usually play a fine Pernambuco wood bow, but here, out in the open air—it’s sometimes a bit damp out here — I use a high tech carbon fiber bow from Germany.”

Well, Bill didn’t say this, but I believe if a fire came up at home, his Caressa would be the first thing he’d try and save. He’d dash out with it in one hand and his wife Melanie in the other. They’ve been married for 40 years. She’s a musician, too. That’s one reason they fell in love. I’ll tell you about her in a minute.

That first meeting of ours was in front of Albertsons. It’s our biggest supermarket. Bill was playing his Caressa there. 

Yes, playing as a young up-and-hopeful sidewalk fiddler, mind you. But with a music stand set up and a stack of music on it. And he had his violin case open on the sidewalk, ready for shoppers to toss in a buck or two in appreciation.  And he had just told me he plays in the San Luis Obispo Symphony. That’s the big orchestra here. The symphony player and the sidewalk fiddler — so interesting!

Here’s how we met. I have a trike—you know, a tricycle. I’ve been a bike rider all my life. Ten years ago I took a bad spill and quit. Then I discovered the trike, lucky me. It’s much safer. It’s now my main way to exercise. Besides, it’s so practical, with baskets front and rear. And such good fun. I use it every day. I can go a week without driving my car.

I shop at Albertsons. It butts up against a big Rite-Aid. They are side by side in the same sprawling building. Rite-Aid is big but Albertsons is bigger. I live nearby.

The huge parking lot in front of the two has become my exercise yard. It has 10 big driveways leading up to it. Cars park nose-in on both sides. I pedal up and down those driveways, from far left to far right, and then do them all again, and then once more. I put in half hour or so.  I’m sure some consider it odd.

It’s surprising how many customers recognize me – “that old gent on the trike!” Some smile. Give me a little wave. Even ask about my trike.

I get to see a lot of interesting goings-on. One day I spotted this fellow fiddling in front of the two stores. He was new to me. He was right between the two, hoping to attract customers from both. Rite-Aid has one front entrance and Albertsons has two.

He was so far from those entrances that he attracted practically nobody. Oh, well, I thought.

On another day, I spotted him again. Playing on the same spot. I felt bad for him. Pedaled up close, listened to him play for a minute — serious music, quite beautiful — and pitched a dollar into his open case. And pedaled off.

The next time he showed up, I rode up to him again. He recognized me and nodded while continuing to fiddle. When he paused to change to a different piece of music, I said, “Hello. I like the way you play.” He smiled and thanked me.

We chatted a bit. He is a pro. No doubt about it. He looks like a pro. He plays like a pro. His music says he’s a pro. His white hair and goatee make him look, what shall I say, professorial. It turns out he does teach.

Sets up his music stand every time. Puts his  music on it. Will play 30 pieces or so in his two-hour gig.  Selections from the great composers–Bach, Handel, Beethoven and Mozart. Showpieces from Kreisler and Paganini. Even the occasional Cole Porter standard.

Sometimes he plays a piece for practice. He’s going to play it on the concert stage and wants to work out the bugs beforehand. Makes sense.

He shows up two or three afternoons a week. Standing and playing there on the concrete sidewalk for two hours takes stamina. Not a problem.  He’s lean. Looks like an athlete—a runner maybe?

He told me music had been his career.  Said he practiced every day at home, all by himself. Here he could practice in front of people, which was important to him. Even pick up a few dollars. I understood that. A nice man, I thought. Finally I said, “May I make a suggestion?”

“Of course. Shoot!”

“You would do a lot better if you got closer to the door of either Rite-Aid or Albertsons. But better Albertsons because it’s busier.”  

He nodded. “Yes, I considered that. But I don’t want to be a nuisance.”

“Bill”– we were on a first-name basis now — “you will not be a nuisance. You’re nice free entertainment. Go ahead. Shift over.”

He was reluctant but I nudged him. He started to set up closer to the supermarket door. “No, no!” I told him. “Go to the next door. More people use that one.  Yeah, the next door!”

Which he did, again reluctantly. I didn’t let up. “Shift five or six feet more! Closer to the entrance!” Which he did.

“One more suggestion, if I may.” I expected he might tell me to buzz off. But he listened, again being nice about it. “Bill, when people approach, look up a bit as you play. Look at them. Smile a little. Hey, your take-home may be better.” He chuckled but nodded.

“Great!” I said and pedaled off.

I saw him again on another day. But gosh, he was much farther back from where I had put him. I pedaled up. He lowered his violin and smiled a bit. He was embarrassed.

“You were right, John. You’d be a great business manager. That was a much better spot. But an Albertsons manager came out and told me I was soliciting and that wasn’t allowed. So here I am!”

I was astounded. But it was so.

One thing I’ve noticed. Sometimes he plays with zero customers around. But he plays as if half a dozen were listening and sizing him up. I liked that.

One day I was taking pictures of him and a man was entering Albertsons. An older man. He listened a bit, then stood closer, and really listened.  I could see he liked what he was hearing. It turned out that he was a professional musician. In fact, a composer (and big-newspaper journalist) — Mark Abel from Cambria, a few miles north. Do check him out at  www.markabelmusic.com. 

By now I had gotten to know Bill quite well. In fact, he had given me his business card – the wwwalpertstudio.com—“A Studio of Voice

Bill instructs at any age– was proud of these young virtuosi at a graduation concert.

and Violin.” He teaches violin and I saw that he is a member of the Suzuki Association of the Americas and American String Teachers Association.

His wife Melanie handles the voice part.  She’s a former opera singer and an active member of the National Association of Teachers of Singing (NATS).

I liked their website and enjoyed reading about their teaching philosophy. It seems practical and effective.

This wasn’t on his website. He told it to me. He was a music major at Cal Poly Pomona and UCLA. He said, “All of us were encouraged, in fact mandated to play for other students. To get comfortable playing for a savvy audience. That’s a big part of becoming professional.”

Melanie was a voice major at Cal Poly next door in San Luis Obispo. “We met through a friend,” he told me. “It was a plot. Melanie’s

He and wife Melanie are a team. Here she directs a choral concert.

plot!” He chuckled. They’ve been married 40 years.

After they graduated and wed, Bill found that earning a living as a young pro was challenging. He went into a family printing and advertising business, and continued to perform and study the violin during increasingly rare spare moments. But never stopped.

During that time, he auditioned and won a position in a professional orchestra, the Redlands Symphony in the Los Angeles area. It was a position he held for 30 years until moving to our Central Coast. He plays in several groups.

I was surprised that they’ve been in Morro Bay only since 2014. They quickly opened a new teaching studio out of their home on Yerba Buena Street and both teach actively, as they had for many years in the Los Angeles area.

Their son Brandon recently moved to Paso Robles a few miles from here. He told me Brandon and his newlywed wife Lauren are both gifted, professional level performers in musical theater and acting.

Bill  from his long-time teaching insists that anyone with the desire can develop musically.

“That just isn’t so,” I told him. As a little kid, I took violin lessons. I felt I did my best. My teacher threw her hands up. In seventh grade we were all tested for the school band. I flunked. 

Oh, a bit later I also took piano lessons because a teacher told my mom of course I could learn to play. It was all a total waste, to the great chagrin of my dear mom.

And my chagrin, too, I do admit. I have a totally tin ear. Sadly, there’s no pill, no therapy, no encouragement that will cure it. Yet I listen to music a lot. Always have nice music on at home, even as I work at my desk. Just can’t make music.

Bill was so convinced that anybody can learn that  ater I wondered … might I finally have succeeded in playing a tune or two if he had coached me? Maybe, maybe …..

Anyway, there’s no doubt about it. A passion can drive a person to do impressive things. Bill is a clear example. For sure Melanie is passionate about her singing, too. I’ll bet their musicality is the core of their compatibility.

I believe Bill will  keep fiddling right through his old, old age. And on his Caressa.

Well, I’m in my old, old age and as I told you, I still feel a passion. It’s sitting at my keyboard and writing things like this. Bill is happy with his passion and so am I. How fortunate we are.

I hope the same can be said for you.

                                                                                 ~ ~ ~ ~

Again, my readers,  I look forward to hearing from you. I assure you I read your comments, whether you’re enthusiastic or less than. Your comments are my only payback. I’m even happier when you include a bit about yourself. Send me a few words right now, please.  Either johnguylaplante@yahoo or @gmail will do the job.

If you’re new to my work, go to www.johnguylaplante.com. Right there at the bottom of my home page, you will see the archive of my posts. Glance at them. Click on any one that appeals and it will open fully.



Fun facts about my new home state of CA

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, California – Folks I get to meet here often get very curious about where I hail from. For sure I’m not a born and bred native. A minute listening to me tells them that. My “accent” tips them off, would you believe?!

I put “accent” in quotes because I’m positive I don’t have one. They’re the ones who have an accent! In all my travels over the years, I’ve noticed that wherever I find myself, the locals have an accent. Never, never  me! I’ll bet that if you travel, you’ve experienced the same darn thing.

When they ask, I give them my standard spiel. “Well, I’m from the lower half of New England. Born in Rhode Island. My working years in Massachusetts. And my Social Security years largely in Connecticut.”

Lots of them know zilch about those three fine states. So I add a zinger. “But know what? If you shifted those three states here to California, they’d be just a couple of counties. Yes, for sure!”

Their eyes really open wide when they hear that.

That happened again just last evening. It made me wonder, am I right about that? But in 10 minutes today Google gave me all the data I needed to check it out. In fact, Google gave me the square miles of each state. But also its population, well, as of 2016. Very interesting compared to California … especially after finding out California has 58 counties.

For your information, Morro Bay is in San Luis Obispo County. Now do take a look at Google’s numbers.

STATE                  SQUARE MILES         POPULATION

California                     163,696                  39,250,000

SLO County, CA            3,616                       281,401


Rhode Island                 1,212                    1,056,000

Massachusetts             10,565                   6,812,000

Connecticut                    5,432                    3,576,000

TOTALS                          17,209                  11,444,000

Yes, California has 58 counties. Of course, some are bigger than others. But their average size is roughly 2,700 square miles.  Some have so many people they’re elbow to elbow. Others are practically empty.

So my guestimate that my three states back east would be just a couple of counties here, well, a couple of the bigger counties, is correct.  In fact, Little Rhody, my birth state, could tuck into San Luis Obispo County here with the extra two thirds of the county totally empty. Yet, if that happened, the county would have nearly four times as many people.  Amazing!

All of which made me look a sharp look at a map of our 48 states between the Atlantic and Pacific.  It’s striking how as you move west, the states get bigger and bigger, and in many cases, smaller in population. With California the dramatic exception!

Which made me think of that famous old saying, “Go west, young man!” And to be gender polite now,  I insist on saying, “You, too, young woman!” I’ll bet you’d like it here.  I do though I still get homesick a bit. But I’m far from being young anymore. And, of course, homesickness is like seasickness. You get over it.

But don’t too many of you pack up and come. That would skew my statistics!

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Once a bibliophile, always…

By John Guy LaPlante

Here are the eight I happily took home.. Quite varied as you see. Not a novel among them. And not a big haul after spending an hour and a half at the sale. But what fun I had!

… Yes, always a bibliophile. That’s me. I love books!

Hey, if you enjoy reading blogs like this, that may well be you, too.

So no wonder I went to last week’s book sale at our Morro Bay Public Library. It’s a great sale, staged by the Friends of the Library. In fact, I scribbled in its date on my calendar six weeks ago the minute I heard it was coming up.

This sale pops up three times a year. Yes, every four months, which is unusual.  Public library book sales are common across the country. Wherever I was living I was a regular. But they’re annual sales … semi-annual in a few.

But three a year! Gosh, the sales require such enormous work by the Friends. They’re all volunteers … don’t get a penny … are rewarded only by the flush of feeling good for doing it for the community. And the applaud of the library staffers, of course.

Enormous work to gather the books and CDs and DVDs and audio books. Get the word out.  Stage it….you know, set up

Of course I’m smiling. So happy to pedal home with my finds. Just $8. Yes, 13 pounds of fine reading for $8! We all love a bargain, don’t we?!

dozens of tables, arrange the books according to novels and health and gardening and fine arts and home maintenance and poetry and other genres.

Manage the lines of customers pressing to get in. Collect the money for their purchases. Replenish the tables as the day goes on, then pack up and store the left-overs.  And soon afterward, start to prepare the next one.

Now a strange thing. Think about it. I go to the library every day of the five it is open, which is Tuesday through Saturday. It has thousands of books.  And rarely do I borrow a book to read at home. How come? I go to read its fine selection of daily newspapers plus a dozen magazines I favor.

I said a strange thing. Yes, because I never call it a day without a book in my hands. I pick one up from a shelf by my bed, settle my head on my pillow, and begin reading. Maybe for just 10 minutes. Maybe an hour. Then turn off the light.

But all are books that I’ve bought! Why don’t I just borrow books from the library? So go ahead — psych me.  I welcome your diagnosis.

Well, the sale starts at 9 on the dot. I was in line 10 minutes early. I was the sixth in line. In a minute the seventh arrived. Within five minutes the line went out the door.

Here’s how the sale works. From 9 or 10 it’s for members only. You become a member by paying $10 dues per year. What a bargain. And you get the best choice. From 10 to 11 it’s for the public…meaning those willing to pay the books’ posted prices, which for most is $1 apiece. Then from 1 to closing, it’s the $3 bag sale. Each customer is handed a standard supermarket paper bag. Jam it with as many books as you can—even disks and audio books– and you can take them home for $3!

Isn’t this the modus operandi you’re familiar with at your library?

Speaking of money, I looked up the Friends’ report for their previous sale. It had netted $3,000! That suggests the take for three sales per year would be $9,000 or so. Wow! Now play with the arithmetic. If every book brought $1 that would mean 9,000 got sold. But the real number is much more than that because of the $3 bags chuck full.

For the sale, the Friends need every square foot of floor space they can scrape up. The sale spreads through the library, right into the community room, even into the children’s wing, even into the walled garden out in front off the street.

That’s possible here where decades go by without snow or ice and where we’re blessed with lots of sunshine. But rain now and then of course, which we’re grateful for to keep things nice and green. So the Friends pray for sunshine on sale days. Which we got this time.

I’ve had a lot of practice in getting the max at these sales.  So there are certain categories of books that I totally skip. One is novels. In my old age, I find that non-fiction is more interesting than fiction. That’s strange, too, because when very young I skipped non-fiction in favor of fiction.

Hey, the very first books I read were novels.  When I was a freshman in high school back in Massachusetts, I ran across novels by Joseph C. Lincoln. You never heard of him, I’ll bet. Must have read six or eight.

They were all about Cape Cod and Cape Codders and their life as such. Cape Cod is in Massachusetts in case you don’t know.  Joseph Lincoln wrote delightful, wholesome, funny novels. I delighted in every one I could find. Google him. You’ll enjoy reading about him.

Another author I loved was Horatio Alger.  Remember him? All novels about boys — newspaper boys, farm boys — who seemed destined for a mediocre future. But who by dint of hard work and pluck, and often a kind benefactor, made great successes of themselves.  Inspiring stories for a young teen-ager.

Oh, know what? When a few years later I was a junior in college, I got the notion I’d like to be a writer someday and began writing fictional short stories. Always sending them off to the great, big, wonderful Saturday Evening Post, which my mother loved and I got to love.

Every time I put one in the mail, three or four weeks later –it was a long wait and I watched for the mail every day — I got a letter back from the Post. How exciting! But always a reception slip. Of course. Sob! If somebody more experienced had only told me to start off by mailing to a small, modest magazine, my getting published would have stood a better chance.

I got discouraged and quit—so you see I didn’t turn out to be a Horatio Alger boy.

So at this book sale, as I said, I was very selective.  I didn’t buy a thing from tables which at different times would have been an avid interest ….woodworking and home construction…sailing…photography…buying and selling real estate for profit….running a business….advice on getting ahead….still others.

Those are no longer a prime interest.  I do admit I scanned books in some of those categories out of curiosity…saw some I had actually read.

Just roaming the sale was a great pleasure.  I found a set of books that was marvelous  — some 10 volumes by Mark Twain — for a mere $10. His whole life’s output.  What a talent! What a prodigious worker!

I ran across another set of volumes…“The Story of Civilization,” By Will Durant and his wife and co-worker Ariel. Huge volumes… the 11 of them … their life’s work.  What an incredible and magnificent and prodigious achievement! I would have been hard put to pick up the set.  On sale again for peanuts.

I did wonder who, yes, who, would take home this treasure?  For sure a very interesting person in his / her own right. With lots of reading time!

Also I spotted 15 books or so in the Time-Life Book of the Year series.  One published each year, a fascinating retelling of the good, bad, interesting things that took place. Some years were missing.  But I spotted 1929. I was born in 1929. I glanced through it. Fascinating. But my birth was not mentioned. Shucks!

This is a good moment to tell you that I went many years without ever running into a real, live author.  What a great pleasure that would have been. Because I felt awed that somebody could do this, actually write a book.

In fact, I have a vivid memory of the first I got to meet.  It was Elliot Paul, who had become famous for his “The Last Time I Saw Paris.” I had read the book. He was very old, broke as I remember it, tired and ill and lonely in a nursing home in Providence, R.I. I had grown up in the Providence area and had been a grad student at Brown University there. I was now a feature writer for the magazine of the Worcester (Mass.) Sunday Telegram. Somehow I heard of Elliot Paul going through that.

I drove to Providence and managed to meet Mr. Paul and sit with him and chat. He understood I was going to profile him in an article. He welcomed it. At one point I asked him, “Who is the most important author of your time, sir?” Without blinking, he said, “I am!” How about that?!

Being in our Morro Bay Library with its many books, and at this sale with many more on display, was a dramatic reminder of the legions of men and women who toil at writing books for a living.  There are thousands and thousands.  And I am a modest one. I have three books on the shelves here.

To me it’s also a reminder of how much work goes into writing a significant book.  In my case, I’ve told people. “I’ve built a house. Writing a book is just as much work as building a house!” I’ve never said it but my Peace Corps book was the work of building two houses!

Oh, this was interesting — I came across a professional book buyer at work. Well, that’s what I call these people. I’ve spotted them before. They have a smart phone with an amazing app (?) on it.  They pick up a promising book, snap a picture (?) of it, and methinks get data telling them whether it’s a good buy for eventual resale. If so, they add it to their box. Nothing wrong with that, I’m sure. It’s just another example of American free enterprise. Have you seen buyers like this at work?

Well, I walked out with a mere 8 books.  All looked new. One had an inscription, ”Merry Christmas, Charlie!”  I weighed them. They totaled a wee bit more than 13 pounds. For a mere $8. I estimated their original price had been about $115.  I’ve taken a picture of the eight. I have no problem with your seeing what I chose.

My priorities these days are: interesting topics, of course. On practical subjects.  But all with chapters that stand by themselves, if that makes sense to you. Rarely a book that merits reading from beginning to end. I’m not up to reading a 350-page book anymore.  If I do, I’ll read the juicy parts.

I do admit that I buy books for the mere pleasure of owning them. I want to own them! I want…I must…own them because they mean so much to me.

An example is “The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe” by Daniel Defoe, published in 1719!  Imagine the millions who have read it! Yes, a novel. I’ll bet you’re familiar with it. I read it in my late teens. It had a life-changing impact. A sailor marooned on a small island in the tropics…the sole survivor of a shipwreck…all alone for years on this island…who by resourcefulness and hard work makes a satisfying life for himself

Eventually met another man on the island, a black man, Friday, called that because Robinson met him on a Friday. Made Friday his devoted servant, and though he didn’t know a word of English, even managed to teach him to read. Happy ending, too. Rescue!

Easy to explain why that ancient masterpiece affected me so greatly. Robinson could have curled up and starved and died. By sheer determination and talent, he thrived and found fulfillment.

So, as you see, I had great fun at the sale. The next one will be Saturday, May 19. I’ll be there.

I finished the hard part three days ago.  My bookshelves were full. Had to make room for my new ones. Of course each of the old ones excited me when I bought it. So which to discard required lots of thought.

Now another thought. All those people who went home with $3 bags full of books — how will they ever get to read them all?

There’s only one conclusion. They’re bibliophiles, too. As I am. And as you are if you’ve read all 2,063 words I’ve put down here!

~ ~ ~ ~

As always, I welcome your comments. I read them all and appreciate them.  I delight in their variety. Writers write to be read, of course. In my case now, there’s not a penny in this. Your c0mments are my only payback.


Two old men sound off about old, old age

By John Guy LaPlante

I’m one of them, and I just sent an op-ed to the New York Times about my thinking on getting very, very old.

My doing that was precipitated by an article in the New York Times that was written by Robert W. Goldfarb, a

A small corner of the Times op-ed page. It also includes think pieces by its regular columnists.

retired management consultant. Its title was “Going on 18, but not naïve.” It ran January 1. But I had a dramatically different opinion than Mr. Goldfarb about what’s it’s like to get very old. And I ain’t naïve, either.

First, I drafted a letter (not the op-ed yet) to the Times about it. The Times recommends that a letter run from 150 to 200 words. I had much more to say than that! My letter stretched to 980 words. And mind you, I had made it as lean as I could.

Submitting it was pure futility on my part. I realized that. Every day the Times is brimful with news and opinion articles that cry for discussion. Some readers nod in approval, others shake their heads.

So I decided to send it to the op-ed editor. Op-eds run longer. Op-eds are opinion articles.  Not mere letters. Additionally, the Times pays a fee. That would be nice.

Op-ed, a strange name!  Well, as you may know, the Times always publishes its editorials on a left-hand page. Op-eds are called op-eds because they run on the right-hand page across from the editorial page.  That’s what it’s called, the op-ed page. The Times started the practice. In fact, that’s the way big papers across the country do it.

I said I knew I was wasting my time. Here’s why. Typically the Times publishes only two or three op-eds a day for one-shot writers.  They need room on the page for its regular columnists. And every day dozens of readers submit an op-ed. So dozens of writers get disappointed.

The op-ed editor acknowledges every submission with a standard  email. In part the email says—and I translate it bluntly for you—if you don’t get an approval from us in three days, consider it dead. Three days passed. Well, I was so disappointed I broke down sobbing. (Just kidding.)

Yes, I disagreed with Mr. Goldfarb. And I’m about to tell you why. I mentioned his article up top and I bold-faced it for you. You may want to get his view on it. Just look it up via Google or Bing. That would be a good starting point for you. But not essential.

Here’s what I said in my op-ed to the Times:

Mr. Goldfarb wrote because he’s 88. Well, I’m 88, too. I enjoyed Mr. Goldfarb’s take on that and his good humor.

But I’ve had a different experience and a different life strategy. I offer it in the hope it may inspire thoughtful readers who see old age looming and want to make their old age as good as possible.

Here are smart moves that I rejoice I made for a good old age, which I’m now enjoying. .

FIRST: I retired, well, in the sense that I started collecting Social Security. But never retired in the sense of quitting work. No, no. I started as a journalist, went on to other things as well, but have always been a writer. Articles, news releases, essays, non-fiction books. I’m still a writer.

But these days as a blogger, giving my take on a variety of topics, never sure what I’ll focus on next. But it will be on a topic that interests me personally. This blog post is an example.

Curious about the topics, by the way? See www.johnguylaplante.com/blog. You’ll see the surprising variety.

So, it’s a big mistake to quit working! Get into a line of work that you hope you’ll be passionate about till you can’t do it anymore!

TWO: Like Mr. Goldfarb, I seek adventure. He’s content with a smidgeon. My word, not his.  I’ve wanted more than a smidgeon. Read on and you’ll see I’ve had one adventure after another.

What’s an adventure? Here’s how I define it.  It’s an undertaking new and challenging that runs a think-about-it-twice risk of failure, but is worth the  risk. Most people are averse to that. They go into something that’s sure and safe and do it till they hit 65. Work in the Post Office. Or in a bank. Or teach school. Most careers are like that. Which is okay. No criticism from me. But that’s not been what I’ve sought.

For one thing, I changed my career path several times and ventured far afield from newspaper reporter and editor on a metro paper. I spread my wings:  college teacher… college administrator… hospital marketing director… businessman.

Yes, I started a couple of businesses cold. One in public relations and print media. The other in residential real estate. Made them successful. At one time I managed both simultaneously.

I’ve experienced failure. Of course. In business. And marriage. Made that a stepping stone.

Was wed for 26 years. Live alone now, contentedly. Divorce is painful. Yet now my ex and I are friends, which I think is unusual.  (By the way, our three children have doctorates. And they’re nice people.)

As a senior newly retired, I spread my wings farther. Soon became the director of one of the largest Elderhostel programs in the Northeast. Spent more than a decade at that.

And I began sating my travel yearnings big-time.

With a partner who had worked as a travel agent, I escorted groups of seniors on eight European tours across a dozen countries and one to Mexico. The romantic cities like Guadalajara and Mazatlan. Not mega-touristy Cancun or Acapulco.

Mostly solo, I’ve toured all 50 states, several numerous times, most often on slow roads. Much of that in a VW Westfalia—the fabled little camper. Have cruised alone across Canada from Vancouver to New Brunswick. Up to Quebec time and again. Soloed in my Westfalia thousands of miles through Mexico. Did it twice, more than 12,000 miles.

Have toured all European countries except the four at the very top. Some several times. Have been to France 10 times–did a house swap there.

At 75, traveled around the world alone for my 75th birthday.  That led to a book. Followed that with a tour of eight countries in Asia, the second half of it alone. My sister Lucie was with me on the first half. That led to a book. At 78, I joined Peace Corps and completed a full hitch (Ukraine, university-level teacher)–was notified by Peace Corps / Washington that at 80 I was the oldest Volunteer in the world. That led to a book.

These travels were all big adventures.

By the way, for years I’ve been writing articles beyond number about these travels.

Talk about change! Southern New England—Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut–was home for me right into my 80’s.  I’ve now relocated close to my loving daughter in Morro Bay, a small town on California’s central  coast. For keeps. Sure, a nice bonus is no snow, no ice here, no torrid temps, palm trees, the Pacific just a mile away.

This has been an ongoing adventure. There’s been a price. I  get moments of homesickness.  And I miss friends.

I’ve continued to challenge myself in new ways here in Morro Bay. Did two seasons as a talk-show host on our local FM station, Did a stint on the board of directors of our senior center, have taught mini courses and given talks, have a talk coming up at our public library on why not volunteer in Peace Corps?

So yes, I do have a powerful adventure gene.  Starting businesses as a married man with kids is an adventure. Joining Peace Corps when you know 20 percent of the Volunteers quit and come home early is an adventure. Self-publishing books is an adventure. Investing in the stock market for years as I’ve done is an an adventure. Along with years and years of smaller adventures.

A core belief of mine is: If you’re not making your life an adventure, you’re short-changing yourself. Adventure is a terrific tonic.

THREE: I’ve watched my dollars and cents but without suffering unduly. My motto has not been I want the best. It’s been I want what will be good enough. I consider thrift (not parsimony!) an index of IQ. Having savings lets anybody sleep better. Indebtedness is an awful headache. Shake off indebtedness as soon as you can!

FOUR: I’ve become more vigilant about my health. I grew up a fatty, finally got that under control. Slowly but steadily became a vegetarian. That’s smart health-wise and most satisfying ethics-wise.

I’ve been doing morning limbering exercises for years. Used to walk, walk, walk. Always active in many ways. For 10 years I lived on a fourth floor. Never used the elevator. Always took the stairs.

As a little kid I loved the trike my mom and dad gave me one Christmas. Grew up to a bike and was an active bike rider into my 70’s. A spill ended that.

Now I pedal a trike again. It’s such good exercise. And so much fun.  So practical to get around and do errands and shop—it has two cargo baskets, front and rear. I ride it every day. I’ve been kidded I’m regressing! (Chuckle!)

I still drive, hope to continue driving but I don’t feel it as essential as it was for so long.

Sure, I’m failing. Walk with a walking stick. Like a nap every afternoon. Now stone deaf in my right ear, use a hearing aid in the other. Take 7 pills every morning, but only one is a prescription. I live, cook, keep house alone. Have just had four teeth pulled.  I’ve had a succession of ills. I got dizzy once and fell. Nothing broken. Now I wear an electronic gizmo to summon help.  Just getting over a urinary tract infection.

Yet my primary care doctor told me on my latest visit he sees no need to see me till April. Which is when I hit 89 and enter my 90th. Some oldsters run in to see him every two weeks. Yes, I’ve been lucky about this. However, some of that luck is the result of my own efforts.

Yes indeed, doing whatever it takes to remain healthy is a smart priority.

Bottom line: I feel good. I still cope every day. I’m optimistic. I’m enjoying life.

But yes sir, nobody is more aware than I am that my demise isn’t far off.

That said, I have no ambition to reach my 100th if I’m in bad shape. It’s possible to live too long. The end can be so awful. And so hard on loved ones. I’ve seen that. God forbid!  At a certain point, an instantaneous and decisive heart attack would be wonderful.

The above is what I sent to the op-ed editor at the Times though I’ve given considerably more detail here. And I added a final thought in my op-ed. “Sorry there’s none of Mr. Goldfarb’s good humor in this op-ed of mine. But my intent is to give your younger readers intent on a fine old age something worth chewing on. My strategy has worked.”

Though I may sound that way, please do not think I am boasting. I am not.

My motive is the same in sending this to you: perhaps this will help you and yours.

~ ~ ~

Remember, dear readers, I warmly welcome your letters. I read them all. If you disagree with something I write, no cussing please. Write while it’s fresh in your mind. Just email to johnguylaplante@gmail.com. Write now.




Solo-Meandering the USA in my Dandelion

And on a shoestring.

By John Guy LaPlante

This is a big anniversary for me. How to observe it?

Exactly a quarter of a century ago I began and completed a this-way and that-way tour of 18,000 miles through our 48 states. My native land. Yes, alone. And writing about it along the way for my old paper, the Worcester (Mass.) Sunday Telegram.

Yes, 25 years ago! It was an adventure that became an Adventure.

It’s not an uncommon fantasy for people who have been hitched to a job for decades and are panting for retirement and a big adventure.

You know the fantasy. Roaming our highways and byways and finally getting to see the real United States at leisure. Stopping and going at will. Beholding the Grand Canyon and Big Sur, Savannah and San Diego, the cotton fields of Mississippi and the lettuce fields of southwestern Arizona. Falling in with good folks everywhere and making the most of serendipitous moments at any curve or crest.

And doing all this wonderful stuff alone. In a small RV, freed of the daily drain of costly restaurants and motels.

Now that is a fantasy!

Then reality butts in. Up come fears of terrible things happening. Suppose I get a heart attack out there, all alone. Suppose I get mugged. Tough questions pop up. Can I really handle six months of this with nobody to share the burden and relieve the loneliness? Will things at home run along all right? Can I handle the problems and difficulties sure to come up? Can I afford the dollars and cents of it? Is it worth the effort and the uncertainty?

Few, I’m sure, decide yes. Most of us give up the big dream. We settle instead for a package tour, leaving the driving and the imagined headaches to others. Still others just play safe and stay home.

Well, I’ m one of the lucky ones. One of the loony ones, according to some. I made the big trip. I traveled around the 48 states for six months. In truth I made two sorties. After 14 great weeks in my first time out—covering nearly 6,000 miles–I developed emergency real estate problems back home and had to hurry back.

Then I started out again, altering the route as needed and happily running up 12,000 miles in pursuit of my adventure. A few things went wrong, and I had a scary confrontation with a thief bent on stealing Dandelion, my little Volkswagen RV—with me on board! But life would have been just as risky at home, I’m convinced.

There’s as good a chance that I might have slipped in my tub and had to wait a week to be discovered, or could have been assaulted in my own fair Worcester. That was my home back then.

On my first trip I wandered down the east coast to Key West, then along the Gulf Coast to Mobile, Al. That’s when I had to come home. I had averaged only 80 miles a day on the road during that  6,000 miles.

The second time I picked a different route. I headed up to Montreal (sounds strange, I know), then down to Pittsburgh. I followed the Ohio River to its meeting with the Mississippi in Cairo, Ill. I then followed Ol’ Miss to New Orleans. I returned to Florida, then drove west along the Gulf and through Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona into southern California. Next I wandered up the Pacific to Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.

Me logical next step to get home would have been to drive across the northern tier of states. But it was January, and Dandelion, air-cooled as she was, was a cold, cold beast. So I turned back to southern California, then east through Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Memphis and Nashville, Akron and Scranton, and finally Worcester.

This trip lasted nearly six months also and covered that 12,000 miles.

When it was over, I felt it didn’t take anything remarkable on my part to make it happen, and I believe it’s a dream anyone reasonably fit and mildly adventurous can undertake successfully.

Think about it. No foreign languages necessary, no strange currencies to deal with. Stable prices. The country peaceful from ocean to ocean and border to border. No bad water to make you sick. No bad gas, in fact the cheapest gas on earth.

Good roads just about everywhere and good radio stations (well, that’s arguable). Convenience stores and supermarkets at nearly every corner and crossroads. And always a motel or hotel or hoselto fall back on, or just to brighten the routine.

In my gallivanting I got to behold some of our country’s most celebrated sites and sights and often stumbled onto nice little surprises. I made dips into Mexico as well as Canada. I ran into all kinds of people, 99 9/10 percent of them cordial (I’ll tell you about the thief soon).

And got a good look at the continental U.S. through my own eyes after a lifetime of seeing it through the media. I found the U.S. pretty darn nice, and our folks pretty nice also.

If you smile, people will smile back, my father used to say. I found this true in my work and our neighborhood. It was true on the road.

Of course I used common sense. I paid attention and steered clear of problematic neighborhoods. I was careful about where I stopped for the night. I listened to my sixth sense about which people to approach.

I didn’t feel at all deprived of the comforts left at home. In fact, the daily adventure of gypsying and making out was wonderfully rejuvenating. There was great zest and satisfaction to it. It was fun.

I did it on a budged that was quite modest and hardly exceeded what I would have spent at home. The problems and irritations were minor. The biggest irritation was getting correct street directions to someplace. Often the directions were vague or inaccurate, or my understanding was. So I learned to question carefully and double-check with a second person if possible.

I did it all in Dandelion. She was VW’s Westfalia model. Oh, I had bought her a couple of years earlier.  To take short jaunts and have fun. I called her Dandelion because she was a sunny yellow. She made me feel cheerful just looking at her. And I could spot her instantly in any parking lot, which was handy.

Didn’t I have the right to call her she? After all, she was my safe and lovely little land yacht mile after mile, her Porsche engine  humming sweetly as she carried me up the long grades, across the mountains, across the vast and lonely stretches, sheltering me in heat and cold and rain.

We were not youngsters. She was a ’78 and I a ’29, quite compatible. We both had lots of miles on us, and we both had new parts—mine being a pair of implanted cataract lenses.

As we traveled, she got to need a few additional replacements—muffler, fuel pump, a couple of tires. I did not. I enjoyed my cup of coffee and she a pint of oil. We got along fine.

The Westfalia was VW’s factory-built camper, nearly self-contained. I say nearly because it had a sofa bed and a propane heater, a table and tiny closet, and a small sink and small stove, but no refrigerator and no toilet.

I had a small ice chest but soon felt I didn’t need it. The lack of a toilet was more serious. I’m fairly regular, thank goodness. With the plenitude of fast-food restaurants and other public places, there was no problem. That’s how I handled number 2 urgencies. For number 1 urgencies in Dandelion I used a milk bottle. I remember that’s what Charles Lindberg had used on his historic flight across the Atlantic.

Bathing was more challenging. But there were ways. I found that my YMCA card got me into Y’s in larger cities for a shower, a swim, sometimes a steam bath.  A few times I stopped at a motel around 11 a.m., when the maids were making up the rooms. Not to sleep, just to shower. A few dollars got me towel and soap and a room number. I was never turned down. Also I got good at sponge baths in Dandelion every morning.

I rarely spent a night in a campground or RV park. Many of them were excellent. It’s just that I did not need their services. In many places, especially in peak seasons, you have to begin searching for one in late afternoon—far too early for me—and often have to drive miles out of  your way to get to one. In the morning you must drive a long ways back to return to your route.

Most of the time I parked by the side of a street. Literally. I would look for a residential street in a quiet neighborhood around 11 p.m., pick out a quiet spot, not isolated, park among other cars/ I didn’t want to be the only vehicle. That would work fine. I’d be up and gone by 7 a.m.

I had other strategies also. A few times I slipped into a handy used car lot.  No reason why Dandelion couldn’t pass as a used car for the night.  I know that wasn’t quite kosher and some of you will tsk-tsk me, and that’s all right. I had few problems.

Once around 4 a.m. I was awakened by a loud slap on Dandelion’s flank and the cry, “Police!” A young officer on cruiser patrol. He focused his flashlight on me. “License and registration, please!” He looked at them and frowned.

I told him my story….just a harmless senior citizen seeing the country and looking for a safe place for the night.

He chuckled. “You know, you nearly got away with it. What I couldn’t figure was, ‘How come a used car with a bicycle on its front end?’”

He returned my documents and told me to go back to bed. “Just make sure you’re on the road by 6:3o a.m.!”

I was also checked out in Florida by a policeman as I was parked and asleep on St. Petersburgh’s famous Pier around 9 p.m. on Christmas Eve. Unusually early, I know, but I wanted to attend the midnight liturgy at St. Peter’s Cathedral nearby. A knock on the van. A man in blue. I explained.

“Okay, that’s all right with me, Pop,” he said. “But just move over under that light up the street. Safer over there.” I thanked him and did that and then returned to bed.It was a beautiful and memorable service at St. Peter’s.

On Christmas morning, missing my loved ones and wanting to mark the day, I went to another service, at St. Andrew’s, also in St. Pete. I stayed afterward for a festive dinner in the church hall. It turned out to be a wonderful Christmas.

My usual routine was to rise early and eat breakfast in Dandelion, then go to the nearest McDonald’s or Burger King or Roy Rogers for coffee (and once in a while for breakfast) and to read the local newspaper…and to use the bathroom. Reading the paper was essential. I wanted to keep up on the news and learn something about whatever community I was in.

I’d eat a simple lunch in Dandelion or picnic in a nice spot. Evenings I’d eat out at a local joint. Around 9 p.m. I’d seek out another McDonald’s or such for coffee and a cone of fake ice cream. I’d scribble a page or two in my journal and read one of my travel guides for the next day.

I’d try to get into a talk with somebody who looked interesting. Many of the folks were engaging, offering information and suggesting nice things to see or do. I don’t recall a bad encounter.

One evening I was sketching—copying a newspaper photo. Sketching faces was a hobby of mine. Two black men nearby of my age noticed. I said hello, and they asked me about my sketching.

“Why don’t you let me do a sketch of you,” I said to the one with the jaunty baseball cap.

“Yes sir,” he said, “if you feel it’s worth the effort.” He was smiling. Both sat down with me in my booth.

Franklin was his name. He told me he was the minister of a nearby church. We had a good chat and he liked my sketch. I signed it and dated it and handed it to him. He tucked it carefully into his magazine.

“Now you be careful,” he said as he and his friend stood to leave. “Don’t you park down there for the night,” he said, pointing. “That be drug country. Bad country.  You spend the night over thataway,” and pointed the direction. “You be all right over there.”

That’s what I did. A tranquil night.

I stayed at hostels six times. I carried an American Youth Hostels membership card and their national directory. AYH has a serious image problem.  Naturally many people believe AYH is for young people only. Most do not realize AYH is for youth of all ages. Most of the time I was the oldest youth in the place.

Hostels are basic and spartan—most often just a dormitory bunk and kitchen to cook your meals. With a bathroom down the hall.  But invariably clean and well run.  They require an ID when you sign in. That keeps out riffraff.

They’re wonderful for meeting other travelers…a delightful bunch, most on the youngish side, often students, often from foreign counties. I stopped at hostels in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania and California and Oregon, and they’re among my pleasant memories. I recommend them.

I also visited with friends in Montreal and Hallandale, Fl,., and Albuquerque, New Mex., and Salem, Or.

And with my three children. My son Arthur was practicing law in Miami. My daughter Monique was a lawyer in California. My son Mark was a doctoral student in economics at the University of Washington in Seattle. “You’ve got it made,” my friends would say. In the travel sense, yes, though I always hoped they’d settle nearby.

“You went alone!” people often remarked to me. Yes, alone. The best reason was I didn’t have anyone to bring along. Sure, there were lonely stretches and it would have been a pleasure to have the right companion riding next to me. The up side, of course, is that not once did I have a bright day spoiled by the little misunderstandings and disputes that can pop up.

The driving was rarely boring, even through the long stretches of western Texas.  It’s there and places like that that I’d see signs like “State Prison. Do not pick up hitchhikers!” and “Poisonous and Insects Inhabit Area,” and “No services next 70 miles!” They’d make me think and wonder.

I enjoyed radio. It could be good company. But in some parts of the country, radio was a wasteland. Drivel.  And through some areas, of course, no reception.

All this makes me sound like a loner. I hate the word. So often stories about murderers and other sociopaths mention he—rarely she—was a loner. Extremely pejorative. I love the company of some people. Some I prefer to skip. What does that make me?

Well, in a sense I was a loner, but a card-carrying one.  I took a one-year membership in “Loners on Wheels,” a national club. I attended one of their get-togethers….wonderful people sitting around with coffee cups and sharing pot-luck dinners. Very nice. But not something I’d drive miles out of my way to get to.

I also joined the VW Limbo Club. Strange name, I know.  It was for people who drive little campers like my Dandelion. Nice people, given to restoring their VW’s, talking things mechanical, sharing travel tips, and providing mutual assistance. They published a list of members across the U.S. who stand ready to help you out and often, let you park in their yard. I held the directory at hand but never got to use it.

We with VW’s were a close fraternity. We’d see another VW coming and of course would raise a hand in salute. But those drivers so often seemed to be about 23 years old and have a pony tail and an earring. Imagine their surprise when they’d see me.

Some items were indispensable and I had them all tucked in my wallet. My driver’s license. My AAA card for peace of mind. My ATM card, which let me do my banking in big cities and little towns all over the country—and its monthly reports turned out to be a fine record of where I was every day and how much I spent.

My Blue Cross / Blue Shield card, good for medical services everywhere. Never had to use it.

My AT&T card.  Every Sunday morning was catch-up time. I’d locate a public phone and make calls across the country.

Also my passport, but never was I asked to see it, even when I crossed into Mexico and Canada. And my Social Security card, of course, proclaiming my citizenship in the best country in the world.

I did have one scare about my ATM card. I was about to meet my son Arthur for lunch in the downtown skyscraper in Ft. Lauderdale where he had his office. In the lobby I noted an ATM machine with a Cirrus logo…which was my bank’s network. I went on and had lunch with Arthur. Strolling back, I spotted the ATM and said to him, “Wait just a minute.”

I inserted my card. Instead of it spewing out the dollars I requested, it spit out a white slip. “Sorry, buddy, your card is not valid and we must confiscate it.” Something like that. The machine had gobbled up my precious plastic! I couldn’t believe it. I was furious.

I called the bank. It turned out I had used a different machine, not Cirrus affiliated. An attendant was scheduled to service the machine tomorrow, and I’d get my card back then. Tomorrow! I needed it now—I had an appointment to leave Ft. Lauderdale in the morning. The clerk checked again: sorry, a mistake. The attendant would be there this afternoon. I had my card back within the hour.

The next morning I left Arthur’s in his bedroom town of Plantation and headed west on 1-75 across the Everglades toward Ft. Myers on the Gulf Coast. It’s called Alligator Alley. The Everglades are flat and boring, well, to a motorist in a hurry. Darn few houses. A gray, sunless day.

Half way, I spotted a small shopping center on the left and turned off at a cloverleaf to get to it.  For a quick coffee.  Then I got back on the highway for the final half…drove on and found myself right back in Plantation! Well, I stopped at an auto parts store and bought a dashboard compass. Then I turned Dandelion 180 degrees and finally got across to Ft. Myers.

That $4 wonder saved me more than once. It was a boon not only in open country but in cities.

A great idea was my bike, the 12-speeder I kept hitched above Dandelion’s front bumper. I’d been a bike rider for years and I thought bringing it would be good for exercise. It became a great help for sightseeing, especially in big-city downtowns where parking was difficult and expensive. I’d park a mile out on a quiet side street and pedal in. Far easier way to get a lot of sight-seeing in.

For instance, I used my bike every day in Philadelphia. I had planned to stay a weekend. I stayed six days because so much to see and do.

I rode my bike in Huntsville, Savannah, St. Augustine, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle, Yuma, dozens of places.

I even biked into Mexico…into the small down of Algadones, just across the border from Yuma. I had heard that hordes of Americans poured over every day, primarily to buy cheap medicines. I wanted to see.

I parked Dandelion on the American side within sight of the Mexican flag and pedaled over. The Mexican customs officer waved me through. I reached the first “farmacia” in minutes, and sure enough, it had half a dozen customers, all Americans, all senior citizens.

Then I rode up and down the main street. It was lined with more pharmacies, clinical laboratories, opticians, dentists, chiropractors, physicians, some of them specialists, even surgeons. All advertising in English, as well as tourist and souvenir shops and eateries.

I entered another farmacia. Business was very good. The customers were Americans. Business was in English. The place was as modern and attractive as any back home. Clerks in spotless white jackets checked prescription availabilities on their computers, then assembled the orders from groaning shelves.

I asked the clerk for Prednisone, 5 mg, 100 capsules. It was a widely used medication, relatively inexpensive. They had it. She quoted the price, not in pesos, but dollars and cents, and spoke to me in excellent English. The price was 60 percent of what I usually paid. But I had a problem. “I don’t have a prescription,” I said. None needed. “Tax?” No tax.

The package she gave me was printed in English and the pills were made in New Jersey by an American company. Some customers were walking out with big bags of prescriptions. I couldn’t believe it.

Back at the border the American officer asked if I had bought anything. “Medicine,” I said, holding up my tiny bag.  He waved me back into the U.S. perfunctorily.

I also rode my bike into Canada … in an unplanned visit to Victoria, the charming and sophisticated capital of British Columbia.

I had stopped in Port Angeles, Wash., in late afternoon. Spotting a senior center, I had wandered in …. always a nice place to meet people. A man—“just call me Boyd”—invited me to play pool. We played two games (I lost).  Learning about my travels, he said, “Do take the ferry over to Victoria tomorrow.” He pointed out the window to the Strait of San Juan de Fuca.  Just a mile away. “Victoria is a lovely bit of England. You’ll have a grand time.”

I took his advice. I rode my bike onto the ferry the next morning. She was the MV Coho, a big, comfortable ship capable of hauling a hundred cars and trucks, it seemed. She would make the 22-mile crossing in 90 minutes.

Soon I was settled in one of the spacious lounges with a splendid view of the strait. I got to talking with Don Brown, a smiling Manitoba cattle and wheat farmer, returning home after a vacation in San Diego.

He had a special interest in my Massachusetts: an ancestor had taught at Tufts University in its early days.

As we entered Victoria harbor, I joined him on deck to watch. A beautiful city, attractively laid out along the water. And! Three seals gamboled off our port bow as a Canadian welcoming committee. Very nice.

My bike maximized my pleasure. I picked up a map and pedaled around the compact downtown, visiting a grand hotel, the city library, the provincial museum, Parliament, and a couple of shopping centers. There was a sophistication and politeness that were remarkable.

Back in South Carolina the bicycle had saved me when I ran out of gas on a country road. No gas station, no telephone in sight. I strapped my gas can to the rear carrier and pedaled off, reaching a station in a mile and a half. In 30 minutes Dandelion was humming again.

I ran out of gas four times. It sounds stupid, I know, but it wasn’t. The gauge was faulty. I had it tinkered with, but unsuccessfully.

I must say each of the incidents had a pleasant twist.

The fourth time occurred on 1-5 north of Sacramento, Cal.  Heavy traffic. I stood by Dandelion’s side, red gas can in my left hand, my thumb extended hopefully. Drivers whizzed by, most looking the other way.

Now stops an 18-wheeler truck behind me, with a national logo. With not one trailer, but two. Dave Winterton, 32, the driver, was delivering paper towels from Portland, Ore, to Phoenix, Ariz.  He drove me to the first exit—17 miles—and insisted on turning off the interstate to get me to a gas station.

I said thank you. “Get your gas,” he told me. “Then I’ll drive you back.” I couldn’t believe it. Later, when he left me off by Dandelion, I asked him for the name and address of his boss. Told Dave I wanted to tell his boss about Dave’s incredible generosity. “No, no!” Dave insisted. “Please do not do that! Please don’t!”

My worst accident accident was a front left blow-out (I hit a piece of junk metal) after dusk outside Pittsburgh. I managed to keep control and pull over.  Across the street was a coffee shop. The clerks, two gray-haired ladies, were sympathetic and offered me the telephone to call AAA’s 800 number

The woman answering gave me a local garage number. But that garage couldn’t come. It referred me to another garage. This one said yes. A truck with two men showed up in a half hour. In 15 minutes I was on my way on my spare.  It was my only call to AAA on the trip.

Now finally about the fellow trying to steal Dandelion. The terror struck in the middle of the night outside a 24-hour supermarket in Norfolk, VA. I was asleep in Dandelion under a bright light in the parking lot.

I was awakened when my front door banged shut and was astounded to see a man squeezing into  my driver’s seat. Preparing to try starting Dandelion!

“Hey!” I yelled.

“Who dat?”  he said, looking back. He was black, about 25, muscular.

“Get the hell out!”

Slowly I picked up the can of Mace I kept by the bed as I slept. But I worried: Mace is potent stuff. In this tiny space for sure I too would get a whiff. But I was determined. If he made a move toward me, I’d give him a squirt.

But he bolted—he opened the door and ran off. My heart was pounding. I hopped behind the wheel, found the key, started Dandelion, and drove off. Away, just to get away.

I was barefoot. It was surprisingly painful to work the clutch and the brake with my tender feet. But I drove on, trying to calm down. I kept thinking I could have become one of those tragic items in the news: “Elderly Massachusetts Man Killed in Supermarket Lot.”

I replayed it all in my mind. Of course I had locked the door. I locked it every night. But had I? My habit was to hit the button with my elbow. I think I missed the button this time.

Finally I parked in front of some nice houses. Very quiet neighborhood. It was a while before I dozed off. In the morning I thought it was all a nightmare. But how come I was parked here? And not at the supermarket?

Time and again people asked me, “You must have read ‘’Travels with Charley?”’ or ‘Blue Highways?’” Yes, I had. John Steinbeck and William Heat-Moon were both solo travelers like me, though Charley was Steinbeck’s pet poodle. I read both when they came out, from cover to cover. Countless others have also, and the books have become classics of the open road.

I garnered good ideas from them. For instance, Steinbeck wrote that at any of the places he camped at for the weekend, on Sunday morning he would put on a white shirt, a necktie, and his blue blazer and go to church. What church didn’t matter much. Meeting the people was the main point. I did that, too, attending Catholic, Unitarian, Episcopal, Presbyterian services, even Mennonite once.

I got to the Mennonite church late. Had a hard time finding it. I had on my white shirt, tie, and blue blazer. Two men welcomed me when I walked in. They wore white shirts, but no tie, and jackets, but without lapels. The service started.  The men all sat on the left. All dressed like my host. All the women on the right, in bonnets and long dresses.

My host walked me nearly to the front, had me sit in a pew on the left. Boy, did I stand out!

A few hymns. The minister walked to the pulpit and spoke. He had just returned from a month in Haiti. Told us about the great poverty. Reminded us how lucky we were to be Americans. Said the special collection would be sent to Haiti.

The service continued. At one point a  loud clap. Everyone jumped up, turned and faced the rear, knelt, and rested their head on the pew. The minister said a prayer. Another loud clap. Everyone jumped up and faced the altar again. That happened twice.

At the end, I walked out with the others. The two men were waiting for me. Asked about me. I explained. One invited me to dinner. He was disappointed when I said thank you but couldn’t?

How could I ever forget a wonderful experience like that?

At a Methodist church, one a man gave me a tour of town afterward. At an Episcopal church the minister asked newcomers to identify themselves. I stood and talked for a minute, mentioned my solo touring. Afterward a lawyer slipped me his business card. He jotted his home number on it as well. “Call me if I can be of any help,” he said. And I knew he wasn’t talking about legal business. Lots of people were wonderful.

“Blue Highways” inspired me in a different way. I loved Heat-Moon’s basic idea: road maps used blue ink to indicate secondary roads and he’d use those roads.

Smarting from a failed relationship and a set-back in his college teaching career, he felt he needed a change. He set out in a fixed-up van along “blue highways.” He resolved not to use Interstates and not to skirt small cities and towns, but to get into them and meet their ordinary folk. So he stopped at cafes and taverns and roadside stands and stores and savored the real America. Great idea.

I did the same thing, though I favored fast-foods. Still I met the ordinary folk. I chose the slow roads mostly all through the east. It got harder in places like Arizona and New Mexico, where interstates are the only practical choice, though I wandered off when possible. On the Pacific Coast I traveled “blue” again mostly.

There was a price: the frustrating stop-and-go through the gauntlet of gas stations, muffler shops and fast-foods that line up the front and back of ever city, big and small, in the U.S.

In many places the McDonald’s and Taco Bells and Jack in the Boxes are de facto community centers where locals gossip for coffee and gossip. They’re like the pubs of England and the tavernas of Greece and such but without booze. People can sit and talk for hours and do. I loved them. They’re among some of the most democratic institutions we have. Everybody stops in. They were a regular stop for me all the way.

Supermarkets, shopping malls, museums, farmers’ markets, university campuses, flea markets, libraries, I frequented them all. And met wonderful people.

What this country is a good “industry” guide. To lead us to factories and plants and farms which welcome tourists and see how things we buy and use get made. There are countless guides listing parks and museums and monuments, but I don’t know of a single such guide. Too bad.

Our libraries … they deserve a special word. I visited prestigious ones in great cities and proud universities, and tiny ones in towns and villages. All wonderful.

The American library … what a splendid and wonderful concept: take home anything on their shelves we choose, enjoy it, bring it back in two weeks, no charge. We take our libraries for granted. Rare in the world! Here I was, a complete stranger just passing through and I was always admitted and given gracious service.

Did I have a favorite place?  My answer was, many. Essex, Conn., Cumberland, Md., Charleston, S.C., St. Petersburg, Fl., Beaumont, Tex., Yuma, Ariz., La Jolla and San Luis Obispo, Cal., Astoria, Ore., Victoria, B.C., Santa Fe, N. Mex., Little Rock, Ark., Lancaster,  Penn. Last but not least, Worcester, Mass., as I said, my home town.

Definitely I preferred the smaller cities to the big ones. Sorry, New York. Sorry, Pittsburg. Sorry, Los Angeles.  Sorry, San Francisco.  Sorry, New Orleans.

What was the big pay-off? The memories. Of places I saw, things I did, people I met.

Fascinating places. The Amish corner of Ohio. The Blue Ridge Skyway. Port Everglades, Fl., and its  great cruise ships. New Orleans’ famous Jackson Square and its jazz players. Balboa Park in San Diego and Chinatown in Vancouver.  The Redwood Highway in California. Lake Union in Seattle, Hoover Dam in Nevada. The Ozarks in Arkansas.

You probably notice I haven’t mentioned national parks and monuments. I had visited many in previous years with my family, and I got to see more in future years.

Many memorable experiences. The Rodin Museum in Philadelphia. The humongous Green Dragon Flea Market in Ephreta, Penn. Canoeing on Florida’s Cessahowitzka River. Standing in the footsteps of missionaries, adventurers and pioneers at the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers.

The hundreds—thousands—of RVs and their owners in the desert at Quarzsite, Ariz. The mountain lion I spotted outside Cambria, Cal. Unneeded jetliners stored in the dry air of the Mojave Desert. Hundreds of wind turbines whirling on the mountain crests in Tehechapi, Cal.

The helicopter flight I took over the Grand Canyon. The glitzy casino palaces—and no-waiting wedding chapels in Las Vegas. Massachusetts’ own very beautiful Quabbin Reservoir.

And the people. Retirees Frank and Edi Loughney of Hallandale, Fl., who visited 47 of the 48 states by Greyhound (still to come: Arkansas). Louis Girard of Quebec and St. Petersburg, Fl., who celebrated his 70th birthday with a parachute jump and took me up for a sight-seeing flight just before his 80th.  Bud Dodd of Gallipolis., Ill., retired police chief, who introduced me to his donkey Radar, “the best pet any man could have.”

Arthur Riles, 83, of tiny Cave In Rock., Ill., married and divorced seven times and still smiling. Jay Prefontaine, graduate student at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, where he was writing poems and short stories  like crazy as he struggled for success as a writer (his hometown: Auburn, Mass, my kids’ also). Carlos Eyles of Cayucos, Cal., writer and free-dive photographer of fishes and marine mammals, and his wife Margaret, a Rolfe therapist. And others.

Experiences and memories made possible by the good fortune of living in the USA, which guarantees me, you, all of us the fantastic freedom to travel like this.

Way up at the top of this account, I asked, how to celebrate the anniversary of this great adventure? Well, I’d love to take another trip around the country. You know, to see the changes. Alas, not possible.

But hey, I am up to one thing. I’ll take a celebratory pedal on my trike around downtown Morro Bay, Calif., which is now my home, sweet home. That’s a dandy daily adventure for me these days.

P.S. My computer tells me that you’re getting 6,434 words from me in this post. That’s the longest I’ve written in quite a while. Thank you for getting all the way down to the bottom of it with me.

~ ~ ~

Have time for one more little story?

Originally this was written for the Travel Section of the great big Boston Sunday Globe.  Back then Sunday papers were nearly two inches thick. Remember?

Well, on Monday morning, the very next morning, I got a call from Tom Rooney, my age, a banker friend. “Hey, John, I read your travel story in yesterday’s Globe.  Great photos! And it was the longest, yeah the longest, in the whole paper!”

“Gosh, thank you, Tom.  The longest! I didn’t know that! But wasn’t it the best, too?”

He laughed. “I did read every word!”

Which pleased me. Hearing a reader say that is music to any author.

By the way, as I mentioned in the beginning of this piece, during this adventure I also wrote oh, a dozen detailed reports about it for the Worcester Sunday Telegram. I had put in 16 years at the paper in my younger years as a reporter, bureau chief, and  weekly columnist on the daily Telegram,  and in time feature writer on its Sunday magazine, and then editor of the magazine.  Those reports right from the open road all had photos.

Wish I had some of those photos for you now. Sorry, not available.

~ ~ ~

Remember, dear readers, I welcome your comments, favorable and less so. I read them all. Just email them to me at johjnguylaplante@google.com. Your comments are my only remuneration.

My Weirdest New Year’s Day Ever

o   Property Transfers in Old Lyme 2017Property Transfers in Lyme 2013

Yes, Durban is huge. And the beaches so long and beautiful. No idea which is the one I went to. But such a throng heading to it! And how I stood out among them! — Photo from Google.

 By John Guy LaPlante

Scary, in fact. I lived through that New Year’s 13 years ago. And I’ve never experienced anything like it since. It was a unique experience.

By the way, this account was published back then. I am posting it now because I think you’ll find it interesting and may learn something about prejudice from it.

All my life, like you probably, I have celebrated New Year’s Day in winter—most often in a cold, icy, snowy winter. Not in a short-sleeves Florida or Arizona or southern California winter.

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

Yes, seeing  the New Year arrive has often meant stepping outside into freezing cold and then suffering in my frigid car tlil the engine begins blowing in hot air.

For many decades this was too often the way I experienced New Year’s Day.

With just one big exception.That was when I traveled around the world alone for five months.  Four and a half months of it by myself—147 days, 20 countries, 36,750 miles by plane, train, and short legs by bus. And for only $83 per day, with everything included, right down to every snack and phone call and all the visas required. Visas can be expensive. That trip was my present to myself for my imminent 75th birthday.

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

I crossed the Equator, a big deal for me. When you do that, the seasons are just the opposite from ours. If we’re in spring, down there it’s autumn, and if summer, winter. Then I crossed it again to return north, and same experience.

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

I arrived in Durban on Dec. 28, just seven days after the start of winter and three days before the new year dawned. But it was summer there, with long daylight, short nights, shirtsleeve temperatures, even bathing suit temperatures. How remarkable. How wonderful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could not see any whites! Of course, white people like nice, warm, sunny beaches, too. Why this river of people was all black, no idea. I speculated. Sure, apartheid had finally been outlawed. But habits die hard. Black people traditionally went to the beach this way. White people took another routet o a different beach. That’s the way it was and the tradition lived on.

No way could I walk with these blacks! I should drop out. That was my first thought. I gulped hard. I was so disappointed. But then I braced up. A main reason for this big and crazy adventure of mine–I knew some people thought it was crazy–was to visit other countries, and the more different the better. I wanted to see what they were really like. I was deliberately staying clear of the heavy tourist areas. I wanted to see the real people in their real everyday life.

So how could I chicken out now?

Uptight I was, but I stepped forward and slipped in among the blacks.  Back home in Connecticut, blacks were quite few. I saw dark eyes studying me but I looked straight ahead and walked on. I was uncomfortable. Nervous. Apprehensive. I admit it and am embarrassed to say so. Though what I was doing was no longer illegal.

I was tempted to drop out and head back to Banana Backpackers. What I was experiencing, of course, was plain, classic culture shock. I never considered myself prejudiced and was proud of that, but I was reacting prejudiced.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I attracted a lot of looks. Plenty of stares. But not a single person took a step toward me. Maybe my age was a factor. I was an old man, so considered harmless perhaps. Anyway, I relaxed a bit.

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

I walked a long way to the left, then a long way back and to the right. All along, people looked me over. Many followed me with their eyes. Most people were too busy.

I had my camera and I began sneaking pictures. I learned long ago it was not smart at times to face whoever I wanted to photograph and snap a picture.

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

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

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

In all this, I did not come upon another white person. With apartheid dead, I was surprised some whites had not begin coming to this beach.  Then I thought, would there be blacks at the white beach now? I didn’t get to find out.

I quit long before the others did. I was happy I had not caved in to my apprehensions and had had what turned out to be a pleasant experience, in fact memorable.

Back at the hostel, I found practically nobody around. That evening I ran into a couple of people and mentioned my visit down to the black beach and what I experienced there. Well, a wee bit of it. . But they were foreign tourists, too. Whites like me. They were interested. But they had few comments to make.

Later I had another thought. It was about black people in the U.S.A.  Black men and women of all ages born there and grown up there. Like me. Just as much an American citizen as I. And I thought of the many times when for sure they must find themselves alone among whites. Must feel as awkward and isolated and apprehensive as I felt on this New Year’s Day. Probably a common experience for them in my neck of Connecticut, where blacks are still a small minority, although the situation is changing a bit. I suppose they get used to it, adapt to it, and develop a certain comfort. Just as I did in South Africa.

I felt these disturbing emotions just for a few hours on just one day. Some of our blacks back home must feel it frequently, in fact day in and day out, all their lives.  How awful.

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

I haven’t had a weird one since then. Hope I never will.

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

Happy New Year to you, one and all, wherever you are!

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Please leave a comment. Your comments are my only payback. I read them all, good and not so good. Just email it to me at  johnguylaplante@gmail.com. I’d appreciate that! 


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