April 23, 2021

My take on embattled Ukraine. Finally.

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos

I’ve been getting one e-mail after another: “John, what you think about Ukraine? What’s it all about?  How do you feel about it?”   Why those emails?  Because many of you know that I served my Peace Corps hitch–the full 27 months–in Ukraine. And that was barely four years ago.

I never dreamed this awesome historic event would happen.  That I’d see the Ukrainian protestors —revolutionaries, in fact–storm into Kiev and topple the government. See their hated president abandon his office and take off to Russia to save his life. See the revolutionaries take over their parliament, the Rada. And set the country on a new and so-longed-for course—toward affiliation with the West and the European Union!

But I understand why it did erupt.  One day as I read about the huge developments, I had an amazing thought.  “This is like Bunker Hill!  Like the American Revolution!”

Like these Ukrainian revolutionaries, the American patriots were fighting against the King and the Parliament back in England! They had had it! Didn’t want to take any more!  They were taking things into their own hands.  They wanted change, big time!

Magnificent Independence  Square in Kiev in peaceful times . I was there often. Never imagined it would the scene of the violent showdown that toppled the government,.

Magnificent Independence Square in Kiev in peaceful times. I was there often. Never imagined it would be the scene of the violent showdown that toppled the government,.

They had so much to resent.

I believe that over the years the Soviet world, meaning primarily Russia, took advantage of Ukrainians in the same way that we, the white society in the USA, have taken advantage of the blacks and the Mexicans, among otherses, I got to know a thing or two about Ukraine and its ways. Thank you for your email queries asking for my take on all this. I’ll fill you in the best I can.

I got to all those places that have been part of this crisis—to Kiev (Peace Corps spelled it Kyiv, by the way): to Lviv, where the revolt started; to  Crimea, so red-hot right now;  and to numerous other places, big and small across the land, of both camps– pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian.

First, it’s important that I give you some background about how I wound up in Ukraine, what I did there, why and how I got around as much as I did, and what I learned that’s relevant to all this.

As a rookie Volunteer, I flew right into Kiev, the capital, with my fellow rookies. Officially we were called Trainees.

Kiev was so impressive–such a fine and beautiful and peaceful, yes, peaceful city.  Now it has become a huge volcano exploding with hatred and anger and violence and bloodshed. As you know.

Our Peace Corps headquarters were in Kiev.  Arriving, we spent three days there—orientation!  Then went off for three months of training– three different groups of us in three different locales across the country.

Then, our training completed, we were the guests of honor at a proud and beautiful ceremony in Kiev and took the Peace Corps oath. That made us Volunteers officially.

Please notice, by the way: “Volunteers” is spelled with a capital V, not a small v, per Peace Corps.

Then we dispersed to our assignments throughout the country.  Sadly we hardly got to see one another again.

All of us got to go back to Kiev now and then on Peace Corps business, most often individually.  For those of us hundreds of miles away—16 or 18 hours by train, for instance—it was a rare and eagerly awaited trip.

But my city, Chernihiv, was only two hours away by road.  I went countless times to Kiev on business.  It turned out I had more business reasons to go than most of my colleagues.

In addition to our decreed assignments–I would be a university teacher–all of us were expected to find another serious project to get involved in.  Well, I developed three—and all related to Kiev in some way.

Impossible to tell you about all that now. It’s all in my Peace Corps book, which has more than 500 pages, by the way.

Every time I went to Kiev, I would make it a point to get to see a bit more than just our headquarters and its neighborhood.  Often I had to stay overnight.  That would give me the chance to extend myself farther in seeing the marvelous city.

So I got to see magnificent Independence Square—where all the protesting and fighting got focused—and much of the city’s heart.

Ukraine is big--second biggest in Europe. Notice Crimea, the peninsula at the bottom. Notice Kiev, the capita. And Chernihiv, my city, right above it.l

Ukraine is big–second biggest in Europe. Notice Crimea, the peninsula at the bottom–this very moment’s red-hot problem. Notice Kiev, the capital. And Chenihiv, my city, right above it. l got to travel widely in the country, more than I expected.

There were numerous Americans in the city.  For one thing, all the Americans who were part of our Embassy, the USAID delegation, and Peace Corps.

The Embassy and USAID were big! I couldn’t believe how big. And we had elaborate institutions like this in countries all over the world! We have no idea.

USAID, by the way, has the mission of distributing millions of $$$ in economic stimulus to various Ukraine programs and projects as stimuli.

And Peace Corps was a hefty operation, too.

In addition, Kiev harbored many American businessmen and professionals of various kinds.

There was even a Rotary Club there.  I was a Rotarian back home in Deep River.  I tried to join the Kiev Club. It didn’t work out.

Plus the city counted plenty of American expats there for one reason or another. Some for the beautiful Ukrainian gals. I’m serious.  And I became friends with several.

Mostly I went to Kiev to get to headquarters. But I also got to our Embassy and USAID in connection with my Peace Corps projects. Quite unusual for a Volunteer.

What an eye-opening experience all that exposure was for me.

A big thing I learned is that these three American efforts employed hundreds of Ukrainians in support jobs. Yes, many hundreds.

Consider Peace Corps. We were about 300 Volunteers—the largest group of the 78 deployed around he world, it turned out.

But what a large staff it took to run our Ukrainian Peace Corps effort! A couple of hundred, I recall.

And only the top three were Americans. All the others were Ukrainians, including experts in different fields, most in Kiev but others scattered throughout the country. They kept Peace Corps functioning smoothly.

It’s good to keep that in mind.  It shows how many Ukrainians got connected to us in what, by the way, were considered plum jobs over there.

And think of the multiplier effect of all that—to their families, friends, and so on.

Remember, too, that we Volunteers were serving in Ukraine because Ukraine had asked us to come.  It’s not Peace Corps in Washington that says to a country, “May we come and give you a hand?”

It works the other way.  The interested country does the asking. Well, that’s what we were told. Maybe there’s some fudging about that.

One important thing to tell you. While I was in service there, Vice-President Biden flew in for a friendly visit with the president of Ukraine.  That shows how close the two countries were back then.

And all of us in those three American programs, along with invited Ukrainian VIPs, got invited to meet Biden in a special meeting  just with us. It was a big deal!

Would you believe? I got to have a few words with him. Most people  never got beyond the crimson cordon that separated him from us. I wasted little time telling my family about that.  Wouldn’t you?

The next day I got photos of that from four people! Everybody at that reception had a camera and was using it.

Oh, most Volunteers were very young–in their 20s.  About 40 of us were “senior” Volunteers–50 or older.  We had a group. It was a club really.  I was elected the president.

We held meetings two or three times a year in different cities across the country. That made it easier for our members to attend.  Also it was fairer.  So I got to see cities and towns all over the country.

Plus on vacation time–we got two days a month/ 24 days a year–I traveled and I chose broadly. In Europe but a lot inside Ukraine,  too.

All Volunteers traveled. But for sure I got to do more of it in part because of my various projects, and got to see more and maybe absorb more.

I went three times to Crimea—to Sevastopol, Yalta, and other cities.  In largely Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, which abuts Russia and has heavy ethnic Russian populations, I got to Harkiv and Donets and Odessa and Poltava and other big centers. So, yes, I took in a lot.

I not only trained in Chernihiv, which is a big and attractive city in the north central part. I got assigned there. Most of my fellow Volunteers got sent off  to much smaller places, Some to opposite ends of the country.

When you join Peace Corps, you agree to go wherever it decides to send you and do what they tell you to do. You hope they’ll use some common sense. At first, I had some doubts.

It was months later that I found out why I, and other older ones also, got sent to Ukraine. It had better medical facilities, and Peace Corps liked that for older Volunteers.

Our training was intense, six days a week of classes plus hours of homework. About the country … its government … some history … but mostly language, language, language study.

In my case it was Russian.  I considered that strange because I knew that Ukraine’s only official language is Ukrainian.  But some sections of the country have a heavy Russian population, as you have been learning.

Chernihiv was not in eastern Ukraine or the Crimea. It was in north central Ukraine, nearly north of Kiev. Quite close to Russia. I didn’t go to Russia because I had been before and I didn’t want the hassle of procuring the necessary visa.

Chernihiv was bad news for me for special reasons. It was just a long hour or so from Chernobyl, site of the biggest nuclear melt-down in history. Radiation! Countless had died of radiation! Countless more were in sad condition as a result of that exposure. I saw such people time and again in Chernihiv.

No problem the radiation, Peace Corps assured us. “The wind was blowing the other way!” Maybe so, but I kept clear of Chernobyl though I had opportunities to go.

When my Chinese friend Wu Bin in Shanghai heard about my assignment to Chernihiv, he quickly e-mailed me. “John, drink lots of tea! Lots of tea!” I became a more serious tea drinker! Maybe he had inside knowledge.

You know, I was shocked when I got orders to Ukraine.  I expected to go to a country where France had been important.  Why? Because I can think, speak, and write  in French. There are numerous such countries.

When I got that news I’d go to Ukraine, many questions popped up in my mind.  Where was Ukraine exactly? Why was I being sent there? How many universities there? Please remember, I’d be teaching at one. Six or seven maybe? What was the climate like?

Surprise, Ukraine had many  universities, plus dozens of specialized and professional schools and institutes.

I found out Ukraine was not in the boondocks. Anything but. It has a history of more than one thousand years.  It is highly civilized—its literacy rate is as high as ours.

In fact, it was the most important republic in the USSR after Russia itself. One reason was its highly developed agriculture and manufacturing, And there were other reasons.

It boasted great numbers of eminent and famous people in many fields. Here are just a few.

Igor Sikorsky, the great aviation pioneer in both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters—for one thing, he invented the helicopter–was a Ukrainian, born in Kiev. Emigrating to the USA, he founded Sikorsky Helicopters, the world’s leader.

Also Ukrainian was Yuri Gagarin, the great Soviet cosmonaut who was the first man to fly in space.  His name is on boulevards and avenues all over that part of the world now, the way the names of Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King are in our country.

In fact, I took the trolley up and down Yuri Gagarin Avenue when I was with my first family.

The mighty Nikita Khrushchev—you know, the shoe-thumping Russian leader who faced us in that scary showdown over Cuba—was partly Ukrainian. At one point, he served as governor of Ukraine.

Ukraine’s climate? Its winters were harsher than ours in Connecticut.  That was awful news for me.  For 15 years I had been escaping from the cold and ice and snow of Connecticut!

Some of us had to study Ukrainian.  We were in Ukraine. So what could be more natural?

But some of us had to study Russian. So many use that as their main language. In fact, just recently there was a strong move to make Russian the second official language. It failed.

By the way, that reminded me of English and Spanish in our country.  We have remarkable language differences across the USA. For instance, Connecticut has just a few Spanish-speaking residents, although growing.  But our Southwest has millions of them, also growing

Why is it surprising to us that Mexicans among us think it’s okay for them to sneak into the USA? Well, they say to themselves, “Hey! This used to be part of Mexico! We were here long before the Gringos!”

I can understand their point of view. They are right—a big part of present California was called Alta California on their maps—“Upper California.”  Just as their territory south of San Diego in Mexico—from Tijuana on down—is now known to everybody as Baja California—“Lower California.”

It’s the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 between us and Mexico that changed everything.  That’s when California and its surrounding southwest states–a quarter of our country today–became part of us.

The history of Crimea is quite similar. It was long  considered a part of Russia and then of the USSR. But now it’s part of Ukraine officially.

So why wouldn’t  the present ethnic Russians there think, “Gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to be a real part of our motherland again!?” In that situation, wouldn’t you think that way?

But now, more about my getting to know Kiev. I mentioned I went every month or so, mostly on Peace Corps business. Sometimes for medical or dental reasons. Or on our Seniors Club business.  Or because it was such a vibrant and interesting place.

It boasted all kinds of cultural and entertainment possibilities, from the opera and symphonies to museums and ever the circus. The circus wasn’t in a tent. It had its own big, impressive building.  By the way, in that part of the world, circus performers are considered  true artists!

It’s a gorgeous city on the great and magnificent Dnipro River. At times, I felt in some neighborhoods I was back in Paris.

When milady Annabelle visited me half way through my service, I took her there.

And when she returned for three weeks at the end of my service (some nice au revoir festivities were planned for me in Chernihiv) –we went to Kiev for three days as a big treat. We stayed at the fine old Hotel Saint Petersburg as our base. And did the city justice.

I also visited other sections of the country. Covered it far and wide.  It’s big.  It’s the second largest country in Europe after Russia. Well, I managed to make it to many corners and many big cities,  including in Crimea — more details in a minute–and in other sectors, such as the cities of Ivano-Frankivsk and Poltava.

I also went all the way west to Lyiv, close to the Polish border. So much in the news right now. Lyiv is the big and intensely proud cultural capital of Ukraine.  Its language is Ukrainian.

Lyiv considers itself European, meaning emotionally linked to France and Germany and Italy and so on. In other words, the European Union. Just the opposite of the ethnic Russians in the west, close to Russia.

We had Volunteers working in Lyiv, of course.

I went to Lyiv four or five times. I found it that interesting and stimulating.  I also took Annabelle there on both her visits. She fell in love with it, too.

It is in Lyiv that the current uproar originated … that its leaders emerged … and that it gained monumental momentum.

We’ve been reading how the swelling contingent of rag-tag protesters and revolutionaries finally made it to Kiev to protest and hopefully negotiate.

And when that failed, how they began to do battle tooth and nail. And made the top news in newspapers and TV around the globe. Even bigger news when they suffered their first fatalities—more than a hundred or so—and horribly mounting casualties. (True, too, of the police force battling them.)

I have also become familiar with the main characters.

Yulia Timoshenko is one.  You know her by now—the Yulia with the long,\ signature braids of blond hair. She has been a power in Ukraine politics a long time.  She was the prime minister in my time.

She was a success in business before she entered politics, and she rose fast in politics.

I see her as a wily, determined, charismatic, and incredibly courageous woman.

She was from the western side, so she was Ukrainian rather than Russian in background and thinking.  She had a strong leaning toward the Europe of France, Spain, Italy, and so on.

She felt that being part of the European community would be terrific for Ukraine as it struggled to grow as a democracy and a capitalist economy.  So, she was eager to get the country into the European Community and she came very close.

She ran for president against Viktor Yanukovich. He won.  He considered her his arch enemy and his most threatening potential rival, and he hated her guts.

He framed her with what are widely believed to be trumped-up charges of corruption. And got her convicted to seven harsh years in prison. Had her put on ice, so to speak. Imagine that!  We’ve had spirited campaigns in the USA, too, but nothing like that!

The truth is that enormous corruption exists in Ukraine, at every level, right down to the cop checking traffic on the highway. It seems ingrained and even cultural, which is a terrible thing to say.

Even Yulia Timoshenko has been tainted, it is said. I’m not surprised. Overall, I believe that she is a true patriot, is well motivated in wanting to do a good job, and that if she took money for a “political favor,” it was minor compared to how many of the other politicos were on the take.

Hey, it’s a common belief that a seat in the Rada, their parliament, can be bought.  I went bonkers when I heard that. It seems so, so impossible.  Now I believe it.

But where, oh where, is there a national government in this world without corruption? Think of the exposés of some of our leaders at our national and state levels. Certainly we have had corrupt Senators and Congressmen. But Ukraine stinks with it.

All of us trainees  were given a subscription to the Kiev Post, published in English by true professional journalists.  Its circulation seems minor,  only 11,000—remember, but it’s in English. Nevertheless it’s very influential.

I continued to read it during my entire hitch. It’s a brave paper, exposing one scandal and misdeed after another. You’ve got to be crazy to agree to write  political news for it. You risk bad things.  I’m sure you wouldn’t be able to buy a life insurance policy.

And the Post has been continuing to cover this crisis with the same audacity and objectivity.

If interested, take a look at www.kyivpost.com. You’ll be impressed.  Do notice, by the way, that its title spells the city as Kyiv, not Kiev.

Anyway, imagine when the battling protesters in Kiev triumphed and within hours got Timoshenko sprung from prison! You probably saw that.

They rushed her to Independence Square to face the victorious crowd assembled there. She’s not old, but she had to be wheeled onto the stage.  She could not stand.  Looked haggard and weak. Everyone could see the ordeal she had been put through.

But she still had her famous braids. And she hadn’t lost any of her fire. She was still the exciting speaker of old. Again she spoke about getting Ukraine finally into the European Union. She congratulated them. The crowd cheered her.

And already she is taking steps—and being spoken of–as the president following the next general election.

The current president, Yanukovich, now cooling it out in Russia, has a public record that smells so bad that it’s hard to believe he ever got elected.

He has been known as the puppet of the country’s “oligarchs”—the super-rich businessmen of Russian sympathy in the eastern bloc.  He is widely considered as a corrupt man who would sell his soul to the highest bidder.

Yet he has supporters and followers, obviously.  The best explanation is that he got to the presidency because he could deliver the goods to those oligarchs and their buddies better than anybody else around.

We’ve read about the unbelievably lavish presidential residence that he had been luxuriating in. There were rumors of it, but no hard evidence.

How at the last minute he tried there to destroy all the  incriminating evidence of his huge and corrupt deals—in panic ditching hundreds of papers in the Dnipro flowing by his backyard.

How the protestors somehow discovered the soggy records, hundreds of them, and set them out to dry in the sunshine.  Already they are being studied, and it is said that what they show is as sordid as so many thought.

I know very little about the newly elected interim leader in the government, Arseny Yatsenyuk. The big fact is that he was a key leader of the protestors and as such looks forward to a Russian-free Ukraine aligned to us in the West. The fact that he got to be the new leader says something about his leadership and strategizing skills.

The big problem is that Ukraine has long been so vulnerable to Russia. Russia has so much muscle and uses it in numerous ways.

That’s what got Yanukovich into so much trouble just a few weeks ago. He had agreed reluctantly with the protestors to pursue a link with the West. Then Vladimir Putin up and offered him $15 billion of help for Ukraine.  The country had been in financial throes for a long time. He abandoned his agreement to join the West and jumped for the money.

That inflamed the revolutionaries. And we all know the startling result.

For years, Russia has been selling Ukraine most of the natural gas that is essential to it. Russia has plenty. Ukraine has little.  Gazprom has been the big Russian supplier. Controlled by Moscow, it’s a monopoly. So Ukraine had/has little choice.

Gazprom has been delivering the gas to Ukraine at a discount–to court it, remind it that it should be super nice to Russia, and keep it in its embrace. The gas goes to Ukraine through an all-important pipeline.

I saw how Russia used its muscle through Gazprom to get its way.

In Chernihiv, in fact all the cities of Ukraine, most people live in huge apartment blocks. They are all based on the same plain, spartan architectural plan in order to make the building easy and fast to build. They were erected quickly after World War II because millions needed decent housing overnight.

In fact, you can find them in all the countries that used to be in the USSR. Still habitable after decades of use.

The massive buildings come five stories high, nine stories, and fourteen.  I never found out why not five, ten, and fifteen, which would seem to make more sense.

I lived in two of them, with my second and third families. The apartments were very small and very basic but comfortable.

All those huge blocks in Chernhiv—hundreds of them—were connected to the same municipal gas supply, which came from Russia of course.  The gas fueled the people’s cook stoves, kept their water hot, and heated their small apartments.

To heat the apartments, the city turned on the gas on in all those blocks on a certain day in mid-October and then off in late March. In the whole city, mind you.

And that was the situation in the whole country.

Well, while I was there, Ukraine faced a heart-palpitating crisis.  Russia, though Gazprom,  announced a huge price jump.  It was politically related, of course. The gas was going to be turned off if Ukraine didn’t cough up. Yes, in the whole country. Imagine!

Ukraine is a very cold place come winter. I remember vividly how people were scared.  How would they get by without the gas? Hey, I worried, too.  I didn’t want to be cold! . wanted  hot meals. I wanted a hot shower.

Finally, after some wild bargaining and badly frayed nerves, a deal got worked out. Whew! But mostly in Russia’s favor, as usual.

It showed the power of Russia. And the hardball games it could play.

And in just the last few days, Russia has pulled that same stunt again. Gazprom stunned the country by announcing it can’t continue to send it gas unless it pays the nearly $2 billion it owes.

I haven’t heard whether it’s been settled. For sure Ukraine will get the short end of the deal.

Now Washington is discussing loosening its export limits for natural gas.  We could supply Ukraine some gas….

Now how about Vladimir Putin?  He follows in the tradition of the tough, single-minded, all-powerful  leaders of the USSR since its founding. With the notable exception of Mikhail Gorbachev.

It’s Gorbachev who stunned the world by announcing the Communist system wasn’t working and had to be abandoned.  And—unbelievable–that the republics of the Soviet Union should be allowed to break away and chart their own future. Well, they did go independent and that was the end of the USSR.

That historic year was 1991. Ukraine was one of the first to opt out. And, what was dramatic, it announced it aimed to be a genuine democratic country and to switch to a capitalist economy. Others took that same road. Others stuck to the old system.

By the way, Gorbachev was of Ukrainian-Russian lineage.

Not long afterward, Ukraine invited Peace Corps to come in.

After that fateful 1991, Russia itself took a huge fall–in its economy and influence and prestige at home and in the world at large. Slowly it is managing a comeback with Putin in the pilot’s seat.

Putin was thick in the old Soviet hierarchy. He was an operative in the hated and feared KBG. That was his springboard to the higher things that he attained.

It is clear that he dreams of a great Russia again, with as many of those now separated republics back in its fold. And considers himself the master architect and strongman to accomplish that. Believes he can pull it off.

He’s playing his cards with that in mind.  He decided that taking the Crimea would be a powerful start.

Well, we all know how he ordered his troops into the Crimea and how they staked out the most important elements of it. Though he denied he was doing that.

We all know how the new, struggling, untested government of the revolutionaries in Kiev panicked and pleaded with the free world for help.

How the European Union offered $15 billion in support.  How we expressed our sympathy and resolved to help.  How Obama tried to reason with Putin and still is, being careful not to start another war, thank God. We know how angry words flew back in forth.

We know how stock markets, which in the USA where heading toward an all-time high, took a beating. So did stock markets around the world.

How Secretary of State Kerry dropped everything and rushed to Kiev for talks with the new leaders. And tried to calm the populace with assurance that we would be a strong partner.

He told them we would provide emotional and, better still, financial support big time.  Nearly instantly we offered  $1 billion.

After Putin invaded Crimea and the huge outcry that followed, he angrily asserted that Russia did that for one reason– ethnic Russians in Crimea and even other parts of Ukraine felt threatened by the blood-thirsty revolutionaries.

We pooh-poohed that, calling it nonsense.  We insisted he was using that as an excuse.

I don’t quite agree. If I were one of those ethnic Russians, I’d certainly be fingering my prayer beads double-time.

Well, Putin seemed to blink. Though he kept up his swaggering bravado, he de-intensified the invasion. Yet he continued to surround Ukrainian military posts and TV stations and other important things in Crimea.

He’s not stopping to foment trouble. He just had an old Soviet warship sunk to block Ukrainian warships from getting out of their harbor.

It’s clear Russia is desperate to annex Crimea. It’s clear many Crimeans want to join Russia.

In fact, the Crimean regional government will hold a plebiscite in just a very few days about seceding and joining Russia.

And Russians in huge numbers in Moscow and throughout the country are inviting Crimea to switch allegiance.

They’re screaming, “Come back! Come home! We welcome You!” Which is heartening to the ethnic Russians and awfully dismaying to the Ukrainians now in power and to and the European Union.

But such things have been going on around the world for centuries, including our own country.

When I read about the revolutionaries risking their lives by fighting the armed might of the establishment in Kiev, I thought that was exactly what we had done at Bunker Hill and Lexington and Concord.

About Crimea seceding, isn’t that what we did when we broke off from England and launched the American Revolution?

Hey, Washington and Jefferson and Ben Franklin and the other signers of our Declaration of Independence knew they’d be hanged if our revolution failed. Yet they signed.

When we all  that incredibly vast real estate from France in the Louisiana Purchase, did we give much thought to the French and Spanish living down there? Heck, no.

Wasn’t it secession when the South broke off from the North and set up its Confederacy and launched the Civil War?

Think of how we annexed Texas. Which is what Russia is planning for Crimea.

How we muscled Mexico into that deal that got us the whole huge Southwest through that treaty of 1848.

Isn’t that what French Québec attempted just a few years ago—twice? To break away from Canada but failed narrowly.  Is still attempting. In fact, has a plebiscite of its own coming up in just a few weeks about that huge issue.

Isn’t Scotland planning to secede from Great Britain in two years?

Many are yelling that the successful revolution in Ukraine has been illegal…contrary to the Constitution…and therefore immoral and dishonest.

Time and again I have seen how any group of 51 percent or more can turn over any applecart.  Even when doing that is branded as unconstitutional and illegal.

The moves and countermoves between Russia and Ukraine and the European Union pop up every day.

Now the new Ukraine leaders in Kiev are flying to Washington to confer with Obama.

Now flights out of Sevastopol are allowed only to Russia. It’s hard to keep up with the developments.

I have no idea how this will play out. I doubt that it’s going to calm down.

I delayed publishing this because I hoped for resolution of the problem. Well, for sure the problem will go on a long time. Even if Crimea goes independent.

My sympathy is with the Ukrainian protesters.  I’m cheering for an independent, Russia-disconnected, European-allied Ukraine. Even if Crimea checks out. But I’m taking nothing for granted.

Now! I hope you don’t think I’ve lost my mind, but I think it wouldn’t be tragic if Ukraine lost Crimea.

Ukraine would then be a more Ukrainian country in genes, culture, and temperament.

It would still be one of the largest in Europe.  And linked finally to Western Europe.

And look around. Many countries much smaller than Ukraine are doing just fine—Sweden, the Netherlands, on and on, and probably best of all, Switzerland.  Smaller can be better.

By the way, our Peace Corps operation there got shut down during the crisis. All the Volunteers were evacuated out.  Not home to the USA. To some other country, but I’m not sure which, though I’ve tried to find out. No idea when it will go back. Surely it will quickly be invited back.

Time and again through this, I’ve thought of all the Ukrainians working at our headquarters, and with Volunteers throughout the country, including the troubled parts. What about them? I assume our Embassy and USAID are functioning.

And all the institutions across the country, of various kinds, which had important, ongoing programs with Peace Corps. Imagine the lurch they’re in.

Of course I thought of all the students that I worked with personally. And the members of the English Club that I started and ditto with my French Club. And of the three families I lived with and the neighbors I met, and the folks at the big Chernihiv Public Library and in other projects I got deep into.

So many of those folks thought of the USA as Paradise, though I made sure to tell them we were very good but not that good.

What about them in all this?

I have little idea.  My hunch is they’re distressed.  Alas!.

Some dreamed and struggled to get into our land of the free and the brave.  I saw that for myself.  Counseled more than one.  Very few succeeded. It’s so difficult.

And—I just thought of this after reviewing what I’ve written–if one or two of you have read all the way down to this final sentence, I’ll say, “Are you kidding me?”

Gosh, the  word count has stopped just short of 6,000!

P.S.

If you want still more background about Peace Corps in general and its mission in Ukraine–and some things about Peace Corps that troubled me– look up my Peace Corps book.

It is available as a print book and e-book at www.amazon.com.  It’s a fine book. I’m proud of it.  Check out its reviews at Amazon. That would be a good start at learning a few things.

~ ~ ~

 

 

 

 

 

 

My very unusual Sunday morning today

By John Guy LaPlante

I’m in warm and sunny Costa Mesa, California. And the morning has been gorgeous!

We sprang forward one hour last night. I love that.

As usual, I  spent  a fine night, and enjoyed my  fine usual   breakfast of oatmeal and fruit and black tea, yes, in  my comfy one-person camping van.

And decided to go to a church service.

I am not a church-goer. Do not belong to a church. But it was the first Sunday in Lent, and that still means something to me after all these years.  And I felt a need. It was that simple. I put on better clothes and headed out.

Last year here, I went to a service at the tiny Christian Community Church nearby. I enjoyed it.  I decided to go back.

I arrived just in time for the 10 a.m. service.

It’s a lovely small church of traditional design on a beautiful corner. Thirty or so cars were in the lot.  Expensive ones and cheap ones. Two men and a lay sporting prominent name tags welcomed me at the front door. Such warm smiles!

“Welome, sir!  Welcome!” I felt they meant it.

It was, I repeat,  a small church and with a small attendance, sad to say. Maybe only 35 or so. It could seat four times that many. I noticed four or five women to every man.  And just three or four traditional  couples. So, quite unusual. Half a dozen approached me, welcomed me, inquired about me.  All wonderful. One of the things I needed, I guess.

Beautiful, joyous music, by a choir of six or seven, plus a piano, a guitar, and drums. They were terrific. We sang along. I didn’t. That’s a talent I sadly lack.

The hymns they were happily singing were projected onto a big screen up front. Every seat had a thick hymnal, but unnecessary these days.

I loved the melodies and the rhythms. I tried to make real sense of the words, but as usual, couldn’t.  Oh, well.

People were well dressed, I liked that.  Some were dressed conventionally.  A few had wilder outfits.  Some men had conventional haircuts like mine. Two or three had long pony nails, but neat.

The church calls itself  “Vibrant, Open, and Loving,.”  Prints those lovely words on its program. Practices them. I remembered all that from last year.  That was one reason I was back.

That, by the way, means that it is open also to the LGBT community. I didn’t know what that meant.  Well, it stands for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender folks. My goodness! But I’m a liberal in most ways, and that sounded good to me.

I looked around to see who I could spot as L, G, B, or T. I couldn’t tell though I hazarded a guess or two.

Dr. Sarah Halverson was the speaker.  She’s the minister—seven years now.  About 35,  maybe touching 40.  She was another reason I was back.  She radiates faith, and community, and openness, and acceptance with Jesus as the ideal. She’s a wonderful person. They’re lucky to have her.

And she speaks with such sincerity, and charm, and warmth.  Plus such learning and wisdom.

Then followed the fellowship hour, out on the patio in the golden sunshine. Shirtsleeves weather! That’s why I’m in Southern California! Coffee and nice goodies. I got to have a nice chat with Dr. Halverson, and somehow she remembered me from last year.

She pointed me to a slim, white-haired  lady in her  upper 60’s, but I’m guessing about that.  Lina, I believe, but I may be mistaken, and I found her so delightful that I’d be profoundly embarrassed because she made such a good impression on me that her name should have remained crystal-clear for me.

As they say, old age isn’t for sissies.

Dr. Halverson—everybody else calls her Sarah—sent me to Lina because she had served in the Peace Corps, too. As an older Volunteer, like me. In Thailand.   She she told me she was a Ph. D. and had had career as a professor of education “I taught aspiring teachers how to teach,” she told me. So, extremely important work. Told she had enjoyed her Peace Corps. We got to talk about a lot of things, some significant. She was another highlight of my morning.

I also got to talk to others.  I met a man, about 60, with a pony tail. And our talking somehow led him to open up to me.  He told me a terrible hard-luck story.

But I liked him.  And was able to make some helpful suggestions, and he seemed to consider them helpful.  I left him thinking our talk had been a win-win situation. We both got something good out of it.

In fact, I felt good, good, good about my whole experience at that lovely small  church. And went on my way.

 

My fuel tank was getting very low.  I pulled into a Shell station, stuck my Visa card into the machine, punched in my Deep River zip—and it didn’t work. Tried again. Failure. Tried again.  Failure.  Walked into the store.  The counter man swiped my card.  It worked. How come?

By the way, I bought $75 worth. The price was $4.01 per gallon.  So, a bit more than 19 gallons. That didn’t come close to filling my tank.

Anyway, a woman had walked in.  In her 40s, neat but with soiled clothes, a scruffy big lady’s handbag in one hand, and a big, big plastic bag crammed with stuff in the other. Homeless for sure, I thought.

She had a couple of dollars in her hand and walked to a display of peanuts and chips.  And looked at the cashier, rather uncertainly.

“No, no, no!,”  He said it sternly, wagging a big finger at her.

I was shocked.  And hey, I was here fresh from a marvelously inspiring  talk about acceptance and openness.   “She wants food!” I said to him indignantly.  “What’s wrong?”

“No.  She wants alcohol.  We know her.”

Anyway she walked out. So did I.

Outside she was waiting for me.  She had three $1 bills in hand. I was sure she had darn little money.

She said something to me and offered me her money.  She was a minority person, and I didn’t understand her English. Besides, I have a hearing problem.

I said, “What kind of food do you want?”

“Beer!” she said.  “Beer!”

In a flash I shot back, “I’m sorry.  I cannot do that!”

She looked so, so crestfallen. So pitiful.  She turned, picked up the big plastic bag she had put down, and trudged away.

I felt awful.

If I had really accepted that heartfelt message of Dr. Halverson’s—be open to others, try to do good to all,  be helpful in practical ways—maybe I should have said, “Yes.” Gone inside with her money, made the purchase, given her the beer, and said, “God  bless you and have a nice day!”

Sure, I would have been encouraging her in her habit.  But hey, I would have been consoling her in a way that seemed so, so essential to her at that very instant.

Did I do right?  Or did I do wrong?

Those two questions are stuck in my mind.

What do you think?

 

The rest of my day has been wonderful.

I am so lucky in so many ways.

How come I’m so lucky?  And that poor woman so unlucky?

I have no explanation that satisfies me, unfortunately.

“Dr. Halverson, help! Please! Please!”

~ ~ ~

I have an accident. Get banged up. My fault.

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — We all have accidents, don’t we? There are two kinds, it seems. Stupid ones because they’re our fault. And genuine ones because they are not.

I just had a stupid accident. The results could have been horrendous. I could have been the biggest headline in the Tribune here the next morning! I am still alive (or so it seems). I did get banged up, but I got off lightly and nobody realizes that better than I do.

My accident was a humdinger and my family know all about it.  I sent all of them an email as soon as I could pull myself together.

Now I am telling you because I have calmed down and I can function better and, very important, there’s a lesson I want to share. Which is how the potential calamity that I precipitated–unintentionally, mind you–was triggered by one second of inattention. Well, maybe two seconds. Got to be more vigilant!

Here’s how it happened. I drove back in my van from a ride into town to Monique and David’s—my daughter and son-in=law. It was around 7 p.m. Very dark out. Parked as usual on the street right in front of their house.

I pushed in the light switch, which turned off both the exterior and dashboard lights. Then shifted into Park and turned off the ignition.  It’s a sequence I’ve done countless times.

I opened the door and stepped out. It’s a big step down and I just started to get out. I had my left foot out and was shifting out. The van began to roll backward. I lost my balance and tumbled out.

As I fell, the heavy door closed on my right arm and pinned it.  I fell on my right side onto the pavement. By some miracle I wrested my arm  free…and laid there stunned.

I hurt but none of my bones seemed broken. I had to flip over. Tried, tried, kept trying. Finally I did it. Managed to get up onto my knees. Tried to stand but could not.  Yelled for help. Nobody heard.

My God! My van had disappeared down the slight incline. Was out of sight.  I crept on my hands and knees toward the sidewalk—had to get out of the line of traffic. Painful. Finally, with a mighty effort, managed to stand. Dizzy. Wobbly. Felt I’d fall.

I took a better look. Where’s the van?  Finally  I spotted it. Diagonally across the street, about 150 feet away in dark shadow. It was hard to see. It was backed up against something in front of a neighbor’s house. A tree, it seemed.

If the road had sloped to the left rather than the right, the van would have hit David’s car, maybe Monique’s also! They were side by side on the short driveway.

I was too hurt, too shaken up to get over to the van for a better look. Had to get into the house. There are 10 or 12 steps up to their big deck. It was tough going. Finally, finally I made it up and opened the door. They had left it unlocked for me.

They were out of sight. Blurted very loud, “What an awful accident I just had!” Both came rushing, saw me, started to help me.

I began explaining. I was breathing hard.  Gave them detail after detail. Monique was examining me. David was looking me over. Both were listening but taking care of me.

Monique rushed to the medicine cabinet. The minute she got back, David ran out to the van. He came back in a few minutes.

Yes, it had backed into a small tree. Magically, its branches had acted as a spring. Without that tree, he said, the van would have run smack into the bow window of the living room. Wow!

Hard to tell how damaged the van was. “But it’s not bad!” That sounded awfully good.  He had started it and driven it back to its proper spot.

They looked me over carefully. Already my right arm was black and blue–grossly so. From the wrist nearly right up to the shoulder! My shoulder was terribly sore. My neck ached. I had bloody scrapes on my elbows and knees. A rip-like cut on my right palm.

My right ankle was horribly swollen and black and blue. Had a bleeding scrape on my right heel—very strange because my heel was protected by my shoe, which had stayed on, and the shoe didn’t show any damage. How come?

My right thigh ached bad, especially when I tried to stand.

Monique cleaned my wounds, put bandages on me here and there. David had gone to the bathroom and come back with two tubes of ointment. “This one is for those sores,” he said, pointing. “This one is for those awful bruises.” I went right to work with them.

Monique gave me two Advils and a glass of water. “Take them right now, Dad!” She’s no nurse, but no nurse could have tried harder.

Strangely, my clothes showed no damage at all.

Of course I wondered whether I should go to Emergency at the hospital. I’m sure Monique and  David were wondering the same thing.

I decided that wouldn’t be necessary. “I have no broken bones, and that’s a miracle!” I told them. “I think I’m going to be all right. It’s not that bad. Thank you. A good night’s sleep will do me a lot of good.”

As soon as she could, Monique phoned the neighbors across the street whose tree had stopped the van. Explained exactly what had happened. My fault.

She happened to speak to Greg, the husband. He took it all calmly. “Glad John is okay!” he said. “I’ll go out and look at the tree in the morning.”

Just a few days earlier, we had attended a dinner at a neighbor’s. I had been invited, too. There were a dozen of us there, including Greg and Lorraine, his wife.

I had enjoyed chatting with them. He had been a tattoo artist, but for the last seven years had run a computer shop–sales and repairs of PC’s- a mile up the road. He loved to go surfing in the Pacific a few blocks away. She was a ballet dancer and taught ballet. It was a wonderful dinner.  Now this awful thing had happened.

Monique and David helped me to bed. Fussed over me. Left a low light on for me. “Call if you need anything!”  Monique said, giving me a kiss.

Sleep didn’t come easily. I was in pain. I had the same thoughts over and over.

How lucky I was that I wasn’t hurt worse. How lucky that my van didn’t do more damage to Greg and Lorraine’s across the street. Imagine if the van had had to be towed away…then been declared a total wreck!

Imagine if it had rolled into an oncoming car! Think of the injuries to those in it. And the van could have dragged me back with it that whole 150 feet! I’d be dead.

Finally I dozed off. Sleep can be so, so wonderful.

In the morning I was somewhat better. I had calmed down. I made a better survey of my injuries.

Monique put new bandages on my sores . My black-and-blue areas looked awful. My right ankle was huge. More ointment on both. My shoulder and neck were very sore. My left hip hurt. But by now I was positive nothing was broken.

Yes, I got off very lightly. It re-enforces my belief that in old age it’s good to be a few pounds overweight. Which I am.Falls are common for us seniors. Those pounds were good padding for my bones. They will also help if I’m ill in the hospital someday and not eating well.

I got up for breakfast with Monique and David. Of course you know what was our Number 1 topic. This stupid accident!

Afterward, I was determined to go outside and see for myself. Got dressed. The van knocked the bark off the tree in four or five places. The worst damage to the van was a slight depression on one of the back doors. About the size of my hand.

In fact, I was amazed by how small all the damage was. I had worried this would be a huge deal!

I went back to bed and slept till nearly noon! That’s incredible for me. Explained by the heavy emotional toll, I guess.

And on the following morning, I drove over to Greg’s computer shop. He was in. Smiled broadly when he spotted me. “John, so glad you’re okay!”

I explained the whole accident, told him it was my fault and offered to pay for the damage to the tree.

“Not a problem! It was all minor!  I’ve got some tree paint. That will take care of it. Forget it!”

What a good guy! The following day I returned to his store and left off a little something for him. Just a token of my appreciation.

What triggered the accident, of course, was that in the dark I didn’t notice that I hadn’t shifted into Park, just into Neutral. I should have turned off the lights just after shifting properly and before cutting the ignition!

The previous week I had just finished three sessions with Dr. John Watson. He’s the chiropractor who finally fixed my neck after my terrible fall down the stairs back home in Deep River four years ago. I couldn’t hold my head up! I walked around with my chin slumped down against my chest!

He figured it out after everybody else failed—including three MD’s, physical therapists, another chiropractor.  When I come every year, I return to him. He always finds some part of me that needs adjustment.

Well, I saw him also after this accident, and he put his skilled hands to work on me again. Again he was helpful.

A week has gone by. I’m much better. My sores are healing. My extensive black and blue is nearly gone. But my right thigh still hurts. And my right foot is still swollen. But I’m confident I’ll get back to normal.

If we, too, have only nine lives, I feel I have only one or two left.

I’ll be starting my 86th year in April. I am so surprised—and pleased—to have reached this advanced age. I’ll be satisfied with one or two.

~ ~ ~

The latest about little old Marjorie and her little old beloved Alabaster

By John Guy LaPlante

Hello, my Friends,,

Your feedback tells me strongly that my sad tale of a few days ago about  Marjorie’s  ongoing heartache  interested many of you.

The wrenching dilemma she faces!  Put Alabaster out of his obviously failing health?  Or spend some of her severely limited funds for veterinary care that might not do much for him? Except assuage her  conscience maybe?  What’s best for Alabaster? What’s best for her?

Well, here’s the latest. From my point of view, not good.

On another morning walk down to Spencer’s Market, I did see her again.  I lit up with a big smile–was so happy to see her approaching. She was on the sidewalk on the other side of the street, coming toward me, a long block away. Again cradling poor old Alabaster in her arms.

As she drew closer, I gave her a great big wave.  But no response, which was strange. Of course, she was  carrying Alabaster, and surely that explained it.  But a  minute later, she took a sharp right turn into her supported-living  complex—a right turn that was not her usual  direction. Away from me!  And quickened her steps.  I was surprised.  And  so disappointed.

“Hi, Marjorie!” I yelled to her.  It had to be a yell.  She kept right on. Then hesitated. Then turned toward me and  gave me a tiny wave…the tiniest wave possible….then turned away and hurried toward wherever she was going,. This was  not the way back to her tiny apartment. I couldn’t believe it. Really couldn’t.

So, friends, what should I make of that? Did she feel  deep down that I had butted in? And resented it?  I myself felt I had been quite helpful.  Was proud to have given her a bit of emotional comfort. What do you think? Have I blundered?

Whatever the explanation, there’s not much I can do about it now.  I have left Monique and David’s after a wonderful visit and I’m on the road in my van again.  I’m heading south toward Los Angeles, approaching beautiful and deservedly famous Santa Barbara.  It will be months before I see Marjorie again, if ever.

I realize Marjorie’s heart has been aching non-stop. What’s best for Alabaster? What’s best for her? What to do? Yes,what to do?   So much on her mind. But now my heart is aching, too..

~ ~ ~

10 years ago, around the world I went, alone. I am still amazed!

Startling, incredible Shanghai, city of extreme contrasts--only one of the great cities I got to see.

Startling, incredible Shanghai, city of extreme contrasts–only one of the great cities I got to see.

 

By John Guy LaPlante

How many miles is it around?

Well, at its maximum circumference, the world is 26,000 miles around. I traveled 36,750. I zigzagged so much, as always. You can circle it in far less. If you circle it at the latitude of my state of Connecticut, say, it will be thousands of miles less. Some make the circle without going below the Equator.

I went way down below, and stayed down for quite a while, which meant visiting South Africa and South  America, too.  Then came up and kept on The basic idea was not to go to places I knew. Not to Europe. I had been there 10 or 12 times. Not to Mexico nor Canada. I had crisscrossed them both. It was to see new places.

I was gone five months. I had many wonderful encounters and experiences, as hoped for. And two or three bad ones, which is to be expected, I suppose. I got back in one piece, thank God, and wonderfully satisfied with my adventure despite a surprising and nearly devastating start. I talk about that below.

I did it for only $83 per day. Everybody tells me that was fantastically cheap. True!

Up to then, that trip was my greatest adventure. But then I did have another great one. That was my full hitch of 27 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine. That, however, was great in a dramatically different way.

On the trip I sent back many newspaper reports. But the minute I got home, I wrote it up in detail. And that became my book. “Around the World at 75. Alone, Dammit!” — 354 pages of 10-point type with many photos. It was published as both a print book and an e-book. True of all my books.

Many people dream of a big trip…a great big once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Well, for them l crammed in as much practical info as I could. I wanted to encourage them, show them how to travel safer, save them money and make it go further, and squeeze the max out of their trip, in what they learn and the pleasure they reap. So, it’s a thrill for me to hear from people who tell me they got their money’s worth out of my book. All my books, for that matter.

Know what? It’s just a few days ago that it came to me that this is my 10th anniversary of that  trip. How should I mark this anniversary, I wondered. Well, a good way was to share that experience with you now, 10 years later. So below is my final chapter from that book. It gives you a good wrap-up of my trip, I believe.

In it I mention a special 53-page section I made sure to include at the back of the book. It’s called “My Backpack.”You know how we squeeze everything possible into a backpack. I called it Backpack because I squeezed in everything I could to help you to plan and enjoy any big trip. Not only around the world.

I believe it’s important to have adventures.  They teach us so much and add so much spice to our life.  I’ll be starting another very soon. Lucky me! I urge you to try one or two. They don’t have to be humongous, by the way.

I have made a few modifications, but only for clarity. The photos are from the book, so that’s why they’re black and white and not color.

I’d love any comments, of course. Just email them to me at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com. Now here is that final chapter.

Chapter 33   Amen!

Now home, I add up all those miles, all the security checks, all the strange beds. Was it worth it?

 In my many stops around the world, I always thought of home, of course, and found myself making endless comparisons between home and wherever I was. I liked some things; I didn’t like others. I preferred some ways here; but some back home were definitely better. A normal process.

          But now back under the Stars and Stripes, I was tempted to get on my knees and kiss our good, old American terra firma. I did not do that, but yes, for a moment I thought I should. I recognized that the U.S. is like every other country I had seen – imperfect. But less imperfect. No wonder people everywhere dream of coming here. Finally I opened my suitcase for the last time. I had been on the road 147 days. Had visited 29 major cities in 18 countries – in Asia, Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, Africa, South America, and Central America.

          I had skipped Europe and other parts because I had been there a lot.I flew close to 40,00 miles by the time I got back home to Connecticut, on 21 airlines, with another 3,000 miles by bus and train. And yes, of all those airlines, as I’ve already mentioned, only two were American – in fact, they were American Airlines and Southwest.

Others were well known, such as Japan Airlines, Indian Airlines, British Airways, Varig, and Malaysia Airlines. But others were unknown to me: Dragonair, Garuda, Silkair, Bangkok Airlines, Jet Airways, Gulf Air, Egyptair, Kenya Airways, Pluna, Tam Mercosur, Lan Chile, Aero Continente, and Copa Airlines.

 At each stop, I wondered: what is the next airline going to be like? They all turned out to be satisfactory, and on none was the service bad. Some had wild color jobs – I wish I had a picture of every plane! Regardless of the airline name painted on the side, most of the planes were American made – Boeings and one McDonald-Douglas. I rode Airbuses several times. Very nice. And two Fokkers. And one ATR Turboprop.

They all got me there, effortlessly. I never felt unsafe – in fact, I thought I would like to learn to fly some day.

 It seemed the big foreign airlines always had their own native captain and first officer in the cockpit – or flight deck, as they say nowadays. But the smaller airlines seemed to favor American pilots. It would be interesting to interview some of these pilots and find out why they fly for these foreign outfits – probably money, interest in that country, adventure, a problem back home. But flight attendants were always local.

 Most impressive for quality certainly was my first airline, Japan Airlines. Outstanding. Others were excellent – Malaysia, Indian Airlines, and British Airways.

          Announcements on all planes were always made in the local language, then in English – English is the official airline language around the world. In some cases, the English announcements were difficult to understand because so strangely accented.How do people who can’t understand English make out? It has to be a major accomplishment for someone to fly around the world who has grown up in Morocco or Romania.

People are people. The airline uniform the attendants happened to be wearing was insignificant. I think the nicest attendants I met were two black ladies on Kenya Airways. Thoughtful service plus lots of fun. In fact, I still get occasional e-mails from one.

        I had written more than 65,000 words and taken 1,500 photographs. This was an ongoing, every-day effort. I kept a detailed journal which I wrote out every evening before bedtime – on some evenings it was hard. I was so tired. I had to force myself.I wrote 32 articles, each with thousands of words,  and all churned out in spurts – whenever I could get to a computer, although I scribbled sections here and there on a big pad as free time came up. The work was difficult beyond description, not because of the writing, but the computer difficulties.

I worked on all kinds of computers, renting them by the hour in computer shops here, there, and everywhere,, and many were borderline junk.

In some places, the machines were crammed together – just no place to put down a notebook or open a reference book. My elbows would nearly smash with those of the people to my left and right. Sometimes it took a lot of searching to find a decent shop. I am sure I used more than 200 computers along the way. On some days I worked at two or three.

 If this aspect of my trip interests you, take a look at the Backback section of the book I wrote about it. That was the section where I crammed in all kinds of travel tips I picked up and impressions that I felt I should share.

 And several times, despite my best efforts and determined back-ups, I lost complete articles through technical glitches. In all modesty, I consider my 32 articles a major accomplishment from the physical point of view – the blood, sweat, and tears that work took out of me. There is something to be said for old age and maturity. I am positive that if some of these difficulties had assailed me when I was 25, say, I would have quit. Yes, would have given up.

 I am sure some of you are thinking, “John, why didn’t you take a laptop with you?” I considered doing that. It would have been a big, big mistake. Many reasons. Again,  go look at my Backpack.

 My most satisfying writing occurred on the long flight across the South Atlantic on Malaysia Airlines–  nine hours from Cape Town at the bottom of South Africa to Buenos Aires, the must-see capital of Argentina. I had decided to write a final article tentatively entitled, “Around the World at 75 – A Survivor’s Report.”

 I was far from the end of the trip, but already I had much material. I planned to hand-write the first draft on this flight. And I did. I wrote and wrote hour after hour. Yes, in good old handwriting. I got off in Buenos Aires elated. That’s the right word. Now back home, that’s what became my Backpack.

 es, I had a fabulous trip. I saw some of the greatest wonders of our world, man-made and natural. I saw the Great Wall of China, the Grand Palace in Bangkok, the Temple of Venus in Lebanon, the Great Pyramids of Egypt, the magnificent temples of India, ancient and long-forgotten Machu Picchu in Peru, and the Panama Canal! Those are just a few.

 I saw the deserts of North Africa, the incredible landscapes of Africa all the way south to Cape Town, the pampas of Argentina, the Andes Mountains, Iguassu Falls, the lakes of south-central Chile and nearby Argentina, the jungles of Central America. Again, that’s a short list.

 I saw the great cities. Tokyo. Beijing. Hong Kong. Singapore. Bangkok. Calcutta, Delhi, and Bombay and Madras in India (remember, those two have new names now, Mumbai and Cernai. I got to see Beirut, Cairo, Nairobi, Cape Town. Sao Paulo, Rio di Janeiro, and Santiago in South America. Plus others. Wow!

 I had a thousand wonderful experiences and just two close calls. A car drove over my right foot in India, and I came close to breaking a leg on a stairway in Bangkok. Yes, I was very lucky.

 I lost a wallet in Panama City, and I foiled a pickpocket in Montevideo. At one hostel, somebody stole my essential anti-malaria pills, but I managed to replenish them. Taking that pill was my most unpleasant moment each day. Thirty minutes later, I felt so nauseous. I was not ill once otherwise. No diarrhea. No food poisoning. Not once did I consider aborting the trip, except for that moment when Keith told me he was quitting.

Everything considered, I was very lucky.

 I was lucky to have good friends here and there, and I have mentioned them at the front of the book. What a joy and solace they were.

Truth is, I started out with a pal. How could I possibly go on a trip like this all alone? Impossible. His name was Keith, about my age. We had traveled together before. It had been fine. “Sign me on, John” he told me. We agreed we’d stick together the whole way. It was going to be “all for one, and one for all.”
It was a lot harder than we expected. In Hong Kong, our third city, less than three weeks into the trip, Keith wasn’t doing well. For one thing, he had a painful toe. But something else was bothering him, too. He never explained. He announced, “John, I am going home!” My first word out was, “Dammit!” For sure this meant the end of the trip for me, too.

But then I resolved to try going on. It would have been so embarrassing to face people. And I had agreed to send back newspaper articles. The trip was so important to me. We had spent months getting ready.

Soon I found out I could do it. In fact, I was better off.No more discussions about whether to eat in this restaurant or that one, or go to a museum or a ball game.  We had spent every minute together. Now alone, I was reaching out to other people and meeting them. I enjoyed that.

So that’s why I wrote “Alone, Dammit!” on the cover of my book. Now what I say to myself is, “Alone, Hallelujah!”

 I spent about $12,500 for everything. And I mean everything. Visas, medical shots, all travel of whatever kind, and food and admissions and amusements, plus lodging.

My purpose was to see those places and countries and their people as they really are. So I kept clear of most places that attract Americans. So, no fancy hotels or restaurants. Besides, that would have made the trip unaffordable, of course. I used hostels as first choice, and if not available, then small local hotels. I never felt a bedbug, by the way. And I had such a good time in doing it that way.  

 I think that $12,500 was cheap. I could have spent more money, well, up to a point, and made the trip a lot easier. But I didn’t want it to be too easy, and I wanted it to be rich in everyday human encounters and experiences, and so it was.

 It broke down to about $83 a day. I’m not bad at rationalizing.  When I came up with that total, I thought for a minute and concluded that many people spend that much in the depreciation of a new car in just a year or two. Isn’t that so? I considered it money well spent. Furthermore, as you know by now, I looked at it as an investment rather than an expense. 

 Good investments pay off.  This was a good one.

 My whole purpose was to see the world as it is. I wanted to travel as an ordinary person, relying more on serendipity and a friendly and adventurous spirit than a fat wallet.

 I learned a lot about the world and its people. And about myself, too. Which was very, very good. Already  I notice differences in how I think and feel about some things and places

 I admit I was very scared a couple of times. All in alI, I had a grand time. That’s the plain, honest truth. I wouldn’t change much if I did it again.

What did I miss? I promised I would tell you. Having more changes of clothing. Having more time to relax. It was always go, go, go. Having a good reading light next to my bed – excuse me, it was a bunk and not a bed most of the time. Small things.

 But the computer work was exhausting and discouraging. I am repeating myself, I know. It shows how tough it was. I am glad I did it, however.

 I encourage you to travel around the world. Travel is getting easier and cheaper, yet a trip around the world for fun is still a grand adventure. And we say the world is getting smaller. Well, we think that. But it is still a mighty big place. You don’t realize how big until you start out.

 It’s definitely not that difficult to do it my way. There’s a simple test that I recommend for you. Board a bus to your nearest big city with an airport, then make your way to that airport by public transit—by bus or trolley or subway. Not by taxi. Doing it by public transit like that is important. Then find a place to sleep. Then buy a ticket and fly to another big city in the U.S. Then get downtown again by public transit, then find a place to sleep. Do that returning home, too.

 To experience foreign travel, do the same by going to Montreal in Quebec, say, or Guadalajara in Mexico. They’re nearby. So interesting. Won’t take too long. Will cost you far less than crossing an ocean. Again the same way.

 That will give you the additional experience of entering another country and dealing with a different culture and language, different food, different money. If you can handle a trip like that, wonderful!

 Then you can make it around the world. Going around the world just entails completing that cycle a number of times.

 Of course, be realistic. Don’t be surprised when some little things go wrong. Maybe something big will go wrong. That’s life. Something big can go wrong at home as well, of course. If you have the spirit to undertake such an adventure, you have the spirit to confront whatever comes up.

 Beware of the worst terrorist of all. It’s the mosquito! And remember that all hotel rooms look the same after the light goes out. That’s a joke, but it’s an illuminating joke.

 Each of us has one or the other of the following two basic viewpoints as we go about our life: the bottle is half full, or half empty. I know how I look at the bottle, and I hope you look at it the same way.

 And when we set out to travel, we find we react in one of two ways as we encounter strangers. We can view a stranger – any stranger, regardless of his passport, complexion, clothes, or language, whether he eats with a fork or his fingers, or uses toilet paper or finds some other way, or travels by public transit or hitchhikes – either as a potential enemy or a potential friend. I’ll let you decide which way you lean on those choices.

 I hope it’s the first way. The worst disease of all for a grand adventure like this is a mental one. It’s xenophobia– the unreasonable fear of strangers.

 Let me again just pass on advice that my father gave me when I was a boy. He told me, “Jean-Guy (that’s my French name) if you smile, everybody will smile right back.” It’s true. It works. It makes a big difference.

 I certainly want my grandchildren to make a trip like mine. I believe in higher education to the ultimate, but I believe that such a trip would be the best part of their education. I hope that they won’t wait as long as I did. Again, such a trip shouldn’t be viewed as an expense. It should be viewed as an investment.

 I am happy to say I was able to carry my own luggage all the way. And I think I have enough breath left to blow out those 75 candles on my birthday cake very soon. That’s a lot of candles. (Remember, I wrote this 10 years ago. My breath is still pretty good.)

 I made many friends. (Some that I am still in touch with.) And I hope no enemies, of any race, color, creed, or political belief.

 “Travel is fatal to prejudice.”  That’s one of Mark Twain’s terrific insights. I have found it true. International travel is important for numerous reasons. This is one of the prime ones. We lose some of our prejudices.

 I hope you will circle the globe, in one loop or in stages – after all, that’s the way some people hike the Appalachian Mountain Trail from Georgia to northern Maine. The whole thing or by sections over a period of time, even years.

 Yes, I was late in achieving this long-nurtured ambition of circling the globe, which some people considered crazy. Well, better late than never! That’s how I feel. And when all is said and done, not “Alone, Dammit!”  It turned out to be “Alone, Hallelujah!”

Bon voyage to you.  Don’t let your dreams slip out of your fingers.

 (I ended each chapter with an aphorism, one that I thought up myself. Below is the one that I closed this Chapter 33 with.)

 We make a lot of our own luck in life, good and bad.  Sometimes when we set out, we leave bad luck behind and find good luck ahead. Hopefully not vice versa.

END

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A new tale of David versus Goliath–2013 version!

That controversial plant insults Morro Rock.

That plant on that spot insults Morro Rock and Bay. That is one of the most beautiful bays in California.  The plant has been destructive to sea life.

By John Guy LaPlante     With 2 photos.

A couple named Monique and David Nelson and their fellow volunteers out there in central-coast California have been fighting that power plant for years. I’ve been watching this fight all along, and for a special reason. And  I just got an exciting email about it.  Right out of the blue.

It was from  Monique:

“News Alert: Morro Bay Power Plant To Close in 2014!
       “Dear friends —  It’s true!  Yesterday, Dynegy notified Governor Brown of its plan to close the Morro Bay Power Plant in 2014!  We don’t know exactly how it will shake out — there are lots of questions to be answered and details to be worked out. 

      “But let’s take a moment and savor this victory for the estuary!  At the same time, CAPE wants to thank you for all your support over the past 14+ years.  There’s more to do, but we’re getting close….  Monique, Jack, David, Betty, Barbara, Linda & Ahmed (CAPE board of directors)

Finally Monique and David have triumphed!  “Bravo!” I thought. “Terrific!”

Monique and David never gave up fighting the big plant.

Monique and David never gave up the big fight.

So why is this like David versus Goliath? Because it’s about a tiny group of volunteer activists with tiny resources. For years they’ve been battling a huge corporation with deep pockets, Dynergy, which owns the plant. And its previous owners.

I am interested because I happen to know Monique.  And her husband, David.

I’ve been going to  lovely Morro Bay for twenty years.  It’s perched on one of the most beautiful bays and harbors on our Pacific coast.  It’s  surprising how few harbors we have on that coast–far fewer than on this side.  It’s one of the smallest over there but it’s a gem. So it’s precious.

Morro Bay is famous also for Morro Rock. A huge dome rising right up at the entrance to the harbor.  Known to many as the Rock of Gibraltar, the biggest and most remarkable on the whole long Pacific Coast as far north and south as you can go. That rock is really something to behold. Still a sacred place for the native people.

On my first visit  I was shocked by the huge power plant right there on the gorgeous waterfront of Morro Bay. The plant is close by the foot of the the small city’s main street.  There’s an interesting strip there of  restaurants, stores, boutiques, and shops,and amusements. Commercial fishing boats and many pleasure craft add a lot of flavor.

That power plant is so out of place, I thought. It’s a monster down there.

It has three towering smokestacks. They reach way up.You can see them from far away. They belch a vapor or gas of some kind.The plant says it’s harmless, but still it’s disturbing. And the plant detracts so much from the Rock.

To me, its location there was absolutely sacrilegious. So crazy. Sure, the plant was important–it  generated the electricity for the whole area. But  why didn’t they build it farther back, less visible, less offensive? Well, there is an explanation.

The plant was built there on the water’s edge because it needed that water. It sucked it up hour after hour, day after day. It needed it as a coolant for its operations.

Then it pumped that water, which still had a lot of heat in it, back into the harbor.  But in doing so, it was killing zillions of creatures of many kinds.  Tiny ones and big ones, too, but all critical  for the preservation and health of that whole important ecosystem.

Now, here is how Monique and David  got involved.  They hated the power plant, too. Like me, because of its location. At first that was my only concern. But there was more to it than that, they told me. That’s when I heard of the terrible impact the plant had on the one-time abundant sea life and on the harbor and bay.

Monique and David wondered what could be done about it. They met others who felt the same way. That was the start of CAPE.  It stands for the Coastal Alliance on Cape Expansion. Monique and David were on the Board of Directors from the first day, even before CAPE got incorporated.

They had good ideas and the beginning of a strategy and lots of energy and they were determined. But no money to speak of. But they plunged right in.

They were doing this on the side, of course.  After work. They had plenty of personal  responsibilities, such as earning a living. Still they committed themselves to the fight. They quickly became leaders in CAPE.  Monique has been president for five years and David has been the treasurer.

An interesting thing about CAPE is that it’s only the seven directors who are members. Talk about tiny! But they’ve developed strong supporters though never more  than two or three hundred.  So, they’re not a huge  army.

Now here are a few words about that couple.  They are not native Californians.  David grew up in Pennsylvania and after serving in the Navy moved to California to escape from ice and snow.  He got interested in antiques and objects d’art, and particularly antique silver, and it has become a passion.

Monique grew up in Massachusetts and went to college and law school there.  She passed the Massachusetts bar on the first try–quite a few do not.

She met David when he came on a visit and before long she flew to California to join him.  She took the California bar examination and passed it, also on the first try.They married soon afterward. It’s obvious they’re still  in love. She has been part of a local practice most of these years.

All this time they and their associates in CAPE have been battling the mighty power plant.   Dynergy is just the latest owner. It owns a number of plants.

They have fought the plant in many ways on several levels. Holding information sessions for the public. Publicizing the great damage the plant is wreaking. Speaking in protest at city council meetings and state agency hearings at the state capitol in Sacramento.  Writing letters. Finding scientists and other experts and, despite CAPE’s lean treasury, enticing them to help them by conducting studies to measure the  damage being caused, and advising them on what to do about it.

It has been one long battle all this time. Some directors dropped out, of course.  It’s understandable.  Others came on board.  Monique and David and two or three others have been steadfast in keeping up the fight all these years.

They have had their  moments of discouragement.  Monique thought of quitting three years ago but then had a change of heart.  David had the same thought, but only briefly. Now and then both were sustained by bits of good news.  They felt they were making progress but still had a long way to go. Imagine their surprise and elation when Dynergy just up and announced it was shutting the plant. Mine, too. In fact, I was astonished.

Monique told me, “The news was stunning! I found out in a routine call to a state official in Sacramento.  I rushed to call David and he jumped with joy, too.

“But you know, our work is not  over.  It’s marvelous that the damage to the bay will end. We believe aquatic life will thrive again. But there is still a lot to be decided.  One big question is, sure, the plant is going out of business, but what’s going to happen to that ugly building and the smokestacks? That can’t be allowed to stay there.”

To me, this fight and this victory have had the makings of a great movie or a great book.  It is doubtful that will happen. Unimportant to them.

I have found all this so impressive because it has been been a heroic story. One of determination and stamina and smart planning and unrelenting effort.  Not to make headlines or for personal gain.  Entirely for the public good. And with all the odds stacked against its success. Like David’s slaying of great big Goliath!

And I’ve had a special reason to be interested.  Monique is my daughter and David is my son-in-law.

End

The shockingly unthinkable has happened!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 3 photos.

It’s like going to the moon. Unthinkable when I was a boy.  But it happened! Now something else totally unthinkable to me has happened. A brand-new library has been

For years like many others, I've loved poling through the stacks of public libraries. Will my grandkids have this pleasure? I doubt it.

For years like many others, I’ve loved poking through the stacks of public libraries. Will my grandkids have this pleasure? I doubt it.

built but with zero printed books!  It’s filled with digital books– only e-books! Can you believe it?

This isn’t a science-fiction fantasy. That e-library is a reality, here on this planet and now. with its doors open to the public as I write.

It’s in Texas, in San Antonio, which is in Bexar County. It was designed and built just for this radically new purpose, so it’s futuristic looking, of course.  Take a good look at the photo I’ve included.

This amazing library is called the BiblioTech. That sounds strange, doesn’t it? A marriage of books and technology! But as I mull  over the name, I see it is wonderfully  appropriate.

Bibliotech opened  September 14. It’s been getting enormous attention, and some brave souls  are calling it the library of the future. Which to me suggests the demise of libraries as we know them. I’ll tell you why in a minute.

To get the Bibliotech ready, by the way, $178,966 worth of  iPads, iMacs and MacBooks was purchased from Apple, Inc..  It will be like being in an Apple store, I would think. It seems the BiblioTech designers  even  gave it the look and feel of an Apple store. The Microsoft people must be weeping.

Of course, it’s common now for libraries all over the civilized world to have a digital area, or a digital room, with computers and printers and scanners and all the associated stuff. But who ever would have thought of a dedicated e-book library?

It’s not surprising that this first of its kind is located in Texas. Texans are known for their big hats, big boots, big ideas.

This is the Bibliotech! Right out of "Buck Rogers," if you remember that wonderful comic strip. The future has arrived! if you remember him.

The BiblioTech seems right out of “Buck Rogers”!  Do you remember that great comic strip?  Well, that future has arrived!  I hope to get to visit BiblioTech.

But now let’s look at BiblioTech’s details, which are fascinating. Here is what BiblioTech says about itself. I’ve put in italics.

BiblioTech is the first public digital library of its kind. Membership is
free to all Bexar County residents. Patron services include:

Access to BiblioTech’s digital collection including e-books, audiobooks.
Wireless internet access.
Computer classes.
Laptop, desktop and tablet access.
E-readers (available for circulation).
Programs for children and adults.
Study/meeting space.

Through BiblioTech, residents of Bexar County will be able to access over
10,000 current titles through e-readers that they can check out to take
home or read on the premises.  Residents will also be able to use their
own e-readers or tablets to access the collection.

BiblioTech currently has 600 e-readers, 200 pre-loaded enhanced e-readers
for children, 48 computer stations, 10 laptops and 40 tablets to use on-site.
Additional e-reading accommodations will be made for the visually impaired.

Its Mission:
To provide all Bexar County residents the opportunity to access technology and its applications for the purposes of enhancing education and literacy, promoting reading as recreation and equipping residents of our community with necessary tools to thrive as citizens of the 21st Century.

About Bexar County:
It includes the city of San Antonio), is located in South Texas and covers approximately 1,247 square miles.  Based on the 2012 Census Estimate, the overall population is 1,714,773 individuals.  The city of San Antonio is the 7th largest city in the United States having surpassed Dallas, Texas and San Diego, California.  Bexar County is currently the 4th most populated county in Texas (out of 254 counties) and the 19th most populated county in the country.

Gosh, isn’t it all mind-boggling?

Ashley Eklof,Bibliotech's head librarian. A true pioneer!

Ashley Eklof,,BiblioTech’s  librarian. A true pioneer!

Who’s in charge. BiblioTech’s librarian is Susan Eklof. She’s beautiful.  From her photo, looks like a 22-year-old geek right out of an Apple store.  Nothing like the unfair stereotype that we’re all familiar with–the classic old-maid librarian with  books in one hand and a feather duster in the other hand. Anything but.
Actually, Ms. Eklof was trained at the University of Wisconsin/Milwaukee. In computer science and library science, I presume.  Later she worked in a public school system up there, at that kind of work, I would think. Well, she is walking into history as a true pioneer. For sure she will be famous in the annals of library science–or information technology–as some in the field now call it.

The County Manager is David Smith. He said, “One of her passions is increasing access to technology and information,” So no surprise she was chosen.

Said another high official to her. “You’re about to embark on an adventure that’s not been done anywhere in the United States, probably anywhere in the world. You’ve got a good team. We’re going to build something for the kids of the South Side of San Antonio that will enhance their learning like no other place in the country.”

Truth is, I kind of saw this coming. But never, never in my lifetime did I expect to see an  e-library like the BiblioTech.  But a year or so ago I read something startling. As you know, Amazon.com, among other things, is our biggest retailer of books. Bigger than Barnes & Noble even. But last year it sold more e-books than print books! Wow! And at that time, a report by the Pew Foundation said that 19 percent of adults in the U.S. had read an e-book. I was amazed the percentage was so high. And the trend showed no signs of slowing.

What does this portend? Not good news. Certainly not from my point of view as a library lover. It portends that public libraries as I know them and you do, too, are imperiled. Doomed. Will disappear. I say this although I’m aware public libraries have more users than ever, which is encouraging. But this is only because libraries are morphing into something far more than the our narrowly focused libraries of even ten or fifteen years ago.

People go to public libraries take out books, of course, and read newspapers and magazines, but also take out movies and music disks, listen to talks, take the numerous mini courses more and more libraries now offer, and relax in the coffee shops some libraries now run, and be among people–it’s  surprising how many folks live alone, particularly older ones.

And to use free computers! That’s Number 1 for most users.  In fact, I believe that this is the most popular service provided by any public library in the United States today.

I have often said that I consider the public library the most important institution in any community–second only to the food supermarket, of course. Nearly everything I need to know  about any city or town I can find out just by taking a ride up and down its main street and then checking out its library.  That will tell me plenty.

I myself have a stake in this new e-technology. How so? Well, my three books were published as printed books but they have also been published as e-books–this is so essential nowadays.

For years I wrote articles and columns and essays and PR releases for newspapers–print newspapers, that is.  Now what I write appears in e-newspapers mostly. In fact, you will be reading this  initially in my blog. Later in an e-paper or two. And this all because of  the great advances of computer science–a science which never existed back in my school days.

Computers are an essential part of my life. I own three. Plus all the peripherals. I use them daily for work and research and entertainment. It’s a real emergency for me when wi-fi fails or some other weird thing happens. Also digital camera and cell phone. And I own two e-book readers, a Kindle and an iRiver Story HD–it accesses many things my Kindle doesn’t. I’ve downloaded books onto them. But know what? I hardly use my e-readers. I’m just too old-fashioned, I guess. And I’m experimenting with a tablet. So some would say I’m quite computer savvy though I often feel I’m a klutz.

Still. and I know I’m repeating, I am totally amazed that a library like the BiblioTech can exist.  But if I were 20 or 30 years old and lived in Bexar County, for sure I would be a regular at the BiblioTech. Certainly many more like it will appear. City after city will jump on the bandwagon.

The BiblioTech people call their e-library progress, of course, and deep in my heart I believe that it is.  I wish it well.  Progress is a steamroller and there is no stopping it.  But I’m not ready for this particular variety of it.

As you know I have had a passion for books since I was a boy. I’ve had a public library card since I was ten or eleven, I believe. I got it back in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
My Maman walked me right up the granite  steps and through the bronze doors of the Slater Public Library and got me signed up. That was very soon after she had taken me to the Pawtucket Boys Club to get me started in swimming lessons.

Yes, my mother, a young French-speaking immigrant from Québec who never got to learn to speak English well because she spent all day at home taking care of my Papa and us! But she, too, loved to read, not only in French but in English, and got so good at reading in English English and did so well that she subscribed us to the Saturday Evening Post and the Reader’s Digest. When they arrived, she’d stop everything, curl up in her favorite chair, and escape into them for half an hour.

I inherited my love of books from her. I have books in every room. Plus two sets of encyclopedias. Plus a variety of reference books. Much of their content is now easily accessed by computer, of course. But it’s a comfort to feel them around me. And I own them. Not true of e-books. And e-books do zero for the ambiance I like. I feel about books the way some feel about paintings (I do own paintings as well). I owe so much to all the authors who have entered and enhanced my life through their books.

My Papa had the same background as Maman but he learned to speak English on the streets and through serious practice and in time became a successful businessman. Even moved us into a nice colonial-style home with an in-ground pool, quite unusual back then. But we always spoke French at home, right to their final breath.

Well, I have never been without a library card ever since Maman got me that first one.  And I hope I never will be.  It’s a rare night that I go to sleep without a book in my hands. Often a library book. That card is one of the most precious things I own. For symbolic reasons, too.  That in itself is remarkable. Wonder of wonders, that library card will be honored at any public library in the state! No questions asked. That in itself is remarkable.

It doesn’t seem likely that I will ever become a card-carrying member of a BiblioTech-like library. But who knows? Right now I have only one more comment to make. If you have read all this, you, too, are definitely a reader!  How lucky you are! Whether you are reading printed books or e-books or both.Reading is the key to so much.
So, how do you feel about this amazing development of the BiblioTech? I’d be pleased to get your comments.

Oops, a new thought. Will users of  the BiblioTech be allowed to bring in pads and pencils and pens and printed books? Probably not. Who needs that old-fashioned stuff? Well, I do.

 

Jim Schneider the super school traffic cop

 

IMG_0165 IMG_01512013-10-02 16.05.472013-10-02 16.10.042013-10-02 16.05.57IMG_0161

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By John Guy LaPlante

Old Saybrook, CT- It’s a  nice, sunny afternoon. I stand on the corner in amazement. Jim Schneider is the traffic cop here.The school day is over and the loaded school buses are filing out from the Goodwin School, one after another. Also parents who have picked up their kids. Soon teachers and staff will be driving out. It will be a hectic 40 minutes or so.

I say in amazement because Officer Jim is doing his thing.   Right out there in the middle of the intersection, mind you. And nobody does it better. He’s 72 but as agile as an Old Saybrook High varsity tennis player. And just as determined and energetic.

I’m one of his fans. I stop by the town library on many afternoons. It’s just up the street. I like to stroll over at 3:15 now and then to watch him. He is really something to behold.

As always, he’s impeccably dressed for the role. His black uniform seems freshly pressed every day, I swear. His proud hat gets brushed every evening, I think. The brilliant yellow reflective vest looks brand-new. His matching yellow gloves also. When the rain and the cold come, he’ll wear more, of course, but for sure everything will match to perfection. I’ll bet he’s the most dapper officer on the force.

But no handcuffs. No gun. No Billy club. None of that.

He’s in total control of the traffic situation here. From the north and the south and the east. Those are the three possibilities.  Telling this bus to turn right. Telling that car to hold it. Telling another car, come on, move forward!  Waving to another to hurry up. He smiles at one car going by. Permits the car behind it to turn left. Smiles to the next car approaching. Suddenly he stops traffic in all directions to let three kids ride their bikes across.Then swings back into action.

All through this he’s pivoting like a quarterback to face this direction and that one. Making one quick decision after another.  Does it all  with the instantaneous reactions and grace of a…. yes, I have to say it,  a ballet dancer.

And this is his final gig of the day. He does three. From  7  to 8 and then 2 to 3 over at at the Middle School on Sheffield Street.   And every afternoon from 3 to 4 here at the Goodwin School. Another officer covers here in the morning.  In between Jim switches to his other role—keeping the police station spiffed up He’s had a lot of experience at this other work, as you’ll see in a minute. This has been his schedule for seven years since he got started here.

I brought my camera. I snap pictures of him as quickly as I can. I want you to see Jim at work! See what he puts into the job. If I were his promoter, I’d charge folks for the pleasure of standing and watching him.  And if I knew of an annual Traffic Cop of the Year Contest somewhere, I’d nominate him in a minute.

Well, now the last bus and the last car have left. The school and the street are quiet again. I say to him, “Well, Jim, what now?”

We’re standing by his police car. He’s pulling off his gloves. He’s  relaxed. That was quite a workout out there. He’s not pooped at all.

“Home!” he says. “I live not far away. A nice warm shower. A little rest.  Barbara will have supper just about ready. We’ve been married 24 years. I eat light in the evening. A little cheese. A few crackers. A small glass of wine. An apple. That’s it. She makes my big meal at noon. Fish or chicken. I don’t eat red meat any more. Potatoes. Vegetables. Very nice.”

“That’s all? You need 5,000 calories a day to do what you do!”

He laughs. “No, no!”   He pats his stomach.  It’s flat. I’m sure he can’t pinch any fat anywhere. He’s proud of that. He’s still 145 pounds at five-ten. Hasn’t put on any pounds in years. He chuckles. “I must be doing something right!”

Well, here’s his story. Before this he was a cop for 16 years in much bigger Stamford. Started as a beat patrolman. Did it all. Responding to emergency calls. Arresting people. Testifying in court. Writing out reports. And directing traffic.This is what he liked best.

“Stamford has an intersection with traffic from five directions!” he tells me. “That’s where I got my start. A madhouse at rush hours. I loved it! It’s all about communication, you know. Drivers want to know what to do. Well, I tell them.  In fact, I tell them emphatically. Then they understand. And then do what I want them to do. So it becomes a nice, steady, controlled flow. No accidents, and accidents can happen in a tight situation, believe me. I feel really good doing it.”

Back then he also ran a sideline business.  A cleaning service–banks, offices, homes. Very good, he says. He had a whole crew on the payroll. Twenty years. In fact, he resigned from the Stamford police department to give all his time to the business. Sold it when retirement age approached and they settled on Old Saybrook for their new life.

“We checked out a lot of towns. Really did. It didn’t take us long to decide Old Saybrook would be it. And before long I was a police officer again. Right here. But part time. Doing school traffic—my first love. And custodian work at the police station, too.”

He’s  silent for a minute, then smiles and tells me, “You know, now and then the Chief comes over and takes a look. He yells to me. ‘Jim, stand back! Get out of the middle of the street! Stand back!’”

“No way! That’s where I’ve got to stand to do it right.”

“Ever have a real problem of any kind? Maybe a driver getting very mad at you?”

He smiles. Shakes his head. “No. Never. Lots of people wave to me. Very friendly.”

“What’s your big plan?”

“You mean about retirement finally?” I nod. “I don’t think about it much. I like what I’m doing. Truth is, I love it.”

I chuckle.“No kidding? I really couldn’t tell!”

He laughs, too.

By now I’m sure of a few things about him. It would take a brave driver not to snap to an order from Jim.  And watching Jim has to be inspiring to anybody looking on. Kids especially, I like to think. It’s got to be good for them to see a man who really and truly likes the work he’s doing. If all of us did our jobs with as much pride and gusto, wow!

Later I spoke to a couple of key people who know him well.

Said Goodwin Principal Sheila Brown, “All of us love to see Officer Schneider on the job. We just can’t help but smile and wave back, you know. Staff, pupils, parents, everybody! He does such a terrific job. It’s obvious he’s got his whole heart in this. We really appreciate him.” She smiled. “And he knows it!”

Police Chief Michael Spera said to me, “He’s fabulous. A really great asset for 0ur department. You know, he thinks he’s 29 years old out there, and I don’t want him to think any different.” He laughed. “There’s just one thing I don’t like. When all of us get introduced to everybody in the school at the beginning of the year, Jim gets more applause than I do!” A big, hearty  laugh.

 

 

These Americans work for just $1.30 to $3 per hour. Quite gladly.

 

By John Guy LaPlante

Thomaston, Maine – I recently stopped by the State of Maine Prison Store here . My third time in 50 years! As in the past, I was just a tourist passing

through and the store is so wonderful. But this time my visit developed  a bad twist, sad to tell you.

It's raining but still customers come. Especially in tourist season. I never heard of another store like this.

It’s raining but still the customers come. Especially in the important  tourist season. I never heard of another store like this.

A prison store? Yes. it sells  things made by prisoners. The boss is a prison official but the clerks are trusties–prisoners    trusted not to tescape. The profits get plowed right back in.

I stopped for the best of reasons. I had such happy memories of the first time way back in 1963, I believe it was. Now I just wanted to check what might be new. There’s no other  store like it, to my knowledge. It is such a great concept and it sells such good stuff, and at bargain prices.

Well, the store looks the same. It’s right on U.S. 1—a perfect spot to attract tourists. U.S. 1 is the main street of this small seacoast town.

The store is in a big, old red brick building. It has big front windows it which it displays  some of its items. The store is about 50 by 100 feet. It’s jammed with items for sale.  Nearly everything is made of wood, good native wood. Everything is made by prisoners.

Prices start at around $3 and run up into the hundreds of dollars with a few in the thousands. Maine souvenirs, toys, and decorative items. Practical things for the home. Fine furniture. Some true art items that will s go up and up  in value., for sure Yes, some souvenir items are mass-produced, I’m sure. But some are one of a kind!

And everything is made by prisoners who, it seems to me, are delighted to use their talents creatively, develop new skills, and make money. That’s better than watching TV, counting every minute till they get out, or going stir-crazy, which happens.

On my first visit years ago, the prison itself was nearby, in the back behind the store somewhere. Now it’s shifted to the next town south, Warren. It has about 900 prisoners. But Maine has eight prisons, so some of these items can be coming in from several or all of them. I have no idea how many prisoners make stuff. It must be just a small number.

From what I’ve seen, no item is autographed, though some certainly should be.  Some of these prisoners are true artisans, talented and dedicated.  In fact, artists. You can tell just by looking.

It’s was a gray,  rainy day this last time. For four days, rain! Still there were close to a dozen men and women shopping inside.  In high season the store is mobbed, I’m sure.

As in the past, there was a manager and half a dozen clerks at work. All men of middle age and up. No prisoner wore a  black-and-white striped uniform, the kind we see in old movies. Just ordinary work clothes. All were men who had served a good portion of their sentence and were deemed safe . Whether there was a  murderer or rapist or arsonist here , I don’t know. Probably for a lesser crime.I’m sure they all knew that we knew they were prisoners. But they didn’t show it. They seemed ordinary men working ordinary jobs.

If you took down  the Maine Prison Store sign down out front, you would consider this just another  business selling  nice wood products.

Let me tell you about my first visit here 49 years ago or so. It sticks in my mind as a precious memory. We were on a camping vacation up here—Pauline and I and are three little kids at that time.  We didn’t know about the store. We stumbled on it. Went in for a look.

it was surprising to see all the stuff was made of wood. Lots and lots of small items, and big ones too. So interesting. The fact that everybody involved except the manager was so extraordinary. Pauline and I were amazed by the furniture. Its quality. The low prices.

We ooh-ed and ah-ed over this  piece and that one. On the spot we bought a whole roomful for our two older kids. A double bunk and the ladder for it, Plus a big chest of drawers, plus a smaller chest, plus a lamp table. All made of rock maple. Sturdy stuff for years and years. Painted glossy black with gold trim. We were so happy.We had just finished building our house and were about to move in from our apartment. This would be perfect.

The price?  Not sure. About $250, I think.   That was a lot. We were a young couple. Loaded with bills from the construction. But a terrific bargain.

We were here in our station wagon.  How to get all this home? Our trusty arranged to have it shipped. About $50, I think.

I still remember him. Patient. About 40. Well-spoken. Smart. He could have been a  a  salesman in any furniture store. No way could I imagine him as a convicted criminal.Whatever  he had done, we hoped he’d be  paroled soon and go on to a good  life.

That’s one of the things about the store that impressed .  These trusties were working at meaningful jobs, good jobs. They were getting a good start for a new life outside sooner or later.  Well, that was the idea.

Our children grew up.  When the older two became teens, we took the two bunks apart and set them up side by side as twin beds. The children used them till thy left the nest.

They’re all well settled and doing fine. Our oldest, Arthur, is a lawyer in Florida. He and Marita have had three  children. Well, that roomful of furniture wound up in their home for their kids.  And it’s still there, unused most of the time now because the cycle is repeating itself.

I returned to the store some 15 years ago. Alone. Didn’t need anything but had fun looking at everything. Bought a hat rack that looks like the head of a moose, with antlers. naturally.Just for its sentimental value.

And here I was again. It felt so good to see the store continuing on its steady course. I asked for the manager. He was at the central desk. Three or four other men were working there. Trusties. Nothing I could see about him tipped me off that he was the boss. No uniform. No gun on his belt, or handcuffs, or club. Didn’t even see a badge.

I told him a bit about myself, said I wrote newspaper feature stories, gave him my  card. Said I’d like to do a story about the store and could I take photos?  I had noticed a sign saying “No Photos!”

“Sorry, I can’t authorize that,” he said brusquely, putting aside my card.

“It will be a good story. Very positive.  Will make the store and the prison system and the state of Maine look good. It will be good for the prisoners, too.”

“Sorry, sir. I can’t do that.”

I was aghast. I thought he’d welcome me with open arms and give me his complete cooperation.

“Please call someone who can authorize it,” I said.

Reluctantly he picked up the phone and made a call. But turned off the phone after just two or three rings.  “He’s not there,” he told me.

“Well, please try the next person up.” He glowered but made the call. Same thing. “Sorry.”

I was irritated. “Please call the Governor!” I told him. I said it half joking.  I was sure that a prison official  higher up would see the good publicity this would be and would say okay.

I noticed the trusties smiling. Looking at one another knowingly. Winking. They were enjoying this.

“Call the Governor?” the manager said, his eyes killing  me. “No way!” And went about his work.

I dropped the matter. Took a quick look around. I had my camera on my chest but didn’t use it. Could have sneaked some pictures. Didn’t want to open a hornets’ nest. And headed for the door.

So, sorry, folks! You would have enjoyed seeing some of the store’s offerings.

On the way out, I spotted a small sign. It gave me valuable info. Prisoners making items for the store got paid from $1.35 to $3 an hour, depending on their skill. The state supplied everything.  The prisoners could use the money to make purchases at the prison canteen. Or help support their families. Or make court-ordered  restitutions. Or pay child support. And so on. All very nice.

Hey,  the $3 per hour the top ones earns sounds like very little. I know that. But that’s $120 for 40 hours, if they’re allowed to work that long. I doubt they earn enough to pay income tax. Earning that all while receiving full room and board and laundry and recreational opportunities and medical care and other benefits. Not so bad, everything considered. That’s a lot better than doing nothing, which is how time gets spent in many prisons.

Oh, I could have pursued my request. If I were a young reporter again, I would have. But all that is behind me. I have other good stories to write.

On the highway in my van, I had another thought. Hey, all those trusties back there were men. How come no women?  There must be female prisoners. Maybe the State of Maine feels having also woman trusties in the store would be problematic.Well, the world is changing. Hey, the Navy is putting young women on subs right alongside young men–for cruises under water that last six months or more! That’s really problematic, in my opinion. If I were young again, I’d look into the no-woman-trusties angle. too.

Anyway, if you’re on vacation near the Maine Prison Store, do stop by. It’s right on Route 1. You’ll be treated nicely. You’ll love the stuff.  The prices, too. I’ll bet you’d buy something. You’d be helping the prisoners.

Tell the manager I sent you. Tell him I wrote a story anyway. Thank you.

Oh, the last time I was at Arthur and Marita’s, I slept on one of those  bunk beds. As solid as ever. I nodded off thinking about this years ago.

end

Strange musings in a Quebec graveyard

This famous farmers market was my first stop. Very interesting. The next was even more interesting.

This farmers market was my first stop. Very interesting. The next was even more so.

By John Guy LaPlante

Saint-Dominique, Province of Quebec–As you know, I count a lot on Lady Serendipity to make my wanderings more interesting.  I never know when she’ll tap me on the shoulder, or why. But it’s always wonderful. It always leaves me hoping she’ll do it again soon.

Well, she tapped me again today.

I got on the road early this morning, made a couple of stops, and it was 1:30 p.m.—13:30 the way they keep time here—and I still hadn’t had lunch. I like lunch at noon sharp. That’s a hang-over from my boarding school days. My stomach was growling.

I was rolling through this  tiny town by the beautiful Yamaska River. I spotted a Catholic church–and its empty  parking lot. Saint-Dominique Church, a sign said, Same name as the town, which is common up here. Pulled in and parked as far back from the road as I could where it was nice and quiet.

Right in front of me, only a hundred feet away, was a cemetery.  The Saint-Dominique parish cimetiere. Not a problem. Nobody resting there would disturb me, I felt quite sure. And I’d try to be quiet.

Back 20 miles, I had stopped in Saint-Hyacinthe. A very old city but quite modern now. Impressively modern, in fact. I’ve been there a few times over the years. I’ve seen the changes. But what I visited and liked best every time was its old farmers market.

It’s been a farmers market—THE farmers’ market hereabouts—for more than a hundred years. In the same grand, handsome brick building with big covered verandas on all four sides. Right in the heart of the ancient quartier.   This is superbly fertile farm land with talented farmers and it grows tons and tons of magnificent fruits and vegetables. It’s famous for them.

There are plenty of supermarkets here now. They sell good stuff from anywhere and everywhere, as all supermarkets do and as we all know. But at this farmers market is where you shop for the very finest local produce.  Blue-ribbon produce. So I went again.  It was a must, though my needs as a solo traveler are limited.

When I went there as a boy with my father, there were a few cars and trucks parked around it, but lots of horses and wagons. I remember it vividly. This morning I easily found the market again but the traffic was horrific. Not a single horse and wagon, of course. But so many cars and trucks. I had to circle around for a parking space, finally got one. But a one-hour limit! Oh, well, no choice.

As usual, the farmers on the verandas around the building were manning their stands.  Such an abundance of wonderful produce. They were real farmers. I could tell by their clothes and their hands and their boots. Plenty of shoppers, too.

I walked through all four verandas and studied everything. I liked the apple man’s wonderful displays. Decided I’d come back at the end to buy some. I entered the old building.

Very busy, too. But what a change. These were not the butchers and fish peddlers and egg sellers of the old days. As usual, the long central aisle was lined with little stands. As always, they sold eggs or cheeses or fish or poultry or sausages or jams and wines. prepared foods. But they weren’t really stands. They had become boutiques. Fancy, classy, pricey boutiques.

A lot of their products were nicely displayed in fancy show cases, some refrigerated. Many things were beautifully boxed or gift-wrapped. The men behind the counters wore high-fashion chef’s outfits, or big striped aprons and super-size bow ties. The sales gals were dressed as country milk maids, but right off a movie set. and they and the  gals at the cash registers could have made it as starlets for sure.

I was startled by the prices. They seemed astronomical, well, to me. But plenty of buyers around. Some locals and some obviously tourists. The apple turn-overs were irresistible. I bought one. Just a small thing….a one-person, one-meal dessert. Just three or four bites. $4.50! Welcome to the St-Hyacinth Farmers Market 2013!

The cash register girl looked so cute in her outfit that I snapped her picture.  I think you’ll agree she’s cute.

She wowed me so much I forgot how much my turnover was costing me!

She wowed me so much I forgot how much my turnover was costing me!

Oh, I also bought a smidgeon of fine local cheese, some tiny, right-from-the-garden carrots, a bunch of gorgeous red radishes, and a small, crusty, wonderfully dense bread.  I know you’re thinking a bottle of wine, too. Nope. I had some fresh lemonade waiting for me in my van.

Plus  the apples I had spotted early. I’m an apple man. Always have been, always will be. I’ve always believed an apple a day is smart. And three even smarter.

That stand had apples so beautiful that I thought Eve must have bought the one she used to tempt Adam from this farmer. This guy’s apples were so outstanding. So perfect. All fresh-picked. From an orchard just five kilometers out.

And his prices were a bargain. The only bargain in the whole market, it seemed to me. $1.75 per pound for one or two pounds. But only $1.35 per pound for three or four pounds. Then only $1 per pound for five pounds. I decided on five pounds.  Apples keep well. Besides, five pounds would last me barely a week.

They were displayed on long tables. Nice white paper bags full of them.  Four different varieties.  No Macs,  no Baldwins, no Delicious, no Rome.  A beautiful display. Each bag had its variety of apples printed on it. The names didn’t mean a thing to me. These were all local Saint-Hyacinth varieties.

The grower was impatient. I knew what he was thinking. Why didn’t I decide? Was I just a looker?

Monsieur,” I said, speaking French.  “Five pounds, please. I’m from the United States.  I know nothing about these varieties. Possible to mix them?”

“Bien sur, monsieur!”  — “Of course, sir!”

He chose them all carefully, from all four varieties, one by one, packed them carefully, even to the point when a few might fall out. Which impressed me. Handed them to me with a smile.  I handed him a crisp Canadian $5 bill.  (Must tell you their bills  are so much more beautiful than our bills, and so much more high-tech!)  He smiled and wished me a good day. I did the same. Back toward the van I started.

Oh, by the way. The Canadian dollar right now is worth less than our dollar, so my gorgeous apples cost less that a dollar a pound.

I spotted a bookstore. Very nice bookstore. I put my goodies in the van and walked back to the bookstore.  Just 15 minutes, I told myself. Just to look at Canadian books, French and English. I was in there for 40 minutes or so. And walked out with two books that put me back $74. Well, I like to bring home nice souvenirs for myself.

But I was in that one-hour parking spot, and I was a half hour late. I kicked myself for taking so long. A $25 ticket would spoil things. But no ticket! And that’s why it was 1:30 when I pulled into that church yard because I was famished.

 

I sat in my tiny, cozy “living room” in the rear of my van and ate my delicious cheese and crusty bread with a couple of tiny carrots and radishes and my glass of lemonade. And half my apple-turnover.  Then I had a thought. That small turnover had cost just a few cents less than that big bag of apples that would last me days! Not a good thought.

I’d enjoy one of those fine fresh apples as a late afternoon snack, and polish off that extravagant turn-over after my supper.

As I munched and enjoyed, I studied the cemetery right ahead.  It had rained hard yesterday, but today made up for it. Blue sky, great puffy clouds, warm sunshine.  It wasn’t a huge cemetery. Just a nice small parish cemetery. A variety of grave stones, old and recent, on a gorgeous lawn. And on a mound in the center, a monument of Jesus Christ executed on the Cross, with his mother Mary and one side, and Mary Magdalene on the other (some scholars now believe she was Jesus’ wife).

And below him, but much smaller, another of the Virgin Mary, as an afterthought, for emphasis, I imagine.

I like to take walks every day, often several. This was perfect for one. Didn’t bother even to lock the van. Absolutely nobody live around. Made sure I had my camera in my pocket. And ambled over.

About 250 graves, I’d say, lined up as usual in row after row.  I walked every row. Every single name was a French name.  Quebec has become multi-everything, with thousands of new immigrants from many countries pouring in every year. But not one of them had decided to die in Saint-Dominique. Yet.

In fact, I noticed the name LaPlante on five graves. My father, Arthur Joseph, who had moved down to the U.S. around 1923 as a young man, had grown up in a village near here.  (My Mom came from one farther north.) Surely some of these LaPlantes must be kin to me. No easy way of knowing,  of course. I’d love to meet a few of them.

Some of the gravestones were unreadable because so eroded by time, and some were just a few months old.  It was so easy to speculate about some of those resting under the sod here.    One was a boy of three months, Gaetan.   Another was a lady of 97—who came to rest here in 1953. So she was born 159 years ago. Imagine that! With today’s medical wonders, she’d probably live to  age 140.

Some of the stones were as modest as modest could be.  And some so big, of marble so beautiful.  So pretentious, but that’s not a nice word. Well, I don’t think so. What were the stories of their obviously different occupants, here in a community so homogeneous?  They’d be so interesting.

Then I saw a monument with a quotation on it. An engraved quote. So interesting. And another with a different quotation. And another and another. They were a small number in all, maybe 30 or 40. Most of the stones didn’t bother to carry such a post script.  Never had I seemed so many headstones with a quotation in such a small cemetery.

Not one LaPlante headstone had a quotation. What to make of that?

I reached for my pad and pen. I always have them on me. No pen. Damn! No way could I memorize all these. I wanted you to see some of them. But I had my little camera. I snapped a picture of each one as I walked up and down the rows. It would be easy later to look at the pictures and type the quotations.

Well, here they are.  They were all in French.  I’ve translated them for you. Have tried to do a good job.

 

             ~ Lord, you have called me back to you. I leave those I loved so much. Take my place among them.

            ~ I rejoin those who loved me. I await those that I loved.

             On a woman’s stone:  ~  I loved you on Earth. I will love you in Heaven. I await you.

            ~  One day, we’ll all be united again.

            ~ Peace. Love. Friendship.

            ~ Together for life.

            ~  God lends us life and then claims it back.

            ~ I believed. Now I see!       

            ~ On the road to eternal life.

            ~ Consider the life that I begin, not the one I have left behind.

             ~ As long as memory of loved ones persists, they live on.

            ~ The memory of those who are loved never burns out.              

             ~ Watch out for all of us. Not clear whether this was addressed to the deceased, or to the Lord.

             ~ God gives us life then takes it back.      

            ~  To your hands, Lord, I return my soul.

            ~  The eyes that closed see again       

            Said of the man in this grave: ~  A man of courage. A free man.

            On the stone of a mother with a large family: ~ God reunites those who love one another.

           On the stone of a 20-year-old woman: ~  Your little daughter loves you. The whole family thinks of you.

          Two or three quotations of the above got repeated in slightly different versions. One was used four times!  So popular! Which one do you think it was? I’ll tell you at the bottom of this report.

            Well, it was clear to me there were no agnostics or atheists interred here. Certainly not if all of them were honest in the sentiments made public.

            As I walked along, I wondered. Who had decided on including a quotation? The man or woman buried here, or the spouse sharing the grave, or  one of their children left behind, or a brother or sister?

And who had written these beautiful and heartfelt sentiments? Yes, who? Was there ever a heated discussion in the family about the words chosen. Did one or another want something more religious, or shorter, or more sentimental, or simpler? Was there any quibbling about the length? After all, some of these cost a pretty penny to engrave in marble or granite.

But maybe all these quotations were available in a catalog in the office of the monument salesman. Is it possible that these quotations got chosen the way we choose a Christmas or birthday card?

Were they sentiments churned out by an anonymous scribe who got paid per accepted sentiment?  Each one with an indicated price? Maybe in some months some of these quotations were put on sale?  When business got slow. Hey, could be.

As I ambled around and snapped pictures, I found myself in deep meditation. Wonderful meditation. After all, I’m reaching a certain age, as most of you know.

I wondered, Would I want to be buried in a cemetery like this, under a headstone with my name and dates of birth and death on it. A stone more pretentious than those around me, or less pretentious, in a spot I could select in advance most to my liking?  If so, I would certainly like to be in the shade of a tree, a maple preferably. But looking around, I saw no trees. Not even a bush.

Would I find comfort in familiar names around me?  People who had been part of my community for years?

Would I, too, like a nice quotation? Who would write it?  I have talented children. I have talented friends. Who would okay it? Might that process create discord? Could I insist that I preview it and have the last say?

Hey, shouldn’t I write my own? After all, these would be my final words.  In stone, which wouldn’t last forever, of course. Enough gentle rains can blemish even the finest engraved words, as I could see for myself around me here.

But whatever words finally used would be far more lasting than my poor flesh and bones. Or the many, many words I’ve written on paper. So, shouldn’t I choose them?  I’ve been scribbling words longer than I can remember. Getting that final sentiment right would be quite interesting to play with. Yes, I decided. I’d like to write my own. But I’m not sure I want one.

Well, I walked among those graves for 45 minutes or so. And nothing, nothing interfered with my reveries. Not another visitor stopped by. Not a squirrel appeared, not a pigeon dropped down to rest on a headstone. If the shadows of the headstones on the ground changed, I never noticed. I’d stop at this grave, and that one, and wonder.

There were so many family names here that have been familiar to me for years and years. This was such a wonderful, idyllic moment. I felt no rush to move on. No rush at all.

But then, nature intervened, I needed a toilet. I hurried back to my van. I was walking fast, well, as fast as I could. Still I checked the surroundings of this holy place.  Off to the right was a bank. It was a little too close, if anything. But to  the left was a croquet court–a permanent croquet court, a beautiful court, obviously a thing of great community pride. That interested me, though I couldn’t pause.

People up here in Quebec love croquet. People of all ages play, both men and women, and often they play together, picking up a mallet and doing their best.  Such a pleasant thing on a long summer evening. So much skill is required. It’s such a nice way to maintain friendships and make new friends.  Such a civilized pastime. Every little town in the province seems to have a nice court, every city several. Often impressive courts.

It made me wonder, Why don’t we play croquet back in the U.S.? Some folks do, I’m sure, but I don’t know of any. My town of Deep River is famous for its passion for horseshoe playing.  It’s a pastime quite rare among our towns, from what I’ve seen. But it’s been a tradition in Deep River for years. An entrenched tradition. We have half a dozen horseshoe courts right on our village green, side by side. They attract fervent players every Thursday evening during the warm months. I’ve seen some pitching shoes even in the rain.

Many, mostly men but some women, too, which surprised me when I first moved into Deep River and came to watch from the sidelines. And always lots of fans. A vendor is on the scene with hot dogs and drinks and popcorn. It’s a great evening. But how come no croquet court? Who decides these things?

As I hurriedly left the cemetery, I paid attention to Saint-Dominique Church. I  hadn’t noticed it pulling in.  This was an old

Gosh, Saint-Dominique Church was breaking a long, long tradition. But I liked it.

Gosh, Saint-Dominique Church was breaking a long, long tradition. But I liked it.

town but this was not an old church, not one built for the centuries as tradition demands, of good stone and topped with a proud steeple which is always, always painted silver. Which is the norm for Catholic churches throughout the province. Our steeples are always white. Here always silver.

There are hundreds of such stone and silver Catholic churches in Quebec. Who would dare design anything different that that?  Well, somebody here in Saint-Dominiquc did. And I was looking at  it. I liked it.

This cemetery was an old one, You’d expect an equally old church by its side. But this  was a modern church, very different, in fact  a strikingly modernistic church, and most attractive. I felt I had to take a picture. And did. Did the old church burn down or something?

Well, I made it to a toilet on time. Then drove on. As I did, I thought of how Lady Serendipity had come through for me again. Wonderful Lady Serendipity.

If you’re curious, of course feel free to check her out on Google or any other search engine. I’m confident you won’t find a thing. Truth is, she exists in my mind. I created her.

She was the only way I could explain some things. How I delayed lunch today and finally stopped here to eat my lunch, for instance. And spotted this parish cemetery. An experience so remarkable that it made me eager to tell you about it.

I’m so glad Lady Serendipity inspired me. Is part of my life.  What would I do without her?

I hope she never deserts me.

Oh, the most popular inscription was “Consider the life that I begin, not the one I have left behind.”  At the end was the name “ Bossuet.”  A very valuable clue.

Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet was a Catholic bishop in 17th Century France. Famous for his sermons and essays. Wouldn’t he be pleased to know that his words meant so much to some people that the words were chosen to mark their final place on Earth?

And pleased that one of them had given him credit for his words?

Well, some people will say, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet knows!

What do you think?

 

end

 

To subscribe or unsubscribe Click Here