January 18, 2018

Solo-Meandering the USA in my Dandelion

And on a shoestring.

By John Guy LaPlante

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that is a fantasy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s what I did. A tranquil night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hey!” I yelled.

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

“Get the hell out!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How could I ever forget a wonderful experience like that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

Have time for one more little story?

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

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

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

He laughed. “I did read every word!”

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

My Weirdest New Year’s Day Ever

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

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

 By John Guy LaPlante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So how could I chicken out now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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


Who’s building those statuettes again?!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 4 photos.

John before he left town, working on one of his amazing masterpieces. Do notice the tiny statuette in the back.

Morro Bay, CA — I’m wondering because some artist is creating fabulous stone-on-stone “statuettes” again, and on the same street corner. Statuette is not the perfect word. But it’s the best I can think of. [Read more…]

What, you do use your middle name?

By John Guy LaPlante

Hey, don’t you know that’s un-American?! Taboo! You’re supposed to use just a middle initial.

Oh, sure, you were given, yes, given a middle name. That’s normal and expected. But I’ll bet you’ve never used it. Timothy or Susan or Andrew or whatever. You made do with just a middle initial. Thought that was just fine. And that’s the proper American thing to do. Our culture insists on that. Will not tolerate a full, spelled out middle name.

How many folks do you know who use their middle name day in and day out?

Well, I have a middle name. It’s Guy. You saw it up top in my byline. And I’d feel naked without it. But boy, what a price I’ve paid!

The reason we all get a middle name is simple.  John Charles Smith sets you apart from John Richard Smith or John Theodore Smith. That’s the obvious reason. But maybe you were given the middle name of Charles or Richard or Theodore by your Mom to honor her dad, who had that name. Or by your Dad, reasoning the same way.

But from their earliest days—at the latest when they got signed up for kindergarten—John Charles Smith became John C. Smith and John Richard Smith became John R. Smith and John Theodore Smith became John T. Smith. Wonderful! Bravo! That was the thing to do.  Same is true of our sisters and female friends..

And they never looked back. That’s the name they’ve used—and for everything! — ever since. When they hit 30 or 40, they may have to think for a couple of minutes — might not even remember what their middle name was! I’ve seen that happen.

Can you imagine the teasing and bullying and finger-wagging they would have suffered as kids if  they had insisted on using their middle name?!

Well, I’ve gone through it.  My checks are imprinted up top with John Guy LaPlante. If I pay a bill with a check, for sure any receipt or thank you will get mailed back to me as John G. LaPlante. That’s how I’m known by IRS and Medicare, by City Hall and the Registry of Motor Vehicles and the Utility Company. By everybody and anybody.  I’ve even gotten mail from relatives as John G. LaPlante. Hey, come on!

My books say John Guy LaPlante on the cover. As you know, that’s the byline on anything I write.  But guess how I’ll be addressed in a letter from a reader?  You are correct! With Guy reduced to  a mere G.!  Sure, that used to irritate me. But now I shrug it off. Well, sort of.

If you want to go through life with just a middle initial, no flack from me! But just think why you’ve been doing that and why you think it’s okay.

How did this cultural must come to pass? Well, let me speculate.  Maybe somebody had a long name, say Archibald Alexander Worthington. He was a lawyer and signed lots of documents. One day to speed things up he signed as Archibald A. Worthington. Others noticed and thought, Good idea! And that fed a fad that became the must which we live with today.

I’ve spent serious time in other countries.  In France, for instance, and Mexico and Ukraine. Having a middle name seems universal.  I can’t recall anyone among friends speaking French or Spanish or Ukrainian or Russian (which lots of Ukrainians use as their first language) using a middle initial. That’s why I call it an American phenomenon.

By now I’m sure you’re thinking, What the heck is wrong with this LaPlante? Is he wacko? Well, surprise, I did it for good reason.

Some of you know I’m French by way of Quebec. My parents came down from there and became Americans. I was born here. Their first child. I was baptized Jean-Guy. Up there, using a hyphenated name like mine is a popular way of naming sons. Also daughters.

Maman and Papa never spoke to me or about me as just Jean or Guy. Always Jean-Guy.

When I started newspapering and earned a byline for a good story, it became Jean G.  Then when I landed a job at the big Worcester Telegram & Gazette, my byline continued to be Jean G. LaPlante. I put up with it. But several times I got letters from readers addressed to Miss Jean LaPlante. I didn’t like that. Then the paper started using John G. Yes, better but it still didn’t sound right to me.

One day in a huff, I decided, enough! I went to a lawyer. He filled out a form, I signed it, he took it to court and I became John Guy LaPlante. It was done in a day. The cost? Just $25.

(If I had asked for a change in my surname, which did not interest me, I would have had to explain why in detail and the process would have had to be advertised so people could have protested. With legitimate reason.)

But oh, the folly of youth! I was no longer living close to my dear father and mother, and I made that enormous change without ever talking it over or explaining to them. Awful! Deep down I still feel it a betrayal of my heritage.

Know what? If I could turn the clock back, I would not change my name. I would have insisted my name is Jean-Guy and certainly my friends and associates would have accepted that. Might even have liked the French uniqueness of it. I think if I had explained to my editor, he would have made my byline Jean-Guy. Oh, well…..

By the way, at the T & G I had a colleague with a French name, meaning from France.  Sanche de Gramont. He didn’t like it. Know what? He got his surname changed to Ted Morgan. Notice that “de Gramont” has nine characters and so does Ted Morgan, and they’re the same nine letters re-arranged. How about that?!  But we continued to call him Sanche and he seemed to consider that totally natural.

(What’s remarkable is that Sanche de Gramont / Ted Morgan went on to the New York Herald Tribune and won a Pulitzer Prize for on-deadline local reporting. Then morphed into a prolific author of distinguished biographies and histories.  Google / Bing him.)

By now I realize that having merely a middle initial has become so ingrained as an Americanism that it will always be so. I can protest it, but it won’t change a thing. So be it.

I’m been getting along in years, as some of you know, and I’ve given thought to some big thoughts, such as what would I like chiseled on my gravestone.  And I’ve decided, sort of, that it would be Jean-Guy LaPlante aka (for also known as) John Guy LaPlante. But I’m not sure I want a gravestone, so not a big problem. But yes, I’d like it in my obituary.

Sure, Jean-Guy / John Guy would be a fifty-fifty compromise. But a compromise is often a sign of wisdom. And wisdom is just common sense put into practice. You agree? Or you don’t?

 ~ ~ ~ ~

Thanksgiving Day? Or really Turkey Day?

By John Guy LaPlante

It is both. Thanksgiving Day is what President Lincoln intended when he made it a national holiday to be observed on the fourth Thursday in November.

And Turkey Day it also is, though no president ever got that passed. The facts say so. We’ll sit down to some 42 million turkeys this Thursday.That’s close to one third of all turkeys we’ll buy this year. [Read more…]

The Interrobang–that’s for me!

By John Guy LaPlante

And maybe for you!

The interro….. what?

The interrobang! Yes, you read right. What’s the interrobang? You see it at the left, but greatly enlarged. It’s a brand-new punctuation mark. You know, in addition to the period, comma, colon, question mark, exclamation mark, and so on.  Which all go back a long, long time. Well, the interrobang truly would be useful to me as an active writer / blogger.

What is so interesting about it to me is that I have been doing exactly what the interrobang does. How? By using two standard punctuation marks together. I repeat, together. You’ve probably never seen that, have you?

Here’s an example. In my most recent blog about a Seed Library, I wrote “Yes, from our library here, you  can check out seeds, and free, mind you–vegetable seeds,  fruit seeds, berry seeds, seeds of other kinds, would you believe?!”

Notice how I used a question mark and an exclamation mark together? Deliberately. Because I wasn’t only asking a question but telling you I was astonished. And I believe it worked. I’m sure you got it.

I didn’t pick up this trick of two punctuation marks slapped together from somebody else.  The idea came to me because I felt that together they did the job I believed was needed. I’ve never seen anyone else do it.

How did I hear about the interrobang? I happened to pick up a recent issue of the Reader’s Digest–September, this year. At the public library, by the way. The magazine kicked off with a section called “Genius Issue–Words of the Mind.” The issue had a lode of articles about words and writing. Delightful! On Page 82 I discovered the interrobang punctuation mark that I showed you up top. There was one paragraph about it. It said what I’ve just told you.

Right away I looked up interrobang on Wikipedia. It said interrobang is “a non-standard punctuation mark indicating a question in an exclamation manner, as in ‘What are you doing?’!” It said it was invented by advertising man Martin K. Speckter back in 1962. Yes, in 1962. What?!

See, I just used this powerful duo of mine again! Because I’m curious about the date, 1962, which is 55 years ago…yet I am just hearing about it now!  And I’ll bet so are you! Again, a linked  question and exclamation.

Curious me, I looked up interrobang on Merriam-Webster, our leading dictionary publisher. It defined it the same way.

I read that Mr. Speckter as an advertising pro saw a need for it in many ads by the very nature of advertising. Well, I saw a need for my duo in the explanatory writing that is my forte. I am so, so happy now to have the interrobang in my writer’s toolbox, along with all the conventional punctuation marks. The interrobang will come in handy.

You know, at one time punctuation marks did not exist. When we speak, of course, they are unnecessary. The tone of our voice says it all, well, along with the expression on our face. Periods and commas and question marks came into use one by one because thoughtful writers saw their necessity.

All that said, I’ve run into a problem. When I write with pad and pen, it’s easy for me to put in a real interrobang. I just write an exclamation mark right over my question mark. But I do 99 percent of my writing on a keyboard. The interrobang ain’t on the keyboard!

So, I’ll just have to keep getting along with my own little combo, my home-made interrobang. How about that?!

P.S. if you’re intrigued by writing and words, do look up that September issue of the Reader’s Digest. Its piece on the interrobang includes 11 other punctuation marks that are hardly known. Yes, 11!

Another I loved was “Confessions by a Word Nerd (Kay Stamper): Inside the secret, silent work lives of dictionary writers.” Plus a delightful humor piece, “Sleuthing for Cliches: A tongue-in-cheek guide to government-speak run amok.”

And other juicy pieces on this word / writing theme, along with other good stuff. Plus two word delights that have been included in the magazine months after month since its dawn, it seems to me.  The “Word Power” game and “Quotable Quotes” from people in the news.

By the way, I just Googled “Reader’s Digest Confessions of a Word Nerd.” And I found it. I also scored with “Reader’s Digest Little-Known Punctuation Marks We Should be Doing.” Isn’t that something?!

All this said, I do  feel a twinge of guilt about showing you how to enjoy these articles online for free. I should be pushing you to buy the Reader’s Digest to enjoy these delights. It would be pocket money well spent. But the paper September issue is probably unavailable (unless you find it at your public library). And enjoying these pieces through Google may get you to subscribe! Gosh, aren’t I good at rationalizing?!

~ ~ ~ ~


Radish seeds from your public library?

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay, CA — Yes, you can get radish seeds from our library. And  for  other plants of other kinds, would you believe?

My, how libraries are a-changing!

I discovered this when on our  library’s bulletin board I spotted “Seed LibraryPlant / Save / Share!”

In the long history of libraries, this is a first, I believe. So, wonder what will come next?

What’s this? I thought.  Sounds wacky!  I’m a regular at the library. It has a remarkable variety of wonderful services. I couldn’t imagine another. I saw no need. Especially one as exotic as this.

I headed for Mary, our head librarian. She was checking out movies for a woman. Right afterward, pointing to the sign, I said, “What is THAT?”

“Oh, a new service, John.  You’re not the first to ask. We’ll have it up and running in a few days.”

“What kinds of seeds?”

“Many  kinds.”

“Could you tell me more? It could be something I’d write about?”

“I’d love to. But why not go over to Los Osos? Their Seed Library is already in service. You’d learn a lot more there.”

“Good idea, Mary! Thanks.”

We’re part of the San Luis Obispo County library system headquartered in the  lovely city by that name. It has 15 branch libraries. Mary told me that for now the seeds will be offered in five branches. Then they’d see.

Oh, by the way, our population here is 10,600. Our library has 3,750 members with library cards. Quite impressive. That says a lot.

Los Osos is just 15 minutes away. I drove over the next day. I was introduced to Victoria, one of the librarians. “Hi,” I said

Librarian Victoria with seed packets. Choose the ones you want. Good luck!!.

and  told her how I blog and wanted to write about the Seed Library.  “Sure,” she said. “Follow me!”

She led me to an alcove. There was a wooden file cabinet  there.  The kind libraries had before computers. They must have dragged this sturdy old beauty up from the basement. You remember those, I’m sure, with drawers jammed with 3 x 5 cards.

The cabinet was the heart of a nice display. A sign up on top said SEED LIBRARY. Around it had been set up interesting display of books about seeds and planting and harvesting .

“This is it,” She said, “We opened it in September last year. So, 13 months ago.”

She opened a drawer. I could see lots of  small packets. Each held seeds. I started firing questions and she had the answers. It was clear she thought the seed library was a great idea.

It stocks 160 kinds–vegetable, berry, melon, flower, herbs, shrubs, grains, and trees. Over 200 packets have been checked out, she told me..

What’s interesting is never frost here. There are three growing seasons. Different plants are appropriate for the three seasons.

People can choose the seed packets they want. They are free. Now remember the three steps– Plant / Save / Share.

The gardeners  must intend to plant them. Not waste them.  Enjoy their harvests. And share, meaning bring back seeds for othes to plant.

“Isn’t that difficult, Victoria? Vegetables grow in one season. But fruit trees. They can take years to bear fruit!”

She nodded. “Yes, of course. But we don’t insist on getting seeds back. We do hope they’ll get in the spirit of the program and bring back whatever fresh seeds they can.

“And already we are getting seeds back!   Which is wonderful. Remember, we’ve been supplying seeds for 13 months now.”

Excellent. But for sure I’ll never check out any seeds. I’ve never planted anything. Not even radishes, which I’ve heard are one of the easiest. But gardening IS popular, so I understand the appeal.

I said, “Victoria, I’ll bet the person who dreamed this up is an avid gardener!” She smiled. “Probably. But here, take a look at this.”

She handed me a folder. “Seed Saving Basics.” Published by the San Luis Obispo Seed Exchange. Their goal is to get more people to plant seeds and garden. How to promote that goal? They got the great idea of collaborating with the SLO Libraries, and here we are. Later I found it easy and interesting reading about what is a technical and wide-ranging topic.

So yes indeed, libraries are changing, and in remarkable ways. To my thinking, the library is no longer a library. It’s a true community center. All the traditional library services, but so many more. You must have noticed this at your library.

Truth is, I’ve found some people go to the library just to get out of the house and be with other people

But of course they go mostly to check out books and movies and other items.  Also to use the free computers or connect their laptops to free Wi-Fi. To read books and magazines and newspapers right there. And take advantage of other services.

For instance, every Thursday morning, Diana, a librarian, shows people how to use a newly acquired cell phone or tablet.

Every week someone from outside comes in to give a lecture or demonstration.

For example, one recent Saturday I sat in on a demo by the Shanks String Quartet—four young symphony members, all brothers, which I found remarkable. Each had a different kind of string instrument. They showed us the features of each and then performed together. They played bits of classical pieces,  popular, even African. Fantastic, I thought. Wonderful!

On another Saturday, Dan Krieger, a retired history prof at nearby Cal Poly (the California Polytechnic Institute) gave a superb talks on “Ranchero Days”—the early Mexican farmers who were among the first settlers here.

In fact yours truly will be speaking soon,  on how volunteering in the Peace Corps can be terrific,  whether you’re young, middle-aged, or retired.  As some of you know, I’m a former Volunteer. I served in Ukraine, in  fact turning 80 in Peace Corps and becoming the oldest of some 7,800 Volunteers working in more than 75 countries.

Marveling about all these changes, I thought, “If only Maman could see libraries now!”

My mother loved to read. For sure she’d have a Morro Bay Public Library card in her pocketbook!

She and Papa were immigrants from French Canada.  We lived in Pawtucket, R.I. and I was born there, their first child. We spoke French. I started to learn English when I went out and played with the neighborhood kids.

Pa went into business and slowly picked up English. Maman was at home, like every other housewife with kids back then. She loved to read in her limited spare time. French novels. And the weekly paper that came down from Montreal. And gradually the daily Pawtucket Times that we got. And she got  to read English quite well.

Then she discovered the  Saturday Evening Post. When it came  every week, she’d drop everything and curl up with it for 20 minutes or so. Then force herself back to doing the laundry  or whatever. After Pa and we kids went to bed, she’d stay up late with her wonderful Saturday Evening Post.

When I was about 12, one day she took me downtown on the trolley. It was a weekly thing, you know, to shop. But this time, she took me in hand and we walked to the city’s Slater Memorial Library.

Maman took me up the granite steps and through the big bronze doors. This was all new to me. She showed me around. The stacks with shelves and shelves of books. Then into the periodicals room. Magazines. Newspapers. Even the small section with kids’ books.

Then took me to the main desk and got me a library card. My very first. She even helped me check out a book. Sorry, I don’t remember the title. And  I too became hooked on reading.

That library card became precious to me. And know what? I have never been without a library card. That was more than 75 years ago. Certainly a library card has been one of the most wondrous things I’ve ever owned. Of course I keep my Morro Bay card in my wallet, ever ready.

The fact is I have become a denizen of libraries. A connoisseur, too. I have been in countless libraries. Grand ones such as our magnificent Library of Congress in Washington. Do you know it’s the biggest in the world? And the splendid Royal Library in London. I had to show my passport but  got into only one small section.  And the justly proud Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris. But I had to pay an admission fee. And the impressive libraries in Shanghai and Hong Kong, free and wide open like our libraries.

Or the also grand, million-book Korolenko Library in Chernihiv, Ukraine, where I served my hitch as a Volunteer. But what a surprise.  It consisted of 18 small libraries, arranged by genres…novels, history, sciences, philosophy, music, math, and so on.

First, you had to go to the huge master card catalog. It filled a whole room. Poke through  and jot down the info for each book that you wanted on a card. Just one book or three or four. If you wanted books on several genres, you had to go to the appropriate sub-libraries and check out the books individually from each.

You could not enter the stacks. You’d show the right card or cards to the genre librarian. She’d fetch them for you. Could not go in there  to see if other books, maybe better, might be available.  Then you’d have to go on to the next sub-library, maybe on another floor, and so on. It  could take you a couple of hours.

I’ve visited libraries in many of our states, and in some more than one.  And at least a dozen countries. Memorable libraries, such as in Montreal  and Honolulu and Lisbon in Portugal and Guadalajara in Mexico and Cairo in Egypt and Hanoi in Vietnam—the only one, by the way, where I was not allowed in.

I have been in libraries where I have had to pay, as in Paris. I have been in libraries where only certain people were allowed to take out books…and I was not one.

I remember visiting the big library in Nairobi in Kenya. It had great Corinthian columns which made it look like a Roman temple. For sure, folks there were very proud of it. But so many of its books were in terrible condition. Worn. Tattered. Some coming apart.

You know, we have so many discarded books here in the U.S. that we trash them. That’s true. If only we could ship them to libraries in poor countries. They’d be considered a godsend. Sure, they’d be in English, but many people in other countries make it a point to learn English. But the shipping expenses are prohibitive. So I’ve been told.

I remember a tiny library in a tiny town in Alaska. Smaller than a one-car garage. Open only a couple of afternoons and evenings a week.

I remember the library in Mazatlan, Mexico. Also in a proud building but with pitifully scant offerings.

I learned long ago the best libraries in the world are ours. Having a library for the public was an inspiration of the incredible Benjamin Franklin He created the Philadelphia Public Library, which was the first. I’ve had the pleasure of visiting it.

It was the steel magnate turned philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who really got public libraries going. He was born very poor and became one of the wealthiest Americans ever. He gave 90 percent of his millions away. Among other things, he gave the seed money for some 3,000 public libraries, mostly in the U.S. but other countries also. If yours is an old library, chances are that he funded it

All based on principles that he developed and we take for granted and believe prevail around the world. Hah!

To be supported by public Free. Anybody can enter. Nobody will be checked or refused. All circulating libraries—you can check out books to take home. Open stacks! Carnegie insisted on that. Unknown until then. I wish the Korolenko had heard of him.

And of course, reading rooms to sit and read and study and write in a safe and comfortable environment—heated when heat was needed. With trained librarians who would be genuinely helpful, with wide assortments of books and periodicals, and with ridiculously small fines for late returns and reasonable charges for lost books. And with hours of use convenient to patrons with different working hours. Stay all day if you like.

And, oh, with toilets and free hygienic supplies, unheard of before then. And in time free parking, often in off-street parking lots.

Most important of all, the brilliant Dewey Decimal System, making finding any book easy. In many communities, open seven days a week, closing only for holidays, with day and evening hours. All of which we take for granted, but are rare in so many countries.

And I saw the improvements one by one come to libraries.  Amazing the list.

Here they are, as they pop up in my memory. Free search help. Trained children’s librarians. Free use of computers. Computers in the children’s section. Wi-Fi —come in with your own computer, connect, go to it, all free. Self-checkout.

Free inter-library loans. Scanners and photo-copying machines with low-cost copies. Home delivery to the ill and house-bound. Reserving books online. Receiving online alerts of books and items due back.  E-books. CDs. DVDs. And new innovations all the time, such as the seed library.

Long ago, by the way, in my extensive over-the-road travels crisscrossing our country, I figured out a quick and easy way to size up a town or small city. I’d ride up and down its main street and then one or two major ones, turn off onto a side street here and there, and visit its library. That would tell me a whole lot.

One of my most wonderful experiences was in my recent home state, Connecticut. Some 15 years ago I was driving back from a long trip out of state. Back in Connecticut, I stopped in the city of Danbury for a break.  Some 80 miles from my home in tiny Deep River. I strolled into its library, my first time there. Browsing new books, I found one very appealing.  Maybe my small Deep River Public library would have it, but maybe not.

A librarian told me that if I had a Connecticut library card (which I did), I could check it out. But then I’d have to drive back to Danbury to return it. Or mail it back. No! No! I could return it to my Deep River Library and it would return it to Danbury. So how much would that cost? Free! And that was possible in any public library in Connecticut.

Wouldn’t you find that amazing? And that’s how I got to enjoy that book.

Now that I think of it, some 60 years ago I was a trustee of the public library in Auburn, Mass., where we lived then. The first time, the only time, I ever ran for public office. I thought at our monthly meetings we’d talk about books, well, a bit. It never happened. It was all about how to lower our heating bill, extend the janitor’s hours, afford some new furniture. I did not run for a second term.

Here in Morro Bay, I asked Mary, as you know, our head librarian, what services were most popular. Of items checked out, she said DVDs were number 1, Adult Fiction number  2, Juvenile Fiction 3, Adult Non-Fiction 4, CDs no. 5, Books on CD  6, Juvenile non-Fiction 7, Book Club In a Box, 8.  There are other take-outs also, right down to video games and Chrome books.

Those are items checked out.  To my eye the most popular service in the library is the free use of its computers, and second the nice selection of newspapers and magazines in the periodicals room—magazines can also be checked out. by the way..

Popular is its used-book store, sponsored  by its Friends of the Library members. It has a stock of several hundred books on sale, all good quality. Most of them for just $1, and late-issue magazines for just 50 cents.

Four times a year, always on a Saturday, it holds a Book Sale. Thousands of books are offered, all organized by genres and offered at low but different prices during the morning, and in the afternoon, you can rush around and fill a grocery store paper bag for just $3. People stand in line to wait for the opening bell.

Staging those quarterly sales is a huge job, all the work of the Friends. These quarterly sales are a great fund-raiser — thousands of dollars every time.  But many libraries across the country do this but mostly annually. Yours probably does.

For sure despite our incredible, phenomenal digital craze, books ain’t going out of style.

But hey, I may be wrong. I just remembered an article I wrote just four years ago. About the world’s first digital library!

It’s the Bexar County Digital Library in Texas, close to San Antonio. It’s called the BiblioTech. It looks futuristic and was designed and built just for the purpose.

BiblioTech sounds strange, doesn’t it? Well, it’s a marriage of books and technology.

Not a single paper book or magazine in it. It’s filled with digital books—just e-books and DVDs and such.

So instead of bookcases and such, it was stocked with $178,966 worth of tablets, iPads, iMacs and MacBooks,  e-book readers, 10,000 e-book titles, and other goodies bought from Apple of course.

All its services are free to county residents. There are on-going classes on how to get the most out of these digital items. Many can be checked out. Even tablets and computers.

Some were calling it the library of the future. Which suggests the demise of libraries as we know them, doesn’t it?

Hey, I’m not going to lose sleep over that. I’ll never see it but maybe my grandchildren will. But I believe in progress, so I do have to think that this is a good thing and will be the future of public libraries. Who back in Model T Ford days ever thought that just one century later we’d have driverless cars?

For another  bit of perspective: I never dreamed one day I would own a smart phone. Sounded crazy. Now I have one and I can’t get by without it.

So yes, libraries are a-changing. But they always have been, and always will.

You know, the way I see it, if Heaven is really heaven, there’s  a public library up there. I’ll sign up for a card the day I arrive. I doubt they’ll have free seeds, though.

~ ~ ~ ~






Pet Pooch Zyla snatched. Reward $1,000!

By John Guy LaPlante

Morro Bay,  Calif.—Zyla is an 18-month-old boxer. She’s the love of her family. See the photo of the flyer that was distributed far and wide just hours after her abduction. “Zyla is friendly and playful and we love her!” it says. I believe that.

That big reward, mind you, was not for info leading to conviction of the thief. It was just for the safe return of Zyla.
Zyla is the prized pet of Cameron Hamari of Rocklin, Calif., a town up near Sacramento. Cameron had to be out of state for business for more than a week, so he had left Zyla in the care of his mom, Colleen Zorzi.
Ms. Zorzi stopped at our big supermarket in Cypress Plaza. It’s 300 yards up from Quintana Avenue. It dominates the plaza. The store is some 300 yards up from the plaza entrance.
Ms. Zorzi couldn’t take Zyla into the market and didn’t want to leave her in the hot car. So, she tied her leash to the bike rack in front of the store while she went in. When she got back 10 minutes later, Zyla was gone. Impossible for Zyla to break loose by herself.
Ms. Zorzi looked around. Nowhere was Zyla to be seen. The horror sank in. Somebody had snatched Zyla. She was shocked. It happened at approximately 7:20 p.m.
I visit the plaza every day on my trike. Do a bit of shopping in the store. And spend half an hour pedaling up and down the six or seven car lanes that head up through the parking lot to the store. It sounds crazy, I know. But it’s wonderful exercise. And great fun.
Then I stop at the McDonald’s for a coffee. Well, I sat down at a table with my cup. The flyer was on the table. Then I saw one on another table. I spotted at least half a dozen. What a cute dog. I read every word. Kidnapped! $1,000 reward! What a huge loss this was for the dog’s family.
It was all so interesting. The poster was so well done. The layout. The wording. The stark detail. Fascinating. I snapped the picture with my cell phone. Decided to follow this up and write about it for you. I felt you’d be fascinated too.
The minute I got home, I called the first number. I got a recording by a man named Adam. He ran a business. He said to leave a message. Said he would return the call as soon possible. You know, the usual thing.
I gave my name. Said unfortunately I had no info about Zyla. Said I had been a journalist and was an active blogger now and wrote on a wide variety of topics. Considered this a terrific human-interest story. The dog’s family was obviously such a fine one. And there are so many dog lovers out there. They’d be fascinated. For sure there would be much to learn from this story, however it developed.
Told him to Google me or check me out at amazon.com/books or look at my website and so forth. Wanted to put him at ease about me. Asked if we could meet for coffee.
The next morning, I tried again and reached Adam. He was Adam Anthony, and he and Ms. Zorzi owned a real estate loan company in there.           Said he had no time to meet me—he was busy, busy–but could fill me in right now on the phone. Great! I had paper and pencil at hand.
Ms. Zorzi is his business partner and a friend. She had called him right after she found Zyla gone. He had dropped everything to help her.
Ms. Zorzi called the police. This was news to them. They said they’d get right to work on the case. The supermarket has electronic surveillance of the parking lot and the manager of the store promised to provide the police with copies of that day’s recordings.
Ms. Zorzi—I’ll call her Colleen now—immediately began asking people if they had seen Zyla or had any info.
Mr. Anthony—I’ll call him Adam from this point–got to work. He created the flyer and emailed the file to the UPS Store  near  the supermarket.  Colleen went there, had hundreds printed, and began distributing them all around town, to anybody and everybody. That’s how I got to see one.
Adam posted the flyer info in the “Community” section on Craigslist in nearby communities and as far as Santa Maria and even in Santa Barbara in case Zyla had been whisked to parts south. He also got word out on Facebook and other social media.
They began getting calls, but they were all “So Sorry” and “Hope they catch the S.O.B.” calls. Some suggestions, too, but no tips.
The supermarket managed to find the incident on its surveillance video. It showed three young men getting out of a big RV. One guy spotted the dog, untied it, and pulled it up into the RV. Then his two buddies piled in and then the RV drove away. Amazing technology, I think.
Now Colleen was driving around town, one street after another, looking for the RV. One person reported having seen the abduction happen. Yes, three men in an RV. Colleen exchanged numbers with him. Later, Colleen spotted an RV that matched the description. She took a photo and texted it to the witness who reported back “Yes! That’s the one.”
At that point, Colleen remained stationed, watching, waiting, hoping to see Zyla come bounding up, or out of the RV. When the owner/driver of the RV returned and drove away, Colleen followed and called the police. They were very responsive and showed up within minutes to question the man. “No dog”said he, “No, sir, not me.” Sadness and suspicion.
The next day Adam got THE call. From a young man in a nearby small town, let’s call him Tom.  And, wow, he had spotted Zyla on the street. Loose. All alone. He had scooped up the dog and had it. Zyla was okay. He had spotted the ad Adam had placed. Adam rushed over to pick her up. Worry over! Success!
Adam didn’t waste a minute to call Colleen with the fantastic news. He had Zyla in the car at that very minute. You can imagine the whoop she let out.
When Adam told me this part of the story, I had a question of my own to wonder about. Was it possible that Tom had been one of the three? And had come up with the story of finding Zyla on the street and rescuing her just to end a possible police investigation and to cash in as well? Not so far-fetched, I thought.

So, what was the ending to all this?  Let’s go back a bit. Adam’s phone rings. A different young man, let’s call him Dick, is calling. He says, “Did you get the dog back?”
“Did you get her back from a guy named Tom?”
“Did you pay Tom the reward?”
“Not yet, the lady who owns it has been out of town, attending to family business.”
“Good. Tom is the guy that took the dog. I saw him do it.”
Wow!  Well this guy Dick knew Tom’s last name. He even knew where Zyla was being kept. Adam was sure Dick was not lying.

Colleen and beloved Zyla.

According to Dick, Tom spotted Zyla tied to the bike rack and before he or the third fellow, l will call  him Harry, could say or do anything, Tom had untied the dog  taken it into the RV. Dick and Harry had words with Tom about taking it. They told him to go put it back. Tom said no and kept the dog. Off the three went in the RV.
Eventually Tom backed down and returned Zyla with that fake story of having found her running loose.
Now Adam called Tom and confronted him with the info given him by Dick. Tom said, “No. Not true. No way. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I just feel good the dog is back with its owner.”
He made no mention of the reward.
Adam told him that as he wasn’t being honest, he couldn’t promise that the police wouldn’t show up at his door. Stealing is still a crime, Adam said. Even if the merchandise is returned. And he added, no reward money would be paid.
“Okay,” Tom said finally. “No problem. I’m just glad the dog is home.” He had figured out it would be smart to give Zyla back.
So, a happy ending. Zyla is home. Maybe Tom has learned something from all this and will go on and live a clean life.
In the end, all those flyers, Colleen’s persistence, the assistance from the police and  friends like Adam and others really paid off. Notably Adam.
For sure Colleen is delighted the nightmare is all over. And I feel pretty good about that hunch I had.
~ ~ ~




A famous, controversial book. Only $2!

By John Guy LaPlante

With 1 photo

(Warning! This contains dirty words.  Words I’ve never used in print before. Words I’ve never, never used in my speaking.  You may blush. Feel  free to opt out.)

Morro Bay, Calif. –I’m in our Public Library and I spot it on special display. Wow! I go right to it for a good look.

Like all libraries, ours has a section with used books for sale. Most go for $1.But this one is twice that much. Yes, $2. Because it’s such a hefty book, I’ll bet.

It’s the Merriam-Webster Third New International, published in 1961. Merriam-Webster is our biggest and most well-known dictionary publisher to this day.

Head librarian Mary with the great big Merriam-Webster “Third New” and the book about that red-hot edition of the dictionary by David Skinner. The little circle at top right says $2.

I know a lot about this dictionary. It is the granddaddy of edition after edition of dictionaries that Merriam-Webster puts out.  Smaller versions, abridged so-called, like my M-W Collegiate, enormously popular. I keep one by my lounge chair. Another by the computer I do all my writing at.

The Third New, as it has come to be called, was greeted with lot of kudos and acclaims, but also with loud complaints and denunciations. National newspapers, influential magazines, prestigious publishing houses, prominent intellectuals weighed in on it.

I witnessed all that.  After reading much about it, I myself approved the Third New. And know what? I got involved as a journalist, and quite an experience it turned out to be. It’s  still vivid in my memory of the so many stories I got to cover.

Looking down on the big book now, I’m so excited that I ask Mary to come see. She’s our head librarian.  She’s nearby working the check-out desk.

“Know anything about this dictionary, Mary?”

She looks it over. Takes a minute or two. “Well, it’s a biggie. And it’s a Merriam-Webster. That means a lot. But pretty old. I have no idea who donated it to us.”

“This book came out in 1961. Got huge publicity. The reaction to it was sensational,” I tell her, tapping it. “In fact, revolutionary. Because there was a different philosophy behind it.  There had never been a dictionary like this before.”


“Here, let me show you something.” I flip it open and start searching.

It’s so heavy. Has hundreds and  hundreds of pages.  Very unwieldy. Needs to have its own table to rest on.The typeface used is tiny—8 point, it looks like. The definitions are long. Each page is crammed shoehorn full. Finally I find the word I’m looking for. I point to it for her. The word is “ain’t.”

She stares at it. I can read her mind. She’s thinking, “It’s one of a million words in here. So what’s the big deal?”

“Mary, this is the very first time that little word ‘ain’t’ got into any dictionary. Which is true of many, many other everyday words we all use. For the first time they got put in a dictionary. That was a big reason behind all the arguing.

“What a ruckus it created. Some people loved it. Some people hollered and vowed they’d continue with M-W’s previous biggie. That was the Second New International Dictionary, also huge, published in 1934. The country, Americans, the culture had changed so much in those 25 years.”

She tapped my arm. “Sorry, John, got to go. A lady wants me to check out her books,”

Well, I didn’t buy this Third New, in fine condition though it was.  Had no need for it. Besides, no place for it, so big.

I get by just fine with my M-W Collegiate.  And when I’m typing away on my computer and I wonder about a word, often I just look it up on M-W’s online dictionary. It’s easy.

I went home. But I didn’t stop thinking about the Third New. I went back the next day.  I was worried that somebody might have handed Mary the 2 bucks or it. Not that I had changed my mind. I had a different reason. It was still there.  Good!

I got Mary again. Asked her how much she thought it weighed. She tried to heft it. “Oh, maybe 15 pounds.”  Which is what I thought it weighed, too.  I had brought my step-on bathroom scale along. I set on the counter. Her eyes opened wide. She thought I was crazy, I’m sure. I hefted the book and placed it on the scale. Just 2 ounces short of 6 pounds. But it sure felt like 15 pounds.

Then, with Mary still watching, I checked how many pages. 2,662! There were zillions of words listed, and their definitions were long. Then I looked at a few pages.  They were jammed full, with everything in tiny type, 8 point, I thought. So hard to read. Should have brought my magnifying glass, too.

I said to her, “Here’s why this dictionary became so controversial. The Merriam Second New—the big one before this one—put in all the words that the editor-in-chief felt should be in the book. Only good words, in his opinion. If a word was recognized popular but was slangy or uncouth or uncultured and therefore second-class, well, to him—“ain’t’ for instance—it was kept out. A huge list of words that were a vital part of our language never got in.

“This one, “I said, tapping it, “put in word after word that everybody knew and used all the time. Including some naughty words, even some dirty words.  Words that were on just about everybody’s tongue. For the simple reason they made the job of speaking with people so much easier. Thousands of new words got included.”

Besides my bathroom scale I had brought along a book of my own. I showed it to her. Its title was “The Story of Ain’t.” And its subhead was “America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published.” By David Skinner, a bog-time journalist and author, highly respected.

He laid out the whole incredible, fascinating story of the Third New. And of its its editor-and-chief, who inspired the new thinking. And all the heated words and arguments that rolled out pro and con.

Mary flipped through my book, stopping here and there, then turned back to look at the check-out counter. then said  “Quite a story, John! But….” Another customer was waiting for her.

I wouldn’t be surprised if later she brought all this to the attention of her librarians. Also because of my own little role in all that, which I had told her about. I’ll tell you about it in a minute.

Well, how come the Merriam Third New was so radically different from the Merriam Second New?

Primarily because the new top man was Philip Babcock Gove, Ph.D. He saw the huge changes  that our country and culture, and as a result, our language, were going through. Believed that a dictionary shouldn’t preach. Believed it should just record the words  and define them if lots of people use them. That if was important.

To determine that, the lexicographers studied usage in books, publications of kinds, movies, menus, songs,  advertisements, scientific and technical publications. A file was kept of every word, and the file contained many “citations.” These were white index cards that showed exactly how a word was used, where, and its exact context.  New meanings to it, old meanings falling out of style.

These files got reviewed periodically, and if something new about the word was developing or something old was fading out, that would have to be noted in a modified definition of that word.

He recognized that language is dynamic. Constantly changing. Which is normal. Any user of the Third New would get to see that.

I should tell you that Merriam-Webster had a large staff of lexicographers. Trained and seasoned professionals. It takes a huge effort to produce a dictionary of this magnitude.  A big staff. Dr. Gove had to win them over and get them roused up.

Incredible the discussions that resulted.  So many new words had to be reviewed. “Ain’t” is the one that became famous, or notorious, depending on your point of view.

Most words have several definitions, of course.  The conventional one for “ain’t” is that it is a word used by un-schooled people. But a new one was developing fast. The word was being used to give emphasis and drama, and by sophisticated people. Such as, “Dammit, that just ain’t so!”  I’ve used it in print a few times in that way for that very reason.

There developed a long list of  common words and expressions that got Dr. Gove’s team talking about–Chinaman, faggot, french-fried (potatoes), nigger, prick, cunt, tits, Jap, bum, snot, masturbation (as opposed to Onanism), GI, Jewess, chop suey, pizza, Nazi, shit, tofu, transatlantic flight, high-octane gas, pisspoor and pissed off, on and on. Many were put on a “taboo” list. Others got cleared for publication.

And thousands of words in the  Second New had to be deleted because research had shown they were falling off.

Gove insisted on using some. “Fuck” was one.  “Fuck up” was another.  “Cunt.” “Period,” meaning a woman’s you know what.   Everybody knows them. Millions  use them. But he didn’t get his way on many. Yes, Gove was the editor-in-chief. But Gordon J. Gallan was the publisher of Merriam-Webster.  Sharp executive and businessman. He wanted excellence, but also big sales.  He worried about sales of this Third New. So he sent down a memo, saying about some of those, so to speak,  “No way! Nothing doing!” (Both expressions with specific new meanings, as we have gotten to learn.)

For your information, the first time “fuck,” as a noun and a verb, made it into a general dictionary was in 1964 when the American Heritage Dictionary included it. The AHD has grown into a worthy competitor to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.

So what was my role?  I was a feature writer on the magazine of the Telegram in Worcester, Mass.  I was always prospecting for a good story. I saw this incredible ruckus.

Merriam-Webster’s headquarters were, and still are, in Springfield, another big city, just 50 miles to the west.  I put in a call, made my pitch, was invited to come,  got a fascinating  tour by a staff editor on how a dictionary is put together, and interviewed the big man himself, Dr. Gove.

I decided my big focus should be on him. What kind of man was this? I came back later with a photographer to double-check my facts and take pictures. This was going to be a big lay-out in the magazine. At the end of the day we followed Dr. Gove to his home. He lived in a little town 15 miles east and he had a farm. He introduced us to Mrs. Gove, Grace, I believe, and his kids.

Incredible! Every night the great scholar would swap his business suit and dressy shoes for bib overalls and mucky boots and stride out back to the barn to milk his cows. My photographer that day, Bob Lilyestrom I believe it was, caught him doing just that and happy at his work.  Who could ever imagine an incredible character like that?

Oh, on my next visit to our public library I checked. The Third New was gone. I asked Mary who had bought it. “No idea, John.”

Gosh, I’d like to meet that person! There’s another great story there, I’m sure. That would be a wonderful interview, too.

Now truth is, I have written about Dr. Gove and his Third New before as a blog. Some of you probably received that piece.

If you feel you’d enjoy it, send me an email at either johnguylaplante @yahoo or gmail. And I’ll send it to you. Lots of interesting stuff in it.

You’re all sophisticated readers, I’m positive.  Who else would read something like this? Let me know if you’ve  gotten around to using “ain’t,” will you?

(Oh, by the way, I’ve just re-read this, checking for typos. These days I always seem to make typos–blame bad typing by my tired old fingers. Didn’t spot any. But was struck by the many words and expressions that I’ve used that I never would have employed in that article of mine for the Telegram back n 1961. I didn’t know them!  There are dozens. See how many you can spot.  Shows how dynamic language is!)

~ ~ ~

The day the Post Office went automatic.



By John Guy LaPlante

Oct. 20, 1960. Providence, R.I.

The U.S. Postal Service turned on the country’s first totally mechanized mail processing plant. Machines started doing the work from A to Z.  Did  it all. No hands!

It was a big deal. Historic. Dramatic. Badly needed. Long-planned. Hugely publicized. And controversial, it turned out.

And I was there, on assignment for my paper, the Worcester Telegram-Gazette.

Ben Franklin back in Philadelphia in 1763 was the first postmaster, but just for the Pennsylvania colony. Two years later he was appointed postmaster general by the Colonial Congress for all the colonies.  And went on to do it with the zeal and smarts that became his hallmark in everything he undertook.

That was a big deal, too. People could write to one another and keep in touch as never before. And what a giant boost that gave businesses and the national economy.

All made possible by the establishment  the U.S. Postal Service at the birth of our country. Manned by men trained to do the work from as a career job —selling stamps, processing the mail, and delivering it on a reliable schedule. Within a neighborhood, within a geographic area, within  a whole state, then to other states and regions, the list expanding every time a new star got added to our flag.

One improvement followed another.

What a sensation it was when the dashing young riders of the Pony Express made it possible to speed a letter to California in just 8 or 10 days.  True although only a wealthy person or big business could afford it.

Steadily the price of postage dropped.

The railroads were laying more track. Ships began shifting from sail to steam, crossing the Atlantic in 10 days rather than 40.  Steamships with good luck could get the mail from New York to San Francisco around the Horn in a few weeks rather than the three months the great tall ships with their enormous sails took.

On and on.  Progress over the decades became dramatic.

For instance.  When I was a boy in Pawtucket, R.I., our mailman Mr. Sherlock was bringing us our mail twice a day. Imagine that. Morning and afternoon, and Monday through Saturday, would you believe?

He started every Monday for the week with his blue uniform freshly pressed and his shoes shined. And he did the job day in and day out regardless of the season or the weather.

He would start his day by reporting at our big post office on Main Street.  Other workers had already deposited the fresh mail for Pleasant View into the Pleasant View box.  Pleasant View was our neighborhood and it was his assignment.  He would organize its mail by street and number and pack it with practiced efficiency in his big leather bag. He would heft it, walk a block and climb on the trolley to our neighborhood and begin his first circuit.

Truth is, Pleasant View had become less pleasant now built up as it was with three-deckers shoulder to shoulder on every street. A modest neighborhood but respectable and a fine choice for working class people. We lived at 18 Coyle Avenue, which was one block long. We had English, Irish, French, Syrian, Polish families, well, that we knew.

If you don’t remember, three-deckers had three tenements for three families. Those houses  were a a brilliant invention.  There are still plenty around. Still provide good housing.

Mr. Sherlock would start slipping the envelopes through the three slots every three-decker had. Everything in his bag was a social or business letter. If a package had come in for someone, he’d slip through a notice to go pick it up at the post office.  Well, this is what I recall of all that. Junk mail was still far in the future.

At half past 11 or so Mr. Sherlock, his bag empty, would take the trolley back downtown. Eat lunch, restock his bag and come back to do his second circuit. Only a heavy rain or snow storm would daunt him. He hated that and so did we. He because the next day his bag would be extra heavy. And we because we missed getting mail maybe.

Mr. Sherlock was proud to wear his uniform. It was more than a job. It was a career. The Postal Service had become a proud service.  Somebody had even said that in inspired words that caught the importance and significance of it.

“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”

I’m sure Papa and Maman had never heard those words. They wouldn’t have understood them anyway. They were immigrants, like so many neighbors. I hadn’t. I was too young. Maybe Mr. Sherlock hadn’t either.

But it’s men like him who inspired it.

When I happened upon those highfalutin words much later, I totally got it. It made me feel good about the service. I hope that Mr. Sherlock got to hear them before he put his uniform aside for keeps.

It’s important I tell you one thing. How exciting it was for Papa and Maman to get a letter from a friend in nearby Woonsocket, say, and even more so from a brother or cousin perhaps back in Quebec. Wow!

Papa and Maman had come down to Rhode Island from up there.

Maybe it was an invitation to a wedding. Exciting. But maybe the news of the death of a father or sister, God forbid. I don’t recall telephone service being around then. But if it was, we didn’t have it. I do remember  there was anticipation but also apprehension about what Mr. Sherlock might leave off.

Papa and Maman called that service a blessing. It was a wonder. Hi-tech, mind you, to use an expression that hadn’t entered the language yet. They hadn’t known such when they were my age. Hadn’t even thought it possible.

Fact is, it was the count-on-it reliability and broad saturation of that service that steadily pushed back our frontiers and began to meld us as Americans.

But the day had come when the Post Office needed better. Much better. After heavy campaigning it got the okay to build a totally mechanized  regional processing center. I have no idea how Providence got chosen.  Much heavy politicking, I’ll bet.

What a daunting undertaking. Remember the mandate, no hands!  So what machines would be needed to take in the mail, flip every piece right side up, read every address … so many scrawled or barely legible? How to make sure each piece was properly stamped … there were different categories with varying postal prices … how to send the letters and packages on their way to the right place, maybe next close by in Pawtucket, but maybe to Pensacola, Florida, maybe even to Paris, France?

How to organize that flow? Make it smooth and fool-proof efficient?  Move the mail along from machine to machine? How much floor space?  One floor? Two floors? What kind and size of building would it take?  On what side should trucks with the fresh mail arrive? The trucks taking the on-on-going processed mail on its way? How many trucks would be needed?  How much parking space should be available?    And what should be the attributes of an ideal location?

And so important, how many workers would be required, and how should they be trained for these newfangled machines? Shouldn’t they be workers displaced from the city’s big downtown post office, which would be closed, it was assumed.

The goal was not only to assure better service. It was also to save money in getting the work done.

All premised on the necessity to build a plant that would comfortably process a million or more pieces of mail a day!

And of course the new center should become a lab for other such plants across the country.

What the designers faced was a challenge in a thousand ways.

Well, it all got done and the big day, October 20, arrived blue and sunny.  All-out publicity had alerted the nation to what was being hailed as a “turnkey operation.” A PR genius had come up with that. At the dedication a key would be turned, so to speak,  and the plant would rumble into operation. I just checked and I found “turnkey’ in my Merriam-Webster dictionary now.

The new building itself was a wonder. Ultra-modern. Futuristic, which was also a new word.  Nothing else came close to it anywhere, it was said. It was symbolic of the mammoth magical work would take place inside. Everybody took pictures of it.

In fact, the Postal Service for the occasion sold a commemorative stamp showing the incredible building. A 4-cent stamp it was, which was the first-class price back then. It sold thousands and thousands. What a fantastic PR ploy nationwide that turned out to be.

Everything in the building was on one floor. There were only two posts inside, it was said. Miles of conveyor belts snaked back and forth.

I mentioned there was controversy, too. Machines replace workers. Many industries were seeing the beauty of that. Workers were seeing the brutality of that. So did their labor unions. There were mutterings and angry protests.

Well, I told you I was there.  Not on the actual day. At the big Dedication / PR kickoff just before it. In a throng of journalists. Post Office and Washington and Rhode Island bigwigs. The architects and contractors and designers and builders of the system and machines. Gawkers. A big crowd as expected. Rousing speeches. Great applause.

I went back to the T&G and wrote my story and it got a big headline and big display. Rightfully so. This was big news. National news. Good news. Promising news.

But!  What a stunt the Providence Journal-Bulletin pulled. The J-B was the state’s premier paper, as it still is, a national biggie. (But, I must tell you, just a few notches higher than the Telegram-Gazette’s in the list of the country’s top 100 papers.)

By the way, I got the assignment because I knew Providence. As I said, I was a Rhode Islander. And for two years after college in Worcester I had been a graduate student at Brown University right there in Providence.  In fact, back then it was routine for me to walk by that big old downtown post office whose future was now problematic.

Plus though full-time at the T&G I had started free-lancing a few pieces for the Journal-Bulletin.

Now about that stunt by the J-B.  That’s what it deserves to be called, a stunt. A few days before the plant’s opening, the J-B stuck stamps on a pile of letters. It had addressed them to itself at its Fountain Street address.  Not real postage stamps. Fake stamps, every one of them. They looked like regular stamps but they were S & H Green Stamps, if you remember those. Tax stamps from Lucky Strike and Camel cigarette packs.  On liquor bottles. A variety of such stamps. I don’t remember exactly. And dropped them in the mail.

And all those letters got processed by the new plant.  Were all delivered back to the Journal-Bulletin.  Which made a montage of them and printed it under a big headline saying something like, “New Post Office Off to a Great Start.”   Ha! Ha!

Yes, the new plant had done the massive job lickety-split, as hoped for and expected. But its machines couldn’t tell the difference between good stamps and phony. And gradually other troubles developed.

One result was that the PR label “Turnkey Plant” got tweaked a bit. Somebody said, “What a tur­key that plant is!” And that got passed around and got a lot of laughs. “The Tur_key Plant!” But those early mishaps were no surprise to any reasonable person. All this was pioneer work. All the problems got worked out.

The plant’s impact became revolutionary.  Other processing plants got built.  Automatic processing of the mail became efficient, calm, routine. I think it sparked many businesses to mechanize and automate their delivery of stuff the same way.  Especially huge ones. UPS.  FedEx.  Amazon. Walmart. And others.

I mentioned the plant was futuristic. For that matter, inspired by the pizzazz of that building perhaps, Providence has redesigned and rebuilt its downtown so amazingly that it stands out as one of the most beautiful and enjoyable in the Northeast.

The plant is still there doing the job, day in and day out, without glamor or commotion. And it still looks futuristic.

If only Mr. Sherlock could have lived to see all that. Or Benjamin Franklin.

~ ~ ~


How much is an Ocean View worth?

Uncle Emile, great guy, great chess player

By John Guy LaPlante

Mon oncle Emile is what I called him.  Like my Papa and Maman, my Uncle Emile was an immigrant from Quebec, the heart and soul of French Canada.

My memories of him go back more than 80 years. He was great at many things, especially chess. The game was a passion. This memory was triggered, would you believe, by my discovering and downloading a Scrabble app. I’ve loved Scrabble.

In Pawtucket, R.I., my hometown, he worked as a short-order cook, a house painter, a furniture repair whiz, at this and that. That’s how immigrants got on their feet. He was a  hard worker. Big and strong and clever and genial.

His favorite pastime was chess. A kid at boarding school had taught me the basic moves. My uncle took me under his wing.

He and his wife Rosalie lived in a modest Cape Cod. Upstairs was one big room. That was where the  Chess Club met once a week. Tuesdays, as I remember it.  My uncle was its organizer and self-elected president.

If he happened to meet some fellow who liked to play, he’d sign him up. French, Italian, Irish, no matter, though most of his players were French. Any guy who didn’t have booze on his breath was welcome. No women, of course. Rosalie never came up the stairs. Thank God some things have changed. The big thing was their liking the game.

When I came home from boarding school—I was 15 or so—at his behest, and not wanting to say no, I’d show up. I was the only kid. They were all patient with me, all nice.

The big event came every two or three months, what he called Maestro Night. My uncle would hear of some good player and invite him to come be the maestro.

We’d arrange all the folding card tables in a big U. We’d sit one to a table with our chess board set up, facing the maestro.  We’d chat with one another and catch up. Then the Maestro would arrive and in a minute or two we’d hush up. Notice I capitalized Maestro here. Sometimes he was known from a previous session. Sometimes a  stranger.

My uncle would give him a great big intro and we’d clap and cheer.  He’d smile and say thank you. That applause was his pay, I believe . Maybe the members chipped in for a gratuity for him, I’m not sure.

All of us were playing the white pieces and he the black. In a tradition of unknown origin, a player with white has the advantage of making the first move.

The Maestro would stand throughout. He’d step to the first table, glance at his opponent’s initial move, and make his move. Then he’d step to the next table, and the same thing. Once he had gone all around, he’d start  the circuit again. As things progressed, he would pause longer before making his move.

On and on. Finally some pieces were being given up. Some players were better than others, of course. Finally one player would knock over his king, admitting defeat. Checkmated! End of game  for him. Eventually there would be only two or three  still playing. We all stayed seated at our tables. No kibitzing allowed! We’d crane  to catch the action.

I was playing out of pure charity from these guys. Sure, I was making moves, but puny moves. I was doing my best. Guaranteed I’d be  the first to give up. But it was exciting and I enjoyed learning.

Sometimes one of the fellows would beat the Maestro and then the clapping was loud indeed!  What was nice is that the Maestro would join in applauding the one who beat him.  A good sport. But I never saw that. It was hearsay I picked up. Every time I played, the Maestro, whoever he was, licked everybody.

But at the end of the evening there were always lots of Have a Good Nights and See You Next Week. It was a very nice evening though for sure some fellows went home crushed.

They played every week. I played only when I was home from school.

But what does this have to do with my downloading that Scrabble app?

You’ll see soon. I never found out how, but my Uncle Emile would locate  people that he could play with far away, maybe  50 miles, maybe 500, maybe up in Quebec. Correspondence chess! What’s that? Long-distance chess. The two never got to meet.

My uncle would open the game by making the first move, noting it on a card with the date, write it down  on a penny postcard and mail it to his opponent. In  a few days or maybe a week or two, he’d  get a postcard back with his opponent’s move.

My uncle would decide his next move and send it off. Every time he got a card back was a highlight for him.  I recall that he’d be playing more than one opponent at a time. Every day he’d check  what the mailman had brought.

I never saw  how he recorded the progress of the games, or how often he won.  I was back in school. But he was a strong player. I’m sure he did okay. I’m not sure whether he ever got to know these players as more than just a name and an address.

But in time, the postcards coming back  must have  included  personal words,  it seems to me. Maybe they played re-matches.

Now about my Scrabble app. As you may know, Scrabble is usually a two-person game. With this app, you can line up another player anywhere who also has the app. Or the app will match you with one.  No difference whether it’s somebody nearby or in Chicago or Miami or Anchorage.

Then you start a game, just as my uncle did.But these Scrabble moves  can go back and forth in minutes, in a single session. Not weeks. Sure, you can drag out a game as long as you like, several days or longer. The games can be set up by appointment. Tuesday at 9 p.m., or whatever.

And no penny postcards needed. None of the out of pocket expenses my uncle had.

If you’re interested, the Scrabble app comes free from Google Play. Your only investment is your time to play a game. No stamps needed. If Uncle Emile could see that!

I just checked. It’s also possible to play chess free online.

I’m no champion at Scrabble but I find composing words  easier than plotting chess moves. But I did teach my kids to play THE game, as it’s been called.

I told you Uncle Emile was clever. I saw that more than once. Here’s one instance. One Christmas he stopped by. He was my Maman’s brother, two or three years older. They were very close.

My sister Lucie came along nine years after me. She was four when I got to witness this. She was still using her baby bottle!   Always seemed to have it in hand. Yes, with milk and the rubber nipple. She’d take it to bed with her. Curl up on the sofa with it. Embarrassing.

If Maman tried to take it from her, she’d scream and holler. Sounds crazy, I know. But that was the situation. My uncle got to see this. Was appalled.

We had our Christmas tree up and decorated. He had Lucie on his lap.  Was gabbing with her. And he asked, ”Lucie, is there anything extra nice you would like Santa Claus to bring you this year ? Maman has told me you  have been a very good little girl. Makes me happy! I am proud of you. Now think hard!”

She was all ears of course. He went on, “I know Santa.  Very, very well. I will tell him you deserve a special gift this year. For sure  he’ll  will bring it to you.”

Lucie thought and thought. Finally she said. “Oui, mon oncle! Oui! A nice big baby doll. Like Claire’s.”  Claire was her best friend.

“Very good, Lucie! But first  you have  to do something for Santa.  And you will get that beautiful doll.”


“As you know, Lucie,  you are not a baby any more. Give me  your bottle. I will wrap it up and give it to the mailman tomorrow. Santa will get it in two or three days. He will remember me. For sure.

“He loves to hear about wonderful little kids like you. Extra good girls and boys. When you get up Christmas, you will see all the presents he brought. And the doll you asked for!”

We waited through a long, long pause. We saw the tug-of-war going on in her.  Uncle Emile smiled and laughed and bounced her on his knee. She loved him. Just as I did. Maman was smiling, too. And praying, I’m sure.

She had her hand resting on her big brother’s shoulder. She ran her fingers through his thinning hair.

Lucie was still quiet. She had been holding that cherished baby bottle all along. “All right,” she said finally, and so seriously. And handed it to him.

“Very, very good, Lucie! I will do this first thing tomorrow. You will be very happy on Christmas ”

On that wondrous day she was the first up. I’ll bet she kept listening through the night for Santa. She ran to the Christmas tree. She saw all the presents Santa had brought and counted those with her name on them.  But was her doll here?”

Finally it was time and we gathered around the tree. Maman, Papa, my little sister Louise, myself. (Louise was four years younger than Lucie. She had already given up her baby bottle.) But Uncle Emile couldn’t be with us.

Papa had been keyed in. Admired Uncle Emile for coming up with this terrific idea. Felt maybe Maman was spoiling Lucie.

Maman as usual handed out the gifts to us. She saved one for last.  She smiled at Lucie,  held it in her hands. It  was a big one. And said, “This last one is also for you, Lucie.”

Lucie tore the wrapping off. She asked Maman to help her open the box. And inside was the beautiful doll, and it was even nicer than Claire’s, she said later.  Was so happy. She looked it over. Every detail. The eyes, the hair, the little smile, the nice dress. The little booties. She ever mentioned her baby bottle. She played with her little baby all day.

Uncle Emile came a day or two later. Lucie ran up to him with a big hug and kissed him on both cheeks. He was smiling, glowing.  Showed him the beautiful doll Santa had brought. He picked it up and admired it and put it back in her hands. . “I told you Santa would not forget!”

Maman rushed to greet him and gave him a big hug.  “Merci, Emile!” And whispered, “Merci pour ton joli cadeau!” (“Thank you for your lovely gift!”) He beamed. Gave her a hug.

A true story!

Yesterday I called Lucie and told her I was writing up these recollections. When I mentioned how Uncle Emile had finagled to get her to give up her baby bottle, she laughed and laughed.

“But I wasn’t four. I  was five! Actually it was a big Pepsi bottle. With a black nipple. When I needed a new nipple, Maman would give me the money and send me to buy a new one. I’d run to Mr. Gendron’s pharmacy there on the corner.  Remember?

“Yes, I’d go buy my own nipple! I knew I was getting too old for that. But I loved my bottle.  Crazy, I know. One time Mr. Gendron asked if the nipple was for me, and I said no!” And she laughed again.

She told me that Uncle Emile had taught her how to play chess. I wasn’t aware of that. She doesn’t play now. But she’s a competitive bridge player. Gold level!

Yes, a smart man, Uncle Emile. And what a wonderful uncle. He and his wife Rosalie are buried just a few rows over from Papa and Maman.

Well, I think I’ll go to my computer now and play a game of Scrabble. And if I don’t manage to play with a live opponent,  I can even play against the computer!

Hope Uncle Emile isn’t aware I’m not playing chess much any more.

A  postscript for you

Interested in chess?

The victories will be few and elusive

The defeats many and humbling

It can easily morph into a passion

So be wary of this devilish game

But if this is your wish, do ignore these words.

An experienced loser


~ ~ ~ ~













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