September 25, 2018

Tragedy struck, and that led Alma to God

By John Guy LaPlante

With 2 photos.

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

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

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

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

Alma and daughter Zeann at work at McDonald’s.

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

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

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

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

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

She looked at me.  Still held her hand.

“Are you a minister?”

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

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

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

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

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

Alma and her hubby Bayrn promised three things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You think this would really interest people?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zeann smiled. Blushed. Very sweet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That doesn’t happen to many of us.

~ ~ ~ ~

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

My friend Bill Alpert, impassioned fiddler!

By John Guy LaPlante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Your bow, too?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course. Shoot!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Great!” I said and pedaled off.

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

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

I was astounded. But it was so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I hope the same can be said for you.

                                                                                 ~ ~ ~ ~

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

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

 

 

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…]

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?”
“Yes”
“Did you get her back from a guy named Tom?”
“Yes.”
“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.”

“Oh?”

“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.

~ ~ ~

 

May, 1954. Gosh, I got paid $24 for 1,237 words!

By John Guy LaPlante

My very first magazine sale!Cover Pop.Hobbies Mag.

I was just rummaging in old, old files and I came upon the magazine that I’m showing you, Profitable Hobbies. It was in its pages that I made my debut as a published writer! I was 24.

Yes, I got paid $24 for 1,237 words. Google tells me that that $24 would be $213.20 in today’s money. What a bonus that was for my thin grad-student pocketbook. But what it did for my ego was beyond price.

Profitable Hobbies was a monthly. You never heard of it. It died long ago. Its cover price was 35 cents. Its title says it all. Its 64 pages were chuck full about people who made money off their hobby. It was inspiring to read, and fun.

The title of my article was “Photographing Tots.” How did that come about? I was taking a one-semester course, “Magazine Article Writing,” at Boston University. I was working for a master’s in journalism, and I got it in June. I planned to be a newspaperman, not a magazine writer, but this course was a must.

We had to write an article and try to get it published. Then as now, magazine writing was intensely competitive. It was the same old story. Beginners were warned they’d collect a pile of rejection slips before they clicked with their first sale.

My degree was in journalism, but we didn’t call ourselves journalists. We called ourselves “newspapermen” back then. There were a few women on newspaper staffs, but they did weddings and “society.” Now the accepted word is journalist. Women are as numerous as we and hold their own.

And journalists now write, of course, for more than just newspapers. They also write, as we know, for magazines, TV, radio, and what is common, for so many online outlets. Blogs! I have a blog. You will read this as a post on my blog.

Professor Clayton (his name is foggy; I’m embarrassed) kept preaching, “”Don’t aim for The Saturday Evening Post . No, no! Start low. Pick a little mag. And write

on something you know a lot about!”

Gosh, he was so fervent. “And remember the first rule of professional writing. Don’t just dash something off, put a stamp on it, and send it to some magazine you know little about while hoping for the best.

“You must sleep on what you wrote. Then look at it with a fresh eye. And rewrite it as necessary. You’ve got to be a perfectionist! Then send it off. Only then!”

One of the many kids I photographed--Dimitri Ganim, 5, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Ganim in my hometown, Pawtucket, R.I.

One of the many kids I photographed–Dimitri Ganim, 5, son of Mr. and Mrs. George Ganim in my hometown, Pawtucket, R.I.

My article tells it all, too. “Photographing Tots.” It tells how I spent a summer vacation. taking pictures of kids in their homes as a little business. I had done that just the summer before. It was fresh in my mind.

I took his advice. Wrote that article, then polished it and polished it, and sent it to the editor. I had never heard of “Profitable Hobbies.’. I located it in “Writer’s Markets” in the university library. That was the name of that big fat book, I believe. It seemed a perfect choice for me. And so it was.

The issue had 64 pages. My piece was on Page 37. My byline was J.G. LaPlante. My very first byline! It wasn’t one of the major articles but it was a start.

That was my big hobby, photography. Oh, for 10 years, and I had gotten darn good at it. Could develop and make my own prints. Those were the days, of course, of Kodak Plus-X roll film, Dektol developer, hypo, stainless steel tanks, all done in a darkroom—totally blacked out, under just a faint red lamp. I was so into photography that I had even built my own darkroom in a corner of my parents’ cellar.

I developed that interest when my Uncle Jack, a GI who survived the thick of the action in France and Germany in World War II, came home with a souvenir for me. A German Voightlander camera. No idea how he acquired it. From a war prisoner, I suppose. [Read more…]

That crazy Spag’s! How I miss it

 

By John Guy LaPlante    With six photos

Yes, how I miss, as do thousands and thousands of other folks who knew it. Spag’s was one of a kind. Impossible for anyone to replicate it. And what a sad and tragic ending it had. I knew it at its greatest. And just saw it. Closed, Empty. Dead! Just a pitiful ghost of the great and unique and hugely successful store it was.

Spags signature store near the end. No longer Spags. Now Spags 19!
Spag’s grand signature store near the end. But a huge change had taken place. Look at the sign. It was no longer Spag’s. It had become Spag’s 19!

It was in Worcester, Massachusetts. Well, just across Lake Quinsigamond in Shrewsbury at 193 Boston Turnpike.  Maybe you knew Spag’s. So many people all over the U.S.  got to know it. If you were a visitor or tourist and heard about it, for sure you’d go take a look. And you’d  buy and buy. And go home with grand stories to tell about it.

It was a discount store. One-of-a-kind. Quality merchandise at the most reasonable prices imaginable. In fact, a department store. Stocking just about anything and everything you might need for your home plus things for your office or business.

Clothing. Food. Tools. Kitchen stuff. Furniture. Paint. Office supplies. Sporting-goods. Auto accessories. Gift items. Books. Garden stuff–trees, plants, fertilizer. Photo and music stuff. Everything you might want for Christmas or Easter or Thanksgiving.at

It was my Number One go-to store all the time I lived there. I’d bet that it was the favorite store of thousands of folks in that whole metropolitan area. I’d even bet it was the most successful store the Worcester area ever had till then.

It was called Spag’s because that was the nickname of its amazing founder, Antonio Borgatti. He loved spaghetti! Everybody called him Spag–the mayor, the governor, even people who came in with only a dollar or two, or teenagers just looking.

Spag got off to a fast start. Right after graduating from Shrewsbury High, with $34 borrowed from his Mom, , he opened a sidewalk stand. He sold odds and ends.. Right there, where he was destined to become the best known retailer around. [Read more…]

The astounding double life of Hal Abrams

By John Guy LaPlante

with 3 photos

Morro Bay, CA—Hal is tall and slim and fifty-ish, with hair down to his shoulders and still jet black. One look and you might think him a rock guitar player. He aspired to that long ago but that’s long past.

His love of music has not diminished, but his passion now- – and for the last 30 years– has been radio broadcasting.

Partners in everything--Hal and his wife Judy broadcasting together on 97.3 FM Morro Bay, The Rock.

Partners in everything–Hal and his wife Judy broadcasting together on 97.3 FM Morro Bay, The Rock.

In fact, for some 20 years, he has been the producer of the country’s most popular pet animal show. Its name is Animal Radio, and it reaches 350,000 fans every week all over the country. In more than 130 AF and FM stations from here in California all the way to Connecticut. It’s a terrific show, even if you don’t own a dog or a cat or a parrot or snake or a few fish.

That’s how I got to meet him, as its producer. He and his wife, Judy—who is executive producer of Animal Radio, and rightly so because of her talent and hard work—are neighbors of my daughter Monique and son-in-law David here. And through them I met Hal and Judy. They all live on a hill overlooking the harbor and the Pacific.

How Hal and Judy manage to churn out Animal Radio week after week and year after year for the last 14 years—program 800 is coming up very soon!—is a challenge and a half. Well, certainly to me after enjoying a few of their programs. [Read more…]

My friend Bob Johnson has died

 

By John Guy LaPlante

First:an explanation.  I worked hard to get this out on time. Yesterday, I “published” it–sent it to all of you. I am totally at a loss to explain why not. I’ve been doing this blog a long time and this is a first. This lapse is a great sorrow to me.  Bob such a dear, dear friend.  And an embarrassment. I had hoped part of it at least could have been spoken at his funeral, which was impossible for me to attend.  I had told Bob’s son Rob that I would get it out, so of course I am greatly embarrassed, though it was not my fault. So I’m sure Rob is wondering what the heck happened. Again, no explanation. Dealing with computers can be baffling. So, keep in mind that what you’re reading was written for you to read last week

NOTE: Please do get to the bottom of the text to see a photo montage, well, a good part of it, put together by Rob about his Dad.

Morro Bay, CA – My dear Deep River, Connecticut, friend Bob Johnson died last Saturday evening a few minutes after11. He passed on in the Hospice at nearby Middlesex Hospital in Connecticut. Robert, his only child, was at his side.

Bob’s last days were awful. He suffocated to death. That’s the plain truth. His lungs gave out–the result of years of smoking- cigarettes-though he never mentioned that.

He quit before I got to meet him, but too late.

By the time we became friends, he had morphed into an all-out crusader against smoking.

More than once I got to see Bob stop and scold somebody he had spotted smoking, even a total stronger. Usually a younger person. Bob’s intentions were the best–to save that person before it got too late.

He knew I was a Rotarian. One day he told me, “John, get Rotary to put up a No Smoking sign at the Landing and with their name at the bottom, and I’ll give the club $200.
Well, the club did that. The sign is still there, tacked to a bench overlooking the magnificent Connecticut River.

The Landing was one of his favorite spots. He took me there often.

We’d sit in his car, open our windows, breathe in the fresh air, look out at the river and the birds and the boats. Wonderful. Then! He’d get out and pick up cigarette butts. Dozens of them every time. And would shame me into helping him.

Bob was born in Deep River as Robert Johnson but was universally known as Bob. Amazing how many friends he had.

His son Robert was always Robert to Bob and his mother, Rosa, but Rob to others.

At the end, Rob, who is an executive for a big insurance company, had spent more than 80 hours in vigil by his Dad, waiting, waiting, waiting for what he knew was coming.

I saw the two together numerous times. It was absolutely clear how much he loved Robert and was proud of him.

Well, right away, Robert began making calls. He was quick to tell me that I was the first outside the family to be given the sad news. Which was very nice.

Bob and I had been friends for several years . Buddies is a better word. We became so close you might have thought we were pals from childhood. Our friendship puzzled me—we were so different in so, so many ways. You would think we’d be totally incompatible.

Truth is, Bob enriched my life to a degree I couldn’t imagine. He was so smart. Was so much fun. So generous. So loyal. Taught me so much about Deep River, which late in life I got to call my home. Introduced me to so many people. On and on.

We were friends to the point that we talked on the phone every single day all through his awful illness, Even after I moved to Morro Bay 3,200 miles away to be close to my daughter Monique.

It didn’t take me long to find out Bob Johnson was a fighter. A go-getter. An entrepreneur. How so? In a few words, he would go all out to fight for anything that he considered important and wanted. It was his nature. He acted this way all the time.

But this is what turned him into the ace real estate agent he became. For years he operated as his one-man Lafayette Insurance on Lafayette Street.

He ran his business out of his home there. He had lived his whole life in that beautiful house. It was just a few minutes’ stroll from the heart of our little town. So convenient. He was born in that house, which his father had built.

“My father dug the cellar and the foundation by hand!” he told me the first time he invited me over. “At night after his day’s work. By lantern light!”

I told you how Bob loved to laugh. He was always ready with a joke. He would tell one story often. “You know, I was born upstairs in my parents’ room. What is now my room. And know what? I’m still sleeping on the same mattress.” And he would laugh and laugh.

He sold many hundreds of houses and stores and pieces of land in Deep River and nearly. Some of them twice. A few three times. Yes, that’s true. He would even remember the date and price. What a memory he had for numbers.

He’d always step forward to make things happen. “Pro-active” is the wor we use these days. In fact, that’s how he met me. By stepping forward.

I was drinking a coffee and was deep in a newspaper at Burger King in next-door Old Saybrook. He came in and spotted me in a booth and ambled over.

He was a tall, lean, handsome man, born with a quick and easy smile.

“Aren’t you the fella who writes all those long pieces for the Main Street News?” he asked. Smiling, of course. He was wearing a bright red sweater. That was always one of his trademarks. That red sweater.

I can’t imagine how many bright red sweaters just like that he must have bought through the years.

“Yes, I am. What’s your name, sir?”

Without invitation he sat himself down across from me and started talking. What a talker he was.

“I know you’re new in Deep River,” he continued. “Why don’t I pick you up and show you around. It’s a small town. But there’s an awful lot here. Good stuff. Wednesday morning okay?”

Of course I said yes. How could I pass that up!

He was right. There is a lot to Deep River. And he showed it to me. He took me riding around time and again, pointing things out.

“Big fire in that house with blue trim years ago.” Or, ” This is where the few blacks lived back in the ’40’s.” Or, ” I sold that nice two-decker for $28,000 in 1972. Then $38,500 five years later.” (I don’t guarantee I remember the prices right.) “This Landing here at the Rive used to be a dump.” On and on. What a big favor he was doing by filling me in so wonderfully.

And that’s how our friendship took off.

Again, we were so different. But we developed a bond hard to explain. And impossible to ignore.

Yes, Bob loved to sell. He discovered that when he entered his teens. His older brother—Erwin, I believe his name was– was a terrific salesman in his own right. In fact, back then Erwin had the concession to sell lunches to the workers in the big red brick factory now known as Piano Works Condo Association.

The factory specialized in making the actions for pianos. All the working parts. In fact, it was the high-tech center for the piano industry back then.

As many of you know, I‘ve lived at Piano Works 15 years.

Erwin put his younger brother Bob to work there peddling sandwiches and drinks at noon time. Bob did a terrific job. Took to it. So much so that he quit high school a year or two short of graduation. And never looked back.

He tried his hand at selling all kinds of stuff. Fireworks before the Fourth. Christmas. Cars. Gravestones, if I remember right. Ran a taxi service Sold stuff at yard sales. Then, his first house! What a big day that was! He was hooked!   Yes, he gave everything his all. And he connected with his warmth and humor—schmoozing!

Got to tell you how he found his bride, his Rosa. A beauty who was the light of his life. She had come over from Austria to see relatives. Bob saw her and in a minute he was totally smitten. He had had girlfriends, of course. But now he was in his 40s and still a bachelor.

Well, Rosa went home to Austria okay. Bob didn’t just say, “Oh, well” and write her off. He pursued her by mail. Kept pitching and working like it might be his biggest sale ever.. Told her he’d love to go visit her. And she said okay!

He bought a plane ticket. Flying across the Atlantic was a big deal then. He took off with an engagement ring in his pocket. And he got to slip it on her finger.

I hesitate to put it in these terms, but yes, sir, it was the greatest and most momentous sale he ever racked up.. A sale with life-long payback.

Theirs was a great marriage. Right into their old age. When she came down with Alzheimer’s and had to move into Aaron Manor Nursing Home in next-door Chester, he visited her every single afternoon. For 13 months, I believe it was. Would take her out for a ride. Well, until she lost her mind totally. It is said he never missed a day. Then she died.

I’ve been a patient at Aaron Manor. Old-timers on the staff there remember that. Speak of it with wonder

All these years Bob carried a photo of Rosa in his wallet, and would flash it to somebody and anybody minutes after they met. He showed it to me at that first meeting at Burger King. I am sure it was in his wallet when he died.

I told you that he never hesitated to press and fight for something he considered important. That goes for things in Deep River. If he felt something should be fixed in town, or should be started, he would phone Town Hall, or walk over there, and push for it. “That town marker at the Essex line is missing!” Or, “They left a lot of leaves on the ground at the park.” Or, “Why not make that street one way?” Or, “How come there’s no plaque on the elephant statue yet?”

(These are just examples that I remember, and not exact, but they give you the flavor.}

For sure he was considered a pest by some people over there. He never always got his way, but gosh, how he tried! I do believe he was right often.

Yes, how he loved life. As his end got close, he would have done anything for another year, another month, another day–even when his life became impossible, well, so it seemed to me.

For weeks he was stuck at home, where he lived alone (but by his firm choice), incapacitated now, there in that fine house his dad had built. And which he had made even finer.

He was connected to an oxygen tank by 40 feet of plastic tubing which delivered the gas hat kept him breathing, but barely. He had to drag along that tubing when he tottered into the kitchen for his lunch, or into the bathroom. I was so afraid he would get snarled in it and trip. And hey, he couldn’t walk 10 feet without stopping and sitting to catch his breath. What an awful struggle every minute was! How he suffeeed!

One day, in very delicate words, I suggested Hospice might be a good idea. “I’m not ready for that!” he snapped.

Even at the end he was dreaming—scheming—how to get to the family condo in Stuart, FL, and get away from the cold and ice and snow and dreary skies outside.

He even composed an ad for Craig’s List.

“Are you a retired nurse? Like to go to warm and sunny Florida for three months? I need some physical help. I’ll cover plane fare and expenses. I’ll have a car there and we can take rides and eat out now and then.” Well, you get to idea. He didn’t live long enough to follow through with that.
Every week he’d head to the casino. We have two big and famous ones. Mohegan Sun was his favorite. He loved to go for the gigantic buffet and then play and play the slots. Just the slot machines. No table games ever.

He’d always play a fixed amount of money, win or lose. Never a quarter more. Disciplined! I know exactly how much in quarters he’d plunk into those machines totally but I can’t say. Take a word that it wasn’t mere pocket change.

More than once he told me, “John, when I win, and I’m very lucky, I call it a great investment! When I lose, great recreation!” And he’d break into a big laugh.

He’d say, “When I’m playing, I don’t think of anything else for a single minute!”

He always insisted that over the years he came out ahead at the slots. Which is impossible, of course. For so many folks, the slots—in fact, the casinos– are a disaster, a calamity, a tragedy, as we know.

Again, I told you how vastly different Bob and I were. His recreational gambling is just one example. I have never bought a lottery ticket in my life except to help a good cause. Have never played a slot machine. That’s true. No kidding.

He asked me several times to go with him. I gave in only once, and it was just to look around and take in a show there afterwards—tickets that he earned as bonuses for being a good “client.” Meaning, losing so much money tto the grateful casino. A terrific show, by the way.
Three weeks ago he was looking forward to just one more visit to Mohegan Sun and planned to ask his friend Pat to take him. I couldn’t imagine how Bob could ever make it there. There was no way. Well, It didn’t happen.

Then, just 10 days or so ago, gasping his way to the bathroom at home, he fell and broke his hip. Long story. But he was rushed to the hospital and had his hip put back together. Was in agony afterward.

I knew, just by my daily phone talk, that he would never walk again. In fact, that his time was very, very short.

Then I got Robert’s phone call. When I saw it came from him I just knew! I knew! Instantly!

Must also tell you this about Bob. He was never much of a reader of books. But he read my Around the World book. Insisted on buying it. In fact, a’ll my books. Could have borrowed them from the Deep River Library. Tried to get others to buy them. How about that?

Robert has been filling me in. The funeral will be this Saturday morning in Centerbrook , right next door to Deep River. At the Robinson, Wright, and Weymer Funeral Home, at 9:30, I believe.

For full details, go to www,courant.com and click on Obituaries. It’s the website for the Hartford Courant. It will also provide his formal obituary, which I found excellent. So rich in details!

By the way, I’ve written more than 2,600 words here. But this has been just a skimming.. His family and friends will be telling anecdotes of their own.

Bottom line: Bob Johnson was one of a kind, and how pleased I was—and am– to consider him one of my best friends.

Burial will follow in old and beautiful Fountain Hill Cemetery in Deep River. Know what?  Know what? I believe there are more people resting there now than there are in town.

Rob tells me there’s two to three feet of snow on the graves. But the burial will take place. Won’t be postponed. And his Dad will be put to rest right next to his darling Rosa. Just as long planned. With military honors, for his service in the Navy when very young.

Bob’s name has been on the monument for years now. Robert F. Johnson. Just the final date has been missing. Now it will be added. But he’ll remain Bob to many of us.

Bob has made visits—”pilgrimages” says it better– to her grave beyond count. In all seasons. Would speak to Rosa, and I believe she would speak to him. Would made sure the plants were kept healthy and trimmed. Got their monument steam-cleaned periodically.

And this Saturday, Feb. 14, is St. Valentine’s Day!  Right? I feel that is so, so appropriate!

Well, what I’m hoping is that up there in heaven, besides being with Rosa, Bob has managed to find some slots. And  schmooz his way into a nice new bright new red sweater.

God bless you, Bob!

You'll enjoy this montage of photos of Bob sent to me by his son Rob. Actually, it's part of his montage. Notice the four photos of Bob with his trademark red sweater and his trademark smile!

You’ll enjoy this montage of photos of Bob sent to me by his son Rob. Actually, it’s part of his montage. Notice the five photos of Bob with his trademark red sweater and his trademark smile!

 

 

~ ~ ~

 

 

 

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