The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

Joe Nelson, businessman and politician

He made me angry, and it could be hard to resolve one’s anger at Joe Nelson.

He made everybody angry. He was an equal opportunity annoyer. You had to take a number.

And before your number came up, he had done something to make you love him. 

It wasn’t fair.

#

Fred Hampton. UIC Library Digital Collection, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 .

In the late 1960s, when the Black Panthers were one of many radical groups trying to start The Revolution, Joe Nelson used to debate politics with Fred Hampton, national vice-chair of the Black Panther Party. Hampton would come into Joe’s print shop in Maywood, Illinois, just to argue. 

Joe, once a socialist, was by the 1960s a rock-ribbed Barry Goldwater Republican. He and the bright, articulate young black radical saw most things through opposite ends of the telescope. Both enjoyed the stimulation of their running squabble.

When Hampton was gunned down by law officers in a pre-dawn raid at his Chicago apartment, Joe did not hesitate to call it a police-led assassination. He was a conservative, not a fool.

#

Since he was my father-in-law, I spent a fair amount of time with Joe Nelson. 

One day I saw him provoke a local store manager. The man was spitting mad. Within a minute, the two were good buddies. They parted with broad smiles. Joe did that kind of thing all the time. You could say it was his M.O.

His dad had been a printer and editor who worked for a newspaper chain, starting small-town weeklies in the Dakotas. Once the local clarion-ledger-press-herald was up and running, he turned it over to someone else and moved on to another little burg to repeat the process. It must have been a sketchy living. Six-year-old Joe and his older brother Maurice were farmed out to a Catholic orphanage for two years because their parents couldn’t feed all four boys. The Nelsons weren’t Catholic, but the good sisters would not turn anyone away.

Even when the family was together, they moved continually. Joe attended thirteen different public schools en route to his high school diploma. 

Some kids would wilt and turn inward in such circumstances. Joe toughened up and turned outward. He figured if you wanted friends, you had better make them quickly. He honed that skill. 

When I met him, he was in his sixties, a master at getting along with people. He got along with everybody, to whatever extent he chose. He was always in charge of the relationship.

#

I met him because I was attracted to his daughter, Joelle, whom I met at Knox College. Fair, feminine, and flirty though she was, I have since come to realize that her sterling character was formed more by her flinty father than by her gracious mother.

Elsa was the soul of respectability and conventionality. Joe, not so much. His mind was keen and penetrating. He did things the way that made sense to him.

When Joelle was a teenager, she had no curfew. By the wisdom of the day, she should have become a wild, out-of-control teen—one of those “crazy, mixed-up kids” the adult world talked about. It never happened. Her father taught her that arbitrary rules were no substitute for good sense and human kindness.

He often called himself an anarchist, of the purest stripe. “If we actually followed Christ and lived the Golden Rule,” he said, “laws would be unnecessary.”

When Joelle went on a date, Joe insisted the young man come into the house and engage in a few minutes of conversation. He always checked the boy’s driver’s license—to make sure the boy had one. Joelle may have chafed at this indignity; but she suffered in silence, then stayed out as late as she pleased. 

When she came home—whether at midnight or four a.m.—Joe would be awake in the living room, reading a paper by the light of a table lamp. “Did you have a good time?” he would ask. “Yes, Daddy,” she would say. As she flew up the stairs to her bedroom, he would fold his paper, lock the door, and turn out the lights.

She knew he would never complain about the lateness of her arrival. She also knew he would be at work by six the next morning. 

“On a weekend?” I hear you ask. Let me explain, Dear Reader. He was the owner of his print shop. His employees had limited hours; Joe did not. He had to make it work.

#

Joe had not always been a printer, though he had learned the trade at his father’s knee. 

Sidelined from military service in the Second World War by a pair of disease-scarred eardrums, he had served as a civilian flight instructor at Purdue University, training the pilots of our South American allies.

After the war, having survived the macho antics of his Latin flying students, he got a job as a mechanic at Sky Harbor airport in the Chicago suburbs. He serviced private aircraft for Chicago’s high rollers. Entertainer/impresario Tommy Bartlett, soon to become a Wisconsin water-ski maven, was one of his clients. 

When a wealthy customer crash-landed his plane in a field somewhere, Joe would pack up his tools, take a train to the site, patch up the plane enough to get it into the air, and fly it home. 

It was a life he loved, but it was an all-hours occupation. It kept him away from home. When he did come home, he found his young tot, Joelle, terrified of her own father. He had become a stranger to her. 

So he gave up flying and went into the printing business. That also was demanding, but he was home every night, and his daughter got acquainted with him.

#

Joe, right, with his brothers Bob and Maurice. Family photo.

Did I mention that Joe was sociable? His early life gave him the skills not only to form firm friendships quickly but also to negotiate with anyone about anything, on a very practical basis. He had boundless energy, a deep well of patience, and an endless fascination with people. 

So naturally, besides running a business, raising a daughter, and participating in church and social functions, he entered politics. He ran for school board and won a seat. The Proviso school district was split between the suburbs of Maywood and Melrose Park. Joe was from Maywood, a town that had been racially integrated since its founding after the Civil War. It was integrated in this sense: Black residents lived in South Maywood and white residents in North Maywood. 

The school board, however, was dominated by members from Melrose Park, a heavily Italian city. 

Things were done Chicago-style. Joe had run as a reformer, so he was taken for a tense ride in the back of a large automobile, where the facts of life were explained to him. Contracts to paint the district’s several schools were coming up. By long tradition, these contracts were not let by open bidding but were simply divvied up among school board members. Each member got to choose the contractor for one school. The message was loud and clear: Don’t rock the boat.

Joe accepted his status as contract czar for a single school. Competitive bidding on contracts was not a hill he wanted to die on. He found a Maywood neighbor who needed the work and could do the job. [In the original version of this post, I inaccurately asserted that he recruited a minority-owned business to do the job. My wife pointed out that this was not so. I’m afraid my heroic mental image of Joe overwhelmed my usually accurate memory cells.]

The next election cycle, Joe recruited a black candidate, Dr. John Vaughans, for the other Maywood-connected seat on the school board. They campaigned together in the next election and both won. Two mavericks on the seven-member board did not work a miraculous change. But it was a start.

Joe believed in the American ideal of equality, and he could see that African Americans consistently got the short end of the stick. That did not make him a liberal. When teachers went on strike, Joe took a hard line in defense of taxpayers. 

He was a tough negotiator. He made sure there were pitchers of cold water at the negotiating table, but he abstained from drinking any. Bargaining sessions could hinge on the relative bladder strengths of the negotiators. Joe’s frequent line was, “Wait a minute. We can always take a recess later, but why don’t take a few extra minutes right now and hash this out? Nobody leaves the table till we settle this point.”

In later years, after retiring from the school board, he was appointed to Maywood’s human relations commission. The work often involved mediating conflicts of view between the city’s white and black residents. He poured all his patience, skill, and goodwill into it.

#

We were driving around one day, and Joe stopped to point out a rather ordinary-looking playground on a patch of land in South Maywood. “That was a vacant lot,” he said. “The city owned it. It was just doing nothing, no good for anybody. I thought it would be good if were a playground. A lot of kids in this neighborhood could use it. I started mentioning it to people, but it still took twenty years before we got it.” 

“Why so long?”

“Inertia.” Joe snorted derisively at the memory of inertia-bound bird-brains in city hall. “Nobody wanted to do something new, unless they themselves got something out of it. You know how we finally got it done? We suggested the playground be named after the guy that was the biggest obstacle standing in the way. So there it is, the Alderman Doakes Playground.”

I let out a sigh.

“It proves you can do something, if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

#

In his public persona, Joe Nelson was by turns cunning, stubborn, and ingratiating. His incredible versatility brought to the fore whatever strengths were needed at the moment. 

But what bound me to him, what made me love and admire him, what it was about him that helped inform my own slowly maturing character, was most observable in private moments. 

Joe had not an ungenerous bone in his body. He regarded opponents as unfortunate, misguided people whose perspective might yet be transformed if he kept on patiently presenting the truth, as he so clearly saw it, to them. He called this “planting seeds.” In all the times I saw him arguing political or other points with people, including myself, I never saw him give way to anger. 

His opponents got angry. Furious, even. Joe would smile, wink, and repeat their own points back to them, stripped down to their absurd essentials. He never left an argument untended. If his opponent walked out on him, he considered the conversation unfinished—an investigation to be resumed at leisure.

His and Elsa’s only child, Joelle, was the apple of their eye. Anything that was theirs was hers, automatically, without question. When I became her husband, anything that was theirs was mine also, because I was part of her and part of them.

I did not understand this. How could people be that giving? In my own family, gifts were stintingly given. We tended to operate on a presumption of scarcity. Joe and Elsa worked on a principle of abundance. There would always be plenty when it was needed, even when there did not seem to be enough to go around. 

I could not accept Joe and Elsa’s open-handed love in a gracious way because nothing had prepared me for it. 

Callow though I was, once I joined the family, I was theirs and they were mine. The price of my inclusion was that I had to learn to relax and enjoy it. 

It took me years.

#

Joe and Elsa made a buy-sell agreement with their print shop foreman, and they retired to a house on a wooded hill near Dodgeville, Wisconsin. 

Retirement was harder on him than on her. He poured his prodigious energies into building and improving the house and property. He took up skiing, eventually breaking his leg on a cross-country trail. 

Joe in retirement, at the hill in Dodgeville.

Little ailments began to creep up on him. A couple of larger ills—a serious bout of diverticulitis and a small stroke—made him an invalid, much against his will. You might say they reduced him to an invalid. He became smaller, suddenly, involuntarily.

He had no gift for inactivity, much less for being dependent on others. He rallied, for a while, but the second stroke killed him. 

He lay in a bed in the Dodgeville hospital looking up at us, unable to speak. He summoned all his powers to utter the single word, “Why?” We had no answer. 

Most people uttering that monosyllable would have been saying, “Why me? Why did this have to happen?” Something of that sort. 

But you had to know Joe. He was a realist. I am confident his final “Why?” meant, “Why not face the facts? It’s over. Why prolong it?” 

He tried to pull the IV tubes out of his arm. Although he did not succeed, he died a day or two later anyway, sometime in the fall of 1987.

He had run a good race. 

At 42, I was still a mixed-up youth. But I had learned a lot about life just by knowing Joe.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

6 thoughts on “The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met

  1. The stuff of movies and great books. What a great biography, and well-written. What a lucky man you are to have known him. Seems like his life taught boundless lessons.

  2. Larry,
    I love this profile of your father-in-law. What a man he was. And I like the way you chose to introduce him to us. “An equal opportunity annoyer” who did “something to make you love him,” and was “a conservative, not a fool.” Great writing. Great story. Great man.

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Brilliant New Content Under Construction

Thanks for your faithfulness, Dear Reader. Due to the crush of circumstances, Your New Favorite Author needs a week off from blog posts.

Tune in here next Tuesday, September 20. I think there will be something special in this space.

Meanwhile, here is a Bluebird of Happiness for you to enjoy.

Eastern bluebird. Photo by Ken Thomas. Public Domain.

2 thoughts on “Brilliant New Content Under Construction

  1. Rest and renew, Larry.

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A Happy Medium

Last week Dan Blank posted an article I’m still trying to wrap my head around. It was about physical media.

His piece begins with an observation: Not long ago, people read physical books, magazines, and newspapers in all kinds of situations, such as when riding the subway; but today, it’s easier to open your phone, access the Web, and grab whatever you want to pay attention to. Just go to Spotify. Or YouTube. Whatever.

Woman reading on couch. Photo by Julia Spranger, licensed under CC BY 3.0

“How people read and listen and watch has evolved a lot in the past decade,” Dan observes. 

That much is obvious. But then, being Dan Blank, he goes off on a different tack. He is not so much concerned with trends of media consumption as dictated by convenience or economics. Dan wants to know how our relationship with media in physical forms—old-fashioned formats, really—affects us in our inner, private existence as human beings. 

“I’ve been thinking about how I can be more intentional in how I experience books, movies, and music,” Dan says. Is it just me, Dear Reader, or does this sound like a thought from outer space?

Only Dan Blank—who does indeed think deeply about such matters—could even formulate that sentence. He goes on to explain that, having eschewed traditional television in his household for many years, he is now setting up a TV room. “It feels old fashioned,” he says, but he’s buying “an immersive experience to lose myself in a movie. To close the shades, turn off the lights, close the door, turn the volume way up, and dive into a film.”

Old TV. Public Domain.

Well: That’s him, and I’m me. 

But it got me wondering how I relate to media in my life. It wouldn’t take a Marshall McLuhan to figure out that Your New Favorite Writer is perhaps a bit . . . eccentric. 

I like a physical book, hardbound or paperback. The ancients entrusted their writings to long, continuous scrolls of papyrus or other materials that had to be unwound with one hand while being rewound with the other. When some genius invented the codex, a stack of rectangular sheets bound along one edge, he or she introduced a device that has lasted ever since. With a codex, very like a modern book, you could easily flip back and forth. You could go back fifty pages to see whether the dagger was mentioned among the items the police found after the murder. 

The modern world was born.

Since that time I have read quite a few books—learning from Peter Drucker, investigating with Dorothy Sayers, and taking the hard falls with Ross Macdonald. There is something about holding a book in my hands, flipping pages, that transports me to a new and exciting place.

With the advent of the mass market paperback, a book became something you could jam into the back pocket of your jeans, get on the bus, and pull out to re-enter the dream world.

When today’s reality (no, thanks) came along, I learned to download e-books and read them on my laptop. But I strongly prefer black ink on white paper, sandwiched between a pair of sturdy covers. 

Now here is my shameful secret, Gentle Reader. Try not to condemn that which you may not understand. Black ink on white paper, or at least the facsimile of same on a laptop screen, is the ONLY way I like to receive information. 

There’s something about my auditory and central nervous systems that makes it hard for me to absorb content by hearing or seeing. I have to READ it. 

This is altogether unlike the stated preference of my high-toned friends who spurn the television news because the New York Times, you know, is so much more accurate and in-depth.

No. This is how it is: If my laptop shows me a TV news story that I can watch as a stream or read as text, I will choose the latter—even if the text is a verbatim transcript of the television clip. If there’s only a TV stream, unaccompanied by written text, I’ll find a different source that does have written text. As Heinlein’s famous Martian would say, I can grok it in its fullness only if it’s in print.

I remember, as a child and even as a young adult, going to see movies in the cinema and enjoying them greatly. It’s a long time since I’ve had that experience. If I want to have it now, I’ll turn on the TV and navigate my way to Turner Classic Movies. That’s because the films they make now are not only too loud, they go too fast for me to understand. 

Partly that’s because of my hearing impairment, but that’s not the whole story.

No matter how fast people talk, I hear slow. I also see slow. I can’t follow the thread of a TV commercial because of the quick cuts. They can present an entire opera in thirty seconds, but I’ll be caught off guard when the fat lady sings.

These effects have increased as I age. It’s gotten to where there’s virtually no point in hearing or seeing anything. 

Just give me a book and a quiet corner. I’ll be happy.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

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Chaos Aforethought

I stagger through a dystopian world. 

It is bizarre. 

Disorienting. 

Post-Apocalyptic.

#

The bread is where the Cheerios used to be. The coffee and tea have moved one lane over, down at the far end on the wrong side of the aisle. Canned soups are usurping the spot where only last week Nabisco Premium Saltines reigned supreme.

Ramen, ramen, wherefore art thou ramen? Photo by Takeaway, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Shoppers, desperate for dinner, lurch from shelf to shelf, grimly focused on survival. A woman shoving her cart along a cross aisle is blind-sided at an intersection by a man trundling a load too high to see over, his face gripped by a manic rictus of obsession. 

Oh, the humanity.

She shakes off the impact to her T-boned shopping cart and charges forward, hell-bent to complete her mission.

I have asked three red-smocked workers where I might find the pudding. The first of them said, “Who knows? I’m as stumped as you are.” The second simply gave me a blank stare. The third whipped out a printed map of the new arrangement and shouted, “Aisle Three!” 

I pushed my cart to Aisle Three, where hung tranches and troves of plastic pudding cups for kids’ lunches. Angst. How can I go back and tell the red smockers I’m looking for pudding powder that comes in a little cardboard box, that you mix up yourself?

Fundamental Questions On the Order of the Universe

They have re-stocked our supermarket, putting everything on the wrong shelves. Why overturn a system that has worked well for months, if not years? 

How can They do this to us? Who is this monstrous They (Pronouns: We / Us / We’ve Got You Where We Want You, Little Consuming Worm)?

Who are these godlike beings with the power, and apparently the authority, to wreak blind havoc in people’s lives?

Dammit, Jim, there are lives at stake here!

Sanity Asserts Itself 

When you are mired down in bottomless confusion, there’s nobody like my old friend Milo Bung to set you straight.

Sure enough, here he comes, pushing one of those pint-sized carts, whistling.

“Milo! I haven’t seen you since the start of covid.” 

“Oh, that,” he says, as if the global pandemic were already decades in the rearview mirror. “How have you been?”

“Well, all right, I guess. Until now.”

“Why? What’s the problem?”

“What’s the problem? What’s the problem!” I cry. “Have you not noticed that nothing is where it should be?”

“That’s a hum-dinger, ain’t it?” Milo chuckles. “I couldn’t find the ramen noodles, so I picked up some light bulbs instead.”

“Light bulbs?” 

“It’s what was there,” he says. Five boxy cartons of regular bulbs top his cart, plus a four-foot fluorescent tube. “You never know when something will burn out.”

I snicker. “Next time you need a quick lunch you can munch on some 75-watt Soft Whites.” 

“Naw,” says Milo. “Thought instead of ramen I’d pick up a little peanut butter. Look, it’s right here.”

“Swell. Now if I could only find pudding.” 

“Pudding? Aisle Three.” 

“No, that’s the kind in little cups. I want the chocolaty powder in little boxes.” 

Milo furls his brow. Then it unfurls. “Go ask a store employee where to find the Jell-O.”

“Where to find the Jell-O.”

“Sure. The pudding will be right beside it.”

#

A red smocker told me the Jell-O would be in Aisle Seven. And it was.

The pudding was right beside it.

I hate when Milo is right.

I bought sixteen boxes.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

6 thoughts on “Chaos Aforethought

  1. LOL! I think my hubby was in that store the same day you were. Came home grumbling and without half the items on the grocery list. I finally get him used to using the shared e-list on our phones, and now he can’t find the damn items because the store has played Fruit Basket Upset but with the entire inventory.

  2. Clearly, you should have quoted Spock instead of Bones. It’s only logical.

    • You don’t agree there are LIVES AT STAKE?

      • Just so, Number Two. Yet, consider the dire consequences should Scottie discover that the Dilithium Crystals have been moved to a bottom shelf in the Sundries aisle, next to the Seasonal Items. What then? I ask with an arched brow.

  3. Arched brow . . . Aha, Acting!

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Publication Day

THE BOOK IS HERE!

Screen grab from video taken when my ship came in.

Today—August 23, 2022—is the official publication date of my historical novel, Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, from DX Varos Publishing.

I say “official” because many friends who pre-ordered the book have already received their copies, several days before the official date. I know this is so. They send me emails or Facebook comments, rejoicing that their book has arrived. Some even attach a photo of the book cover—as if to offer proof!

This, in turn, makes me rejoice. They are doing this because they are my friends. 

Friends, Not Subjects

They don’t see me as a Big Deal Author, seated on some Olympian cloud bank, cultivating grandeur while a personal assistant screens all messages. 

My friends don’t see me as a remote, magisterial figure, because I’m not. They understand how fallible I am, and they love me anyway.

My friends are real friends. I know them and they know me. 

It thrills me that they invest themselves in my literary success just because it’s something I have set out to do. It’s important to me, so naturally it’s important to them. They become willing co-conspirators in this challenge of entertaining readers with an enlarged historical perspective. 

God bless them all. Everybody should have such friends.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

10 thoughts on “Publication Day

  1. Proud to be your friend! I must confess. Ellen snapped up the book and got a head start on me!

  2. Enjoy your day!

  3. I have a package at the regional facility in Denver. I’m assuming it’s THE book! Proud of you, Larry, and looking forward to a good read.

  4. Way to go, Larry! This is a huge achievement. Congratulations!

  5. Well done, Larry! This is an exciting day.

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Hail! Hail! The Gang’s All Here

Bradford High School

Saturday I attended the 60-year reunion of the Mary D. Bradford High School Class of 1962.

It was a great time. 

I lived in Kenosha, Wisconsin, only a few years, from 1957 to 1962. I arrived as an eighth-grader at Lincoln Junior High. So my friendships among high school classmates were not of the kind that went all the way back to first grade.

But one of the things you learn when you are old, Dear Reader, is that it’s always great to gather with friends you have known for more than half a century. Even if you hardly knew someone way back then, you have so much in common sixty years later! So, at a reunion you can bond closely with someone you hardly knew in days of yore. 

It’s hard to explain, but mere propinquity (as Zelda Gilroy would say) six decades ago can cement a relationship in the here and now.

Our class started with 831 freshpersons and graduated 537 seniors. In those days, there was a lot of attrition. 

At least 147 of our 537 graduates have passed on—a frightful toll, considering that we are only in our late 70s. Of the remaining 390, some are now in poor health, while others live at a great distance. 

Among the 75 classmates who showed up for this year’s reunion, there were many whom I remembered, and who remembered me. None of them were especially good buddies sixty years ago—but they were long-lost pals now!

Wayne Blackmon was there, who used to sing a very suggestive verion of the innocent 1920s song, “Does Your Mother Know You’re Out, Cecilia?” I exchanged greetings with Armand Mattarese, our legendary quarterback, who also shared a beachfront beer-and-bonfire bash with me and a few nice girls on our graduation night. 

Rose Marie Pellegrino, who used to be one of the real spark-plugs of our class, spoke with me of the books she likes to read. She commended Louise Penny’s mysteries to my attention, and I mentioned to her Romain Gary’s excellent 1961 memoir, Promise At Dawn.

I learned of the lives, the trials and triumphs of classmates Sandy Zacho and Lucille Turco. Len Iaquinta put in a good word and followed up with an offer to connect me with a Southeast Wisconsin podcaster. Abby Cohen Schmelling was fascinated to hear I had written a novel based on my family’s genealogy.

Walter Modjelewski had a wonderful long career in the metal castings business and is doing great. We exchanged health info. “I take nothing,” he said. I’m in awe. I think I’m healthy, but I depend on three or four regular pills.

Joyce Sawicki, a beautiful girl then, is still a knockout–and a caring friend.

Some of my Class of ’62 friends even knew about my forthcoming book, said they had pre-ordered it, and wished me good luck. 

But selling books was not the main point of the exercise. Mainly, I was just glad to learn I was not the only survivor.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

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EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!

All Hands On Deck.

If you’re at all like me, Dear Reader, you want people to know and appreciate the work you do.

More than six years ago, I set out to become a serious writer. If you read this blog regularly, you already know about the ups and downs, the travails and triumphs, of that journey.

A big victory is scheduled for eleven days from now, when my debut historical novel, Price of Passage: A Tale of Immigration and Liberation, will be published. 

It’s hard to express how gratifying that will be. 

Me, an author. Who’d a thunk it?

But that’s only the beginning. 

The Dirty Details

Publishing, Gentle Reader, is a business. It relies on income from books sold to make it all worthwhile. My publisher—Noble Creature though he is!—did not get into it solely for cheap thrills. He is looking to make a profit.

“Profit” is a word that a novice book writer is not justified in breathing. Only established authors, represented by New York agents and published by the Big Four, dare hope to make enough in royalties to cover the cost of incidental writing expenses (conferences and such), let alone repay the time and effort they put into their work. 

Lion. Photo by Kevin Pluck, licensed under CC BY 2.0

I do not fall into the Stephen King category. So you might say this “Literary Lion” thing is a mere ego trip. You might even say that my book, though published under a traditional contract by a traditional publisher, is essentially, in some way, a vanity proposition.

The Pitch

So here’s the deal, Friend: I need your help to make Price of Passage a wildly successful book. Don’t just buy and read it yourself, but also please mention it to every intelligent reader you know. If they enjoy historical fiction, this is an excellent specimen. If they never read historical fiction, this is their perfect introduction to the beauty, and the value, of the genre.

Besides simple word of mouth, I need your help in finding book clubs, book stores, and libraries where I might make a presentation and perhaps sell a few books. I am based in Madison, Wisconsin, but can travel under the right circumstances. Or I can use Zoom to make presentations to distant groups.

In short, Fair Reader, I want you as a willing co-conspirator. I have a newsletter for co-conspirators. It’s called The Haphazard Times because it comes out on no regular schedule—only when there’s important news to pass on. Consider it the official club organ. The Haphazard Times is where you’ll find upcoming events, marching orders, secret codes, etc. It will help you be a good co-conspirator.

Fill out the orange box at the top of this page, and then reply to the confirmation email which will be sent to you. That way you’ll be in on all the fun of a Major Literary Campaign. As a bonus, you’ll receive Steam, Sparks, and Iron—a brief, bite-sized look at a nineteenth-century explosion of new technologies that impacted the characters in Price of Passage

Do it now. 

Thanks for your help.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

4 thoughts on “EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT!

  1. I believe in supporting my fellow authors. I don’t have a large following, but I’ll definitely mention your website and book to others.

  2. You might want to check out the latest issue of the Isthmus. They have a feature article on Steven Wright, UW professor and ascending novelist. He might find Price of Passage intriguing.

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Rome, Rome, Wherefore Art Thou Rome?

All roads lead here, they say.

And I guess it’s true. We stayed a few days in Croatia, Slovenia, and Trieste; a few more days in Venice, a grand old city that’s been falling apart for a thousand years; and then a week at an agriturismo villa in the Tuscan hills. These sojourns gave rich experiences to the grandchildren.

But eventually, we came to Rome. We arrived by train at Roma Termini, one of the world’s great railroad stations. The Number One Great Thing about Termini is getting out of it and finding your way to a cool hotel lobby. 

I already like the Hotel dei Borgognoni—Hotel of the Burgundians! It’s in the heart of Rome, halfway between Trevi Fountain and the Spanish Steps. Its claim to four stars is, one may say, aspirational; but it is a pretty good hotel. The people are friendly, and there is a nice family restaurant nearby.

When we checked in on August 6, the desk clerk noticed from our passports that it was Elsie’s thirteenth birthday. A congratulatory fruit basket appeared in the kids’ room, compliments of the house. It was a nice touch—the kind of thing doting grandparents will not soon forget.

An hour after check-in, we were off on a pre-arranged tour of the Colosseum and the Roman Forum. Virginia, our guide, knew her stuff, but when her planned route led up a long, steep street paved by the ancients with jagged, irregular flagstones, we dropped out. 

Arch of Constantine. Photo by David Jones, licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Virginia went on, escorting Katie, Elsie, and Tristan, while Joelle and I waited by the Arch of Constantine to be picked up and returned to our hotel. Joelle found us a leaning post by a brick wall. The afternoon sun beat down.  

I went scouting for water. Three hundred meters down the street, a vendor held out a bag of half-liter water bottles. 

“How much?” I asked.

“On bottle—two Euro,” said the vendor.

“Give me two. No, three.” 

“Why don’t you just buy out my stock?” He opened his bag to show there were four bottles left.

I bought them all, and he threw in the plastic bag. As I limped back with my prize to where Joelle waited, I saw another man selling water fifty feet from where she stood. No doubt he had been there all along. Blinded by my belief that water was far away, I must have walked right past him. 

While we waited for a ride, Rome entertained us. Bridal parties descended from black cars to get photos made with the Colosseum as background. A fashionable couple strode by, restraining a matched pair of sleek, hungry-looking, yellow-eyed wolf dogs on leashes—descendants, perhaps of the she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus.  

Overhead, a lone peregrine falcon patrolled.

This place was not built in a day.

Nor can it be fully explored in less than a month or two. We merely hoped to give the children a quick introduction. 

Our desk clerk assured us that everything in Rome is still where it was the last time. 

Trevi Fountain. Photo by David Iliff, licensed under CC BY 3.0.

So yesterday we all walked to Trevi Fountain. It spouts streams of water amid statues of hippocamps and Greek water deities. People throng the piazza and toss coins into the swirling waters. At mid-morning, it was already gosh awful hot—we are gripped by the fiercest and longest heat wave in Europe’s memory. Just viewing the fountain was so enervating that we all had to stop for gelati.

Then, on to the Spanish Steps—a monumental staircase of 135 steps in the middle of Rome. The kids ran up the steps; we took the elevator from the Metro station at street level. Then we all went on to enjoy the large park and gardens at the Villa Borghese.

Spanish Steps. Photo by Arnaud 25, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

But the day’s highlight was a train/bus trip to the pleasant suburb of Frascati. There, mentored by a young chef named Nico, we made and cooked fresh pasta. Kids and adults enjoyed making, cooking, and eating the noodles, with typical Italian sauces. For growups, there were also some nice wines.

At last we had found an excursion that did not tax our capabilities.

Do as the locals do.

When our train rolled into Termini around nine o’clock, the Metro station was closed. So we took a cab home. It turned out to be a gypsy cab, a wildcat operation not licensed for the trade.

“The Hotel Dei Borgognoni,” I said.

“Oh, Borgognoni. Center of city?”

“Si.”

“I take you there, thirty Euro.” 

Not a bad price. I nodded.

He led us across Via Giovanni Giolitti to his van. A young woman sat at the wheel, revving the engine. She could have been his daughter but might have been his wife.

When he told the young woman “Hotel Borgognoni,” she shot him a bewildered look. The man climbed into the front passenger seat, with us in the capacious rear seats. Off we shot through the serpentine streets of a perplexing city.

The man and the woman consulted, argued. She turned this way and that. After twenty minutes, we stopped in a brightly-lit street, sidewalk restaurants lining both sides.

“Here,” the man said. “Borgognona.” He motioned for us to get out.

“No.” I shook my head vehemently. “This is not it.”

He waved his hand. “Here. Via Borgognona.”

“Not Via Borgognona. Hotel dei Borgognoni.” 

Katie chimed in. “It’s on Via del Bufalo.”

Hotel dei Borognoni.

Doubt crept into the man’s expression. “Hotel? Hotel Borgognona?”

The young woman at the wheel consulted her smart phone. Her face brightened. She looked up from the phone. “Hotel dei Borgognoni?” 

I nodded vigorously.

She showed me the screen—a glowing picture of the front door of our hotel.

“That’s it!” I cried.

She smiled and put it back in gear. After ten more minutes of narrow streets and alleys, we ground to a stop. “Here,” the man said, waving outside the cab. “Hotel Borgognoni.” 

Nothing looked familiar. In the back seat, Katie stared at her little phone screen and nodded. “Yeah, this is it.”

We got out, I gave the guy his thirty Euros. We hoofed our way a block through a deserted street, turned a corner, and there we were. Home at last.

Thus did we survive an amusing travel anecdote of the old style. 

Today, after our morning tour of the Vatican was over, Katie called us an Uber to get back to the hotel. Perfectly satisfactory it was. But not much drama, if you ask me.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite (Travel) Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

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Lollygagging

My keyboard rests on a glass tabletop, on a sunny balcony overlooking the Gulf of Trieste.

Across the Riva del Mandracchio from our hotel stands an old administrative building, the Molo Bersaglieri. It occupies the pier where cruise ships dock.

Trieste sunset. Larry Sommers photo.

There were two liners when we checked in yesterday, one each side of the pier, their tall hulks spoiling the view of the harbor. But both steamed out at five, civilized guests, well-versed on when to leave. 

Since then, we can see the sea, out to the horizon. That horizon is lost in afternoon shimmer as all Europe smothers under a blanket of heat. Global warming? Climate change? Normal fluctuations? Who can say?

Whatever its cause, I don’t mind the heat, because I was a child in downstate Illinois in the Fifties (pre-A/C). Also because I live now in Madison, Wisconsin, where the Ghost of Winter Past and the Ghost of Winter Yet to Come haunt each day from May through October.

Dolce far niente

So I’m happy to sit on the balcony of this luxury hotel, flanked by two honest-to-god Greek pillars, each two stories high and topped by a handsome Ionic capital. With my laptop and a bottle of literary-looking Italian soda pop—La Nostra Gazzosa, quella con il limone sfusato di amalfi—I engage in the splendid Italian pursuit known as il dolce far niente, the sweetness of doing nothing. 

John William Waterhouse (1849-1917), Dolce Far Niente, oil on canvas. Public Domain.

Where I come from, this is called lollygagging. It’s one of those American expressions like rubbernecking, flabbergasted, and bumbershoot; an honest, all-purpose word with no humbug or hokum about it. Still, the Italian rendering is more poetic and less accusatory. Italians know that while a certain amount of doing may be unavoidable, life itself is being. And it takes a mature tranquillity to simply be.

A river runs through it

We have brought our daughter and two grandchildren across the world to experience Italy and, incidentally, to help us celebrate our Golden Wedding Anniversary. Two years late. The trip was scheduled for the summer of 2020, but Something Happened to prevent it. That Same Something was still happening in 2021. But now, That Something’s prefix has changed from pan- to en- . So we are globetrotting again, like almost everyone we know, in a great lemming herd of pent-up travel demand.

The good news: Europe is still here. 

The bad news, Dear Reader, if you choose to see it that way, is that “we are not now that strength which in old days moved earth and heaven.” We, unlike our progeny, have gotten old. 

Škocjan funicular. Photo by Rochester Scouder, licensed under CC BY 2.0

So when we sojourned a few days in Croatia, my wife, Joelle, chose to stay in Zagreb while I accompanied our offspring on a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. She was wiser than I. She would not have well endured the hike over hill and dale, treading shifty duckboards over rushing waters, climbing back up at least three feet for every one foot descended. 

A couple of days later, all five of us visited the Škocjan Caves in Slovenia. Joelle and I should have left it to the kids. We barely survived the climb back up. There’s even a purposebuilt funicular tram provided to lift unhardy travelers through the toughest 150 meters of the ascent. But first you must scale an infinite staircase to reach the foot of the funicular; then, from the top of the funicular, hoist your expiring carcass up another endless flight to regain the visitors’ center.

A helicopter, oxygen tanks, and a crack team of paramedics would have come in handy. 

Was it worth the effort? I would have to say yes. The geological extravaganza, both inside and outside the massive cave in the Istrian karst, was ASTOUNDING. But do yourself a favor and go see it before you get too old. 

Škocjan Caves entrance. Katie Sommers photo, used by permission.

On the Other Hand

Is there no silver lining to this tale of age and incompetence? 

Well, yes, Gentle Reader, there is a silver lining. Or maybe a gold one, judging by its cost.

On previous travels we have used a method I call Rick Steves Lite. We go by train, taking rooms in hotels or pensions near the stations. We have bumped our roller bags over cobbles and trolley tracks in many a city, homing on rooms that provide overnight rest and a cheap pied-à-terre while we explore the environs on foot or by metro. Not quite youth hostels but several cuts below the Ritz. This method has preserved our funds while yielding up many a chuckle over things experienced in some of the Fawlty Towers-style hotels that dot the European landscape. 

For the present safari, however, we asked Vicki, our travel agent friend, to simply line up good European hotels for us. Comfort and convenience were the goal; money, for once, was secondary. Vicki’s Croatian colleague Nicolina booked all hotels for this trip.

So we stayed in the Zagreb Esplanade, one of the grand old hotels of Europe. The Esplanade was built in 1925 as a deluxe oasis for travelers on the Orient Express. Yes, that Orient Express—the one Hercule Poirot is always solving murders on. The train oozes countesses, movie stars, and secretive diplomats. Such folks require high-class digs when they get off the train at an intermediate stop. Zagreb is one such stop, and the Esplanade is high-class digs.

Zagreb Esplanade.

We arrived in the hotel’s driveway by private transfer, a guy driving a Mercedes van from the airport. A squad of uniformed bellmen surrounded us, inhaled our luggage, and exhaled it mysteriously into our rooms. We sat in comfy chairs while a check-in specialist entered our passports and other information in a sleek computer. 

There was a lovely bar, a great dining room with a scrumptious and multifarious morning buffet, and a bistro staffed by enchanting waitresses who served gourmet options for casual dining. 

But the room! Whoever designed it thought of everything and finished it off with Art Deco elegance. The bed was firm; the space, well . . . spacious. The bathroom was nicely sequestered from the sleeping space. The shower rained tropical water down upon your morning self at perfect pitch. 

I would stay in the Esplanade any time.

Ah . . . Italia!

Here in Trieste, Italy, on the eastern ashore of the Adriatic, we are in the Savoy Excelsior Palace Hotel. A pretty fancy name, you must agree. The hotel is in the same class as the Zagreb Espanade but does not have as much of it. Art Deco is replaced by a curious mix of Italianate Rococo and Nondescript Modern. Still, the room is spacious and fully appointed, the hotel sports an army of attentive helpers, and the bartender mixes a good neat Drambuie.

It’s a far cry from the old Hotel Speronari in Milan—before its recent renovation—where you humped your luggage up three or four flights of winding stairs; where the aged manager plied you with a free cappuccino before allowing you to attempt the climb; and where your stomach was jolted awake at four a.m. by overpowering aromas from the bakery next door.

Despite lacking such touches, our first-class hotels are not all bad. I could get used to luxury.

I can hardly wait to see what Nicolina has booked for us in Venice. 

Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 
We are not now that strength which in old days 
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
          —Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “Ulysses”

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite (Travel) Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

6 thoughts on “Lollygagging

  1. What a trip! Excellent!

  2. Enjoy your travels! Thought of you as we drove past Madison yesterday.

    Jim

  3. I loved this post! So glad you are enjoying first-class lodgings after all those grueling adventures. I especially had to laugh at your description of the hotels from your earlier travels as I have many similar memories!

    • Thanks, Julie! We’re finding out that, even with nice digs, travel still has its challenges.

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Tenth of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

Franz Kafka in 1923. Public Domain.

The startling tenth step, Gentle Reader, involves what our old friend Kafka might call “Metamorphosis.” Or even, as our old friend Ovid would have it, “Metamorphoses.” 

Latin poet Ovid. Public Domain.

The difference between the two—one letter—decided the question on a recent Jeopardy! answer.

But I digress.

What I mean is: Signing a book contract—the very definition of success in the literary game—changes you instantly into A New Thing Altogether.

Butterfly and caterpillar. Public Domain.

Let’s Review

As a HUGE FAN of this blog, you must surely have noticed that Your New Favorite Writer did set forth for the benefit of all, in public, beginning 4 August 2020, Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. Those steps were, in order:

Step One—Cut the line. Go ahead and become a literary lion from the start, before you have a speck of achievement to point to.

Step Two—Write. Actually put something down on paper. To be a writer, one must write.

Step Three—Get feedback. Show your work to somebody and consider using their response to help you improve that work.

Step Four—Associate. To soften the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer, you must find your tribe.

Step Five—Submit. You must offer your work to the only judges who really count: Publishers.

Step Six—Build your platform. Gather about you, on social media and elsewhere, an army of friends who will help you sell your book.

In outlining these six steps, I cautioned repeatedly that although they are simple, they are not easy. Each step requires courage, cunning, and purity of purpose. If they were easy, everyone would be J. K. Rowling, or maybe Barbara Cartland.

Having set forth the Six Simple Steps, I smiled with satisfaction, knowing I had done a good work—even though I, myself, had as yet no published book to my name. 

As to that . . .

. . . the beast remained elusive. Having applied the Six Simple Steps to my own case, I began to come close to publication. I could smell it. I could amost taste it.

I was offered a contract on my debut historical novel, but had to turn it down! Can you believe that? It was gut-wrenching. But this turned out to be a necessary first step to getting a good, fair contract with a publisher I could work with. 

It was my good fortune that a couple of publishers who did not want to publish my novel took the time to write very helpful notes of rejection. Ever note, Dear Reader: A helpful rejection is better than a harmful acceptance.

I added a Seventh Step to the Six Simple Steps. Step Seven was the same as Step Two: Write. Or to put it more precisely, Rewrite. The two explanatory rejections told me that the book wasn’t good enough yet. This was a hard pill to swallow, but as Donald Maass observed, “At some point attention must be paid to the writing.”

Steps Eight and Nine were just like Step Seven, only more so. Write, write, write. I plunged in and spent a year rewriting the book, from tooth to tail with the help of stellar book coach Christine De Smet. 

This rewrite was radical. It gave me, at last, a book worth publishing. One of my two rejectors agreed to look at it again, and bought it.

The Next Step

This brings us back to where we started, and my discovery of Step Ten in the Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood. You may as well prepare for it now, as it involves metamorphosis.

The instant you sign a book publication contract, you change from a writer into a salesman. All your waking thoughts are questions you never asked yourself before. How can I maximize pre-publication sales? Where are book clubs that would like to read my book? How can I get a celebrity to interview me? Do I need to buy a weather-proof canopy for outdoor book fairs? How does that Square thing work? Should I wear an ascot to signings, or just my regular bib overalls? 

I kid you not.

It’s no good saying, “It won’t happen to me. I’ll remain an artist, above the fray.” No. You will not find that possible.

It’s no good cursing the book industry for forcing you into this commercial role. The publisher did not do it to you. The bookstores did not do it to you. You volunteered by hard, persistent  literary work. You did it to yourself.

To begin with, you wrote the damn thing. You poured yourself into it, day by day, for years. You wrote, you rewrote, you cut the line, you got feedback, you found your tribe, you hammered away at your platform. And you kept writing. 

By the time you had a book good enough to attract somebody’s notice, you were so deeply involved that you could not bear to think that nobody, or only a few loyal friends, would read it.

You can’t help wanting more. If you don’t get at least a respectable level of sales, you’ll be disappointed. So you plunge into the prospecting, the interviewing, the personal appearances, the social media, and hope for a light at the end of the tunnel.

A good friend of mine—a wonderful author with a powerful book—got so absorbed in the commercial end of things that he didn’t write a word of new material for two years. He’s writing again now, but he says it’s like pulling teeth to get started again.

I count myself lucky. I’m still writing a bit of new material, in the odd moments. 

But don’t think I’m not absorbed in my new occupation of selling books. I just can’t help myself.

By the way, there’s still time for you to pre-order Price of Passage at a 30 percent discount. Just go to https://www.dxvaros.com/price-of-passage-preorders. But don’t delay. After 22 August, the price is full retail ($19.95 paperback; $4.99 e-book). 

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers, Your New Favorite Writer

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

4 thoughts on “Tenth of Six Simple Steps to Literary Lionhood

  1. Ordered mine the other night. Think the local library will also.

  2. A helpful reality check or list for writers, Larry. Thank you! While this might seem daunting to some–and it is a lot of time and work, true–it’s good for writers to remember the value of writing friends who help with the journey, too. You have many new and continuing friends who are going to review your book, show up at your first book signing event and buy your book, share the news, and so on. You’ve been present on Facebook and through your blog over the course of many months. And you’re sincere. You’re always just being yourself. Maybe that’s the best formula for book writing and selling happiness overall–just be yourself and let everything unfold from there. Thanks for being you! Can’t wait to buy your book!

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