Sputnik–A Remembrance

Sixty-five years ago today, the Russians fired Sputnik into the October sky.

Sputnik. NASA photo. Public Domain.

Of all people to kick off the Space Age—the Russians!

“Humiliation” does not capture the angst of a twelve-year-old American boy, which is what I was at the time. 

“Disaster” would be closer. 

Some adults may have been startled that humans had flung a projectile into space—a basketball-sized object that immediately took up a patrol of the heavens, blinking and beeping its way across the sky once every ninety-six minutes.

No twelve-year-old boy—as I was, at the time—batted an eyelash at the fact of space travel. Robert Heinlein, Lester Del Rey, and other fiction writers had conditioned us to expect it with confidence. But it was to have been done by Americans.

That the Russians launched the satellite was wrong on four counts. 

First of all, the Russians were Bad Guys. They were communist dictators. They mocked everything we, the Free World, stood for. They tried to undermine us. They were evil.

Second, everybody knew the Russians could not invent anything. A-bombs and H-bombs, they had acquired by trickery. Spies like the Rosenbergs had given them our secrets. Virtually all  goods in Russia—cars, airplanes, telephones—were copies of American models.

Third, since Russia was our enemy in a colossal struggle for world power, having their hardware pass over the United States sixteen times a day raised the specter of a surprise attack from outer space—maybe in the near future. This was a big-time worry for Pentagon planners.

My Own Nemesis

The fourth consideration was peculiar to me. Sputnik arrived on a day that was already my downfall. We were moving from Streator, Illinois (population 17,500), to Kenosha, Wisconsin. Kenosha was a much larger city: It was industrial, foreign, and most of all, it was not Streator, where I had oodles of friends. 

I was hardly in a mood to understand the great advantages of my father’s upward job change. 

On Saturday morning, October 5, the one appliance that had not been packed in the moving van was a small table radio. Mom was about to unplug it to put in the car with the other odds and ends when the CBS Radio News announced the launching of Sputnik. They even played a recording of the new satellite’s strange, plaintive beep. 

That beep signaled that not only had my parents betrayed me by uprooting me from my accustomed home, but the treacherous Russians were piling on. The failure of America’s Vanguard rocket a few months later only added to the misery.

#

Now that it’s sixty-five years past, I’ve learned to be philosophical about it. I even have some good memories of Kenosha. But the emotions of a star-struck young lad still resonate after all those years.

I hope all your orbits, Gentle Reader, will be happy ones.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Mountain Climbing

I started to climb a mountain, but I did not know how high it was. 

Denali. National Park Service photo by Albert Herring. Public Domain.

I wrote a story when I was in third grade. I’ve always been good at words, at ease with grammar, fascinated by the process of converting thoughts into sentences.

When young I thought it would be swell to be a writer. I made a few attempts at writing novels and short stories, but do you know what? 

It was too hard. I moved on to something else.

Besides, there was life to be lived. There was a war. There was college. There was marriage. There was a child. There were dogs—an endless parade of dogs, down to the present day.

At length, I ran out of excuses.

#

I began to look again at writing a novel. I’m a talented writer. How hard could it be?

At first it was great fun, tramping steadily uphill, writing page after page, chapter after chapter. 

Then, it was challenging—revising, rewriting, and refining those early drafts. 

I finished the book and rejoiced. That hadn’t been so hard after all. The mountain was only a hill. 

#

But I wanted it published. I wanted a traditional, royalty-paying publication contract from a traditional, royalty-paying publisher. How hard could it be? 

I sent it to agents. I sent it to independent publishers.

No agents responded. One independent publisher offered a contract; but it was a poor contract, and the publisher’s emails put me off. I turned it down.

Two more publishers agreed to read my full manuscript. Both of them sent back polite rejections, each with two or three sentences of what was wrong with the book. Triangulating their comments, I achieved a sudden, shattering insight. 

My book was not good enough. 

The mountain was higher than I thought.

#

I could see a way the book might be improved to meet the objections of the two publishers who had given me comments. But it would require another year or more of work, because the story had to be completely rewritten, turned inside out, major sections added and formerly important material subtracted.

I was not sure I could do it. An angel (Christine DeSmet) whispered in my ear, “Yes, you can.”

A year later, Dan Willis of DX Varos Publishing bought a vastly improved book.

Finally, it was good enough.

The mountain had been higher than I thought.

#

Why do I tell you this?

Because I learned a lesson, and it is one you might take to heart, whatever personal challenge it is that you are facing. 

The work needs to be really good. You must reach down deep inside yourself and use all your resources. The mountain you must climb is higher, and more difficult, than you could have imagined when you started out.

But the thrill of achievement when you reach the summit is worth every bit of effort and courage that it took. 

Immediately, you are given another mountain to climb: A mountain of publicity and recognition. A mountain of public indifference that must be overcome. 

If the first mountain was worth the climb, so the second mountain will be also.

But higher. 

You will never get to the top if you don’t start.

Blessings,

Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

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

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.

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!)

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!)

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!)

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!)

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!)

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!)