Monday, December 26, 2016

Trending downward

As the year end approaches, I want to put out a positive note about my recent health. In September I had to choose a new primary care physician as my prior one (who was almost as old as I was) decided to retire. At the office I go to there is one MD, several DO's, and a couple of CRNP's. I asked to be assigned to any one who was taking new patients and was assigned to Kathy Kaufman, CRNP, PhD. She's several years younger than I. On our my first visit with her it was obvious that she was going to be quite proactive. She increased the dosage of one of my meds and added another one. With her guidance, I also decided to scrap the fish oil capsules I was taking since they didn't have enough EPA/DHA to do me much good unless I was taking an entire handful of them each day (typical capsules advertise 1000 mg of Omega-3, but only 300 of that 1000 is the stuff you really need) - after some research I have now replaced that with liquid fish oil that I take 3 tsp of each day (1600 mg of Omega-3 includes 1300 mg of the EPA/DHA) so 3 tsp is 3900 mg which is the equivalent of 13 capsules! I was also referred to a 5-session class on managing diabetes.

The results over the past 3 months have been amazing! The items I was "out of line" on have all trended downward:
  • Triglycerides - from 952 to 303! - this is the one measure that I've had the hardest time in controlling. It's still higher than is recommended, but I've never been below 600 in all the times I've had readings taken.
  • A1c - from 8.3 to 6.2 (taking me from officially diabetic back to the pre-diabetic range)
  • Weight - down 7 pounds in 3 months (compared to my loss of 16 pounds in the prior 4 years) - still have a ways to go, but my BMI is now down from the mildly "obese" range to just "over weight" for the first time in several decades.
The pharmacist who works in that office was not going to be in the day of my last appointment, so she called me the day before - just elated with what I've accomplished in such a short period of time.

Obviously, this is a partnership - I've had to do my part in being more consistent in my diet, etc. and my weight/waist has been trending down for the last several years. But with her guidance I've taken things to a new level and have something more to show than just the 4 pounds a year that I was taking off before. My waist is now down a total of 5" since I started on this journey and some mornings I'm using the last hole in my belt.

May things continue in this downward direction!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Genealogy Story – Sisters and Step-sisters

In a blog from early in 2015 ( ) I wrote the story of my great-grandfather, Louis Russell, and what happened after his wife died and he was left with six children. This is a continuation of that story based on new information that I have recently come into possession of.

To recap that story, Louis and his first wife had six children: Erskine (my grandfather), Linus, Loretta, William, Allen (who passed away at a young age), and Martha (who went by her middle name, Pauline). His second wife, Helen, had been married twice before and had a total of five children: Lola, Eva, Iva (twin sister to Eva, passed away at 5 months of age), Marguerite, and an unnamed child who apparently died at birth. Lola, Eva, and Iva were from her first husband, William Pulver, and Marguerite was from her second husband, Lewis Waldron (who was also a 2nd cousin to Louis Russell).

Thus, my grandfather, Erskine, had a total of seven living siblings: two brothers (William and Linus); two sisters (Loretta and Pauline); and three step-sisters (Lola, Eva, and Marguerite – Marguerite being a half-sister to the other two). However, William was raised by a relative in New Milford and only figures marginally into this story, and Linus was affected by mustard gas in WWI and spent the rest of his life in an institution and so is not part of this story either. So this story is about all of Erskine’s various sisters.

When I was growing up, both Loretta and Pauline were part of our life. Aunt Loretta and Uncle George lived about 6-7 miles away in Waterbury and Aunt Pauline and Uncle Harold lived about 5 miles away in Bristol. While we did not visit too often, perhaps once or twice a year, we knew them and their families. I knew about Uncle Bill in New Milford but only remember visiting him once and I had heard about Uncle Linus but he had passed away by then.

However, I never recall ever hearing about Lola, Eva, or Marguerite. And it wasn’t until I started my genealogy research a few years ago that I “discovered” them. My presumption at that time was that since Louis married Helen when they were older that there were few connections between them and Louis’ children.

But this has turned out not to be true. Recently when looking through a newspaper clipping of my mother’s bridal shower I found that Eva and Marguerite were both in attendance at this shower (see ).

Also, I recently was able to meet with a great-granddaughter of Eva and she loaned me some inherited daily journals that Eva had written. For more information on these journals, see other entry right next to this one. In these journals are recorded all the interactions between Eva and her sister Lola and family, her half-sister Marguerite and family, and her two step-sisters Loretta and Pauline and their families. So the extended family turned out to be quite connected – even during the years when I was growing up as the journals extend until 1970 when I was in my early 20’s.

However, while my grandmother Vera is mentioned several times in the early years of the journal when she was still living, my grandfather is only mentioned in January of 1970. And even then, it appears that my Aunt Loretta called Eva on 1/24 and passed along the information that he had had a leg amputated on 1/17 and then died six days later on 1/23. So there was apparently no connection between him and his step-sisters. And apparently, this lack of connection extended to both my father and my mother, as there are no recorded calls/visits to Eva and I do not recall ever hearing about them.

It’s hard to know what caused this lack of connection – and none of the parties are alive to answer my questions. But I’m happy to have rectified that to a certain extent by my visit with Eva’s great-granddaughter, Lauren, and her family recently. Family is still family!

Genealogy Story – Eva’s Journals

When I recently visited my cousin (2nd cousin, once removed), Lauren, in Massachusetts, she loaned me the journals of Eva [Pulver] Peet, her great-grandmother. These journals are an incomplete set. There is one that covers the years 1943 and 1944, and others covering the period 1963-1968 and 1970. The one for 1943-1944 is quite detailed, with entries on nearly every day. In some of the later years they get more and more sparse, with the one for 1970 ending in late January.

Many of the entries list the weather for that date. There are a lot of entries which were evidently taken from the local newspaper – particularly items having to do with births, marriages, and deaths. While most of these entries are about local people in New Milford where Eva lived, there are also a number of celebrity entries – such as the deaths of TV/Movie stars like Bea Bernadette, Elvis Presley, etc.

For most of the folks that Eva knew personally, she only listed first names. So I had to familiarize myself with all her relatives so I would know who she was referring to. But besides relatives, she also listed neighbors and others in the small town of New Milford. Since I didn’t recognize those names, I just have to presume that they were close friends, neighbors, etc.

Particularly in the 1943-1944 diary, I found that Eva listed some family members by nicknames, or at least the names that she called them. Every entry for her son Eldridge was listed as “Buddie”. I was also somewhat confused at first by her references to “Louie”, since that was how my father called his grandfather (and Eva’s step-father), Louis. But after going through a few months of entries, I determined that “Louie” was how she referred to her husband, Luther, and her step-father she referred to as “Dad”. What made it especially difficult to figure out was that Eva’s mother and step-father lived in Waterbury, but her husband Luther had a job in Waterbury as well and he tended to stay there during the week (I found an entry in a 1950 city directory of New Milford that listed Luther as a Foreman in a Waterbury company). So when she said “Louie went back to Waterbury”, that meant that her husband was going to work, but when she said “Dad went back to Waterbury”, that meant that her step-father was going back home. Since her step-father seemed to make a practice of going to New Milford on many weekends, it was quite interesting to get each entry straight.

Buddie had been drafted in 1942, so the 1943-1944 journal listed all the letters she received from him (and when letters were not being received for a while how much she worried). In the later journals he was then living with his mother and so the entries recorded when he was working and when he was home.

Eva lived in close proximity to her half-sister, Marguerite, and they often visited back and forth or took drives together. However, she had little interaction with her older sister, Lola. In fact, there are no references to Lola in any of these journals. In 1944 there was one call made to Lola’s daughter, also named Lola. But there were a few references to Lola’s youngest daughter, Juanita – a visit in 1943, others in 1963 and 1964, her new address in 1965, and a final visit in 1968.

I particularly wanted to record all the interactions that Eva had with other family members – especially her step-siblings. The only reference to my grandfather, Erskine, was in January 1970 when he had his leg amputated and then died a few days later – but this appears to have been based on a phone call from Loretta the following day. The only references to Bill Russell were a visit to his apple orchard in 1965 (although there are other references to getting apples that may have left his name out), and a note about Bill’s wife Mildred being in the hospital in 1967.

But of her step-sisters there are a great number of references. Nearly every year records one or more visits by Loretta and Pauline (often traveling together). On a few occasions they come separately with their husbands (George and Harold respectively). Pauline’s daughter Gertrude came with her on two occasions (1965 and 1968).

In the early years, my grandmother Vera (who was by then long divorced from my grandfather and remarried) also visited/called quite frequently – which made sense since she also lived in New Milford. Once in 1943 she visited with her daughter (my Aunt Dot) and new grandchild (my cousin Carolyn) who was about six months old. But in 1963 my grandmother’s passing is recorded so there are no more references to her.

The other things that I found interesting were some of the daily “trivia” that Eva felt led to record. On a few occasions she noted that she bought a new girdle. Why, of all purchases, this was significant enough to record is an interesting speculation. And in the 1943-1944 journal there are numerous references to the impact of WWII. Besides her son Buddie being deployed, she recorded the process relating to Marguerite’s son Gordon (got his letter on 2/16, took a physical on 2/22, tested and accepted on 2/27, left home on 3/8, shipped out on 3/10, in Camp Shelby (MS) on 3/18, home on furlough 7/29-8/9, deployed on 9/25). Besides recording all the letters she got from Buddie, she also recorded other people getting letters from loved ones – including when the letter was written and when it was finally received (often 2-3 weeks or longer).

Even though there is not written more than a few sentences each day, and many days are blank, it’s been interesting to see the world through someone else’s eyes and imagine what it must have been like for Eva. I’m grateful, not only that she recorded this information for others to see in the future, but for my cousin Lauren for loaning them to me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas 2016

I seem to be writing our Christmas letter a little later each year. I used to have it done by Thanksgiving, then by the first few days of December, and now we’re already into the 2nd week of the month and I’m having to find time to get it together. For those who think that life slows down when you get into the retirement years – think again! I have less time now than I ever did before.

Family – I had noted in last year’s letter that Chris and family had moved to Florida. True to our plans, we made a trip down in early March to stay with them for a week. While their house is small, the grandkids all sleep in the same room so they do have a guest room. But sharing one bathroom with seven people means a little extra scheduling in the morning. The Sunday that we were there we went to church with them. It just happened to be New Member Sunday so we got to witness the entire family being part of it, including Ilyanna who had just completed going through the membership process. We also spent a day at the Central Florida Zoo which is just in the next city. Having a week of 85 degree temps in March is not typical for us, especially since Chris and Pam have chosen to not use any AC. We were glad to get back home to a place that has four seasons.

But this visit may have helped prepare us. In April our heat pump stopped working and we decided to leave it that way for a while. With a few judiciously placed fans we made it all the way to the end of November without heat or AC in the main part of the house. We have a nice in-the-wall AC unit in Kim and Matthew’s area and there is also electric baseboard heat there, so while we take care of the boys during the day we could be comfortable, but we learned to sleep with just a fan at night for the entire summer. It’s now been fixed, at least temporarily, for the winter. But the inside unit is original to the house that we built in 1977. It doesn’t owe us anything, but we’re planning on doing a total replacement one of these days.

There is another housing change coming up next month. The family who have lived across the street from us for the last 25 years will be moving. It’s been increasingly hard for them to keep their family-owned business going with expensive government regulations and competition from online suppliers, so they decided to close the business and move to a second “vacation home” that they have had about two hours north of here. We have also been thinking about Kim and her family – realizing that when we either pass on or need to move to something a bit smaller or more senior-friendly, that they would be left without a place to live as our house would be too much for them to take care of. So we’re in the process of buying the house right across from us and we’ll let Kim and family live there and then leave it to them in our will. The stuff you have to go through to buy a home these days is quite a bit more involved than when we built our home 40 years ago, but closing is scheduled for mid-January.

The home is a 3-bedroom ranch with a fully-finished basement – perfect for their family. It also has an attached two car garage and an above ground swimming pool of the back deck. Since it’s just steps from our house, we can still be involved in helping to raise the boys and taking care of them during the day.

Meanwhile, Ethan is now a 1st grader at Seven Generations Charter School. Isaiah doesn’t make the cutoff, so he won’t start kindergarten until next fall, then Caleb and Asher will be the next two years – it will be nice to have them all gone during the day. It’s pretty hard to get things done around here.

Travels – Since we are tied down a bit with caring for grandchildren we don’t get in much traveling right now.  However, besides our week in Orlando in March and our usual week at Pinebrook in the Poconos with the entire family, we did a little bit this fall.

In September we went to Michigan for the week after Labor Day (taking Isaiah and Caleb with us). It was Donna’s 50th high school reunion, and we also visited all her family who still live in that area. We also stopped to see the “VanDeCar Farm” and got a tour to see all the improvements that the young couple now living there have made in the past few years.

Two weeks later we took a quick weekend to Connecticut for my 50th reunion. Also got a chance to visit with my Aunt Vi. She was the last of my mother’s siblings and has since passed away, so we’re glad that we took the opportunity to visit with her.

For the Thanksgiving long weekend we went to North Carolina to stay with Donna’s brother Bill (taking Ethan and Isaiah with us this time). On Friday and Saturday he was building a new shed for a friend of his and we all helped. The two boys were the “screw carriers,” keeping everyone supplied with appropriate screws. The shed was 12’x14’ with 8’ walls – no small project. But it was great weather and everyone enjoyed themselves.

This past weekend we went to Connecticut again – this time for a reunion with all my siblings, the first time we’ve all been together since my mother’s memorial service 4-1/2 years ago. Donna and I went up early on Friday and took the opportunity to visit with a distant cousin of mine who I recently met online (more on my genealogy below). So we’re not just homebodies!

Genealogy – I’ve been able to build out my family tree quite a bit over the past few years. My research is in two directions. First, doing ancestor research and going back in time. I’ve been pretty successful in this and have traced the Russell name back to its origins in Normandy about 1000 years ago, then several hundred more years following Viking lines (Normandy was conquered by the Vikings in the 900s). Made a lot of interesting discoveries while doing this.

But secondly, I’ve been building out a descendant tree of all the descendants of my great-great-great-grandfather, Silas Russell – trying to find all my living Russell relatives. Doing research that includes living individuals is pretty challenging as you don’t have things like census records to help guide the search (they are not made public until 72 years after the census occurs). But I have made connection with a substantial number of my 3rd and 4th cousins. Last December we visited my 2nd cousin, Robert Russell in Cos Cob, CT just a few months before he passed on at the age of 90. And this past weekend we visited a 2nd cousin in MA who had a collection of diaries that her great-grandmother kept. Her great-grandmother was in attendance at my mother’s bridal shower in 1946.

I blog on a regular basis on a number of topics, including genealogy as well as the history of the town of Wolcott, CT where I grew up (and where most of the families from the town’s history are related to me in one fashion or another). Check out if you’re interested.

Miscellaneous I’ve been continuing my weight loss challenge of doing it slowly and steadily, I’ve taken off another few pounds this past year and I’m now down 5” in my waist since I started. Still a ways to go, but I’m continuing to move in the right direction, and by having all of you as a yearly check-in that gives an extra incentive! But I’m also now battling Type-2 Diabetes and trying to lower my A1C and sugar levels (started daily finger pricks a few months ago). Just completed a 5-session class on managing diabetes that should help (and took Donna with me so she can help out by preparing appropriate meals with fewer carbs). [Breaking news – had a blood test this week and my A1C is down over 2 points and my triglycerides down by 2/3!]

Hoping that all of you are doing well. Now that the elections are “finally” over, and the country may start moving in another direction (one that may be more inviting to Christians) here’s wishing you all a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

.Alan & Donna

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

About Me

Some people have been posting on Facebook recently things that you might not know about them. Since Facebook is so fleeting and things disappear from your newsfeed so quickly, I decided to post this on my blog instead.

In keeping with the most recent sharing of "x" things that you might not know about me:

(1) I scored over 700 on both parts of the SAT as well as all three SAT-II's I took (English, Chemistry, Math) - high was 789 on Math

(2) I didn't have a car until I was in grad school - a new 1970 dodge dart - red with black vinyl top. As an undergrad I was still using the one-speed bike that I bought back in elementary school

(3) I was the class "fairy godmother" for our 12th grade "class night" in high school - my name was "Algonquin Godperson" - got to wear a long gown and mop for a wig (it was a brand new mop head and the lint drove me crazy all night)

(4) I bought an encyclopedia and set of the "Great Books" after college - and read every one of them! (the Great Books that is). (I also often read the encyclopedia just for enjoyment)

(5) I played the flute from 4th grade through and even after college - until a jaw operation left part of my lower lip without feeling and so I lost my embouchure

(6) I've been this tall since 8th grade - I got my growth early and was the only boy that the girls never caught up to (which made me popular for at least a little while)

(7) I'm fanatical about proper spelling and grammar - as my students could all attest on the papers they wrote in my classes

Monday, November 28, 2016

Wolcott History – The Nancy Hall Bible

A recent posting by my fellow Wolcott historian and the president of the Wolcott Historical Society, Florence Goodman, on the Wolcott History website ( detailed their receiving of an old Bible that had belonged to Nancy Hall, a Wolcott resident from nearly 200 years ago. There were a number of points in that article that got my interest, and which related to many of my previous blogs on Wolcott History, so I thought I’d write this as a supplement to that article.

Nancy [Minor] Hall was the wife of Deacon Orrin Hall. She was born in 1798 and he in 1797. Since Wolcott had only been incorporated in 1796, they were two of the earliest babies born in Wolcott after it had been renamed from Farmingbury. As I noted in an earlier blog (*1), Wolcott was not a very large place back then as the population was only 948 people in 1800. Nancy’s family of her parents and eight children would have been over 1% of the entire population of the town!

Because of the size of the town, many people in town were related to each other (and to me) (*2). Nancy was my 3rd cousin (5 times removed) (*3) as she is the great-great-granddaughter of Stephen Upson, my great*7 grandfather (*2). Orrin was also my 3rd cousin (5 times removed) (*4), being the great-great-grandson of Samuel Beecher, another of my great*7 grandfathers (*2). The Upson, Minor, Beecher, and Hall families were all prominent families in the town.

I’ll let you read the article yourself for further details, but the end of the article had two “mysteries” that I’d like to explore further.

The first “mystery” is where Nancy and Orrin attended church. Since the only church in town was the Congregational Church that had been started in 1773 (*1), it would be tempting to give a simple answer. But I always like to have proof for the answers I give. In Samuel Orcutt’s seminal work, The History of Wolcott, one can find the answer. On page 114, Orrin Hall is listed among the small group of men who subscribed to a fund in 1836 to hire a new pastor for the Congregational Church. So Orrin and Nancy would certainly have been members of this church.

The second “mystery” is a little more involved and asks how the Bible ended up in a yard sale in Rhode Island where it was purchased about 40 years ago. Since Nancy’s son, Heman, died six years before Nancy and her daughter, Harriet, never married, this may be a difficult one to solve. However, if the names/dates which are in the Bible can be researched, then we might be able to find who might have made those entries and get a better idea of where it might have gone initially. But without that further information, this will have to remain a mystery for now.


Monday, November 14, 2016

Generational Differences

Last night I saw on Facebook a picture of my niece attending the Trump protest rally in Chicago. While she appears to be demonstrating peacefully (as much as I could ascertain from the picture), others from her generation were not. This started me thinking about the differences between generations, the life experiences that they have, and how that influences their perspectives on events. There are roughly 150 years difference between the oldest people who have been in my life to the youngest. So I’d like to reflect on some of their life experiences.

My Great-grandparents

While I never got to meet any of my great-grandparents, the last of them having passed away about two years before I was born, there was one person from this generation still around. When my father’s parents had divorced, his mother remarried a man 30 years older than she was. So while he was officially my grandfather, by age he was a generation older.

“Bampa” Rogers was born in 1865, just three weeks after the close of the Civil War and only six weeks after the assassination of President Lincoln. He died just before his 94th birthday in 1959, so I had the pleasure of knowing him for the first nearly eleven years of my life. And he was coherent until the very end, living in what we might today call an assisted living home – he had his own room which he took care of, but there was a shared dining room downstairs, a nurse on duty, etc.

As I interacted with him (he was the one who taught me how to play cribbage), I was thrilled to be able to interact with someone who was a link to the Civil War nearly a century before and all that he had experienced in his life. To imagine a life with no automobiles (1886), no electricity (1879), no telephones (1876), and likely no indoor plumbing (only the wealthy had it back then) was something I just could not wrap my head around. He grew up in a time when life was lived at a much slower pace and you could take the time to put things in perspective. I was never sure when interacting with him whether his slower pace was just because of his advanced age, or whether that was the way he learned to be. He had also been a watchmaker by trade, taking apart watches, repairing, and putting them back together (they were all mechanical devices, many/most of them pocket watches instead of wristwatches), so his slow and deliberate movements would also have been an asset in that type of work.

I suppose his slowness was a mix of all those reasons. But whatever the reason, he was a product of his age – and one far removed from my own. I was only a young boy back then, and one who was taught to be very respectful of my elders, so I didn’t question him about his past. But if I had a chance to go back and talk to him, knowing what I do now, I would relish that opportunity to learn how he grew up and what his perspective on life was. Also, I’d love to ask him how he felt as the various “new-fangled” things like automobiles and electricity came along.

My Grandparents

With the exception of Bampa Rogers, my other grandparents were born in the last decade or so of the 1800s (1885-1898). So while things like electricity and automobiles had been invented and they would have been aware of them, I suspect that they did not have such things in their families until they were a bit older. And even then, use of such technology was much more limited in scope. Electricity was only used for lighting. My grandparents’ house probably only had 40 amp service and the fuse box only had four fuses (circuit breakers for residential use were not available until after 1935). Those who had automobiles had to share the road with horse-drawn carriages/wagons, most roads were not paved until decades later (I know that the first road in my hometown to be paved was not until 1935).

Other things that we now take for granted were also many years off. Schools were very local and you walked to/from school (the first steel-bodied school bus was not produced until 1930). Education for most people stopped after 8th grade. All my grandparents attended one-room schools, and stopped going to school either after 8th grade or 9th grade. This meant that they were all either working or full-time help around the house by the age of 15-16.

The next major event in their lives would have been World War I, which began when they were teenagers. Although none of my grandparents served in that war, many of their friends did. And with communication technology being what it was, that meant that you might only hear from those overseas very seldom, so reading the headlines in the local paper would have been the primary way to keep up with that going on in Europe. My father’s parents married in June of 1914, one month before the war began. My mother’s parents married in March of 1919, four months after the war ended. So that war played a major role in their lives.

Following WWI, there was a brief respite. During these years my grandparents were having and raising their families. But not too long after the Great Depression (1929-1939) would have impacted them. I’ll refer to this more when I write about the next generation, but it obviously affected anyone living in the US at that time.

I would characterize my grandparents’ time as one of significant change. They experienced first-hand the impact of things like the introduction of electricity and the automobile, the more wide-spread availability of education, but also the devastation of a world war and the Great Depression.

I interacted with them all throughout my growing up years until their passing away (they all passed on in the period between 1963 and 1979). But they were still a product of their time. They lived in older houses that had electricity, but no air conditioning, and the heat was from a coal furnace in the basement and a grate in the floor to let the hot air rise into the house. They had a single car, but never drove very far or very often. They stayed with the same jobs for most of the lives (my mother’s father was a milkman for his cousin’s dairy farm, then in later years a clerk in a plumbing fixture store, my father’s father was a blue-collar worker, then in later years a night watchman).

My Parents and their Siblings

My father’s parents were a few years older than my mother’s parents. So my father’s sister and he were born in 1916 and 1920 respectively. My mother came from a larger family with children being born in 1920, 1922, 1924, 1926, and 1929 (she was the one in the middle). So, except for my father’s sister, they were all born in the “quiet period” after WWI but before the Great Depression. They grew up with automobiles, indoor plumbing, telephones, and other amenities. The elementary school they attended had multiple rooms, but was still just walking distance away. But they also all attended and graduated from high school – for most meaning a bus ride into the city center.

They all lived through the depression, although several of them have said that when everyone around you is also poor, you don’t really notice it. But then the event that finally caused the depression to end after ten years was WWII. My father’s sister, being the oldest of this group, had married toward the end of 1938, less than a year before the war broke out in Europe. All the others, either just ending their high school times or younger, were delayed in their marriages. All the men served in the armed forces, most in the army, but my father in the navy.

The war ended in 1945, but it was several month before they all came home – either from Europe or from the South Pacific. There were two marriages in 1946, one in 1948, and one in 1949 (only my aunt Alie remained unmarried until she finally tied the knot in 1958 to a man in Arizona who had three children from a prior marriage). My aunt who married in 1938 had had her two children during the war (1942 and 1944), the rest had their children during the official Baby Boomer years of 1946-1964. The total number of children of the six families eventually numbered 20. Of the six children in this generation, the five who had married all settled in small towns within a few miles of their parents (and of each other). All the men worked in various manufacturing or other blue-collar jobs.

Their lives were shaped by the depression and by WWII – although they, like many others who had served, did not talk about it much. They surrounded themselves with family, had stable marriages that lasted 50-60 years (with the exception of the one who married later in life), and raised their children in loving homes in the quiet suburbs. Although they had started their married life with little, in time they had televisions (eventually in color), a piano (two of my aunts were piano teachers), and while not extravagant the other amenities that slowly became available over the years. They avoided debt, even when “plastic” credit cards where you could not pay off the balance each month became available (1966). They each started out with a single car, but as their families grew and it became necessary for the wives to go shopping during the day, they each added a second car.

My Generation

I, and all my siblings and the cousins who lived near us, grew up in similar circumstances. We had newer houses in small towns, a good school system, and loving parents in a very stable relationship – the latter being probably the most important. In the booming economic times of post WWII, while none of us were in “rich” families, we had all that we needed.

Our families had multiple automobiles and we all learned to drive within a year or so of turning 16. Where our grandparents had only an 8th/9th grade education, and our parents had only completed high school, the majority of us went on to college and a few through graduate school as well (two of us earned doctorate degrees). The negative things like the depression and WWII that had played such a significant part in our parents’ lives were only things in their past, not in ours. The Korean conflict (1950-1953) happened either before we were born or when we were too young to appreciate it. The only similar event to our parents’ lives was the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Although the US had first sent troops there in 1965, it was not until the reinstatement of the draft in 1969 that it really became part of our collective conscious.

While I “escaped” from mandatory service due to a series of incidents, one of my brothers and two of my cousins served in the military during the Vietnam War. But the protests that took place on college campuses and the unpopularity of the entire effort gave a very different feeling than our parents experienced during WWII.

There was much that was different between our lives and those of our parents. Our involvement in higher education meant that many of us went to other states for that education. Having gotten that “wanderlust,” we also married people from other places and then lived hundreds of miles from our parents. We had ready access to automobiles, credit cards, and other modern amenities. Although computers were not widely used for those like myself who were on the leading edge of the Baby Boomer generation (I didn’t know what they were until I went to college), as time went on they became even more available. Without the nearby influence of our parents and extended families we fell prey to other influences. Where divorce had been rare (the only one I knew of in the older generation was my father’s parents), it became more prevalent in our generation (although still not in the numbers that others from our generation have experienced). Our minds had been “expanded”, the limits of our geography were also widened, but there was still that stable background of our parents and grandparents that kept us relatively grounded.

My Children and Grandchildren

I was one of the ones who left home for college. I spent five years in Michigan (where I met the woman who became my wife), lived in Connecticut for a few years, then for the last 40+ years have lived in Pennsylvania. So my children have grown up apart from the influence of my or my wife’s extended family (200 and 800 miles away respectively).

Our son has three children and our daughter has four children. Our son went to college in Indiana, married a girl from Indiana, lived briefly in Indiana, then in Pennsylvania for a short time, spent over a decade in New Jersey, and now lives in Florida. He is even more mobile than his parents. He has also been in the military, having served for fifteen years as an officer and soon to be promoted to Major in the Army Reserves. Out daughter went to college for a while in Ohio, then came back to Pennsylvania. She married someone local and currently the entire family live with us.

They have both been influenced by increasing technology – first standalone PCs then the Internet, computer games, cell phones and then smart phones, online shopping, etc. The speed of change has greatly increased. The world around them has gotten increasingly liberal with issues like same-sex marriage, gender identity, and constitutional revisionism being very evident. Divorce or living together without being married is not even questioned any more. It’s difficult to know how these influences will make an effect on them.

For our grandchildren, now ages 2-12, it’s too early to tell what will have the most influence on their lives. Advanced technology is something that they take for granted. Globalism and multi-culturalism are also a part of their world. While they remain grounded for now (my son and daughter-in-law home school their children, my daughter and son-in-law and their four boys live with us), we don’t know how they will turn out yet. But we remain hopeful.


The things that have influenced each of these generations has been quite different. From the slow pace of life before phones, electricity, and automobiles, to the ever increasing pace of today’s technology. From one room schools and eighth-grade education to online classes and virtual universities. From stable families who remained rooted in the places they grew up to being global citizens, able and willing to move to other parts of the country and perhaps even to other countries.

I’m happy to have lived at this time in history – one where I have been able to communicate with family members who were born 150 years ago to our grandchildren who will likely still be living 80-90 years from now. It’s a wild ride!

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Electoral College

In the reaction to last night’s presidential election, I’ve seen a number of derogatory postings about the “archaic” Electoral College and how the “will of the people” is being thwarted. This same topic comes up during many presidential elections. But I think that many of the comments are from people who do not understand why this process was selected by those who wrote our Constitution and why it was designed the way that it is.

Article 2 of the Constitution, in addition to other things about the President, states, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.” This was modified by the 23rd Amendment which also gave electoral votes to the District of Columbia in the same proportion as the states. For this reason there are 538 Electors – one each for the 435 members of the House of Representative, one each for the 100 Senators, and three for the District of Columbia (the equivalent of two Senate seats and one House seat which it would have had if it were a state).

There are other parts of the Constitution which are also involved, the main ones, in addition to the 23rd mentioned above, being the 12th Amendment which better defines the process and indicates what to do if there are ties (which is why they mentioned last night that if Donald Trump received 269 (exactly 50%) that he would then be the winner because the Republicans controlled the House of Representatives). There are also restrictions on who may be an elector, how the electors are chosen, etc. The 12th Amendment also changed the method of voting to being just votes for President with the person taking 2nd place becoming the Vice-President (which was how it was done originally) to voting the two positions separately. But these are not pertinent to why I am writing this.

The reason why people express their “hate” of this system/process (and I don’t think that hate is too strong a word based on some of the postings that I have seen) is that they want to results of the election to mirror the popular vote. But the fact that it does not always do so is one of the geniuses of the Constitution and the Founding Fathers who wrote it.

While it’s true that 220+ years ago there was certainly a convenience factor – a state could appoint their electors who would then travel (often by horseback) to a central location where the final “election” would take place, there is a lot more involved than that. After all, they could have chosen a proportional allocation so that each state could have electors in proportion to their population, or even carried a signed paper indicating the results in that state. But the Electoral College system was designed to mirror the bicameral nature of our legislature.

In many countries, there is only a single legislative body. But the Founding Fathers wanted to have a balance between state and federal interests. One article put it very succinctly that they “sought to reconcile differing state and federal interest, provide a degree of popular participation in the election, give the less populous states some additional leverage in the process by providing ‘senatorial’ electors, preserve the presidency as independent of Congress, and generally insulate the election process from political manipulation.”

It is this desire to give some degree of leverage to the states that gives rise to our system of having both a House of Representative and a Senate (both of which have to agree in order to pass legislation) and also creates the difference between purely personal votes and the allocation of the electors. The allocation is “skewed” in two ways.

First, although the House of Representatives (and the corresponding electors) has members that are proportional to the population of the state, the Senate (and those corresponding electors) are even distributed to each state (two per state). This gives smaller states much more influence that the larger states. So a small state which has a very small population has not just a single Elector, but has a minimum of three Electors. This also means that a presidential candidate can’t just spend all his/her time speaking to the major urban areas as that’s where the population is, but must give some attention to even the smaller states as they have more “Electors per person” than the larger states. Without this provision the whole election process would have the candidates spending all their time in the cities and ignoring all the rest of the country.

Secondly, most states appoint their Electors on a “winner take all” basis. This also has the effect of requiring candidates to address the broader audience instead of just concentrating their efforts in the urban centers.

It should be noted that there have been changes in the election process over the years. In addition to the above mentioned 12th and 23rd Amendment, in the early years of our country the electors in many states were often chosen by the State House and State Senate and there were no Presidential elections at all. Now all states have a direct elections for President and Vice-President and the actual selection of Electors, etc. is almost a hidden part of the process.

So, while it may a bit confusing to some, and the discrepancy of results between the popular vote and the Electoral College results sometimes generates a certain amount of angst, if one has any appreciation for the wisdom of having both a House of Representative AND a Senate, then one should also appreciate the wisdom in having an Electoral College that also strives to maintain a balance between popular votes and state’s rights.


Saturday, November 5, 2016

Old Schools

I have blogged earlier about the schools in my hometown of Wolcott, CT ( But Wolcott is a relatively recent town, having first been settled around 1730 and not having schools until around 1770. This story is about some of the first schools in the US, many of which my ancestors had a significant part in.

Many of the early schools in the US were formed by the Puritans who had a strong emphasis on education at every age level, with a primary reason for this being in order to read the Bible. Puritan leaders were accustomed to the highest educational standards, with most of their ministers having graduated from Oxford or Cambridge University in England. So it was only natural for them to bring this same emphasis to the US.

I’m going to start this blog with my great*7 grandfather, James Pierpont (1659-1714). James was born in Roxbury, MA. His education included being a graduate of The Roxbury Latin School (1), then Harvard University (4). He then moved to New Haven, CT, where he became the minister of the Congregational Church there. In 1698 he married Mary Hooker, the granddaughter of Rev. Thomas Hooker, the chief founder of the Colony of Connecticut (see below). In 1701 James secured the charter for The Collegiate School of Connecticut, which soon thereafter took the surname of its benefactor Elihu Yale and became Yale University (5). One of James’ and Mary’s daughters, Sara Pierpont married noted colonial minister Jonathan Edwards who later became the president of Princeton University (6).

When Thomas Hooker, my great*9 grandfather, (1586-1647) arrived in Massachusetts he was the pastor of the Church of Christ at Cambridge. Voting in Massachusetts was limited to freemen. Hooker disagreed with this limitation, putting him at odds with the influential pastor John Cotton. He and the Rev. Samuel Stone led a group of about 100 who, in 1636, founded the settlement of Hartford, named for Stone’s place of birth Hertford, in England. In 1638, Thomas founded a school, Thomas Hooker’s Latin School (3). That same year he and others framed a written constitution in order to establish a government for the commonwealth and in 1639 they ratified the “Fundamental Orders of Connecticut.

Roxbury Latin School (1)

Roxbury Latin School was founded in 1645 by Rev. John Eliot (1604-1690). It bills itself as the “oldest school in continuous existence in North America.” However, that is only because an older school, Boston Latin School (2), shut down for a period during the Revolutionary War. John Eliot was born in Hertfordshire, England. He is the brother of my wife’s great*11 grandfather. After attending college in Cambridge, he became assistant to Thomas Hooker (see above) at a private school in Essex. When Hooker fled to Holland, Eliot emigrated to Boston where he became a minister at the First Church of Roxbury.

Boston Latin School (2)

Boston Latin was established in 1635. It was originally called the South Grammar School. It calls itself the oldest school in the US, but there is some controversy (see below). While my ancestors do not appear to have been involved in its establishment, several of my more famous relatives have gone there – including Henry Ward Beecher, my 5th cousin, 5 times removed, (, and Samuel Pierpont Langley, my 5th cousin, 4 times removed (

Controversy – The Collegiate School of New York was originally believed to have been founded in 1638. However, in 1984 a historian and teacher at the school found that the school’s founder had written of his efforts to teach the catechism to Indian children as early as 1628, so they officially changed its founding to the earlier date.

Hartford Public High School (3)

Hartford Public High School was founded in 1638, when it was known as Thomas Hooker’s Latin School. It later became known as the Hartford Grammar School and then as the Hartford Public High School in 1847.

Harvard University (4)

Harvard was formed in 1636 by a vote of the Great and General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It was initialed called “New College” or “the college at New Towne”. It was renamed Harvard College in 1639 after deceased clergyman John Harvard who left the school 779 pounds and his library of some 400 books.

Yale University (5)

Yale was founded in 1701 as the Collegiate School by my ancestor James Pierpont and others. It was renamed as Yale College in 1718 in recognition of a gift from Elihu Yale. It is the 3rd oldest institution of higher education in the US.

Princeton University (6)

Princeton was founded in 1746 as the College of New Jersey and was the 4th chartered institution of higher education in the US. It was renamed Princeton University in 1896. My 7th great-uncle Jonathan Edwards became the 3rd president of Princeton – after its founder Jonathan Dickinson and Aaron Burr, Sr. (who was Jonathan Edwards’ son-in-law). Aaron’s son, and Jonathan’s grandson, Aaron Burr, was the 3rd vice-president of the US, and is my 2nd cousin 6 times removed.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Why Vote?

The 2016 presidential election is now only a few days away. Both the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and the Republican nominee, Donald Trump, have generated a large amount of controversy. Clinton continues to be embroiled in controversy – being called corrupt, a habitual liar, and other things not fit to be reproduced here. Trump is not without his share of controversy either – often speaking without thinking, being labeled a racist, etc. With so much that is negative, many have decided to just not vote at all, since they don’t like either candidate. But is this a proper attitude? Let’s look at some other aspects of this election.

First, if you decide not to vote, then you are letting other make the decision for you. In effect, you are saying that you are willing to accept the impact of the election results regardless of what happens. And, while it’s nice to think that voting for one of the “third party” candidates might be a good option, realistically none of them has any chance of winning (that may not have been true in a few past elections, and it might not be true in the future, but it’s not for this election). So that is just another way of letting others make the decision, albeit while registering some small measure of protest. Is there really no difference between Clinton and Trump so that you’ll accept either one and let others decide?

Second, while the president has a lot of power in our country, we are not voting for a dictator. Whomever wins, they will have to work with many others to get things done. So one needs not only consider the single individual at the “top of the ticket”, look also at their running mate and the others whom they are likely to consider for various cabinet positions or senior staff positions. Those people who currently surround the candidates are another good measure of thinking about “what you see is what you get.”

Third, look at the policies that are being proposed by the candidates and their political parties, as these are the “platform” that they will rest upon after election. Do you agree with the candidates’ positions on things like immigration, the economy, abortion, health care, “big government”, entitlements, etc.? And while you may not agree with a candidate about all of these, is there one that more closely aligns with the principles that you hold?

Fourth, look at not just the next four (or eight) years, but the longer term impact that each candidate may have. One that’s been talked about a lot is the issue of Supreme Court justices and what type of individuals each is likely to nominate. But the economy, foreign relations, and other issues are also ones that will have long term impact. Think of the impact on your children and grandchildren.

Finally, remember to consider the “down ballot” candidates – races for the Senate, the House of Representatives, various state offices. If you do not go to the polls on Election Day then you also rob yourself of the ability to vote for these other offices – and where there are some good candidates who are asking you for your support.

There is certainly a lot not to like about both of the major party candidates. But when I think of all the above reasons, I plan on voting on Election Day. How about you?

I’ve tried to make the above party/individual neutral, because the reasons for voting are not partisan ones. Now I’m going to list my own reasons for why I plan on voting as I do. If you do not want to read any further, that’s fine with me. But at least consider the above and vote.

Here are my conclusions in the same five categories as above:

First, the choice between Clinton and Trump has been likened by some as the choice between taking a pill that is guaranteed to kill you and taking a pill that has a 50% chance of killing you. Clinton has been labeled a habitual liar and I see little to convince me otherwise. She is all about her own personal power and wealth and really has little concern for others. Trump, on the other hand, is sometimes like a “bull in a china shop” but he has shown a lot of concern for others over the years and many of his employees have come forward with stories about him that are very positive.

Second, I look at Kaine, Abedin, and others who Clinton surrounds herself with and contrast them with Pence, Ben Carson, and others who are advising Trump. In my mind, there is no comparison.

Third, I believe that the federal government has gotten much too big. Whether it’s Common Core, the EPA, or many other government agencies, the philosophy that the federal government should be in charge of everything doesn’t sit well with me. They take our tax dollars (in increasing amounts), keep a bunch for themselves for “administration” and then dole out as they see fit. The level of debt is now approaching $20 Trillion. I think it’s time to scale back. On other issues, I also tend to favor the Republican platform – not on everything to be sure, but most.

Fourth, I vote with the long term in view. As my wife will tell you, I will often make decisions that are not in my personal best interest (such as voting in favor of things that may cost me money), but decisions that will be best for future generations. I’m not only concerned about the direction that the courts have been taking recently and I want a president who will nominate candidates who will keep the US on track.

Finally, I want to be sure to vote for the other candidates on the ballot. Our current PA Senator lives in the same township, just a few streets away. I have been in our PA representative’s office on occasion and he knows my name. And our local state officials are ones that I have supported in the past. At the more local level I am much more about voting for the person, not the party and I know these people and what they stand for.

This election has been historic in many ways. The number of dollars being spent, the vicious name calling, the number of controversies – it’s hard to keep track of it all and I have lost more than a few nights of sleep trying to process the latest news. But I know who I am voting for and why. Do you?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Genealogy Story – The Oliver Wolcott Connection

Last night I was trying to fill in a few holes on my large family tree in I was following a “shaking leaf” associated with Lillie Waldron (1874-1938), when I found that she married a man by the name of Oliver Eliot Wolcott. Since Wolcott, CT is my hometown and it was named after a man by the name of Oliver Scot Wolcott, I immediately wondered if there was a connection. The short answer is “yes,” but I’d like to document all the pieces that came together in this connection.

Piece #1 – The Russell-Waldron Connection

During my father’s late teen years, he lived in Waterbury with his grandfather and step-grandmother, Louis Russell (1871-1946) and Helen [Madigan] [Pulver] [Waldron] Russell (1868-1945). It was Louis’ second marriage and Helen’s third marriage, her second marriage having been to Lewis Waldron (1869-1917). But the connection to the Waldron was more than just this tenuous one through a long-past marriage. I have documented earlier ( how the Russell family and the Waldron family were connected.

Lewis Waldron was also my great-grandfather Louis Russell’s second cousin through their common great-grandparents Caleb and Almira [Beecher] Barton. So my great-grandfather was married to the former wife of his second cousin. But more importantly, Lewis Waldron and his sister Lillie Waldron are then my second cousin’s three times removed.

Piece #2 – The Wolcott Family

Simon Wolcott (1624-1687) was born in Tolland, England. His father, Henry (1578-1655) had come to the US around 1630 and after initially settling in Dorchester, MA had moved to CT in 1636-1637 and was one of the founders of Simsbury. Simon followed his father by emigrating about that same time where he also lived in Simsbury. In 1680 he moved to South Windsor. Simon had a large family (15 children!), among them Henry (1670-1747) and Roger (1679-1767).

Henry was one of the original proprietors of Tolland, CT (named after the family home in England). We will pick up his story with his son, Thomas, below in Piece #3.

Roger had a long career of service, including being Deputy Governor of the Colony of Connecticut, Chief Justice of the Superior Court of Connecticut, Major General in King George’s War, and Governor of Connecticut. His son, Oliver (1726-1797) was a signer of the Declaration of Independence as well as of the Articles of Confederation before it. He served as the Lieutenant Governor of Connecticut from 1786 until 1796 and then as Governor of Connecticut from 1796 until his death a year later. It was while serving as Lt. Governor where he presided over the Senate that he cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the separation of the town of Farmingbury from the towns of Southington [previously South Farmington] and Waterbury. In honor of this, the townspeople of Farmingbury renamed the town Wolcott.

Piece #3 – The Dutchess County Connection

My great-grandfather Louis was born in Kent, CT. But his father, Walter James Russell had moved there from just over the border in Dover, Dutchess County, NY. The Russell family had lived there for about 100 years (see

A branch of the Wolcott family also lived in the same town/county. Thomas Wolcott (1702-1762), the son of Henry (1670-1747), was born in Tolland, CT, but after the death of his wife in 1738 he moved to Taghanik, NY. His oldest son, also Thomas (1726-1792) was only a young teen when the family moved to NY. When he married he purchased property in Amenia, NY, located in Dutchess County and adjacent to Dover. His son, Lt. Luke Wolcott (1755-1813) was born in Dover as well as the next several generations, Thomas (1774-1830), Thomas Judd (1802-1854), William Burton (1832-1909), and Oliver Elias (1868-1960). There are still members of the Wolcott family living in Dutchess County to this day.

Bringing the Pieces Together

The Russell and Wolcott families had lived in close proximity in Dover, NY for several decades (the Russell family being there from about 1720 until 1820 and the Wolcott family from about 1750). But I have not found any marriage connection there. However, in 1792 Oliver Elias Wolcott moved just a few miles east to Kent, CT when he married Lillie Waldron. That meant that my second cousin (3 times removed) married the first cousin (6 times removed) of Governor Oliver Wolcott.

Further Investigation

There is the possibility of a further connection. The grandparents of my great-great-grandmother, (Lois Ann Cook (1855-1883) who was the wife of Walter James Russell (1852-1895)) are Levi Cook and Sally Burton (b. about 1790). But the wife of Thomas Judd Wolcott was Jane Burton (1807-1893). It’s possible that Jane and Sally are sisters, being the children of James Silas Burton (1770-1821) who was living in Dutchess County, NY where both Sally and Jane were also living at the time. However, there were four Burton families (all probably related) in the county at that time.

If this is true, then Thomas Judd Wolcott is my great*5 uncle. However, with the paucity of records from that time, this may be impossible to affirm.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Reflections on Thailand


I have been fortunate to have traveled to the country of Thailand three times over the past several years. The first time was in 2006, the year before I retired. I had a business trip to Singapore and for one of the very few times in my career I took a vacation in the middle of that trip. I flew from Singapore to Bangkok and spent several days with my AFS exchange student daughter, Jiraporn (Noon) Tabtimdaeng and her family. In 2009 I was able to go there again, this time as the leader of a group of AFS staff and volunteers who were writing a handbook for US host families hosting students from Thailand (our Thai counterparts were writing the corresponding handbook for Thai families hosting US students). Finally, in 2012, as a member of the AFS-USA Board of Directors, I attended the AFS World Congress in Bangkok.

However, I never spent much time there in “tourist” mode. Rather, I intermingled with the people of Thailand as much as possible and not with a group of non-Thais doing sightseeing. The first time I stayed with Noon and her family in a fairly poor area in Pathum Thani (Bang Kha Yaeng, Mueang Pathum Thani District, Pathum Thani, Thailand) where they had a house right on the Chao Phraya River. That house was due to be bulldozed within the next year for a new bridge across the river to carry traffic of Route 345. The second time I stayed in hotels in Bangkok when we had the actual meetings, but I had several days beforehand where I also stayed with Noon and her family in their new house near Wat Bang Luang a few kilometers further up the river. The final time I was initially in the hotel that was being used for the World Congress, but afterwards I moved down into central Bangkok to the Asia Hotel near the Ratchathewi elevated station for several days.

I took very few pictures on any of these trips, preferring to look at the world around me instead of staring through the lens of a camera. So, as a result, I have a lot of first-hand memories instead. But in this reflection I’d like to recount a number of them. Rather than attempt to remember what order each event happened in, I have put these into a few general categories.

Visiting Schools

Noon’s Elementary School – When I was there the first time, one morning Noon and I took a stroll through the little area where she lived. Heading up the river on a path, we first passed the local Buddhist temple (Wat Chin Wararam Worawihan). Thailand is dotted with these little temples everywhere. Just beyond the temple was the elementary school that Noon had attended. I did not get to see her high school, as she had chosen to attend one that was not in her neighborhood, but one that offered the appropriate challenge for her and would enable her to get into university.

Noon’s Aunt’s School – Thai families often live in close proximity to other extended family members. I met a number of Noon’s aunts and uncles during my visits. Noon’s aunt lived in a house in the same compound as her parents and she was an English teacher at a school not too far away. One morning on my second visit she took me with her to her school which was located behind an industrial complex and next to the Wat Khok temple. We were there for the morning assembly which was outside the main classroom building. As I stood on the porch with Noon’s aunt and the rest of the staff, the principal introduced me and asked me to come to the front. She then asked for a volunteer from among the students to come and “interview” me. Since I may have been the only foreigner to ever visit this small school, everyone was very reluctant. Eventually, at the urging of his friends, the largest boy at the school was pushed to the front. He was also the bass drum player (he and two other drum players played a cadence as the students all took their place in lines). At the principal’s urging, he asked me a few questions, but when I turned the tables and asked him one, he got quite embarrassed. I spent the rest of the day at the school, watching through the open windows of a few of the classrooms, sitting in the library/computer room (where I could check my email), and having lunch with the teachers.

Chulalongkorn University – Noon had been selected to be an AFS student partly on her academic record. This also helped her get selected to attend Chulalongkorn University, the top academic institution in Thailand (the equivalent of Harvard and Stanford in the US). On my first trip there, I went to school with her. This involved fairly complicated transportation logistics, but since I did not speak Thai, nor have a good understanding of the Thai monetary system, I just followed her.

We walked to the end of the road of the area where she lived, caught a local bus which took us into the local main street (Bang Khayaeng Municipal District), then walked a short distance down the street to catch the inter-city bus which took us into Bangkok where all got out at Victory Monument. Down the block and up into the BTS station (elevated train). Three stops later, get out at Siam station, then local Chula bus to the university (could have walked this last part, but it’s so hot and steamy that one would quickly be sweaty).

I walked around and waited around while Noon went to her classes and we arranged to meet again later. At the end of the day, we went back to her home, but the transportation was not quite the same due to the time of day. After taking the BTS back to Victory Monument, we walked around the monument to where there was a lot full of little mini-buses (vans). These are “share the ride” vans. Once the van was full it went back up through Nonthaburi, but with a few stops along the way. We got out at the same place that the inter-city bus had picked us up in the morning, but by that time of day the local buses were not running, so we took a taxi back to her house.

I had another opportunity to visit Chulalongkorn again on my second trip. Noon still had one more year to go, but another former AFS student who had been in the US the same year as Noon (and whom I had gotten to know at that time) was graduating. We met Molly right after the ceremony, still in her graduation gown. Getting a degree from Chulalongkorn is a big deal, as HRH Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn is responsible for handing out the diplomas.

I was not able to attend Noon’s graduation the following year, but by then my brother and sister-in-law were in Thailand and they attended on my behalf.

AFS Interviews – During my 2009 trip I had the opportunity to be a part of the “interview day” that the AFS-Thailand office runs that selects students for going abroad. This was held at a large high school in Bangkok.

As background, there are about 14,000 students who apply for a program through AFS-Thailand each year. This is slimmed down to about 7000 based on the applications. These 7000 students then participate in an interview in order to select the roughly 700 who will get to go abroad. These interviews are scheduled in each province and run by volunteers there. The interview session in Bangkok is run by the AFS staff. In the morning, half of the students are assigned an interview room and they wait in the hall outside as each is interviewed in turn. Each interview team consists of two teachers and one returnee. The other half of the students are in a gymnasium going through exercises and team-building activities. After lunch the two halves switch.

When I arrived, I was escorted to the room upstairs where the interview teams received their packets and instructions. Since the instructions were given in Thai, I could not understand what was being said. I was then escorted to the gym where I sat with a group of Thai volunteers as a man stood in front of the students, who were seated on the floor, all dressed in their school uniform. Suddenly the person next to me said, “He is calling you to come up.” Evidently, knowing that someone from AFS-USA was there, and the US is the most desirable destination that these students would like to attend, he was asking me to address the students. So I went and without any preparation spoke to the students for a few minutes – talk about being on the spot!

I was then escorted to one of the interview rooms where I could observe the process. Each student entered in turn, presented the panel of interviewers their portfolio and was interviewed. I noticed that one of the questions was always, “What aspect of Thai culture will you share with your host family and school?” If they answered, “Thai dancing,” which is a very common answer, they would be asked to give a short demonstration of it. After observing two interviews, the leader of the interview team asked me to pull my chair forward and to join the team in doing the next interview. Again, I was totally unprepared for this, but did so – but adding to the already tense situation that the unsuspecting student found herself in. To her credit, she did quite well.

Samut Sakhon – The AFS-USA team, as part of our exposure to Thai culture, were taken one day to visit a school in Samut Sakhon. This was a school that has a long history of involvement with AFS. The town is southwest of Bangkok and right where the Tha Chin river flows into the gulf. We were greeted by the principal and then introduced to a girl who had recently returned from the US and who proudly wore a lanyard that identified her as an AFS returnee. It’s interesting to see how valued being an exchange student is in Thailand, as opposed to the US where students receive very little recognition.

Trips beyond Bangkok

During my various trips to Thailand I did not have the opportunity to travel to distant parts of the country such as Chang Mai, the resort areas of Phuket, or the Muslim areas in the south. However, I did have five day-trips – going north, west, south-west, south-east, and north-east from the Bangkok area. I’m going to describe them in that order.

North – Ayutthaya and Lop Buri – The first trip that I was taken on by Noon’s family was to the north. We first went to Ayutthaya, the historical capital of Thailand from 1351 until its destruction by the Burmese army in 1767. There are a large number of buildings (or rather the foundations of them), as well as many temples (Wats), the most prominent being Wat Phra Si Sanphet. Being able to visit a historic place which predates the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 by over a century definitely gives one a different perspective.

Continuing north (about 150 km from Bangkok), we went to the city of Lopburi. This city is well known for its population of hundreds of monkeys (actually macaques) that live in the middle of the city. The Khmer temple, Prang Sam Yot, is overrun with them and you have to ensure that they do not steal any food or other items, like cameras, that you may have with you. This city dates back about 1000 years and was described by Marco Polo in his travels of this part of Asia.

West – Kanchanaburi – One day Mr. Tabtimdaeng said to me, “Tomorrow we’re going to the bridge.” I had already learned that when he said, “we’re going” that meant that I should be downstairs with my camera, hat, and ready to get into the car immediately the next morning. But I had no idea what he meant by “the bridge.” Was it supposed to be significant to me? When I asked where the bridge was, he said, “In Kanchanaburi,” but that meant even less. But I figured I’d find out when I got there.

After driving about two hours we got to the town. But before going to “the bridge” we first stopped at the cemetery. It was then that I realized where I was and the significance of this place. Kanchanaburi is the home of the “Bridge over the River Kwai,” which has been made into a movie. In WWII, the Japanese were trying to extend the railroad through Thailand and across Burma to the ocean, giving them quick rail access to that area. They used POWs as labor to help construct the railway. All the Australian, British and Dutch POWs who died during the construction or who were killed are buried in this cemetery – nearly 7000 of them. For comparison, the US cemetery in Henri-Chapelle in Belgium has nearly 8000 graves and the Normandy cemetery in France has over 9000, so this is on that same scale. However, while the European cemeteries are in park-like settings, this is in the middle of the city with four brick walls surrounding it, so very compact and every square foot except the walkways part of a gravesite. I spent a fair amount of time just walking among the graves, reading names and countries and mourning over the loss of so many young lives. Truly a sobering experience.

We then drove a short distance across town to “the bridge,” but now I was emotionally at least partly prepared for it. Because of the time of day, we first had lunch at the restaurant overlooking the bridge. The bridge is still an active rail bridge. After the war, as part of reparations, the Japanese had to pay to have the damaged sections replaced. You are allowed to walk all the way across. The section between the rails has been covered so that walkers do not fall through. However, whenever a train (generally an excursion train) comes, they blow their whistle and you have to hurry to the next pillar where the bridge sections join and where they have built little platforms that extend off to the side over the river and where you can be out of the way of the train when it passes by, however slowly, just a foot or so from where you are standing. This was one of the few “touristy” places that I went on my travels in Thailand.

We then drove up the river to the Sinakharin Dam, a large hydroelectric dam on the Kwai River (Khwae Yai). This is a magnificent dam that is 460’ high and 2000’ long (at the crest). It produces 720 megawatts and was completed in 1980 (so it’s fairly new). Looking down the valley between the mountains in this area is a wonderful view and so different from the very flat plain where Bangkok is located.

Southwest – Cha Am – On one of my few visits to the Gulf of Thailand, the family drove down the western side of the gulf to Cha Am. This is far enough from Bangkok (170+km) that there are no major crowds. We bought lunch (fried chicken) from one of the many vendors who frequent beaches like these, and enjoyed the great weather and the view of the gulf.

Southeast – Pattaya – On a weekend day, the family hired a van and driver to take everyone to the beach at Pattaya. This is a very popular resort place about 100km down the east side of the gulf. There is a busy road that runs right along the waterfront, with hotels, food vendors, etc. on the one side and the beach on the other. Because light-colored skin is very desirable in Thailand, there are vendors who have set up many umbrellas, all overlapping so that no sun gets on you, with beach chairs under them. About half of the distance between the sidewalk and the water’s edge is taken up by these umbrellas. You pay a small fee to sit under them, and then the various food vendors come up and down the beach and sell you whatever food you’d like. I did get out from under the umbrella a few times to go up the beach a little and to get my legs and feet wet in the water, but the sun is pretty intense and I was happy to retreat back into the shade. But it was somewhat strange to see all these people under the umbrellas and relatively few people in the water.

Northeast – Khao Yai Park – On my last trip, I decided to play tourist for a day and signed up for a trip from Bangkok to Khao Yai National Park. It is a several hour drive from Bangkok, but the shuttle bus stops at multiple hotels in the city (all in the early morning) before heading out. There were two stops on the way there, one at a market (which was interesting, but not something that I took the trip for), and one at a farm which offered oxcart rides. The itinerary from TripAdvisor reads as follows:

06.30 - Depart from Bangkok Hotel to Nakorn Nayok Province
Visit a local market to see the lifestyle of the locals
Enjoy Ox-cart riding, which was the traditional transportation in the past
Drive up to Khai Yai National Park
Go trekking along the jungle and visit the Heaw Narok Waterfall, the most famous in the park
Enjoy a Thai lunch at a local restaurant
Enjoy Elephant riding
18.30 - Return to your Bangkok Hotel

The Heaw Karok Waterfall is 150m tall and is reached by walking a long trail through the trees to the top of the falls. Then you have to go down a long series of very steep stairs to the bottom of the falls (it’s nice on the way down, but a LOT of tiring sets of steps coming back up!). We saw some wild elephants along the road, then stopped for a late lunch in a rural area on the far side of the park. After lunch they brought over a group of elephants for our ride. The area is somewhat hilly, so the elephant stops on a trail which runs below a platform where you climb on top (two passengers plus the “driver” who sits on the elephant’s neck). The trail is down the hill (leaning back so you don’t slide off the front of the elephant), then plodding through a stream at the bottom. Finally back up the hill (leaning forward and hanging on). The last part the “driver” gets off and invites one of the riders to take his place on the neck. I was with a group of other tourists and allowed my fellow rider to have the pleasure of moving forward. After a long drive, we arrived back in Bangkok after dark. It was a long day, but I thought it worth the roughly $100 it cost.


Thai Food – Many people in the US have an idea that Thai food is spicy. But that’s not the case, in fact there are a variety of foods in Thailand and while some are spicy, most are not. Like most Asian countries, there is generally a base of rice. Thai food is also always cut up before it is put on the table, so there are no knives needed when you eat. Rather, you eat with a large spoon in your right hand and a fork in your left, but the only purpose for the fork is to push the food onto your spoon. Since I generally was staying with a Thai family, I just ate what they ate and how they ate. If I didn’t recognize something, I just waited long enough to make sure that I was eating it correctly, and eating the right parts of it, then ate what was in front of me.

Seafood Pizza – On the trip where I would be with partners from AFS-USA, I got to the hotel we were staying in a day in advance of the others and was on my own. The hotel was not in the part of Bangkok where there were lots of eating establishments around and a look at the hotel restaurant menu told me that they primarily catered to foreigners and had typical American/European food. So I thought I’d wander through the small mall that was attached to the hotel. Passing a Pizza Hut, I noticed that they had displays of their food in the window and one particularly intrigued me – seafood pizza. Since that is not something that we have in the US, I thought I’d try it as I particularly like to have seafood in different parts of the world because it is often locally available fish which varies from one part of the world to another. The only thing about this dish that most folks in the US would recognize as “pizza” was that it was on a base of a circle of bread. But there was no tomato paste, no cheese, no pepperoni or sausage, etc. There were small shrimp, clams, and large chunks of some sort of fish, all smothered in a spicy, rich brown fish sauce. It was delicious!

American Breakfast – at the end of my second stay, Noon’s aunt, and my host since I was staying in her house, declared that she was going to make me an “American breakfast.” While I preferred eating Thai food, since she was determined to do this for me, I figured I should go along with her suggestion. But I was unprepared for what she thought were appropriate volumes of food! Let’s see if I can remember it all – (3) sunny-side-up eggs [so far so good], (8) slices of bacon, (6) sausage [actually fried hot dogs], (4) slices of toast, a large(!) glass of orange juice, a large glass of milk, and a medium-sized bowl of cut-up fruit. While all these are appropriate American breakfast foods, it was more than I am used to having for about three days. But to leave food on the table is an insult, so I had no choice but to eat it all.

Eating out – When I was there for the AFS World Congress, we had a free night off. All the Thai members of the team that I had met with on my prior visit decided to have a reunion and take me out to a popular Thai restaurant. Most of them met me at the hotel where I was staying and we took a couple of taxis to the restaurant where the others would meet us. Like many Thai restaurants, this was outdoors and there were several eating areas on little decks overlooking a pond which ran alongside the restaurant. So, with much of the conversation taking place in Thai and me being the only non-Thai in sight, I sat back in bliss, enjoying the evening, eating the food that the others picked out for me and being with friends (many of whom I still “see” regularly on Facebook to this day). I truly enjoy the times when there are no other “foreigners” around and I can just get to be a part of the culture around me.

Meeting My Brother – On that same trip, I was able to spend a day with my brother Edd and sister-in-law Ingrid. They had recently gone back into missionary work and were located in Bangkok while they learned to speak Thai. They had classes each morning, but were able to spend the bulk of day with me. After visiting their apartment we began a tour of some parts of Bangkok that I had not been in before.

We took the BTS down to the southern part of the city, first stopping at the small international church where they were attending, then to the last stop before the train crossed the Chao Phraya River on the King Taksin Bridge. There we boarded a boat to take us up the river. It docked near the Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn). After some walking around the area, we went out the back side of the temple into a local street to find some place to get lunch. Choosing a very small place with just a few tables, we entered. The proprietress had this very scared look on her face! Here were three foreigners sitting in her restaurant, she spoke no English and had no English menus. But then my brother turned to her and began speaking Thai and she visibly relaxed.

I saw a number of other things that day including The Grand Palace (where the King of Thailand is now resting in state) and the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. But it’s not the touristy things that stay impressed on my memory, it’s the interactions with the people like the lady in the restaurant.

Meeting over Meals – As I concluded my last trip I stayed for several days in Bangkok. I had been in touch with many of the Thai students who had been in the US of the past several years and whom I had gotten to know. So I was able to make arrangements to meet with most of them during those days in Thailand. Often I would have a lunch meeting with one student and dinner that evening with another. Since most people in Bangkok use public transportation, we went to restaurants in the area of the hotel. But one of the girls said that she would come by and pick me up in a car (she borrowed her mother’s car for the evening). She drove us to a restaurant on the west side of Bangkok that she said she had always wanted to visit. As I sat there chatting with her over the meal, I thought how fortunate I was. Here I was, in a foreign city that many people in the US would like to be able to visit, enjoying a series of meetings with a succession of beautiful young girls (all were in their early-mid-20s at the time). Both of us had successfully crossed cultural boundaries – they in coming to the US for a year of high school, and I in coming to Thailand to participate in their culture. We had different backgrounds, different religions, and were very different ages, but we could meet together and appreciate both our differences and our similarities. How wonderful it would be if more people could do that!

Hellos and Goodbyes

Greetings – During my first full day on my first trip, Noon had told me that I should expect to be visited by a number of her relatives. After all, it’s not every day that one’s “American father” comes to visit. I was seated with her in their living room and could hear voices outside. She told me, that’s my uncle. He came in the room and walked toward me. I stood and was preparing to greet him with the traditional Thai bow – hands together, etc. Instead, I was surprised that he stuck out his hand to shake mine, to which I thought, “he’s going to greet me in the US tradition instead,” so I shook his hand. But the next words out of his mouth were, “How old are you?” I was a bit taken aback, as this is not the typical first question that anyone in the US asks, but I also quickly went through the reading on culture that I had done and realized why he was asking. Relative age is very important in Thailand and the younger person must honor the older person, including by bowing more deeply so that your head is below the other persons. Since we were both older gentlemen with balding, white/grey hair, he did not know if I was older or younger and needed to know so that he knew how to address me. All this thinking went through my head in a fraction of a second, so I then answered him, to which he replied, “Ah, young man, young man.” (He was about a year older than I was.)

I’ve used this story many times to illustrate how culture plays a part in our lives. On the visit with the AFS-USA team I had told this story to the team at the beginning of our time there. The following day, we were visiting a school and the teacher asked the class if they had any questions for us. One of them finally got up the nerve to talk and asked, “How old are you?” which turned into a great teaching moment.

But I’d like to relate one other “greeting” incident where I did NOT do the right thing. Most of the Thai members of our AFS-USA-Thailand group were female, since most AFS volunteers in Thailand are teachers. They would address me with the Thai greeting, “Suwadee Kha”. So I decided that I would greet them back by saying “Suwadee Kha” to them. But this only generated a lot of giggling on their part. It turns out that “Suwadee” means not simply “Hello,” but something more like “Hello from,” and the “Kha” part is feminine. So “Suwadee Bangkok” on a t-shirt means “Hello from Bangkok” and “Suwadee Kha” means “hello from a female!” Thus, when I say hello I need to use the male ending and say, “Suwadee Khrap.” They quickly corrected me and I added to my knowledge of cultural mistakes!

Goodbyes – On my first visit to Thailand, I stayed the entire time with my AFS daughter, Noon, and her family. When she had been a part of our family here in the US we were a typically demonstrative family with frequent hugs as a sign of affection. But I knew that when I visited her in Thailand that I should respect their customs which do not have that component. However, when her family took me to the airport for my flight back to Singapore, I did not know if that would be the last time that I would see her. So I turned to her father and asked him for permission to give her a hug before I left and he consented. I gave her a quick hug, then left, but with tears in my eyes (which I even have now as I reflect on that memory).

I was fortunate in that I was able to not only visit again, but twice more. But each time I did not know if that would be the last time. By my last visit I was sufficiently skilled in navigating Bangkok that I had booked my own taxi to the airport for early in the morning. I did not have any stay with Noon’s family on that trip, but I had arranged to meet her for lunch one day at the Siam Paragon mall. We talked over lunch, then she accompanied me back to the Ratchathewi BTS station next to my hotel before she would continue back north to her home. She was now in her mid-20’s a fine young lady whom I have the privilege to know. As we stood on the platform, but without her father this time, I asked her if it was okay if I gave her a hug. Her reply was, “Of course, you’re my dad!”

Closing Thoughts

This has been a week when I’ve thought a lot about Thailand. Earlier this week King Bhumibol, who has been the king of the country for 70 years, passed away after a long illness. The entire country is in mourning. And I weep with them as they reflect on someone who has been more of a father figure to all his people than a king.

Just yesterday I received a reminder on my computer that my Thai daughter, Noon, will be turning 30 next Friday. So in these reflections I not only look back at my times in Thailand, thinking on all that I have experienced there, but I continue to look forward, knowing that there is a young lady in that country who has said to me, “Of course, you’re my dad!”