Ralph Bostrom has been writing Letters to the Editor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser for years. Now in his 90s he’s an involuntary resident of a senior assisted living facility in Willits. For being an old dude who lived for years in the hills outside of Willits, he sure had some interesting travels before he settled down there.
Senior citizen readers may remember the quaint custom of having “pen pals.” You wrote letters to another individual you might never actually meet in person. Ralph Bostrom is my “pen pal” and we began writing after he expressed his frustration in a letter to the AVA about not being able to find large print books. Being a retired librarian I wrote him and told him how to access services for the visually impaired at the state library in Sacramento.
This man is a SERIOUS reader and I’m amazed at the scope of his reading. Talk about a self-educated man. He reminds me of author Louis L’Amour who was a merchant marine sailor traveling the world before becoming an author. (Read “Education of a Wandering Man” by L’Amour-it’s fascinating).
Ralph gifted me a subscription to the “New Yorker” which he reads so that we can discuss the stories in our letter exchanges. We both like to visit the homes of favorite authors and see the landscapes that influenced them. Gabriel Garcia Marquez took Ralph to Chile as Ivan Doig drew me to Montana.
As a journalist I think Ralph’s remembrances about travel conducted 70 years ago is worth sharing with readers. So here minimally edited are memories from his last letter to me.
“May 1947. I was on a boat taking a load of potatoes from Maine to Hamburg, Germany. The Limejuicers (British) had bombed the residential areas but largely left the commercial section alone as well as the St. Pauli district which was the nightclub and red light district. I had a chance to get on a berth on another ship leaving right away, the S.S. Jeanette, a Liberty ship. We were taking a load of coal to La Belle France.”
“We passed La Havre and steamed up to Rouen, the head of navigation on the Seine River. A heavy tide forced us to stand by the mooring lines and take the slack off during the tide changes. The first thing I noticed in France was the girls lifted their skirts and sat down on their underpants, if they were wearing any. I also noticed the telephone poles were made of cement. In Rouen the bridges across the river had been bombed but they had erected a temporary wooden foot bridge across the river.”
“Don’t expect me to remember too much, this was 74 years ago! The coal on our ship was loaded into barges. Each barge had living quarters for the family in the rear. I took a train to Paris and arrived at the Gare de Nord station. Along Rue St. Fauberg de Hoffman I saw a small hotel and rented a room. It had a heavy velvet curtain around the bed so no one could see who you had in bed with you, a French idea.”
“I saw the Paris Opera House. I got in a long line at the ticket window, not knowing what was being performed. It was “Fidelio” by Beethoven. And now- the local angle. Walter Green of Elk, a KZYX announcer, was in the Army and said he had attended a performance of that show in the Paris Opera in 1947! When you first see the Eiffel Tower it scares you it is so big. If you have to do a pee-pee they have booths on the street. You could see a person’s shoulders, legs and feet from the outside. It never occurred to me to ask if there were facilities for girls too.”
“Many years later I was in Miami and saw a real cheap excursion flight to Columbia and I wanted to do a pilgrimage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez home. I arrived in Bogota at one o’clock in the morning, rang a bell at a motel, and awoke the Guardia who slept on a cot inside the door, a common practice in Latin America. In the morning I saw my name on a display board with all the other hotel guest names. Many people say ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is the best book they ever read. In it he describes in detail the first time each of his characters had sex. I guess now in order to sell books you have to have plenty of sex in them.”
My thanks to Ralph Bostrom for giving me a glimpse into the world as it existed just before I was born.