April 27, Treasure Island, Fla. – I got another email from Phil Bowler today. There are 29 emails from him in my inbox, and it’s been just 24 days since we met in St. Augustine.
He just returned to his home in Burlington, Vermont. He traveled 11,885 miles in nearly four months. He reports he’s disappointed to find Burlington freshly stocked with red-light cameras. He thinks this is yet another sign of “BIG BROTHER WATCHING.” As a result of Big Brother’s preoccupation with traffic lights, he forecasts an increase in neck and spinal injuries as drivers “SLAM ON THE BRAKES” to avoid tickets.
He concluded his journey in our backyard, touring three “top quality” museums, Winterthur, the Hagley Museum and the Brandywine Museum.
He’ll now plan summer trips to eastern Europe and Monhegan Island in Maine.
I think that gets us up to speed.
I met Phillip Bowler at the McDonald’s near St. Augustine Beach back on April 3. I met him the same day I met Gary X. We were all there, freezing together. The indoor temperature was uncomfortably cold. We all wished we’d dressed for something other than spring in Florida. When I walked outside to make a phone call, the temperature rose 20 degrees.
I asked Phillip Bowler about his name. Specifically, how to spell it.
“The derivation is from people who make wooden bowls in England,” he said. “But all the people in my family, my grandfather, great-grandfather, great-great grandfather as far back as I can trace from that side of the family, they were all brewers. When I say brewers, I mean the heads of the brewery. They owned their own breweries. My grandfather and great-grandfather in upstate New York and my great-grandfather’s two brothers in Worcester, Mass. The buildings are still there. They died in the ’30s. Unfortunately they kept the magic formula and all the fortune.
“The two brothers had the largest brewery in New England at the turn of the 20th century for two or three years.”
I thought of Jefferson Pepper. I wondered if the Bowler Brothers survived into the age of beer cans. This should worry me.
“I don’t think there’s any beer cans,” he said. “I have lots of old bottles. I have trays. They used to have a thing you keep matches in, old wooden matches.”
Anyway, I don’t think beer is Phil’s thing. Traveling is Phil’s thing. He’s the travelingest man I’ve met in all my travels. The way he travels, it seems like work. He is an obsessive, fanatical planner.
He is an obsessive, fanatical traveler.
He’d go insane if he had to a spend one day in the Behemoth.
Phillip Bowler wants to know everything about everything and every place.
“People say, ‘How can you travel so much?’ When you work seven days a week for 55 years, after that you can do whatever you want,” he said. “My first full-time job I worked in Bridgeport, Conn., for Sikorsky Aircraft, a division of United Aircraft, and actually Igor himself came through the plant with a big entourage.”
When you ask Phillip Bowler a question, you better be prepared for long and detailed answer. His head, like Wikipedia, is full of facts. His mind works like a computer that spits out endless reams of information. It flows in swollen streams, and no one byte is invested with more significance than another.
He left upstate New York and moved to Burlington in 1961 to work at General Electric as an engineering technician. He worked for 15 years in the design department of IBM, retiring as a staff engineer in 1981.
I asked about his educational background, at least I think that’s the question that provoked the following answer. It is typical:
“I have a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business administration with a major in finance from the University of Vermont,” he said. “And then I started working on a doctorate in behavioral psychology. I had a 3.86 average. But I only got into that 15 out of 75 credits. While I was at IBM I started buying apartment houses. I had 21 rental units for 27 years, so that’s what I was doing when I retired. I just got out at the top of the market.”
He is the oldest of Frederick and Claire Bowler’s three children. I asked about his relationship with his father. Now that I’m a bewildered dad myself, I’m forever bothering strangers about their relationship with their fathers.
“My dad worked all the time,” he said. “I wasn’t un-close to him. He worked nights, and when I got home from school he was out of the house. He worked for quite a few years in motion-picture projection. He worked at a company called Jewel-T in Chicago. They had a big, brown truck or something that went around selling spices, tea, household items.”
The Jewel-T truck leads him to consider the roots of his own obsession with organization.
“My father used to take me down when the truck would come and deliver packages, and I would help him sort and organize you know, the blue tea, the green tea. the this tea, the that tea, and put everything in an orderly fashion, and it gave me you, know, a sense of organization,” he said.
He was 21 when his dad died of a heart attack at age 45.
“He smoked, and I think he had tuberculosis,” he said. “I think he smoked two or three packs of Camels a day, and I’m sure that helped. I don’t smoke. When i was 13 or 14, I tried, and my mom said ‘I know you’re smoking!’ And I thought, well I can’t fool Mom. I guess I’ll quit.”
He has two kids of his own, and they live in Burlington.
“I don’t favor my dad at all, because he had beautiful, thick curly hair and he could play the guitar and all those things,” he said. “But you know he taught me a lot, fishing and hunting and that kind of stuff.”
I ask him where he thinks he got the traveling yen. He said he’s been in every town in Vermont, which makes him a member of the 251 Club. When he was 18, he hitchhiked from upstate New York to Las Vegas.
“There were no interstates at all, it was all state and federal highways, and not too fast at all,” he said. “Fifteen miles per hour was a good speed. Then I went from Las Vegas to Provo, Utah, and then back across the country, generally on Route 40. I did a whole summer doing that. Just seeing everything made it very interesting. Then I read a book by William Least Heat-Moon called “Blue Highways.”
I know about that one. Some days I feel like I’m traveling in William Least Heat-Moon’s shadow. It is enormous.
There’s a dinosaur staring me down. It’s a Tyrannosaurus rex, the king of the tyrant lizards.It’s on his sweatshirt, which he purchased when he visited the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alberta. It’s Canada’s preeminent paleontology museum. He can eat up museums like Cookie Monster eats up rounded sugary confections.
“I am interested in a wide, wide, wide spectrum of things,” he said. “I’m interested in the Civil War, World War II, the Indian wars. I’m interested in just about everything that happens, you know. I’m interested in paleontology. I’ve been to just about every place that Van Gogh was, just about every place that Monet was. Where they painted, where they were born, the churches they were baptized in, where they’re buried, and seeing most of both of their paintings as well. I’ve been to art museums all over the world. And I’ve gone to places where musicians are. Last year I was in Central Europe, I went to the home of Franz Liszt in Budapest. They have maybe 10 pianos and organs there with an audio guide. You can hear playings of each one of them. And the women probably wondered, ‘What the heck is wrong with this guy, anyway?’ Because I listened to every one of them probably four times. They were so beautiful.”
And now you have an idea about Phillip Bowler. But there’s more. Oh Lord, there’s more. Watch out. Here it comes.
He used to travel from Bridgeport to New York to see rock concerts at the RKO Paramount Theater.
“They used to have these rock and roll shows by Alan Freed in New York City, so I’ve seen Buddy Holly live,” he said. “When I was in Sun Studios in Memphis, they had some posters from these shows. It was just unbelievable. They had 30, 40 artists. I looked at the price. It was like two bucks to go to one of these concerts. Buddy Holly, he was just there with a whole group. You know, Fats Domino, Little Richard, the Everly Brothers. You know Sam and Dave? They were all there. so you know, it was just an enormous part of rock and roll. And they were good, but everybody else there was good. A lot of ’em only had like one song on a 45 record. Fats Domino had a band there with probably 30 people in a big horn section. Stuff like that. Little Richard played there, Ike and Tina Turner. All in one day!
“I never saw the Beatles live, but I’ve been to the Beatles museum in Hamburg, Germany. but I saw the Rolling Stones live, the Who live, in their prime. They’re still playing today. I saw them at a football stadium in Buffalo, N.Y. They started playing ‘Love Reign O’er Me,’ guess what, the instant they clicked on with that song, it started raining. The whole stadium just went ballistic.”
He’s like this about everything. World War II. The Civil War. It doesn’t matter. He’s a traveling Pandora’s box of surging, roiling, insistent information.
“I think everybody should go to Gettysburg because it was the largest battle fought on American soil,” he said. “I’ve been there three times. I’ve climbed Little Round Top, Big Round Top. It’s just discouraging to see people go there with the windows down driving through and they’re going to go home and say ‘I saw Gettysburg.’ Maybe you saw it. But if you haven’t spent three full days there, then you haven’t seen and understood Gettysburg.”
If you wonder what it might be like to have Phil Bowler for a grandfather, this should give you an idea:
“The third time I went, I took my two grandsons. I said, ‘We’re going to go to Gettysburg. I want you two guys to go into the bedroom, and here’s the itinerary and here’s what we’re going to do. I want you to discuss between yourselves who’s going to sit in the front seat.’ They were about 9, 10 years old at the time. ‘And I don’t care how you do it, if you want to switch every hour, if you want to go halfway there.’ I figured out about the halfway mileage point. ‘If you want one in the morning, one in the afternoon. But I want you to agree to it, and then I want you to tell me. And I’m going to tell you what. The first time I hear ‘Grandpa, he’s in my seat,’ I’m just going to turn this car around and head right back home and then I’m going to come back here by myself and enjoy it.’ Well they got that settled. Then I made them watch not once, but twice, the movie ‘Gettsyburg.’ And it’s a long movie, two and a half, three hours, so they don’t get the idea that there weren’t tanks and helicopters and walkie-talkies there. To get the idea of what the dress was like, how they fought and so on and so forth.”
That’s what it’s like to be Phil Bowler’s grandson.
Of course, they probably don’t see him all that much.
“I travel eight to 10 months a year,” he said. “One thing I do is I do an awful lot of research before I go. I don’t want to say I went to Prague and I didn’t make it to Franz Kafka’s house. I spend a lot of time on what to see, what to do, and then it’s all planned. and regulated. All my hotels are booked before I leave.”
He’s traveled just about everywhere and he’s traveled just about anyway a human can travel. He’s even traveled on container ships. He can tell you all about TEUs, or twenty yard equivalent units. That’s how they measure container cargo, in TEUs.
He left from Long Beach, Calif., and sailed for eight days across the Pacific Ocean, from Tokyo to Singapore, and then through the Strait of Malacca into the Indian Ocean, and then through the Red Sea and across the Mediterranean to Paris, Rotterdam and Hamburg.
“When I came back from that trip to Hamburg, we then went to Port kilang in Malaysia and sailed for 15 days through the pirate zone,” he said. “And when I came back from that trip, I sent a travelogue/news kind of thing out, that within three to five years, we would be in an economic depression. Not a recession, a depression. And I got a lot of nasty emails back. ‘You’re really stupid. What do you know about anything? One trip on a container ship and now you’re a worldly expert.’ My background, I told you about my education, I’ve worked for major corporations. I’ve been to every town in the United States. And that doesn’t mean going to Boston and getting on I-90 and then getting off I-90 and I-5 in Seattle and saying ‘I’ve been there.’ My route zigzags around everything and I stop to see an awful lot of stuff. My grandson William and I have been over or under every one of the bridges on the Mississippi River. At the time there were 221 of them.”
I tried to slow down the freight train of information before I got crushed. I asked him about his eccentric look, and how it relates to his organized, exacting personality. And I wondered what people on the road made of him.
“You know back in the ’60s and ’70s, you used to hear a lot ‘get a haircut’ when the hippie thing was coming in,” he said. “But I’ve never known that or felt that in a foreign country. Little kids all over the world look at me, and they’re yanking on their mother’s dress, ‘Mama, Mama, Pere Noel, Pere Noel!’ They think I’m Santa Claus. If they can speak English, I go over and say, ‘Shhh! Don’t tell anybody, I’m on vacation.’
“The last time I shaved was 1968, even when working at IBM. And I haven’t had a hair cut or a beard trim.”
The conversation returned to the Civil War. I mention our recent visit to Antietam. And Burnside’s Bridge. And he tells me that Ambrose Burnside manufactured rifles. And I ask him about his favorite figures from the war, and he tells me the life story, chapter and verse, of a fanatical Christian general from Leeds, Maine, named Oliver Otis Howard.
On this trip, he left out of Burlington on April 22. He’s been to Harrisburg, Pa., and Harrisonburg, Va., and a thousand points east and west, north and south.
Over five days in Santa Fe, he dug deep into the life of Georgia O’Keefe.
How deep? Not deep enough to satisfy his insatiable appetite for facts.
“Then I went about 50 miles north to a place called Abiquiu, where she lived,” he said. “And I came back with more questions in my mind. I still had a couple more days left. So I went to the courthouse and I pulled her probate records on microfilm and I photocopied 227 pages, which was probably a quarter of her probate record, to try to understand who she was, what she was, how much money did she make, how much money did she have, what were her end-of-life relationships like, who got what, where was the family? Because her husband died a few years before her. They didn’t have any children. He never went to New Mexico, never went out there. So I went through all that.”
And that’s Phillip Bowler in one long, dizzying paragraph. Two hundred twenty-seven pages of probate record on microfilm, just to get to know Georgia O’Keefe a little bit better.
I didn’t even ask him what intimate details he found that unlocked the door to Georgia O’Keefe. I didn’t have that much time.
So that’s Phil Bowler. That, and one more thing.
He wants to be a Renaissance man. He’s written medical essays on hypertension, cancer and Alzheimer’s. And he’s made a study of global economics, as he alluded to above.
On that score, he left me with a bit of bad news:
“My prediction, if I view the sequestration that’s coming up, by the end of June this country will be in total economic collapse. If everything holds, people will lose their jobs. I was in Daytona Monday, I went to the Internal Revenue office to get papers so I could do my income tax. Hello, the office was closed. No people. There were signs on the door, no people available. What is wrong with this picture? Hello, this is the United States. I’m going through Washington and I can’t stop at the White House to go through it. It’s gonna be major. Major.”
Not that I asked.