Answer Man

Answer Man: Going low-tech may leave you out in the cold

Q. Your recent piece on the mile marker signs was good, but you omitted a vital piece of info. Who do you call for roadside assistance if you break down? A broken fan belt on a sunny day does not warrant 911. Also, I do not own a cell phone (a true Luddite). Must I send up smoke signals?

— David Busse, of Maryville

A. Sad to say, but sometimes when you don’t keep up with technology, life will pass you by like a hot rodder doing 80 down I-64.

Case in point: I have an elderly friend who constantly asks me to buy old movies for him, but he absolutely, positively refuses to buy a DVD player. I simply cannot understand it. I mean, he learned how to use a VCR with no problem, and I keep telling him that DVDs, with their special features, would open up a whole new world to him. But his mind is made up, and now, of course, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the films he wants on VHS.

I fear you’re in the same boat. In 1973, the year Motorola demonstrated the very first handheld mobile phone, the Illinois Department of Transportation installed roadside emergency call boxes every half-mile along metro-east interstates. The nearly 300 boxes allowed stranded motorists to summon help by pressing a button.

But as cell phone popularity took off like a rocket, the call boxes began collecting cobwebs. By the turn of the century, fewer than a quarter of emergency calls were coming from those boxes, so IDOT ripped them out in 2005 and replaced them with those mile-marker signs every fifth of a mile. Officials said it would save the state $200,000 a year. So, unless you have a phone, you may want to practice smoke signals or, like Blanche DuBois, rely on the kindness of strangers.

However, if you do buy a phone, you may have an alternative to 911. The Illinois State Police assure me that dialing *77 will get you in contact with state troopers. Around the Illinois Tollway, you can punch up *999. And, in Missouri, *55 can get you help, according to the St. Louis District of the Missouri Department of Transportation. For the rest of the country, see 911/mobilenumbers.html, although that site hasn’t been updated for a while. Otherwise, you might go with the standby 911, although that is frowned upon if you have only a flat tire.

The “wheel” truth: A picture of a burnt bicycle has ignited a debate over proper terminology, so let me be the “spokes”man to set the record straight.

In a Feb. 1 story about the Marissa history museum fire, we ran a picture of a man carrying out one of those antique “penny-farthing” bicycles that pair a massive front wheel with a dinky rear wheel. We said the larger wheel was known as the penny while implying that the smaller one was the farthing.

A few days later, a reader scolded us severely for what she called a big boo-boo. Obviously, she said, the rear wheel is the penny while the front is the “larger farthing.”

Unfortunately, I unthinkingly let her assertion pass, but one of my favorite sticklers for accuracy — Harrison Church, of Lebanon — did not. In a brief typewritten note, he rightly pointed out that we were indeed correct even though it may not sound like it to some. The huge front wheel on a penny-farthing bike is indeed the penny while the rear is the farthing, because the old farthing coin is worth only one-fourth of a penny.

So I might gently suggest that readers bone up on their English currency knowledge before any London trip or they might be taken for a ride of a different sort.

Healthy claim?: Speaking of accuracy, Jim Filanda questioned my recent trivia answer that Mullanphy Hospital in St. Louis was the first Catholic hospital in the country. He said his research found Charity Hospital in New Orleans listed as first on at least a couple of websites.

I knew I was going to get into trouble with this one, so I have to rely on the accuracy of the Missouri Historical Society along with a history of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul, both of whom maintain that Mullanphy was indeed the first Catholic health care institution in the U.S.

“Reportedly, a New Orleans administrator was given a good impression of their work at Mullanphy, and the sisters were requested to manage New Orleans’ charity hospital where neglect for the sick and ‘insane’ was widespread,” according to the De Paul history. So, although Charity Hospital was founded in 1736, the sisters did not take over until some time after Mullannphy opened in 1828.

Today’s trivia

What U.S. airport is named after the only man to compete in both summer Olympics Games in which golf was among the sports?

Answer to Thursday’s trivia: In 1930, J.D. and Ethel Shelley and their six children, a black family from Mississippi, moved to St. Louis to escape the pervasive racial oppression in the South. For years, they lived with family and in rental properties because many building owners had signed agreements to sell their houses only to whites.

Eventually, the Shelleys bought a home at 4600 Labadie Ave. from an owner who agreed not to enforce the racial covenant. However, a nearby property owner did sue, and, on Dec. 9, 1946, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed a circuit court ruling that allowed the Shelleys to move into their new home. But on May 3, 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court voted 6-0 that the state’s enforcement of such racial covenants was unconstitutional.

“We lived in that house on Labadie for maybe ten years,” J.D. Shelley later told a biographer. “I kept on working in construction long as I could, and my kids and their kids were all working, too. Right now, I got five great-great-grandchildren. Ethel passed on September 15, 1984. We was married 60 years. The way I see it, it was a good thing that we done this case. We was the first ones to live where they said colored couldn’t live.”