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Old Sailor Charts Steadfast Course Through an Ocean of Knowledge

April 03, 1988|STEVE CHAWKINS | Times Staff Writer

Fifty-three years after he hopped aboard a freighter plying trade routes in the Caribbean, the old salt can reel off his first ports of call like a train conductor calling out the suburban stops: "Porto Padre, Juan Claro, Aguadilla, Mayaguez, Ponce," he intones.

He can tell you the number of feet stem to stern on the ship, the S. S. Carleton, and on his next two vessels, the S. S. LaBette and the West Comack. To pass time in the merchant marine, he learned to weave, and he can tell you the number of half-hitches--19,200--on the brilliant seascape macrame that hangs on the living room wall of his Oxnard apartment.

Elliott T. Pilchard can flip a page in one of his meticulously kept record books and fill you in on, say, the rainfall at the Los Angeles Civic Center in April, 1902. From another home-grown volume, he can extract the number of islands in the Federated States of Micronesia--607--and from yet another he can let you know you that more than 20,000 industrial robots perform tasks of all kinds in the United States.

As some men turn to booze or to God, the white-bearded gent known in the neighborhood as "the Captain" has turned to information. Over the past eight years, he has compiled 125 anthologies of articles on meteorology, astronomy, psychology, geography and a potpourri of subjects ranging from the history of California cable cars to biographies of the world's great composers.

None has been published, but Pilchard's private obsession still has turned to public benefit. He has funneled free copies of his works into classrooms and school libraries throughout the Oxnard School District, where teachers and students alike use them for reference. Now, through "The Idea Factory'--an educational-materials catalogue for teachers--the Ventura County superintendent of schools is making the 50- to 60-page typewritten volumes available to every classroom in the county.

"He's synthesized a tremendous amount of information into a very handleable, accessible format," said Jeanne Adams, director of curriculum and instructional services for the 12,000-student Oxnard School District. "We've even videotaped an interview with Elliott so we could preserve him for our students forever. He epitomizes what we try to communicate to youngsters about lifelong learning."

When he wrote his first volume, "The Basics of Hydrographic Survey," Pilchard wasn't setting out to epitomize anything. A teacher at a Thousand Oaks private school visited an Oxnard marine-supply house to find a book that would offer a simple explanation of navigation. The storekeeper steered her to the garrulous Pilchard, who would drop in the store from time to time and spin yarns about his days as a naval surveyor on the old 176.5-foot U. S. S. Hydrographer.

No Lofty Motives

In what was to be his only totally original creation, Pilchard banged out 14 pages on nautical charting for students at the St. Paschal Baylon School. He topped it off with a poem called "My Ship," which concluded:

"I say to my ship ol' Hydro I think you're the best

Thanks for all the safe journeys--may you always be blessed."

One hundred and twenty-four volumes later, Pilchard still refrains from assigning himself lofty academic motives.

"I'm 69 years old," he says simply. "I live alone, and I've got to do something to keep from going down the damn tubes."

Occasional visits from his children, grandchildren and five great-grandchildren aren't enough. He plays the organ, enjoys a wide circle of friends and a taste for good food, but all that does not feed the inner man. "Knowledge," Pilchard says, "is the thing."

Simple Routines

His routine is simple. He sets out for breakfast at a local restaurant at 7:10 each morning. He eats eggs, a hamburger patty, sourdough toast and hash browns, downs several cups of coffee and chews over the news of the day with a crony. He returns home about two hours later and scours publications as diverse as the Los Angeles Times, The Mayo Clinic Health Letter, Proceedings of the Naval Institute, Sky & Telescope and The Keeper's Log--the journal of the U. S. Lighthouse Society--for articles that might be of use in his volumes.

For the next six hours, he types.

"I don't write," he is quick to point out. "The writers can do that a lot better than I can. I just research and edit. Sometimes I cut out a little of the set-decoration, but basically, journalism can give kids a first-person feel about complicated subjects that they'll never find in textbooks."

But, even if there were no kids on the receiving end of "Fourth Monograph on Astronomy" or "About Oceans" or "Some Great Cities of the United States," Pilchard insists he would carry on just the same, lashing himself to his typewriter daily and setting sail for the unknown, no matter how rough the seas.

"I fell to pieces after my wife died," he says. "In the 2 1/2 years afterward, I did a million and a half words on depression and anxiety."

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