Tom Barton never thought he’d go viral.
With good reason. Though he’s a retired computer programmer, that work was a long time ago, in the age of punch cards.
Today, at 71, Barton, of Baton Rouge, is barely on the internet. He has a Facebook account but last updated it four years ago. He’s never logged onto Twitter.
Yet there he is, on the social media website he doesn’t belong to, streaking across the web like a comet. His recent musing on sex and abortion has at last count been retweeted 13,200 times. More than 72,000 people have “liked” it. Thousands have engaged in a sometimes heated debate about whether Barton is the wisest man alive or a heathen headed for a hot place in the afterlife.
How did a man who is the very definition of analog become a social media sensation? It’s all my fault.
The first thing I do every morning is grab my newspaper and read the letters to the editor. I’ve always loved them: They are our version of the public square, a place where anyone can offer an opinion on just about anything.
And when I unfurled my paper and read Barton’s paean to the joys of sex, I thought to myself: This one deserves a wider audience. How often do you read a message from a stranger with frank statements like this one: “I’m an old man who has probably had his last sex, but that doesn’t mean I’ve turned against it.”
Or: “In my mind, sex is the best it gets. It’s fun, good exercise and free! And most importantly, it’s life’s most spectacular form of intimacy. Think of music, think of poetry.”
I’m a lifetime newspaper reader, but I just about spit out my coffee. I took a picture of the column — I share an analog sensibility with Barton — and I tweeted the picture, with the exhortation “Always always always read the letters.”
It snowballed quickly and it’s still going.
When I called Barton to tell him he was famous, at least on Twitter, it was the first he heard of it. He laughed uproariously. Then, he said: “My wife’s going to kill me.” He laughed again.
He asked if he could have a minute to put in his hearing aids and call me back. While he found it interesting that his message had gone viral, his fascination was limited. I sent him a link to the tweet and the reaction it provoked. He said he was reading a biography and would take a look at what I had sent him in a few hours.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t read Barton’s column, he argues that overturning the Roe decision was a “bad idea.”
Most of the reactions, the majority from women, were positive. Dozens said they hoped Barton wasn’t forswearing intimacy just yet. “I highly doubt a man this fantastic has had his last sex,” one tweeted.
There were plenty of countervailing opinions, too. Many commenters deplored Barton’s description of an unwanted pregnancy as a burden, and some said sex for pleasure should not be celebrated.
Those who read Barton’s missive may not be surprised to learn that he writes poetry, and has a self-published book.
But they might be somewhat surprised to learn that Barton is married – for the last 20 years, no less. (He calls himself “a Yankee eccentric who married a girl from Ponchatoula.”)
Did his wife, Vicki Picou, know her husband had been sharpening his quill?
“No, he did not tell me” the letter was coming, said Picou, a retired lawyer who spent years working for the Attorney General’s Office, at the state Supreme Court and other state agencies. She laughed.
“I read it in the paper. I was very surprised. But not surprised about the opinion,” she said. “Tom is always frank. He was a little more frank than I might have been. But that’s his privilege.”