Wednesday, January 21, 2015

PILGRIMS, PATHFINDERS & PERIMETER MEN



            As one who sees himself as the recipient of DNA bequeathed by ten generations of pioneering Americans who loved freedom, vast open landscapes and the very seas they had to cross just to get here, I have always felt the magnetism of wild lands, rivers that run free and the sound of an ocean’s thundering surf. I have felt myself drawn to wilderness cabins and those who lovingly built them, venerable light houses and the loneliness known by the families which kept their flames alive, and the islands of New England and similar seascapes a continent away which have been home to so many of those whose roots I spring from. I live today in a hand-built log home on wild acres through which an ancient river runs and with views of largely-open country overlooked by mountain peaks created by millions of years of God’s handiwork. The cedar logs of my walls, cut from the same northwestern forests where my father and grandfathers surveyed and cut the timbers which would build America, are hung with the photographs of lighthouses I love. I am one day’s travel from the pounding surf of the great Northwest where some of my family still live on islands, from Puget Sound to the Bering Sea, and within a determined day’s travel from the cold gray waters of the Atlantic where my 8th great grandfather Tristram Coffin purchased Nantucket Island from the Indians -whom he loved and protected – and whose family built great ships and sailed them around the world.
            Not surprisingly I have a nephew who fishes commercially the waters of Alaska and the Northwest, from his Aleut wife’s ancestral home on Kodiak Island. Some years ago he and his working crew took refuge during a flagged non-fishing “time-out” upstream on one of the numerous tributaries of the wild and pristine Stikine River where Alaska and the Yukon Territory virtually touch borders.  Looking for a safe and quiet anchorage they headed into a nearly invisible inlet where the whitewater of a mountain stream emptied into the river; a good spot for wild trout to add to the menu they thought. Then they were surprised to see a tiny log cabin with a thin tendril of smoke sauntering skyward from its stove pipe. Observing the northern backcountry’s emphasis on good manners, they began to turn away so as to respect the resident’s right to privacy. Then they were treated to the sight of a small man with white hair and a matching white beard standing in front of the cabin site, jumping up and down and waving them madly to come on in.
             Thus they became for several days the guests of one of that regions rare “perimeter men”; an unusual breed of humans who choose to live alone. Inside the small hand-built cabin, outfitted for year-round living, they were tantalized by a lone and glowing 60-watt light bulb hanging sans shade from an overhead beam. They discovered it was powered by an ingenious water-powered generator being turned by a ram pump mounted in the waterfalls behind the cabin. A tall pole-built cache accessed by a bear-proof ladder protected the wild game meat with which the bearded resident filled it each fall. As a compliment to red meat, there would be the abundant salmon and Dolly Varden trout which filled the nets deployed from the “loner’s” short dock almost year-round.  Such cash as the old man needed came from his trap line and the gold he panned from nearby streams. He assured Captain Cooper and his crew that he “had everything he needed” to live a “handsome life”.
            Among those who managed to live life large in a wilderness setting and whose written words stirred me from an early age are “pathfinders” such as Calvin Rutstrum born in 1895, author of 15 books who had run the length of the Mississippi on rafts by age 12, and built wilderness cabins across North America as civilization kept “moving in” on him. He never took a regular job if it failed to allow him at least six months of “backwoods time”. I succumbed to his first book in 1946 and am just as moved by his last one published just before his death at age 87.
            My late friend and best-selling wilderness author, Sigurd Olson, whose son Sig Jr. supervised wilderness lands for the state of Alaska for many years,  once talked to me at length about these unusual men, among whom not more than 200 still live alone the old way. My nephew was lucky enough to meet one of them, and I fortunate enough to add that story to my life-long inventory of true tales of the pilgrims, pathfinders and perimeter men of free America, including that of a great grandfather whose search for Yukon gold cost him his life on the “trail of 1898". His remains lie lost somewhere “up there” amidst the debris of the landslide which made him part of that great land.



  The author has known the peace of nights under the whispering Norway Pines of the north country as a guest in the trapper’s cabin at “Listening Point” made famous by wilderness author Sigurd Olson.                              Al Cooper Photo






Tuesday, January 13, 2015

HERALDING THE RETURN OF VINYL RECORDS



            The attic of the old home overlooking the Hudson River in “old” New Jersey was a veritable treasure trove; almost a living history family museum. By the time I was old enough to know my way around its four floors, endless corridors and mysterious “hidden” closets, those attic aisles under the pitched eaves were an explorer’s paradise – especially during a noisy thunder storm. There were tall barrels, wooden boxes and a myriad of old travel trunks interspersed with overflowing and even bursting cardboard crates. There were also lined up like so many soldiers shelves filled with strange, green colored cylinders.  I learned they were for the Edison Electrical Music Machine which had long been replaced by the more familiar oak-stained piece of furniture in our dining room which had to be wound up via a hand crank in order to listen to the round wax records bearing such names as Rudy Vallee, Deanna Durbin and the Great Valentino.
            A few years later, and with a 78 rpm wonder that needed no cranking, I was accumulating my own stack of those wax discs featuring The Firehouse Five Plus Two, a skinny new singer from nearby Hackensack named Frank Sinatra and of course The Andrews Sisters.(I still have a fifty-pound hoard of those irreplaceable pieces of music history in my basement – and I play them!)
            Then by the early 1950s and with the birth of the 33 rpm, Vinyl Long Playing record, the recorded music world changed dramatically. With fine-tipped diamond needles and narrow microgroove  technology, it was possible to put a full hour of high quality sound on a single twelve-inch disc which was almost indestructible and had a long playing life.
            The coming of what was marketed as “High Fidelity” in recording but was simply the combination of lower distortion and a greater range of clean sound made possible by progress in the industry had an enormous effect on the growing number of dedicated “audiophiles”, many of whom like myself became home-builders of their own playback equipment. I built my own “HiFi” system for the first time around 1958 with a Heathkit amplifier and a Tandberg turntable. The resulting sound was magnificent, and I learned a lot about wiring schematics and soldering technique in the process.
            The true “Golden Age” of recorded musical sound really began with the introduction in the mid-60s of what was first known as binaural sound, later marketed as stereophonic – or just stereo sound, although both terms were technically deceiving. Essentially it came down to recording on both sides of a groove and playing back through two speaker systems so as to create the illusion of spacial separation. Very impressive! But the ultimate in true stereo involved recording the original performance on two separate microphone systems so that the separation achieved was actual and real.
            For the dedicated audiophile of the day, there was one more important decision to make .The other revolutionary change going on was ushered in by the arrival of the transistor and what came to be known as “solid state” technology. I spent hours and days in my friend Herb Mooney’s Mission, Kansas sound demonstration lab listening to every available combination of amplifier and speakers. For me the answer was clear: Vacuum tubes produced better sound than transistors, and the combination of Harmon Kardon electronics and Bozak speakers rang the bell for me.
            I spent the next twelve months building my “dream” stereo system, from wiring to cabinetry. It first played the opening phrases of Jean Sibelius’ Symphonic Poem Finlandia in my Kansas living room in 1963, and still fills my 1800 square-foot Utah basement with angelic sound today 52 years later. My nearby collection of vinyl recordings (about 70% classical) probably numbers over 500, each bearing a white label on the outer cover which tells me the date it arrived in my library, and each date it was  played. Do I have a favorite demonstration pressing? That would be Camille Saint-SaŃ‘ns’ awe-inspiring “Organ” Symphony No. 3. with a cathedral size pipe organ and up to four pianos.
            Why am I writing on this subject today? Because, my friends, the vinyl disc is enjoying a comeback. Today’s audiophiles have “discovered” that no other medium compares with the quality of its sound. What’s more, collectors are willing to pay big money for a surviving vacuum tube playback system like the one they told me was obsolete. Makes me wonder about a lot of other things “they” told me.



   With its weighty transformers and a hard-to-find matched set of KT88 vacuum tubes, the Harmon Kardon Citation still powers the author’s stereo system52 years after its construction.




Friday, January 2, 2015

TREASURING UP LIFE’S MOMENTS OF MAGIC

            Rather than focusing on annual resolutions, I try to find a quiet time weekly to ponder on life’s “small wonders” as I take measure of the unrolling list of such things as I revisit and add to my “Happiness Calendar”.
            This Christmas Shirley and I found ourselves getting to welcome two brand new great grandkids (No. 12 and No. 13) who had not been with us last year, and to share the story of how three others had gone to their personal savings and with some help from their parents used it to buy and distribute 60 warm blankets plus some cash to the homeless in their Colorado neighborhood to make this holiday one they will long remember. And their story joins my own lengthening list.


            Several years ago I was invited to speak on patriotism to a small Utah community gathering. The whole town showed up together with their children. I was late getting away, but found a young girl patiently waiting by my parked vehicle. Taking my hand in both of hers, she looked up at me in the gathering dark and, with great feeling said: “I just wanted to tell you that you touched my heart tonight, and I will never forget the things you said”. I found she was 8 years old and in the third grade. She walked away to the only other vehicle still there, a mini-van filled with her large and patiently waiting family. I was stunned, can’t even remember my trip home and to this day can’t describe in mere words how she touched my heart.
            Having grown up in a family of four brothers and a day-to-day brotherhood of tree-climbing, fast-ball hitting  rough-and-ready guys with a capital “G”, I was rather clumsy as a kid in knowing how to relate to girls as “friends”. What saved me from allowing that disease to become fatal was a girl named Elizabeth Riker. From Kindergarten onward we had been neighbors and friends. Together we would rake leaves from Dad’s maple tree to jump into every fall, gather blackberries from our secret places, and swing on adjacent park swings late into the evening. She was pretty good at catching forward passes and well-thrown strike balls when nobody else was around and I don’t think we ever thought of ourselves as being “different” (even though I seem to recall us looking one day, just to shed light on that question.) The day I sensed a change was the evening before I and my family would be following the moving van to far away Vermont.  It would be the last swing in the small park we frequented. For all of our growing-up years we had swung and talked together, but that night was different. Neither of us knew what to say. We were 14 years old and somehow, jumping in a pile of leaves was far from our thoughts. It was one of those mysterious “doorway” instants we call “coming of age” – unspoken but deeply etched in a lifetime of memories to come. It was a silent moment of shared magic swelling two young hearts. It would never happen again.
                        It has been my pleasure over the years to share a multi-media motivational program I call “A SENSE OF WONDER” with largely adult audiences. On one such occasion, as part of a “Women’s Conference” I was prepared and waiting to begin when a mother moved into the very front row, placing five feet away from me a mentally challenged young man, probably 30 and 8 years old. I tried hard not to show my sense of annoyance at this woman’s thoughtlessness; didn’t she know how easily my showmanship might be compromised?  Having no choice I proceeded with the program, and as expected the man/boy in the front row was very vocal, sometimes applauding, often exclaiming, if at inappropriate times. As a clearly satisfied and enthusiastic audience filed out afterward, the mother came up to me. “Do you know what my son just said to me?” she asked rhetorically. “He said ‘mother, this was the most important night of my life’.” I realized it had been fulfilling for me as well, and certainly one from which I took away an important life lesson.
            Mike was a troubled young man whose life had been plagued with disappointments: a failed marriage, repeated loss of employment, failure to qualify to attend college programs of his career choice and more. He enrolled in a Food History & Cooking class I was teaching for the State Extension Service with my wife’s great assistance. From then on he became what in an earlier vernacular might have been described as a “camp follower”; whenever and wherever I was performing some kind of public  appearance, he would be there. Some years went by without contact, but one day he phoned my home. It was a rare Saturday with time for personal “catching up”, but I said he could stop by. When he arrived mere moments later, I knew he had called from his car phone. I listened – I thought carefully – but Mike must have noticed me glancing at my watch. When he finally excused himself without ever telling me specifically why he had come, he paused at the front door to ask: “Don’t you know you’re my hero!” My first reaction was to wonder what right Mike had to saddle me with such a responsibility. Then, I sat down hard, and had a long talk with myself as I considered all the “heroes” in my life, people who had been in just the right place and right time to help me across the hiccups and hurdles of life, and who had opened up for me those moments of magic which are among my most cherished possessions.

(*)  My boyhood friend Elizabeth would live to have a large family but would die still young in a road accident caused by a drunk driver.