Saturday, January 14, 2017

LESSONS LEARNED IN A LAND FARAWAY



            As I sit here at my writing desk today in the midst of what we call the “digital age,” I am in touch with part of my extended family – my son and daughter-in-law and part of their family – as they travel across Japan together. My grandson Jake served his church as a missionary in that land (as did also his younger sister) in recent years and now he is sharing his memories of that experience with his parents and young wife. I only wish Shirley and I could be with them although much of my Japan is no longer the way it was more than six decades ago when I experienced it. For me it was a life-changing experience in ways I might never have expected and in which it continues to define me and who I am today. I was barely 20 years old at the time, and already familiar with death and war, but otherwise still a “work-in-process”.
            For three young airmen accustomed to tents, cots, sleeping bags and old musty-tasting water from “Lister” bags and canteens, white sheets, dinner napkins, polished silver and tasty meals served by pretty waitresses were like a taste of heaven after eight months of the former. .. . and worse. Rather than follow the more clandestine “week-away” preferred by many of our comrades, Pennington, Smitty and I elected to enroll with the Military-sponsored R&R Service. We were assigned a third-floor room in the former Gaijo-in-Kanko Hotel in the Shinagawa District of Tokyo, formerly known as the capitol city’s “Waldorf Astoria” now operated by the U.S. Army for Korean combat veterans, (or U.S.A.F. pilots and aircrew with family visitors.)
            In addition to interiors finished in “mother-of-pearl” and hand-cut stone artwork, there were outdoor gardens and walkways with waterfalls, caged bears and exquisite topiary.
            One month previous to our Tokyo visit there had been a tragic C-124 transport crash (still historically notable) in which 120 R&R veterans died, leading to a cancellation of such traffic for some weeks. With the help of a collaborating Sergeant-friend in Group Headquarters, we three were “sneaked” onto an “unofficial” Tokyo flight before the ban was lifted. We found ourselves the only G.I. guests in a hotel staffed for 1200, with a dozen waitresses rotating service in order to take turns at out dining room table! (How could they resist!)
            For us, this was like a visit to a candy factory. We made it a habit to learn the name of every staff member, from elevator operator to doorman and to always address them that way; and to bow with respect when appropriate. Our “houseboy” spent more time visiting with us in our room than attending to other duties (quickly learning how to play a winning hand of poker.) The Post Exchange operated by the Army along with a full-time Post Office in the basement was like a magnet for us; it seemed that every young Joson working there must be some kind of a Japanese “beauty queen” and it was easy to spend hours “shopping” there; seems one of us was always running low on shaving cream, tooth paste or chewing gum. You could lay away a world class, hand-made bamboo fishing rod or order a 1952 Ford convertible for stateside delivery. My wife Shirley still displays a set of Noratake china sent to her by a certain Sergeant who had to explain why it was an important part of ambassadorial duty to dance on four nights in a row with a 4.5 foot tall girl named Kazuka Itabashi. (Still not a popular subject.)
            The dance band that played on the hotel’s roof-top “garden” every night was in fact one of our main drawing cards at the Gaijo-in. They played flawless Glen Miller arrangements without a piece of sheet music anywhere in evidence; we had discovered them practicing the day we arrived, and it was love at first note.
            The whole point of this story burst upon us at the time of our departure, just as R&Rs opened up and hundreds of new arrivals swarmed the hotel. We tried to find all of our “new friends” to say THANK YOU and GOOD BYE! We found them all, lined up in the lobby waiting for us; dozens of everyday Japanese menial workers with tears in their eyes, whose homeland had been at war with us just a few years before. At the head of their line was the U.S. Army hotel manager who addressed us: “I have managed this hotel for 24 months, but this is the first time I have seen anything like this happen. Whatever the three of you have done, you have made these people love you. They each want to say their own personal Sayonara.
            And they did: a deep, formal bow from the waist, a touching of hands and an obviously heartfelt, even teary-eyed arigato and farewell. Finally, the manager whispered to us: . .if you can get back over here again, you can have our finest suite, you will not have to sign in, and there will be no record of the service you receive. I only wish our country had more ambassadors like you!
            What had happened back there we asked ourselves. All we had done was treated those kind and delightful people the same as we would have, had they been the friends and loved ones we had been missing for so long?
            Go figure!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

MARKING FOUR-HUNDRED WEEKS AS A SPECTRUM STORY-TELLER By Al Cooper



Because I am a watcher- of- dates and a keeper- of -scores, I could not miss the fact that today’s column of Home Country is number 400 of a personal love affair that began on May 7th, 2009 with a commentary on the uniqueness of early American architecture titled Backroad Gingerbread. Because I am also one who holds the quality of continuity in high regard I am also proud to point out to my readers (and editors) that in that nearly eight years of weekly columns I have never missed a publication date or been late with a submission.
             I was unsure just how to weave that notion into a theme until my wife arrived from the post office with this morning’s mail. There inside today’s clutch of Christmas cards was a hand-penned note from old friends: “How thankful we are that our paths crossed!” It hit home with me not only because it speaks so sincerely and accurately of our long-standing friendship with this particular family with whom we have shared precious experiences over many years, but because in one short simple sentence it suggests that some of the most significant and even sacred connections of our lives may not be merely earthly coincidence; and this I believe holds true in my own life.
             The circumstances that launched my “love affair” with Talk Radio long ago and those which carried that over to the print “world” years later were born from experiences and connections which took place outside the circumference of my own reach. It was this recognition of the role played by “chance” encounters and unpredictable “players” that led to my column of January 29th, 2016 titled Friends, Connections and Dunbar’s Number in which I explored what Science had to say on the subject. I now believe that the learned Dr. Dunbar was probably right when he noted that most “thinking” individuals have no more than 15 “close” friends at any given time, and an “inner circle” of only 3 – 5. By thinking this through I have a greater appreciation for those rare and wonderful friends who reach out their hands but touch my heart.
            Almost weekly I will receive an email, a letter or a phone call or three from readers who have questions or heartfelt comments. Sometimes – as with my recent column of October 21st The Last Walk -- they will descend by the dozen. (It was apparently a message which registered squarely for many readers.) Whatever the case, I try to honor every contact with a prompt response; every friend is important. There are a number of readers/listeners who over the years have become more than casual or chance acquaintances, but whose friendship has become ongoing and uplifting. They are a treasure apart.
            I have been asked if I ever pen an article for the sheer “fun of it? The answer is YES: Wandering Through the Wonderful World of Words – December 15, 2012 for one instance    . Another that gives me pleasure because in it I reveal deeply personal feelings usually kept private is titled “Smudgie” and the Gold Bead, and was published February 16th,2015. And that forces me to admit that for me, there is very often an emotional price to be paid for my “personal” style of writing; that is my own story told in the first person. Many years ago I asked a friend who was also a “story-teller”, but one who worked with oils and canvas, to read and comment on a Christmas story I had just completed. He started his review with the words “Let me ask you something, Al: Did you cry when you were writing this?” My first unspoken thought was what business is that of yours! Followed closely by, how would you happen to know that!!
            When it comes to columns like The Sad, Sad Road to Trebliuka, Jan., 2010 or Remembering the Lost Children of Lidice, July 10, 2013 or dozens of others like them, tears are part of the rite of passage for he or she who ventures into the words required to complete the journey.
            Of all these “connections”, I appreciate today the trust and confidence which the editors and staff at SPECTRUM have extended to me, and with it all, the loyalty of what has to be one of the country’s warmest and most welcoming family of communities; Utah’s Dixie.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

ARE WE FORGETTING THE QUIET GENERATION ?



            We were born into the worst years of the Great Depression and welcomed pass-me-down clothes, darned socks and shoes repaired multiple times by our Dads. We delivered newspapers in the early morning dark, shoveled snow for a dime and traded baseball cards, shooting marbles and “Dick Tracy” rings from Wheaties box tops. We didn’t ride to school on buses, and when we got there we joined in prayer and saluted the flag in every classroom. School lunch was something from home ( probably P,B n J  or baloney sandwiches and a red apple) we carried in a tin lunch pail like our Dad’s, but smaller. We came home full of “the olde nik”, played in the streets, in the woods or on the sandlots until dark (or until Dad came after us with a switch.) We started with red hot water and “Ivory soap that floats” in the tub for the first guy but by the last one in it was “cold and gray” with broken pieces.
            Our Dads worked hard and for long hours, six days a week while our Moms kept house and home together. We had lots of friends, and neighbors looking out for us, and aunts and uncles and cousins galore. We did not think we were poor! I felt lucky to have been born in America. And I thought about it a lot. My friend Pierre Poirot was from France, Ziggy Klausner whose father drove a locomotive, from Germany and Paul Glen from Ireland. I wouldn’t have changed heritage with anyone – even my own cousins in England, where bombs were already falling.
            The day Pearl Harbor was bombed I was listening on the radio, and from that moment on I lived each day as an active participant. In fact I think of myself as a “child of World War II; it is in my blood, and I am of that generation even though too young to go. I collected scrap, ran obstacle courses, target-fired weekly, drilled with my high school friends, waited faithfully for letters from my Marine Corps brothers; bought Savings stamps and bonds, watched fighting ships come and go from New York’s busy harbor and fighters and bombers take off from Mitchell and Floyd Bennett fields.
            We gladly weathered the inconvenience and dietary limitations of rationing and pinched budgets, getting by on 10 gallons of auto fuel a month, 35 mph speed limits, blown tires that had to be patched or abandoned, and watching the number of gold stars in neighbors’ windows grow in number; getting word that Junior LagGande was missing on a training flight in the Cascades and Jackie Mueller had lost a leg in Africa.
            Then it was all over: VE Day, then VJ Day, and good-looking cars started to flow out of Detroit, and America was ready for good times again. Then, just as I and millions of other young men ready for higher education or jobs in the real world were leaving high school, the unfinished business of WWII began to come home to haunt us. In fact history will eventually agree with my personal belief that The Second World War did not end in 1945, but just took a rest while the Chinese repossessed the hardware of war the Allies conveniently left stacked and ready for them to appropriate, and Communist regimes moved across Europe as we and our docile “friends” signed mindless treaties and “giveaways” in the name of “peace and friendship”.
            Then those of us who thought we had “lost our chance” to fight in the “Big” war got the call to a faraway land called Korea and we went by the tens and then hundreds of thousands, occupying old tar-paper training barracks and left-over uniforms; left-over everything including M-1s and carbines with rusted firing pins. We drove 1942 Ford-built jeeps (which turned out to be superior to the largely-deficient Willys which replaced them.)  We rode to war in “moth-balled” Liberty ships quickly returned to service, and ate “C” and “K” rations of uncertain antiquity in the field. We learned that none of our 6X6s and “weapos” had been winterized, that a “10-second” hand grenade better be thrown before the count of 3, and that .50 cal. ammo. supplies limited us to 10 “test” rounds a day. (In my Air Force outfit we traded a surplus of ammo. for desperately-needed concertina wire to protect ground facilities from infiltrators.)
            The zippers on our sleeping bags froze shut trapping our guys for night bayonet attacks, and the firing rate of cheap communist “burp guns” out-stripped anything we had for two years.  We flew close-up air support with leftover P-51 “Mustangs” and F-4U “Corsairs” – which turned out to be a “blessing” compared to the new F-80 “Shooting Stars” which lacked diving brakes and accuracy (and with whose help my outfit bombed itself; twice.)
            With a lot of experienced leadership from our senior NCOs who were mostly “big war” veterans, our guys fought bravely and well, eventually routing the invaders and saving today’s Republic of Korea  (South) for its 43 million residents, an anchor of democratic capitalism in East Asia, from godless Communism.
            Proud of what our big brothers had done before us, and aware that the folks at home were not exactly rolling in the aisles with applause for us, we became the Quiet Generation. Our casualties per month of warfare were higher than those of any other American conflict since the Civil War, and our war was one we actually WON! What a novel outcome!
            I’m fiercely proud of every living (and gone) Korean veteran, and I for one of them refuse to be quiet when I see high school graduates (and college-age contemporaries) who don’t even know about that bloody struggle for human freedom. And I will have you know that we too are dues-paying members of “the greatest generation!” 

Sunday, December 11, 2016

UNCOVERING LOST BURIAL GROUNDS




            Unless you are, like me, an aficionado of regional publications from around the country, and in particular in this case Maine’s outstanding DOWN EAST, magazine you might be excused for not knowing the name of Peter Noddin of Aroostook County. Known unofficially as a “wreck chaser”, Noddin is actually an aviation archeologist who – after many years as a fire-fighter – now spends much of his time researching and hunting down the location of plane crashes long hidden in Maine’s dense forests and lake country. During WWII Maine’s air fields and bases were the departure points for thousands of military planes heading across the Atlantic for the war in Europe. Not only is coastal Maine the place where “fog is born”, but where dense forests cover much of a vast landscape.
            As a young student pilot I occasionally volunteered to co-pilot flights in light planes for the Vermont Fish & Game Dept. to pick up trapped pine martens in Maine to be ferried to my home state to help in battles against an insurgent porcupine outbreak. At those times I would glance outside the cockpit now and then and wonder where in the world I would set down in an emergency. (It was best not to wonder!)
            The exigencies of wartime pressed newly-trained airmen into aircraft just hours off the production line and  then over some of the world’s most challenging and dangerous flying routes at a high cost in human lives and equipment. It is estimated that at least 10,000 such “over-flights” of European-bound military aircraft crisscrossed Maine during the war years. It should be remembered as well that many of these complex airplanes were flown by a handful of courageous and little-acknowledged civilian women ferry pilots who posted an unbelievable success record. (They were not even offered government insurance coverage!)
            Looking at the larger picture, we know that between December 1941 and 1945, the USAAF suffered more than 52,000 aviation accidents over the continental United States resulting in 14,000 aircraft destroyed and the death of 14,903 airmen. During the same period the U.S. Navy suffered another 8,134 deaths in skies over the U.S., and it is likely that as many as 20,000 of the lives lost in the air war overseas resulted from accidents.
            I was 11 years old when my Boy Scout group wandered onto the site of a recent B-17 Bomber crash in the Ramapo Mountains of New Jersey. The guns and Norden bomb sight had just been removed, but the ten of us would never forget that close-up image of a war that already seemed to dominate our “world”; even close to home, where ten young men could die so easily on a peaceful green American hillside.
            Less than ten years later I lay awake on my cot in a Korean night listening to the frantic voice of a Navy Panther pilot who knew his jet was going down as the voice of our Controller tried to guide him over our lines where it would be safe to bail out. Moments later he was close enough that we could hear the crash. When we reached him after early daylight we discovered that he had cleared his cockpit but was too close to the ground for his chute to complete opening. It lay spread out like a banner across the rice paddy. A small group of very tough men stood around weeping unashamedly; he had been so close!
            It somehow makes me feel better to know that 75 years later, there are still people like Peter Noddin of Maine who care enough to hunt down and pay their respects to those who fell from the sky to die alone long ago.


   A veteran of two wars, an AT-6 “Forward Observation” plane returns from a Korean rice paddy.                                                                                                                                                                                 Al Cooper Photo