Friday, October 2, 2015


It was a neurosurgeon whose name is now long-forgotten who was performing some delicate brain surgery during which the patient could not be entirely anesthetized that some fascinating observations were recorded. As probing instruments made physical contact with different areas of cortex the patient would re-experience a complete “replay” of life-events never consciously recalled until that instant. Afterward, that patient would explain that every detail, including smells, tastes, sounds and intense feelings associated with the specific event were revealed. Perhaps it is a similar phenomenon that permits us occasional access to hidden “chords” of memory.
            I had just come racing into Mom’s kitchen from outdoor play when I came to an abrupt standstill because of something I was hearing. Visually, I was looking at a loaf of Silvercup white bread – a local commercial product of the time – where it lay on the large kitchen table around which our family met to eat and talk each day. What stopped me was music playing on the radio. It wasn’t something I was familiar with, but there was something about it that captured my attention. I was not yet “into” classical music, which this was, featuring a piano and orchestra. . Everything about it just made sense, was in such perfect order that I could picture the next note or phrase before it played. Without calling attention to the fact, I decided to hang around. I probably would have sat on a hard wooden kitchen chair. I have tried to widen the picture of that experience in my mind over the years after I realized that it was important. To this day, the playing of Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto touches a special place in my heart (and in the cerebral cortex of my brain.) It marks an exact moment when for a small boy, a “love affair” was born.
            Over the years it has been my practice during our annual visits to coastal Maine to greet each dawn from the nearby harbor wharf of the small-town we have frequented for forty years. For several hours each storm-free morning it is a very busy place, as dozens of lobster boats and crew depart for the day, each of them prepared to service a “flotilla” of traps. I never tire of watching an ages-old story unfold before my eyes. I was still in place one gray Maine morning as a lone and very humble lobster boat pulled up to the fueling dock after everyone else was long gone. A boy who was probably not yet out of his teens leaped ashore, tied up without help, and went about dragging a fuel hose aboard. I noted it was not the diesel hose, supporting the assumption that this was the lad’s first boat. After winching down a blue bait barrel, a box of ice and squaring away his lifting gear, he climbed up the ladder, passing near me to pick up a six pack of coke before finally casting off and motoring past the bar and off to sea.
            Two crusty old sea dogs watched from a nearby spot they probably occupied every day, blue smoke curling skyward from their pipes. It was clear that stranded ashore after a lifetime of pulling traps, and fighting gales, these two would never have been anywhere else at this hour. They hadn’t said a word all the time they had been there, but now one pulled his pipe out and said in a down-east accent you could cut with a dull knife- “wall. . he may be late. . . but he allwas goes.” The other thought about it for a minute before replying “Ahiah”, in complete agreement.
            Silent but impressed, I realized I had just witnessed a generational compliment of the most profound kind. I only wish I could have recorded it so that I might replay it for that young “lobsterman” when he returned that evening.
            When considering the value of constancy and commitment to a dream as a human quality to be cherished, I always think of that enlightening sermon delivered on a gray Maine morning amid the call of overhead gulls all those years ago.

     The economy of Maine’s mid-coast and the well-being of its people rest heavily upon a form of   individual entrepreneurship unlike any other.                                          Al Cooper Photo

Saturday, September 26, 2015


            Despite revisionist writers who persist in trying to make us think the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 is an over-rated moment in world history, I rise to agree with other historians who call it the most important world-changing event in a thousand-year period of time. The fact that it went far toward changing the European (and other) continents as much as it began waves of change here alone supports my case. Because food history – one of my other special interests – often tells us much about parallel events in the demographic, societal and even political history of entire cultures I will start there.
            When the Plymouth colonists, members of an English religious minority fleeing a temporary refuge in Laden, Holland landed in present-day Massachusetts in 1620, they might be forgiven for their surprise at seeing large birds which they recognized as “turkeys” wandering all around. They had seen   some in Europe, and so wondered at them being here in The New World.  (How did they get here?) The truth is they were strictly a product of The Americas, captured and taken to Europe by Spanish sailors from the Columbus journeys, traded to the Portuguese and eventually finding their way to Egypt where they were propagated for sale along that country’s extensive trade routes. At the time, Egypt was part of the Ottoman Empire, so the birds were called “turkeys”.
            The most important crop of all among America’s native people was what was first – and more accurately – labeled “Indian corn” ,corne being an ancient word meaning “the grain of the land”, as it did in the Bible. Because corn produces more calories per acre than any other grain, it greatly benefited countries of the Old World – especially China whose population more than doubled; and again when New World potatoes were added to the mix. Native Americans were accustomed to growing corn, beans and squash as “companion plants”, the tall corn stalks providing climbing poles for the beans (which also restored the nitrogen the soil gave up feeding the corn), while the large leaves of the squash provided shade for the seeds and conserved soil moisture. They are still known as the “three sisters”. The three were a further boon to Old World menus.
            The tomato (tomatl in ancient Nahuatl) – another American “native” deserves a discourse just on its’ own, so significant an addition to the world’s culinary arsenal did it become (with a huge shove from the Italians, who bred a red version of the pomme d’oro, or “golden apple”.) Knowing it was a member of the usually-poisonous nightshade family, the English, like many other Europeans, shied away from the tasty globe.
            From the area of old Mexico between Puebla and Oaxaca came many varieties of a vegetable plant Columbus called Peppers, because of their bite and the hope they might be a relative of black pepper which was more valuable than gold around the world.
            The New World also exported to the Old, cranberries tobacco and geese. Also – it should be noted – Syphilis.
            At the other end of the Columbian Exchange, came gifts from the Old World:  Horses, cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Add to that sugar, bananas, citrus fruit and olives and we can see how the agriculture of different parts of America were shaped over time.
            Unfortunately, other “imports” included smallpox, measles, mumps, and whooping cough; “virgin soil” diseases which – it is estimated - killed off between 70 and 90 per cent of original native populations who had no natural resistance. And then there was alcohol, which still takes its toll today.

 Winter squash (C. Maxima) were an ideal vegetable crop for Native Americans; long-keepers, easily-dried for mobility and of almost endless variety.   Al Cooper Photo

Wednesday, September 16, 2015


            Nowadays we often hear references to our “coalition partners” when politicians tell us what is working and what isn’t working in our “War against Terrorism”. I have to deduce that whoever these mysterious “partners” may be, they remain largely a “ghost army”. On the other hand, those of us who served in the Korean War, know who and what real coalition partners look like. There we had 21 nations who had the courage to stand at our side in the fight against the global spread of Godless Communism. Particularly noticeable were the British Commonwealth nations, with Australia and New Zealand sending some of the most talented fighter squadrons I have ever seen in action. Our unit often hosted the 1st Royal Tank Regiment in baseball competition and I served on a temporary undercover mission with two “spooks” from British SAS. Then there were Canadian, French, Cambodian, Thai and Colombian troops holding down neighboring positions, beside the Turks who turned out to be the most aggressive, fierce and dedicated combat troops of the entire war. Although it was kept quiet until long after the war, there is evidence that as many as 1200 volunteers from Japan – our very recent enemy – came to serve beside us.
            Norway decided to contribute non-combat personnel to the Korean War effort, mostly in the form of well-supplied and very professional medical units. It came to be my good fortune that one of those NORWEGIAN MASH units was located not far from my Squadron’s location near the 38th parallel. In the terrible winter of 1952, I was being treated for flu symptoms by U.S. medics and doctors when I broke out with a serious case of hives and swellings all over my body. After several days of worsening complications, it was determined that my throat was swelling shut and I was in danger of losing the ability to breathe. As a last resort I was driven to the Norwegian Mash Hospital near Uijeongbu where an older, highly skilled Doctor identified my expanding problem as a violent reaction to penicillin with which I had received a number of injections. Much was still being learned about the “miracle” life-saving drug and the Norwegians must have been ahead of us. One painful (sickening) injection of a milky-white substance in a syringe whose mere size was intimidating did the trick, and after several hours of observation they sent me back to my unit. Several days on aspirin phenol & codeine (APC), and thanks to buddies who surreptitiously kept my canteen filled with something other than water, I was back to duty.
            In this process I became friends with a number of my Scandinavian benefactors who later visited with me as special “guests” at our NCO club (a rusty Quonset hut with a mobile bar that was pretty well stocked). I quickly learned that in the Norwegian military, a Medical Doctor was not necessarily a commissioned officer as was the case with us; at least not all the time. With a system similar to the Brits’ “artificer” ratings, a “professional specialist” – such as a Doctor – would wear an officer’s rank when on duty in a professional setting such as a clinic or operating room – but would revert to a rate commensurate with his level of military training – at other times. Most of my new friends were non-commissioned officers after hours which took some getting used to. In return for our friendship, they introduced the men of my outfit to Danish Tuborg beer which quickly became a squadron favorite.
            In Korea a sense of brotherhood developed between the Allies of many nations whose volunteers shared every danger and discomfort we did, and there was a mutual respect which I will never forget.
            Especially, I will forever be grateful to the men and women of NORWEGIAN MASH!

NOTE: NORMASH lost two of their people in Korean War service, and won two Presidential Citations.

       Al Cooper being interviewed recently by producers from Arirang Global Television for a Korean War  documentary marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of that War as seen through the eyes of American veterans.