Tuesday, February 9, 2016

CASHING IN ON OUR 10,000-YEAR-OLD SUPER FOOD



            Sometime around 1850 a Midwestern American farmer named Mostellor shot a wild goose above his wheat fields. Dressing out the welcome addition to Sunday dinner the curious shooter cut into the bird’s crop which bulged with something that didn’t feel like the expected purloined grain. Out spilled a handful of bean seeds mostly white but with an unusual brown spot on each one. The frugal descendent of pioneer settlers saved the seeds for planting the next spring, only to be rewarded with a generation of prosperous, productive green vegetable beans promising enough to share with neighbors. They of course became known as the Wild Goose bean, a variety which was regionally popular for a time. The unanswered question of where the wandering waterfowl found them is part of the story’s charm and I am fortunate to have a sample in my historic seed collection along with other “heirlooms” such as Blue Coco, Rattlesnake, Dixie Speckled, Wren’s Egg and my own favorite of all for baking, Jacob’s Cattle.
            It wasn’t until I lived and traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America that I began to appreciate the far wider role this basic legume plays and has played in the spread and very survival of human populations around the world. Living and eating with families as I went, I came to know I would probably be treated to phaseolus vulgaris (the common dry bean) in one form or another at two -- or even more likely – three meals a day. I noticed that in the Puebla home of Seňora Meija there was always a pot of beans warming on the back of her kitchen stove top available to whatever culinary need might arise. I also observed the power of regional food loyalties when shopping the markets with my Mexican friends. At the sprawling open-air market in Zacatelco one day, I was admiring a particularly colorful bean variety I thought I would like to add to my collection when my horrified friend and guide Esteban tried to talk me out of that choice. “Oh no Al, we don’t eat that kind of bean here!
            As we traveled south and into the more remote areas on and near the border with Guatemala, I was impressed with the obvious strength and health of the native people we met. Descendants of the Maya they evidenced no apparent tendency toward obesity, and were blessed with sound teeth, clear vision, and a visible happy and carefree (and very family-oriented) cultural norm. They were poor by world standards, but rich in so many ways. With only occasional access to animal protein they lived richly on a diet of beans and corn; the marriage of a legume and a grain which represents a near-perfect example of protein complimentarity.
            If there is a real superfood it is indeed phaseolus vulgaris, a nutrient-dense high-fiber gift to the world we now know originated nearly 11,000 years ago in two places: The Andes Mountains near Peru and the vast valley of Mexico and Central America. The two gene pools and their different paths have only fairly recently been confirmed by a study of human dental remains. Today the global annual dry bean harvest exceeds 18.7 million tons in 150 countries, and it feeds a large percentage of the world’s population, usually with corn, rice, quinoa, amaranth or the wheat family or occasional animal meat to complete the protein profile.
            As I write the final paragraphs of this column, I am keeping an eye out for a Dutch oven of Black Bean Bisque bubbling in the kitchen: 3 cups of dry beans, two minced onions, a cup or two of chopped tomatoes, 3 or 4 cloves of fresh garlic and two fire-roasted Poblano peppers plus some broth and flavoring gives our two-person household hearty daily portions for six days. (The use of a pressure cooker reduces cooking time to less than 20 minutes.) We have proven that 60 pounds of dry beans plus some flavorings and dried preserved peppers will keep us in essentials for one year. Cornmeal muffins make a great accompaniment.
            Black beans take the prize with us, not only because of their overall flavor and diversity of uses, but because we now know that in addition to the parade of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients the bean family offers, the black colored seed coat is an outstanding source of three flavinoids not commonly available which together provide notable support for digestive tract and colon health.
             Admittedly opinionated, I prefer Jacob’s cattle or Vermont Soldier for our maple-flavored New England baked beans, Small Red for New Orleans dishes and Canollini (White Kidney) for my pet Minestrone. And then of course I still have those Wild Goose beans to fall back on. 
Zacatelco Open Air Market in Mexico
Al Cooper Photo

Thursday, February 4, 2016

THE WAR DOG THAT LOVED TO FLY-- A STORY OF DEVOTION



            In the closing days of September 1938 England’s Neville Chamberlain and representatives of France and Italy signed the Munich Pact essentially telling Hitler he could have Czechoslovakia if he wanted it, thus allowing the British Prime Minister to famously tell the world that he and his allies had purchased “peace in our times” in return. Of course the Czechs had not been consulted on this agreement and when Nazi forces occupied their country on March 15, 1939 many citizens died attempting to resist. When the failing government disbanded their small but determined Air Force, many of its members escaped to fly first for Poland or France and eventually for the British Royal Air Force. One of these brave aviators was an aerial gunner named Robert Bozdech who was flying a mission with a French pilot in a twin-engine Potez 63 when the attack bomber was shot down over German-occupied France. Seeking temporary shelter in a wrecked farm shed, the young Czech discovered a tiny puppy covered by the rubble. Despite the objection of the injured pilot, Bozdech wrapped the barely-mobile dog in rags and took it with him.
            In the weeks that followed, and while he was escaping from the enemy even as France was collapsing all around him, he managed to avoid the discovery of the tiny and surprisingly-quiet puppy while making one mad dash for freedom after another, any one of which would have been a story all by itself. At one point having been denied the boarding of a British ship because of the strictly forbidden canine, he invented a floating “stowaway” craft permitting him to hoist the amazingly cooperative German Shepherd puppy aboard before sailing and without detection.
            Arriving in England just as the “Battle of Britain” in the air was getting started, airman Bozdech along with other French, Polish and Czech pilots and crewmen found an immediate and welcome home in the RAF, a service which happened to nurture its own particular form of animal discrimination – especially those of German origin.
            Along with many of his friends, Sgt. Bozdech was assigned to Number 311 Squadron, among whose enlisted flying staff the rapidly-growing dog - now known as Antis - was viewed not just as a mascot, but as an honored and much-loved Squadron mate. So devoted was the Shepherd to his master, that he would wait anxiously beside the runway until his plane would return from its mission – even when delayed by a forced landing at an alternate field due to battle damage or weather.
            The Squadron now was flying twin-engine Armstrong Vickers Wellington bombers, a medium range bomber which carried a crew of 5 or 6, featuring a lightweight frame of aluminum rods covered with dope-treated fabric.  Although of unique design of which more than 14,000 were built, it was known as “The Widow-Maker” to its crew members. Despite the nickname it was an unusually durable aircraft and could sustain a great deal of pummeling as a night-bomber.
            One day Antis was unusually absent from his standard departure place beside the runway and with misgivings C-Celia and her crew took off without their “good-luck visit”. As Bozdech clambered back to his lonely rear turret gun position sixty feet behind the forward compartment, there was the missing talisman curled up on the deck beneath the .303 twin Browning machine guns, as if speaking to say “okay you chaps, I’m ready let’s roll.”
            On that unplanned stowaway journey, Bozdech had no choice but to share his oxygen with the conniving canine, but soon the aircraft maintenance crew saw to it that Antis had his own lovingly-fitted mask and bottle; Antis had assumed flying status.
            The last mission Bozdech and Antis flew together was a nighttime attack on Manheim when the Wellingtons were caught by brilliant radar-controlled searchlights that pinned them mercilessly against the black of night. All during the pasting taken by C-Cecila, the loss of an engine and the crash-landing at RAF East Wretham, Antis had lain obedient and brave at Robert’s feet. Only after the agonizing trip was over was it discovered that the dog was the only crew member to sustain injuries, quietly lying in his own blood. Flying shrapnel had raked his belly.
            After 40 missions, Sergeant Bozdech – soon to be Flight Lieutenant Bozdech – left 311 Squadron and Antis received the highest award given to British War Dogs. He lived to chase rabbits until age 14. Colonel Václav Robert Bozděch died Feb. 27, 1980 in Devon, U.K.. After Antis he never owned another dog.




                                                                                   Robert Bozdech and Antis

Saturday, January 30, 2016

FRIENDS, CONNECTIONS, AND DUNBAR’S NUMBER



            We live in an age when the very word friend has become minimalized and even turned into a verb by the social media world. (One place incidentally where it is possible even to unfriend somebody!) Perhaps we should add a special symbol to the spelling to indicate its old fashion meaning (FRIEND ♥) for instance?  In my favorite dictionary I note such modifying words as trust, loyal and sympathy coming into play when defining the word. I would add what for me is the most cherished quality of all: enduring.
            Someone has facetiously but wisely said that a friend is someone you can call up at 2:30 in the morning and they won’t be mad. My wife has such a friend; a neighbor who was one of the first Utahans to welcome us to the state, and to our rather remote alpine community 47 years ago. In fact at the time we wouldn’t have used the word community, other than in jest. The heavily-wooded mountainous enclave was home to several dozen families intent on getting away from the valley-loving “herd” to a place where no one was apt to find them. (Yes, I suppose we weren’t all that different.) From the beginning Linda was different. She really cared about people. One-on-one. Her kind of friendship was decidedly not for public show or for self-gratification; it was real. And unstinting. All these years later, though addresses and family settings have changed, the friendship and the connection it reflects has not. Every so many weeks the phone will ring, and it’s Linda checking up on us or setting a date for a luncheon get-together. Her cheerful happy presence is unchanging and her sincere interest in her friends unwavering.
            Similarly, I have a friend who lives three thousand miles away and whom, until a Vermont visit in 2013, I hadn’t seen in person for more than fifty years. The very digital world about which I so often speak scornfully brought about a reconnection about 15 years ago, since which discovery we chat daily, and find our lives have moved in near-parallel courses. We are so much alike, my son says of us “two brothers with different mothers”. Both survivors of the Korean War and proud veterans, I am as sure as I have ever been that in a situation such as we are both familiar with, one would as easily take a grenade for the other today.  (See John 15: 13)
            When my father went to war in 1917 every man in the 20th Company fifth U.S. Marine Regiment came from the same two Washington State counties. Most had gone to school with and known each other before being recruited. My Uncle Oscar Cooper had seen his twin brother hit and fall, passing him by in the costly attack on a copse of trees known as Belleau Wood. Days would pass before he would learn my Dad’s fate. It was a time when every bullet or mortar round took or threatened someone you had wrestled or played sports with a year or two previous to the sound of battle. Close personal connections were also a casualty of war and sometimes the most painful. Forty years later my Father could recite those names as if written in old slanted cursive in his brain.
            I have learned over a lifetime that friendship is an active word, and not one to be taken for granted. I have worked to rekindle flagging relationships and strengthen others. In the last year I have added several esteemed new ones to the list and used the occasion to express my deep appreciation  to individuals who in a special way have sweetened my life, a couple of whom I now communicate with monthly or even weekly. It has been prophetically said that while many people enter, pass through, and leave our lives without making waves, there are others who leave their footprints on our heart. These I have learned to keep on the front burner of my “Thank You” priority list. The chance to do so may pass before we know it.
            A British anthropologist and psychologist named Robin Dunbar has completed an extraordinary study which indicates that the numerical capacity of most humans makes it possible for an individual to maintain a current social group of about 150 total people; of close friends about 50. That brings Dunbar to what I think of as the magic core of his hierarchy. He says that of true intimates we may well have only about 15, with a close support group of 5.
I don’t know if Dunbar has it right, but I do know that friends and friendship are worth more than gold.

Monday, January 25, 2016

THE BATTLE FOR ANZIO – 1944 AN UNCERTAIN TRUMPET



            The word beachhead when used in a military context defines a shore-based landing zone wrested from an enemy and secured as a route of access to inland targets. The key word invaders have learned often at a high cost over the centuries is secured. During World War II we heard of beachheads being fought for and secured at places called Guadalcanal and Bougainville in the Solomon Islands, Tarawa in the Gilberts, and a succession of other Japanese strongholds across the Pacific. Much was learned about this highly specialized form of warfare. The costly landing on Makin Island led to our eventual recall of troops and the abandonment of the prize when proved ill-advised and even unnecessary.
            From the disastrous Dieppe raid by British Commandos on the French coast in August, 1942 the Allies learned at their cost just how difficult it was to make a successful landing on a defended piece of hostile coast line. Dieppe became a haunting byword for the planners pondering the inevitable invasion of Fortress Europe. For the chance of success, the invading force must have control of the sea, control of the air over the target and its surroundings and the advantage of over-arching surprise. As we were about to learn at an Italian seaport town known as Anzio, the choice of committed leadership of such a mission might be just as important as any of the other factors along with a requirement for up-to-the-minute intelligence.
            The allied situation in the closing days of 1943 saw an Italian campaign bogged down after the Salerno landings at the country’s southern tip as American, British and Empire troops found themselves facing determined German resistance after Italy’s rather meaningless surrender. More than ever, Hitler’s forces were bent on denying the taking of Rome. Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and British senior commanders drew up plans for a surprise invasion midway between the main line of resistance and Rome to the north, thus circling around the German “Gustav line” and offering a speedy route to the Italian capital. Eisenhower, the only U.S. commander who had the voice to question the timing of such a plan had transferred his command to concentrate solely on the upcoming (and very secret) “Operation Overlord” – the invasion of Europe – leaving the British in charge of operations in Italy. With the direct influence of Churchill, whose predilection for an assault on “the soft underbelly” of Europe was still alive and well, the plan once cancelled, was resurrected. The Brits appointed U.S. Major General John P. Lucas, a veteran of WWI and C.O of the Fifth Army’s VI Corps to lead the invasion of the port city of Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944, in the process “borrowing” assault craft and other resources heading to the Normandy build up.
            Lucas was convinced the whole enterprise was looking like a repeat of Churchill’s disastrous Gallipoli campaign of 1916 which had nearly brought down the British government and had brought an end to Churchill’s career. (In fact no less a figure than that of George Patton told Lucas “you’re being set up to be the ‘fall guy’ when this thing fails John”.)
            Surprisingly the Anzio landing itself (Operation SHINGLE) was a complete surprise to Field Marshal Kesselring and the entire German High Command, and the beachhead objectives had been reached by noontime the 22nd without significant Allied casualties. One nine-mile stretch of beach was found to be defended by a single company. Then the Americans’ worst fears began to come true, leading to four months of some of the most bitter fighting of WWII. On Feb. 22nd, Lucas was replaced by Major General Lucian Truscott just as a major German counter attack began.
                It would be easy to blame Lucas in the aftermath of what turned into a costly disaster, for delaying his march inland for four days while consolidating his position on the beachhead and waiting for the Merchant ships and their striking civilian workers to begin landing the needed supplies after already moving almost ten miles beyond the beachhead. Still convinced he was leading a flawed enterprise, under constant air attack and without reliable intelligence on what he faced, the move off the beaches was led by  Commando’s, U.S. Army Rangers, paratroopers and other lightly-armed special forces carrying only grenades, bazookas, and short-range weaponry against the most elite of Hitler’s front line soldiers arriving on the scene. As a tragic example of the misuse of “infantry” during the break-out and the assault on the town of Cisterna, out of two battalions of the 4th Rangers and 15th Infantry numbering 767 men, only 6 returned! 



   German paratroopers prepare for battle during Anzio breakout.                German Federal Archive photo
  
Author’s Notes:          I believe the entire undertaking was ill-conceived and that if Eisenhower had still been on the ground, it would never have taken place. Bringing together British, French and American forces who had not fought together before, and then placing them under divided commands inspired confusion at every level. It was left up to Lucas to decide on objectives after landing, and as it turned out his forces were greatly outnumbered. Further, the operation might easily have compromised the secret preparations for OVERLORD. Lessons learned: Elite Special Forces should not be used as regular infantry. Political interests (the taking of Rome) should not determine battlefield strategy. Two Admirals, four Generals plus Churchill’s long shadow!  Too many chefs ruin the broth. Finally, planners and top leaders may have erred, but the young fighting men who fought the battle were among the most courageous and hard-hitting of any who paid in blood for final victory in World War II in Europe.
            As an eleven-year-old, I was personally touched by Anzio when a young family friend – Jack Mueller – lost his leg there when his jeep hit a land mine. I will never forget sitting proudly with his arm around me during his visit to our home after he returned.