Monday, August 17, 2015


            Back in the 17th century, trade goods from Europe found their way across the Atlantic, changing the life of Native Americans in many ways. Arrow heads of iron and steel, weaving beads of cast glass, yarns and cloth with dyed red colors; tools that saved time and energy. In most cases though, the numerous tribal peoples continued to preserve the “old ways and crafts” as well. Mirrors however were sheer magic and revolutionized family relationships in ways that continue to impress social scientists who specialize in studying the moments of change-in-direction of entire elements of culture.
            The division of labor in the Native American or “Indian” (for convenience) family had been established over centuries of real-life experience and tradition. When preparing a warrior for battle (and inter-tribal warfare was a constant in Indian life across North America long before white man entered the picture), it was the woman of the household who meticulously, proudly and lovingly applied her husband’s war paint, stroke by colorful stroke. It was actually a “spiritual” connection between the two; a moment of profound intimacy. With the coming of the mirror the man-of-the-house could paint himself. Doesn’t sound like a big deal? In a very real way, it undercut and reduced the importance and personal power of the woman in the family and community. At a time when the arrival of white man’s alcohol was about to threaten the very foundations of a thousand year culture, the power of a village’s women might have been a bulwark.  
            In 1940-41, it was clear to U.S. leaders that we were certain to be swept into what was still “Europe’s War”. From England’s experience it was also clear that ways had to be found to compensate for the impact mobilization would have on the manufacturing industry, at the very time vital production capacity would have to expand exponentially. Experts from industry, labor and government were asked to calculate how many of these jobs could be filled with inexperienced women in a wartime scenario. The most optimistic estimates topped out at 20%. By war’s end in 1945, 85% of those jobs – especially those associated with the building of airplanes, ships, tanks, munitions and other new and complex instruments of war – would be filled by female workers.
            In 1942 both government and industry got in the business of flooding the media with advertisements urging women to help win the war, developed around an image which was a composite of American “housewives” building airplanes, several of whom were actually named Rosalind. The result was one of the most successful media campaigns in history and the creation of a near-mythological figure named “Rosie the Riveter”.

   Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post cover for Memorial Day, 1943 did much to spread the Rosie image far and wide. The model was a 19-year old Vermont telephone operator named Mary Doyle Keefe. The Rockwell original sold for $5 million in 2002, and Mary Keefe died in April, 2015 at age 94.

  It was hoped – and believed – that these war-time “Rosies” would return to the homes they had temporarily abandoned, when the emergency was over. And many did. But several million didn’t, perhaps influenced by new advertisements asking such questions as, “how would you like a new kitchen mixer”?
            In key ways however, American culture had been changed forever. It had been proven that women could do almost any job a man could do and even become a “second” breadwinner for a family, thus moving many into or out of the “middle class” category and able to afford a larger home or a second car. Less often mentioned but worth consideration is a marked relaxation of the racial divide and a change in attitude between white and black women who now worked side-by-side and shared lunch rooms and newborn friendships.
            And unlike the Native American spouse of an earlier century, American women found themselves with much greater power, in the family, the community and even in the country’s political arena. Many sociologists cite the “Rosie the Riveter” era as the birthplace of the modern “Women’s Movement”.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


            When at the very peak of his popularity as a writer of American fiction and an exponent of Native American culture and history, the late Tony Hillerman (1925 – 2008) was being interviewed on a radio talk-show as I listened from my car radio. When questioned about the financial rewards which came with his international fame as a mystery writer, Hillerman – an author who had claimed my admiration since his very first Leaphorn/Chee novel – commented at length on the definition of success. He quoted a Navajo elder with whom he had had that same discussion: “I know a man who has always been poor; no one ever taught him any songs!”
            Now I understood at once that the word “songs” in this context referred specifically to the “healing” and “blessing” songs which are at the center of spiritual ceremonies intrinsic to Navajo religious culture. But I couldn’t help but apply the term metaphorically to the deafness many of us in the fast-paced modern world succumb to on a more worldly level. So much so that I pulled off the roadway I was traveling to write the exact quote on a pocket card. The message with both meanings has traveled with me in my life ever since, and as I listen for the stories which are carried on the wind or whisper through a stand of Norway pines or flow from the strings of a nine-string banjo, I try to listen for the hidden chords – the deeper story connected by a thin thread at a harmonic level not easily captured.
            The life of a tour guide is a busy one; driver, teacher, marriage councilor, story-teller, peace-maker, sometimes cook; shepherd really. In that role one lovely autumn afternoon I was driving a 12-passenger van on a two-lane highway in the farming country of northwestern Vermont. It was the first day of a new school year and just ahead of us a yellow school van – the kind used for the smallest of scholars – slowed with stop lights flashing. I carefully came to a stop adding my own flashers for further safety, although there was no one else in sight. About 200 yards up the long dirt driveway of a country farmhouse to our left a mother in her apron waited anxiously holding the hand of an excited pre-school age girl in blonde pigtails. A small boy nervously exited the short yellow bus and you knew at a glance this was his first day away from home. At that instant his little sister broke loose of the mother’s hand and into a full-out run down the sloping driveway shouting her greetings. The boy took off to meet her dropping a brand new book bag on the ground. The two met halfway in a power embrace that must have taken them through three joyous circuits before the laughing and crying mother could catch up and join them. I sat there mesmerized, feeling like a thief of time looking in on a hallowed moment in the life of those who were experiencing a shared piece of family history that would never quite happen again.
            Looking around the van I thought I was the lone observer. Then the passenger seated just behind me, a long-time friend and former Mrs.Utah USA leaned forward and whispered: Al, did you see what just happened?  (Two out of twelve; not bad.)
            There is a certain place in our log home where, as I negotiate a right-angle turn, passing a high shelf where I keep my family of prized Aladdin kerosene lamps, that I sometimes pause to catch a vagrant whiff of coal oil almost no one else would even notice. If the mood is right - and especially if rain is falling outside - I can hear one of those songs that serve to carry me back in time to a moment of exquisite happiness. It would have been 1937, since we were taking a trip to break in our family’s brand new Oldsmobile. I was already joyful, since our destination was an old Victorian house on a rural Connecticut back road I loved more than a modern kid might a Disney World. There was no electricity, no phone or radio, no running water unless you operated a hand pump, and an old and wonderful outdoor privy (a two-holer!) a long dark walk from the house. As we drove the last few miles, Mom and Dad in front, my two older brothers and I in back it started to rain hard. I don’t know who started it, but we began to sing” It’s raining, it’s pouring, the old man is snoring. . .” I was safe, secure, surrounded by those I knew loved me, and looking forward to my customary job of trimming wicks and pouring kerosene into the lamps we would soon light to push back the cricket-filled dark of the outside night.
            All these years later, I can close my eyes and hear that singing with the metronomic sound of the windshield wipers in the background reminding me that I am a man who has always been rich.

Friday, August 7, 2015


            Until 1914 and the beginning of Europe’s “Great War” the world hadn’t had to invent the term total war. Armed conflict was historically fought, won and lost and territories secured by armies, and navies with whatever mechanical wonders were possessed at the time. Civilian populations though certainly at risk, were usually not the specific target of the killing. By 1917 and the signing of the Armistice agreement, 7 million of the 17 million war deaths were non-military, and Germany alone had 20 million newly-minted orphans. And that was just a preview of WWII statistics just ahead.
            Although it lasted only three years, the Korean War (1950 – 1953) chalked up more casualties per unit of time and greater destruction than any other U.S.conflict. In addition to the loss of 10% of their pre-war population, North and South Koreans saw ten million of their families permanently divided.
            If there is one picture indelibly etched in the memories of the mostly-unprepared young Americans who went there to fight for others, it will be of the small parentless children, crying beside the dusty roadways and within the flattened and burning villages of a former land of farmers and fisher folk where half of the livestock and all of the fishing fleet had been destroyed, and starvation walked the ruined land. It is believed that 100,000 of these “children of war” existed in the U.S. occupied zone.
            We were admonished not to “interfere” with these wandering waifs, many of which had trudged behind our retreating, then advancing forces up and down a rugged war-seared land the size of Utah, in all kinds of weather. American G.I.s cannot be constrained by a mere General from doing what nature whispers in their hearts and ears, and soon almost every military bivouac or campsite had its own compliment of “illegal” orphans who shared our tents, bunkers, G.I. blankets, “SOS” chow and everyday dangers. We invented between us an entirely new language – a combination of Japanese, Korean and G.I. “Jive”. Even though individual troops came and went and mobile headquarters moved location frequently, the continuation of unwritten “articles of understanding” kept “our kids” secure and largely unknown to higher authority.
            Inasmuch as most of us were barely out of our teens ourselves and with young brothers and sisters back home, these “children of war” softened our hearts in the midst of all the fears and uncertainties which filled our nights and days and added something I’ve only come to appreciate in recent years to the sense of “family” the unusual “brotherhood” the elite nature of our assignment had already breathed into us.
            My very small outfit was home to two such “mascots”, the youngest of whom – Sikoshi Joe – age 8-9 involved me in this unusual G.I “Family Triad” since I replaced the Sergeant who had played a role prior to my arrival. His exact origins were a mystery, although it was believed he had escaped from the North after seeing his family executed. His legs were covered with healed burn scars, probably from napalm. Most of the local villagers were known to have lived north of the wire our unit straddled as the base camp for the mountain-top radar outpost we served. Whatever the case, he was now ours and nobody was going to take him away. 

                                 Korea, 1952. A proud Al Cooper holds Sikoshi Joe in his arms.      Al Cooper Photo

            South Korean officials who know me today always express surprise at the sense of intimacy with Korea and Koreans I apparently display; they see it as an unusual aspect of my total experience there. If they knew me better, they would probably notice that this connection is probably most in evidence when the Children of War are in my thoughts. As I raise the flags of the two countries over my Utah home place tomorrow in recognition of the armistice which brought an end to that war on July 27, 1953, I will be wondering about Sikoshi Joe and the thousands of others who were given a future thanks to the G.I. Mascot Program and the love of caring American boys all those years ago.