Thursday, March 23, 2017

LEARNING NOT TO LEAVE HOME BEHIND



            I have stood many times on the balding top of Mount Cadillac in Maine’s Acadia, and reveled in a horizon line of land and sea, blue and green that at first appears as if it intends to completely surround me as I turn in a circle. One’s perspective of what is possible for us here on planet Earth is enlarged magically by the experience; it is not a gigantic height that creates this illusion but a wonderful quirk of geography and the human mind.
            Most evenings, I can watch as the end of day paints Zion’s West Temple 50 shades of red without leaving my favorite chair or front porch; and do so knowing that tomorrow it will be different again. If Acadia National Park is “A” and Zion National Park is “Z”, I can happily say that I am fortunate enough to have watched the sun rise and set over both in most of my recent years, and that in between have been an “alphabet” of companion memories tied to a system of national treasures from the tiniest of “parklands” to the mightiest.
            Many years ago while still living in Vermont, I was approached by a fellow employee who – knowing of my ongoing love affair with aviation – wondered if I might possibly be planning a flight to Buffalo, N.Y. in the near future, and if she could “hitch a ride”. Of course I planned one immediately with my instructor to add hours to navigational and cross-country log-book time. That flight required the transit of New York’s Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, the largest protected piece of landscape of its kind in the entire U.S. Larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. Described by a world-famous clause in the state’s 1892 constitution as a land to be kept forever wild, it remains something of a paradox today; six million acres of largely wilderness forests, lakes, mountains and streams, left over from an ice age whose hand is not quite finished. As a school girl of the first decade of the 1900s my mother “summered” there, and Shirley and I spent our first married vacation in a Lake George log cabin.
            Our little Cessna seemed like a daring insect flying over an unbroken “sea” of green, with here and there a yellow speck marking an ancient pile of sawdust left by a long-forgotten sawmill. I felt a sweet kind of loneliness looking down from a comfortable 5000 feet, knowing that for a hundred miles in any direction we were virtually alone. IN NEW YORK!
            I tell you all this to understand that I, Al Cooper am a son of the forested North Woods; a child of its hardwood forests and unbroken hills, and coldwater streams and the shores and islands of the Down East Country. When I woke up to find myself taking up residence in a Kansas City subdivision in 1960 – obedient to the urging of generous and well-meaning employers – and realized that I was nearly 600 miles from the first hint of a real mountain, I hit a “bad patch” in my road to personal happiness.
            What “saved” me was the discovery of a Park; not a ‘Grand Teton’ kind of park, in fact not very “grand” at all: 1,600 very humble acres, but with a 120-acre lake for my kayak and miles of wooded foot trails wandering beneath magnificent stands of beeches, walnuts, oaks and sage oranges. Only recently opened it hadn’t really been discovered yet. It was known as Shawnee Mission Park, and was operated by Johnson County, Kansas. If we chose the right week day for a visit, we often owned it to ourselves and according to my notes it was our favorite venue for “family night”, including one I remember in particular where I issued each member a magnifying glass in place of binoculars as our “seeing eyes.” Calling occasional halts to our usual nature walk we would vie to see who could find the most unusual miniature creature or object, from a walking stick or cicada larva to the shiny trail left by a wandering snail or slug; sometimes we might even capture a close-up of a honey bee on a thistle or a golden garden spider on the hunt. I often still glance at a page dated May 3, 1964 in my log noting a one-day “bird list” with 40 species listed.
            In time I mastered the ability to leave home without really leaving anything, but by holding the things I love close to me wherever I may be; from A to Z.

P.S. I note that today Shawnee Mission Park is the most-visited park in the entire state of Kansas!

WHERE DID ALL THE SHOEMAKERS GO?



            The small New Jersey town where I was born (and whose name happened to be eponymous with that of my family) was directly across the Hudson River from New York City – by ferry or the George Washington Bridge. Most of my neighbors saw it as a patriotic duty to avoid that trip, and Coytesville was a typically self-reliant community as it had been for a hundred years before they built the bridge; long before my first Coyte ancestor stepped ashore from Plymouth. We had not one, but two barber shops – Jack’s and Robert DeNesio’s, and a first-rate tailor named Fidelio Barbanti whose portly wife set in motion my deep love affair with Italian cooking.
            On Sunday mornings we listened first to the Catholic Church bells announcing Early Mass followed by the deep notes born in the Dutch Reformed Belfry (where I went to catch gray squirrels on Boy Scout nights) and finally by the mighty carillons from St. Stephens Episcopal with me swinging on the thick ropes below after I first started the electric-powered pump for the organ my uncle would preside over. It was a “Norman Rockwell-kind” of town in those pre-war days when America slept almost blissfully.
            Of all the institutions that gave identity to our pioneer village none held more fascination for young kids than the local shoemakers’ shop, situated close to the middle of town where 2nd street turned into Washington Avenue. Make no mistake, this was no “fix-it” emporium where one dropped off damaged and wounded footwear needing some first-aid (although that happened there also); this was where real artisans made shoes from the “last” up; shoes that had real souls so to speak. It featured a glass store-front through which passers-by could pause to watch the maze of moving belts and turning gears and shafts and sheaves which transferred power and motion to sweet-smelling slabs of hand-cut leather cut to size by blades and pierced by awls and thread and polished by shiny oils and stains and waxes. The myriad smells and perfumes filling the air only hinted at the magical alchemy going on amidst all that organized sound and motion. Pipe smoke mixing with all those other tantalizing nose-tingling odors only added to the experience. I’m sure that within a mile or two of our town – certainly in Englewood or Hackensack – there were other shops where the same kind of small manufacturing operations went on. (After all, there was a baby carriage factory where it was known gambling tables came out after dark.)
            In 1917 – about the time my father along with many others – went off to France to fight the Boche the typical American still traveled less than 2000 miles a year of which 1600 was just walking around. The battle of Gettysburg was fought back in 1863 when Confederate forces learned they could obtain replacement shoes in that Pennsylvania crossroads town. Perhaps no human statistic has seen more dramatic change in recent years than international travel. My son who is engaged in a business which is global in nature has found himself flying about 200,000 miles (approximately 80-100 flight segments) a year requiring him to be away from home 100 to 150 nights per year.) A single generation ago such a schedule would have been untenable, and even today poses its own kinds of challenges to personal and  health management skills.
            The very memories inlaid among the unusual archeology of the 200-year-old family home in which my early years were lived bring nostalgic smiles to mind. The largest, most capacious closet in that old home had been created from a space which had been reclaimed from an old dumbwaiter which had once connected the downstairs kitchens of the old Stagecoach Inn to the upstairs dining room. It had become the multigenerational household “shoe closet” housing its own secrets, including a pair of old farm shoes with a secret notch cut into one heel designed to quickly and bloodlessly bring the life of an overage hen to a swift and quiet close in time for a Sunday dinner beneath the talented foot of a family war bride from Iowa.                                                                        

Friday, March 3, 2017

SPEAKING OUT FOR AN UNDER-APPRECIATED WW II GENERAL

            In a 2008 address to the student body of the Air War College, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates challenged young Air Force officers to begin thinking about the kind of leaders they wished to become. “Do you want to become somebody” he asked, “or do you want to do something?” Without necessarily denigrating either choice, he made it clear that these were two distinctly different paths, with each requiring its own mindset and preparatory goals. It was clear though that he thought our present-day military could use more of those committed to a mission than to their own advancement.
            I was personally much-struck by the Secretary’s point, both as an ex senior non-com serving in several very different chains-of-command at a time of war, and as an amateur – but serious – military historian.  The World War II period (1941 – 1945) presents the student of military history with an interesting array of star-studded leaders serving during a time of changing national service demands – and with that a huge change in the very culture of military life. During a time of such a clash of “peacetime” vs. “wartime” cultures within the ranks, consider the one between disciplined “old timers” and greenies just out of high school, college or jerking sodas at a local milk bar. Consider the cadre of Junior Officers who had plugged away for ten or fifteen years for their coveted silver bar or Captain’s tracks only to see a small “army” of “kids” get their commissions after some good luck and 90 days of OCS - Officer’s Candidate School.
            And the upper ranks did not escape unscathed by the outbreak of war. Many field grade officers who had already reached or passed their level of competency were now promoted a notch or two beyond as swelling numbers gave birth to new advancement possibilities. In this maelstrom of administrative shuffling, many deserving but “quiet” candidates got “passed over” while astute “political” officers moved upward.
            When on August 17th 1942 ,  a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress with the name Butcher Shop painted on its nose rose from the rough runway of Grafton-Underwood air field in Britain’s East Anglia to lead 11 other “Forts” on America’s first strike of WWII against Nazi-occupied Europe, the airman at the controls was a 27-year-old major named Paul W. Tibbets; that’s right, the same Paul Tibbets who three years hence would be flying a Super Fortress named the Enola Gay carrying the Atomic bomb which would bring about the end of the war. Tibbets would also lead the first 100-bomber strike deep into Germany.
            Tibbets was a rising star and a close associate of that group of leaders who made strategic bombing an eventual winning strategy, and his leadership skills forged the foundations of the air campaign in the pacific which would bring the Empire of Japan to the surrender table in 1945, before which he would have to restore the confidence of reluctant air crews even to fly the “cursed” giant.
            Described by Eisenhower as the Allies’ very best pilot, it would be Tibbets who would be given the responsibility of flying the Supreme Commander and his headquarters staff from England to Gibraltar in preparation for the invasion of North Africa. After being transferred to Africa and the newly formed 12th Air force himself, and while awaiting his promotion to Colonel to be carried out, Tibbets manages to get on the wrong side of another Colonel on his way upward. Never one to suffer fools gladly, and with 43 missions under his belt, he objected to a mission planned by Colonel Lauris Norstad to go against an enemy target at 6,000 feet – the best possible “killing zone” for Nazi gunners. In the end Tibbets agreed to lead the mission if Norstad would fly as his co-pilot.  Group aircrews were relieved when the altitude was changed to 20,000 feet. Norstad cancelled Tibbets’ promotion and – superior in the changing chain of command in the following years – blocked his progress.
            In every command in which he served, Paul Tibbets – not always quietly – left things better than he had found them. He saw a future for jet-powered bombers and pioneered development of the B-47. When it was seen that the long-awaited B-29 program was in danger of failing, Tibbets was sent to save the super bomber and restore the confidence of grown men who were refusing to fly in the dangerous Boeing plane which had even killed its test pilot. He ended up accumulating more B-29 flight hours than any other pilot, and in the process working out a host of problems, lightening the plane’s weight by 7,000 pounds, and demonstrating the giant’s ability to turn inside that of the P-47 fighter in simulated air combat. Training two women pilots to handle the big bomber, he used a demonstration to shame male pilots refusing to fly.
            The next time you view the motion picture, Twelve O’clock High written by Bierne Lay, Jr. and released in 1949, you are seeing a story based upon the 97th and 306th bomb groups of the 8th Air Force in the early days of the U.S.A.A.F. in WWII. Gregory Peck plays the part of Gen. Frank Armstrong, who ten years later was my C.O.  The tough no-nonsense pilot he chooses to be his Deputy – with the fictional name of Joe Cobb – is really Paul Tibbets, played by actor Joe Kellog.
            After many years of research and thinking about it, I believe that General Paul Tibbets, whose ashes were scattered over the English Channel, is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and certainly an example of one who lived to DO something.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

TAPPING INTO THE MAGIC OF MUSIC FROM THE HEART



                        Looking through the notes accumulated over the years in the planning and thinking that go on behind these columns I call “HOME COUNTRY”, several thoughts come into my mind that might be worth sharing with you who are the faceless but ever-present friends who read it. Sitting here at my computer keyboard reminds me that this, the actual writing, is the “easy” part of the job I love. The long and often lonely hours of thinking, weighing and listening for a whisper of inspiration; of fighting the nagging “voice” that tells me I don’t have another story left in me, that the “mojo” is gone. That is what is hard. I was thinking about this exercise when I wrote the column titled Appreciating Moments of Mindfulness back on November 2nd 2015, and the month before with Listening to the Still, Small Voices.
            It is usually in the early morning hours, when it is quiet and peaceful and I can be alone with my thoughts that the “magic” happens; when it does. I was born into and grew up in a home where music was as ever present as the furniture, so I suppose it’s not so unusual that I should often turn to a background of selected song to enhance these searching moments. Not just any kind of music, but notes that speak to me of thoughtfulness, and the harmony of life at its most meaningful; soulful, peaceful and often haunting in its honesty. I confess that in recent months I have settled on the works of a particular composer, arranger and recording artist as a consistently dependable resource of inspiration of the kind that “speaks” to me when my heart is listening.
            Paul Cardall has been writing and performing music for close to twenty years and is well known across the country and especially in Utah and the Rocky Mountain West. He was born with only one half of a functioning heart, one of the 40,000 infants born with congenital heart defects in the U.S. each year. He endured numerous difficult surgeries and then experienced the long anxious wait on that now near- mythical list waiting for a replacement heart, upon whose beating he continues to write, arrange and perform today. Out of this came a unique awareness of the unfulfilled needs of this segment of U.S. health research and development, and the creation of the Saving Tiny Hearts Society the Cardall’s support. Even before I became aware of this charitable part of the artist’s life, I had noticed a quality to his music which imparted a sense of sympathy and appreciation of life that touches the very hearts of listeners. When I seek an hour of careful thinking and considering, I go to one or another of my half-dozen Cardall recordings.
            My favorite for setting a mood level which never fails to carry my consciousness away from the common and mundane and into a world where exposed hearts may be touched is a 2014 CD album titled (not surprisingly) Saving tiny Hearts. Each of the 14 titles which come together in this grouping contains the musical telling of a story, beginning with a personal favorite titled Gracie’s Theme, inspired by the true story of a much-loved little girl who, after all the preparation support and agonizing wait by her family, died during the heart transplant operation. A haunting quality which always speaks to me comes from another selection named simply Voices. The listener can write whatever story one wishes, but for me I always imagine I’m listening to the chorus of  thousands of tiny voices of cheery, happy, hopeful kids who had to leave us all-too-early because of childhood health events for which there is no available answer. Miracles, Our Love and Coming Home are titles on the same disc which tell their own musical stories.
            I and my family will always remember an evening long ago when we knelt together in our living room after being told that our four-year-old son would probably never live a normal life due to a heart defect. Then came our Miracle. Today that son runs marathons, travels the world, and is a grandfather
two times over.
            By the way, you too can help:  www.savingtinyhearts.com