Thursday, December 31, 2009


The last decade of the 19th century was not a good time for American business as the country attempted to weather the effects of an economic depression. Among the industries to feel this downturn were the railroads, the heart and soul of the nation’s transportation network. It was at this time that the Missouri Kansas and Texas Railroad, the - M.K.T. line - hired a public relations guru named William G. (Willie) Crush as an assistant to the vice president. Crush, who had been associated with the P.T. Barnum enterprise, was given the task of developing programs to promote a greater public appreciation for the sprawling rail line whose tracks connected Texas with key cities such as Kansas City and St. Louis, and through those hubs with the rest of the country. Known affectionately as the “KATY” line, the company was wide open to suggestions, and it was hoped that Crush was just the man to have a few.
What Crush knew was that train wrecks were like ”mothers’ milk” to headline-hungry newspapers and the public alike. It seemed to him that a well-planned and heavily-promoted train wreck would be just the ticket to focus national attention on the KATY, and management of the line soon agreed. It remained only to select a location, consult the engineering and technical experts, and set the publicity ball rolling. The most logical spot for the event was a long straight
level stretch of track with hills at both ends just to the north of Waco, Texas. Since no town existed at that location, one would have to be built, so two water wells were drilled, a temporary depot was erected, viewing stands built, and all the accoutrements to serve an expected gathering of 25,000 people installed. Not a man to miss an opportunity for a little self-promotion, Willie named the new town – what else, “Crush”. And so the event became advertised and promoted everywhere as the “Great Train Wreck at Crush”.
The technical aspects of the plan involved not insignificant considerations. Crucial was the question of whether or not the impact of two trains traveling at great speed might cause the boilers to explode. Supplying the power to drive a steam locomotive was a boiler made of thick heavy metal capable of withstanding pressures resulting from steam expanding to a volume 1675 times that of water. Already, the world had witnessed the consequences of such a disaster, as with the sinking of the steam ship “Sultana” on the Mississippi, which took the lives of 1700 returning Union Army soldiers in 1865. But not to worry: all but one of the railroad engineers consulted assured Willie that such would not take place.
Then there was the question of speed, point of impact, and the integrity of the hitches connecting each locomotive to the string of six cargo cars making up the train. The two aging Baldwin engines selected – No. 1001, and No. 999 – with their old-style diamond-shaped stacks, would be painted alternately, green with red trim, and red with green trim, and would begin their speed run from two directly-facing hilltops separated by four miles of track. The sides of the box cars were painted with large advertising signs, including one for the P.T. Barnum Circus who would be supplying a huge tent to house food and other services for the event.
As part of the advertising campaign, the two colorful trains puffed their way to many parts of Texas during the preceding weeks, and tickets for round-trip transportation for the event were sold for $2.00. (The big show itself would be free.) The “instant” town of Crush soon took on the appearance of an amusement park, with rides, concessions, medicine shows and entertainment galore. Just to make sure nothing would get out of hand 300 police officers were brought in to control crowds expected to include many who would indulge in more than lemonade, and barriers were erected to make certain that no one other than photographers and officials could get closer than 200 yards.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 15, 1896, thirty passenger trains fanned out across the state to haul enthusiastic minions to a city which – for one day – would be the second largest in all of Texas. The crowd is estimated to have numbered over 40,000.
At 5:00 PM, the two trains touched cow catchers at milepost 881, the appointed place of impact, then slowly backed their way to the tops of the opposing hills as the thousands of viewers held their collective breath. At 5:10 William George Crush lifted his hat and quickly brought it down as the crowd let out a roar. The two locomotives began the journey belching black smoke, their throttles tied wide open. After four turns of the drive wheels, the two crews leaped from the accelerating cabs as planned. Fireworks placed on the rails and the blast of whistles tied open accompanied the rumble of the trains as they swept down the hills, the crowd raised on tip toes and straining for the best possible view of what was about to happen.
At a combined speed of 90 miles per hour the two trains crashed together with what might at first have seemed a rather disappointing lack of drama, the remains seeming to collapse downward onto the tracks. A few seconds ticked by, then the two boilers exploded simultaneously, sending timbers and debris into the sky and showering the entire area with thousands of shards of metal shrapnel. Three observers were killed outright, a newsman blinded in one eye, and others injured.
In the aftermath, “Willie” Crush was fired, and the families of the victims quietly compensated. As MKT railroad derricks moved in to clean up the debris, they found there was almost nothing to retrieve. Souvenir hunters were in such a hurry to claim their piece of history, some ended up with burned fingers.
Agent Crush was quietly hired back within two days, Scott Joplin wrote a song about the incident, MKT noticed an increase in passenger travel, and the country moved on. Today, all that remains of the famous “Crash at Crush” is a small, hard-to-notice marker beside a freeway interchange 14 miles north of Waco, Texas. That is, if you don’t count thousands of strange pieces of ragged metal scattered on mantels and gathering dust in attics and basements across the state of Texas.

A time-worn news photograph captures a staged face-off between the two KATY trains just prior to the “Great Train Wreck at Crush”in September, 1896.

Sunday, December 20, 2009


A classic EMD-E7, in Western Pacific colors receives a lot of attention at the California Railroad Museum in Sacramento. One of the most-loved diesel-electric “streamliners”of all times, nearly 500 of this locomotive model and its offspring were built.

I have often thought that Dame Fortune smiled in a special way upon anyone born early enough in the 20th century to know the long mournful call of a steam locomotive. Late at night, curled deep in the protective folds of an eiderdown in an attic bedroom, I have traveled to distant and mysterious destinations on the wings of that solo refrain carried to my garret window by an errant breeze. Rising and falling, mellowed by distance and intervening topography, sometimes jubilant, sometimes plaintive and seductive, always filled with a yearning no other man-made orchestra has ever been able to match, the song of steam is so powerfully evocative, it is clenched tightly in the memories of a generation or two who can only lament its passing.
I thought of all this recently as I spent a day at the California Railroad Museum in old town Sacramento, wandering among and even touching more than a hundred years of railroading history, where acres of restored and even serviceable locomotives and rolling stock tantalize the imagination of young and old alike. There I sat in the engineer’s position in one of the only remaining “cab forward” locomotives in the country, examined the unbelievably narrow kitchen of a Santa Fe dining car, and revisited one of the rolling post office cars which serviced daily the small-town America of my youth.
For the fan of combustion locomotives, there are two dozen beautifully-restored models on display, including two Electro-Magnetic Diesel Corporation streamliners in “Super Chief warbonnet” paint jobs. And for those of us who are closet historians and researchers, the on-site book store is worthy of a full-day visit all on its own. (I now have six months of reading to do and a host of Santa Fe dining car recipes to try out in my kitchen.)
My own personal love affair with the fading days of American railroading began with the stories heard at the feet of a father, who in his youth decided to “see America” by riding the rails. From his home state of Washington, he “hitched” his way from state to state, stopping long enough to earn a few dollars, harvesting hay, or wheat or hops, or loading logs, before moving on, gathering tales from engineers, brakemen and fellow travelers. Along the way he witnessed several derailments and wrecks while learning lessons in geography and civics his stories brought to life for his four sons.
By the time I was fourteen, I had traveled with such hallowed names as the beloved “Pennsy”, the Delaware & Hudson, New York Central, Long Island, Canadian National and Central Vermont. In the decade to follow, I would come to cross the continent nearly a dozen times by rail on military courier missions, covering the miles between New York and Texas or California on many of the great trains of the early 50s from the Super Chief to the Texas “Katy”. It was during a time of war, and the uniform I wore and the orders I carried had an unexpected but welcome effect on conductors and porters, who quietly saw to it that I enjoyed dining car meals far beyond the reach of the parsimonious military “meal tickets” I carried, and a first choice of sleeping berth at night. I always chose an upper Pullman berth, where the swaying motion of the car was more pronounced, and the clickety clack of the rails a soothing counterpoint. When escorting prisoners, I often had a compartment assigned to me for greater security,
and that was especially luxurious.
One of the most interesting train journeys was a 935 kilometer trip on a steam-powered, narrow gage railroad from Tokyo to the city of Iwakuni at the extreme southern tip of occupied Japan. Tunnels through mountains were numerous and long, and almost every small town we passed had its waiting audience of small children vying for the candy and chewing gum we threw to them from the moving train. We slept on swaying hammocks which dropped from the ceiling at night and dined on military rations. A brief stop to take on coal and water at a station overlooking the devastation of Hiroshima was an eerie experience. I don’t think any of us spoke as we looked down on what once had been a thriving city.
By 1916, there were 254,000 miles of railroad tracks in America, and passenger rail traffic had reached its zenith. By 1920, 1.8 million people were employed by the industry. But big changes were ahead, one of which was Americans’ growing love affair with the automobile, another the coming of the combustion engine itself. The construction, maintenance, and operation of steam-powered locomotives was an expensive proposition, and diesel power offered greater economy in all three areas. For awhile the two ran side by side, to the delight of a portion of the public who loved the mystic of steam.
Today, only 154,000 Americans are employed in the rail industry, yet we manage to haul four times the freight tonnage of the heyday year of 1920 !
Except for a handful of tourist trains scattered around the country. steam-powered rail travel is only a fading memory, but one filled with enough glory to be worth passing on to our grandkids.

Clinchfield caboose number 1078 is connected to a coal train near Mt. Holly, No. Carolina, one of the last of a dying breed. Rendered redundant by new technology, the venerable caboose was mostly dropped from service in the 1980s.

Thursday, December 17, 2009


I knew right from the start this would be a good day. (When it comes to certain rituals, I believe in karma.) As I carefully scraped the ashes of last night’s fire through the grates for transfer to the waiting scuttle, there hidden in and protected by an insulating layer of gray wood ash were two or three still-living coals, glowing red with promise; the remnants of a pinyon knot, imbued at its core with natural resins bestowed by a long-ago marriage of sun and sapling. Open the draft, ply with a feathery wreath of cedar bark and voila ! We have flames, ready to be cajoled with a “teepee” of hand-split cedar withes into the day’s birthing fire. And without having to resort to the calumny of paper or match !
For the dedicated wood-burner, there is something particularly and deeply satisfying about building that first-of-the day fire. No matter the dimension or design of the hearth, there is something undeniably primal and elegantly elemental in an act which connects us with generations of fire-makers stretching back to humankind’s very roots.
It is especially satisfying when outside, gray storm clouds are reaching earthwards, the west wind is bringing showers of rain and sleet on its chill breath, and warmth produced by human hands begins to fill our log home’s frosty interior. The progressive placement of slender pieces of dry white pine and hand-split billets of red cedar which have been curing for two years under a home-made outdoor shelter are each a steppingstone in the ritual. The Dutch West’s double layers of cast iron begin to tick and ting as they expand, joining the song the chimney draft and crackling wood are singing.
I can’t help but notice that among the cradles of fire wood toted from barn to hearth individual pieces bring their own sense of history and personality with them: there is that knot-filled twisted juncture of cedar burl I almost gave up on splitting last August; here is the single silver-white length of cottonwood salvaged from a lightning-struck branch which had to be cleared from the trail along the river bank after a springtime storm, and mixed in are those misshapen, impossible-to-stack odds and ends purposely set aside, or thrown on the top of a finished stack and just begging to be gotten rid of on a bed of hot coals. The symmetry of an artfully constructed section of a near-perfect corner or end-stack reminds me of a weekend when a visiting grandson took the time his grandpa never would have to show his architectural skills. Here and there, as I work my way through the wood pile I will happen upon a tiny stack of still-green meadow grass, where a far-sighted deer mouse built winter quarters, and wonder if its inhabitants escaped the notice of a California king snake I knew hunted nearby.
As I travel the backroads of the New England I love, and where my own association with wood-gathering and wood-burning was first given life, I am always on the lookout for the inevitable evidence that cold-weather providence is still alive and well. I see wood stacks that are straight-and-true, short or long, sometimes circular or even whimsical in shape and design; out in the open, or under carefully-crafted shelter. These stacks, of course, are made up of white birch, some ash, and a lot of long-burning, BTU-rich maple – the true wood-burner’s ”fillet mignon” of the hearth. Sometimes I stop to admire or even photograph what most travelers would pass by with hardly a glance. And . . if I think no one is watching, I will even saunter over to the stack, and allow my nostrils to inhale deeply of an amalgam of forest perfume which has the power to open the memory vaults of my mind to the magic of a thousand morning fires.
Each Fall as we take temporary possession of a primitive cabin overlooking the Atlantic in coastal Maine, I pray for the first night of frosty weather, or better yet, an actual “Nor’easter” , so that I can feed split chunks of gathered and carefully-husbanded maple into the waiting fireplace.
Just outside my back door here in southern Utah, I keep a chopping block and splitting axe – as I have wherever I have lived, down through the years - so that I have to walk by them every day. They, and what they stand for remind me of who I am, and of a legacy of self reliance which helps to define me.
I was right this morning. This has been a very good day. Day number 27,950.

A neat home-built shelter houses a supply of split hardwood at historic “Furnace Brook Farm” in Chittenden, Vermont.
For many New England farm families, firewood gathering is a never-ending, year-round job.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


As Admiral Nagumo’s fleet turned away from Hawaiian waters and headed back to the safety of homeland seas on December 8, 1941, they had every reason to believe they had accomplished a great victory for the Japanese Empire. They had sent most of America’s Pacific Fleet to the bottom and either destroyed or damaged much of the infrastructure needed to support fleet operations. Nearly half of all military aircraft on hand had been eliminated in ninety minutes, mostly on the ground, and the dead and wounded – half of that total aboard the U.S.S. Arizona – would send shock waves across a “sleeping” America.
Like their American counterparts, Japanese admirals were still following a naval doctrine advanced by English captain, Alfred Mahan which held that ultimate victory at sea would always be determined in one great battle between opposing battleships. With virtually all U.S. battleships and heavy cruisers out of the equation, Admiral Yamamoto and his planners figured they would have at least one year to complete the conquest of the Philippines, Guam, the East Indies, Singapore, and New Guinea, while strengthening their hold on Korea, Indochina, Manchuria, and the string of Pacific islands which served as a protective shield for their homeland. And they were confident that a weak and self-absorbed America would be sufficiently demoralized to seek reasonable terms for a non-aggression agreement.
The Japanese, of course, were wrong on almost every count. To begin with, the three aircraft carriers they thought would be at anchor were safely at sea, and would shortly play a key role in reversing the fortunes of war. In the months to come, the greatest sea battles ever fought would take place – between opposing fleets which would never even come within sight of each other. It would be the aircraft launched by those fleets which would secure both victory and defeat. The vaunted battleship would become mostly a gun platform supporting invasion actions, and the aircraft carrier would become the new “capitol ship”. And Pearl Harbor would “rise’ again, as the arsenal of victory in the Pacific. The massive fuel depots, submarine pens, dry docks and repair shops, along with the fleet headquarters complex itself, were left untouched by the first two waves of bombers, and for reasons which will be forever debated, Nagumo failed to launch the third wave which might have corrected that oversight.
But there is more to this part of the Pearl Harbor story. Of the eighteen fighting ships sunk in the attack, all but two would be raised from the dead to play roles in the final defeat of Japan and the Axis, some of them within six months. In what must be recognized as one of the major engineering feats of all time, teams of underwater divers worked round the clock, making 5000 dives in the most treacherous and toxic environment imaginable to make the impossible possible. Navy and civilian divers spent more than 20,000 hours in oil-and-sludge-filled waters, both outside and inside ripped and torn hulls, not counting the many hours spent in a decompression chamber normalizing blood nitrogen levels following prolonged stays underwater. Exhausting efforts and great care went into recovering human remains, ship’s documents and ammunition.
On the other hand, the Japanese fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor did not fare so well. Of the six carriers which delivered the 420 bombers, fighters and torpedo planes, four were sunk in the battle of Midway six months later, with the fifth going down at Coral Sea, and Zuikaku , the sixth, in Leyte Gulf in 1944. Two of the Imperial Fleet’s battleships were sunk at Guadalcanal in November, 1942, and two cruisers, Tone and Chikuma sometime later.
In the end, despite all the military errors and oversights which can be ascribed to both sides in that initial battle of a war which would drag out for four more years, the Empire of Japan made the most fateful by profoundly misreading the people of America. The consequences of that mis-judgement was perhaps most succinctly captured by Admiral Hara Tadaichi who said, “We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.”

Exhausted U.S. Navy divers stand in front of a decompression chamber at Pearl Harbor following the December, 1941 attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet.

Thursday, December 3, 2009


America’s history is so crammed with the stories of exceptional people who did exceptional things that it has become easy to lose track, overlook, or under-appreciate many. It would be difficult to find a more deserving character than an immigrant boy of the 19th century to honor with a brief remembrance – especially during what has euphemistically become known as “the Holiday Season”.
Thomas Nast was born in Landau, Germany on September 27th, 1840. Six years later, he and his family undertook immigration to America, settling in New York. Young Thomas had a difficult time fitting in, right from Day One. He was short, fat and unattractive. He was a poor student, slow to learn basic English, and was soon sent home from public school as “unpromising”.
Making use of cast-off crayon remnants supplied by a neighbor, Thomas began to fill his lonely hours by drawing pictures of the everyday neighborhood in which he lived. His talent got him into an art school about which we know little – except that by age 15, he no longer had the funds to continue, or to enter the kind of long, drawn-out apprenticeship program the times required.
In the days before photography, the publishers of journals and newspapers employed illustrators to add visual interest to the printed media which served a public hungry for news and entertainment. Motivated by desperation and sheer audacity, young Thomas presented himself to the publisher of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. To get rid of the persistent pest, Leslie gave him a drawing assignment and deadline he knew the petitioner couldn’t complete. To his surprise, Nast appeared at his desk the next day with the finished work in hand. He was hired on the spot.
While working for Leslie, Thomas learned the exacting art of carving wood cuts – the technique of creating a reverse image on a wooden plate which when inked would produce a near photo-like reproduction on paper. Some time around 1858 or 1859, he tried his hand for the first time at drawing a political cartoon. It was immediately bought by the publisher of Harper’s Weekly where Nast found a new “home”. Not only had he become adept at depicting current happenings in life-like illustrations, but he quickly revealed a rare insight into what was going on in the world of politics around him. It was Thomas Nast who invented the democrat donkey and the republican elephant, and many historians give him credit for developing the Uncle Sam image which remains a national institution.
The impact of Nast’s cartoons was deep and widespread, and they informed the public in a way mere words couldn’t. He helped to bring down the corrupt Boss Tweed political machine in New York and to elect Rutherford B. Hayes U.S. President in 1876. In fact he was eerily successful in picking political winners, and in six successive presidential campaigns, his cartoons were a predictor.
During the Civil War, Nast became depressed with having to illustrate the tragedy of death on the battlefields, and in 1862 he decided to try to bring something uplifting to the nation with the beginning of a series of what came to be known as his “Christmas Drawings”. The first depicted a plump, bearded, hearty, happy elf of a man in a sleigh delivering gifts to soldiers. Building on the old European idea of a stark, stern, black-robed “Father Christmas”, Thomas Nast began polishing and fine-tuning the new Santa Claus, building on the popular Clement Moore poem, T’Was The Night Before Christmas, suggesting a home in the North Pole, and the expanding storyline which quickly captured the imagination of children and grown-ups around the world. For the next 24 years Nast would produce 76 original Christmas engravings, including everything from the idea of a Santa workshop to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe, finally giving us the Merry Old Elf image we have today.
The chubby immigrant boy with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge who carved his art in wood went on to become one of the most successful, wealthy and honored artists of his day, ending his career as U.S. ambassador to Ecuador. What his world of admirers didn’t know, was that Thomas Nast had a secret. He had never learned to read or write. His devoted wife – his greatest admirer – was his window on the world, mentoring his searching mind and reading aloud to him even as he carved.
The Santa Claus Thomas Nast gave us will be 147 years old this Merry Christmas !

Friday, November 20, 2009


I suppose everyone has a fragment of personal history which has the power to stand out among that unfolding landscape of people, places, and events we call “life”, for want of a more precise rubric. It has slowly dawned on me over the ever-circling years, that Christmas, 1949 was one of those moments.
For one thing, it was to be the last Christmas which would see all of my family together in the parlor of the Vermont country farm home which so recently had become our “home place”, warmed by a woodstove fueled by chunks of hard maple, cut, split and stacked by our own hands, in front of a glowing fir tree cut from our own property. It was a “good” time; I can think of no hovering cloud of worry or pending twist of destiny to spoil that setting. Then again, I was a high school senior, full of my teenage self, and filled with an innocent contentment with the small world I occupied; challenged at most by occasional outbreaks of teenage acne.
Word had been put out that in addition to some books, my Christmas list contained a description of a much-admired wool jacket, then popular with young hunters my age. It came in both red-and-black and green-and black checkered patterns. My “down-country” Aunt Molly – my mother’s older sister – ended up with the assignment. Unfortunately, Aunt Molly did her shopping among a clutch of upper-end, big-name New York City stores, not at Lamson’s Hardware where anyone would have known what a “Vermont checkered hunting jacket” was.
The long-and-short of it was that I got to display my not-unknown acting skills that Christmas morning, as I lifted from the colorfully-bound box, a finely-made, multi-colored, “kind-of-a-plaid”, half-length jacket. One hundred percent wool. With a zipper no less.
Despite whatever other social deficits may have been mine, I was the product of many years of careful tutoring in “gentlemanly manners” – especially where my mother and her sisters were concerned. I never allowed my disappointment to reveal itself, and dutifully wore the Christmas jacket when called for. Even in front of my pals. At the same time, I dared not buy for myself the prize I had been expecting, so as not to reflect badly on Molly’s thoughtful (though uninspired) selection.
Within a matter of months of that milestone family gathering, my whole world would change: a few days after my seventeenth birthday, I would graduate from high school, war would break out in Korea, and I would be enlisting in the recently-created United States Air Force. Just before Christmas, 1950, I raised my right hand to the square, and prepared for the long train journey from Montpelier, Vermont to San Antonio, Texas. We were told to take with us only the clothing necessary for the trip, and since it was chilly the day of departure, I wore the plaid jacket.
The Air Force Training Command was totally unprepared to deal with the sudden influx of volunteers descending on Lackland Air Force Base at that time. Long-abandoned, tar-paper-covered wooden barracks became our home, and my flight - # 6631 - was turned over to the eager hands of a pair of recently-recalled, former Marine Corps drill instructors, who not only shared the same last name of Larsen, but a determination to make our lives as miserable as possible while no one else was looking ! These guys were the product of a World War II Paris Island culture which is the stuff of legend. From day one, they were in the business of erasing any civilian contamination left clinging to us. “This is a time of war “ we were constantly counseled, “forget about home, forget about Mommy, make up your mind you’re never going to see them again !”
To reinforce that idea, we emptied our wallets of photos of loved ones, and abstained from writing letters for several weeks. AND. . . we were asked to surrender the civilian cloths we had arrived with, for donation to the Salvation Army. “From now on you are required by articles of war to wear only your uniform, so you will have no need for civies”.
And so I said goodbye to my gray, gabardine trousers, blue double-breasted shirt, other accessories and the all-wool, Christmas jacket. At last I was done with it – December, 1950.
It was a warm, lazy blue-sky-kind-of-day in 1955 when I received a mystifying phone call. By then, I was a happy “civilian”, married to my high school sweetheart, and already father of the first of our four children, living back in central Vermont. The call came from the Railway Express agent at the nearby train station, advising me that my “baggage had arrived”.
“Some kind of mistake” I replied. “I am expecting no baggage.”
Well”, the agent went on, “if you are S/Sgt. A.C.Cooper, USAF, AF11206059, it belongs to you; come and get it. There’s no charge.”
Sure enough, that’s what was stenciled on the side of the nearly-empty military barracks bag I found waiting at the terminal. More mystified than ever, I unsnapped the unsecured buckle, and turned over the sack. Out tumbled the clothes I had last seen in an old tarpaper building in Texas more than five years earlier. And last out was the many-colored Christmas jacket, staring up at me accusingly from the platform of the same old depot I had departed from on that great journey which would take me across the world, and into a lifetime still unseen.
I can think of several scenarios that might explain that intrusion into a life I thought I was in charge of, but mostly I didn’t try too hard. Every time we faced a family move, I would run across the old travel sack, and consider getting rid of it. After all, I didn’t plan to wear any of those old duds. And finally, I did get rid of most of it. All except the Christmas jacket.
A few years ago, on Christmas Eve, I pulled the woolen garment out of the closet where it seemed to have found a home of its own, and modeled it for our grandkids, after telling them the story which went with it. Somehow, it became for me, unknowingly, but undeniably, a touchstone – a simple inanimate object of inexplicable value. Holding it lovingly in hands which have not survived the years nearly as well as the old coat, has become a part of every Christmas for the past dozen years.
As I write these lines, my Aunt Molly’s gift hangs just within easy reach, on a closet knob in my writing room. And I realize, looking at it, that this Holiday season will be the 60th since that gathering in the old family farmhouse so long ago, the one which would be the last of its kind; the year of The Christmas Jacket.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Perhaps the high point of that “Age of Giant Airships” was attained by the Graf Zeppelin, here seen in its hangar at Friedrichshafen, Germany

One of the lessons of history tells us that every great conflict produces in its wake a period of extraordinary scientific, industrial-commercial, and experimental activity. The years following World War I (The Great War), are no exception. Suddenly, any open country farm field could become a destination for one of the hundreds of second-hand “Jennys” powered by America’s “Liberty” aircraft engines now in the hands veterans and neophytes alike. Aviation had come of age, and the world was fascinated by the possibilities and drama of powered flight.
In the moment of time between 1924 and 1937, much of that fascination was focused on the giant, gas-filled rigid airships born in the creative mind and drafting boards of Count graf von Zeppelin (who had himself died of old age in 1917). They seemed like an answer to the challenge of trans-oceanic travel, offering passengers luxury passage without having to deal with days at sea. In 1929, the Graf Zeppelin flew around the world after establishing regular flights from its home field at Friedrichshafen, Germany to Lakehurst New Jersey, offering those who could afford the fare, 20 sleeping berths, a dining room and other amenities.
With the world’s first flight over the South Pole thrown in for good publicity, the “Graf” introduced regular transatlantic flights from Germany to Rio de Janero, Brazil, carrying up to 91 people on each 6800 mile-long trip, and cementing a close relationship between the two nations. In fact, over its nine-year operational diary, the giant, hydrogen-filled airship completed 590 flights, carrying 34,000 passengers millions of miles without injury to anyone. After its June 18, 1937 flight, it was allowed to quietly retire from service, and was finally broken up in 1940. Not bad, when compared against the very different history of rigid airship operations elsewhere.
The popular belief widely-held even today, is that the airship was doomed from the start because of the flammability of the gas which gave it flight – especially when that gas was in the form of hydrogen; the Hindenburg disaster often used as a reminder. What is now known is that it was the experimental surface paint which was the flashpoint that May day at Lakehurst. In truth, fire was not the greatest menace to LTA operations, nor was it America’s unwillingness to sell non-flammable helium the reason that the Germans didn’t have it. Airship design and operations was by its nature a very expensive undertaking even before filling the internal gas bags. Helium was heavier than hydrogen, and was a thousand times more expensive per cubic foot.
Actually a look at America’s experience with rigid airships brings us to the greater weakness waiting in the promising skies over planet earth.
ZR-1 Shenandoah: Broke apart in a storm front over Ohio, Sept. 1925 -14 died
ZR-2 Built for the U.S. in England. Broke up and crashed over Hull, U.K.
ZRS-4 Akron: Wrecked in storm off New Jersey coast, Apr.1933 – 73 died
ZRS-5 Macon: Damaged by storm, sank in Pacific off Pt. Sur, Cal. Feb. 1935 – 2 died
And then there was the world-wide attention brought to the famous British introduction of a new, cutting-edge design launched as the R-101, at the time the largest man-made object ever to be sent aloft. On its first, and heavily-publicized trip from London to India, it somehow managed to fly into the ground near Allons, France in a nighttime storm, October 4, 1930, where it burned. 48 died. There were 8 survivors.
It is worth noting that the U.S.S. Macon successfully served as a “mother ship”, launching and retrieving five pursuit airplanes from hangers slung along its underside. Another Navy dirigible, the U.S.S. Los Angeles avoided mishap, and was decommissioned in June, 1932 in good condition.
A “side bar” story to all of the above, involves the conflict which was going on at the time between the Army and the Navy over the question of which arm of the service should be home to a full-fledged air force. General Billy Mitchell, the most vocal officer in this debate took the occasion of the repeated Navy airship disasters to criticize Admiral Moffett and naval aviation itself for the mismanagement of the program. It was a public comment of his that led eventually to his famous court marshal.
It is doubtful we will ever again see those kinds of giants in the sky, but it is heartening to see one of those Goodyear blimps filming sporting events every now and then, and to wish I hadn’t lost –over the moves of a lifetime – a tube of ping pong balls which had crossed the Atlantic on the Graf Zeppelin.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


It was a gray morning, that first Thursday in May, as a group of neighborhood friends gathered with me and my brothers in the expansive front yard of our New Jersey home. I was only four years old at the time, but the excitement of the moment has never been diminished by the passage of time in my memory.
Evidence that our vigil had not been in vain came first not from anything we could see or hear, but from a vibration that caused the ground beneath our feet to tremble. Next came the sound, and the cause of that resonance, the slow heavy beat of five powerful Daimler-Benz 16-cylinder diesels. It seemed forever before the bulbous, silver nose of the great airship came into view, just over the roofs of nearby homes, flying much lower than we had expected. Even the grown-ups around me exclaimed in wonder as little by little the full extent of the massive craft came into view. Living where we did, the sight of both rigid airships and their non-rigid and smaller cousins, the blimps, were not unknown. After all, Lakehurst, with its docking station was just a few miles away. But this was different. The Hindenburg was nearly the length of three football fields, and got its lift from more than 7 million cubic feet of hydrogen gas.
If a close-up view of the history-making giant wasn’t enough to stir emotions among onlookers, the red and black swastika which adorned the port tail fin was. While the Nazi symbol was a common image in newsreels and magazines, there was something discomforting about seeing it so boldly displayed in New Jersey’s peaceful skies, and over America, isolated from the gathering storm clouds of Europe. What we didn’t know, and couldn’t see from our vantage point, was that the opposite – starboard – side of the tail fin was painted differently – featuring the traditional and less menacing German national tri-colors. Wishing not to fan negative sentiments among New York City’s Jewish population, the Hindenburg crew was instructed to make its planned circling of the city so that mainly the politically-correct side of the ship would be seen by the waving crowds.
Growing up in a home with two much older brothers who were enthusiastic followers of human events and voracious readers, I was exposed daily to conversations, discussions and debates on a wide range of subjects. My father was a wounded veteran of The Great War, and a great-great uncle who lived with us had been born when the Battle of Gettysburg was being fought. Only years later would I be able to look back and realize that our home was a dynamic “class room” and I was an eager student. Which might help to explain why all these years after, I am sill captivated by moments of history. . . and the era of Great Airships.
Germany had been a world leader in aviation technology, and the giant “lighter-than-air” dirigibles were born there. German “Zeppelins” – named for Count Graf von Zeppelin, their pioneering “godfather” had actually dropped bombs on London in WW I. Paradoxically, the whole concept of a military role for aviation was spawned on the battlefields of America’s Civil War, where tethered gas-filled balloons had been used by the Union Army’s Signal Corps to observe enemy defensive strategies. President Lincoln had given permission for Prussian officers to travel with the Army of The Potomac as observers.
That May day, as enthusiastic crowds stood marveling at the sight of the mighty Hindenburg pass overhead, we might be excused for thinking that we were seeing a preview of the future, despite the fact that our own introduction to airship technology had been disastrous, with the crashes of all but one of our own rigid airships, as had England and Italy with theirs. But here was something more hopeful, a modern wonder capable of carrying transatlantic passengers between continents in great comfort and luxury in a matter of mere hours. After all, Germany’s famous Graf Zeppelin had already done that very thing for nine successful years, without so much as a personal injury to anyone.
What we didn’t know at that moment was that within hours, the Hindenburg would meet with disaster just miles from where we stood, and the era of the Great Airships would die with it.

The mighty Hindenburg bursts into flames at the mooring mast at Lakehurst N.J., on May 6, 1937, effectively ending the Era of Great Airships.

Sunday, November 1, 2009


Two American originals – cranberries and maple syrup – combine to make this double - crust pie a reminder of the first Thanksgiving. Recipe Below.

The story is still told among descendants of the Algonquin People of a young boy who aspired to become a holy man – a Shaman. He set for himself a spiritual quest to prove himself in the eyes of the Great Creator. He decided to bury himself partially in the deep mud of a swamp, and there to concentrate his mind and being solely on the desire of his heart. Although it was still fall, there occurred an unexpected early freeze, and he found himself frozen fast in place there in the wilderness of a northern bog. It is said that he would have died of starvation had not a miracle come, in the shape of a strange white dove, carrying something in its beak. From the sky, a red berry was dropped so that the lad could reach it. There followed many flights of the beautiful white bird, bringing berry after berry, until his friends were able to find and rescue the boy from the swamp.
It is thought that in these mercy flights, the dove must have accidentally dropped some of the magic berries, because the following spring, new and never-seen-before plants began to establish themselves in the swampy country which The People frequented in their canoes, producing increasingly generous harvests of the tart but wondrous berries. The fruit became an important ingredient in the pemmican which helped to insure food during the long winter months, and was the centerpiece of their harvest celebrations each fall.
And so when the newly arrived people with pale skins and blue eyes invited the Indians to a feast they held the year after their first arrival, Samoset and his friends introduced the Pilgrims to dishes made from the wild berries gleaned from the nearby ponds and swamps. The puddings and maple-flavored treats sparkling with the red fruit would become an annual reminder to the Pilgrims and their offspring, of that first enduring celebration.
The plant which produced the red berries was called Ibimi by the local Indians, but was renamed by the colonists who noted that when in the flowering stage, the waving blooms looked like the heads of the cranes who frequented the same waterways. And so they began calling them crane berries, a word which over the years was shortened to cranberries.
Today, cranberries are a major crop in several northern states, with Wisconsin and Massachusetts producing the lion’s share of the seven million barrels which will end up on holiday dinner tables across the country this year. They will be made into jellies, relishes, salads and fruit compotes in great variety, with a preponderance slipping out of cans bearing the Ocean Spray logo. At our southern Utah family Thanksgiving table, they will show up in a double-crusted baked pie, whose filling is based largely upon an old Algonquian recipe worth sharing.
Combine in a non-reactive saucepan: 3 cups fresh cranberries – 1 cup sugar – 1 cup maple syrup – 2 Tbs. flour – ½ cup boiling water – 1 cup currant raisins – 3 Tbs. grated orange peel – and a pinch of salt. Bring mixture to a simmer, stirring until the berries begin to pop open. Stir in 2 Tbs. of butter before setting it aside to cool while preparing your favorite pie crust recipe for a two-crust pie. Set your oven to 375 degrees. Line a 9-inch pie dish with the bottom crust and fill with the cranberry mixture. Cut the top crust into strips and lay a latticework over the top before crimping the edges and sprinkling some sugar crystals over all. Bake for 50 – 60 minutes, or until the crust is just lightly browned.
I can’t vouch for the authenticity of all Native American myth-stories, but whenever asked about the origin of the North American cranberry, I prefer to go with the version that features a magical white dove.

Here the annual harvest is underway at a New Jersey cranberry farm. More than 40,000 acres of cranberry bogs are cultivated across six states.


Viewed from outer space, earth stands out from its sister planets in our Sun’s solar system as “the blue planet”, an appellation explained by the oceans which cover three fourths of the surface of our circling globe. Most of that watery expanse is saline by nature, and in earlier eons of time was probably even more so. Beneath the land itself can be found vast deposits of that same salt, left behind by receding oceans and evaporating lakes and seas as mountains were born and died, and time reshaped ancient landscapes. When placed within the context of a global environment which is friendly to life at every level, that salty element must be viewed as one of the greatest gifts of all.
In the previous article which introduced the subject, we looked at the pages of human history upon which salt has written its own particular passages. In this article, we will look at it more from the viewpoint of here and now. Where does our salt come from ? How do we make use of it ? Why do we care ? And . . . are there some things which might cause us to appreciate it just a little bit more ?
Most of the salt which flows into our commercial and personal lives today is mined from those underground deposits before being processed and refined to one extent or another. A very large percentage of mined salt finds its way into something like 14,000 different end uses – some of it, for example going unto our roadways to combat winter ice and snow, and into the water-softeners in many homes and businesses. In fact, some of the technology which laid the foundation for oil drilling and the mining of coal and mineral resources in modern times was born in long-ago salt mines.
In many parts of the world, salt is still produced the old fashioned way, by evaporating the water containing it, either by heating it mechanically, or allowing it to dry by solar action. Around Israel’s Dead Sea and Utah’s Great Salt Lake, solar evaporating ponds are major enterprises.
In the typical American kitchen, there resides somewhere near at hand a familiar round cylindrical box containing the basic family supply of what we call table salt. Chances are it is the same box our parents and grandparents had in their pantries bearing a “girl with an umbrella” label that was introduced back in 1914. Salt that did not stick together in clumps was a new idea then, made possible by an ingredient such as calcium silicate. And, because hypothyroidism was commonplace across much of the country bringing with it goiter growths in many sufferers, sodium iodide was added. The “iodized” table salt we take so much for granted today compensated for diets which were often deficient in naturally occurring iodine.
Because I have a love of food history, and spend a lot of time in our own family kitchen, I take a special interest in the whole wide world of culinary diversity available to the home chef today. The round blue box described above is ever-present, but I seldom make use of it because there are so many alternatives to choose among. Just as we grind our table pepper from selected whole peppercorns, we salt our food from large sized crystals of natural sea salt in a similar table-top grinder. My personal favorite is an additive-free, solar-dried sea salt from New Zealand.
It is said that the human tongue has 10,000 taste pores which are capable of distinguishing between five different areas of taste. The rear of the tongue, along with the soft portion of the upper palate are where we register saltiness. Sea salt has a more vibrant taste than most mined salt, and it takes less of it to achieve the desired effect on food combinations. On the other hand, the pink-tinted crystals mined from 200 feet beneath Redmond, Utah contain traces of associated minerals which give it not only its distinctive color, but a tantalizing flavor not found in any other salt.
Last week we enjoyed a dinner revolving around a flat brisket cut of beef which had been marinated overnight, then slow-baked in a low-temperature oven for five hours. Before marinating, I treated the meat with a coating of kosher salt to draw out some of the moisture, making it more receptive to the barbecue flavoring in the marinade. This process is known as “koshering”, which gives its name to the very sharp-edged salt crystals which work in a way other types of salt cannot duplicate. Thus, kosher salt has a special place on our pantry shelf, right alongside the non-iodized pickling salt we use for everything from dill or sweet pickles, to the corned beef roasts we cure in stone crocks every fall.
We take comfort from the knowledge that in the event of a prolonged power outage, our supply of preserving salt, vinegar and pickling spices assures us of a method of giving the contents of our inoperative freezers a second life. In such an instance, we might ourselves look upon these salty crystals as being “worth their weight in gold.”

Home made kosher dills ready to take their place beside peppery sauerkraut, corned beef and smoked salmon.
Photo by Al Cooper

Sunday, October 18, 2009


Photo Caption: A hand-built stone cairn and nesting kettles near the town of
Seaside, Oregon mark the salt works which made the survival
of the Lewis & Clark Expedition possible.

It’s found in every home, can be purchased for pennies today, and is so commonly available that its historic value is all but lost in a long-forgotten history. Yet armies have clashed, kingdoms have risen and fallen, Empires lived and died because of it; merchant fleets been launched to trade in it, and distant shores explored in search of it. Access to it had the power to dramatically change human culture and the everyday life of people and even to influence the movement and settlement of entire populations.
Roman soldiers were paid in it, many illnesses were treated with it, and the liturgy of most religions were dependent upon it. And perhaps more important than all of this, the human family was finally able to store animal protein from one season to another, undertake travel over great distances with safe and reliable food supplies and extend the level of health and the duration of life itself.
Chemists identify it as sodium chloride, but to all of us, it is known merely as salt. It is so much a part of life, that to say it is taken for granted is a magnificent example of “understatement”. So universal was its value, that Roman soldiers of Ceasar’s legions were happy to be paid in it wherever they served. It’s probably from that humble beginning that we still use the word “salary”, or sometimes wonder if a person’s work ethic is “worth his salt”. Words such as “savor” and “salvation” are anchored to the old Latin “salarium”,and references to salt abound in the Bible.
Salt’s ability to preserve food, even more than its desirability as a flavor enhancer undergirded its world-wide value. In the days of the late Roman Empire, highways of commerce connected salt beds to the outside world: caravans made up of as many as 40,000 camels regularly crossed the 400 miles of Sahara emptiness to major trade centers such as Timbuktu. Small towns blessed with salt beds often became large cities, such as Saltzburg in Austria, and Cadiz in Spain, of which it was said “if there was no salt there would be no Cadiz”. Across England, towns near salt deposits were distinguished with the suffix “-wich”, thus places such as Norwich, Middlewich and Nantwich are accorded special mention in the Domesday Book. In pioneer America, salty creek banks were gathering places for wild game, and later for cattle, leaving a legacy of settlements with names like Beaver Lick and Lick Fork, Kentucky, and Big Bone Lick and Lick Lizard, North Carolina.
Long before the arrival of the Mayflower Pilgrims and other colonists on the New England shores, American coastal waters were well-known to European sailors. The abundance of fish on the Grand Banks and the Atlantic Shelf became a magnet to seafarers, and expeditions from Spain, England, France and Portugal had been tapping that largesse for more than a hundred years before the Plymouth Colony. (And that’s not counting Viking visits which probably date back to the year 1000 AD.) The weeks-long voyage from Cape Cod back to their home ports absolutely depended on the preservation of the cargo. The growth of the fishing industry was tied directly to, and in fact resulted from, the availability of salt. Religious practices also played a part. During the 16th and 17th centuries, European Catholics observed more than 120 “fast days” per year – that is days on which fish was the main dish. Result: Salt and codfish became one universally-recognized food staple. . . “salt cod”.
It is no accident that the first attempts at colonization along our northern shores were English. British fishermen were denied easy access to the salt flowing from Cadiz, and so were forced to come ashore in order to dry or smoke their catch, thereby making friends with native Americans, and learning of the conifer and oak forests which covered the land. It can be said that salt is a principle reason why the dominant language and culture of this country became English rather than French or Spanish.
I thought of all this on a recent visit to the Northwest, and a seaside stone cairn near Astoria, Oregon at the opposite end of the continent we call home. On January 2nd, 1806, a small group of men of the Lewis and Clark expedition were dispatched to that very spot for the purpose of establishing a salt works, where they could trap and boil down seawater. Not only had members of that “Corps of Discovery” become restive over the blandness of the food they had been forced to live on, but a fresh supply of salt was absolutely essential for the preservation of game and fish on the return trek ahead of them. Diary entries tell us that they celebrated the production of “three bushels” of salt in that encampment, at a moment in history when the rest of the nation did not even know if the expedition was still alive. As they had to ancient peoples, those glistening crystals must have seemed to them more precious than gold.

Note: The November 4th column of HOME COUNTRY will conclude this story of Salt, examining some of the 14,000 ways in which we make use of it today.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


An Al Cooper Culinary Wish List

Oyster Festival – St. Mary’s County, Leonardtown, MD Oyster & Corn Chowder
National Lima Bean Festival – Cape May, NJ Key Lima Pie
Abalone Festival – Mendocino, CA – By reservation only; 1st 450; 7 months in advance
Louisiana Yambilee – Opolousas, LA - Praline-glazed yams (sweet potatoes galore !)
Apple Butter Festival – Morgan County, W.VA – a group activity w/ copper kettles & paddles
Peanut Butter Festival – Brundridge, ALA -where peanut butter was born – peanut butter chiffon pie
Gumbo Festival – Bridge City, LA – 2000 gallons, many varieties(crawfish, andouille,shrimp, chick)
Deutsch Country Days – Marthasville, MO – Kettle-cooked beef a specialty
Black Walnut Festival – Spenser, WVA-Civil war artillery shoot-out !1000 lb ox roast ;50,000 guests

Apple Butter Making

Sunday, October 4, 2009


Twin lighthouses on Matinicus Rock with newer buildings as they would have appeared
prior to 1924 when the north light was dismantled. Double lights gave mariners an
unquestionable navigational reference point.

In the days before iron hulls and steam power, great sailing ships with acres of billowing sails and creaming wakes plied the busy sea lanes between the northeast coast of America and the ports of Europe along with countless smaller inter-coastal vessels in even greater numbers. Theirs’ was a dangerous calling. They had to deal not only with the stormy Atlantic and its unpredictable winds and currents, but a coastline studded with uncounted islands, ragged and invisible reefs and shoals, and bays and estuaries which were thought to be the very birthplace of nature’s densest fogs. By the 1850s, more than 320 lighthouses dotted the approaches to eastern seaports as aids to navigation, and by the end of that century more than 1200 would circle the nation.
It has been estimated that if the jagged coastlines of Maine and its 4000 islands were turned into a straight line, it would be equal to the entire circumference of the continental United States. Taking into the equation the busy seaports of Portland, Camden, Rockland and Boston, it is not surprising that 80 of those lighthouses were Maine structures, many of them situated on lonely, often remote offshore islands. Long before President Franklin Roosevelt gave the job to the U.S. Coast Guard in the 1930s, the construction, staffing and management of all those flashing beacons was the responsibility of the highly politicized, underfunded and somewhat unwieldy U.S. Lighthouse Service. The lights themselves were tended 24 hours a day by “keepers” who generally had their family to assist them. In fact these “lighthouse families” were expected not only to tend the finicky coal-oil-fueled lamps, keep the wicks trimmed, the crystal lenses polished, and the premises ship shape, but to be basically food self-sufficient in their “spare time”. They had to gather scarce firewood for cooking and heat, raise gardens if possible, and keep their storm-lashed buildings in good repair. And for island families, birthing, doctoring and home-schooling children went with the other jobs.
The most distant, remote, and stormy of all those postings was the station on Matinicus Rock, a 32-acre piece of wave-washed granite 25 miles out in the Atlantic from the port of Rockland, Maine. Its twin lights marked the approaches to the wide expanse of Penobscot Bay and for many, their first glimpse of America. Nary a blade of grass had a chance to grow on a wind-whipped landscape whose high point was only forty feet above high tide level on a good day. And on “The Rock”, there weren’t many “good” days. In fact landing a boat there was a tricky business any time, and meant riding a carefully-timed wave top onto a ramp
Abbie Burgess, herself an “island girl” born on Matinicus Island (five miles away from Matinicus Rock), was 14 when her father, Samuel Burgess became keeper on the Rock in 1853. Abbie, two younger siblings, and her invalid mother Thankful moved into the small dwelling perched between the two stone light towers and set up house keeping. Abbie quickly learned all the chores associated with the lights, and became her father’s assistant. Each light was powered by twelve lamps, whose hunger was fueled by the poorly-refined and dirty-burning oil which had to be carried up the narrow circling stairs from the oil house each day. Abbie’s one outside interest was her small clutch of chickens, which kept the family
in eggs and brought her much pleasure.
In January, 1856, Abbie was left alone to take care of the duties when her father had to launch his small boat and sail off to Rockland for medical supplies for his wife. On January 19th, a great storm struck leaving Samuel stuck ashore and 17-year old Abbie facing monster waves which covered almost the entire island. Anticipating worse, she moved her invalid mother and younger sisters, and all but one of her beloved chickens into one of the stone light towers before the keeper’s house was washed off its foundations and into the sea. It would be four storm-lashed weeks before her father could return, during which time Abbie kept both lights burning and her family intact. The 60 yards of separation between the two light towers must have seemed like a mile for the seventeen-year-old girl timing each trip to those moments when the action of an overwhelming sea permitted a sprint over the wet and slippery rocks.
In 1857, there was a repeat performance: Samuel had been forced ashore when the Lighthouse Service supply ship failed to come on schedule leaving the family without food. This time the storm and rough seas prevented a landing for three weeks, by which time Abbie was rationing her family to one egg and one cup of cornmeal mush each per day, while making the dangerous trip between oil house and lantern rooms to keep the lights burning once again.
In 1861, Abraham Lincoln became president and – as was his prerogative – he named Captain John Grant, a good friend, to be the new keeper at Matinicus Rock Light. (One has to wonder just how much of a “favor” such a posting really was !) Grant, together with his son and assistant Isaac knew nothing about their new trade, so Samuel and Abbie stayed on a while to teach them. Soon a romance blossomed between Abbie and Isaac, and a year later they were married. (A lighthouse keeper had the same marriage authority as a ship’s captain, so it can be assumed the couple never even had to leave The Rock, even then.) Together, Isaac and Abbie served that light until 1875, before being assigned to another island light. Four of their children were born on The Rock, and an infant named Bessie is buried there.
Altogether, Abbie spent 40 years of her life serving Maine’s lights and is still celebrated today as the “heroin of the lighthouse service”. For a home-schooled island girl who had seldom spent any meaningful time on the mainland, Abbie Burgess Grant reflected her commitment to personal education in the journals she kept over all the years of her all-too-brief life. In 1891 she penned these words: “Some times I think the time is not far distant when I shall climb these lighthouse stairs no more. It has almost seemed to me that the light was part of my life. When we had care of the old lard-oil lamps on Matinicus Rock, they were more difficult to tend than these at Whitehead.
Many nights I have watched the lights my part of the night, then could not sleep the rest of the night, thinking nervously what might happen should the lights fail.
In all these years I always put the lamps in order in the morning, and I lit them at sunset. These old lamps. . . on Matinicus Rock . . . I often dream of them. When I dream of them it always seems to me that I have been away a long while, and I am hurrying toward the Rock to light the lamps there before sunset. . . I feel a great deal more worried in my dreams than when I am awake.
I wonder if the care of the lighthouse will follow my soul after it has left this worn-out body ! If ever I have a gravestone, I would like it in the form of a lighthouse or beacon.”
Abbie died in 1892 at the age of 53., still keeping the faith.
In October, 1996, my nearly- lifelong interest in her story led me to a small woodland cemetery at Spruce Head, Maine, and to a small cast aluminum monument in the shape of a lighthouse. It was also my pleasure to correspond with her granddaughter, then living in Florida.
Matinicus Rock lights were 1st built of wood in 1827 on the orders of President John Quincy Adams. It was rebuilt from stone as twin lights in 1857. The north light was decommissioned in 1924, and the south light was automated in 1983. Today, The Rock is owned by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and protected as one of the last nesting grounds of puffins in the U.S. A small marble tablet marks the rocky burial site of Bessie Grant, age 2 years.

A self-confessed lighthouse aficionado, Al Cooper managed to visit Cape Blanco light at the westernmost tip of the continental U.S. and West Quoddy Head light at the easternmost tip within a matter of weeks one year. His favorite is Pemaquid Point light at New Harbor, Maine pictured above.

Photo by Al Cooper

Sunday, September 27, 2009


The summer of 1871 had been a hot and dry one for the people of the north-central states, and as October arrived, there was still no sign of the rain residents had been praying for since the almost-forgotten storms of May. Rivers and lakes were low and even the creeks and farm ponds were drying up. Men who had returned from the battlefields of the Civil War just five years earlier watched their crops wither and their woodlands turn to tinder.
The same railroads which carried northern timber to other markets, and brought needed goods back to the country boomtowns of northern Wisconsin, Michigan and Illinois, depended upon locomotives whose fireboxes in turn burned huge quantities of wood and coal. No doubt many of the wild fires which kept local fire fighters busy that first week of the harvest month originated from the sparks tossed from the stacks of passing trains, while the most famous of those blazes may - or may not - have been caused by the sheer cussedness of Katherine O’Leary’s cow.
Whatever the real cause, the fire that broke out in a residential neighborhood of Illinois’ largest city on October 8th would forever after define the word disaster for Americans, and “The Great Chicago Fire” would dominate newspaper headlines for days and weeks after the actual event. Four square miles of downtown Chicago would burn and as many as 250 would die.
Ironically, just 240 miles to the north, at almost the same hour, a series of grass fires, pushed by the winds of an advancing cold front from the west, joined together to begin a march on the quiet village of Peshtigo, Wisconsin. Families gathering in their parlors for a peaceful Sunday evening or preparing for an early bedtime heard a terrible sound – like the noise of many thunders. Most would never have a chance to tell anyone else what those moments had been like, because by morning the town of Peshtigo no longer existed, and its 2200 people had been wiped away as if by a mighty hand.
Historians differ as to the exact number of deaths, in part because official records were also burned, but also because many of those who lived or worked there at the time had no surviving relatives who might even have known of their presence. More than 1200 were known by name, while 350 were buried in one mass grave. Because of the tornadic winds which fed the inferno, blowing over buildings, rail cars, and everything in their path, attempt at escape sent victims into wells, ponds and the Peshtigo river, where they were either drowned or cooked to death by water which boiled. Virtually every standing building, including the world’s largest wood ware factory was gone by ten o’clock that night !
Before it was done with its work, the most terrible fire in terms of human life, in America’s history would consume 2400 square miles – twice the area of Rhode Island – jumping the Peshtigo river itself as well as the waters of Green Bay. The rains finally came . . . the next day.
The conditions which brought about this nearly-forgotten disaster – “lost” against the overpowering media coverage of the Chicago event – have been much-studied, and are even known as “The Peshtigo Paradigm”. The writer, William Lutz, in his book “Firestorm at Peshtigo. . . “ says “A firestorm is called nature’s nuclear explosion. Here’s a wall of flame , a mile high, five miles wide, traveling 90 to 100 miles an hour, hotter than a crematorium, turning sand into glass.”
In the course of planning possible bombing strategies during World War II, the allies based the devastating 1000 plane incendiary raids against Dresden and Hamburg on just such studies. Those raids, as well as the fire-bombing of Tokyo matched anything done to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The city of Peshtigo was rebuilt and incorporated in 1903 and is today the second largest city in Marinette County. Its citizens honor those who died, and the community’s connection with history in a Fire Cemetery and Museum.

Today, thousands of visitors each year tour the Peshtigo Fire Museum
and nearby cemetery as reminders of the Great Fire time forgot.


The nineteenth century was a time of commercial awakening across much of Europe, poised on the cusp of the coming industrial revolution as was the New World across the Atlantic. Mercantilism was more and more the “engine” which drove social, economic and political change, especially for Great Britain whose empire stretched around the globe. Government in London, increasingly sensitive to the threat of competition from abroad, and pressed by a Parliament dominated by landed gentry with strong ties to the profits of “empire”, began to pass protectionist laws designed to keep profits close to home; that is in the hands of Englishmen.
To the consternation of a minority of more farsighted legislators, a series of laws crafted to curb the importation of low-priced grains from America and elsewhere came into being. They came to be known as “The Corn Laws”, and they (and ironically their later repeal) would eventually lead directly to one of the greatest human tragedies of modern times.
On a map of the world, England and Ireland appear to be close neighbors, sharing not only a piece of nearly-contiguous geography, but a commonality in genealogy and governance. In the early 1800s though, English lawmakers saw Ireland as little more than an island of troublesome, largely-uneducated “foreigners” whose exploding population was a growing concern. They were largely tenant farmers who worked the land which was owned by non-resident English gentry; often no more than vassals to distant employers who often, had never even visited Ireland.
Traditionally, Irish farm folks had based their diet on bread and cereal made from wheat, oats, barley and what was known then as Indian corn. The grains had to be imported however, and when it was discovered that potatoes grew well in the usually unfriendly Irish soil and climate, a major dietary shift took place. By the 1830s, a typical Irish working man consumed 14 pounds of potatoes each day. As unappealing as such a limited choice might seem to our society today, it worked well for that time and place, especially because each family could grow most of their own year’s food supply themselves. And of course it was easy on the purse strings of the “land lords”.
The type of potato which had become the almost-universal choice was known as the “lumper”, a variety with South American roots which had proved itself well adapted to Ireland’s growing conditions. Because potatoes are reproduced vegetatively – that is by dividing the sprouts from one generation to the next – each potato and its progeny are actually genetic clones of their parents with identical strengths and vulnerabilities.
In September of 1845, a wind and fog-driven fungus blew its way into southern Ireland, and the leaves of potato plants began to turn black and rot. There is some irony in the fact that the resulting blight and its deadly consequences probably originated at the docks of England, where the fateful organism arrived in the holds of ships being unloaded there. It is generally agreed by plant scientists that the airborne fungus was phytophtora infestans, but all the people of Ireland knew was that the same mysterious disease that blackened the leaves had also infected the tubers they dug; if not already rotting, they shriveled and died before they could be bagged and stored.
The scourge quickly spread across the country, devastating much of the 1845 harvest, and in the following year. . . there would be no harvest. British Prime Minister Bobby Peel and John Edward Trevelyan, the man he put in charge of the “Irish problem” never really understood the magnitude of the “perfect storm” confronting that island people, and the “solutions” they put in place only made matters worse. Repealing the corn laws and making “Indian corn” available to the starving people might have been a logical step, but the decision to make the victims pay for that grain with money they did not have, and to assume that they would somehow be able to make the rock-hard kernels edible without the necessary equipment to double-grind it only made matters worse. Scurvy, rickettsia and other diseases resulted from the absence of vitamin C in the new impoverished diet and people did not have the strength to work. Unhappy landlords seeing their profits dwindle began evicting Irish families from their tenant-based lodgings by the thousand, creating a self-perpetuating road to poverty for much of the population. Some in Parliament saw all this as evidence that Ireland did not deserve nationhood, and that somehow, a reduction in population as thousands died in the streets of Dublin and other cities might actually serve a useful purpose. Some even declared it to be “divine intervention.
1847 came to be known as the year of “The Great Dying”, with more than one million deaths from starvation and the disease epidemic which followed.
In the wake of what the world came to know as The Irish Potato Famine, the outward migration of Irish citizens was born: By 1861, more than two million Irish immigrants arrived in Boston and New York, with others landing in Canada and Australia. Much of the bitterness which to this day colors the relationship between the British and the Irish can be traced to that piece of unfortunate history.
Hidden in all the more dramatic aspects of this tragic chapter is the lesson in biological diversity we should all have learned. The importance of maintaining a large gene pool of agricultural food crops as opposed to a dependence on a narrow spectrum of plant species is often overlooked in a trend toward “high production-high profit” agri-business.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Stuffed Cabbage


Outer leaves of cabbage (preferably Savoy type)
steamed until just tender enough to fold

¾ lb very lean hamburger
1 cup stewed paste tomatoes
1 cup corn kernels
1 medium onion finely chopped
1 bell pepper finely chopped
1 large egg, beaten
1 cup bread crumbs (home-made toast best)
2-3 cloves garlic minced
½ cup dry red wine (optional)
Sharp cheddar cheese for grating
Salt & pepper

1 cup favorite tomato sauce for top dressing

1 deep baking pan, 9X13 or similar capacity

In a large skillet sauté the onion, garlic and pepper just until softened before adding the hamburger. Make sure the meat is well separated and starting to cook , deglazing the skillet with the red wine as you go. Add the paste tomatoes, breaking them up with a fork to blend with the meat mixture. Allow some of the moisture to cook away, and add the corn. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool while steaming the cabbage leaves.
When the meat mixture is cool enough to handle, add the beaten egg and bread crumbs together with salt and pepper while the oven is preheating to about 350 degrees.
Make a cup-shaped container with two overlapping cooked cabbage leaves and fill with stuffing. Proportion out so that you have approximately 6 filled units to fill the baking dish rather tightly. Pour your favorite tomato sauce over the top. Cover the baking dish with foil and bake at 350 for about one hour. Then remove the foil, grate some cheddar cheese over each bundle and return to the oven for five minutes before serving.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


Klootchy Creek, Oregon is one of the last remaining places
in the U.S, where remnants of a primal forest still stand.

When Meriwether Lewis and William Clark finally gazed upon what they thought was the Pacific ocean in 1805, they met not only the Clatsop people and a culture that reached back many centuries, but a primal forest that was even older. Crossing over the wide mouth of the Columbia river into what is today coastal Oregon, they encountered a maritime forest primeval dominated by trees whose canopy reached nearly twenty stories in height, sheltering a list of smaller flora and fauna which would soon fill their notebooks of new discoveries.
In an environment moistened by frequent rain and fog, gladdened by the warmth of Pacific ocean currents, and made fertile by an eon of decomposing forest duff, giant redwoods, Douglas fir, red cedar, hemlocks and Sitka spruce dwarfed what undergrowth managed to thrive in their protective shadows; the sound of an iron axe-stroke had not yet broken that green and fecund silence.
It is not known whether or not members of the Lewis and Clark expedition were led by their new Clatsop Indian friends to the area known today by the name of a pioneering family who later settled there, but Klootchy Creek is home to one of the “wonders” of this remarkable forest kingdom they noted in their meticulously-written journals.
About the time King John of England was bowing to the pressure of his lords and peers and signing what would be known as “the Great Charter” – or Magna Carta - a single seed dropped by a neighboring parent-tree was sending down tiny roots into a “nursery” of mossy undergrowth in that fertile and undiscovered corner of northern Oregon. The Sitka spruce whose genesis anchored it to that piece of human history would be a still-gangly infant when Marco Polo set out on his journey to Kublai Khan around 1260 AD, and not much taller when the Black Plague was decimating Europe’s human population.
When, in 1431, her jealous fellow-Frenchmen were preparing to burn Jeanne d’Arc on a stake driven into the ground at Rouen, the young tree was gaining meters in height, and beginning to take sunlight away from nearby competing growth, and it would be marking its 480th birthday as an Italian sailor and navigator named Christofori Columbus was setting sail on a voyage of discovery which would change the world.
When a group of mostly-English religious puritans sailed from Plymouth on a vessel known as a “sweet ship” because of the lingering ambiance of the Madeira wine cargo it usually carried, but remembered by its official name “Mayflower”, the spruce at Klootchy Creek was a gentle giant of middle age, and already over 150 feet in height.
The Sitka spruce puts on altitude faster than girth, but by the time the U.S. Constitution is taking shape during the hot Philadelphia summer of 1787, the once princely forest upstart is a portly king with a base diameter of many feet, having weathered nearly six centuries of hurricane force winds and nature’s ever-changing temperament.
In the decades to follow, Beethoven will write his fifth symphony, the “Star Spangled Banner” will fly over Baltimore’s Ft. McHenry, and a tall, spare, bearded president will dedicate a cemetery at a previously little-known crossroads village called Gettysburg. Two world wars will be fought, and world maps will be redrawn several times. And at Klootchy Creek, Oregon a tree which has been oblivious to it all will reach its zenith.
Before a lightning strike and a hurricane brought about its recent demise, the great Sitka spruce at Klootchy Creek had attained a height of 216 feet, a circumference of 56 feet, and an umbrella-like spread of 93 feet at its lofty top. A giant among giants, it became not only the largest tree in the state of Oregon where it is honored as a “Heritage Tree”, but undoubtedly the largest Sitka spruce in America.
Standing in this tree’s shadow today has been, for me, a journey through time.


During the so-called “dog days” of high summer, we find ourselves either pulling ice cubes from those “old fashioned” and obstinate trays or – more likely¬ - listening to the clanking of the automatic ice maker churn out another batch, with increasing frequency. Among those modern conveniences we tend to take for granted is that device our mothers or grandmothers called the electric automatic refrigerator. It was not until the early 1930s that many American families plugged in that first white porcelain beauty with the prominent cylindrical compressor proudly enthroned on its top, and marveled at that first tray of ice cubes.
For three hundred years, America’s refrigeration – such as it was – depended upon a vast network of ponds, lakes and impounded rivers stretching across the northern tier of states, from which a veritable army of ice cutters worked each winter to harvest, store and distribute the nation’s supply of ice. This cumbersome business was streamlined somewhat in the 1820s when the “Boston Ice King”, Frederic Tudor hired an inventor named Nathaniel Wyeth. Wyeth developed a horse-drawn ice cutter and other ingenious machinery which reduced the cost of harvesting ice from 30 cents to ten cents per ton. By 1860, more than 97,000 tons of ice was being loaded on ships in Boston harbor each year to keep America’s food provisions fresh. Stored in large insulated ice sheds, huge blocks of ice fed the nation’s burgeoning food industry, spurred on by German beer brewing techniques which came here in the 1840s, as well as by a growing national “institution” known as ice cream.
Somewhere in the kitchen or pantry of virtually every dwelling place resided a piece of furniture known as an “ice box”, within whose insulated walls sat a chunk of ice, its drip, drip, drip the heartbeat of the kitchen. In small communities and large cities alike, the distinctive sound of the ice man’s ringing bell greeted every day. Driving a colorful wagon, or later, a Model “T” truck, leaving a trail of dripping melt water and shouting children behind him, the “ice man” delivered large chunks of crystal-cold ice from door to door. Clad in a leather apron and carrying a set of iron ice tongs, he became a fixture of everyday life, willing to share broken pieces of ice with the clamoring neighborhood kids of summer. In a city the size of Philadelphia, for instance, a single company employed 800 “ice men” at the delivery end of an industry tied to the need for household refrigeration, and completing a chain going back to a frozen pond months before and many miles away.
Even though my family owned a glistening new GE electric automatic refrigerator by the time I came along, some of the folks in our neighborhood didn’t. I looked forward to the coming of the ice man as much as anyone; the novelty of sucking on a “free” piece of melting ice was as exciting as accompanying him on his short cut across our yard on his rounds. (He also sold kerosene and coal for cook stoves from the back of his noisy chain-drive truck.) And perhaps most important, there was something reassuring about the predictability of an institution which I was too young to see as one more part of daily life which was dying.
Two other reminders of America’s ice age come to mind as each year we return to a stretch of coastal Maine which is close to our hearts. At the tip of a peninsula we frequent, near the village of South Bristol stand the restored Thompson Ice House, and the equipment and adjacent pond associated with an enterprise which prospered there for more than a century. We always stop there and walk around, admiring the beauty of the spot, and reflecting on the dedication of the local folks who care enough about the history of their community to have undertaken such an extensive restoration to honor their past, and who maintain it so beautifully. Each year – in the heart of winter – they even shovel the snow from the surface of the pond, fire up the old ice cutter, and re-enact an activity which connects them – for a few days at least - with a proud past. The ice which once came from that small pond supported the herring industry of the state of Maine, and even found its way to foreign ports.
And then . . . there comes our fifty-year “love affair” with the Luther Little and the Hesper, two double-masted schooners which once carried ice from Maine’s ponds bound for the ports of the world, including Africa; part of a fleet of specially-insulated sailing ships which became known far and wide. The two ice queens had ended their active sailing days tied up in the Sheepscot River in the village of Wiscasset, and there they began the final drift toward sleep which saw the wooden hulks sink deeper and deeper into the mud; each year of our visit finding them leaning more and more, then losing their masts, and fading away like the proverbial old soldier. It was both sad and proud. They were icons, their image even being the official emblem of the town, from the city hall to the doors of police cruisers. One expected that even in death, their oak skeletons would still be there to welcome visitors and gladden residents. Then. . . one day in the mid-1990s, after a stormy night on the Sheepscot, whoa ! They were both gone ! Not so much as a spar left floating to mark what should have been the grave spot.
We still love Wiscasset, but we will never get used to passing Red’s Hot Dog Shack on the left before turning our eyes to the right where for half of our lifetimes the Luther and the Hesper kept watch. Like the cargoes of ice they once carried, they have melted into history.

Friday, September 11, 2009


At mid-day on June 18, 1940, just as Big Ben began to toll the hour, Winston Churchill stood before a packed House of Commons to make an ominous announcement: “ . . . the battle of France is over. I expect that the battle of Britain is about to begin”.
It had taken the Nazi military machine only six weeks to roll over and defeat a well-armed but recumbent and politically-fractured France. With the miracle of Dunkirk, England had just barely escaped Hitler’s blitzkrieg by evacuating more than 338,000 of its now-precious Expeditionary Force from that country’s beaches at the very last minute. Now, with virtually all of western Europe, Norway, Denmark, Holland and the low countries under the Nazi heel, England stood alone. Across the English channel, the Germans were preparing troops, equipment and landing barges for Operation Sea Lion, the invasion of Great Britain. Having made a temporary ally out of Russia, and with the United States committed to the policy of non-intervention, Hitler felt certain that even if Churchill was so foolish as to ignore the offer of a negotiated armistice, England would fall easily.
The only remaining obstacle to Sea Lion was English air power; air superiority had to be established before any invasion and occupation could hope to succeed. On August 1, 1940, Hitler signed the famous Directive No. 17, a fuehrer order directing the Luftwaffe to destroy the Royal Air Force, in the air and on the ground. What was about to take place was the first major military campaign in history to take place entirely in the air, and the outcome of this epic battle could change world history itself.
Herman Goring’s Luftwaffe had every reason to anticipate a swift and easy victory. They flew the Messerschmitt bf 109 fighter, one of the world’s best fighting aircraft, powered by a Daimler-Benz 12 cylinder liquid-cooled and fuel-injected engine which had proved itself in two years of aerial combat. Besides that, they possessed a cadre of pilots who had gained valuable combat experience in the Spanish Civil war and in the conquest of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium and France. What was even more important, their numbers dwarfed England’s first-line fighter force nearly five to one.
In the early days of 1940, England’s RAF Fighter Command was made up largely of young pilots from college flying clubs, and a smattering of eager students from the volunteer reserves. On the other hand, they flew the new Supermarine Spitfire and the older but more numerous Hawker Hurricane, both powered by the Rolls Royce 12 cylinder liquid-cooled aircraft engine destined to become a mainstay of the Allied air war. (One of the technological ironies of this “stand-off” was that while the German engines functioned on the more-readily available 85 octane fuel, the British had designed an engine requiring 100 octane aviation fuel which could only be obtained from the United States.)
As the world watched the approach of this seemingly-lopsided campaign, a quiet but important recruiting effort was underway: experienced and highly-motivated pilots from many countries were arriving in London, ready to suit up in the distinctive dark blue uniform of The Royal Air Force. For obvious reasons, men from Commonwealth countries, such as New Zealand, Canada, Australia and South Africa were among the first, totaling nearly 300. The largest – and most-under-publicized – contingent of BofB volunteers came from Poland and Czechoslovakia; experienced and dedicated fighter pilots who had escaped the Nazi take-over after having flown courageously against a superior enemy force. Although their numbers represented a relatively small percentage of the 2900 airmen who flew for the allies during the period of July 10 to October 31, 1940, their “kill” ratio was extraordinary. In fact a Polish pilot was the leading ace of the battle, and the all-Polish Kosciuszki squadron accounted for 125 enemy planes shot down.
In America in 1940, the isolationist sentiment ran high, and a Neutrality Act passed by a pacifist Congress threatened stiff penalties for any U.S. citizen who sought to fight for a “belligerent” nation. Consequences for offenders included automatic loss of citizenship, a ten thousand dollar fine and imprisonment for up to five years. Despite this, seven American airmen flew for the RAF in The Battle of Britain. The story of one of these – Olympic Champion Billy Fiske – was featured in an earlier column (see NEIGHBORHOODS May 20, 2009). Fiske was also the first American to die in WW II.
While Fiske was wealthy, famous, well-educated and had close ties to England, a trio of Americans who also became “Eagles” were cut from a different mold and followed a far more twisty course. Twenty-three-year old Eugene “Red” Tobin had learned to fly in the 1930s, and had been lucky enough to glam onto a flying job near his Los Angeles home ferrying movie stars and VIPs around for MGM studios. Listening to the news, he felt certain the United States would ultimately be forced to fight Hitler’s Germany. Besides that, he dreamed of flying the world’s fastest fighting plane, the Spitfire. En route to Canada, he met another train passenger with the same idea. Born in Connecticut to white Russian immigrant parents, Andrew Mammedoff was a broad-shouldered bear of a man who had made his living flying acrobatics and “barnstorming” across the country in his own plane.
Mamedoff and Tobin would soon join up with Vernon “Shorty” Keough, a 29-year-old licensed civilian pilot from Brooklyn, N.Y. who was also a parachutist who had made 500 jumps at circuses and road shows. Together the three would suffer the agonies of cramped quarters on storm-tossed tramp freighters, a welcome in the form of gun fire as they tried to fly for the foundering French Air Force, and a last-minute escape across the channel to England.
On August 8, 1940, the three determined Americans would finally join RAF Squadron No. 609 at Middle Wallop and would fly their beloved Spitfires in the Battle of Britain. On September 18th, the three would be posted as “founding” members of No. 71 Squadron, the original “Eagle Squadron”, along with fellow American Art Donahue.
Pilot Officer Vernon “Shorty” Keough was killed in action on Feb. 15, 1941 on convoy protection duty. His body was not recovered. He was 29 years old.
Pilot Officer Eugene Tobin was killed in combat with a flight of Me-109s on Sept. 18, 1941. In his belongings, they found a total of about twenty-eight cents. He took with him the secret knowledge of his fatal case of lupus disease rather than endanger his flying career. He was 24 years old.
Pilot Officer Andrew Mamedoff was killed in action near the Isle of Man on Oct. 8, 1941. His body was never found. He was 29 years old. He was the first Jewish American pilot to fight against the Nazis in World War II.
In October and November 1941, No. 71 “Eagle Squadron” downed more enemy planes than any other unit of the entire Royal Air Force Fighter Command.
Fewer than half of all those allied pilots who helped to save England in the Battle of Britain survived the war. This column is dedicated to those “FEW” and the thousands who followed.

Lord, hold them in thy mighty hand
Above the ocean and the land
Like Wings of eagles mounting high
Along the pathways of the sky

Receiving their squadron pins are Andy Mamedoff, left
"Red" Tobin, rear, and 4'11" "Shorty" Keough who sat on
two cushions to fly his Spitfire fighter.