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