Sunday, December 19, 2010


Because I am a serious reader of books on an eclectic range of subjects, it would ordinarily be difficult to select a single “Best Of” for an entire year; I would have to hedge the question by naming a group of candidates by subject matter or some other qualification. For the year just now passing from view, no such purview is required. The book which stands out among all others is LIFE IS A VERB and the author is Patti Digh.
Ms. Digh (pronounced DYE) is well known in the business world as a behavioral consultant, lecturing and advising international corporations and institutions on personnel practices, but this book arises from an altogether private and personal set of motivations. In 2003, her stepfather was diagnosed with terminal and untreatable cancer. Patti, together with her mother, decided to stay at his side during the difficult period between diagnosis and death, a span of time which turned out to be 37 days.
The experience of “helping a loved one die” left the author with the question: If I had only 37 days to live, how would I spend each one of those days? The resulting book, LIFE IS A VERB carries the subtitle 37 days to wake up, be mindful, and live intentionally. A subject which might have become trite and saccharine in the hands of a less skilled and insightful story-teller became for me a profound journey in introspection, and an invitation to revisit – and even revise – some of my own strategies for living meaningfully.
The format of the beautifully crafted and creatively illustrated book divides the 37 “lessons” into nine sections or chapters, all devised to undergird a set of principles worth turning into practices. Like all good story-tellers, the author makes use of a simple but highly personal experience to introduce each of the concepts she encapsulates, with each chapter ending with some “homework” for the reader; a challenge for implementing a real-life application. Virtually every page contains highlighted quotes to artfully illuminate and give weight to the concepts being discussed. For instance, in her chapter on the importance of placing value on small things (titled “Don’t Sell Your Red Books”), Digh quotes Albert Einstein who said “not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything which counts can be counted”.
One of my favorite Digh chapters summarizes the importance of taking the time to appreciate the gifts life gives us, at the end of which she leaves us with one of her challenges based in a food metaphor:
“Eat your bread pudding slowly, savor it, swim awhile in that pomegranate sauce, reach out for a raisin island, and rest. Eat well, eat slowly, appreciate the artistry of your food, make your life’s meal last a long time; give up Pop-Tarts and be sure to thank the real chefs.”
This is a book you will wish to “own”, not borrow from a handy library or well-intentioned friend. I say this for two reasons: First, if you follow the author’s advice, you will find yourself writing notes to yourself in the margins, and doing a lot of underlining with felt markers for future reference, and because of the ringing of internal “bells” the paragraphs will set off in your mind. Secondly, it is a book you will read more than once.
I started my adventure with LIFE IS A VERB seated on the front porch of a friend’s cottage in coastal Oregon. It was raining lightly, and the breeze set off the tinkling of a set of small discreetly-tuned wind chimes nearby. I was all alone, with the misty grayness of the day, and my heart and mind were in one of those rare moments of perfect harmony. Beginning then, and for the rest of the 37 days after returning home, I “lived my way” through its enchanting chapters for the first time. Since then, I have allowed the book to flip open to a random page now and then, discovering that there is often a new and hidden meaning the second or third time around.
And then there are the 120 hand-drawn and highly-creative illustrations, each contributed by a reader of the author’s blog site; each bringing humor, insight and even a bit of whimsy to the mix, and all of it tied together by editors and publishers who shared Ms. Digh’s passion for perfection of presentation.
A final and personal reflection: More and more I find myself observing the little things that make each day special, while taking the time to say WOW!

Whether overhead or at our feet, we inhabit a world full of beauty, wonder and excitement. The color and symmetry of a Golden Garden Spider leaves me with little more to say on the subject other than WOW!

Sunday, December 12, 2010


(Here is a Christmas treat worth indulging. I first heard of it living
in Vermont and working in Quebec, and then Donna Cooper made one for us
years ago.

I made my first one last week with Shirley's incomparable crust. It
lasted us for three days.

The veal is expensive if you can even find it. Next time I may try
substituting ground turkey white meat.)



1 lb. ground veal (or extra lean beef) 1 cup bread crumbs
½ lb. ground pork 1 can beef broth
½ lb. ground pork sausage ¼ cup chopped parsley
1 med. Onion, finely minced 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, peeled and minced 1 tsp. salt
1 cup stewed tomatoes, chopped ¼ tsp ground cloves
½ cup finely minced celery ¼ tsp ground mace
¼ tsp. ground pepper 2 bay whole bay leaves
Touch of cayenne powder (optional)
1 cup bread crumbs
1 can beef broth
¼ cup chopped parsley
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
¼ tsp ground cloves
¼ tsp ground mace
2 bay whole bay leaves

Pastry crust for double crust, nine-inch pie

Saute the onion and garlic in a Tbs. oil in bottom of Dutch oven to soften. Add the ground meat and cook until the pinkness is gone, adding the tomatoes, celery, bay leaves, parsley and carrots and some of the broth. Allow to simmer together for about twenty minutes, adding more of the unused broth as needed. Mix in the seasonings and remove from heat to cool slightly.
Meanwhile, set the oven on 375 degrees, while rolling out crust for a two-crust nine inch pie.
Mix enough bread crumbs into the cooked filling to make it workable; line the pie dish with bottom crust, fill with the mixture, apply top crust, pinch edges closed and slit top for ventilation. Bake for 50-55 minutes, covering edges with strips of foil for last 15 minutes if necessary.

Serve with a sweet relish or chutney on the side.


The tradition of gift-giving runs long and deep in our history and reaches across almost every social and economic border. As we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another, the Holiday Season – despite its commercialism – reminds us of the generous giving and gracious receiving which is so much a part of family and community life. It’s a good time to include in that shopping list a few items which will help those we love and care for to be even more secure and self-reliant. An emergency radio receiver, a vacuum food saver, a bread mixer, a pressure canner, or even a few cartons of canning jars and other home preserving accessories, all become doubly-meaningful gifts this year. Thoughtful “stocking-stuffers” like flashlights, batteries, a Ball home preserving guide, or even a clutch of favorite recipes, will go a long way to encourage the provident life style which will last far beyond the giving season.


In far northern Alaska there is a small village on the Bering Sea with the ancient name of Shaktoolik. At one time that word meant simply “sandbar”, or “stretched-out place”. Over time, and for reasons which a look at geography will explain, it took on an altogether different meaning. To today’s native people of the far north it describes . . . “the feeling you have when you have been going toward a place for so long that it seems that you will never get there”. The richness and subtlety of the Eskimo language struck me with a familiar ring as I came across that piece of linguistic trivia while researching a totally unrelated subject years ago. It reminded me of a gentle stream near a Connecticut farm where, as a ten-year-old, I spent many happy summer hours grappling for slippery trout with bare hands in the heat of the day. The brook was known to locals as “Noromeoknowhosunkatankshunk” (in American phonetics anyway), an old Abenaki Indian word which meant “water from the faraway hills which shines brightly in the sun as it travels over many rocks”.
I don’t know just when it was that I began to harbor a deep love for language – in particular the language of my ancestry and the land of my inheritance; what some scholars would refer to as “my native tongue”. In some strange way it was while studying high school French that I began to appreciate the intricacies of English, and to relish the unending nuances of meanings possible with a language which invited and welcomed new, invented and borrowed words without hesitation and with no holds barred.
While the roots of English go back to “Indo-European” origins, the influence of a diverse mix of “visitors” to that island realm, as well as an intrinsic Celtic connection, played a role in shaping the dialects and speech of its inhabitants. During nearly 400 years of Roman occupation and rule, Latin left a significant impact with here and there a reverence for ancient Greece evident in root words. The most important contribution to an evolving national tongue came with the Norman conquest of England beginning in 1066 AD, and a major shift in the pronunciation of vowel sounds over the following century or two.
Thanks to that Norman influence, 30% of the words we routinely use today have French roots. Add to that the ongoing invasions by Vikings, Goths and other Germanic peoples including the Angles and Saxons, who saw the British Isles as a steppingstone to the expansion of trade and the growth of empire, and you begin to glimpse a woven fabric with a warp of disparate linguistic strands.
The Normans brought with them a profound respect for the practice of law, and so we got terms like accuse, assault, jury, judge, embezzle, felony, adultery, fraud, liberty, curfew and parliament. William the Lion Hearted and his merry band of conquerors also contributed an interest in animals and the hunt, and they shared words such as bacon, beef, veal, pork, mutton, salmon, butcher and venison. In fact that word – venison - did not refer only to the meat of deer, but any wild game. Venerey meant to hunt.
In medieval England, it became essential among the upper class to follow a rigorous orthodoxy in speaking of animals in the plural. To do otherwise called attention to one’s lack of social graces when dining in company. For instance, one did not refer to a “flight” of crows, (no, no, no), but to a murder of crows. Similarly, you must say a kindle of kittens, a cast of hawks, a rafter of turkeys, a leap of leopards, a skulk of foxes, a peep of chickens, a business of ferrets, a husk of hares a charm of finches and a pitying of turtle doves. Just this morning, I witnessed a dissimulation of blackbirds going by, and listened to a paddling of ducks on the pond, (if they had been in flight it would have been a sord of mallards). My very favorite, for its musical sonority is an exaltation of larks. These and dozens of other animal terms once codified in Old English Primers of Speech, are made immortal by Dame Juliana’s “The Book of St, Albans”, and enumerated with great good humor by James Lipton, in his beautifully-illustrated “The Exaltation of Larks, or The Venereal Game”.
At the risk of being labeled as sesquipedalian, I delight in the exquisite suitability of borrowed words such as sangfroid when describing a friend whose imperturbability leaves me in awe, or doppelganger when observing a stranger in Wal-Mart whose likeness reminds me of an acquaintance who I know lives 3000 miles away. When author Jeffrey Archer characterized a barmaid of generous proportions in a short story as being steatopygous, I had a picture in my mind which no combination of many words could have painted so accurately, or with such lexicological kindness. To have done otherwise would surely have been to indulge in an exercise in Schadenfreude.
What a gift that our native tongue overflows with an eclectic euphony and a delectable diversity which reflect 600 years of open borders in a world of wonderful words!
To quote from Proverbs 25:11 “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.”

The American Bison was quickly assigned the term “Buffalo” by settlers, who might not have known they were borrowing a Portuguese/Spanish word for large animals – including antelope. Other words of the same ancestry included alligator, bronco, barbecue, tornado and mosquito to name just a few. (This rampant bull was photographed while enjoying a few minutes of fugacious freedom in the author’s back yard.) Photo by Al

Monday, November 22, 2010


It is with a certain amount of conceit that we assert that something is “as American as apple pie”, and any patriotic Englishman cannot be blamed for challenging that particular bit of “colonial arrogance”. In actual fact, from the landing of the Mayflower onward, the old English tradition of pie-making – and especially apple pie-making - has connected us as surely as any pedigree chart to our English roots. That being said ( in the interest of historic niceties), I will hasten to add that here in “the New World” apples, their propagation and appreciation – and yes, even their elevation to the pinnacle of pie-heaven – have written a more glowing chapter in pomological history than anywhere else. And where else could a common fellow such as John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed) cut such a botanical swath across the land and its history.
In truth, apples filled a primary niche in the colonial food chain because of the everyday need for the “cider” which could be pressed from this juice-laden fruit. European settlers brought with them a widespread and well-founded distrust of drinking water; water being believed to be the source of almost all sickness and disease. (In fact the reason the “Pilgrims” came ashore at Cape Cod arose from the end of their shipboard supply of beer – a “safe” beverage made from fermenting grain).
In the 1700s a typical Pennsylvania family put up fifteen to forty barrels of cider each year, and in order to claim a “homestead” in colonial Virginia, a settler was required first to plant an orchard. Everyone drank cider as a basic beverage, first from fresh pressings, and long term because of the natural fermentation process which gave it a long shelf life, reaching across a long, often-bitter winter to a new spring.
The qualities looked for in a cider apple included juiciness, a balance of sweetness and tartness, and a high tannin level. Very few apple varieties possess enough of these qualities to be a great stand-alone cider apple, unless you count Tremblett’s Bitter, Kingston Black or New Foxwhelp, still grown in England. In fact, the U.K. lays claim to “The Long Ashton Research Station” in Bristol, England, where the continued pursuit of the perfect cider is still ongoing.
In the U.S. today’s serious cider-makers usually go for a combination such as a Red or Gold Delicious for sweetness, Jonathan or Winesap for tartness, and a crab apple such as Hysop for a touch of tannin and color. One of New England’s best makers uses a blend of up to 13 varieties with McIntosh playing the lead role. Among the heirlooms still around, the Golden Russet would probably be regarded as the finest single American cider apple of all time.
When it comes to apple pie, some of the same qualities apply, but with great weight being given to cooking characteristics. The most desired pie apples are those which retain their shape in cooking, refusing to turn mushy. My first choice is Newtown Pippin, with Red Astrachan and Northern Spy close behind. Among supermarket varieties available today, we would combine Golden Delicious, Rome Beauty, and either Gala or Jonagold. Our basic rule always calls for a mix of three varieties. And given our Vermont roots, a piece of apple pie is always accompanied by a wedge of well-aged white cheddar cheese warmed to room temperature.
For drying, I prefer Wealthy, Gravenstein, Wolf River, or – in a pinch – Golden Delicious. It takes a high flavor level to survive the drying process, and many of the “old timers” favored in the past are no longer available.
For eating out of hand, the decision is highly personal. Of the newer choices available today, I give high marks to HoneyCrisp, Jonagold, Fuji and Mutsu. Among the heirlooms, I vote for Spitzenburg, Bramley’s Seedling, Ashmead’s Kernel, Cox Orange Pippin and Golden Russet, to name just a small handful. So high on our list that we just today ordeerd a box of them from an Indiana orchard is the venerable Northern Spy, at one time the number three apple across America, and one of the few that is good in cider, supreme in pie, and a Prince among long-keepers. Why does such a gem fall from favor you might ask ? As so often is the case, the tree is not always an annual bearer, takes several years to enter production and does not take kindly to machine-picking and handling.
As I savored the seductive sweetness of a Pitmaston Pineapple, (a small, unhandsome but wondrously-blessed apple of English origin), recently, I thought of the challenge to language faced by anyone attempting to find words to describe taste. Thus apple tasters employ such terms as: vinous; aromatic;sprightly;complex;pear-like;tangy;spicey;brisk;acidulous;winey;flowery as well as such standards as sweet, tart and acidic. The mouth-feel of an apple might be described as firm, crisp, snapping, breaking, crunchy or tender. And so, a lexicon as tantalizing as the alphabet itself, from an apple called Akane to another known as Zabergau Reinette tests both pallet and tongue.

A tiny apple with a long history shows up as an adornment on Christmas wreaths and decorations each year in December. America’s “Christmas Apple” is known as “Lady”, but in the France of King Louis XIII, it was “pomme d’Api”, and may even have been celebrated in ancient Rome itself.

An amalgam of 3 kinds of apples, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and tender, flakey crust, a hand-crafted apple pie has distinguished the American dessert table since colonial times.
Al Cooper Photos


Sometime around 1792, Mary Anne Brailsford transplanted a seedling she had started from a pit to a sunny spot in the backyard of her cottage in Notinghampshire, little knowing that fruit from that chance tree and its subsequent offspring would one day become one of England’s most celebrated contributions to the world of appledom. I said a silent “thank you” to Miss Brailsford this past week, as I once again became reacquainted with the heady tartness and juicy interior of the apple the world knows as Bramley’s Seedling, (named for the butcher who later occupied that humble cottage on Church Street in Southwell, U.K.).
The designation “chance” in my introductory sentence is important. In the natural order of things, the seed of an apple tree will not reproduce its parent’s kind; only by cutting a branch – or sion – from the original tree can genetic continuity be assured. Planting a seed, or pip from an apple is a sheer biologic gamble, almost always ending five or six years later in disappointment. But. . . every now and then, nature smiles on the adventurous propagator, and something important emerges. In colonial America, almost every neighborhood and dirt road saw such “accidents” taking root, and the young nation savored, shared and celebrated worthwhile apple adaptations numbering in the thousands. My own humble young orchard is itself the residence to a dozen of the most favored “heirlooms”, and each autumn, I send away for “samplings” from other antique growers around the country. This year, a juicy Bramley’s Seedling kept company with a Roxbury Russet, an Ashmead’s Kernel (another British classic), and nine other noteworthy, but little-known examples of pomological diversity. Each one with a story of its own.


History is written in more than just books,
It’s more than mere dates on some page.
It’s found in the slates of a crumbling stone wall,
On a gravestone all lichened with age.
It perfumes the springtime where old lilacs grow,
And hides in the dark of gray barns.
It rings from the tower of a white-steepled church;
Colors afghans crocheted from old yarns.

But the history which speaks to me over the years,
Hangs from branches where sweet zephyrs blow;
Where the orchards of yesterday cling to a hill;
Where the RUSSETS and PEARMAINS still grow.
The taste of a MAIDEN’S BLUSH turns back the clock
To a time when fine apples were treasured,
When COX ORANGE PIPPINS and seedlings called BRAMLEYS
Were tested, and savored and measured.

Like an archival “Atlas” three centuries long,
Their names ring in spell-binding prose:
The cider-man’s friend, SOPS OF WINE;
Jefferson’s SPITZENBURG, crimson and gold,

Not all of our national treasures,
Are found on Smithsonian shelves.
Not all of our past is recorded in words,
Into which future scholars will delve.
For the history which speaks to me over the years
Hangs from branches where sweet zephyrs blow;
Where the orchards of yesterday cling to a hill;
Where the RUSSETS and PEARMAINS still grow.

By Al Cooper

Considered one of the world’s most beautiful apples, with a shiny, porcelain-like exterior, the “Kandil Sinap” is also one of the most unusual. In a world of orbicular shapes, this “heirloom” from Turkey is tall and conical.

An 1875 Wisconsin seedling, the huge “Wolf River” is a sentimental favorite. It dominated a hillside pasture on our family farm in Vermont, and was much loved by my father. My mother once made an apple pie from just one of these two-pound giants, and happily, I own one of its offspring today.
Photos by Al Cooper

Monday, November 15, 2010

CLINTON’S FOLLY The "Big Dig" That Changed America

A color postcard from the 1930s depicts one of several river boats that plied the Hudson in an earlier day. The author’s interest in river history dates back to a day trip on the DeWitt Clinton in 1939.

While the idea began with George Washington, and was always in the back of the mind of each succeeding President, it was not until a New Yorker named DeWitt Clinton came along that anyone dared to do something about it. The idea was to build a canal - a manmade waterway - which would connect New York and the East to the Great Lakes and what was known as the Northwest Territory. There were many reasons to support those who said it either couldn’t be done or the cost would be too high for the young nation to bear. What’s more, it was argued, it couldn’t earn enough to pay for itself in the long run. In 1817, there were no civil engineers in the United States and no School of Engineering from which to draw an alumni with the kind of skills such a monumental task would require. In fact the surveying of the proposed route was carried out by two amateurs, one a Judge, the other a young school teacher who had never touched a surveying tool before the day they started to measure.
The proposed route would begin from the headwaters of the Hudson River near Troy and Albany in upstate New York, and traverse 363 miles of virtual wilderness, including the imposing granite Niagara escarpment, terminating at the pioneer town of Buffalo, and connecting with Lake Erie and Lake Ontario. A seemingly insurmountable engineering challenge arose from the fact that the landmass over which the construction would take place involved a rise of 600 feet. Since the technology of the day could lift water no more than twelve feet, at least 50 locks would have to be engineered, constructed and operated; a daunting feat of masonry enterprise. President Thomas Jefferson had called the whole idea “a little short of madness”.
DeWitt Clinton is an American Original too much overlooked in our history books; a politician who hated party politics, believed firmly in the uniqueness of our constitutional ethic, despised and fought against corruption of any kind, and managed to serve as Mayor of New York City, member of State legislatures, U.S. Senator, candidate for the Presidency, and twice Governor of New York. It was Clinton who convinced the New York Assembly to appropriate 7 million dollars to begin work on the Erie Canal, and who saw work begin at Rome, New York on July 4th, 1817.
Before the project was completed – to everyone’s surprise - nine years later, it would be called “Clinton’s Folly” or simply “Clinton’s Ditch”, and its mentor would be widely derided and vilified, and briefly driven out of office. Everything about the project was remarkable at one level or another, from its grand scale, engineering audacity, and the inventiveness which broke new ground in defeating obstacle after obstacle. Existing natural waterways were used wherever possible, and viaducts were constructed to bridge canyons, creeks and entire towns when necessary.(Some of those viaducts still carry transiting vessels high over busy highways, train tracks and town centers today.) German immigrant stone cutters came in large numbers to construct intricate locks and bridges, and completed sections of the canal were often connected to nearby waterways to support logistics.
Communities which had previously been no more than carriage stops on dusty roads suddenly blossomed into busy centers of enterprise. Even before the canal was completed, its very construction brought about a shift in commerce which was destined to change the face of America. And here, there is a Utah connection. In 1817, Joseph Smith Sr., the father of the Mormon prophet-to-be, left behind a foundering store in New England to seek a better future in the promising land of upper New York, where a tiny town named Palmyra had exploded into prominence thanks to the construction of a key lock in the canal system, and a new access to the inviting farmland nearby. (Lock No. 29 still operates at Palmyra today, providing a 16-foot lift in the New York Canal System.)
On October 26, 1825, The Erie Canal was officially opened. Gov. DeWitt Clinton carried a bucket of Lake Erie water on a barge, emptying it into the Hudson River at Rome. On a return voyage, he carried out the same ceremony in reverse.
The Erie Canal was America’s first “super-highway”, opening up migration to the West, turning mid-America into the “bread-basket” of the world, and establishing a previously-unimposing city called New York as the nation’s and the world’s most important seaport. The canal turned a profit its first year of use, and proved to be a boom to the entire U.S. economy and to usher in a major change in the way Americans saw themselves.
Even though the coming of the railroad and the internal combustion engine would inevitably change the way people and commerce move, a giant step forward in America’s history started out as “Clinton’s Folly”.

Today, the Erie Canal is part of “The New York State Canal System” and is designated a “National Historic Waterway”. Many abandoned locks and sections dot the New York landscape, and have served as a magnet for wanderers like Al Cooper. Lock No. 32 at Pittsford, N.Y. is used mostly by recreational boaters today.

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Among a number of personal resolutions I made for myself many years ago was a determination to do a better job of writing down the important things that come along from day to day. There is something magical about the act of committing thoughts, ideas and observations to written words. The Scottish poet John Barry once told us that “God gave us the gift of memories that we might have June roses in the ‘November’ of our lives”. The things that are happening to us and around us today are likely to be those memories that bring us moments of pleasure and happiness in our ‘tomorrows’; I have found this to be one of life’s great truths.
My first ancestor to settle in America was named Tristram Coffin. Tristram was one of the original settlers of Nantucket Island – one of six Englishmen who purchased the island from its native inhabitants, and set about making it a self-reliant homeland. Beginning in the year 1659 he and his successors began keeping a record of the important things that happened in their new home. I am lucky enough to own a reproduction of that diary and every now and then I sit down with that thin volume, both because of the education involved in that study and because the very exercise serves to remind me that real history is most often written with a humble pen.
I notice, for instance, that in 1666 the first grist mill went into operation on the island, operated by Peter Folger who – exactly one year later – would father a daughter he would name Abiah, who would become the mother of Benjamin Franklin.
In 1695 – it is recorded – a French privateer anchored off shore and sent a large contingent of men to raid settlers’ houses for food.
1786 was a banner year for Nantucket’s whaling fleet, with 80 vessels leaving for northern waters, usually for cruises lasting for one year or more.
The patriotism of those early New Englanders is reflected in the grim statistics compiled during the course of the Revolutionary War: Between 1776 and 1781, it is recorded that more than 1,600 Nantucketers lost their lives in that conflict. We sometimes lose sight of the cost in lives brought about by that long-ago fight for independence.
The 1810 census revealed that the island’s 6,807 human inhabitants shared space with “332 horses, 15 oxen, 505 cows, 355 swine and about 10,000 sheep”.
The year 1820 saw Daniel Webster coming to Nantucket to try a case in court while far out in the distant Pacific, the hometown ship “Essex” was sunk by a whale, the survivors resorting to cannibalism in order to stay alive.
I find my curiosity aroused by entries which leave untold the “rest of a story”. Take for example this one from the year 1860: “Phoebe Fuller was attacked by Patience Cooper on November 22nd and died on December 12 from her injuries.” Or this 1822 notation: “ The ship ‘Globe’, Cap’t Thomas Worth sailed. During 1823 the crew mutinied, killing Cap’t Worth and three officers. The ship returned to Nantucket Nov. 14th, 1824.”
One of the most curious entries comes in the year 1780: “On May 19, with the wind southwest, rain fell intermittently until 10 o’clock, followed by semi-darkness. About noon the darkness was succeeded by a heavy yellow condition, which continued until mid-afternoon. This became known as the ‘yellow day’”. (The most extensive ever known, covering the entire eastern section of the United States and Canada.)
Flipping through the pages of this “local” diary, I find myself looking at 307 years of history, as seen and recorded through the eyes of succeeding generations of Nantucketers who felt it important to write down the highlights of island life as they saw it, from who was born and who died, to events which are sad, poignant, humorous and always . . . human. And here and there, I run into the name of my 8th great grandfather and his peers and descendants.
And what about that long-ago personal resolution ? I find myself “writing down history” as a way of life.

Tall ships with acres of billowing sails once made northeastern sea ports among the busiest in the world.

Those who settled the towns and villages of New England left behind thousands of country cemeteries in which they “wrote down history” on tablets of quarried stone such as these lichen-covered examples over-looking the nearby Atlantic.

Sunday, November 7, 2010


It is a good time to give some thought to preserving the harvest – whether home-grown or off the store shelf. Potatoes keep best if unwashed and kept in burlap sacks in an environment which is cool, dark and moist. An open container of water nearby will help. Winter squash are another good “keeper”, but keep them cool but dry and not touching each other. Make sure they have a stem attached and are free from wounds or soft spots. Hubbard types are best, but buttercup will keep for a month or two. Acorn and butternut are superb eating but have a limited shelf life. Another option is to cook the squash and freeze it in meal-size quantities. If you are lucky enough to have carrots and parsnips in the ground, leave them there – tops removed and covered with hardware wire and a layer of leaf or hay insulation. They will bring great pleasure all winter long.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

NEVER, NEVER, NEVER GIVE UP ! Remembering A Legendary WWII Ace

As one who writes often about military history, I try to steer clear of such superlatives as “legendary” for fear of marginalizing the word’s real meaning through over-use or well-intentioned hyperbole. In the case of a now-deceased RAF veteran of the Battle of Britain by the name of Douglas Bader however, I have no such hesitation.
By any measure, Squadron Leader Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader (1910-1982) stands out even among the relatively small group of warriors denominated by Winston Churchill as “The Few”. Born in a suburb of London to a military father who was wounded in WW I and whose postings took his wife Jessie and their family briefly to India, Doug would end up living in South Yorkshire after his father’s death and Jessie’s remarriage. If there was one trait which defined his growing-up years, it was a distaste for authority and a commensurate disdain for doing what others told him to do. Fortunately he seemed always to be able to benefit from the intervention of teachers and friends who recognized his stubborn “can do” attitude and a gift for leadership. His school and college years were marked by an athleticism which led him to excel in Rugby and other physically-demanding sports. He loved fast cars, and eventually discovered aviation.
Graduating from flying cadet training in 1930, Bader was posted to No. 23 Squadron RAF where he quickly attained a reputation as a “daredevil” in the training biplanes of the day, frequently carrying out aerobatic maneuvers at low altitude. On 14, December,1931, while training for the famous Hendon Air Show, he caught a wingtip while attempting a slow roll too close to the ground – probably on a dare. The accident changed his life dramatically, with the amputation of one leg above the knee and the other just below the knee in addition to other serious injuries.. He awakened from a morphine-induced coma to overhear two nurses just outside the door of his hospital room being reminded to speak quietly because “don’t you know there’s a young boy dying in there !” Those words somehow lodged in his mind and sparked a determination inside the consciousness of the 21-year old to beat the odds against survival.
In an RAF hospital at Uxbridge, Bader waged a long and painful battle, eventually being fitted with two prostheses with which he planned to make a full come-back. He discovered that he could descend a stairway faster by draping the artificial devices over his head and carrying out a rapid descent hopping on his now-powerful arms and shoulders. One day at a local Pub, while carrying out such a maneuver, he met a pretty English girl on her way up. It was love at first sight, and Thelma Edwards would become his devoted wife and side-kick in October, 1933. She would be at his side as he taught himself to play golf, falling down after each stroke at first, but never giving up. He in fact became proficient enough to play competitively in later years.
Back in civilian life, Bader never stopped planning his way back into a cockpit and as war clouds carried England and her European allies closer to conflict with Nazi Germany, he began “pulling strings”. The Prime Minister, Winston Churchill finally told the Air Chief Marshall to get this “pest” off his back; “at least give him a flight test”, which no one thought he could pass. To the embarrassment of his bosses Bader performed admirably, and on November 27, 1939, eight years after his horrific crash, Douglas Bader, in RAF “blues” was back in the cockpit, where he promptly flew the circuit upside down at 600 feet.
Flying first the Hawker Hurricane, and then his beloved Spitfire Mk V-A, Bader became one of the first “Aces” of the Battle of Britain, with 20 kills, and another 20 either “probables”, shared kills or “damaged”. Leading first a squadron, then an entire wing, he introduced new combat tactics which would become fighter doctrine in England’s air war. He had his initials “DB” painted large on the fuselage of his “Spit” and became known by his radio call-sign “Dogsbody”. Like his German counterpart, Eric Hartmann, (the subject for a future article), Bader believed in getting in real close to the enemy plane before firing his guns. The danger of collision with debris from the victim is thus very high. On at least one occasion, he intentionally severed the rudder of a Messerschmitt with his propeller when he ran out of ammunition for his guns.
On August 9, 1941 while leading his wing on a fighter sweep over occupied France, Bader lost the entire tail section of his Spitfire. When attempting to drop out of the cockpit to escape the falling fighter, his right prosthesis became trapped beneath the rudder pedal. When his chute deployed, he was pulled the rest of the way out, leaving his artificial leg behind. To state that the German soldiers who captured him were speechless is only the beginning of the real-life “Bader Legend”.
In captivity, Bader convinced his captors to permit his friends to parachute a replacement leg to him, at the same time applauding the bomb load they left on the same trip. His escape attempts were constant and an embarrassment to the Germans. While imprisoned at Stalag Luft III, he was befriended by General Adolph Galland, the commander of the entire German Luftwaffe Fighter Command, with whom he remained friends for the rest of his life. (I had a chance to interview Galland along with Battle-of-Britain Ace Robert Stanford-Tuck in 1973 and to gain a rare look into the life and character of Doug Bader.)
Eventually, Bader ended up in a cell in Colditz Castle (Oflag-IC), where the Germans sent the most incorrigible of POWs. Even there, his escape attempts and refusal to follow orders from his guards continued. He was an inspiration to other prisoners, including a friend of mine who was sent there later in the war, having been captured during the Battle of The Bulge. He told of how Bader – who was permitted to make short walks in the nearby countryside – would hide potatoes gleaned from the fields, in his artificial legs to bring back to the under-fed POWs.
In 1976, Douglas Bader, DSO, DSC, COB was knighted and became Sir Douglas Bader, not for his wartime service, but for a lifetime devoted to helping others overcome disabilities. He died of a heart attack on September 5, 1982 at the age of 72. His old enemy and good friend General Adolph Galland was among the mourners at the funeral.
Nearly every RAF base in England, and many towns and villages in that island nation honor his name in some way.

The most often-seen photo of Douglas Bader is this one, standing on the wing of his Hurricane fighter in 1939. He spent much of his life motivating disabled people of all ages to strive mightily, and to NEVER GIVE UP !

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


The island of Shemya is a tiny piece of volcanic rock at the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Island chain so close to the international dateline that from its rugged shore one can look into tomorrow. The last I heard, fewer than three dozen people are stationed there, but back in 1953 this four-mile- long piece of rock with its two-mile-long runway figured importantly in my life.
Most returning G.I.s from the Korean War could look forward to a long ocean voyage, but the seventeen-hour flight across the vast Pacific’s north polar route in a four-engine DC-6 transport plane was a “gift” from a generous commanding officer. Shemya – the midpoint in that long flight – was little more than a refueling stop, its 10,000-foot long runway originally built in 1943 to facilitate the bombing of Japan. There was little to do for those few hours, the duty station consisting of no more than a half dozen metal Quonset huts, built mostly below ground level because of the foul weather and constant winds. And so I filled the time by walking the rocky fringes of the airfield. I watched the seabirds – gooneys, gannets and gulls working the sea-washed lava shorelines, listened to the sounds the wind made across a tundra-carpeted landscape where nothing taller than a clump of sea oats survived, all the while admiring the almost iridescent blue of the surrounding ocean.
At the time, I thought nothing of this brief interlude; a mere interruption in the 10,000 mile journey home. Only with the passage of time and the coming of an emotional maturity would the real significance of Shemya dawn like a rising sun within me. Life is full of “borders”, but there is no dividing line so profoundly significant as the one separating the life-and-death reality of warfare and that other reality we call HOME.
The returning veteran might think that the PAST can be left behind. It can’t. And that from now on everything will be bright and wonderful. It won’t, entirely. The transition is far more challenging than the hugs and flags of the “home-coming” may seem to portend, no matter how well prepared the welcomee and welcomers may think they are.
Left behind is not only the bad stuff – the sights, sounds, smells and sadness of a grim chapter of life – but the close comradeship anchored in shared experiences which no other associations of a lifetime can quite duplicate; friendships which are as ineffable as they are sad and sweet. I have sometimes tried to explain to school children the conviction that I learned more about love in a few hours spent in a MASH hospital than in any other experience. So intense was the devotion between warriors I saw there that I walked out of the theatre in disgust when the Hollywood movie M*A*S*H first played in all its shallowness.
Different people react in different ways to the surge of adrenaline (epinephrine) released in the human body when in the fight-or-flight mode, but especially in a long deployment where one is subject to trauma repetitively and regularly, the taxing consequences can be long-lasting, even though masked by protective behavior. It has been said that there is no such thing as an “unwounded” combat veteran and I believe this to be true.
I have written before about a friend who survived 35 missions in a WW II B-17 who awoke in the middle of every night screaming, and had to be held by his wife – for nine years afterward. I have several other friends who have lived with an overpowering sense of guilt because they managed to come home while good buddies didn’t. I will never forget the look that came over my wounded father’s face when – 35 years after the particular event took place – he suddenly recalled vividly, and for the first time, the death of a comrade he had witnessed.
Within the past two days I have heard from two east coast veterans, one of whom I never met in person, but shared the Korean experience with, the other an old business friend I haven’t seen in 40 years. In both cases, the connection was immediate, profound and mutual. And unspoken.
As we confront another Veterans’ Day, and at a time when many American men and women in uniform are coming home – sometimes after several combat deployments – I hope all of us who await their return will say “Thank You”, and help where we can to ease their way across that difficult “border”. I know those few hours on a distant piece of rock known as Shemya was an important part of that border crossing for me all those years ago.

A “band of brothers”, tent mates, friends and members of a “special weapons” team, near Chi hyang ri, Korea – 1953. If still living, these old buddies will now be in their late seventies. (Photo by Al Cooper)

Among the unsung heroes of the Korean War, a forward air controller (FAC) flies low and slow while directing artillery fire in the Chorwan Valley campaign. (Al Cooper photo)


“Another letter from your friend!” the smiling postmistress shouts at me while holding aloft an oversize mailing envelope, every square inch of whose outer surface is covered with bold hand writing. This same scenario will repeat itself every three or four weeks, to the smiles and hard-to-hide delight of other patrons of our small-town post office. What they don’t know is that when, at home, I open the colorful envelope, I will find even more bold black felt-pen-scrawled messages inside, both in the form of note papers, and along the margins of random enclosures. Every line and comment will reflect the ebullient love-for-life and well wishes of a senior lady who listens faithfully to my radio program from the family home to which she is largely confined. Not only are her colorful missives a pleasure to receive, but a reminder of a passing generation for whom letter-writing was an everyday way of life.
I most often picture memories of my own mother sitting happily in her favorite corner chair, her reading glasses perched on her nose, and her fountain pen poised over a pad of her best writing paper. Beside her on an end table would be stacks of correspondence from a lifetime of friends just waiting to be re-read, considered again and then thoughtfully responded to. Over an era pockmarked by three wars, the people I loved never allowed time or distance to get in the way of “staying in touch”. What’s more, no letter was “fired off” hurriedly or without seriously answering questions posed in past correspondence. Letter-writing was not a chore to be attended to, but a social responsibility which deserved respect and had its own set of ethical guidelines; every elementary school student was taught and practiced those basic skills.
During World War II, no one had to remind me to make the daily run to the post office, and my heart always skipped a beat when I would catch a glimpse of those red-white-and-blue air mail envelopes waiting behind the glass window. A brother in the South Pacific, another in the Central Pacific, cousins and uncles in Europe and England and in places they weren’t allowed to tell us about; and I would hurry home on flying feet.
Then in my own faraway battleground, I would stand in that circle of anxious buddies waiting for my name to be called from the tailgate of a military 6X6 in that magic moment known as “mail call”, sometimes wondering just which guy would receive a “Dear John” today, or better yet, who might get a box of chocolate chip cookies to share.
One of my favorite writers – Arthur Gordon – tells of an important discovery he made at the time he had to clean out the old Georgia home in which his family had lived for 150 years. He had long marveled at how his ancestors had been able to survive with such grace the bad times which had befallen them following the South’s defeat in the Civil War, when they had lost almost everything and everyone dear to them. In an old chest, he found the letters they had written to each other during those dark days: “have I told you how much you mean to me” he read, or “the way you live has always been an inspiration to others” he quoted. Over and over he would see the words of encouragement and appreciation with which they gifted each other in their letters: “you are an important part of my life, and we all appreciate you so much”. Constantly and sincerely those letters underlined a common theme: “have I mentioned to you how much I love you!”
High on a closet shelf sits a box of business correspondence addressed to my maternal great grandfather in the 1880s and 1890s, the formal pen strokes reflecting an elegant style and a practiced hand. While their content deals with the mundane issues of land transfers, monies owed and paid, and the details of trust agreements, I find something reassuringly honest and comforting in holding them in my hands and revisiting the stories they tell about people I never met, and who lived more than a century ago.
Sitting here in the company of computers, printers, FAX machine, and wondrous technology which is already obsolete, I take refuge in a file cabinet full of hand-written notes and letters whose very touch still have the power to connect me with a world “face book”, “twitter” and “text-messaging” can never quite replace. And I wonder if we have lost something at the heart of human communication.

A faded 1918 letter from the trenches of France, family correspondence date-marked 1880, and an envelope which crossed the country on the first transcontinental airmail flight all join a collection of remembrances written by human hands, and safe from the hazards of “delete” buttons and “e-viruses”.


With the assistance of his son Thomas, Rockwell published an autobiography in 1960, for which he painted his famous “Triple Self-Portrait”.

It is something of a “home-coming” each year, as I turn west out of Arlington on old River Road, and wend my way along the world’s most famous stretch of fly-fishing waters to a place where a red covered bridge crosses the Battenkill. There, from a grassy knoll I can enjoy the murmur of the river, the quiet of the southern Vermont countryside, and a view of the nearby white-painted farmhouse which was once home and studio to the artist who – more than any other figure – painted an image of America which continues to remind his countrymen of who we are and how we got this way. It was here where for fourteen of his most inspired and productive years Norman Percevel Rockwell (1894-1978) lived and worked. He was drawn to this pastoral community not just because of its quiet beauty, but because of its unassuming, everyday people. In the ensuing years, more than 200 of those humble country folks – old and young – would find themselves perched on a stool in his studio, and then featured in a magazine or calendar cover to be circulated far and wide. A narrowing handful of those childhood models - now in their golden years - still live here, and I have visited with probably 20 or 30 of them over an extended period of time. In each case, they have told me how their lives were forever touched by this connection. And I know something of how they feel.
Around 1959, the Vermont-based corporation by which I was employed asked Mr. Rockwell to create a painting to serve as the centerpiece of a national advertising campaign. Then living in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, the famous artist/illustrator required some persuasion to take on the project, and somehow, I was tapped to play a liaison role in the effort. Part of the challenge was to find the exact likeness he sought to model the story he had decided to portray, and the future of my business career seemed to hang on the success of my mission. That became a longer story than I wish to recite today, but in the end, we found the right subject, the painting was completed, and the full-page result found its way into National Geographic, Saturday Evening Post, and many other national publications. The large original oil still hangs in the company’s corporate headquarters, and the only-known miniature is in front of me as I write.
At a time when so many seem uncertain about our national identity, I call to mind sitting over a quiet lunch with Mr. Rockwell and seeing the sadness he felt at what he lamented as our failure to pass on to a new generation that simple, undisguised love of country he had tried to capture and share with others. He told me of the feelings that overcame him the day he delivered the last of his 321 magazine-cover paintings to the publishers of Saturday Evening Post and the end of a seventeen-year relationship with a dying breed of editors. I can think of no one who worked harder to shape a positive and uplifting view of ourselves as my erstwhile friend who was often cast aside by critics and fellow-artists as a “mere illustrator”.
Norman Rockwell possessed an ability to “see” things that others would pass by. Walking through an industrial Kansas workplace and puffing on his pipe one day, he clasped my arm and, pointing to a worker I knew well (Charlie Rider), asked excitedly “who is that man?” Then searching Charlie’s time-worn craggy face he said “I would like to know his story”. I had the feeling that you could not long hide secrets from this tall, slim American whose eyes had the ability to read faces and hearts. He loved the “genuineness” of “real” people and disdained the artifice and pretense of those we might think of in today’s society as “cool”. I asked him once if he had any favorites among the 4000 works he had produced over the years. Without much hesitation he named “The Four Freedoms” series he completed in 1943 and “Saying Grace”, a 1951 Post cover which happens to be by own favorite Rockwell work.
Norman Rockwell passed away at Stockbridge November 8, 1978 at the age of 84, and I miss him both as a great American who left us better off because of what he gave us, and as a personal inspiration. He was a true “gentleman”. He was honored with our country’s highest civilian honor “The Presidential Medal of Freedom” in 1977, and in a 2001 Sotheby’s auction, his painting “Breaking Home Ties” sold for $15.4 million. Not bad for a “mere illustrator”.

An Al Cooper “treasure” a dedicated studio photo shows Norman Rockwell working on the large original oil painting mentioned in this article.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Before the coming of white man, much of Oregon’s mid-coast was home to a group of Native Americans known as the Siletz people, who flourished on a diet rich in salmon, berries and the fruits of a lush forest environment. Little remains of the footprint of this early cultural group whose very language is extinct, but one of their number – Depoe Charley - is often given credit for naming a community which lies at the center of a stretch of seacoast known as “the twenty miracle miles”. Depoe Bay lays claim to having the smallest, land-locked navigable harbor in the world and some of the most spectacular surf action in America’s northwest. Besides that, its relatively-warm river-fed waters are home to an abundance of phyto plankton and benthic crustaceans attractive to migrating baleen whales. And therein lies a unique feature of Depoe Bay.
Each year, Gray Whales follow an ancient 12,000 mile migration route between their winter range off the Baja coast, and their summer feeding grounds in Alaska’s Bering Sea. Not only do they feed hungrily along the Oregon coast while en route, but at least one “pod” of Grays has taken up a ten-month-long residency at Depoe Bay, where a program called “Whale-Watching Spoken Here” is highlighted by a State-operated whale natural history center drawing visitors from around the world.
Most days, visitors with binoculars line the western edge of U.S. Coastal Route 101 hoping to catch a glimpse of the ocean giants, or just to admire the geysers of sea water sending “horns” of spray into the air where a breaking surf crashes into basalt tubes carved in the town’s seafront by eons of tidal action. The more hardy can board one of several whale-watching boats which regularly thread their way through the tiny harbor entrance, (an act known as “shooting the hole”), to cruise the whale feeding zones offshore.
Almost hunted to extinction elsewhere in the world, the magnificent Grays have staged a come-back in America’s Pacific waters where more than 8000 have been noted in a recent census. Some worry though that Japan’s decision to renew the taking of whales could once again pose a threat to this revival.
An adult Gray will reach 45 to 50 feet in length – the females are larger – and weigh in at 40 to 50 tons (one ton for each foot of length). To complete their semi-annual migration, they feed voraciously, sucking up several tons of tiny mysid shrimp each day by straining the sea mud through their filter-like baleen, while plowing on one side through the sea bottom. They tend to have young every two or three years with the gestation period taking twelve months. A baby Gray weighs 2000 pounds at birth, and emerges tail-first. It has 15 seconds to reach the surface to take its first, life-giving breath and will learn to swim in just 30 minutes.
There are many reasons why a visit to Depoe Bay and Oregon’s “twenty miracle miles” is a worthwhile adventure, but the chance to consort with some of Neptune’s Giants has to be right up there at the head of the list.

Passengers aboard “SAMSON” have just observed a surfacing Gray Whale off their starboard bow. Boats are not permitted to “pursue” whales, but rather try to position themselves where one is apt to come into view.

Unlike other species, the Gray whale exhales from two blow holes, giving it a distinctive V-shaped plume. When feeding near shore, they will surface every two to three minutes.

Exhibiting its tail flukes dramatically, a Gray launches into a deepwater “sounding” which will last about five minutes. This species gets its name not only from its base color, but because of the patches of barnacles which give a mottling effect. With only humans and Orcas as predators, the Gray Whale can live for 50 years.
(Photos by Cindy Cooper Bagley)

THE DOCTOR’S DAFFODILS Saving Furnace Brook Farm

Margaret Waddington stands in the midst of the three thousand daffodil blooms whose springtime blast of color gave her something to look forward to during a long Vermont winter of despair. (Courtesy of Katherine Sivret)

It is difficult enough to tell an important story in a thousand words or less, but it is even more of a challenge to combine two stories. This particular reflection is about a person and a place; the two so inseparably intertwined that they are really one. The person is my friend, Dr. Margaret M. Waddington, one of the “giants” in my life, and the place, is Furnace Brook Farm in Chittenden, Vermont.
Margaret Waddington was born in Austria in 1930, and was a young school girl when Hitler’s Nazi Germany “annexed” that sovereign country in 1938 – a “bloodless” coup which history calls “the Anschluss”- and which was the first chapter in the takeover which ushered in World War II in Europe. She drew the attention of school authorities when she refused to participate in the required Nazi salute at the beginning of classes. When disciplined, she instigated a one-person rally, publicly mimicking the “Heil Hitler” genuflect in front of the school principal’s residence. Barred from school, and plagued with a learning disability we know today as dyslexia to begin with, the girl’s future in Austria posed problems for herself and the family. Margaret and her mother were able to escape to the U.S. while her father was left behind for a time to insure some financial support.
It says a lot about the character of this new American whose education had already been interrupted by war and learning challenges that she set her sights on becoming a medical doctor and – eventually - a neurosurgeon of wide prominence in her adopted country, (and in a field not yet known for welcoming female practitioners). All of this my friend managed to accomplish, while publishing cutting edge illustrated text books on the human brain for the first time.
In 1990, with her professional days behind her, Doctor Waddington acquired a Vermont property made famous by generations of champion Morgan horses bred and trained there known as “Furnace Brook Farm”. After the death of the previous owner, the buildings were falling into decline while the pastures and woodlands were growing neglected and unkempt. With a determination akin to that of the fictional “Miss Rumphius” (HOME COUNTRY 9/29/2010), Margaret said to herself, “I may not be able to change the world, but here is something I can do to make the world more beautiful”. She set about to give the farm a new life, restoring the 18th century residence and unique “bank barn”, bringing the pastures into ordered beauty, and creating a woodland environment which would both welcome native wildlife and delight visitors. With the help of friends, she cleared an accumulation of deadwood and undergrowth, creating animal shelters from the debris while filling carefully-crafted field sheds for the split firewood which would fuel the home’s two fireplaces.
Over time, the Austrian-born matriarch of “Furnace Brook Farm” would inventory and record the wonders of her forested trail system with camera and catalogue, from the trilliums and lady slippers which brought the first color of Spring, to the birds and four-footed friends which shared her living natural history museum. She would then illustrate and publish a series of sixteen beautiful books depicting the beauties of the four seasons at Furnace Brook Farm to be shared with others in her world of friends. Her days and weeks were filled with the adventure of mastering the piano works of Beethoven and Bach, studying new subjects from the “Great Learning” courses from “The Teaching Company” and generally cultivating the skills of living thoughtfully. All of this by itself is a story; but there is more.
In 1996, at the age of 66, Margaret Waddington was diagnosed with chronic lymphatic leukemia; a deadly form of cancer. The most optimistic prognosis forecast five to seven years of painful decline with aggressive chemo and radiation therapy. Dr. Waddington chose instead to take an alternative approach to treatment, following a regimen which has been shared with some of the world’s most respected medical researchers, including the famous Huntsman Cancer Clinic. Now at the age of 80, Margaret Waddington continues to manage her health challenge as she has for sixteen years, drawing daily inspiration from Furnace Brook Farm and the world of nature it embraces. Her book “The Byway – A Lonely Path” details that journey.
When I think of my friend Margaret Waddington, I picture her smiling happily in the midst of thousands of daffodil blooms, planted by her and her friends to greet the first springtime of hope after the first long winter of her trials.

The red-painted “bank” barn is an eye-catcher at the center of “Furnace Brook Farm”, its every detail a matter of restoration care. The golden bull atop the weather vane is the work of a world-famous sculptor. (Al Cooper)

Seated on her John Deere mower, Dr. Margaret Waddington prepares for a day of field work at Furnace Brook Farm. Her devoted octogenarian friend and co-worker, Katherine Sivret (Al Cooper’s sister-in-law) is at her side. (Al Cooper)

With original wide-board floors and twin fireplaces, the historic farmhouse beside the waters of Furnace Brook continues to be a place of grace and beauty crowded with two hundred years of history. (Al Cooper)

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

THE RUMPHIUS PRINCIPLE Making the World a Little Bit Better

It has been my good fortune to meet and know in person a number of those writers who have most touched my own life, and whose written legacy continues to inform, inspire and uplift me. Several shelves of my most treasured books stand apart because their bound content is always at eye level, and easily accessed as mood and spirit require. I am reminded at moments such as this however, that I failed to take the opportunity to personally get acquainted with one of the most cherished of that pantheon of creative mentors, especially since such a meeting would have been so easily accomplished given the fact that our pathways in both time and place crossed regularly.
Barbara Cooney may not be exactly a household name, but to generations of young readers, librarians and elementary school teachers, the mere reference should bring smiles and a vigorous shaking of heads. Born in New York City in 1917 to a household crowded with paints, brushes and artists’ tools, and a mother who exposed her twins to a world peopled by colors and textures, Ms. Cooney was destined to find a place among the most-celebrated illustrators of her time. Not only would she illustrate hundreds of books in her six decades of productivity, but she would discover a rare talent for writing as well.
Of the tens of thousands who manage to get their words in print - whether in the kingdom of adult fiction or the broad province of grown-up non-fiction – only a mere handful become successful writing for young readers. Even fewer prove to have the rare combination of vision and words to both write and illustrate. The thin but wisdom-filled volumes turned out by Barbara Cooney over the years, now translated into ten languages, are a gift to the world of children’s literature.
I share this brief background only to help introduce a theme which will undergird this column and others which will follow, and I choose the most well-known of her titles to establish the starting point.
“Miss Rumphius” is a story told through the eyes of a small girl, whose New England heritage ties her to sailing ships, and a Great-aunt named Alice Rumphius – a personage whose presence is a huge influence in the life of “young Alice”. Miss Rumphius tells her little grand-niece that she set out to live a life which would expose her to great books, world travel, and the chance to meet the people of other lands, all of which she has managed to do. It had also been her goal to eventually retire to her home by the sea, which she has also done. With that accomplished, the aging lady recalls a challenge given to her by a grandfather who told her that personal fulfillment would not be complete until “you have done something to make the world more beautiful”.
Temporarily bed-ridden in declining health, Miss Rumphius finds herself invigorated by the sights of wild flowers outside her window, and determines to see what she can do to bring even more beauty to the lands around her. The next spring, she acquires flower seeds – lupines – and begins to sow them far and wide, up and down the coast of Maine. The following year, as health returns, she expands her travels, spreading acres of beauty along roads and walkways, and becomes known as “The Lupine Lady”. All of this is not lost on “Little Alice” who, even though very young, is already pondering how she too might find a way to make the world more beautiful. She ends her story with the words: “But I do not know yet what that can be.”
As with all great allegories, “Miss Rumphius” is a simple tale, simply told, but with a quiet message which continues to resonate long after the first reading. Ms. Cooney’s gorgeous acrylic illustrations are filled with careful details which bespeak her intimacy with the land she loved.
Barbara Cooney passed away March 10th, 2000 in the home her son built for her in Damariscotta, Maine, at the age of 82, six months after the publication of her last book, “Basket Moon”.
P.S. On a June visit to mid-coast Maine I spent much time photographing the stands of wild lupines in many unexpected places. Mere coincidence ?

First published by Penguin in 1982, “Miss Rumphius” won the American Book Award, and is still in print today. Another Barbara Cooney masterpiece is “Island Boy” published in 1988.

My personal copy of Barbara Cooney’s best-loved work was presented to me by a third grade class in the Murray, Utah School District in 1994. Most of those “kids” who signed it are today married, some with kids of their own.

Friday, September 10, 2010


Against a field of Kelly green, the golden Fenian harp and circle of embroidered shamrocks are set off by the ancient motto of the Fighting 69th “Riamh nar dhruid O Shairn lan” (Never retreat from the clash of lances). This banner is part of Al Cooper’s collection of hand-crafted national and regimental flags, each of which enjoys its day of honor aloft.

As President Abraham Lincoln took office, and the already-divided states slipped inexorably toward armed conflict, The United States (“Union” or “Federal”) military numbered around 16,000 men across the land, with only 18 armed garrisons east of the Mississippi. In gearing up for a war that would last for four years and eventually involve more than two-and-a-half million Union fighting men, the challenge was staggering. In July, 1861 the U.S. Congress authorized an army of 500,000 men, with leadership initially falling to the relative handful of professional officers and noncoms who had fought in the 1848 war with Mexico. Most of the states however, had organized “militias”, traditionally raised from locally-recruited companies and regiments. It would be around a cadre of these “citizen soldiers” that Lincoln’s army would take shape, and from which the bitterest of internecine struggles would emerge.
Prior to First Bull Run (1st Manassas), northerners commonly thought this enterprise would end quickly and relatively bloodlessly, a mindset which lent legitimacy to the “three-month” enlistments first offered to these local soldiers “called up” for Federal duty. Many of these early “volunteers” lost their enthusiasm for battle once the reality of Civil War took hold, and their replacements would come from a different “marketplace”, prominent among which would be newly-arrived “Americans”. In fact by 1865, 500,000 Union soldiers would be “foreign-born” – roughly 25% of all who served the Northern cause. 175,000 would be of German birth, and 150,000 would emerge from ships arriving from Ireland.
One of the most remarkable of these fighting units would be a collection of regiments known as “The Irish Brigade”. A brigade usually comprised four or five regiments totaling 4000 - 5000, an ideal number from the standpoint of administration and command. In the course of the Civil War, several of these composites would attain historic fame, usually as a result of their unusual unit cohesion, regional roots, fighting style, distinctive uniform, or other identifiable characteristics. Among these would be the Confederacy’s “Stonewall Brigade”, the “Orphan Brigade” of estranged Kentuckians and John Bell Hood’s “Texans” to name a few. The North fielded such units as “The Twentieth Maine”, “The Vermont Brigade” and the “Minnesota Sharpshooters”.
At the core of the “Irish Brigade” was the 69th New York Volunteers, a proud regiment whose name and colors would fight in almost every American war since then. In September, 1861 the organization of a new Brigade built around the 69th was authorized by the U.S. Secretary of War, together with the 63rd and 88th New York, and the 28th Massachusetts Infantry regiments, altogether numbering roughly 5,000 men. Command was given initially to the colorful and controversial Colonel Michael Corcoran, (saved from a pending court marshal only by the outbreak of war). Although other non-Irish regiments would serve temporarily with the brigade in months to come, the basic core would continue to be made up of men recruited from Irish immigrant populations, many of whom could only be led by others conversant with the old-country language. Many of these enthusiastic recruits were veterans of arms in European conflicts, and brought with them a fighting spirit which infected those around them. At the time, England – their traditional “enemy”- appeared to be backing the Confederacy adding to the fighting zeal which marked their service.
After Colonel Corcoran became a POW at Bull Run, the much-loved and equally colorful Thomas Francis Meagher assumed command of the brigade, leading them into battle after battle, from Antietam’s “Bloody Lane” to Gettysburg’s “Wheatfield” and the deadly slopes of “Marye’s Heights” at Fredericksburg. In every engagement, the “Irish Brigade” were usually out front, vocalizing their battle cry “fag en bealach”- (“Clear the Way”!) consistently taking the highest casualty rate of any Union force, losing more than 44% in some instances. By the end of the war, they had lost 4000 men, a number larger than the highest “on duty” list at any time of active service ! An uncommon number of Medals of Honor underscored the valor displayed on the field of battle by the men of “The Irish Brigade”.

Friday, September 3, 2010


There is a reason why emergency responders subject themselves to frequent drills, exercises and practice scenarios; testing the effectiveness of any plan is as important as making the plan in the first place. As we each examine the viability of our individual and family preparedness plans, it is a good idea to do some real-life measuring from time to time. Try living off your emergency food supplies for a couple of days; experience a night or two without the convenience of electric lights and other electrical conveniences; carry out a home evacuation on short notice while giving the contents of that 72-hour kit a “live” trial. Keep careful notes about what is learned from each of these experiences and spend some time talking about corrections that need to be made and details that need some rethinking. You may even discover that preparedness can actually be fun.


If there was one supreme miracle that emerged from America’s defeat at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, it was Japan’s failure to find and destroy the four U.S. aircraft carriers which should have been docked there. For all practical purposes, those carriers and the air power they projected constituted our nation’s principal remaining military footprint in the vast Pacific frontier in which the war with the Empire of Japan would be fought.
One of those carriers – USS Lexington – was assigned a dangerous mission in February, 1942, just sixty days into the conflict, when ordered to interdict enemy shipping at Rabaul, the Japanese stronghold in the New Britain Island chain. Unfortunately, a Japanese long distance patrol aircraft spotted the flattop while still hundreds of miles away from the target, and flights of twin-engine “Betty” bombers were dispatched. Just as it appeared the attack had been fought off by U.S. Navy fighters and the ship’s own firepower, a second formation of nine “Bettys” lined up for a bombing run. Six F4F Wildcats managed to take off from Lexington’s deck in time to carry out an interception, but within minutes, fuel, distance and ammunition limitations left Lt. Edward H. “Butch” O’Hare and his wingman the last line of defense. When his wingman had to peel away with his guns jammed, O’Hare was left alone to save the Lexington. His expert marksmanship and superb flying skills came to bear as he repeatedly flew directly into the teeth of the bomber formations, quickly knocking five aircraft from the sky. One observer noted that three burning Bettys could be seen falling at one time, and when the Grumman’s guns were examined after the fight, it was calculated that he had only had to expend an average of sixty rounds from his .50 caliber machine guns for each shoot-down. He ran out of ammo just as several more Wildcats arrived on the scene.
For this action, O’Hare was promoted to Lt. Commander and became the first naval aviator in WW II to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor, presented by President Franklin Roosevelt himself, at a time when the U.S. was badly in need of some positive war news. The citation read, in part “For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in aerial combat, at grave risk of his own life and beyond the call of duty. . . he undoubtedly saved his ship from serious damage.” Before returning to combat, the airman went on war bond tours, taught aerial combat tactics to new trainees, and got to spend time with his wife Rita, and baby daughter Kathleen whom he hadn’t previously gotten to meet.
Edward H. O’Hare was born March 13, 1914 in St. Louis, the son of a well-to-do lawyer and businessman also named Edward. The pudgy son would quickly be distinguished by the neighborhood nickname of “Butch” and would fall in love with aviation from an early age. His family sent him to Western Military Academy at age 13 where he became well known for his marksmanship on the rifle range, and set his sights on the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated from Annapolis in 1937 and was assigned to sea-going duty (required at the time), until finally able to take Navy pilot training in 1939. (It is instructive to note that the majority of his Academy and early training classmates gave their lives in World War II.)
Part of the O’Hare story involves Edward “Senior”, a longtime personal attorney and business associate of the Chicago mobster, Al Capone. It was “Easy Eddie” who became a secret informer for the FBI, and whose testimony eventually sent the gangster to prison. The elder O’Hare was gunned down by Capone’s “hit men” in November, 1939. Whether relevant or not, the relationship between the father’s need for “redemption” and the son’s intense sense of honor has become a matter of mythical dimension for some writers.
When Lt. Commander O’Hare returned to the Pacific in November, 1943, the Gilbert campaign was underway, and the Japanese had adopted a new strategy which favored nighttime attacks on the U.S. fleet. Radar was in its infancy, and O’Hare – now Air Group Commander (CAG) on the carrier Enterprise – was experimenting with a new interception technique employing radar-directed “night-fighters”. On the night of November 20th, O’Hare, now flying the newer and faster Grumman F6F “Hell Cat” fighter led his “Black Panthers” against a flight of Mitsubishi G5M “Betty” bombers, in a dangerous maneuver in which the heavier U.S. TBF “Avenger” aircraft carrying radar equipment, guided the F6Fs into attack position. In the course of this darkness-shrouded melee, O’Hare’s fighter disappeared from radar and went missing.
For sixty years, the incident would be described as a “friendly-fire” loss, by a succession of chroniclers who all bought into a scenario penned by a writer who wasn’t there, and never interviewed any of the survivors. (And who may not have been familiar with the deadly 20mm canon carried in the “Betty’s” tail.) Current and more persuasive research convinces me that O’Hare was indeed shot down by the enemy.
Commander Edward “Butch” O’Hare would receive two Distinguished Flying Crosses, the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart, and the Congressional Medal of Honor. And most memorable of all, a time-honored Chicago airport originally known as “Orchard Field” (ORD) would be renamed in 1949 “O’Hare International Airport”, the third busiest airport in the world.
I think his Dad – “Easy Eddie” would be proud.

Butch O’Hare poses beside a Navy F4F-3 Grumman Wildcat fighter in 1942. The most highly- regarded book on this subject is “Fateful Rendezvous. . .” by Ewing & Lundstrom

The Grumman Aircraft F4F Wildcat fighter was the best carrier plane available to go up against the Japanese in 1942. It would be succeeded by the F6F Hellcat which stood a better chance against the famous and agile Mitsubishi “Zero”.

Monday, August 23, 2010


In an official U.S. Navy recruiting poster, sailors prepare to launch anti-submarine depth charges.

For many WW II historians, Hitler’s decision to declare war on America the day after the Pearl Harbor attack by Japan has posed a big question mark: was it a colossal blunder, a huge miscalculation, or merely an act of unmitigated arrogance? While all three factors may have been present, a very pragmatic argument may well have been the clincher for a wartime leader who saw a quick victory in Europe slipping away thanks to the support the U.S. was already giving to England and her allies. Aviation fuel and petroleum products from the U.S. were the life blood of Britain’s ability to stay in the fight, and High Seas Admiral Karl Donitz had been chomping at the bit for Hitler’s approval to turn his U-boats loose against the “secret alliance” which had defied Germany’s retaliation. Now, on December 9, 1941 he had his “go ahead”.
In what was dubbed “Paukenschlag” – (“Operation Drumbeat”), an initial flotilla of five U-boats was dispatched to America’s eastern sea frontier, with orders to attack U.S. commerce commencing on January 13th, 1942. Actually U-123, commanded by Lieutenant Kapitan Reinhard Hardegen jumped the gun by one day sinking the freighter Cyclops just east of Cape Cod the night of January 12th, less than one month after the beginning of hostilities. The next night, the target would be the “Narness”, just off the Nantucket lightship. On January 15th, the British tanker “Caimbra” would go up in flames, less than 1000 yards off of Atlantic City, as another type IX boat, U-66 commanded by Frigate Kapitan Richard Zapp arrived on station. On the 19th U-123 sank “The City of Atlanta” as U-66 sent torpedoes into the “Allan Jackson”, breaking the tanker in half and sending 72,000 barrels of crude oil up in flames.
In coming days, U-109, U-130 and U-125 would join the pack, all outfitted for long sea patrols, with every available space crowded with food and crew supplies from their home ports in occupied France. Not only would they find no real resistance from somnolent U.S. Naval forces, but their work would be made easy for them thanks to the brilliant backdrop of lighted shorelines, and a civilian population as yet naïve to the exigencies of real wartime. Active lighthouses aided their navigation and highway traffic and advertising signs conveniently silhouetted the sitting ducks they sent to the bottom.
Passenger liners were fair game for the raiders as well, and on January 19th, two torpedoes ended the cruise of “Lady Hawkins”, a Canadian ship carrying 300, of whom only 96 survived. In the opening weeks of 1942, two dozen ships fell prey to a handful of Nazi U-boats, many of them within sight of our east coast. In February another 32 went down, and still Admiral Ernest King was seemingly helpless to get the Navy involved so focused was the War Department on a Pacific war half-a-world away. The New Jersey shore was littered with the bodies and charred debris of this largely “secret” coastal war, while the news media were kept silent. From communities like Ocean Grove, Asbury Park and even Atlantic City, burning ships could be seen most nights, and the head phones of my brothers’ short wave receiver sometimes allowed us to eavesdrop on frantic radio calls for help. Finally, the lights were dimmed by mandatory “blackouts”, and civilians donned white helmets and served as “air raid wardens”; my father was assigned duties on the George Washington Bridge, a mile from our home.
In March there were another 48 sinkings, and finally on April 14th, our side had its first victory with the sinking of U-85 by the destroyer U.S.S. Roper. By August, 1942, Germany’s U-boats had sunk 233 ships in Operation “Drumbeat”, and 22% of America’s tanker fleet lay on the bottom of the Atlantic shelf. And hardly a word of this unprecedented debacle had reached the U.S. public.
With the implementation of the “convoy” system perfected by the British, the use of patrol aircraft, and a reawakened anti-submarine effort on the part of the Navy and Coast Guard, most of Donitz’ wolf pack went home by the end of August. By then, far more damage had been done to the U.S. than at Pearl Harbor, and with a heavy loss of life. In fact sailors of the Merchant Marine (America’s oldest sea service) were among the real unsung heroes of WW II. The most dangerous place you could be in 1942 was aboard a British or American merchant vessel at sea. One seaman – Harold Harper – was torpedoed six times! Losses to enemy action eventually totaled 4,774 ships, with another 1,600 lost to collision or fire. On the infamous convoy to Murmansk, Russia in July, 1942, only 11 of 34 ships survived the deadly voyage.
Although Allied anti-submarine technology, and the loss of French ports ultimately brought an end to the run of successes by Hitler’s “Unterzeeboote” forces, their number would climb from 46 U-boats in 1939 to 863 by 1944. Americans would never know just how close they had come to defeat within months of war’s outbreak, and within sight of our own shores.

The tanker “Dixie Arrow” falls prey to a U-boat torpedo attack off the Outer Banks of North Carolina on March 26, 1942, where it was ambushed by Kapitan Walter Flaschenberg’s U-71. Able Seaman Oscar Chappel burned to death at the helm so that his shipmates could escape the flames.

Sunday, August 15, 2010


Sometimes I think we fail to take the time to really enjoy the bounty of the land and sea which is served up at our dinner tables each day; a moment to allow a deep sense of appreciation to whisper to our souls. Perhaps we have allowed ourselves to become jaded by the seductive “plenty” with which we have been blessed by time and place, and the “convenience” with which it comes to us.
One of my favorite essayists (and a distant cousin at that) the late Robert Tristram Coffin, writes of an island picnic in the early 1930s, and of the making of an iron pot of seafood chowder by an extended family, with the whole Atlantic at their feet: “You stir in everything you can find, the spray from the sea, the iodine of kelp, the smell of bayberry bushes scorching in the sun. Even the wind and the blue day get into the chowder sooner or later. It is a wedding of sun and sea.” Whenever Coffin writes about food and family, he does so with so much enthusiasm and gusto you are left nearly breathless with vicarious pleasure. I think some of his genes have come down to me; especially when it comes to chowder.
The essential ingredients of a New England style chowder begin with either salt pork or bacon. I prefer to use a very lean smoked bacon, which is cut into small pieces and slowly brought to a sauté, with the bacon bits (chittlings) set aside to be added back at the finish.
Another “must” ingredient is onions, with the yellow Spanish being preferred. Chopped celery is an option for some, but a “must” for me, including the leaves. The onions and celery constitute the “mirepoix”, going into a tablespoon or two of the bacon fat to sauté to start softening, but not browning. Potatoes have become a “Down East” staple ingredient, cut into chunks and added. Use only a medium starch potato, not an Idaho Russet type which will go mushy; I prefer a small red, or better yet, a Yukon Gold. Finely minced garlic is an option. I recommend two or three bay leaves – a soup-maker’s secret weapon. To complete the chowder base, I favor chicken stock for a farmhouse chowder rather than a beef stock. Of course that will be clam juice in the case of a seafood version.
Whether to use milk, half-and-half or heavy cream for the final touch is up to the chef. I go for heavy cream, because in the end, a cup of that will prevent the necessity of “watering” everything down with two cups of milk to get the desired results. What’s more the cream will not tend to curdle as the milk might.
A grind of pepper, a pat of butter and a sprinkling of bacon crumbs on the top and the steaming bowl is ready to serve.
“Farmhouse” chowder is a term used to identify any of a whole set of “look-alikes” which feature a substitute major ingredient, such as beans, squash, corn, parsnips, chicken or something else. I have recipes for Crabmeat ball, Potato & Cheddar, Pheasant & Cabbage, Mushroom & Leek, and another dozen variations.
The most popular farmhouse chowder across America, and a favorite “comfort food” in itself, is “Corn Chowder”. It is as highly esteemed by The Amish of Pennsylvania as by a resident of Navajo country in the southwest. It is almost as good using canned corn as fresh newly-shucked ears, and so can be enjoyed year-round. For a more intense corn flavor, boil a few of the stripped ears and add the water to the soup base. A handful of chopped bell pepper pieces will give additional color and crunch.
Bread adds a whole complimentary dimension to a steaming bowl of chowder. Hot corn bread, a loaf of French baguette, buttermilk biscuits, or fresh-from-the-oven sourdough bread sticks complete a memorable meal. That, and a minute to say THANKS for the abundance that surrounds us.

A bowl of Farmhouse Corn Chowder from the Cooper kitchen features crisp kernels cut from fresh bi-color Utah ears.