Wednesday, February 24, 2010


All too often we are reminded of the old adage “all good things must come to an end”¬. The downside of mortal longevity is an increasing awareness that bits and pieces of our personal world - the very stuff we feed upon for our own sense of continuity - are being eroded by the passage of time. I thought about this recently when I learned of the death of an old friend I never met in person.
I read my first Robert B. Parker mystery novel back in 1973, with publication of “The Godwulf Manuscript”, in which a wise-cracking, straight-talking, elegantly-sarcastic, Boston tough-guy named Spenser (no first name) strode onto the literary scene. Now, thirty-nine Spenser novels later, the series I hoped would never end has ended with the death in Boston of Robert B. Parker at the age of 77. Those who are non-readers may recall the popular television series of the ‘80s known as “Spenser For Hire”, a take-off on the inimitable character invented and fine-tuned by Parker.
Parker was at his best in the characterization of the cast of always-compelling personalities who populated the pages of his prolific output. Beside the deadpan but deftly-sardonic Spencer, one could always anticipate some gently-needling ebonic input from his tall, powerful, and streetwise black friend “Hawk”, whose dark side never endangered his absolute sense of loyalty. Spenser’s one true love, Susan, was always close by and yet ever-independent; his “on-site psycho-therapist” and paramour.
There was another – always faithful – presence in Spenser’s small circle of confidants, and her name was “Pearl”. Whether occupying her spot at one end of the couch at Spenser’s apartment or the lone soft chair in his Boston office, the German Short Hair pointer was ever ready to display her approval or disapproval of almost everything her “alpha leader” did or said. Unless she was away for an “over-nighter” at Susan’s place.
Along with Spenser, another of my favorite – and more recent - Parker characters would have to be Jesse Stone, a “washed-out” former Los Angeles detective trying to escape from his alcoholism by taking a job as Police Chief of a small seaside Massachusetts town. Five of the six Jesse Stone novels have found their way into made-for-TV movies starring Tom Selleck, in one of those unusual collaborations where the inspired casting, moody cinematography and haunting background music produce a movie rivaling the book which spawned it. Once again, a silent, but most expressive dog, whose eyes fill with an evocative disappointment every time his master clinks a bottle to a glass, is cast in a supporting role.
Proving that he is a master of more than one genre, Parker has also written four westerns, built around two nomadic not-quite-lawmen known as Everett Hitch and his shotgun-wielding side kick Virgil Cole. Appaloosa introduced the series in 2005, followed by Resolution, and Brimstone, with a 2010 release, Blue-Eyed Devil.
In 1999 actress Helen Hunt asked Parker to write a story introducing a female private eye with the expectation that she would play the role in a motion picture. Nothing ever came of the movie, but Parker’s publisher liked it, and the popular Sunny Randall series was born. Between 2000 and 2007, Robert Parker’s loyal followers were treated to seven of these “unexpected” mystery gems.
Bob Parker’s eclectic talent embraced a number of fields, yielding in all, more than 60 books – both fiction and non-fiction - over the years, including several co-written with his film-maker wife Joan. In 1989’s Poodle Springs, he completed a manuscript begun by the late Raymond Chandler, and his Perchance to Dream (1991) was a sequel to Chandler’s Big Sleep.
Perhaps more than any other fiction writer of his time, Mr. Parker has been an inspiration to a large handful of successful mystery authors whose books grace the shelves of book stores and libraries today. . . and tomorrow. He religiously wrote ten pages a day, six days a week, without self editing or re-reading, sometimes – he said – not knowing who was guilty until the final chapter. His wife would read it over to make sure he hadn’t “embarrassed himself”, and then he would “send it off, and start the next book.” Honored by his peers over and over again, his books have sold 4.5 million copies world-wide.
Robert Brown Parker died at his writing desk, at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts January 18, 2010 at the age of 77. He and his wife Joan had known each other since childhood, and been married for 53 years. They have two sons.
And, oh yes. . . over their years together they have enjoyed the companionship of a succession of German Short Hair Pointers. And every one has been named Pearl.

Al Cooper can be heard each Monday at 4:00 PM on Cedar City’s KSUB, 590 AM

Sunday, February 14, 2010


The distinctive “clipper” bow and three broad stacks mark the image of France’s proud luxury liner “Normandie” at sea. It could make an Atlantic crossing in 4 days.

Seafaring folk are generally a superstitious lot who honor the counsel of tradition and folk law. One of the most cherished and time-honored of such is the unwritten commandment that decrees: “thou shalt not change the name of a vessel” ( from that with which it was christened and launched). I do not consider myself a superstitious person, but I have read enough salt-stained literature, and been around coastal sailors enough to say that if I were ever lucky enough to see fulfillment of a long-time dream of owning and converting an old Beal’s Island lobster boat, I would think twice about renaming it. To do so –according to the salty wisdom of some of my “Down East” friends- would be to court the worst kind of bad luck. More about that in a few paragraphs.
At the height of the “roaring 20s”, the popularity of transatlantic travel approached its zenith, fueled by the mood of a more affluent society on both sides of the pond, and the thirst of alcohol-deprived Americans weary of an unpopular Prohibition at home. Competition between the shipyards of England and France led to the laying of keels for some of the greatest luxury liners of all time – an era that saw the French eager to take the “Blue Riband” for speed, and admiration for beauty of design last earned by Italy’s Rex.
And so it was against this background that France launched Normandie on the 29th of October, 1932, three years to the day after Wall Street’s big “crash”, and at a time when England’s superliner - later christened Queen Mary- languished in the builders’ yard for want of funding.
On her maiden Atlantic crossing in May, 1935, Normandie set a new speed record of close to 32 knots, thanks to four turbo-electric engines of more than 160,000 hp – still today the most powerful ever to see ocean service. In its final version, those shafts would turn four 4-bladed propellers weighing 24 tons each! Thanks to a uniquely-shaped “clipper” bow, and a bulbous, but invisible, underwater forefoot, the 80,000 ton, 1,029-foot long superliner literally sliced its way through even a rough sea with hardly a bow wave to mark its passage.
Hidden inside her artificial third funnel was much of the operational infrastructure which otherwise would have used up deck space now designed for passenger pleasure. With two swimming pools, interior ballrooms with vaulted ceilings, apartments with baby grand pianos, and statuary and wall art found in great museums, Normandie’s 2000 passengers traveled in the kind of luxury never before found at sea. Their needs were further assured by a working crew of more than 1300.
As a young boy, I sometimes got to accompany an aunt and uncle to a “Bon Voyage Party” for friends departing New York on one or another of the big liners. We would spend a short time on board before returning to the pier, and watching as a band played and Port of New York fire boats rendered their unique salute to the debarking vessel. On one such visit to pier 88, I was privileged to admire the high decks of the adjacent Normandie, a balsa-wood model of which lay half-finished on my brothers’ work bench at home.
Normandie, (and you’ll notice that in the French tradition, we do not precede the ship’s name with a “the”, as we might for an English language nomination), made 139 transatlantic crossings westbound before the arrival of World War II in Europe. The fall of France in June, 1940 found Normandie docked in New York harbor. Even though a neutral country, the United States government was loathe to allow the great liner to fall into the hands of the German navy. Under the provisions of a set of international rules of war known as the “vagary” law, it is legal for a neutral country to seize assets belonging to one of the belligerent powers under certain circumstances. Thus, Normandie was kept from making the 139th eastbound voyage to a France which was now divided between the German-occupied north and a so-called “Free” sector, watched over by a “puppet” French care-taker at Vichey.
The U.S. Navy took possession of Normandie, renaming it The U.S.S. Lafayette. At first they planned to convert it into an aircraft carrier, for which its design made it a good candidate. Ultimately though, the need for troop ships outweighed other options and the massive overhaul was underway.
I don’t ordinarily keep a mental record of such mundane milestones as hair- cuts, but I remember one as if it was last week. It was February 9th, 1942, and I was waiting for my turn in DeNicio’s barber shop in my home town on the New Jersey palisades when a passer-by came storming in with word that something really bad was happening: “Maybe” he wondered,” the Germans have bombed New York City”. We all followed him out to the sidewalk to stare at the huge column of black smoke filling the sky to the east of us. Beneath that pall of smoke, we learned, lay the former Normandie, now the USS Lafayette; victim of a welder’s torch.
The Russian-born engineer who had designed the ship told the fire supervisor to open the vessel’s seacocks, admitting the sea water, thus allowing the ship to settle to the shallow bottom in place. It would then have been possible for the fire boats to concentrate water directly on the fire. Ignoring his advice, the Admiral in charge and his men watched helplessly as the entire ship became involved in fire, finally turning turtle the next day from the fire-boats’ fruitless bombardment of tons of water.
Several days later, my Dad took me to a viewing site from which we could look down on the overturned wreckage of the once- proud luxury liner. I was nine years of age. My country had been at war for two months. And I wondered what lay ahead.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Among the food gifts brought to that first Thanksgiving feast at the Plymouth Colony back in 1621 by the Wampanoag Indians, was an item whose long-term significance could not even have been guessed at by that gathering of delighted English expatriates. In fact the brother of Massasoit¬- who was probably the donor of that gift- would have had no idea himself that his handful of familiar seeds already represented a food history reaching back to the most ancient of this continent’s civilizations. In pre-historic Peru, the Aztecs popped corn from tiny, intact cobs roasted on a stick, and Cortez probably observed its daily use. Kernels recovered from excavations near Mexico City had been so well preserved that they still held enough moisture to pop when recovered centuries later.
To the colonists, the seeds looked no different than those which had already become an important grain replacement for their ill-suited barley plantings, thanks to their new Indian friends. Maise – or “Indian Corne” as they called it - would become a food mainstay for the Plymouth colony, and ultimately, much of the rest of the world. The Pilgrims had probably already noticed the decorative necklaces sometimes worn by Native American women, seemingly made from strings of strange white “puffs”. Now they were to see how those puffs were made as the Wampanoags placed these particular maise seeds in ceramic pots buried in the hot coals.
At that long-ago harvest feast, the new settlers not only learned about “popping corn” and its magical qualities, but they were also introduced to the confection which resulted from coating those white puffs with thickened maple syrup. In fact, those colonists may also deserve the credit for inventing the whole idea of cold breakfast cereal made from “puffed grains” when they added sugar and cream to popped corn for their first meal of the day.
During the depression years of the 1920s and 30s, when ordinary candies and confections became a luxury for most Americans, popped corn really came into its own. While country families had long enjoyed the starchy novelty as a matter of nightly course, residents of cities and towns got theirs from street vendors, whose entrepreneurial drive rewarded them handsomely. After all, who couldn’t find a few pennies or even a nickel for a bag of popped corn, when there was so little else to take their minds off the hard times they were experiencing. One of my fond memories is shopping in a nearby town whose main street was usually plied by a colorfully-dressed “organ grinder”, who played music from his mechanical music box, and sold red hot peanuts and popcorn while a pet monkey sat on his shoulders, holding out a small hat into which I would happily drop my nickel allowance for the street treat.
The movie theatres of the day at first tried to shoo away the vendors who would work the waiting ticket lines, where the pickings were easy. It didn’t take the showmen long to discover that inviting the vendors into the lobby, and splitting the “take” with them was a better idea. Of course we all know what the next step was !
When Frederick William Reuckheim stepped off the ship from his native Germany in the late 1800s, he was quick to catch on to the eating foibles of his new neighbors. After saving up his hard-earned money as a farm laborer until he had the $200. necessary to purchase a steam-powered popping machine, he began selling popcorn to the workers pouring into Chicago to support the giant rebuilding effort following the Great Chicago Fire in 1871. Two years later, and joined by his brother Louis from Germany, he invested in candy-making equipment in order to turn sugar into marshmallow, and the brothers expanded their product line.
After several moves and setbacks, they finally perfected their marriage of popcorn, peanuts and molasses in time for the 1893 Chicago World Fair. It was an immediate hit and an enthusiastic sales person exclaimed his opinion with the words “that is a crackerjack!”. The brothers liked that enough that they copyrighted it.
In those early years, Crackerjacks were sold in large tubs for eating fresh on the spot, but that would change when an inventive genius named Henry Eckstein joined the Reuckheim brothers, bringing with him the idea of making boxes treated with a wax protective coating. The red, white and blue color scheme came with WW I, and the sailor boy with his dog, was a salute to Frederick’s grandson who – sadly – died shortly after the box was introduced. Beginning in 1912, the legendary “prize” in every box was added.
What is thought to be the most valuable bit of free advertising ever associated with a named product was born on a subway train in 1908, when Vaudeville notable Jack Norworth was inspired by a sign advertising an upcoming baseball game. His friend, composer Albert VonTilzer wed music to Norworth’s verse, and “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”was the offspring. Interestingly neither had ever seen a baseball game, and wouldn’t for another two or three decades.
The song that features the lament. . . and buy me some peanuts and crackerjack is considered by music historians to be a true American folk song; one which – like the molasses-covered popcorn it celebrates – is part of the story which sweetens our national memory and a five thousand-year-old gift to the world.

Even Henry Ford contributed to the national craze for hot peanuts and popcorn with this
classic Model “T” vending truck on display at the Transportation Museum at Owl’s Head Maine.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


In Jonathan Swift’s classic tale, Gulliver’s Travels there is a memorable scene in which the sleeping “giant” who has fallen among them is being bound and examined by a swarm of Lilliputions. They are curious about a large round object on a chain which has slipped from his pocket. It is emitting a continuous and mysterious ticking sound. One wise citizen of Lilliput thinks he knows what the great machine is. “I believe it must be his god, for those like him consult it before making all decisions. It guides their very lives”, he explains.
There is one school of historians who think that the clock is actually the invention that ushered in the great industrial revolution rather than the steam engine. If that is true, we probably have the Benedictine monks of Europe to thank. The practice of their faith required adherence to a set schedule of daily activities, dividing their time between work, prayer, sleep and betterment. Their ethic embraced the concept of social organization and stressed the spirit of an ordered life. In the absence of spoken communications, the ringing of bells defined each activity. It was of course, an inexact system, until someone came up with the invention of a device made up of rotating cogs driven by a descending weight which in turn caused a clapper to strike a bell, thus taking the guesswork out of time-keeping. In fact the very word clocke comes from the old Dutch word for “bell”.
It was not long before villagers caught on to the advantages of the monks’ system and asked their local officials to install similar mechanisms in the center of their communities, for the benefit of all. The addition of a numbered face, with a moving hour hand, and a pendulum followed in the mid 1600s. At first, no one worried very much about mere minutes, and it was not until the expanding textile trades began employing a large work force that the 60-minute hour became more commonplace.
The further subdivision of minutes into seconds, long important to astronomers and navigators, began to be appreciated by the watch-makers of the mid 1700s, although truth be told, the 60-second minute, and 60-minute hour can be traced back to the Babylonians as early as 300 BC.
In the end though, it was the coming of the railroads which really made the whole business of time-keeping a matter of national and even international relevance. Even in the mid-1800s, there was no uniformity of of time-keeping across America and Canada, with each community setting its own arbitrary system, depending usually upon where the sun stood at noon-time. The “father” of standardized time was probably a Canadian railroad engineer, Sir Sandford Fleming, who in 1878 suggested a system of 24 worldwide time zones. Eventually it was agreed that the starting line would be the longitude running through Greenwich, England (thus GMT or Greenwich mean time). This conveniently placed the international date line in the middle of the Pacific ocean where it wouldn’t bifurcate any country.
Even today, some time anomalies persist. The vastness of China for instance, should have five time zones, yet the entire country chooses to have but one. Some countries have half-hour time zones, including the central region of Australia, and there is a place where the corners of Norway/Finland, Norway/Russia and Russia/Finland meet where you can be in three time zones at the same time.
Despite all the organizational attempts of a world which now measures time in nano-seconds and observes regular “leap seconds” to compensate for minute changes in the earth’s rotation, humans still respond to a circadian rhythm as ancient as the race. I had to deal with this in the summer of 2009 as I traveled across the International Date Line and twelve time zones twice in a single week. Sometimes I think Native Americans knew ageless truths the rest of us have forgotten in our pursuit of “progress”. This month for instance, would be the “Hard time to build a fire” Moon for the Nez Perce, or “The Moon When The Geese Come Home” for the Omaha; a practical time system linked to tradition, the cycles of nature and long-established folkways.
Some years ago, I was in attendance at an annual gathering of Crow Indian people in Montana when the host, with the aid of a microphone, made an announcement reminding the 500 tribal members of the forthcoming barbecue dinner. “ It will be at 4:00 PM ”, he said “or maybe at noon”. No one around me evidenced any confusion at what I thought must be some mistake. In the end, it took place at neither appointed hour, but at 2:30 PM. And everyone magically showed up.
The late Calvin Rutsrum in his book, “Chips From a Wilderness Log”, told of two trappers meeting at a Canadian trading post before making the long trip to their respective trapping cabins at the beginning of the new season. The white man asked his old Chippewa friend standing by his loaded canoe, how long it would take him to complete his journey. “Oh, three, maybe four days” he said.
Pointing proudly at a nearby float plane with a canoe strapped to one pontoon, the first man boasted “I will be at mine in four hours.”
With undisguised puzzlement on his face, the Indian asked . . . WHY ?
Amplifying on the point he wished to make, Rutstrum went on to write: “Our infatuation with speed and getting to a destination quickly, often forces us to bypass many of life’s most valuable and profound experiences”.
Glancing at the clock, I see it is time to close this column.