Sunday, April 25, 2010


I am at that stage of life when it is perfectly excusable to indulge oneself by living in a dream world from time to time; a place where even the impossible can come true. For me such times usually occur at two AM in the morning, to an accompaniment of Tevye the milkman singing “If I Were a Rich Man”. And I start thinking . . .
If I were a rich man, I would own a boat. Not just any boat. Not even the usual “boat”. It would have to be a ‘Down East’ lobster boat; a 34-footer would be about right. And it would have to be a Beals Island type, with a classic cedar “carvel” plank hull, built up on a white oak back bone, with steam-bent frames of locust wood, and an extended deck house just long enough to enclose a small living space for overnight cruising. It would be nice if it had an up-to-date diesel power plant, oh, a Perkins or better yet a Caterpillar would do nicely. It would have to be a 1970s vintage, and originally built by one of the Beals or Alleys themselves, or, in a pinch, a “glassed-over” rebuild of one. I would keep her moored in New Harbor, where my friend Merle Thompson could keep her ship-shape and runnin’ smooth for when I could get back to the mid-coast two or three times a year. (It’s a long way to coastal Maine from Zion.)

“Sleepless Nights” captures the worries of a young lobsterman hoping for a good season in order to make payments on his first boat.

Of course, it goes without saying that even though no longer a full time “working boat”, it should have a hydraulic trap hoist and all the appropriate fittings so that I could pull a few well-placed lobster traps when the need arose; on the right side if you please. You see, I not only love lobster boats, the folks who cherish and operate them, and the waters they ply, but that pincer-snapping crustacean which gives purpose to the whole enterprise. After all, my favorite soup is lobster chowder, my number one sandwich is an over-stuffed lobster-meat roll, and a deep-dish, double-crust lobster pie gives new meaning to the word sumptuous.

“Pandora”s two-man crew loads up with bait and supplies at a Boothbay Harbor wharf.

Some time around 1773, Manwaring Beal settled on the island which became “Beals Island”, just a stones’ throw away from the present town of Jonesport, in the upper mid-coast of Maine. He was joined by Captain John Alley soon after, and it was here, and among their direct descendants that a legend was born and nourished. The graceful lines of what would become one of the most sea-worthy and practical working boats of the northeast, from the upward shear of their bow, to the low gunwale of the main deck can be traced to the proud ancestry of that time and place.
To this day, ownership of a “Beals Island” lobster boat and its offspring speaks eloquently of a love affair which continues to touch the lives of whole new generations of those who go down to the sea where the lobster is king.

“Red Lady II” displays the graceful lines of a “back bay” lobsterman. Nowadays, most working boats have long-lasting fiberglass hulls built out of molds duplicating two-hundred-year-old wooden boats.

Like their “cowboy” cousins of the West, fishermen of the Northeast are themselves cut from a patriotic mold.

Sunday, April 18, 2010


The Taftsville covered bridge over the Ottaquechee River, near the village of Woodstock is one of Vermont’s oldest. Built by Salmond Emmons III in 1836, it features an unusual combination of Kingpost trusses and a central arch. In its historic heyday, it probably registered the passing of hundreds of horse-drawn wagons every day. It continues to serve nearly 175 years later.

Why We Drive on the Right

It is assumed by many visitors to New England, that the purpose of covered bridges was to negate the need for removing snow from the roadway in winter. It comes as a surprise when a native to the area explains that the very opposite was true; that it actually became necessary to shovel snow onto the protected roadway, in order for horse-drawn sleds to negotiate the tunnel-like structure during the winter months. Talented builders designed and built with a ship-builder’s craftsmanship, and an eye for the future in mind. Roofed over and closed in, the ruggedly-arched edifice was protected from the elements year-round.
Over the years I have visited, photographed, and savored the history of more than one hundred of these structures for which I feel an almost spiritual connection. Some of my favorites were built in the period between the 1830s and 1880s, some with weathered signs which still warn “Please Walk Your Horses”, or “Speed Limit 10 mph”. (I should mention that some of them are haunted !)
It is always interesting to note the extent to which our present-day transportation network serves to remind us of the lasting impact of original “horse-power”. The standard gauge of America’s railroads for instance finds tracks divided by four feet, eight-and-one-half inches, the same as the first horse-drawn trolleys. That dimension was brought to our shores by British colonists who followed the Stephenson design which, some say, started with the wagon ruts left behind by Roman coaches drawn by War Horses whose double hitch determined axle design.
The landscape of England is littered with evidence of the long Roman occupation, beginning with Hadrian’s Wall, and including venerable canals and beautifully-engineered stone aqueducts, and even the routes followed by modern motorways. Some historians even believe that Britons’ odd habit of driving on the left side of the road may be anchored in that same history. Most Roman soldiers were right-handed, and so carried their swords on their left side. They would have wished to protect the scabbard by passing to the left of oncoming traffic – both mounted and afoot – while having unobstructed vision on their right. This preference appears to be borne out by studies of ancient wheel ruts at a stone quarry site near Rome.
Why then did America’s English settlers decide to drive on the right ? One answer is that after 1776, they wanted to become as ”un-English” as possible, which by the way explains why coffee replaced tea as a national beverage of choice. The other answer is that citizens of the northeast did continue to drive on the left for some time. Pennsylvania made the switch to the right in 1792, New York in 1804, and New Jersey not until 1813, with the Dutch settlers holding out even longer. Looking north into British-Canada, most provinces did not change until the 1920s, and Newfoundland not until 1947.
Change is never easy and changing a national driving tradition gives added meaning to the word “complicated”. Finding themselves contiguous with Denmark at one end and Norway at the other – both of whose populations drove on the right side of the road – “left-handed” Sweden decided to change in the interest of compatibility. When put to a national referendum in 1963, the people said a big NO ! They didn’t want to change. The Swedish legislature finally took charge, mandating the change. And so at 5:00 AM, Sunday, September 3rd, 1967 Sweden joined its neighbors and much of the rest of the world in driving on the right side of the road. In preparation, a 30-page book of instructions was issued to all drivers, and for 24 hours before the change, all traffic was halted in large cities. There was a nationwide ban on all driving for four hours prior to “zero hour”, and one hour after. Even then there was a temporary low-speed restriction. The Army had the task of changing traffic and directional signs and signals during the four-hour window, when painted lines and turn lanes had also to be adjusted. Of course some things aren’t as easy to rearrange; for instance the headlights of motor vehicles come from the factory with a slight tilt to the right or left, depending on the driving system. Then too there is the whole dichotomy of steering wheel positioning with safety and experience favoring placement of the driver on the side facing oncoming traffic (with swords no longer a major factor).
By the way, left versus right swaps were most recently carried out on Okinawa in 1978 and in Samoa in 2009. In both cases those venues changed from right to left.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010


Planning For Exigent Times

One would have to be living in a fool’s paradise not to be concerned about the economic pitfalls which pockmark the road ahead for the citizens of a society which spends money with an unprecedented profligacy in the face of widespread joblessness. If I owned a copy of the mythical “crystal ball”, I might shy away from looking into it for fear its knowledge might lead to a case of full-blown depression. Whoops! There’s that ugly word – depression. In one way or another, whether it be the imposition of a new “hidden” tax, a reduced valuation of our currency, or the undermining of a free-market profit motive, we are apt to see its affect in the availability of certain goods and services, or in our ability to afford them. Because I continue to teach family and community preparedness throughout southwestern Utah, I face questions on this subject from virtually every audience. Because it is a multi-faceted challenge, there is no single or simple answer, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
Sometimes fragments of wisdom appear in unexpected places. On a box of herb tea some years ago, I noticed a list of ten simple steps to a happy life. One of them so impressed me that it became a fixture in the book of rules I try to live by. It said simply, LIVE BENEATH YOUR MEANS. Four simple words that seemed at the time to fly in the face of the “good times” going on all around me. It fit in well with the concept of greater self-reliance which had motivated me throughout much of my life.
One of my regular pastimes is to walk the aisles of food stores and supermarkets, taking the measure of products and prices, and noting the shopping habits of people around me. From all this, and a few other personal observations, I have a few strategies which seem to fit in with the economics of uncertainty, worth sharing.
• Have a budget, and stick to it. Know how much you are going to spend before you leave home.
• Shop from a list.(I carry two: one for things we need, the other for long-term storage items.)
• Keep a record of purchases, and learn from buying experiences.
• Try to place an increased emphasis on non-perishable food items, with a long shelf life.
• If you are shopping for one or two items, don’t take a shopping cart.
• Avoid impulse buying, even if you feel guilty for checking out with so little. Shop less often.
• Consider leaving the kids at home if possible; they live for impulse buying. Shop smart.
• Bigger isn’t always better. Super size packaging may actually cost more per unit and be wasteful in the bargain. Gallon-size quantities might look attractive on the storage shelf, but be impractical in use. Don’t be afraid to carry a pocket calculator, and use it for comparisons.
• Brand loyalty can be costly; the more generic product probably comes from the same source. More than 20% of the cost of highly-promoted food items goes to packaging and advertising.
• Cut down on fuel costs by shopping less often, combining errands and car-pooling with neighbors and friends. But keep your tank above the half mark for possible emergencies.
• By working from a planned storage surplus, you can avoid paying the higher price out of necessity, and paying less by buying only when the price is right.
Cereals tend to be the most over-priced and “seductive” food items on the store shelf. By combining rolled oats and other grains, dried fruit, nuts and sweetening of choice, home-made granolas can be made far more cheaply and more nutritiously.
Home Preparedness is not so much an event as a process. We get there often by baby steps, multiplied by time and persistence. One corner of our bedroom dresser usually holds an accumulation of pocket change I leave in tidy piles. I sometimes notice that the stack of quarters has magically diminished in height – almost overnight, but I don’t say much about it in the interest of marital harmony. Recently though, my wife informed me that her (our) stash of quarters has grown to more than $500. What she has been practicing is what I call “cookie jar economics”; an art form which underlines the whole concept of gradualism I have been talking about. Both at home and in the marketplace¸ it is a good time to look for ways to live beneath our means.
Al Cooper teaches Family & Community Preparedness classes by invitation. He can be reached at His radio program can be heard at 4:00 PM Mondays on KSUB talk radio, 590AM


A Tale of Two Brothers

The village of Osceola appears today on a list of Washington State “ghost towns”; a dot on old maps just southeast of Enumclaw in King County. At the turn of the 19th century though, it was a town of hardy settlers, matching wits with a country still waiting to be tamed. It was here on the 8th of September, 1893, that the twins were born. Oscar came first – by a matter of minutes – then Auburn, his identical twin. They would be the second set of twins born to Elizabeth and Frank, who ended up with a family of eleven children. The twin boys would be five years of age when their maternal grandfather went off to the Yukon to seek his fortune in the great Gold Rush of 1898. Somewhere, beneath the debris of a landslide, he is still there.
Biology tells us that identical twins are unique, in that they develop in the mother’s womb from a single egg which then divides, thus endowing the two offspring with a genetic singularity which follows them throughout life. With Oscar and Auburn however, this duality would be even strengthened by the polishing effect of the environment in which they grew up. The family moved to Washington’s Skagit river valley, where farmland could be found amongst uncut forests of cedar and fir. It was a hardscrabble, pioneer life, made even more complicated when the river burst its bank, flooding the family out of their first homestead. For a short period, they even took up housekeeping in the hollowed out shell of a fallen Douglas fir, whose branches were burned as stove wood to heat the makeshift abode. It would not be their last experience with floodwaters and hard times.
When not in school, the two boys found work in the timber camps, and log drives around which life revolved in the northwest of the day. During summer months, they occupied a rough forest cabin, cutting cedar shakes and living off the country. With only their dog Pooty and each other for company, they had to contend with a raiding black bear, and at least one confrontation with a cougar. Together with flour for bread and beans for baking, their principle meat dish was roasted pheasant, and their hunting had to be done with a single-shot Stevens 30-30 rifle. In order to have anything left to eat, they learned to take their game with a head shot, a necessity which made them both expert marksmen.
Those who knew them during those growing up years will tell you that Auburn never went anywhere or did anything without Oscar, who would not take a girl to a dance unless she had a sister who could accompany Auburn. The two were inseparable as well as identical.
World War I – “The Great War” – had been going on for three years, and twenty million were already dead before President Woodrow Wilson finally got around to involving the United States. A surge of patriotism swept the country, and on May 3rd, 1917, Auburn and Oscar enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, along with a gaggle of Skagit county boys they had grown up with. They became the subject of some notoriety and a front page newspaper article when it was discovered that every inch of their body dimensions, and even their finger prints – except for one finger on each hand – were identical.
They trained together in California, where their superb marksmanship on the rifle range quickly got them noticed. Soon they were on their way to the battlefields of France, where the boys from Skagit County became the backbone of the 20th Company, 5th Marine Regiment. There, the twins were permitted to serve in the same Company, but not in the same squad.
By June, 1918, the war was not going well for the Allies, and the Germans were poised to finally capture Paris. As the French retreated from the lines they had been holding near Chateau Thierry, about 30 miles short of their capitol city, the Marines were left to carry out a poorly-planned attack, across a field of wheat and oats to the side of a copse of forest growth known as Belleau Wood – a small patch of landscape which was about to make the United States Marines the legendary service branch it has been ever since. No one told the Marine Brigade the Wood was filled with a numerically-superior German force whose machine guns had been laid out to cover every square yard of the open field. At dawn on June 6th, the 5th Marines launched the attack, with the 20th Company out front. Auburn’s squad was decimated by enemy fire, and he himself was felled by grenade shrapnel to the head and face. Oscar’s squad soon passed by, and Oscar saw enough to be sure his brother was dead. Spurred on by that knowledge, in the hours to follow, his battlefield performance would win him the Navy Cross and make him one of the most decorated Marines of the Great War.
As the grim battle swirled around him, Auburn was passed over by medics who left him with the dead where he lay until nightfall when those who came to collect the dead – Germans and Americans alike – determined he was alive. He would eventually spend nearly a year in hospitals in France and the U.S., much of that time unable to utter a word through the bandaged and wired facial wounds.
In a Naval hospital on the east coast he would meet a red-headed volunteer who would become his wife. They honey-mooned back in Washington, where the twins from Skagit County would be briefly reunited. Over the next forty years, divided by a continent, they would see each other only one more time.
The Battle of Belleau Wood is seen by historians as the turning point in the Great War – the “Gettysburg” of World War One. It gave the Marines the nickname “Devil Dogs” and defined the Corps forever after. The wounded and scarred twin from Skagit County refused the Purple Heart, and did not think he had done anything special. But he was a “hero” and a quiet inspiration to his four sons, two of whom would see action in other wars, and two who became Marines. His full name was Auburn Forest Cooper, and he was my Dad. On June 6th, every year, I proudly place his circular dog tag and the attached globe-and-anchor emblem from his uniform around my neck as I dress for the day.

The twins sat for a family photo, sometime prior to the World War which would change them both. Auburn, on the right, is obviously posed on a slightly higher step.

Friday, April 2, 2010


A Constellation of Comfort Foods

As difficult as it may be to come up with an exact definition, those with whom I have raised the question had no trouble understanding what I mean by the term “comfort food”. Recently, I began asking the question of listeners to my weekly radio program (call-in’s went on for three weeks !), as well as folks I met in my daily comings and goings. In each case I asked what food dish rang a bell in the happiness center of their brain, and why. In most cases, the answer was immediate and certain, usually accompanied by a story or two.
At its heart, the question of food involves family, history, geography, tradition and ethnicity. Mostly, I found that a true “comfort food” is usually simple, uncomplicated fare, whose great value arises from origins not associated with the kitchens of some culinary institute. A New England friend of mine summed it up when he said, “whenever I tuck into a feast of Dundee pudding, my ancestors sit with me at my table, and when we pull a steaming crock of baked beans, made with onions and salt pork and love from the oven, it’s my great grandfather who passes the salt.”
And so you see, it is a very personal subject, allowing of no dispute, and striking close to a person’s heart and soul.
If, among my respondents, there was one dish which rose to the top it was meat loaf. That should come as no surprise, because researchers with time on their hands, report the same thing. I also found that peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches scored high, as they do nationally. Children who grew up in the homes of depression era, or just plain farm-family parents remember with great fondness meals of bread and milk; my own wife is one of those. Like myself, many callers continue to be warmed by memories of coming home from school or chores to find a hot bowl of cream-of-tomato soup and a toasted cheese sandwich waiting.
Most people take a moment to think before answering so profound a question, but one local businessman, hard at a task in front of him needed no more than a split second: “hand-cranked vanilla ice cream on Sunday evenings”. When invited to give it more thought or add a second favorite, he stated flatly, “No, that’s it”, thereby underlining what I pointed out on the notion of the deeply-held certitude attached to the personal nature of food traditions.
People who grew up or have roots in other parts of the country reveal the geographic nature of food proclivities, such as a friend from Louisiana who grows absolutely poetic when describing his love for Gumbo, rich with real andouille sausage and accompanied by red beans and rice. (To which I say, “Amen !”) I grew up with a neighbor boy whose parents were immigrants from Hungary, the father a painter of scenery for the New York Opera House. Once, when visiting Sandor, I was invited to a table, at the center of which sat a huge, ornamental bowl filled with a sumptuous Hungarian goulash, redolent of the paprika seasoning which infused its mystical ingredients. In later life, I have tried in vain to duplicate that unforgettable dish which still claims a special place in my culinary soul.
I have a special interest in and affection for the Amish people, and the whole wide world of “Pennsylvania Dutch” food tradition. While they have some commonality, the two are not necessarily the same. That said, I greatly appreciate a chance to sit down to a Sunday roast long-and-slow-baked over a lake of blackened vinegar and dried cherry gravy, and served with mashed potatoes and sweet-and-sour red cabbage. And nothing gladdens my heart more than a side of Amish buttermilk biscuits covered with a layer of apple butter, and topped with Schmeerkasse, a creamed cottage cheese dear to the heart of Lancaster county farm folk. A large helping of sorghum-rich Shoo-fly pie, fresh from the oven not only touches my psyche, but never fails to enhance my sense of luxury and well-being.
Utah has its own claim to some notable food traditions, from deep-fried scones, which give a new definition to a word with a different meaning in the Scotch and English world, funeral potatoes and of course Dutch oven upside-down cake. Perhaps less-known is an old-time Utah dish composed of mashed potatoes smothered with chicken and noodles, or just plain noodles.
The long list of true American comfort foods includes, but is not limited to, Mac-and-cheese; turkey and stuffing; chicken noodle soup; eggs and bacon; hot dogs; hamburgers in all their myriad forms; fried green tomatoes; root beer floats; corned beef-and-cabbage; and if you have a touch of southern blood in your veins fried catfish and hush puppies, and certainly biscuits and sausage gravy with a side of grits and collard greens.
As for me, if really pinned down I have to vote for apple pie and cheddar cheese. (Three kinds of apples, and white cheddar, aged at least three years. Thank You) !

Known as “cranberry” or “October” beans to New Englanders, a serving of these marvels, cooked while still in the green state is a comfort food today, just as it was for Thomas Jefferson who also grew them at Monticello, an example of history and geography in every spoonful.