Monday, May 31, 2010


One of the great joys of life for Shirley and myself, is the close connection we feel with three generations of our offspring. We think of this in a special way as we go about the chores associated with stocking our shelves, making out shopping lists, and savoring the good things of life that come from garden, greenhouse, pantry or root cellar to grace our daily table. Our extended family live away from us except for celebrative get-togethers, but we talk to one or another of them daily.
The subjects of these phone and e-mail conversations are wide-ranging, but one thing comes up with heart-warming regularity: “Grandpa, how do you go about creating a roux for that New Orleans Gumbo of yours” asks a granddaughter in Colorado ? “Mom, how do you get your chocolate chip cookies so crispy yet tender at the same time ?” “Priya wants to know if Grandpa will be making black bean soup when we visit you” asks the mother of a five-year old great–granddaughter many miles away. “ Tell mother my latest whole wheat bread came out looking just like hers”, reports a daughter trying a new combination of flours. Or. . . “Will you two be making corn relish this year ? Will you let us know so that we can come down and learn how you do it ? By the way. . . we are all out ! Do you have an extra jar ?”
And when we do get together as a family, regardless of occasion, we end up at the now-extended dinner table where life-long memories are rekindled by a menu filled with the history we have shared as a family over a fifty-six year span. (So far.)
In an honored corner of our pantry book shelf resides a small cookbook written and self-published more than three decades ago by a friend and former neighbor of ours back in the mid-west. Beverly Nye’s recipes are great, but what has long endeared her book to us is the title she gave it: A FAMILY RAISED ON SUNSHINE.
Bev’s book is not just a collection of time-tested recipes assembled by a devoted wife, mother and home cook, but a celebration of the threads of everyday love bound up in the humble art of home-making and family-keeping.
I mention all of this because at a time when all is not well across the country with our economic challenges, and the prospect of higher fuel, food and living costs, there is something of an incipient renaissance going on. Many people are beginning to rethink our high-consumption / high -dependency lifestyle, and wondering if maybe grandma and grandpa knew something after all. Perhaps being able to do more with less is worth thinking about. Perhaps there is a silver lining to having to stay home more, travel less, watch our dollars more closely and be more creative and frugal in meal-planning and table-keeping.
Recent statistics tell us that the average American family eats 38% of its meals away from home while depending heavily upon “convenience” ingredients with a short shelf life and a high cost for the meals that are prepared at home. There are many who would argue that our modern-day dependency upon the very technologies which promised to simplify day-to-day family life may actually make us more vulnerable to economic swings and temporary set-backs than any previous generation. It’s worth thinking about.
When all is said and done, whether it rains or doesn’t, the two of us continue to cook and bake and home-preserve together, (and answer the phone when it rings ), encouraged by the idea that the best pay-off of all is to have a family raised on sunshine.

Shirley and daughter Shayne mix up a batch of yeast-based dinner rolls – a family favorite.

Al teaches two great grandchildren the fine art of making whole wheat-yogurt-blueberry pancakes.

Saturday, May 22, 2010


Within five hours of England’s declaration of war on August 14th, 1914, the British cable ship Teleconia dragged its grappling hooks across the sea bottom at a strategic point in the North Sea, raising then cutting Germany’s deep sea cable running from Borkum to Spanish Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The order had come directly from First Sea Lord Winston Churchill, and was destined to begin a chain of events which could not have been foreseen at that moment.
On the 26th of that same August, the German cruiser Magdeburg ran aground off the Estonian coast where it was seized by the Russians. Several copies of a book containing the German Naval codes were also seized, and two of these books were shared with the British. Those books found their way to the Admiralty’s intelligence service, where they were quickly relayed to “Room 40”, an actual office address which would ultimately become a euphemism for the top secret group of cryptographers whose job was decoding enemy messages – an operation which presaged the “ULTRA” system which helped to win WW II for the Allies. The occupants of “Room 40” already possessed a copy of Germany’s “Office Codes”, lifted from a sunken U-boat early in the war which, when linked with Russia’s contribution to their “library of secrets” – would bring about a revelation of historic consequence.
The occupants of “Room 40” consisted of an unusual blend of wizards, from mathematicians to linguists, who – together – represented the world’s first glimpse of what would grow into computer science. In 1914-17 they were a mere handful, unlike the hundreds like them who in World War II would occupy a former girls’ school at England’s Bletchley Park.
In the United States, public sympathies lay largely with the “Allied Nations” in their expanding war with Germany and the “Central Powers”. Despite the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, and the loss of 128 American lives in May, 1915, and the infamous “Black Tom” sabotage incident of July 30, 1916 (*), the mood across the U.S. did not favor involvement in what was viewed as “Europe’s War”. Although Woodrow Wilson – a Democrat “Progressive”- held different views, he was locked in a tight campaign for the presidency with Supreme Court Justice John Evans Hughes, and ran on an anti-war platform. Wilson won the presidency by an extremely slender margin in November, 1916, by promising American mothers their sons would not be drawn into a foreign war.
As Germany prepared to move toward a more aggressive use of submarine warfare in its blockade of aid shipments to England, American intervention seemed more and more likely to the Kaiser’s military planners. So in January, 1917, the Foreign Minister, Arthur Zimmermann authored a secret document suggesting that Mexico declare its alliance with the Central Powers in the event the U.S. entered the war. It was further suggested, that in return for this action, a victorious Germany would see to it that the states of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona would be returned to Mexico. Because Germany’s undersea cables had been cut early in the war, it was necessary for Zimmermann’s coded message to be sent in the form of a telegram. The telegram was intercepted by British Intelligence where the missile was promptly turned over to the occupants of “Room 40”. Because the German Office and Naval codes had been “broken” by England’s cryptologists, the contents of the message were quickly translated and forwarded to U.S. authorities.
On March 1st, 1917, the “Zimmermann telegram” became national headlines, infuriating the American public. On top of Lusitania, and the “Black Tom” incident, it became the “straw that broke the camel’s back” (and played right into Woodrow Wilson’s hand).
On April 6th, 1917, the United States declared war, and American “doughboys” would soon be on their way to the trenches of France.

(*) “Black Tom” was the name of an island in New York Harbor, associated with Jersey City, New Jersey. In 1916-17 the built-up island and its mile-long pier became a loading platform for munitions ready for shipment across the Atlantic. In the early morning hours of July 30th, 1916, a tremendous explosion measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale shook the eastern seaboard, breaking windows 40 miles away, and imbedding shrapnel in the nearby Statue of Liberty, so damaging the structure that to this day, it is unsafe to enter the monument’s raised arm. The “Black Tom” explosion killed at least seven, injured many others, and did millions of dollars in damage. It was deemed to be the work of a small group of German saboteurs, and stirred strong anti-German sentiment.
Interestingly, an international commission eventually assigned a penalty of $50 million 1953 dollars, the final payment of which was paid to the U.S. by Germany in 1979.

THE BATTLE OF TANGA Britain’s Most Stinging Defeat

One of the most innovative guerilla commanders of all time, General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck invented camouflage, led herds of cattle to feed his army, and tended his native troops with natural herbs and remedies. He never suffered defeat.

A map of the African Continent and its constituent parts as it would have appeared in the opening decades of the 20th century would be seen to bear very little resemblance to the Africa we see today. It had been largely “carved up” into colonies claimed and administered by most of the major European powers. France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Belgium and Spain all had their names circumscribed over various pieces of the huge landmass. From The Belgian Congo to Italian Somaliland, the map looked more like a piece of patterned linoleum with international names for the titles of its random subdivisions.
As Europe moved toward World War I, with more than 24 countries declaring sides by 1914, Africa became a piece of that military and political chessboard. To the British it seemed like a good time to make territorial gains by launching an invasion into German East Africa, a land immediately adjacent to their own Kenya (British East Africa). Under the command of General Arthur Aitkin, an 8000 man force made up of both British and Indian troops went ashore on the evening of November 3, 1914 to assault the town of Tanga, a seaport outpost only about 50 miles from the border, defended at the time by only two companies of Germans.
Although he would ultimately outnumber his adversary by an eight to one margin, what Aitkin did not realize was that he was about to come up against one of the most amazing field commanders in military history in the person of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck.
Trained in the proud Prussian tradition and descended from an old military family, Lettow-Vorbeck had assembled and trained a force of African natives, known as askaris, around a core of only a handful of white German officers and non-com’s. Previous to the upcoming battle, he had kidnapped the sitting German territorial governor in order to keep him from surrendering to the invading British.
From the outset, the British effort was fraught with bad luck. First what should have been a surprise attack was given away by the untimely firing of gunboat cannons, followed by the deployment of the attacking force into swampy terrain in the absence of any advance reconnoitering, ending in disorderly and undisciplined formations. Although the Germans never had more than 1000 troops in the fight, they quickly sent Aitkin’s faltering attackers back toward their boats. Then, to add insult to injury, they ran into squadrons of enraged African bees which attacked the retreating troops unmercifully.
The ill-fated attack on Tanga would forever after be known as “The Battle of the Bee’s”, and a legend would spring up suggesting that the German commander had planted the wild bee colonies as part of his strategy.
The story of this one battle barely scratches the surface of the much larger story of the exploits of Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck himself, who without any support from, or even communications with the German high command at home, managed continuously to fight vastly superior forces arrayed against him, without a single defeat for four years. All of this while living off the land as they went, surviving by their wits and local knowledge. At one time, his small but dedicated band faced an army of 45,000 fresh South African soldiers who, time after time failed to extract a victory from their best attempts to encircle him. In all, 130 generals and 300,000 men took the field against him in the course of the war, without ever winning a battle.
The native askari men who soldiered under the German guerilla leader loved him like a father, and he treated them the same way. He lived daily life among them, and led them personally in every engagement, sometimes riding a bicycle into battle to their absolute delight. While scoring an excruciatingly high cost in casualties on the part of his enemies, he managed always to protect his own men from suffering in kind. Rather than burdening his own small force with the need of caring for prisoners, he routinely placed POWs under an oath to renounce fighting in return for a battlefield parole.
Only after successfully taking possession of British territory in Rhodesia (the only time this ever took place in WW I), in November, 1918, did the German Commander learn from a prisoner that an armistice had been signed between the warring parties. Obliged by his honor as a German officer to comply, he ended his war by disbanding his force on November 23rd, 1918 – still undefeated.
General Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck passed away in Hamburg, Germany, on March 9th, 1964 at the age of 94. Ironically he would have died penniless but for a small pension granted to him thanks to an old enemy, Jan Christiaan Smuts of South Africa.

Saturday, May 1, 2010


One of my favorite light houses is perched on a tiny nubble of rocky land which becomes an island at high tide, but is loosely connected to the equally-rocky shoreline for a few slippery hours each day when the tide is out. For generations, Maine’s “Nubble Light” was a family light station, and children grew up in the white-painted bungalow which shares the two or three acres of grassy landscape with the light and its red-painted oil house. Some long-ago family constructed a cable and breeches buoy connecting the island to the mainland, some two hundred yards away, so that children could safely negotiate the cauldron-like moat which isolated them, facilitating thereby travel to and from school in nearby York. Though today an automated light, the last I knew the cable car was still there.
Other island families I know of – including several from whom I am descended – welcomed winter, so that their children could skate across the iced-over bays, reaches and inlets, saving them the cost of having to “board-out” their kids to mainland families during the school year.
For most rural school kids, well into the 1940s, the long walk to school was a part of everyday life, and what’s more, the first boy to arrive at the old one-room school in West Brookfield, Vermont was expected to split enough wood for the day, and fill the wood box behind the big round stove that sat in the middle of the room. I know, because my younger brother often got that job while I was off to a much more remote school destination which was seven miles away.
The town of Quincy, Massachusetts really started something when, back in 1869, they decided to provide a horse-drawn “school wagon” in an effort to improve attendance at village schools. The idea was soon copied by others, and some of those early school wagons became impressively elaborate, with canvas-covered roofs, and side curtains which could be lowered in inclement weather. Even the driver got to sit on an enclosed perch, perhaps the better to deal with over-active passengers – probably with no more success than his modern-day counterpart. In fact drivers soon learned that the noise of children climbing aboard was troubling to the horses, leading to a coach design with a rear entry door, a feature which continued into the automotive age.
By 1920 there were a small handful of school districts around the country which put model-T based truck chassis to work as school coaches, one of which I know is still used by an automotive museum to carry patrons between outdoor exhibits. In the years which followed, other communities followed, utilizing everything from refurbished circus vehicles to converted delivery vans, painted in every imaginable color. A patriotic red-white-and-blue color scheme seems to have been very popular. It was not until 1939 that a national color standard was agreed to by every state, and the “long yellow bus” was born. Unlike the U.S. and Canada, most other countries which provide some degree of school transportation are not hung up on colors, and school coaches look pretty much like public transportation vehicles. In Hong Cong such vehicles are much smaller, and are known as “Nanny Vans” !
People who get their kicks keeping records for almost everything claim that 475,000 long yellow buses shuffle 25 million kids each day to and from American schools. That works out to something like ten billion student trips per year, in a nation which is unique in giving each driver the power to stop other traffic in both directions at each stop.
With the ubiquitous yellow buses a common sight wherever one travels nowadays, there is something particularly charming about the mule-drawn sleds crowded with Amish school children which can now and then still be seen making their way across a snow-covered winter landscape in rural Pennsylvania. Where – by the way – the one-room school house is also still alive and well. I will have to check though to find out if there are still a few fiercely hardy and independent island kids around Casco Bay who still get to make the journey on ice skates. Probably not allowed.

We don’t know where old yellow school buses usually go to die, but Al Cooper found this one, doubtless crowded with old memories, languishing away in an overgrown Utah hay field.

Al's Great Granddaughter looks forward to riding to and from her school each day on a modern day long yellow school bus!