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.


While economists argue about whether the country is headed for a period of inflation ( an increase in the cost of goods and services), or whether an extended period of deflation ( a decrease in the cost of those same goods and services) is just around the corner, it is important to understand that both are bad news for the consumer. A reduction in costs (deflation) might seem to be attractive, but long term it threatens to result in a cut back in manufacturing and production, a loss of jobs, and possible shortages of goods across the board. Worst of all, they can both be happening at the same time as government attempts to control the money supply. There has never been a better time to get out of debt, and add to your supply of commodities essential to everyday living. Pay attention to economic news, keep an eye out for price movements, and do something every week to strengthen your family’s situation.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


The story of the American West is closely tied to the coming of “The Iron Horse”, and the ribbons of shiny steel which sought to bridge the Atlantic and the Pacific. Nowhere did this mighty endeavor face a greater challenge than in the tortured geography which makes up much of the state of Colorado, with narrow canyons that are 1200 feet deep, and grades which were difficult enough to discourage even early pack trains. At the same time, gold, silver and other precious minerals in which those same mountains abounded spawned a mining industry that hungered for rail transportation, across a landscape in which water transport was not an alternative. And then too, there was the coming of the telegraph and the promise of near-instantaneous communications across the miles of singing wires which followed the laying of pioneering tracks and rights-of-way.
To the rail historian, Colorado’s unique geography is nearly synonymous with the story of America’s “narrow gauge” phenomenon – the deviation from the world’s newfound fondness for trackage measuring four-feet-eight-and-a-half inches from rail to rail. With the need for short, sharp curves and frequent switch-backs on grades sometimes amounting to 7.5 percent, the narrower three-foot spacing was just what the doctor (or engineer) ordered. Where a minimum radius of 955 feet would have been required for a standard gauge turn, only 220 feet would accomplish the same turn for a narrow gauge system. The difference in cost was significant: in 1870, the cost of grading a particular stretch of roadway up Clear Creek Canyon would have cost $90,000. for the standard gauge, but came in at less than $20,000 for the chosen narrow gauge. Additional savings came from being able eliminate some of the tunnel construction otherwise necessary. Of course in time, the advantage of being able to carry much heavier loads and at greater speeds would change that advantage, and standard gauge would come into its own. (It is fascinating to learn that at times and in places, the two rail systems would be so intertwined on the same road bed that trains of “mixed” axle widths could operate.)
While literally dozens of long-forgotten names litter the history of railroading in Colorado, the two surviving “giants” came to be the Denver & Rio Grand Western (D&RGW) and the Atichson, Topeka & Santa Fe (Santa Fe). A little-remembered battle took place between the two in 1879 over ownership of the right-of-way through Colorado’s Royal Gorge, a route which would eventually become the most important passenger route connecting east and west. What came to be known as “the Royal Gorge War” pitted some of the most legendary peace officers of the day against each other (including Bat Masterson and “Doc” Holliday), ending with one dead and a peace treaty carved out in Boston, which saw the D&RGW building the line, and the Santa Fe leasing its use.
A “war” of another kind played out with the enactment of the “Sherman Silver Purchase Act” of 1890 – an early example of what can happen when government attempts to solve one economic problem, and thereby ends up creating something much worse. (Do I hear laughter?) The nation had been suffering from a period of deflation – the overproduction of farm commodities had burdened a number of entities with high debt. Enter a well-intentioned Senator from Ohio named Sherman, who believed that if the federal government would just buy more silver allowing it to issue more paper money, folks would buy more stuff, and all would be well. In the short term, this really helped Colorado, where more silver had to be mined. But alas, the folks,(and many big investors), suspicious of silver certificates (paper money), began buying up gold, nearly emptying the nation’s gold reserves, before President Grover Cleveland brought about a repeal in 1893. The damage was done, and the panic which followed ruined many parts of the business community, including railroads; and it particularly hurt Colorado’s silver mines.
A recent visit to the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden reacquainted me with a niche of railroading history worth some pondering. It reawakened personal memories of traveling the entire length of Japan, from the north to the very southern tip, on a coal-fired, narrow-gauge rail line still operating for U.S. troops in 1952, and of being rocked to sleep in a hammock slung from the ceiling of a swaying, wooden passenger car left over from another age.

The oldest locomotive in Colorado today, this 2-8-0 Baldwin was built in Philadelphia in 1880. It went into service for the Denver Leadville & Gunnison narrow gauge line in 1885, and still wears the proud “191” tag.

Two of Al’s great grandkids peer into the interior of a beautifully-restored narrow gauge caboose dating back to 1881. Equipped with the original four-wheel configuration, this artifact also saw service as a bunk house at an Animas River placer mine. The museum sometimes allows children to hold birthday parties in its historic crew quarters.

Rocky Mountain snowfalls have always been a challenge for train traffic negotiating Colorado’s narrow canyon defiles, and this rotary snow plow with its ten-foot blades has many stories it could tell; One more “eye-catcher” at the Colorado Railroad Museum in Golden.