Sunday, April 14, 2013


            It has been wisely said that we devote the first half of our life to accumulating “things”, and the second half to getting rid of much of that ”stuff”. We refer euphemistically to that process with such terms as “cleaning house”, “down-sizing” or “simplifying life”. My wife reminds me frequently of the need to start doing this. (In fact she routinely refuses to allow strangers to even enter my office, let alone pay a visit to our basement.) From where I sit as I write I have merely to turn a few degrees to gaze upon a canteen that rode on my side every day during a period that stretches back 61 years, a defused hand grenade whose story is tied to one of the most frightening nights of my life, an array of fire and police badges, each of which reflects a unique set of professional epics, and a much worn canoe paddle which has plied the waters of numerous wild rivers, the wilderness lakes of two countries and the shorelines of three oceans. A model of a P-51D Mustang fighter exact in every detail stands where its image is reflected mystically in the glass covering an original Don Troiani print of a Civil War trooper of the 14th Brooklyn Zouaves in colorful 1862 gear.
            The picture I have drawn for you should leave no doubt that I suffer from a syndrome recognized by a small clique of maverick psychiatrists as “the endowment factor”; a malady which identifies an inordinate attachment to the possession of “things” assigned a high sentimental value. For me the enterprise of “cleaning house” is a painful affair, even to contemplate.
            Since I am already in the confession mode, I might as well tell you about the disparate and seemingly valueless contents of a small, foil-wrapped box I call my “treasure trove” which has its own nook on a closet shelf I can reach easily and often. Lying flat on the bottom is my student pilot flight logbook, and the direct copy of a letter, found under the pillow of a six-year-old granddaughter who is today a mother of two herself. It says “Dear Thooth Fary. . .I want to thank you for giving me monny evry time I loos a tooth So I gave you some mony to give all my thanks, And I hope you will remember me. Love. . . Tiffany Jean Cooper”.  Taped to the folded page torn from a lined legal pad were two dollar bills, a nickel and a penny. Under a small piece of paper labeled “My Tooth” was taped the subject of the missile.
            In one corner of the box reclines my first wrist watch, a “pilot’s model”, purchased with money earned from pushing wheel barrow loads of cement sufficient to build a neighbor’s foundation for fifty-cents/hour at a time when kids my age were lucky to own a three-dollar pocket watch. In another corner are a musket ball and minié bullet picked up from the battlefields of Fredericksburg, a pair of meteorites from a strewn-field in Indonesia, and some Boy Scout memorabilia dating back to 1946. A small glass containing crystals of frankincense and myrrh are brought out and admired every Christmas, while my father’s 1917 Marine Corps dog tags are worn around my own neck every June 6th.
            Born into a family of letter-writers, I have determined that the earliest piece of correspondence in a boxful is a business letter addressed to my great grandfather, and dated October 6th, 1862. Holding it in my hands reminds me that it was delivered at a time when Americans were just beginning to learn that more than 25,000 casualties had occurred weeks before at a place called Antietam, and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by President Lincoln. Right next to that item, is a hand-cancelled envelope which was carried on the first air mail flight ever to fly from coast to coast with two refueling stops via Winslow, Arizona nearly 83 years ago, on Oct. 25, 1930.
            Of course other parts of my “endowment inventory” take up much more space, even before we get to the book shelves which hold literal “treasures” of the written word, cabinets groaning under the weight of music engraved in wax, on vinyl, on reel-to-reel tape and later formats, and much, much more.
            The word “touchstone” came into our lexicon as a description of a physical object used to measure the authenticity and confirmation of precious metals and gems; a standard by which to assign intrinsic value. If you were to remind me that the things I have enumerated here cannot ultimately be “taken with me”, you would not alter my view that it is often such TOUCHSTONES that remind us of who we are, how we got this way, and why the dawning of every new day presents us with the opportunity to be true to the times in which we live, and the legacy which others have given to us.

More than 140 years of family, personal and national history look down on an office setting which helps the author to focus on a wish to reflect daily on a legacy worth remembering.

Sometimes it is the small objects of a lifetime which have the power to become the “Touchstones” which bring a respect for our history and a sense of continuity and purpose.



            At the time of the Norman invasion of AD 1066, England was not so much one country as a collection of duchies and earldoms fostered and defended by one monarch or another, often with shifting loyalties, held together as much by common language, geography and religion as by any national allegiance. Repeatedly subject to invasions by Vikings and Norwegians, pre-Norman England was more closely connected to Denmark than to the Europe which lay almost in sight across the Channel. English medieval history is a complicated affair, an observation underlined by the fact that at any particular moment in time, there could be three or four cousins speaking as many different languages claiming to be “heirs” to the throne. In fact one woman – Emma of Normandy – would become Queen of England twice, once as a result of a marriage of diplomatic convenience to King Æthelred, and again as wife of King Cnut.

            To say that 1066 changed England is sheer understatement. The Norman invasion and successful conquest of that Island Kingdom was one of the world-changing events of history, and so far as the English language and its voraciously-hungry vocabulary are concerned, of earth-shaking consequence, right down to the present day. (More about this in future columns.)

            In a landscape on which architecture had long followed a pattern of imposing church abbeys around which villages of yeoman farmers who owed their patronage to a landed elite would gather continued to mark the verdant countryside. Over centuries of politics and internecine warfare, debts incurred by political winners to those who had supported them led to a system of “royal paybacks” conveying property and peerage to a rising upper class whose wealth found its way into residences built in a grand style on large tracts of land whose income derived from the thriving vassal farms and shops over which they presided.

            The size and grandiosity of these castle-like mansions, and the wealth which made them possible probably reached a zenith in the Edwardian era, as did the rigid nature of England’s class divisions; all of which would see a stark decline beginning with the arrival of World War I.

            For the purposes of this foray into that opulent, and not so distant past, I have chosen a grand estate in modern-day England’s Hampshire hills as a subject: a stately home known as “Highclere Castle”. Built in its present form in the mid-1800s, it occupies a piece of ground whose first building dates back to the 8th century, on an estate which has been the family seat of the Herbert family since 1679.

Its most famous resident was George Edward Stanhope Malyneux Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon (1866-1923). He is remembered most for his love of Egyptology, and for his patronage of a dig by Howard Carter which uncovered King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923 (leading to the Earl’s mysterious death). Like many of the landed rich of his era, Herbert was going broke, and solved his problem by marrying Almina, the illegitimate daughter of banking magnate Alfred de Rothschild for an annual dowry of  approximately 12,000 pounds sterling.

            In its heyday “Highclere” might house 20-30 guests on three floors, where a wait staff of 30 maids, valets, cooks, drivers and footmen, supervised by a Butler, lived in a separate part of the mansion (females, who reported to the housekeeper, in the attic). As late as 1897, there was still no running water, and staff had to carry gallons of water and waste up and down miles of stairways each day. Children lived in a separate section of the house where they were visited by parents only on a weekly (and reportedly very uncomfortable) basis. The Lord and Lady of the house lived in their own kind of privacy, protected by a century of protocols and social “fire walls”, but the distances between members of the wait staff were no less rigid, and among them, the Butler reigned supreme.

            If the accompanying photo looks familiar, it should: “Highclere Castle” is the filming location for the popular MASTERPIECE THEATER drama, DOWNTON ABBEY, and while the film story, written by Julian Fellowes is not the real-life story of “Highclere”, there are some notable parallels. My personal favorite actor in the series, now in its 3rd season, is Jim Carter, as is the Butler “Carson”, whose character he plays. By the way, the popular television series is having a worldwide impact: English butlers are back in popularity, and there is a scramble to train thousands for newly-advertised, high-paying positions in a dozen countries.

Familiar to television viewers everywhere, Highclere Castle, venue for most of the filming of the  popular MASTERPIECE THEATER production Downton Abbey has a dramatic family history of  it's own. As in the film, it too was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers during both World War

A long list of the U.K.’s Stately Homes are open to visitors. One of the most popular is Castle Howard built in North Yorkshire for the 3rd Earl of Carlisle in 1699. With its thousands of groomed acres and 145 rooms, it even once had its own R.R. station.