Saturday, November 30, 2013


July 27th 2013 marked the sixtieth anniversary of the Armistice Agreement signed at a place called Panmunjom, Korea. For those of us who were there and got to come home because of it, and are still around today, it is a date which over the years still has the power to raise a storm-tide of memories. Almost one third of those returning veterans have already passed on and the rest are leaving us at a rate of 500 each day; an all-too-quiet generation of American warriors who managed to survive what was long called our “forgotten war”.

            This Korean Veterans’ Day, I was invited to meet with and address a group of 25 Korean teen-age students – the grandsons and granddaughters of the benighted people whose struggle for survival and freedom we fought for all those years ago. Part of an exchange program which originates from the confluence of American soldiers from southern Utah, and the threatened civilians of Gap Yeong whose survival they had made possible, these young people had come to meet and thank those veterans.

            With my good friend and patriotic Korean/American Mrs. Sunny Lee at my side and helping with translation, I resorted to my basic comfort zone as a “story-teller”, relating some of my most personal recollections of an exposure to Korean culture within the context of war.  My return to modern-day Korea in 2009 had established a reconnection with memories which had long slumbered, and which have taken on a new life worth sharing with this eager audience whose emotional response was both surprising and deeply humbling.

            As I had sat in my office earlier that day contemplating what I might say or do to connect with this group from whom I am estranged by language, years, miles and even generations, my eyes wandered to my “memory wall” where mementos and a talisman or two are constant reminders of the experiences which have helped to shape me. My gaze settled on the military field canteen which had ridden on my web belt for all those bad and good days of my Korean tour, and which had been faithfully filled each morning by Ko Jin Ho (“Sammy”) my teen-age tent house-boy.

            It had languished empty and unused for so long that it took a vice-grip tool to open it, and an hour of purging and rinsing to render its rusty interior relatively clean. The more I traced its history in my mind, from the moment I packed my worn and weary barrack bag, to my return to a stateside assignment and a new life, I realized that the very last time I would have had occasion to drink from it would have been that September day in 1953 when “Sammy” filled it for my road trip to Seoul’s Kimpo airport and my flight home.

            In the course of my talk with those modern Korean students within the shadows of Utah’s Zion, I told them the story of my emotional reunion with Ko Jin Ho in 2009 and the way our lives had touched in a land and time of constant gunfire and fear.  The canteen, now filled with Rockville water lay unnoticed at my feet. Then, for the first time in 60 years, I unscrewed the cap and raised it to my lips with tears seeping from my eyes and my heart overflowing.

            At the evening’s conclusion, it was at least an hour before Shirley and I could escape the emotional hugs and picture-taking of these wonderful kids who are younger than our own grandkids, and filled with a newborn sense of thanksgiving for the freedom they are heirs to.

            Several of the boys quietly asked to drink from my canteen.


Since almost every piece of equipment we had was left over from WWII, my personal field canteen probably has a history even beyond Korea.                                Al Cooper photo
Korean teen-age visitors mark the 60th anniversary of their country’s armistice beneath the peaks of Zion National Park.                                                     David Suh photo


From my favorite reading spot in our Rockville living room with its picture-window view of the ramparts of Zion’s West Temple, I need only move my head a few degrees to also view large photo prints of six lighthouses on both coasts hanging from the surrounding log walls while small table-top models of four more look down from overhead. My favorite 16X20 framed print, a view of Maine’s Pemaquid Point light it took me four years of visits to capture in a particularly elusive setting, hangs inches above the office keyboard where I spend much of my time. This love affair began for me as a small boy, and perhaps – if you believe in the power of DNA – perhaps a century before my birth.

            It is something of an irony therefore to realize that the very first flashing coastal light which made its imprint on my cerebral cortex was the famous Ambrose Light, nine miles out to sea from New Jersey’s Sandy Hook; ironic in that that legendary light marking the entrance to New York Harbor was actually swinging from the tall mast of an anchored vessel positioned in a location where it was impossible to construct a real lighthouse; one of more than 180 such “floating” light stations to gird the U.S. and its Great Lakes in the heyday of lightships, working partners with their more than 1200 stationary cousins.

            While England beat us to it by four decades, the U.S. Congress got around to initiating a system of lightships beginning with a station at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in 1820.  Between then and 1983, we would build 179 of these unique sea-going vessels. Anchored to one spot, a lightship could be moored in shallow water, on shifting shoals or in deep water many miles from shore, where a stationary lighthouse was impossible or impracticable. What’s more, it could be easily reassigned and moved to another location as needed or as navigation requirements changed. Because they were manned by a full working crew, they could be self-serviced and operate as weather-reporting and radio-signal stations with expanded navigation and even life-saving capabilities. With fog an ever-lurking hazard on all of our coasts, hand-rung bells eventually gave way to powerful air horns, so loud that crew members were driven below decks to avoid ear damage, sometimes for days on end.

            Lightship duty was no picnic to begin with. Held on station by massive mushroom-shaped anchors weighing many tons, a lightship vessel was a “sitting duck” for every storm-driven sea and gale to come along, with neither port of refuge in which to take shelter nor ability to maneuver in the face of giant waves. Operated by the U.S. Coast Guard after 1939, lightship assignments were for eight months with a shore leave at the midpoint. Quarters for the 7 – 9-man crews were anything but luxurious, with a salt-beef, potato and onion mixture known as “souse” a regular menu staple.

             In all, 10 lightships never came home, and 50 sailors lost their lives in their service over the years. LV-72 BUFFALO was swallowed with all hands by the Great White Storm of 1913 on Lake Erie, Diamond Shoal Lightship LV- 71 was sunk by a German U-boat in 1918 and LV-73 on Vineyard Sound station went down with her crew in the hurricane of Sept., 1944. In the early morning hours of June 24th, 1960, the U.S. Cargo vessel Green Bay, driving through heavy fog rammed LV-78 RELIEF keeping duty on Ambrose Channel station sending that ship to the bottom in mere minutes. Her nine-man crew survived in a life raft, but were not even given shore leave before returning to duty, several of them back to Ambrose station on the replacement ship. Dozens of “brushes” with large ships and near collisions fill the diaries and log books of Lightship sailors who go down in history as “a breed apart”, dedicated to an unofficial Coast Guard saying: “You have to go out. . . you don’t have to come back”.

            Finally, on August 23rd, 1983, modern-day technology did what the mighty sea had failed to accomplish. On that day the 700,000 candlepower light (the most powerful ever to shine) aboard WLV-613 on NANTUCKET station was extinguished marking the end of an era. The final radio message from the vessel reads:    “We must now look somewhere else to find stuff that sea stories are made of”.

Lightship LV-78, acting as a Relief ship for the regular AMBROSE station-keeper in dock for repairs, was struck and sunk by a large cargo-carrier off course and blinded by fog, June 24th,1960.

U.S. Lightships were painted bright red with the name of their station printed large on their sides. This particular RELIEF, now a museum in Seattle harbor is one of only 15 still around for viewing today.


            In the spring of 1942, the most dangerous place a person could be was aboard a merchant ship off the east coast of the United States. Just three months into World War II, 20% of our nation’s tanker fleet was already on the ocean bottom and prospects of being able to safely send troops across the Atlantic to fight in Europe were remote at best as Germany’s U-boat fleet seemed invincible. It was against this backdrop that the U.S. Military asked for bids for a giant transport plane capable of transporting 750 fully-equipped fighting men, or Sherman tanks on 3,000-mile over-water deployments.

            American industrial guru Henry J. Kaiser, already turning out “Liberty Ships” at an unheard-of rate, accepted the challenge. There was, he believed, only one aviation genius capable of coming up with such a design, and so millionaire movie-maker, racing pilot and aviation super-hero Howard Hughes became Kaiser’s partner in what many thought was a hopeless venture; especially when saddled with the requirement that no strategically-important materials such as aluminum and steel could be used.

            What came off Hughes’ drawing board was a giant flying boat, powered by eight 3000 hp engines mounted on 321 feet of aerodynamic wingspan, the whole to be made almost exclusively with wood – not spruce as the nickname implies – but an ingeniously pressure laminated birch composite.

            Hughes was not only an eccentric in his very private personal life, but a perfectionist to a degree present-day therapists would call “obsessive-compulsive” (an ailment his sadly-diminished later life would increasingly fall prey to), and delay after delay caused Kaiser to drop out of the partnership. Hughes continued on his own but ran out of time, completing the giant plane in 1947 with private money when the war was over and there was no more government funding.

            Hounded by congressional committees and government obstacles, he was grudgingly given permission to carry out taxing tests in Los Angeles bay, but not to take the behemoth aloft. On November 2nd, 1947, with 36 observers and media passengers aboard, Hughes made several taxi runs before releasing several of the media passengers who wished to get their stories into circulation and not realizing what they were about to have witnessed. Back at the controls, the irrepressible Howard Hughes made one final “taxiing” run, and with the sir speed indicator touching 135 mph artfully pulled the flying boat free from the grip of the water, flying at 70 feet of altitude for one mile.

            Despite a congressional rebuke and threats of more hearings, and castigation by critics who pointed out that the aircraft was riding on “ground effect”, Howard Hughes had proven that the Hughes “Hercules” H-1 could indeed fly and was a success. For Hughes, that had to be enough.

            For the next 33 years, the “Spruce Goose” was kept under cover and out of the public eye in the world’s largest climate-controlled hangar. What most people didn’t know was that all during that time Hughes employed a full maintenance crew who kept the airplane in virtual flying condition, as if he still believed that the day would come when it would fly again.

            Upon the death of the tragically-ill Howard Robard Hughes at age 71 in 1976, the H-1 went through a series of owners, including The Walt Disney Corp. and the Aero Club of Southern California, before finally finding a permanent home at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Oregon in February, 1993. Its final journey of over 1,055 miles and 138 days involved barge travel along the Pacific coast, into the Columbia river and – after a wait for high water – down the Willamette, and finally by rail car and truck to McMinnville.

            For what it’s worth, I am still of the “schoolboy belief” that Howard Hughes’ magnificent “Spruce Goose” was fully capable of sustained flight and could have performed the mission for which it was designed had history permitted.

(Previously in HOME COUNTRY –“ THE GOLDEN AGE OF FLYING BOATS” in 2 parts. – Jan. 2010)

Standing four stories high and with dozens of historic planes dwarfed by its shadow, the “Spruce Goose” is the center piece of the Evergreen Aviation Museum at McMinnville, Oregon.

Seated 30 feet above the museum’s floor, Al Cooper spans eight throttles with his right hand  in the cockpit of the  historic Hughes H-1 “Hercules”.  Hughes detested the nickname, “Spruce Goose.                Al Cooper Photos


I was shaken awake by one of my older brothers, saying “Come on; Get up. This is something you’ve got to see!” It was after midnight, and I had been well-ensconced in dreamland. “Getting up” was the farthest thing from my four-year-old mind, but their excitement was not easy to ignore. Two floors and three minutes later, I was dragged into our front yard where my parents and several pajama-clad neighbors stood in the moonless dark, staring skyward. “Look!” my mother explained. “Look at all the shooting stars!”

            Overhead, wherever I looked, the heavens seemed filled with the glowing embers of a massive meteor shower, some of them so bright and dazzling that even the grown-ups around me would shout out in awe, “Oh! Look at that one. Did you see that!” Someone in the group even asserted that if we listened carefully, we could actually hear them sizzle.

            It all happened a lifetime ago in human years, but it was my introduction to things magical; especially the kind of magic which happens only during those hours when the world sleeps.  I thought of that boyhood experience one night many years later, when my two grown sons and I stood on the shore of a wilderness lake, in Canada’s vast Northwest Territory, within the shadow of the Arctic Circle, mesmerized into the early morning hours by a display of the Aurora Borealis which took the breath away and seemed to go on forever, as great shifting curtains of many colors danced across the northern sky from horizon to horizon.

            I grew up in a world dominated by two older brothers a dozen years distant in age and activities, but I will never forget the times when they “invited” me into their “world”; even to a friendship with “Piccolo Pete”, a friendly poltergeist who lived under the eaves of their attic bedrooms, and made strange but entertaining noises on the rare occasions when I was allowed to share their sleeping quarters. Especially do I remember being allowed to stay up late as they lay in wait for the great Polyphemus , Cecropia and Luna moths which were attracted to the honey-laced towels hung beneath a midnight-set lantern in our back yard where we waited with bated breath and catching nets.

            Two generations later, as our extended family “camped out” on our still-undeveloped Virgin River property, the nighttime air filled with the perfume of Russian Olive blossoms, a ten-year old grandson persuaded me to surrender the comparative comfort of our travel trailer, so that we could sleep outdoors together. I dutifully spread my sleeping bag next to his as we lay together under the great vault of Zion’s skies as midnight came and went. I pointed out the stars of the Summer Triangle, Sagittarius and other constellations, waiting for sleep to come. Somewhere in the near distance, a pair of coyotes broke the silence with a brief duet. After a few moments of quiet he whispered to me, in obvious wonder: “Grandpa. Do you realize this is the first time in my life that I have ever slept outside under the stars?” And then, he was asleep, and I was left alone with a tear or two in my eyes and the music of the night ringing in my ears and in my heart.

            My departed and much loved friend and author Sigurd F. Olson wrote endearingly about such experiences in a chapter titled “The Witching Hour”, a term which was given new and ironic meaning for me as I lay in yet another sleeping bag late one autumn night not far from his home near Ely, Minnesota, as I camped alone on the edge of Basswood Lake. As the clear and frosty blackness of a far-northern night gave way to the hour known to military sentries and seamen as the “mid-watch”, I felt an unearthly stir of air brush my face. I opened my eyes just in time to see the broad and silent wings of a Great Horned Owl, just inches away, and close enough to touch, at the hovering stage of an investigative dive. It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment of sheer magic; so highly personal and “private” an experience that I have shared it with few for fear they would not understand why it should affect me so deeply.

            Like American poet, Robert Frost in his 1928 sonnet, “I have been one acquainted with the night”, and as Andrew Lloyd Webber challenged in his “Phantom of the Opera”, I too have found moments of magic listening for the “Music of the Night”.


The lime-green Luna moth was so large, beautiful and rare that we almost always freed it after capture. It can measure more than five inches across.
Owls are perfectly designed to operate as nighttime predators, with hollow bones for lightness, cushioned wing feathers for silent flight, and extraordinary eyesight. The Great Horned Owl is North America’s largest with a wing span up to 5 feet.


            In an earlier series of columns titled “The Chowder Chronicles”, I described both my passion for seaside dining and the informal journey which has grown out of a love for food history in general and coastal cuisine in particular. My New England roots predisposed me to a particular search for the “best” clam chowder, admitting from the outset that any such comparison was a reflection of a high degree of culinary arrogance at the worst and at least somewhat subjective at the best; human tastes are after all not without personal preferences and even a level of food prejudice. I also admitted that while I liked both Manhattan style and New England style chowders, I would always choose the latter if presented with an inescapable choice.  In light of many years of familiarity with coastal New England north of Boston, my choices there came down to a restaurant in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and two in - respectively - New Harbor and Camden, Maine.

            My “foraging” in the great Northwest began about ten years ago, as coastal Oregon began to loom larger as an annual vacation destination and I admit to a preconceived notion that a true “New England-style” clam chowder was unlikely to be found there. And to begin with, that turned out to be largely true, even - if not especially - among those who yelled the loudest about how great they were.

             Our first visit to Doogers in Cannon Beach not only impressed us with a menu loaded with interesting choices, but the trial cup of clam chowder was a pleasant surprise, the balance between flavor, creaminess and thickness bringing back memories of Maine’s finest. Still hesitant, I remember thinking, “oh well, anyone can get it right once in a while”.

            Since that introductory visit, my wife and I have returned each year, and whether in Cannon Beach or nearby Seaside Doogers has become our “go to” place for dependable seafood dining and a return engagement with a bowl of what we believe is the Northwest’s best clam chowder. But it’s not as simple as that, and our affection for what we realize has become a “family institution” goes much deeper..

            Restaurants with good menus and noted chefs in their kitchens seem to come and go with disappointing predictability, victims of a changing economy, restless management staff, and the vagaries of a fickle clientele. What has impressed us about this particular Oregon culinary touchstone is the absolute consistency in the food delivered to the table, and the unmistakable good cheer and friendly professionalism exhibited by everyone involved, from greeters and kitchen workers to wait staff. Because I am a “story-teller” to the core, and because I was sure what I was seeing had to involve a “good story”, I began discreetly questioning Dooger employees, especially the waiters and waitresses who seemed actually anxious to talk about the job they so obviously loved. Among other questions was the one that became the tip-off: How long have you worked here? Followed closely by a key follow-up: WHY?

            The answers to the first question ran the gamut from six years to thirty years, with the number ten the inferred average. The answers to the second were more diverse, but a lovely young lady whose anonymity I will protect summed it all up: “Here, we are not just employees; we are one big family; I know one waitress who is the sixth of seven siblings to work here, and the remaining brother starts today!”

My final question was this: How would things work if Doug Wiese (the real “Dooger”), or his son were not here on the premises? She didn’t hesitate with her reply: “Exactly the same! Our working family are like a well-oiled machine. Doug is here because he loves being a part of all this; he works just as hard as the rest of the crew!”

            Doug Wiese started all this thirty years ago, some of his culinary inspiration coming from his mother, and at least two items on today’s menu are named for Wiese children, one of whom is part of the management team today.  If I had the ambition and audacity to open a restaurant of my own, I know just how I would do it. I would copy Dooger’s formula to the “T”

When restaurant owner Doug Wiese was a young college student, he and a close friend named Ruger came to be known to their jovial comrades as “Ruger and Dooger”. The name stuck, and to a generation of loyal patrons, the restaurants in Seaside and Warrenton will always be “DOOGERS”.
Chocolate-fudge cake, a dessert favorite so rich and delicious, it is bound to be “illegal”, tops off a delightful June visit to DOOGERS for the Coopers..


            For an important part of my business life, I was involved in the art and craft of memorialization and with a wide range of projects around the country designed to help us remember people, events and places from our past. As I consider all this, and on this particular summer day in 2013, I have in front of me a photograph of what is one of the saddest, but most evocative examples of that craft I can think of. It links together in a bonding of fine bronze which speaks of the eternities to come, 82 children, who forfeited their young and innocent lives 71 years ago in the cauldron of a war they had no part in. The monument stands today overlooking a place in the Czech Republic where the ancient town of Lidice had stood since the 14th century. Their story is important enough that it should not be allowed to become forgotten.

            If you were to line up the “elite” of Hitler’s killing machine; the very masters of the murderous plan which was christened “The Final Solution”, and which succeeded in bringing about the cold-hearted, calculated, and wholesale execution of close to ten million European civilians in the name of “national cleansing” during World War II, a man named Reinhard Heydrich would stand at the head of such a lineup. A Jew-hating, stone-hearted and arrogant Nazi zealot who prided himself on inventing the efficient killing system (actually known as the “Reinhard Plan”) which saw its zenith at Treblinka, Chelmno and Sobibor, he was dispatched by Heinrich Himmler to what is today The Czech Republic as Hitler’s “Reich Protector” of Bohemia/Moravia.  On May 27th, 1942, two Czech patriots – trained in England and parachuted into their occupied homeland - carried out a somewhat flawed assassination attempt on Heydrich as he motored through the outskirts of Prague in his open Mercedes. When several days later, their target died from his wounds, Hitler ordered that 13,000 Czechs, including women and children should be killed in reprisal. In the search for the two Allied shooters, 36,000 homes were searched by a team of 21,000 SS men before the two were found and shot.

            Although the village of Lidice (Liditz in German) was innocent of any connection with the assassins, it was arbitrarily selected for destruction by Himmler. The town’s men, numbering at least 192, were lined up and shot in groups. 60 women, including four whose pregnancies were first, and violently terminated, were carted away to be killed elsewhere. Saddest of all, the 82 children, (42 girls and 40 boys), ranging in age from 1 to 16 were taken to the killing camp at Chelmno where they were summarily executed.  A few children deemed acceptable for “Germanization” were given to Nazi SS families, their eventual stories lost to history.

            Once the people were gone, the town was burned and blown into dust by explosives. Every domestic animal and pet, and even the bodies in the town’s cemetery were disinterred and burned, so that no sign of Lidice was left.  Two weeks later, the nearby town of Ležāky was also destroyed bringing to at least 1350 the number of Czech civilians who paid with their lives for the assassination of Hitler’s favorite protégé, Reinhard Heydrich.

            Rather than keep the massacre under wraps, which had been the case in similar outrages across Europe, the Nazis encouraged the worldwide publicity of the Lidice affair, “trumpeting” the power of their mastery over occupied lands and peoples. It had an opposite effect, and monuments and memorial gardens sprang up in places as distant as England, Mexico, Venezuela, Panama, Bulgaria and the United States, where a Lidice monument remains today a proud and central image in the town of Phillips, Wisconsin, home to a once largely- immigrant Czech population.

            There is, I devoutly believe, no greater manifestation of pure Evil than the murder of innocent children, so recently introduced to life on planet earth, and the bronze masterpiece created by Marie Uchytilová overlooking the place where Lidice once stood holds the power to break my heart and bring tears to my eyes.

Friday, November 29, 2013


            With the fatal crash into the sea of the USS Akron in 1933, and the USS Macon disaster in 1935,   America’s brief love affair with rigid-frame dirigibles pretty much came to an end, much to the chagrin of the U.S. Navy which had invested heavily in the enterprise. (See HOME COUNTRY Nov. 2009.) It was not though, the death of the “Air Ship”, and fortunately the non-rigid, much smaller “Blimp” with its collapsible Helium-gas-filled air bag survived, even if in largely-experimental and small numbers. Although its commercial future seemed limited, this LTA (lighter-than air) “cousin” was soon to show great promise as a coastal patrol vehicle.

            In the first six months of World War II alone, German U-boats sank 410 Allied ships, most within sight of the New Jersey shore, and it suddenly dawned on a gravely-diminished U.S. military that at that rate, the Nazis would put us out of business within a year. Then, reminding us that we were in a two-ocean war, Japanese submarines showed up on our west coast, the I-17 actually shelling an oil refinery near Santa Barbara with short-range deck guns.

            Headquartered at Lakehurst, New Jersey, and later, Moffett Field, California, the humble Blimp was about to become our first line of defense against the U-boat onslaught, capable of remaining aloft for many hours while keeping an eagle eye on hundreds and even thousands of square miles of ocean. They excelled in spotting enemy submarines, but really came into their own as escorts for Allied convoys transiting dangerous waters. In fact, no ship was ever lost to a submarine attack while being escorted by Blimps whose relatively slow speed, wide range, and accuracy in dropping depth charges caused the enemy to reconsider the wisdom of their Battle of the Atlantic strategy. (In fact, it was our aviation superiority that led the Germans to develop the snorkel.)

            When hostilities began the U.S. Navy possessed only a handful of Blimps, mostly type “L” training craft, and fewer than 100 trained pilots and crew. With an emphasis on the larger type “K” model, the Goodyear Rubber plant at Akron, Ohio began a manufacturing effort which would change history. By 1944, there were fifteen Blimp Squadrons with 1,500 pilots and 3,000 air crewmen on both coasts and abroad flying nearly 200 Blimps with a near-perfect safety record while making 56,000 operational flights. Only one Blimp was shot down by enemy fire, and that because its bomb failed to release during a low-level attack on a U-boat.

            There was however one other loss; that of the L-8 out of Moffett Field, California.  And because until this day, it remains a mystery which has never really been solved, it is a story worth telling.

            Early on the morning of August 16, 1942 the Blimp L-8 lifted off from Treasure Island with Ensign Charles Ellis Adams as pilot, and Lieutenant JG Ernest Dewitt Cody, an experienced dirigible pilot making his first Blimp transitional flight at his side. Citing weight concerns, they left Aviation Mechanic Petty Officer Riley Hill who should have been the third crew member behind.

             As they passed behind Farallon Island, about 25 miles away and around 7:30 AM, they radioed base with a report that they were investigating what looked like an oil slick on the surface. No follow-up report was ever received and that initial message would be the last contact with L-8. About four hours later, the L-8 returned to view, flying low and with an obviously compromised inflation level, finally crashing into a house in a residential neighborhood of Daly City. Its passenger cab, otherwise intact was empty, its crew nowhere to be found. The radio and all controls were in good working order and the door secure, yet all efforts to find the lost crew, on land or at sea revealed no clue of what might have gone wrong, even though fishing boats in the area had observed the airship maneuvering offshore throughout the day.

            Both Adams and Cody left behind wives and family who would be told that their men were officially “missing”. They would finally be declared “dead” one year later. The blimp L-8 would be repaired and put back into service. Pieces of it lie in a museum display today . . . all that remains of the “ghost” ship mystery of WWII.


A WWII K class Blimp flies anti-submarine escort duty over a convoy bound for supply-hungry European Allies.

  Remains of the L-8 “Ghost Blimp” lies crumpled and empty in Daly City, CA on August 16, 1942.
Once capable of housing up to eight WWII Navy Blimps, the 21-story high Tillamook, Oregon airship hangar, now an aviation museum, remains the largest wooden single-span building in the world.


Every handbook written by experts on the subject, and every human person who has ever been through the experience will give the same advice: If you contemplate letting a Golden Retriever puppy into your life, be prepared to live with an exuberant, constantly-on-the-move and eventually 70-80-pound “puppy” for at least two years before the beautiful, mature, sedate and glamorous movie-star-like model you see posing majestically in all those advertising pictures emerges as a reward.  Know in advance that you will not go for leisurely “walks”, but for marathon-like “runs” with a hurtling ball of fur who must always have something unexpected in her mouth and an unrelenting need to dig new holes after sudden and unscheduled changes of direction. You must also know that every new “toy” will be loved dearly, only to end up being shredded (and probably consumed) before you have time to provide the demanded replacement. You will learn that your new companion will still be overflowing with explosive energy for hours after your own is exhausted, and that living room sofas and kitchen tables are merely set pieces in a ready-made obstacle course during a daily “cannonball run” before bedtime beckons.

            In the meantime, you will be subject to a level of unrivaled affection and human-worship which is unashamedly heartfelt and totally disarming. Most important of all, you must know that your heart will be stolen away. That in a nutshell describes life with a “Golden”.

            “Peaches” was born on January 10th, 2012 in Hurricane, Utah, one of only three females in a litter of nine; the one with a peach-colored piece of yarn around her neck as identification. She really became “ours” soon after birth, but it became official eight weeks later when she made the 14-mile trip “home” in my arms, helping (not really!) to steer the car. She has been “steering”(really!) a large part of our lives ever since.

             In time, it became clear that “Mukuntaweap Princess Peaches” brought with her a life so huge that she needed more than one owner and one home, and so it was decided that ownership and residence would be shared between our headquarters in Rockville, and the home of our dog-loving and ever-patient daughter and son-in-law in Magna – three hundred miles away, where her training would really become serious. I think no breed, and few individuals within a breed could be born with so much love to give that four humans living so far apart could share so equitably what her heart had to give. Each “home-coming” is like a gladsome reunion with a long-lost sweetheart, and for hours or days, our southern Utah home is the scene of canine jubilation and human renewal. For Shirley and me, our Golden years have been made more “golden” by a now-70-pound Retriever “puppy” who loves us without condition, in a world where such relationships are rare and wonderful.

A “get acquainted” meeting at age six weeks.

 A natural retriever from birth, a 4-month-old Peaches guards her first water-fowl. 
A home visit at age 8 months, and our “puppy” is getting to be a lapful.

At 15 months, “Peaches” is beginning to show the “regal” presence which so marks the personality of a true “Golden”, and makes them one of the most favored breeds for “Service Dog” training.



            For Charlie Brown, a farm boy from West Virginia, and his crew of “greenhorns” flying a B-17 Flying Fortress of the 379th Bomb Group named “Ye Olde Pub”, their very first combat mission to the German city of Bremen was looking almost certain to be their last mission as well. One damaged engine had already been shut down and another was surging; the aircraft had been so severely shot up that most control surfaces were shredded and there were holes you could have driven a wheel barrow through. Even with the help of co-pilot “Pinkey” Luke, the plane was barely controllable and losing altitude rapidly. The tail gunner “Eckey” Eckenrode was already either dying or dead, trapped in his cramped position, while radioman Dick Pichout and waist gunner Lloyd Jennings were trying to save gunner “Russian” Yelesanko from bleeding to death in the rear fuselage. What’s more all of the fortress’s guns were frozen and unable to defend the wallowing bomber from further attack by the Focke Wulf’s momentarily left behind. “Ye Olde Pub” seemed doomed even as the cold Atlantic coast became visible in the distance. At an altitude of only 2,000 feet and with badly wounded crewmen, it was already getting late to consider abandoning ship, even if the crew had been willing; and worse, they had blundered into the airspace over a German airfield near the town of Jever.

            To Luftwaffe fighter pilot Franz Stigler waiting for repairs to be completed on his Messerschmitt Bf-109G, the sound of an obviously damaged and low-flying enemy bomber overhead sounded like a gift from the gods. Already an Ace, and one of Germany’s most experienced fighter pilots, Franz needed only one more American bomber victory to wear the coveted “Knight’s Cross” around his neck. With cannons charged, he quickly took off and closed in on the stumbling B-17, wondering why the tail gunner failed to send defensive fire his way. Carefully circling the crippled ship, he was amazed that such a sieved and shattered airplane could still be flying, noting as well the blood-stained crew members staring at him from behind silent guns. Finally settling his fighter within a few feet of Charlie Brown’s watching eyes, he motioned with a pointing finger toward the Swedish border, hoping the American would fly to a neutral haven. Failing that, Franz made a decision saying to himself, “I will not have this on my conscience for the rest of my life”.

            In the end, and at the personal risk of court martial and a firing squad, Franz Stigler guided the crippled B-17 through Germany’s most deadly network of defensive anti-aircraft installations (known as The Atlantic Wall”), and set them on a correct course for England before giving a final salute and heading home. No Knight’s cross, but true to a lifelong sense of honor and respect for humanity.

            After negotiating a wild North Sea crossing just feet above the waves, American P-47s finally led “The Pub” to a safe landing at a newly-created B-24 base at Seething, England.

            Charlie Brown and his crew would survive 27 combat missions to become one of the most decorated bomber crews in history, while Oberleutnant Franz Stigler ended up as one of a handful of Luftwaffe pilots to fly the vaunted, but highly dangerous, ME-262 jet fighters, along with his friend, iconic General Adolph Galland (known personally to Al Cooper), surviving more than 500 combat missions with at least 17 planes shot out from under him. (Of the 28,000 Luftwaffe fighter pilots to see combat in WWII, a mere 1,200 lived to see the end of hostilities. 160,000 Allied airmen lost their lives in those same European skies.)

            Forty-one years after their unforgettable encounter over Germany, Franz Stigler, then living in Vancouver, Canada and Charlie Brown finally hunted each other down to form a brother-like friendship which became the richest mutual experience of their long lives, traveling together in order to tell the story of their tearful get-together and firm bonding to aviation reunions and interested audiences in North America and abroad. In their 80s, they died within months of each other in 2008.

             Between Lt. Colonel Charles L. Brown, USAF (Ret) and members of the “Olde Pub” crew, at least 100 children, grand-children and great grand-children are alive today because of the decision made by 1st Lt. Franz Stigler in the skies over Germany on December 20th, 1943.


NOTE:  The whole story of this unusual series of events and their powerful meaning is captured in splendid detail by author Adam Makos in his best-selling book, A HIGHER CALL whose meticulous research spanned four years and miles of international travel.
“A HIGHER CALL” © Valor Studios and John D. Shaw, 2009  



            I have sometimes been asked by young school kids to name the most important changes I have witnessed in my lifetime. Realizing they are expecting me to refer to space travel, the birth of computers and miracles of science, I probably disappoint them in my response. Instead I tell them that I was 11 years old before I met my first divorced person, and that among all the kids I grew up with, I knew of no class mate who went home to a house without a full-time mother waiting. I am enough of a realist to acknowledge that it was far from a perfect world I describe, that in fact the depression was still in its depths, there was almost universal struggle, and then, along came World War II which affected everyone, everywhere. Yet, there were certain things, certain institutions and standards of mutual outlook that were a “given”; things we could count on.
            J. Robert Smith, in an article republished recently in “American Thinker” wrote that “Old America was a physically rooted and connected place.”  A place he went on to say where “families were intact and extended”. . .and where “the Greater community was tightly knitted together through face-to-face commerce, clubs and churches.”
            At the risk of being labeled a hopeless sentimentalist, I feel blessed to have known and grown up in “Old” America, both in a small town, and later on a family farm in a rural state. In fact, even though it can be argued that “corporate farms” and “Agri-business economics” are merely a reflection of progress when it comes to food production and distribution for the “global world” in which we now live, I feel that the demise of the family farm – for one thing - has been a high price to pay for that “progress”. And so it is that phenomenon about which I write today.
            In 1935, America had 6.8 million farms, and by 1940, 23% of our population still worked in the field of agriculture, most of them in a family-centered farm environment. (Today, that number is more like 2%.)  Even during World War II, 80% of all our fruits and vegetables were grown in family-tended gardens and small local farms, and despite wartime rationing, home canning and preserving hit an all-time high, more than offsetting the need for the U.S. to feed much of the remaining free-world. I think it is no coincidence that the term “greatest generation” we assign to those who fought and won WW II, describes men and women who grew up in a society whose work ethic, sense of morality, and love of country were anchored largely in the rural and small-town America with whose values they were imbued.
            Since 1981, 750,000 farms in America have gone out of business, and with them one million jobs. In his book, “A Family Farm”, Robert Switzer says the American yeoman-farmer is “doomed”, despite the fact that farms and farm families remain powerful symbols of American culture. An indication that this sad trend is continuing can be found in what can be termed “the graying” of our farm population: 40% of farmers & ranchers are 55 or older, while only 6% are 35 or younger.
            Not long ago I stood with a life-long friend whose Arbuckle hilltop acres look down on the Vermont valley in which I grew up, noting – as I gazed upon all the farm homes and fields I remembered so well – that “nothing has really changed”. My friend shook his head, “Wrong: look again”.  When I still didn’t understand, he explained: “Count the cows!” It took only a moment. There weren’t any.  At one time 80% of Vermont was farmed, and there were 32,000 farms; mostly dairy. Today, Vermont, the one state which has otherwise resisted change more than any other I know, has only 2,000.
            I keep trying to tell myself that we live in the “best of times”, surrounded by wonders that spell PROGRSS writ large.  But deep down, there is a quiet, nagging voice whispering “I miss the OLD America.”

Perhaps because it reminded me of the barn in which I did my own growing up. I began taking photographic note of this typical, now abandoned, Vermont farm each year while visiting the town of Pittsford. Then, on my last visit in 2008, it was gone; even its remnants hauled away. Today, its memory lives on in my digital photo file; a kind of pictorial obituary to so much which we have lost.    Al Cooper Photo

In his own inimitable way, Norman Rockwell, who loved “Old” America deeply, perfectly captured this intimate image of the multi-generational nature of the traditional farm family of an earlier time.