Now and then I am invited to speak to school students; most often of Elementary school age. I sometimes recall one such occasion after I had been aptly warned by the teacher that her class of 6th graders were a difficult lot; in fact a class well known for their open challenge of such concepts as “good order and discipline”. A “rowdy bunch,” to repeat her rather fond – but accurate -- description. Because of my style as a “story-teller” rather than “instructor” I managed to establish a friendly enough introduction to my chosen subject: Learning to love the search for knowledge. I am a lifelong believer in the art of “show-and-tell”, so I often carry to class a small innocent-looking brown paper sack which remains closed but always in view. The first object I withdrew and passed through the waiting hands was a musket ball from Gettysburg, and with it I shared several little-known Civil War stories.
Later after telling them about the creation of our solar system and why the surface of the moon presents such a cratered landscape when we study it, I lifted from the paper bag a tiny dark and shattered bit of stone from my collection of meteorites; that one picked from a strewnfield in Indonesia left behind by a 1969 collision of a meteor with earth’s atmosphere.
With my class visit over, and the kids heading to lunch break, I was surprised to note the large number of students (including the noisiest boys) seemed in no hurry to escape as we walked down the school hallway.
“Mr. Cooper, could I hold that meteorite one more time”? And then the whole group pulled to one side with their hands held out and the sense of wonder aglow on their faces. I knew without being told by my teacher/friend that a whole lot more had been shared in that unexpected hour than a bit of pedagogic drama; some hearts and minds had been touched, and hopefully a change in attitude and viewpoint.
Once I asked a group of adults if they had ever come into contact with star dust. Then I passed around a tiny sample in a see-through test-tube of glittering fine sand. I felt a little guilty as they carefully, almost reverently handled the screened material I had taken from my own backyard soil hours before in order to make of a huge truth an understandable analogy. Eons before, I explained, a giant astronomical explosion had occurred; a supernova of galactic proportions, and how, obedient to the laws of the economy of matter by which new “worlds” are made, bits and pieces of those former planetary orbs came together to form the beautiful blue-and-green sphere we call “Earth”.
The older I get the greater is the thrill I feel each time I open the lid to an old cigar box I call my “treasure chest”. Nestled inside are tiny jars of frankincense and myrrh, a piece of rusty barbed wire that divided the two sides of a conflict in which I fought and which serves to define me still, and a maple tree tapping-spile which sings a happy song of my Vermont youth. There also are my father’s 1917 Marine Corps dog tags and my own Pilot’s Log, along with silver pieces of eight brought up from a 1715 Spanish Galleon by a friend and diver, and a “widow’s mite” cast in the time of Israel’s last Old Testament government and dated to the time of the birth of Jesus. I get a similar sense of prehistory when I handle a fossilized Otodus Shark tooth excavated high in today’s Atlas Mountains in Morocco where once great oceans deposited it as much as 67.5 million years ago and from an artifact recovered from a British East Indiaman which sank off Weymouth sands in 1805.
I yet still dream of obtaining an old perfume bottle found in 2003 by divers visiting the remains of the S.S. Republic at a depth of 1700 feet, 100 miles off the port of Savannah. The steam side-wheeler had returned to U.S. Government service after being captured by the Confederates. The historic vessel was sunk by the 40-foot waves of a hurricane on October 25, 1865. Retrieved from the wreckage were dozens of glass perfume bottles with stoppers, bearing the name I. Edrehi, the N.Y.C. manufacturer. Isaac Edrehi was my Great Grandfather. And that makes it personal
One of the salvaged 1865 perfume bottles cast for I. Edrehi, Al Cooper’s great grandfather.