Sunday, February 28, 2016


            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.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016


            When successful and best-selling authors pass away it is easy to understand why their surviving family members, estate trustees, agents, publishers and booksellers have a legitimate interest in wishing to find a way to extend that stream of profitability (much as we see a proliferation of big-name authors employing “smaller name” co-authors in order to increase publication numbers and book profits ad nauseam.) Truth is, that ability to become the living/breathing alter ego of the deceased creator of those characters whose very heartbeat lay at the center of their appeal to a loyal procession of fans can seldom be found even in the most talented of literary copy-cats.
            I lay this groundwork in order to underline my great pleasure in the discovery of an exception. When the best-selling writer of Navajo crime fiction Tony Hillerman passed from this world in October of 2008, I like millions of other Hillerman fans around the world mourned the loss – not only of a  much-loved writer, World War II combat veteran (Silver Star, Bronze Star with Oak Leaf Cluster and Purple Heart) – but a great American Gentleman. I lamented as well the end of the line for Lt. Joe Leaphorn, Officer Jim Chee and his new wife, Navajo Police-woman Bernadette Manuelito, fictional people so well cast and beautifully drawn by their creator that one knew they too would never live again.
            We might have been less sanguine had we understood the close relationship between the late author and his talented daughter, Anne Hillerman, herself a successful writer, columnist, and acolite to her Dad when writing Tony Hillerman’s Landscape. With a contract for two books under her arm she wrote Spider Woman’s Daughter in 2013 followed by Rock With Wings in 2015. So closely does the dialogue, the depiction of the surroundings through which the reader travels, and the speech and imprint of the spiritual side of Navajo life and culture come across that Hillerman addicts might be excused for thinking they’re  reading an unpublished but recently uncovered manuscript of her father’s.
            While Anne’s attention to visual and didactic detail match her Dad’s, she brings an obvious and not unwelcome feminine touch to the storyline; for instance young Bernie Manuelito grows in importance and activity actually solving crimes rather than merely being a good assistant. Bernie now has a mother and somewhat troubled younger sister to interact with, while the domestic side of the young married couple’s life together comes into play.
            Several years ago, with the illustrated Hillerman Country and an accompanying fold-out map for guidance, my wife and I spent a week-or-more visiting the exact places where the footsteps of Chee and Leaphorn would have taken them in the course of their various adventures. Chaco Canyon country in particular cast an unforgettable spell over us. It is one of those places where you tend to whisper when you talk and reflect deeply as you take each step. If I get to repeat that awe-inspiring journey again, I will make certain to read Tony Hillerman’s The Thief of Time first.
            A parting word on the craft of writing which comes to mind at this personal juncture: Like most people who write, I read a lot and I read intently. I am deeply interested in and often fascinated by the little things that reveal not just the brain-borne thinking, but the very heart of the writer. The invention of a brand new character the world has never known until the moment your pen or keystroke gives it life involves a form of creativity I will never cease to marvel at. The few times I have turned my hand to writing fiction (small fiction!) the more I have humbly shied away. With Hillerman’s Jim Chee and Lt. Leaphorn I know I have met a Master.
            Thank you Anne for bringing them back. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


            Sometime around 1850 a Midwestern American farmer named Mostellor shot a wild goose above his wheat fields. Dressing out the welcome addition to Sunday dinner the curious shooter cut into the bird’s crop which bulged with something that didn’t feel like the expected purloined grain. Out spilled a handful of bean seeds mostly white but with an unusual brown spot on each one. The frugal descendent of pioneer settlers saved the seeds for planting the next spring, only to be rewarded with a generation of prosperous, productive green vegetable beans promising enough to share with neighbors. They of course became known as the Wild Goose bean, a variety which was regionally popular for a time. The unanswered question of where the wandering waterfowl found them is part of the story’s charm and I am fortunate to have a sample in my historic seed collection along with other “heirlooms” such as Blue Coco, Rattlesnake, Dixie Speckled, Wren’s Egg and my own favorite of all for baking, Jacob’s Cattle.
            It wasn’t until I lived and traveled extensively in Mexico and Central America that I began to appreciate the far wider role this basic legume plays and has played in the spread and very survival of human populations around the world. Living and eating with families as I went, I came to know I would probably be treated to phaseolus vulgaris (the common dry bean) in one form or another at two -- or even more likely – three meals a day. I noticed that in the Puebla home of Seňora Meija there was always a pot of beans warming on the back of her kitchen stove top available to whatever culinary need might arise. I also observed the power of regional food loyalties when shopping the markets with my Mexican friends. At the sprawling open-air market in Zacatelco one day, I was admiring a particularly colorful bean variety I thought I would like to add to my collection when my horrified friend and guide Esteban tried to talk me out of that choice. “Oh no Al, we don’t eat that kind of bean here!
            As we traveled south and into the more remote areas on and near the border with Guatemala, I was impressed with the obvious strength and health of the native people we met. Descendants of the Maya they evidenced no apparent tendency toward obesity, and were blessed with sound teeth, clear vision, and a visible happy and carefree (and very family-oriented) cultural norm. They were poor by world standards, but rich in so many ways. With only occasional access to animal protein they lived richly on a diet of beans and corn; the marriage of a legume and a grain which represents a near-perfect example of protein complimentarity.
            If there is a real superfood it is indeed phaseolus vulgaris, a nutrient-dense high-fiber gift to the world we now know originated nearly 11,000 years ago in two places: The Andes Mountains near Peru and the vast valley of Mexico and Central America. The two gene pools and their different paths have only fairly recently been confirmed by a study of human dental remains. Today the global annual dry bean harvest exceeds 18.7 million tons in 150 countries, and it feeds a large percentage of the world’s population, usually with corn, rice, quinoa, amaranth or the wheat family or occasional animal meat to complete the protein profile.
            As I write the final paragraphs of this column, I am keeping an eye out for a Dutch oven of Black Bean Bisque bubbling in the kitchen: 3 cups of dry beans, two minced onions, a cup or two of chopped tomatoes, 3 or 4 cloves of fresh garlic and two fire-roasted Poblano peppers plus some broth and flavoring gives our two-person household hearty daily portions for six days. (The use of a pressure cooker reduces cooking time to less than 20 minutes.) We have proven that 60 pounds of dry beans plus some flavorings and dried preserved peppers will keep us in essentials for one year. Cornmeal muffins make a great accompaniment.
            Black beans take the prize with us, not only because of their overall flavor and diversity of uses, but because we now know that in addition to the parade of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients the bean family offers, the black colored seed coat is an outstanding source of three flavinoids not commonly available which together provide notable support for digestive tract and colon health.
             Admittedly opinionated, I prefer Jacob’s cattle or Vermont Soldier for our maple-flavored New England baked beans, Small Red for New Orleans dishes and Canollini (White Kidney) for my pet Minestrone. And then of course I still have those Wild Goose beans to fall back on. 
Zacatelco Open Air Market in Mexico
Al Cooper Photo

Thursday, February 4, 2016


            In the closing days of September 1938 England’s Neville Chamberlain and representatives of France and Italy signed the Munich Pact essentially telling Hitler he could have Czechoslovakia if he wanted it, thus allowing the British Prime Minister to famously tell the world that he and his allies had purchased “peace in our times” in return. Of course the Czechs had not been consulted on this agreement and when Nazi forces occupied their country on March 15, 1939 many citizens died attempting to resist. When the failing government disbanded their small but determined Air Force, many of its members escaped to fly first for Poland or France and eventually for the British Royal Air Force. One of these brave aviators was an aerial gunner named Robert Bozdech who was flying a mission with a French pilot in a twin-engine Potez 63 when the attack bomber was shot down over German-occupied France. Seeking temporary shelter in a wrecked farm shed, the young Czech discovered a tiny puppy covered by the rubble. Despite the objection of the injured pilot, Bozdech wrapped the barely-mobile dog in rags and took it with him.
            In the weeks that followed, and while he was escaping from the enemy even as France was collapsing all around him, he managed to avoid the discovery of the tiny and surprisingly-quiet puppy while making one mad dash for freedom after another, any one of which would have been a story all by itself. At one point having been denied the boarding of a British ship because of the strictly forbidden canine, he invented a floating “stowaway” craft permitting him to hoist the amazingly cooperative German Shepherd puppy aboard before sailing and without detection.
            Arriving in England just as the “Battle of Britain” in the air was getting started, airman Bozdech along with other French, Polish and Czech pilots and crewmen found an immediate and welcome home in the RAF, a service which happened to nurture its own particular form of animal discrimination – especially those of German origin.
            Along with many of his friends, Sgt. Bozdech was assigned to Number 311 Squadron, among whose enlisted flying staff the rapidly-growing dog - now known as Antis - was viewed not just as a mascot, but as an honored and much-loved Squadron mate. So devoted was the Shepherd to his master, that he would wait anxiously beside the runway until his plane would return from its mission – even when delayed by a forced landing at an alternate field due to battle damage or weather.
            The Squadron now was flying twin-engine Armstrong Vickers Wellington bombers, a medium range bomber which carried a crew of 5 or 6, featuring a lightweight frame of aluminum rods covered with dope-treated fabric.  Although of unique design of which more than 14,000 were built, it was known as “The Widow-Maker” to its crew members. Despite the nickname it was an unusually durable aircraft and could sustain a great deal of pummeling as a night-bomber.
            One day Antis was unusually absent from his standard departure place beside the runway and with misgivings C-Celia and her crew took off without their “good-luck visit”. As Bozdech clambered back to his lonely rear turret gun position sixty feet behind the forward compartment, there was the missing talisman curled up on the deck beneath the .303 twin Browning machine guns, as if speaking to say “okay you chaps, I’m ready let’s roll.”
            On that unplanned stowaway journey, Bozdech had no choice but to share his oxygen with the conniving canine, but soon the aircraft maintenance crew saw to it that Antis had his own lovingly-fitted mask and bottle; Antis had assumed flying status.
            The last mission Bozdech and Antis flew together was a nighttime attack on Manheim when the Wellingtons were caught by brilliant radar-controlled searchlights that pinned them mercilessly against the black of night. All during the pasting taken by C-Cecila, the loss of an engine and the crash-landing at RAF East Wretham, Antis had lain obedient and brave at Robert’s feet. Only after the agonizing trip was over was it discovered that the dog was the only crew member to sustain injuries, quietly lying in his own blood. Flying shrapnel had raked his belly.
            After 40 missions, Sergeant Bozdech – soon to be Flight Lieutenant Bozdech – left 311 Squadron and Antis received the highest award given to British War Dogs. He lived to chase rabbits until age 14. Colonel Václav Robert Bozděch died Feb. 27, 1980 in Devon, U.K.. After Antis he never owned another dog.

                                                                                   Robert Bozdech and Antis