Tuesday, October 25, 2016


Not all monuments are cut from granite and marble or cast in bronze, and America’s countryside is dotted with proof.
            As I have traveled the highways and back roads of our country down through the years I have been entertained, sometimes amused and always educated by the unique character of American rural farm architecture. I have in fact developed an abiding love for barns, and as we travel my eyes are always on the lookout for the history which is reflected in these living monuments.
            In York County, Pennsylvania, the reverence for neatness and order which so characterized the Pennsylvania “Dutch” settlers of the region is immediately evident and it is rare to see a neglected barn. The local architecture often features a first story erected of round stones and mortar above which upper levels of neatly-painted timber frames rise beneath arched roofs. Good Luck motifs in bright colors often adorn a gable end, and it is not unusual to see an old and honored apple tree or two still guarding the approaches to doors through which wagons loaded with meadow hay once rumbled.
            The rolling farm country of Ohio lays claim to another breed of barns usually painted white and two stories or more in height, with three windows appearing like the mouth and eyes of a “happy face” setting off the front elevation. On the western outskirts of Lincoln, Nebraska is a stretch of several miles where one is surprised by the whimsy of some long-ago builder who left behind a “family” of tall white barns of identical design but alternating size, like a string of random pearls fronting the old two-lane highway where now an Interstate passes.
            In the New England of my youth reside a mixture of barn styles and designs which testify to the diversity of those who settled these rocky hills, many of them now deserted and cut adrift from the times and people who spawned them; hill farms often left behind when the electric lines, railroad tracks and roads followed the valleys. Many of them – known as bank barns - are actually built into the “convenient” hillsides, with livestock stabled below and hay and feed and access overhead where gravity eases labor.
            Perhaps the most interesting of our agricultural monuments are the round barns, pioneered by an imaginative 19th century builder named Horace Greeley Duncan. The idea behind them was one of economic good sense. Cows awaiting milking were tied up around the outside circumference of the structure facing inward where hay, grain and silage could be efficiently dispensed without unnecessary and unequal travel. Legend also suggests that religious fundamentalism played a role in the design. You see, in such a barn there are no corners in which the Devil might hide. One of my favorites still stands near Shelburne, Vermont in a region where round churches are not unknown.
            The next time you’re on a family trip around this country of ours, take some time to look for study and enjoy this distinctively iconic remnant of American architecture. Drink in the sometimes elegant, often simple but always optimistic beauty of these “monuments” to the past; our COUNTRY CATHEDRALS.
             Author’s Note:  Better hurry. They’re disappearing fast!

 A century-old “bank barn” scrupulously and lovingly maintained by the late Dr. Margaret Waddington, stands proudly on the Furnace Brook Road in Chittenden, Vermont.                        Al Cooper Photo

Sunday, October 16, 2016


            With all my father’s skills and gifts, a positive pitch was not one of them, but that didn’t stop him from singing when he thought he was alone in the barn or the hayfield. His regulars were O How I hate to get up in the Morning, Over There, It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, or his favorites, K-K-K Katy, and The Ballad of Casey Jones. He more than made up in gusto for whatever may have been lacking in pitch and meter.
            My mother’s fine soprano voice was ever-present in the home of my youth, most often singing old love songs such as Take me Home Again Kathleen, In the Gloaming, or often the show music of Victor Herbert, or from movies starring Nelson Eddy, Jeanette MacDonald or Deanna Durbin. As a family we often sang in three-part harmony when traveling on the road.
            In 1938 a skinny young Italian kid from neighboring Hoboken began to make a name for himself as a singing waiter at a roadhouse known as “The Rustic Cabin” in Englewood Cliffs, a few miles from our family home, on the New Jersey Palisades.  His name was Frank Sinatra, and along with Big Band names like Glen Miller, Jimmy & Tommy Dorsey, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Sammy Kay ushered in the “Swing” era and a popular music movement which would vibrate for more than a decade, including the WWII years; years which brought about many melodic changes and a period of sentimentalism which colored both lyrics and genre. Music suddenly became the very heart and soul of America’s ability to cope with the challenge of a world-wide conflict touching every corner of daily life.
            The first American G.I.s to go to Europe were men of the U.S. Army Air Corps, landing in a
Britain already knee deep in war for three years, where they were singing songs like Goodnight Mother,
White Cliffs of Dover, The Nightingale Sang in Berkley Square and I Left my Heart at the Stage
Door Canteen.  American Band leaders Sammy Kaye and Glen Miller and singers Kate Smith and Lena
Horne soon joined the musical contingent which linked the two nations in a musical “cousinhood” which
straddled the Atlantic and more.
             In 1942 the country faced an unknowable stretch of total war against an implacable enemy, and a
generation of Americans were saying uncertain “good-bys” that touched their music: Don’t Sit Under the
Apple Tree With Anyone Else But Me, I’ll be Seeing You in All the Old Familiar Places, and Mary
 Martin’s sad and sonorous I’ll Walk Alone. The beautifully harmonized Ink Spots gave us Don’t Get
Around Much Anymore, and Peggy Lee We’ll Meet Again, while there was something sadly final in the
words to I’ll Never Smile Again. Music caused us to smile, and laugh, and often to cry a little; old and
young; it made us “human” and that is no small thing.
            In the years immediately following VE Day and VJ Day popular music took wing, and Frank
Sinatra (old blue eyes) was bigger than ever. I was a Junior in a small Vermont High School where I was
 invited to help organize a dance band we named “Six Hits and a Miss” for obvious “sexist” reasons.
Ed Brown played alto Sax, “Tink” Camp tenor, Jack Soule was our drummer and his younger brother
Ronnie played trumpet. Our Clarinetist was young David Dillingham and Jean Brigham – the only true
Miss-- among us played the piano and kept us in key (and reasonably civilized.) My job as leader was to
walk around in front, my violin tucked under one arm while the other reminded the band of roughly what
 line we were on. At appropriate times I would play and even sing vocals. Jean and I chose numbers and
 set practice times. Our bi-weekly gig was the dance night at the North Randolph Grange Hall where in
addition to the modest emolument it gave me an excuse for not dancing.
            Our theme song was Blue Moon, but I think we brought much of our youthful volume and
enthusiasm to Ghost Riders in the Sky made famous by the full-throated Vaughn Monroe. Mona Lisa,
Goodnight Irene, and Harbor Lights were audience pleasers. A Tree in the Meadow as sung by Margaret
Whiting became my personal “signature song” as I too left for a faraway war with a deeply sentimental
attachment to all that I left behind and for the love songs I grew up with taking on a whole new
             When asked late in life why so many of his ballads had become enduring hits, Frank Sinatra
explained: “I don’t sing the notes, I sing the words.”
             Looking back at the thousands of words I have written about the people of the “greatest generation,” I find myself hoping that I have really written about the “music” of their passing.

Note: By my shaky calculations, only three of the high school-age “Hits” of 1950 are still with us.

Sunday, October 2, 2016


            In the latter decades of the 19th century and into the 20th, European immigrants to the New World most often traveled to American ports on ships of the Hamburg-American Lines, the premier German transportation giant of the day. On board they were probably introduced to meat meals consisting of beef which had been “processed” by smoking and salting to achieve a longer shelf life. On board it would be machine-chopped before preparation and serving and presented as “Hamburg Steak”. Since most passengers had debarked from Hamburg – many of them German themselves -- this was an entirely friendly bit of advertising.  New York City restaurants were quick to catch on and the label found a home.
            While it is a fact that pieces of meat of one kind or another clamped between two pieces of bread have been around for a long time, even as far back as Roman times, the “Hamburger” as conjured up in the mind of any “millennial” hearing the term today within the shadow of an overhead Yellow Arch is quite another matter. It was Edgar Waldo Ingram who saw a future in a sandwich built around a wedge of prepared chopped meat and onions deployed between two halves of a roll baked for the purpose and served with appropriate additions when he founded his White Castle restaurant chain in 1921. The first square meat and accompanying pickle combo were called “sliders” and sold for a nickel each.
            Ingram knew that the American public held a healthy distrust of chopped meat at the time and so designed his restaurants around gleaming white tiles and shiny metal to emphasis the concept of cleanliness and purity. (As a young boy on an errand to buy a pound or two of chopped meat from the butcher shop I was always cautioned to watch as Mr. Schuster pushed pieces of nice fresh red meat through the grinding machine. Pre-packaged meat would never have made the grade even in the 1930s.)
            White Castle outlets opened up in the mid-west and in the middle-Atlantic states proving “Billy” Ingram’s business acumen and introducing both the nickname hamburger and the concept of processed foods. Unlike the McDonald brothers who came along in the 1940s and who adopted the idea of selling franchises to individual operators (and endured a slow start) the White Castle operation remained family-owned-and-operated as it is today.
            My first hamburger sandwich took shape before my wondering eyes at a roadside restaurant in New Jersey when I was about 5 years old and I remember it to this day – especially the huge slice of onion floating on the bed of ketchup! At the same time I cannot recall ever seeing hamburgers made or eaten in a family setting in a home until after WWII and the arrival of the backyard charcoal grill. I have queried some of my contemporaries who agree. Our mothers used a lot of chopped meat or hamburger
at home in many dishes, from meatloaf to various casserole inventions, even as  individual hamburger patties and of course, meatballs; but not between buns as a true “hamburger.”
            I was reminded of all this a few weeks ago as my wife and I sat down at a newly-opened brewery pub at our favorite ocean-front getaway spot in coastal Oregon. I had come to test the veracity of the rave reviews of world class hamburgers I had overheard around town. After all, how much can one expect from a lowly hamburger? After not one, but two visits to sample and resample the exact same menu item – the Pelican Backyard Barbecue Burger – I had no choice but to hunt down the head chef for a long talk.
I found that beginning with free-range grass-fed beef raised to their specifications, and lofty croissant buns large enough to accommodate the multi-level interior: meat patty, tomato, arugula, a stack of crispy onion swirls, they added a flavor-rich jam  exuding wisps of smoked bacon and one of the pub’s finest malty products, a dark stout called Tsunami.
            Among all the attractions which draw us to this particular corner of the Pacific Northwest each year, I can now add one of the most bodacious burgers I have ever bitten into!

                     Sumptuous, succulent and layered with contrasting flavors, this one is a burger-champion.