Wednesday, March 29, 2017


            Between April and June, 1953 – even as “Peace” talks resumed at Panmunjom, -  a lot of boys died in Korea as each side struggled to occupy and hold every last square yard of territory possible, the Chinese sending in thousands of additional troops to be slaughtered. The war would come to a close in two or three more weeks; but what did that matter? It was in May of that critical time when I arrived at a neighboring MASH field hospital near Uijongbu and the MLR (main line of resistance,) to give blood and assistance to a world in chaos. (I have shared some of this story before but the reason for revisiting it will become clear in a moment)
            Plasma supplies had been exhausted, so we were resorting to direct person-to-person transfusion at the time, making my O Positive blood type especially welcome. The idea was to “extend the apparent length of stay so no one would notice we were giving more than one pint.        I was lying just uphill in the triage area from the white-faced young soldier to whom I was connected by a thin tube.  My limited field of vision as I lay there took in the view of another American “kid” being held in the arms of a weeping buddy. His friend was singing a favorite love song to him; ‘til I waltz again with you!  I watched as the singing stopped, and a kind and sympathetic Medic lifted the burden. It was the week I marked my 20th birthday; the week I learned something about love


            As our bus full of white-haired veterans headed north toward the DMZ 56 years later, through a green and lovely land of tall buildings and 21st century opulence, I was surrounded by members of the former 213th Field Artillery Battalion, a storied Utah Guard outfit whose generous members had invited me to join them on this journey – even going so far as to honor me with membership in their association in a ceremony on their bus. They might have been excused for not knowing how I felt as we now passed through valleys in whose napalm-scarred wreckage and old fighting holes I had spent a year of my life on a somewhat different mission.
            A few miles off to the east – I knew - would rise a tall peak known locally as Kookla Bong. For a few years it was known to some of us as Radar Mountain, and for 8 – 14 hours a day it was “home”.
            Now two groups of grizzled Veterans waited to enter a two-story building for a special gathering; our 30 from Utah, and a somewhat-larger contingent from Oregon who had arrived the evening before, and whom we had just met while sharing a long dining table for breakfast at the Seoul Sofatel.
            For some reason, two of us ended up at a small, tight and narrow stairway at one end of the building rather than the broad accommodating set to the south. Recognizing this, I began to hold back in case we were not choosing the better way. Just then – from behind the mostly- closed door I heard the terrible combination of sounds made by a large and crazily-articulated body falling and hitting every step and corner on the way down. The sounds were so horrendous that I KNEW what I was going to find when I opened that door. My timing was perfect. I clearly saw the light go out behind his eyes and his 80-year-old earth life depart his body.
            This was NOT supposed to happen – not in the year-of-our-Lord- 2009-. And NOT in front of Al Cooper – just marking his 76th birthday THAT WEEK. I hadn’t even learned my Oregonian friend’s name before he was gone!


            If there is one thing on the plus side of reaching a certain age, it is the accumulation of experiences bridging not only decades, but actual “eras” of human history, as measured by major cultural change. My Dad for instance was born in the last decade of the nineteenth century, fought in France in the First World War and raised a son who would fight in the next one, and another who would see action in Korea. My Dad grew up in a world where horsepower was primarily associated with animals of an equine persuasion but where guys like Henry Ford and the Dodge brothers were in the process of giving a whole new emphasis to such definitions
            Unlike his sons, Auburn Cooper, Sr. would never personally experience  powered flight, (even though one son learned to fly,) but to his dying day he would pull his car off the highway to watch a powerful locomotive or an entire train go by. For his generation, the sound of a steam whistle (and in a pinch, even the treble note of a diesel’s horn shaking the gleaming rails) was enough to make the heart beat faster. Growing up at his side, I learned to love both “worlds” though climbing the windswept heights more accurately defined my preferred method of high speed travel.
            My Dad left home early to “see the world”, hopping aboard a partly empty freight car of a passing train. From his native Washington State he passed across Montana, the Dakotas and Minnesota, following the wheat harvest east, jumping off at convenient towns to find just enough work to keep cash in his pocket, more often than not joining with other knights of the open road to share a heated can of baked beans for a meal. During this brief time in his life he apparently witnessed a number of derailments and train accidents which found their way into his bedtime stories. I mention this only as background to my own days “riding the rails”, since in addition to crossing the country from coast to coast by train in uniform several times, there was another deployment which officially assigned me to “life on the train.”
            Sometime in 1951, the U.S. Air Force introduced a program designed to rehabilitate some long-term offenders incarcerated in “stockades” around the country, one of which my Air Police Squadron in New York State administered. The selected “trainees” as they were euphemistically labeled, were assigned to a Retraining Center newly-established in Amarillo, Texas. Since I was still a fairly “junior” Security Non Com., I was surprised when I was “called in” by the Provost Marshal” (my big boss) and told I had been selected to help “supervise” this highly-publicized transaction – two “General” prisoners at a time.
            Rail travel was still the most economical option for the military, so I had a portfolio crammed with railroad and meal tickets sufficient to take myself and my two prisoners across the country, riding New York Central and then Union Pacific from Albany to St. Louis, and then the famous Texas KT south to our destination in the Texas “Panhandle”. For my return I was issued “open” tickets which gave me some routing options on the way back to my Finger Lakes home base. I was given a 12-day temporary duty (TDY) assignment which left me 4 days to spare.
            Before departing New York, I would hold a session with my charges to come to an understanding of my rules. If they agreed, I would remove my arm band, white hat cover and .45 sidearm and we would just be three Airmen in uniform traveling together; no embarrassing handcuffs jingling from car to car. They always agreed and in fact were so grateful when we reached our destination - with me once again dressed and armed like a tough MP -- that they often had a difficult time saying “goodbye”.
            One of the great pleasures of traveling in uniform on the Texas Katy in the 1950s was the way the Porters took care of us. These were the same proud and professional lifetime traveling butlers who had cared for our older brothers just a few years before, and their deep-seated devotion to us was touching.
Because of the nature of the relationship my mission imposed on me and my companions, we enjoyed the relative privacy – even luxury -- of a compartment. If I had the same crew on the return, the head porter would take special care of me, often bringing me a “first class” dinner tray instead of the restricted fare my military meal ticket rated; an extra blanket, a second piece of apple pie or a sincere thank you for the kindness they saw me display toward the men I “guarded”. I couldn’t help but notice the “Whites Only” rest rooms in the Amarillo train station and wonder how that must make these kind, black porters feel.
            Then there were my “adventures”, like the time our entire train was stalled in a remote piece of barren desert for several hours with an over-heated wheel bearing (or “hot box”). I left the train to wander the bleak landscape where I surprised a nine-ring Armadillo digging for insects before visiting members of the crew in the locomotive cab, or my unplanned respite in Chicago where I took in a visit to Minsky’s Follies, an infamous Burlesque of the day.
            Most of all, I remember the sense of freedom on those return trips across America, and the incomparable experience of sleeping in an upper bunk, being serenaded by the click of the rail joints and the wail of the whistle as we passed through darkened towns, and the “small- boy thrill” of being rocked to sleep by the swaying of an old and storied Pullman car on the glorious Texas Katy far from home and war.

Thursday, March 23, 2017


            I have stood many times on the balding top of Mount Cadillac in Maine’s Acadia, and reveled in a horizon line of land and sea, blue and green that at first appears as if it intends to completely surround me as I turn in a circle. One’s perspective of what is possible for us here on planet Earth is enlarged magically by the experience; it is not a gigantic height that creates this illusion but a wonderful quirk of geography and the human mind.
            Most evenings, I can watch as the end of day paints Zion’s West Temple 50 shades of red without leaving my favorite chair or front porch; and do so knowing that tomorrow it will be different again. If Acadia National Park is “A” and Zion National Park is “Z”, I can happily say that I am fortunate enough to have watched the sun rise and set over both in most of my recent years, and that in between have been an “alphabet” of companion memories tied to a system of national treasures from the tiniest of “parklands” to the mightiest.
            Many years ago while still living in Vermont, I was approached by a fellow employee who – knowing of my ongoing love affair with aviation – wondered if I might possibly be planning a flight to Buffalo, N.Y. in the near future, and if she could “hitch a ride”. Of course I planned one immediately with my instructor to add hours to navigational and cross-country log-book time. That flight required the transit of New York’s Adirondack Park and Forest Preserve, the largest protected piece of landscape of its kind in the entire U.S. Larger than Yellowstone, Everglades, Glacier and Grand Canyon National Parks combined. Described by a world-famous clause in the state’s 1892 constitution as a land to be kept forever wild, it remains something of a paradox today; six million acres of largely wilderness forests, lakes, mountains and streams, left over from an ice age whose hand is not quite finished. As a school girl of the first decade of the 1900s my mother “summered” there, and Shirley and I spent our first married vacation in a Lake George log cabin.
            Our little Cessna seemed like a daring insect flying over an unbroken “sea” of green, with here and there a yellow speck marking an ancient pile of sawdust left by a long-forgotten sawmill. I felt a sweet kind of loneliness looking down from a comfortable 5000 feet, knowing that for a hundred miles in any direction we were virtually alone. IN NEW YORK!
            I tell you all this to understand that I, Al Cooper am a son of the forested North Woods; a child of its hardwood forests and unbroken hills, and coldwater streams and the shores and islands of the Down East Country. When I woke up to find myself taking up residence in a Kansas City subdivision in 1960 – obedient to the urging of generous and well-meaning employers – and realized that I was nearly 600 miles from the first hint of a real mountain, I hit a “bad patch” in my road to personal happiness.
            What “saved” me was the discovery of a Park; not a ‘Grand Teton’ kind of park, in fact not very “grand” at all: 1,600 very humble acres, but with a 120-acre lake for my kayak and miles of wooded foot trails wandering beneath magnificent stands of beeches, walnuts, oaks and sage oranges. Only recently opened it hadn’t really been discovered yet. It was known as Shawnee Mission Park, and was operated by Johnson County, Kansas. If we chose the right week day for a visit, we often owned it to ourselves and according to my notes it was our favorite venue for “family night”, including one I remember in particular where I issued each member a magnifying glass in place of binoculars as our “seeing eyes.” Calling occasional halts to our usual nature walk we would vie to see who could find the most unusual miniature creature or object, from a walking stick or cicada larva to the shiny trail left by a wandering snail or slug; sometimes we might even capture a close-up of a honey bee on a thistle or a golden garden spider on the hunt. I often still glance at a page dated May 3, 1964 in my log noting a one-day “bird list” with 40 species listed.
            In time I mastered the ability to leave home without really leaving anything, but by holding the things I love close to me wherever I may be; from A to Z.

P.S. I note that today Shawnee Mission Park is the most-visited park in the entire state of Kansas!


            The small New Jersey town where I was born (and whose name happened to be eponymous with that of my family) was directly across the Hudson River from New York City – by ferry or the George Washington Bridge. Most of my neighbors saw it as a patriotic duty to avoid that trip, and Coytesville was a typically self-reliant community as it had been for a hundred years before they built the bridge; long before my first Coyte ancestor stepped ashore from Plymouth. We had not one, but two barber shops – Jack’s and Robert DeNesio’s, and a first-rate tailor named Fidelio Barbanti whose portly wife set in motion my deep love affair with Italian cooking.
            On Sunday mornings we listened first to the Catholic Church bells announcing Early Mass followed by the deep notes born in the Dutch Reformed Belfry (where I went to catch gray squirrels on Boy Scout nights) and finally by the mighty carillons from St. Stephens Episcopal with me swinging on the thick ropes below after I first started the electric-powered pump for the organ my uncle would preside over. It was a “Norman Rockwell-kind” of town in those pre-war days when America slept almost blissfully.
            Of all the institutions that gave identity to our pioneer village none held more fascination for young kids than the local shoemakers’ shop, situated close to the middle of town where 2nd street turned into Washington Avenue. Make no mistake, this was no “fix-it” emporium where one dropped off damaged and wounded footwear needing some first-aid (although that happened there also); this was where real artisans made shoes from the “last” up; shoes that had real souls so to speak. It featured a glass store-front through which passers-by could pause to watch the maze of moving belts and turning gears and shafts and sheaves which transferred power and motion to sweet-smelling slabs of hand-cut leather cut to size by blades and pierced by awls and thread and polished by shiny oils and stains and waxes. The myriad smells and perfumes filling the air only hinted at the magical alchemy going on amidst all that organized sound and motion. Pipe smoke mixing with all those other tantalizing nose-tingling odors only added to the experience. I’m sure that within a mile or two of our town – certainly in Englewood or Hackensack – there were other shops where the same kind of small manufacturing operations went on. (After all, there was a baby carriage factory where it was known gambling tables came out after dark.)
            In 1917 – about the time my father along with many others – went off to France to fight the Boche the typical American still traveled less than 2000 miles a year of which 1600 was just walking around. The battle of Gettysburg was fought back in 1863 when Confederate forces learned they could obtain replacement shoes in that Pennsylvania crossroads town. Perhaps no human statistic has seen more dramatic change in recent years than international travel. My son who is engaged in a business which is global in nature has found himself flying about 200,000 miles (approximately 80-100 flight segments) a year requiring him to be away from home 100 to 150 nights per year.) A single generation ago such a schedule would have been untenable, and even today poses its own kinds of challenges to personal and  health management skills.
            The very memories inlaid among the unusual archeology of the 200-year-old family home in which my early years were lived bring nostalgic smiles to mind. The largest, most capacious closet in that old home had been created from a space which had been reclaimed from an old dumbwaiter which had once connected the downstairs kitchens of the old Stagecoach Inn to the upstairs dining room. It had become the multigenerational household “shoe closet” housing its own secrets, including a pair of old farm shoes with a secret notch cut into one heel designed to quickly and bloodlessly bring the life of an overage hen to a swift and quiet close in time for a Sunday dinner beneath the talented foot of a family war bride from Iowa.