Thursday, October 25, 2012


From Ting and I: A Memoir...

The people of Walden, NY, were generally very nice to newcomers like me, and I am grateful to them. Not all the people of Walden were delighted with me, however. I did have a sharp tongue.

I recall two fights at Walden, and again I split. On a freshman class picnic, I got into some argument with Tommy, a guy larger than I. As he rushed toward me, I grabbed his shirt, rolled backward, threw him over me with my feet, put him in a headlock, pressing my knuckle below his ear. He gave up. A dispute on the school bus my sophomore year got me into a fight with Jack, a much bigger senior, and he beat me easily; at least I hadn’t backed down. Fortunately, I do not remember the details.



Our church (First Reformed, Protestant) was less than a block away. As I did at school, I participated in most of the church activities. I “dated” several of the girls at one time or other and had a real crush on a tall, thin, lovely girl, Carol Ann. One afternoon, parked in downtown Walden to pay the telephone company their bill, her father was killed and her mother and sister injured in a car accident caused by a drunk driver. Our romance became irrelevant. Even today I can’t pass the location of the accident without thinking of her and her poor family. I believe she married a relative not long afterward, perhaps a father figure, and when that did not work out, a state trooper. Some traumas just shape the rest of one’s life.

More foreshadowing: Our church group took a two-week vacation at a campus-like retreat area nearby. Several other church groups were there as well. I quickly developed a crush, reciprocated, on a slender, pretty Eurasian teenager. Jean was the product of an American soldier stationed in Japan and a Japanese woman. Like many a summer romance, it faded with the coming of fall.

I was in the band, in the chorus, in the plays, was junior and senior class president, yearbook editor, the whole nine yards. Kept me busy and felt like success.

There was a monthly enrichment program for the top students in Orange County, where I met Mary Lou, more accurately “Marie-Louise Veronique, etc.” Smart, pretty, a would-be Holly Golightly, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. We wrote a lot of letters to each other, funny stuff, we thought, and we went together to my Senior Prom. That meant she had found some way to get to Walden from her Port Jervis home, probably borrowing her father’s car. Eventually, she married a guy with a fine sports car, then went with him (U.S. military) to Kinshasa in the Congo. That marriage failed, leaving her with a son. There may have been another marriage. A few years ago, she contacted me over the Internet, as some others have done, to see if we could meet. Nice compliment, but no way would I do anything that could cause Tina concern.


Money was in short supply for us in the 1950s. We still ran a tab at the grocer and our cars were typically one step away from the auto-parts graveyard, imminent roadkill. One evening, we drove our old car by the Municipal Building, where a heated debate was taking place over a proposed dog leash law. “Woof! Woof!” we yelled out of our car window. The local paper quoted us correctly the next day, but attributed it to “a passing truck.” You cannot believe all that you read in the paper. “Truck,” indeed.

My first two years of high school, living outside Walden, I washed dishes during some holidays and over the summer vacation at the neighboring resort-cum-boarding house, on the fringe of the Catskills “Borscht Belt,” with much the same clientele. The pay was low, the hours long, but there was a swimming pool that was a perquisite. I ate well there, except one time when I was given chicken backs and told the dish was “a delicacy.” Too refined for me.

My last year of high school I worked a bit at a shoe store then moved to the big time, bagging groceries at the Thruway Market. These days when I see the young baggers there, I am tempted to tell them how it was a step on the road to my success. Then again, the casual way I dress may not inspire them. White socks, jeans, sweaters with holes in the sleeves and fraying cuffs will never go out of style, will they?

For several months I worked as a bookkeeper of sorts for a feed and grain store. I went over the bills and the payments and put them in some master log, then tallied them up at the end of the month. It was a form of double-entry bookkeeping, indoor work, no heavy lifting, at least not much heavy lifting. Some months I got everything to match up (balanced the books) easily. Other months took many extra hours to find my mistakes. I was eased out of that position at some fortuitous time, but it was clear to the boss and to me that I was not careful enough to make bookkeeping my career. A weakness, not being careful with details, but not as bad as being told one lacked sufficient personality to be an accountant, as the old joke goes.

None of these after-school pursuits were high-status. I invited a doctor’s daughter, Fran, to the Junior Prom. She accepted. She soon revealed to a mutual friend that she really wished Ricky (more handsome and athletic) had invited her. When I found this out, I told her I wouldn’t be taking her, “freeing” her for an invitation from Ricky that never came. I was nobody’s pushover.

No sense wasting the prom expense on someone who did not appreciate it. I took a good friend from church, Jean Jansen, and we had a great time, a time remembered fondly to this day by both.


My best friends in high school were Phil and Dave.

Phil was a year older, graduated in 1959, a year ahead of me, and has kept in touch one way or another since then. He served in the U.S. Air Force, continued his education to become a teacher, taught developmentally challenged elementary school students for decades, retiring only last year. Faithfully and happily married over forty years, Phil and Ginny Nodhturft have one son, Phil III, and he has made them proud. True friends of my family and me, they visit this area from Florida almost yearly. We have a friendship that is rare indeed. (See his contribution to “Tributes” at the end of the book.)

Dave was my classmate, a key part of our threesome, but he abandoned me our senior year, once he got a car and started dating one of the cheerleaders, a bitter pill for me. Eventually, he married that girl, had three children with her, abandoned them all for a younger woman and a Hollywood career, and died relatively young.

Lesson: don’t put a lot of faith in other people. Some will let you down.

Family Complete

With the birth of my youngest brother, Chris, in 1958, our family was complete: Michael J. Cooper, lawyer; Priscilla T. Cooper, homemaker; Nick, six years younger than I; Diana, seven years younger; Cliff, nine years younger; and Chris, sixteen years younger. Soon I would be leaving the crew to go to college.

College Applications

My senior year, I applied to M.I.T., Cal Tech, and Cornell–for admission and financial aid. Money was tight. Three applications would have to be enough. I was fairly confident, being valedictorian and having both the College Board verbal and mathematical aptitude scores being in the top percentile.

M.I.T. had a deadline for applying for financial aid that was a month earlier than their general admission application deadline. I was a few days late, and they informed me I would not be eligible for support until sophomore year, although they did admit me. I was very likely to get aid for three years, not enough. Taught me the importance of meeting deadlines.

Cal Tech did not accept me. Taught me there were plenty of others who were brighter than I.


Cornell accepted me, and I received a full-tuition scholarship, based on my very high score in the NYS Regents Scholarship Exam. Cornell it would be. The classy Ivy League, I hoped. Not quite, as I will explain.

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