Friday, March 7, 2014

From TING AND I, Beginnings: Doug


Born December 21, 1942, in Manhattan, I got off to a rocky start. Within a month or so, I was near death from the swelling of my brain due to hydrocephalus, “water on the brain.” My mother says the doctors advised her to kiss me goodbye. Instead, she came daily to comfort her tiny first child, praying I might be spared, promising God I would be a good person. According to my mother, one doctor said that my brain was being so overstimulated that I would either die or become a genius.

Two other close calls occurred before I was twelve. In both instances, I ran out into the street, from between parked cars, obliviously caught up in playing tag the first time and, the second time, playing stoop-ball. The first time, I was only grazed by the passing car, struck by the door handle. In the second instance, the driver saw the ball emerge ahead of me and put on his brakes, stopping only a few feet ahead of me as I came out. Lucky? Fate? God? Safe driving habits?


I went to Hunter College Elementary School, HCES, admitted on the basis of an IQ test score. Hunter was at 68th Street and Park Avenue, but I lived on 181st Street and Riverside Drive, about five miles away. I made my way there by bus or subway or a combination. I started Hunter at nearly seven years of age, skipped second grade, and progressed apace thereafter.

It was an elite school, with pleasant and interested teachers, generally well-behaved kids and an accelerated curriculum, plus quite a bit of testing to follow the progress of the little “geniuses.” In an early grade I was photographed explaining eclipses, with the picture carried as part of a story about the school in a weekly magazine. With parental help, we staged the musical South Pacific. There I was, third from the left in the sailor chorus.

I fell in love with my elementary school teacher, Miss Audain, who taught my homeroom for three of those years. Edith V. Audain was black, beautiful, smart, kind and my special friend. She seemed to know I came from a rougher environment than most of the other kids. She did not marry me, however, but chose a Mr. Alleyne, much to my disappointment.

Unlike some of the other HCES elite parents, mine (especially my mother) were opposed to discrimination against blacks (“colored people” being the euphemism of the time). Mom wrote a sympathetic fictional story decrying segregation, published in Harlem’s Amsterdam News. My parents shaped my own views of race relations. A neighbor of ours ten years later told my mother, “With your attitude, one day one of your kids will marry a Negro.” Foreshadowing?

I remember several little girls from HCES, but I doubt they remember me. Joan? Abby? Wendy? Majda? Anyone?

Actually, I do have one sweet memory. Judy Copland may have been her name, and she was a couple of years older than I. We both rode the Fifth Avenue Coach Line to and from HCES, though her stop was much closer to school than mine. Her parents once took me along on a family outing to the amusement park at Coney Island—a nice, generous thing to do. I do like the music of Aaron Copland (despite his politics). Maybe they were related.

I often took the subway train rather than the bus. The “A” train station was at 181st Street and Ft. Washington Avenue, half a dozen blocks from home. I would stand at the very front window of the front car and watch the train zip along the tracks, sometimes slowing or even stopping in response to yellow or red signal lights.



My first eleven years were spent living with my mother, father, and siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in a set of five-story buildings abutting the George Washington Bridge on Riverside Drive, near the northern end of Manhattan Island. By the time I was nine, three of my four younger siblings had come along: Nick in 1948, Diana, in 1949, and Cliff in 1951. Chris was born much later, in 1959.

The neighborhood was almost exclusively Catholic, while I was Protestant, a “left-footer,” out of step. Their school, All Hallows, was parochial; mine, Hunter College Elementary School, was nondenominational.

Although I participated in all the kids’ games, I was viewed as different. “The way he talks makes me feel funny” was how one contemporary explained this to my mother. At age nine or ten I beat up one of my main antagonists and had much less trouble thereafter. I was thin, wiry. The local tailor had been asked to take in a hand-me-down jacket so it would fit me, and he replied that if he took it in any more, there wouldn’t be a jacket.

It was around 1950. We played a lot of hide-and-seek, urban type. The buildings were five stories high, without elevators. I liked to hide in the dumbwaiters, large, open wooden boxes attached to a rope on pulleys at the top of the shaft. You could bring your groceries upstairs or your trash downstairs with these devices. Each apartment had a door that opened onto this shaft, so the residents could put in or take out objects. I would get into the box at the cellar level, then pull on the rope enough to pull myself above the lowest opening. Hard for kids to find me, a good thing—but the smells were unpleasant.

We played cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, war, sword fights (sticks, rolled-up newspapers). Advanced weaponry included linoleum guns, sticks with a nail at the front end, a long rubber band, and small (one-inch) squares of cut-up linoleum to put in the stretched rubber band before releasing it toward your foe.

Televisions were rare. We did have many radio programs that included my favorite heroes: The Lone Ranger (cue up Rossini’s “William Tell Overture”); Tom Mix; Roy Rogers, his horse, Trigger, and his significant other, Dale Evans; Gene Autry; The Shadow (“Able to cloud men’s minds so they cannot see him. Who knows? The Shadow knows.”); the Green Lantern; Sgt. Preston of the Yukon; the Green Hornet (cue up Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee”) and his trusty sidekick Kato (Japanese?); Detective Johnny Dollar (who organized his story around his expense account vouchers). Babysitting my younger siblings—at that point I had a sister and two brothers; went fine during the hours these shows were on, but later in the evening radio became quite boring.

Much of my social life was with the Fort Washington Collegiate Church, one of four Dutch Reformed churches in the city. Our minister, Rev. Daniel Poling, lost a brother in World War II. The brother, Clarke, had given his lifejacket to another soldier when their boat had been on the verge of sinking. Rev. Poling had a son who was stricken with cerebral palsy—pitifully, severely. The father’s faith must have been tested. He became a leading figure in the Dutch Reformed Church of America. I collected a slew of perfect or near-perfect attendance pins for Sunday school and can still quote Scripture, often on either side of an issue. Members of scout troops associated with the church, we were theoretical wilderness experts but went almost nowhere.

Whether it was with scouts or just as a small pack of urban urchins, we crossed the George Washington Bridge one day to collect wildlife samples from the wilds of New Jersey. I proudly brought back a jar of active tiny swimmers, misidentifying them as tiny tadpoles. Mom had me flush them down the toilet: they were mosquito larvae.

Hardly any girls to speak of at church. Certainly none we spoke to. I would have made an exception for blond and lovely Pamela Knight. Alas.

Decades later, when I stopped by the Riverside Drive apartments, I was amazed at how much smaller everything looked than I remembered it. Perhaps we measure things in part by their ratios to our own dimensions, such as height.


Not only did I occasionally fight in my neighborhood, I had a couple of fights at HCES. Nicky R., much bigger than I was, was obnoxious to me once, while I was hobbled with a very painful ingrown toenail. I challenged him to a fight to be held when I recovered. We ended up with boxing gloves in Roger Sachs’s living room, in a very nice West Side apartment; several other classmates were in attendance. I bloodied Nicky’s face and was the undisputed winner. I forget the reason for the other fight, but I won that one, too. I liked to watch boxing on TV and would imitate the fighters’ moves. I doubt HCES had many other fans of professional boxing among its students and faculty.

Lessons from this period were to continue to stand up for myself and not to be impressed by people bigger or richer than I was.



I was in love with my mother, a blonde model. I liked girls. Of kindergarten age, I was at summer camp (in return for a favor done by my father) and had a crush on a little blonde named “Lorraine.” I thought it was fate: my home phone number was LOrraine 8-9180. Nothing much came of that. At HCES, I liked several of the girls, including one pretty brunette who eventually became a Fall or Spring Weekend Queen at Cornell. When I called her during my first semester there, I learned that her dance card was full.


Like most Americans, I had sympathy for the underdogs. Around ten years of age, I befriended a boy who was an outcast, living a few blocks away from me. I did not see why he did not have friends, and I tried to be a friend to him. It wasn’t long before he did something, I forget what, that revealed why the others did not like him. Perhaps “no good deed goes unpunished” or “the friendless earn their status” were the lessons learned. Some of the underdogs are under there for a reason. Some who have been under there a long time now hold a grudge.

Smart and Cheap

Young and smart and cheap: when buying some potatoes, I told the local grocer to weigh the potatoes before, not after, he put them in a paper bag, “because we want to pay for the potatoes, not the bag.”

Smart was discovering on my own that the sum of the numbers from 1 to N is (1/2)(N)(N+1), so that if N=10, the sum is 55. I later found out that the great mathematician/physicist C. F. Gauss had discovered this at a younger age almost two hundred years before me. He went on to substantially greater achievements and well-earned greater fame.

Smart? Cheap? Hard to classify was my propensity to look for coins on the ground under the George Washington Bridge near the spot where a man had recently jumped to his death. My parents called off that hunt.

During my elementary school years on Riverside Drive, we (the neighborhood kids) looked for beer and soda deposit bottles in the trash, to return for five cents apiece. Recycling–the early years. Some of that recycling loot I would spend at what I thought was “the bean store,” a candy store that was in fact named after its owner, Mr. Levine.

Sometimes we would take a bamboo pole (from rug deliveries?) and put chewing gum at the end of it, poke it down through the sidewalk grates that helped ventilate the subways, and pull up coins that had been dropped accidentally through the grating.

Our expenditures would often be for ice cream or rubber balls (“spaldeens,” actually Spaldings) or baseball trading cards. One could play the game of flipping the cards from waist height to the ground, matching or failing to match the heads or tails of one’s opponent’s card, winner take all. A variant of this was to skim cards toward a wall with the flick of the wrist, the winner being the one closest to the wall. Cards were a form of currency.

Outdoor sports were played mainly in the street: punch ball, stickball, hockey on roller skates. Hand-ball was played against the building’s exterior walls. Games included hide-and-seek, blind-man’s bluff, ring-a-levio, and tag. Life was hell in the urban jungle.

My family had a dog named “Tony,” part Chow, part terrier. She was a lovely light brown, a blond, and she was named for an Italian sweet, bisque tortoni, which has a light-brown top. Like so many pet owners, we did not keep her from getting fat. She waddled, huffed and puffed, trying to keep up with us, especially Mom. She was very smart, too, perhaps from the Chow ancestors, perhaps from the terrier side. She bit me only once, when I tried to move her food dish before she was done. Once bitten, twice smart. It did smart.

At that time, the rent on my parents’ ground-floor two-bedroom apartment was $40/month, and sometimes I would be delegated to carry that enormous sum across the hall to the building manager/superintendent. Some months it was not certain we would have the rent money. Milk sold for about a quarter a quart, and bread was about a quarter a loaf, one-tenth today’s prices. We were allowed to run a tab, have credit, at the little local grocery store.

Gold sold then for $35/ounce, not that we ever bought any. It’s forty times that today. First-class postage stamps were three cents, more our speed. On postage, we went first-class.


Not far from Riverside Drive, Junior High School 152 was my next rung on the academic ladder.

Another year, another couple of fights, winning one and losing one.

Girls? I can’t recall. I do recall one teacher, Miss Kupersmith, however; she had a set of low-cut dresses that made big impressions. I doubt she remained “Miss” Kupersmith for long.

As I write, some incidents are coming back to me. We moved to Payson Avenue, across the street from Inwood Park, near Dyckman Street, a mile north of the Riverside Drive apartment. Mom’s friend let us rent her lovely apartment. It must have had a third bedroom, because I got one of my own, instead of sharing with the others.

I also got a dog, a Siberian Husky-Golden Retriever mix, about one year old.. Handsome, smart, brave, tough, that was Duke. That same friend of my mother had him but couldn’t keep him. They had called him Pericles, after the Athenian general of ancient Greece. This was too ritzy for us, so I changed his name to Hercules, thinking it sounded close enough that he would respond. Then he became Herky, and finally Duke. He took it in stride.

One evening early in our relationship, when Duke became thirsty while in my bedroom, and seeing that I was not responding to his banging his aluminum dish with his paw, he picked the dish up in his mouth, placed it on the pillow in front of my face, and licked it to demonstrate it was empty. I told you he was smart.

Sometimes Duke was smarter than his master. I took him with me to the grocery store one afternoon and tied him to a pole by the curb. I bought the groceries and came home ... without him. He never said a word. Hours later, I scoured Inwood Park trying to find him. “He came home, didn’t he?” I asked my puzzled parents. Only then did I realize I had left him behind. I’d like to think I was just focused, but those who thought me forgetful can be excused. My mother is now in her mid-90s and an invalid. Just recently, I took great pains to attach her calling button to her bed, to prevent its falling, as had happened several times before. Having secured it, I forgot to plug it in to the wall outlet. Operator error.

A kid from Inwood Park demanded a quarter from me. I refused. A fight ensued. He won. He demanded the quarter. I refused again. He moved on. With a different kid, I won a one-punch fight: faked with my left, smashed with my right. Done.

Yes, I had a crush on a lovely, tall, slender black-haired girl. Vivian. If she had been interested, she would have gotten more space here. What does not go around does not come around.


If you buy a second-hand iron, do not merely turn it off after use; be sure to pull the plug from the wall socket, especially if you leave on an outing for the afternoon. Having thus inadvertently burned the interior of the apartment that we were renting in Inwood, we moved to Mt. Vernon, NY, the southern, not the affluent, region of Westchester County.

At the Minnie S. Graham Junior High School, a rough, racially mixed institution, my grades continued to be good and my fight record continued to be mixed.

We did have a champ in the family, however. Duke won best in show, mixed-breed category, at the local park. When the local paper referred to Duke as a “Husky-Retriever,” a competitive young friend of mine felt slighted by the write-up: “My dog is husky, too,” he said about his Beagle. Sure.

My desk encyclopedia tells me Huskies are known for their intelligence and gentle temperament. Duke was smart and gentle, but tough on other dogs. He even chased down a milk tanker truck when we lived in the country; he was so badly injured that the vet wanted him put down. My mother refused and nursed Duke back to health. Duke learned to make do with three working legs rather than four after that.

I played baseball for the “Tom Godfrey” team in Mt. Vernon’s PONY league that summer. I did well in the try-out session and was very pleased to have been picked. I still have a picture of myself dressed to play: the team had handsome uniforms, and my fielder’s glove was carefully anointed with 3-in-1 oil, making it very dark and very flexible. I was part-time second baseman and right fielder, where I could do little harm. Batted a modest .246. Had three hits one game. In another I caught a fly ball with my bare hand when it bounced off my glove. This was before video cameras accompanied every parent to the games, so there are no highlight clips available. Memories are made of these rare moments.

No memorable romances occurred for me in Mt. Vernon. I did have a good fight, though: I heard him running up behind me, and I dropped down just before we collided, sending him sprawling over my back. Then, I outran him.



We moved outside of metropolitan Walden (pop. 5,000) in 1956, then moved downtown in 1958. I went to Walden High for all four years. Walden is in the north-central portion of Orange County, about 70 miles north of New York City. My parents advised me that the stereotype of kids from “the City” was of being brash and too mouthy—wiseguys. They recommended a long period of modest silence, and I took their advice. It may have been for only a few months, but the vow of silence seemed to have lasted interminably. After a while, I opened up, often making jokes in class.

We lived about five miles from town at first, so my involvement in sports my freshman and sophomore years (basketball, football, baseball) required either hitchhiking home or riding my bike to and from school. No, it was not wholly uphill in both directions. Just felt that way.

Getting a ride home was the source of another near-death experience. A football teammate gave me ride a in his peppy Chevy: “Let’s see what this baby can do.” It did 106 miles per hour. One such ride was enough.

World history class in my freshman year was taught by Mr. Decker, also the driver’s education teacher. A Renaissance man of sorts, very nice. He once had a student who got 100 percent on the Regents’ world history exam. He said he hoped I would match that. I did.

Memorable was my sophomore year biology teacher, Mr. Ross, who shared –no, exceeded –my fondness for puns. One of them involved “testes” for “test these,” and there were many more of like character and quality. Biology puzzled some of my classmates, one of whom asked about the nature of identical twins when one was a male and the other a female. Will that be on the test?

Especially memorable was a compliment paid me in front of the rest of the football team one practice. At 150 pounds, I was among the lightest on the squad, and my position was defensive end, where my modest speed and modest agility could be offset by my determination and wiry strength. “If the rest of you played with the determination of Cooper, here, we’d never lose a game,” Coach Marone told them.

My sophomore year we lost only one football game and lost that one by a single point. Later that fall, Coach selected a few players to join him in attending the Heisman Trophy presentation being made to Pete Dawkins at West Point. I was one of those he chose, which came as a big surprise to me, as I was a substitute who rarely got into our games. Thanks, Coach.

Basketball and baseball took more skill than I had, and I only participated my first two years, mostly riding the bench. I scored a total of two points in Junior Varsity basketball, bunching them together with a single shot my second year.

I did referee basketball games in the church league for younger players. Someone criticized the refs in a letter to the editor of the Walden Citizen-Herald. I replied in kind. I wrote that I did not give a “tinker’s dam” about the outcomes.

Junior and senior years, besides playing football, I ran the mile and pole-vaulted in track and was near the middle among those against whom we competed. Oh, well.

My grades were much better than my running or pole vaulting. Professional track and field was not in my future.

I was in DeMolay, a junior affiliate of the Masons. I have a trophy for being “Eastern Jurisdictional Council Order of DeMolay Oratorical Contest Winner, 1958-59.” While I do not remember the details, I fared better than Jacques DeMolay himself, who had a bad Inquisition.

The high school chorus used my speaking abilities to read introductions to our songs, sometimes, at school presentations. I read better than I sang.


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; but 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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