Tom Cooch Interview

This is the fifth of our multi-part series of letterboxing interviews conducted by Mark Pepe.

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Location: Kensington, Connecticut, United States

Monday, August 09, 2004

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  • "Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot. Not a word!
    Into your clothes and come!"

    Sherlock Holmes to Dr. Watson
    The Adventure of the Abbey Grange
    by Arthur Conan Doyle

    What first brought you to letterboxing, how and when?

    I was teaching a unit in orienteering to my sixth grade students in April, 1998. A colleague who subscribed to the Smithsonian magazine gave me the current issue, saying I might be interested. I was.

    My son and I were preparing for an end-to-end hike of the Long Trail that summer, and I didn’t pursue the article until we got back. Then I got on the Internet, and found The Vermont Viking, Erik Davis.

    After you found Erik on the internet, what happened next?

    I signed onto the nascent LbNA talk list, got Erik’s clues for Prayer Rock, and made the trip to Bristol. The next week I placed my own first box (Rolling Rock).

    You were at that first gathering in VT. What was that like? Who were the participants and what did you do?

    I picked the Inn at Long Trail as the site both for its location on the AT/LT, and for its great ski-lodge ambience. We had four boxes right outside (and one in the pub) to hunt down, plus all the Valley Quest boxes nearby. Non-letterboxing spouses had the hot tub, the Guinness, and the live Irish music. Erik and Susan [Davis] were there, Randy Hall and John de Wolf from PA, Kim (the Martian Maggot) from NJ, and Rae Record from MA.

    I might be wrong but it almost sounds like the non-letterboxing spouses got the better deal! Was there any one thing that came out of that gathering that sticks out in your mind – a major concern or contribution that occurred there? Did any of you at that event ever imagine that this pastime would experience the exponential growth that it has?

    Actually, the letterboxers got their share of the Guinness and the hot tub. And we had great letterboxing: the densest concentration in the US at that time (this was pre-Jay Drew Connecticut!) No major concerns or contributions, other than the start of a Letterboxing Gathering tradition. The following year in Connecticut, Jay, John, and I decided we really needed a website not controlled by a single individual. Putting that in place afterwards was an important development. And yes, we all did foresee where exponential growth would take us.

    Since you were there at its inception in this country, what were the major concerns of letterboxers in those early years? And, are those concerns still valid today?

    We were concerned that there weren’t enough boxes over here, but that soon there might be too many; that while publishing clues on the web to promote faster growth, we were getting away from the pubby, word-of-mouth, character of Dartmoor Letterboxing. I think those concerns are still quite valid, and I’m glad that some boxers have gone underground.

    Why the name Orient Express?

    I thought it suggested that I could use a compass to find letterboxes quickly, and that I was from the east coast.

    So Orient Express does not have a tie to Agatha Christie or trains of any kind? Was your first Orient Express signature stamp hand-carved?

    No Agatha Christie ties to the name. But certainly the Conan Doyle mystery and moor tie to the slogan "The game is afoot!"

    All my stamps are hand-carved, but that doesn’t say much. I am extremely right-brained challenged, and stamp-carving is not my favorite aspect of the hobby. Legerdemaine correctly described them as looking like they’d been chewed by critters!

    What was your first find as a letterbox and when?

    Erik’s Prayer Rock letterbox in Bristol, VT, on Sept. 1, 1998. There weren’t too many others to find. We thought then that it was the first US letterbox. But later we realized that some CT EMS boxes were earlier, and that the Valley Quest boxes actually predated the Smithsonian article.

    Your clues always seem to be of a multipart genre – a quote by a literary figure, a piece of history that ties into the letterbox and then the clue. Was this clue style influenced by your profession and your desire to educate letterboxers even in their play?

    I suppose in a way. Teachers can tend to be pretty snotty.

    Not sure that it’s snotty – maybe your way of enticing the finder to take away a little more than a stamped image and a view?

    Yes, yes! I’m sure that’s what I meant.

    Your letterboxes have stood the test of time through the years. Why are you no longer active in the game? Do you still actively maintain your letterboxes and are there any plans to replace those missing gems in central and northern VT?

    I was never able to get my wife and three kids turned on to letterboxing. In the end I turned my recreational efforts back more towards their interests.

    I maintain my central Vermont boxes, but not those out of state. The only box I’ve actually ever placed in northern Vermont is Whales Tails in So. Burlington, and I do hope to replace it.

    What are those recreational efforts that you are currently pursuing since letterboxing has dropped down in preference?

    Canoeing. Hiking. Golf. SCUBA. All outdoor activities that other members of my family enjoy as well.

    I have heard that McGrath’s Pub letterbox is missing. Is that true and are there any plans to replace it? Was this pub box an homage to Dartmoor since a pub is one of the Brits favorite places in which to hide a letterbox?

    That is probably the box I’d most like to replace, along with Frodo’s Dream. But they are both hard boxes to keep from walking. I work actively with my local library to keep the Kimball Letterbook in place, but the other two are farther afield. Yes, I certainly did have Dartmoor in mind in planting a pub box.

    How did you end up as the ringmaster of the LBNA webring? What do you like most about this “job?” Have you seen any major changes in the content or design of the participating websites over the years?

    I took over the webring job when another webmaster, Ruthann, bowed out. Then when I stepped down as an LbNA webmaster, I hung on to the webring. It doesn’t take much time.

    I wouldn’t say I’ve seen much change in websites. Some have always been pretty sophisticated in design, others not. The content is pretty predictable.

    Who do you see as the most influential letterboxers of the past? Are there any “new generation” letterboxers who have caught your attention?

    I’d name Mitch Klink, Randy Hall, and Jay Drew. And though he’s hardly a newbie now, Legerdemaine is remarkable.

    What made you begin to plant letterboxes on MDI? Was it a popular vacation destination for you? Do you get back there often to maintain those boxes?

    That’s right. It was a favorite vacation spot for me as a teen-ager, and then again for my own family when my children were younger. I haven’t been down east for several years now, but a friend looks after the boxes for me. I get postcards from people who find them, and they are all in good shape.

    What is the single most positive change you have seen in this pastime over the years? On the other side of the coin, what about the most negative change?

    It’s hard for me to judge the most recent changes. One change with which I was involved was establishing an LbNA website with multiple webmasters. Initially it kept hopping from one private site to another, as each individual maintainer would get burned out. With Wes’s database, that problem was further addressed.

    Negative? Maybe that US clues continue to get farther removed from their orienteering origins. That’s my own bias, I guess.

    So, are you saying that the original clues relied more on map-reading and compass bearings than they do now?

    I have a strong impression that this is the case, though no numbers to substantiate.

    Vermont is a favorite place of ours and we have often wondered why letterboxing hasn’t really caught on there as it has in other states. Do you have a theory about why there are fewer letterboxes in VT than any other New England state?

    Counting the Valley Quest boxes, VT might be at the top of the list on a per capita reckoning!

    Your last letterbox was planted in October of 2000 - do you have any plans to begin planting letterboxes again?

    It’s a secret.

    I hope a “secret” is to be taken as a positive response! It would be great to see you back in the game.

    Thank you!

    "The Game is Afoot!"

    Related Links:

    Tom's Orient Express website

    Letterboxing North America WebRing

    Valley Quest website