In the fall of 1968, Dion released a song that touched my soul. About the same time, I started working Saturdays at a job that defined my life. I still work there today. This is the story of the song, that job, and a 15-year-old boy.
The Beatles’ single “Hey Jude” backed by “Revolution” dominated the airwaves. The Detroit Tigers, my favorite baseball team would soon play in the World Series. A presidential election heated up following a deadly political year culminating in riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
Kris Galvin and I were freshly minted sophomores. Each day after school we played a board game called Mr. President. Two players strategized their way to victory by assembling a majority of votes in the Electoral College. In the real election, Nixon did just that, defeating Hubert Humphrey while George Wallace carried five states.
In late September, I began a new job at Palmer Coking Coal as their Saturday boy. After a day of training, I was in charge of the Black Diamond office from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., though typically worked longer. I didn’t yet drive so Dad dropped me off each morning, picking me up a little after noon.
The work consisted of sacking coal, answering phones, and operating a scale—but mostly selling nut and stoker coal to old guys driving pickup trucks. It was quite a thrill to command an office, poke about in drawers, make change, and run the store. I earned $1.00 per hour, paid with money drawn from the cash drawer and replaced with a handwritten receipt.
It wasn’t always busy so after reading the P-I, I tuned the radio to KJR-95. My youth’s mind remembers where and what I was doing when certain songs played. That October, I heard Dion DiMucci sing a gentle folk tribute to the assassinated heroes, “Abraham, Martin and John.” The final lyrics delivered a stanza for Bobby Kennedy.
“Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill
With Abraham, Martin and John.” – Dick Holler
I was a fervent reader of newspapers and convinced Mom to buy a subscription to U.S. News & World Report. On the last day of March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the presidency. Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis four days later.
On June 6th, the Kombol family checked into the Hotel Austria on Fleischmarkt Street in Vienna. The tragic news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination splashed across the front pages of every paper on the newsstand. The photo of 17-year-old, Juan Romero cradling the head of a fallen senator in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel has haunted me ever since. An old Austrian woman draped in a black shawl stood in the lobby hissing, practically spitting the words out, “Johnson, Johnson!”
Dion’s song was poignant and melancholy. It tugged at my heart while coaxing a tear. Soon the three-minute radio broadcast was over. It might be hours until it played. I wanted to hear it time and again.
Work ended and I was home in the afternoon. I usually fixed tomato soup and cheese-toast for lunch then listened to the Huskies on the radio. Only the rarest of U.W. football games were broadcast on television. Later friends and I might play a game of touch football at the Kibler school playground. Time passes quickly in adolescence and evening came soon enough. Dinner was promptly at 6 p.m. Mom always made hamburgers on Saturday night.
While the song was introduced my first months of high school, “Abraham, Martin and John,” made a cameo appearance shortly after graduation. A collage by Tom Clay joined “What the World Needs Now Is Love” to live broadcasts of the assassinations introduced by snippets from Dion’s hit. That summer of 1971, I worked long hours selling popsicles east of Kent and often drove home listening to the six-minute spoken word hymn.
I never really left Palmer Coking Coal. During college, I spent summers as a laborer. I worked the afternoon shift at the Rogers No. 3 my senior year. It closed a few months later, the last underground coal mine in Washington. After graduating, I joined Palmer for employment stints of two and three months when no other adventure called.
In August 1978, I began full-time employment at PCC, back on the picking table. A decade of college, loafing, banking, odd jobs, and traveling landed me back where I’d begun 10 years earlier. Four years later, I was appointed Manager of the company. The following summer we celebrated Palmer Coking Coal’s 50th anniversary. I was 29-years-old.
It’s now 40 years down the road. I’ll soon be leaving full-time employment at PCC. It’s where I’ve spent all but two years of my working career. Of these things I’m certain––this job and that tune will forever remain in my heart, intertwined in a romantic ballad where the only constant is change.
I look back with nostalgia yet forward in anticipation. How these next adventures unfold will be the continuing story of my life.
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Post Script: Here’s the short story of Dion’s life and the song that changed mine. Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 to Italian-American parents in the Bronx. Teaming with friends from Belmont Avenue, Dion and the Belmonts scored their first hit in 1958 with “I Wonder Why.”
While on the 1959 winter concert tour with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper; the bus’s heating system gave out so Holly charted a plane to their next venue. Dion balked at paying $36, his share for the flight because it was the rent amount his parents struggled to pay each month. The plane crashed, killing all on board.
Dion split from the Belmonts in 1960, pursuing a solo career with hits like “Run-Around Sue” and “Donna.” After continually humming Dion’s rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the Disney movie Pinocchio, Brian Wilson composed the Beach Boy’s ballad, “Surfer Girl,” in 1963 It was his very first composition.
Dion was one of only two rock artists to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bob Dylan was the other. With changing tastes from the British Invasion and a growing heroin addiction, Dion started recording blues numbers in the mid-1960s. His records failed to sell so he lost his contract.
In April 1968, Dion experienced a powerful religious awakening. He gave up heroin and his label agreed to re-sign him if he’d record “Abraham, Martin and John.” The single was released that August, reaching #4 on the charts in October. It was written by Dick Holler, composer of the Royal Guardsman’s novelty hit, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
In the 1980s, Dion became a born-again Christian, releasing five albums highlighting his evangelical convictions. In June 2020 at age 81, Dion released his most recent album, “Blues with Friends” featuring a range of artists including Jeff Beck, John Hammond, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.
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Coda: On a warm summer evening in the early 1960s, Billy Kombol stood at the door of the open-air dance pavilion at Barrett’s Lake Retreat resort, mesmerized by the sight of teenagers dancing to the jukebox sounds of Dion and the Belmonts.