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Postmarked Vietnam

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture *

TWO SONGS – TWO STORIES

Songs evoke memories of times long past, each bearing a story to be told. This is mine.  It’s a tale of two singles; we called them 45s back then. Both were favorites. Both were songs about war. Two soundtracks postmarked in my mind––songs that evoke a time and age.

I played them on a cheap record player in my childhood bedroom. Neither mentioned Vietnam, but everyone knew what they were about. The singles were separated by two years. In the lifespan of a boy, that’s an eternity.

When young I was fascinated with soldiers. Growing up in the fifties and sixties most men of my parent’s generation served in WW II or Korea. Mom gave me a book, “Stories of Great Battles” about the soldiers who fought famous wars throughout history. I must have been eight or nine. I read it time and again.

The book was published in 1960.  It had been read so many times that years later I repaired the spine with duct tape.

JANUARY 1966: “BALLAD OF THE GREEN BERET” RELEASED

A few years later a song embodied the spirit and courage of the brave men featured in “Great Battles.”  Sgt. Barry Sadler released “Ballad of the Green Beret” in January 1966. It rocketed to the top of the charts remaining at No. 1 for five straight weeks and finished as the year’s top song. Mom bought me the record. I hummed the tune and memorized its lyrics. They told the bittersweet story of a father, son, and a shared military culture. I loved everything about that song. I was 12 years old.

The Ballad of the Green Beret by Barry Sadler. I still have the 45 single.

During the 1960s, Vietnam was inescapable––there in newspapers, magazines, television, and endlessly debated. Even its spelling and pronunciation were disputed: Vietnam or Viet Nam? Did the second syllable rhyme with mom or ma’am?

We wrote reports about the war and by 9th grade, it was the debate prompt in Mrs. Gallagher’s speech class: “Resolved that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Vietnam?” In the style of classic debate, we were expected to successfully argue both sides of the proposition. My debate partner was Jim Clem and together we clipped articles, copied quotes, researched facts, and assembled 3” x 5” index cards supporting and opposing the prompt. In real debates against fellow students staged before the entire room, we demolished our competitors. It was the fall of 1967.

JANUARY 1968: “SKY PILOT” RELEASED

Several months later another war song was released, this time by a blues-rock singer from Newcastle, England who’d moved his reformed band to flowery San Francisco during the Summer of Love. Eric Burdon and the Animals recorded a song quite different than any of their previous offerings – “Sky Pilot.”

How do you explain the feelings of a 14-year-old upon hearing Burdon’s spoken word introduction? “He blesses the boys, as they stand in line. The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine.” Or describe the power of bagpipes during the long instrumental interlude preceding the powerful final verse: “A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot. Remembers the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ”

On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong launched their Tet Offensive, a military campaign that resulted in a sea change of American attitudes about the war. Four days prior Eric Burdon released “Sky Pilot,” all 7:27 minutes of it.

I purchased the 45 at Stan Boreson’s Music Center on Cole Street in Enumclaw. Side A is the 2:55 single, while Side B concludes the epic by showcasing the glorious sound of Scottish bagpipes. You had to flip the record to hear the entire song. Upstairs in that same bedroom once filled with notes from “The Ballad of the Green Beret,” I played “Sky Pilot” again and again. Two years prior Sadler’s ballad was the No. 1 song and the toast of a grateful country.

Sky Pilot by Eric Burdon & the Animals, which I still own. Side B was part two of the 7:27 song.

Zeitgeist is a German word that literally translates as ‘time-ghost’ but more generally renders it as ‘the spirit of an age.’ Those two records captured the spirit of my age. A 12-year-old smitten with soldiers and the romance of battle versus the 14-year-old touched to his soul by a verse adapted from the sixth Biblical commandment. Inside me two songs played, each battling for a hold of my conscience.

1971: COLLEGE AND THE DRAFT

Throughout high school, ad hoc debates erupted the few times we weren’t talking about ourselves. At family gatherings, U.S. involvement in the war often ended in arguments. When I arrived at college, students marched shutting down the freeway near campus. Eighteen-year-olds, including this one, registered for selective service while others spoke of fleeing to Canada. The Vietnam War would straggle for another three years.

That year’s draft lottery fell on Groundhog Day, 1972. We each saw the shadow of uncertain futures. It was an anxious time. What birth dates would be drawn? Mine drew a safe 139, with official expectations that only the top 50 numbers might be conscripted.

I was never called to serve and never joined the protests.  I remained an observer to the events that unfolded around me.  I generally held nuanced views on the war.  Yet, two songs were buried deep in my heart––pulsating fragments of youth––imprisoned feelings of good and bad, right and wrong, Barry Sadler and Eric Burdon.

More than 30 years later, I assembled a music CD comprised of songs about the Vietnam War. I titled the collection, “Postmarked Vietnam.” It’s a refrain from another Barry Sadler song, “Letters from Vietnam.” The CD included both “Letters” and “Sky Pilot,” plus 20 others. The music therein still echoes through my inconclusive thoughts about a war that changed so many live.

DECEMBER 31, 2017: KARAOKE AND CLOSURE

In late December 2017, our family traveled to Japan to visit my son, Oliver who was teaching English in the small town of Hofu. It’s a small city about 60 miles southwest of Hiroshima. On New Year’s Eve, we booked our party of six into a Karaoke box, a private room in a building with dozens of similar sized rooms. Karaoke is very popular in Japan.

Each of our party selected several songs during an hour of entertaining each other. I chose “Sky Pilot” and Spencer joined me on vocals. Singing Eric Burdon’s masterpiece with my son was another piece in the jigsaw puzzle for processing feelings you can’t otherwise explain.

Spencer and I sing our Karaoke duet of “Sky Pilot.” It was a magical moment for both of us.

And maybe that’s why writing about music goes round and round like a record on a turntable. Always creeping closer to the center, but with no clear idea as to why and what we hear is mostly in the ear of the beholder.

* This quote has been attributed to many, including Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, and others.

The cover of my CD compilation comprised of songs from a variety of musical styles. I’ve included YouTube links to each song.

Postmarked Vietnam – May 2005 – WJK Studios

1.  Nineteen (intro) – Paul Hardcastle  0:40
2.  Summer of ’68 – Charlie Daniels Band   4:31
3.  The War Correspondent – Eric Bogle  3:54
4.  King of the Trail – Chip Dockery  1:42
5.  Letter from Vietnam – Barry Sadler  2:29
6.  White Boots Marching – Phil Ochs  3:31
7.  Tchepone – Toby Hughes  4:14
8.  I-feel-like-I’m-fixin’-to-die-rag – Country Joe  3:03
9.  Cobra Seven – Toby Hughes  3:31
10.  I Gotta Go to Vietnam – John Lee Hooker  4:23
11.  Bring the Boys Home – Freeda Payne  3:31
12.  P.O.W. – Merle Haggard   2:50
13.  Talkin’ Vietnam Blues – Johnny Cash  2:58
14.  Still in Saigon – Charlie Daniels Band  3:57
15.  Vietnam – Jimmy Cliff   4:51
16.  Khe San – Cold Chisel   4:09
17.  Welcome Home – Eric Bogle  4:32
18.  Drive On – Johnny Cash  2:23
19.  My Vietnam – Pink  5:19
20.  Sky Pilot – Eric Burdon  7:27
21.  Will There Be a Tomorrow – Dick Jonas  3:37
22.  Return to Vietnam – Kitaro  2:02

 

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Musings

Some Impressions of Japan

 

Translates to “Some impressions of Japan” (I think).

A short trip to a foreign county is hardly enough exposure to develop a well-informed understanding of the culture.  But impressions require no such universe of knowledge.  Here’s what I found remarkable during our family’s 12-day trip through the land of the rising sun.  My reflections on Japan are based on a limited sample size and special purpose: five cities (Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Hofu, and plus Osaka), plus one excursion to the country (Mt. Fuji), all within the context of a family vacation for sight-seeing and pleasure.

Before discussing Japan, first I must confess the most fabulous aspect of our family’s trip – an incredible job undertaken by our travel agent, Jennifer.  My lovely wife not only coordinated travels arrangements for five people from three locales (Seattle, L.A., Hofu), she also booked every hotel, obtained rails passes, secured portable Wi-Fi (a brilliant addition!), planned each day’s events, and saw that we sampled a dozen different styles of Japanese cuisine.

She even mastered some Japanese language and could navigate twisting streets of uncertain names written in characters that no one could decipher.  Jennifer acted as a personal concierge to four semi-competent Kombol males, a herculean task in and of itself.  Every observation I offer is only made possible because I could literally show up for each day’s pleasures.  She must have been a tour guide and booking agent in a prior life . . . because she’s perfected that role in this one.

The Japanese country and its people are busy.  Trains, buses, and subways run on time and with incredible frequency.  Seemingly everyone is working, going somewhere, or engaged in commerce.  Idleness was not apparent.  Efficiency was ubiquitous.  The trains and subways were a wonder.  Polite and uniformed workers were everywhere carrying out their repetitive tasks with attention to detail and great respect for their job.  On station platforms, rail workers bowed to each passing car.  Not once or casually – but each time for every car – with genuine bows of reverence!

To me, the stations seemed a frenzied and impossible labyrinth for a blind or wheelchair-bound person to navigate.  But, whenever I saw someone disabled come off a train or subway, as if by magic a Japan Rail or subway worker appeared, wheeling or walking their challenged passenger through the haze and hyperactivity to their next train or out of the station.

Japanese rail stations were always clean and efficient.

The overall transportation system was a marvel.  There were no fare-jumpers or cheats as watchful station masters kept attentive eyes on turnstiles.  Ticket pricing was an economist’s dream – the further you go the more you pay.  There was no ‘dumbed-down’ one-fare for all nonsense.  It was a bit confusing at first, but soon you figured out the system at easy-to-navigate automated ticket kiosks.  Insert coin, select fare, print, and off you go.

There’s no ‘free lunch’ on Japanese trains, but tourists can get pretty close to one by purchasing a Japan Rail Pass, which of course my economical wife secured.  However, you must purchase them outside the country and then produce a train full of documents (passports, etc.) before they’re validated.  Japanese Rail officials won’t even allow tourists to scam their system.

Everywhere there was economic activity – factories buzzed, shops marketed, restaurants served, street vendors hawked, and entertainment venues entertained.  There was even a mechanized factory in a railway station: a workshop making cheesecakes of the jiggly variety.  Yes, this was a cheesecake factory, but not a chain restaurant of the same name.  A staff of 10 or 12 worked behind glass walls busily producing one cheesecake after another as patrons lined up 30 or 40 deep.  They sold as fast as they were baked, logo-stamped, boxed, and ready to go – about one every 30 seconds.

Putting the finishing logo touch on a jiggly cheesecake, baked in a factory in a busy Osaka rail station.

Outside one of our hotels near a rail station stood a small factory of unknown manufacturing, where each morning scores of employees punched time cards at the street entrance.  I had no idea what they produced but it was a beehive of activity in an area smaller than a city block.  On train rides, you saw literally hundreds of businesses just like that one.  But one could only guess what they were making or creating.

Many stores had stacks of items outside their establishments in streets so busy that hundreds passed every few minutes.  Yet, no shopkeepers or guards were thwarting sticky shoplifting hands.  In fact, there was no evidence of theft even though it would have been impossible to catch even a slow-walking thief on those busy sidewalks.  My son, Oliver said there are very high levels of honesty and trust in Japan.  If you hand a shopkeeper a 10,000 yen note (about $100), there’s no worry about getting back anything except your exact change.  I saw pride in almost every service worker.  You could really feel it.

City streets were almost devoid of litter as were the rail stations and platforms. This has to be the cleanest and tidiest country I’ve ever visited.  Yet garbage cans on street corners were rare.  You were expected to carry your garbage with you until it could be disposed of properly.  There was almost no graffiti anywhere, except for a few instances in the westernizing city of Osaka.  Several times I saw shopkeepers wiping and polishing their garage-style doors that close each night.  In most cities, such doors are uniformly gritty and dust-stained.

A little girl poses at the Hachiko statute in Shibuya district of Tokyo, one of the world’s busiest.

We didn’t see any homeless people and on only one or two occasions saw a ranting crank or psychotic.  Throughout Japan people were well dressed, many exceedingly so.  You’d search in vain for the slovenly clothed dude in cargo shorts and stained hoodie.  In fact, almost no one was poorly dressed.  The vast majority appeared sharp and refined.  There was very little logo sports ware of any kind, the fan uniforms and team colors pervasive in Washington on any blue Friday or Seahawk Sunday.  Many women wore skirts and heels while men, even young ones dressed with style.  Certainly, in smaller cities such as Hofu, the attire was less upscale, but smartly-dress people were still the norm.

Tattoos and facial piercings were almost nowhere to be found.  Pink, purple, or green hair was a rarity.  Students wore uniforms on school days – typically blazers, slacks, sweaters, and ties for boys, and skirt / sweater combos for girls.  Most all restaurant and store workers wore matching uniforms.  Taxi drivers and service workers were outfitted in snappy uniforms.  Every taxi cab driver seemed destined to play the role of English butler – polite, discrete, and reserved –  without exception each was a Japanese man between the age of 50 and 70.

A typical Japanese taxi driver.

The populace looked very healthy.  Skin complexions were generally clear, with abundant examples of beautiful skin.  At the risk of being offensive, almost no one was overweight with trim, svelte figures the order of the day.  It didn’t matter if they were young or old – most everyone favored a trim, lean body.  Wondering if my observations were biased I checked obesity rates by nation and sure enough, Japan had the lowest of any developed country – one-tenth of that in the U.S. (3.7% vs. 38.2%).

Fear of germs is a big deal.  And this was before Covid.  Perhaps one in twelve Japanese sported a surgical face mask, particularly in crowded cities.  I suppose with that many people packed tightly on subways, trains, buses, and shopping centers, it probably makes sense.

Now obviously there’s a cost for everything and Japan is not a cheap date.  Our exchange rate was a little better than 100 yen to the dollar making price calculations and comparisons easy. If you didn’t get your coffee from fast food or convenience stores, prepare to pay $5 for a cup, even in tiny joints, you wouldn’t think to be expensive.  Typical subway fares were $2.50 each way, but the farther you went the more you paid.  Some meals were reasonable, but places such as steakhouses and sushi houses were very expensive. Overall, if one was mindful of your dining budget, there was very good food to be had at $10 to $16 per meal.

One of the more incredible things to an American hooked on credit and debit cards was how many restaurants and independent establishments accepted only cash.  If you’re not packing real cash money, you may not be eating in Japan.  One thing to remember if you ever visit – there’s no tipping, in fact, it’s considered rude and insulting in most situations.

There were some surprises – hotel rooms weren’t that pricey given the excellent quality and service.  In fact, rooms in the smaller city of Hofu were downright cheap at $70 per night in a very pleasant, well-staffed, multistory, APA Hotel.  And Kyoto was less than $115 per night at an inn with river views, kitchens, and washing machines.  Plus, the hotel staff was always neatly dressed and very helpful.  One interesting phenomenon during hotel stays; at each check-in, passports are demanded, processed through a scanner, and returned.  I suppose it isn’t surprising Japan has one of the lowest illegal immigration rates in the industrialized world.

One special treat for travel in Japan is heated toilet seats, almost everywhere, even in public restrooms.  Other bidet pleasures await the clean of bottom, but I’ll refrain from further detail in deference to propriety.  Plus, almost every bathroom we encountered, both public and private was clean, tidy, and well-maintained.  Once again, there was no ugly graffiti defacing stalls or walls.

The temple at Kinkaku-ji near Kyoto called the Golden temple.

They say that Japanese are Shinto at birth, Christian at marriage, and Buddhist at death.  The marriage business is a very big deal with several floors at larger hotels devoted to wedding facilities, reception rooms, and assorted services for brides and grooms.  Throughout the country, there are both Shinto and Buddhist temples, but it’s hard for Westerners to distinguish the differences.  As best I could tell from my limited reading and studies of religion, Shinto is essentially a nationalist form of Buddhism.  But, wherever we went, whether it be Shinto or Buddhist, the temples were well-cared for and revered by large numbers of visitors.

Suffice to say, we loved Japan.  I liked the people, the culture, the beauty, and the experience.  It’s an amazing country that seems to be prospering despite news stories that bemoan its aging population and stagnating economy.  Apparently, the elderly Japanese must live out in the country, because we saw mostly young and middle-aged people, busily going about their lives in every city.  Certainly, there were older Japanese (particularly taxi cab drivers), but it sure seemed like a young and vibrant country from my observations.

My overall impression of Japan is a country of proud people with much to be proud about.  I suspect they’ll keep it that way.

The five Kombols: Spencer, Bill, Jennifer, Oliver, and Henry in Fujiyoshida (near Mt. Fuji) on Christmas Day, 2017.
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Reflections on Tom Landis

Tom Landis died suddenly 13 years ago today.  This is the eulogy I read at his funeral a month later.  A few months before I’d seen Tom Landis at a funeral, never thinking that some weeks hence I’d be speaking at his.

“Everyone has a story to tell.”  That was Tom’s Facebook page motto.  This is how Tom approached life and the way Tom welcomed the people he knew – by listening to their stories.  This is mine.

Tom had an ability to communicate with most every one.  He was as comfortable discussing medieval philosophy as he was pounding nails.  Tom approached each person as a unique individual deserving of his attention and interest.  He interacted as well with a child, a teenager, a woman or a fellow worker.  When Landis spoke, OFTEN LOUDLY, people listened.  I was one of them.

Tom had one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever known.  In every encounter I learned something: an author, a book, a quote, philosophical insight; more often an approach to life through building or construction; less frequently, but most valuably, an insight into my own shortcomings.

I first met Tom in the early 1980s.  My initial impression was of a bookish intellectual of penetrating eyes with a quick-witted tongue.  The better I learned to know Tom, the more I grew to like him.

Now, I have no intention of painting a false picture of Tom.  He could be loud, crude or boorish.  I don’t believe ‘alcohol’ was his friend.  Tom was no saint, but in his heart he was no sinner.

His dual nature: Tom Landis staining  logs at Shangri-La.

Tom often spoke through a world of ideas.  He was fond of saying that, “small minds talk about people, average minds speak of events, but great minds discuss ideas.”  Tom had this amazing ability to take a complex situation and make it simple.  He also had the frustrating tendency to take the simple and make it complex.  He was at home in words, in poetry, and the appreciation of beauty.

Tom was a religious spirit who sought transcendence in the mundane.  He enjoyed the humdrum of everyday living.  He was at ease in the philosophy of Buddha as he was by quoting Jesus or the Bible.  He believed ‘the journey’ to be more important then ‘the destination’ and that more could be learned through ‘doing’ than from an analysis of how things are done.

Tom loved the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.  He would often end a conversation or an e-mail with a quote from the movie.  If you moved into a new home, Tom would bring you bread, salt, and wine.  “Bread… that this house may never know hunger.  Salt… that life may always have flavor.  And wine… that joy and prosperity may reign forever.”   Tom might even bring you a copy of the novel Tom Sawyer.  “Remember no man is a failure who has friends.”

Do this in remembrance of Tom, go home and watch It’s a Wonderful Life in its entirety.

I remember one particular Labor Day weekend at Shangri-La where amidst the revelry Tom used the scenes at hand to explain the 14th century allegorical poem, Divine Comedy by Dante.  I usually came away from a conversation with Tom impressed by his command of culture and man’s place in the cosmos.  I think of Tom as I quote Dante, “Speaking he said many things, among which I could understand but a few.”

Tom’s experiences at Drake University shaped his world view.  A few years back I sent Tom a commentary on the 1960s in general and the year 1968 in particular.  In response, he told of his days meeting the likes of Abbie Hoffman, Mark Rudd, and Eldridge Cleaver in the Christian coffeehouse he ran at Drake.  Speaking of that ministry, the mayhem, and the madness, Tom wrote:

“In 1968, I was 20.  I wrote poetry, rode a bike, and had small, simple thoughts.  I kept myself sequestered among a small group of friend who were Christian centrists.  We read, went to the movies, listened well, broke bread together.  We argued about things we knew nothing about, such as Heidegger and Nietzsche, but ultimately garnered respect for the simplicity of C.S. Lewis and how he reframed the Christian dialogue . . . During the summer of 1970, I began my carpentry apprenticeship.  I guess this was my attempt at cultivating my own garden.  Four years later, I joined the Seabees.  By then, my garden had gotten bigger although I still enjoyed reading C.S. Lewis.”

Tom recently wrote an auto-biographical novel.  It’s the story of a man who dies suddenly in late middle-age.  He writes, “When a death happens unexpectedly in a family, you see a person’s life through what’s left on the bedroom dresser: a wallet, a wedding ring, a watch, loose change, Tums, golf tees, a half-empty book of matches.  This usually means that the person wasn’t expecting to die suddenly.”   

Tom died unexpectedly in late middle-age on Dec. 15, 2009.

Tom wrote much about life on Diego Garcia, a British-American island outpost in the Indian Ocean, where enduring friendships with his Seabee buddies were made.  They called it ‘The Rock’ and Tom described the experience “as a cross between Gilligan’s Island and Alcatraz.”

As some may know, Tom wrote his own obituary.  In 2007, I received a long email – nothing unusual about that, Tom was the master of long emails.  The subject matter caught my eye.   In my emotions I was somewhere between amused and bewildered, but knew better than to ask “What’s this all about?”

Instead, I sent some editorial corrections and suggestions for improvement.  About three weeks later the finished version arrived.  I said nothing, but printed it out and put it away in a safe place.  His self-penned eulogy wasn’t the morbid act of some mischievous person, for Tom wrote in the present tense and titled it “My Living Funeral” – with an obvious emphasis on the word ‘Living.’   Tom planned to run the race set out before him.

Tom Landis in red floral print with best friends, Mike “Baggy” Palshis (left)
and Phillip Chard (right of Tom in sunglasses).

In many ways Tom was a contradiction.  He was a philosopher in mind, but a carpenter in hand.  He could be ‘fire’ and just as easily a ‘rose.’  Tom was a writer of two volumes of published verse.  Tom enjoyed poetry, so I finish with lines from a poem by T.S. Eliot that he would enjoy.

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Labor Day Coda:

The late Tom Landis was famously loud.  The more he drank the louder he got—especially on Labor Day weekend at Shangri-La.  There he sat above the volley ball court as the appeals referee, referred to as ‘Buddha’ by those below. There Tom bellowed the phrase, “You’re all idiots!” for which he will always be remembered.

In his loving memory, a bright red, neon sign now hangs each Labor Day weekend at Shangri-La, a place he loved and where everyone loved Tom.  I stood below on the Friday before Labor Day in recognition that Tom was wise and yes, we all are idiots.  We just don’t know the next time we’ll prove him right.

“You’re all idiots” – Tom Landis
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Ten Album Turning Points – Desert Island Discs

Who didn’t love album covers?

In Tom Stoppard’s play, “The Real Thing,” the lead character, Henry can’t figure out which songs to pick when he’s slated to appear as the castaway on Desert Island Discs.  The problem is Henry likes mindless pop music, but he’s a snob who’s afraid to admit he like pop music, so struggles to find songs and performers those of his intellectual class should like.  His wife suggests a more pragmatic approach: pick records associated with turning points in his life.

My list follows the turning point theory–– records that wormed into my ears during special moments experienced early in life.  There are plenty of albums I grew to love after these, but none captured my heart and soul like those from my youth.

I compiled my Desert Island Discs during the early days of Covid-19 when the country was shutting down and a bored citizenry sought new ways to amuse themselves by posting lists of favorite albums.  April Fools’ Day seemed a fitting day to start, so with thanks to Doug Geiger’s original Facebook invitation and Jim Olson’s posts of musical inspiration, I posted these favorites from April 1-10, 2020.

Day 1 – The First Family (1962): Though it’s April Fools’ Day, this is no joke . . . though Vaughn Meador’s First Family sure traded in them.  It was the first record I listened to all the way through time and time again.  It was my 9-year-old introduction to political humor, delivered with Kennedy-style Boston accents plus world leaders whose names I still remember: De Gaulle, Khrushchev, Ben-Gurion, and Castro among them.  This spoken-word comedy album spent 12 weeks as #1 on the Billboard charts selling over 7.5 million copies.  The Kombol family’s copy of the album, listened to so many times, was never played again after Nov. 22, 1963.

Day 2 – Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (1962): “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was the #1 hit, and Ray Charles’ foray into C&W was what a nation listened to that year.  The album spawned four singles and everyone liked it: kids, adults, even grandparents.  I listened to it once again this morning.  Its soulful, jazzy,  easy-listening, country-feel, sounds just as sweet today as it did 58 years ago.  This was one of the couple dozen albums our family-owned.  My sister, Jeanmarie and I regularly rotated Ray Charles’ “Modern Sounds” with soundtracks from “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man” plus our own personal favorite–– the spoken-word soundtrack to the “Pollyanna” movie starring Hayley Mills.

Day 3 – Meet the Beatles (1964): From the opening notes of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to the closing bars of “Not a Second Time” every song is a winner.  Our family didn’t own the album, but my best friend’s family did.  Every day after 5th grade we gathered at Jeff Eldridge’s home across Franklin Street from ours.  Jeff’s older brother, Ron was a junior at EHS, and his album; “Meet the Beatles” introduced four lads from Liverpool into our lives. Most afternoons were the same––listen to “Meet the Beatles,” followed by watching “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoons and Superman episodes starring George Reeves.  When not playing the Beatles, we cued up Roy Orbison.

Day 4 – Sgt. Pepper (1967): It was the perfect time to be 14 years old.  The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper the very week I said goodbye to 8th grade.  That Summer of Love was our summer of sun. It shined most every day in Seattle, setting a record 67 days without rain.  Most days Mom drove us to Lake Sawyer with the radio tuned to AM 950.  That June the Beatles held seven of the top ten positions on KJR’s Fabulous Fifty record survey, published Fridays in the Seattle P-I.  Each song spawned new mental imagery––from tangerine skies to meter maids.

A month later the Beatles defined the spirit of the era with their follow-up single “All You Need is Love.”  It all added up to the best summer of my life; not to mention more than a few hours staring at the album cover or studying the lyrics printed therein.  To this day when anyone asks my favorite album of all time – there’s one quick answer: Sgt. Pepper.

Day 5 – Tommy (1969):  By the autumn of 1969, most of us had driver’s licenses.  Lester Hall drove his parent’s Ford Fairlane with an state-of-the-art stereo.  We’d drive around Enumclaw from here to there but mostly nowhere.  When doing so we listened to the Who’s “Tommy” so many times I’m surprised the 8-track tape didn’t wear out.  We occasionally rotated Creedence, the Beatles, or CSN to give the Who a rest.

“Tommy” is generally considered the first rock musical. In late April 1971, our senior year of high school, the very first theatrical production of “Tommy” was staged at the Moore Theater.  This world premiere featured a yet unknown, Bette Midler portraying the Acid Queen with show-stopping ferocity. A bunch of us saw it.  I was in heaven.

Forty-five years later I gave the double album a long overdue listen from a remastered copy.  How did “Tommy” hold up?  It starts great. In fact, the Overture is perhaps my favorite number.  At times the album soars with melodies flowing nicely.  It’s an album in the best sense of the word.  But, the story (book in musical-theater parlance) isn’t convincing.  As smart and clever as Pete Townsend was, he’s simply not a great lyricist.  The best songs still shine: “I’m Free,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “See Me, Feel Me.”  The worst, “Fiddle About,” “Cousin Kevin,” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” remain clunkers.  I can’t claim it stands the test of time, but back then “Tommy” was the height of musical fashion and evidence of our growing sophistication.

Day 6 – Every Picture Tells a Story (1971): “Maggie May” will forever be embedded as my first song of college.  It was late September when I began my freshman year at U.W.   Rod Stewart’s hit album was the soundtrack for initiation to college life – the picture of my story.  While I’m particularly fond of the “Mandolin Wind,” “Reason to Believe;”; there’s no better song than “Maggie” to put a smile on my face and a song to my lips.

“Wake up Maggie I think I got something to say to you,
It’s late September and I really should be back at school.”

Day 7 – American Pie (1971): Don McLean has a special place in my heart.  His performance at the Paramount on March 17, 1972 was the first concert I ever attended.  I chose my sister, Jeanmarie Bond to be my date.  It was her first concert too.  We dined at ClinkerdaggerBickerstaff & Petts beforehand. It was a swank and trendy restaurant on Capitol Hill.

When introducing American Pie, McLean mockingly mimicked some college professor who wrote a detailed analysis of its lyrics.  The audience sang the words and chorus we knew by heart.  The title song has never loosened its grip.  The album’s second hit single, “Vincent” is a hauntingly beautiful musical evocation of artistry focused on the most stunning of paintings: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night.  If it’s been some time since you last heard the entire album just say, “Hey Siri (or Alexa), play the album American Pie by Don McLean.” You’ll be rewarded.

Day 8 – Past, Present & Future (1974):  My first introduction to Al Stewart came courtesy of FM radio’s penchant for playing extended-length songs like “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow” in the early 1970s.   Only later did I buy the album and discover Stewart’s lyrical genius runs through history.  In fact, side one of this breakthrough album features a song for each of the first five decades of the 20th century.  My love affair with Al Stewart’s music played out nicely over the decades – I’ve seen him in concert five times, more than any other music artist.

Day 9 – All-American Alien Boy (1976):   While in college I liked Mott the Hoople.  Their lead singer and songwriter, Ian Hunter left the group in 1975, the year I graduated.  The following year I was drifting without direction when Hunter released his second solo album.  It struck gold in this listener’s ears. There aren’t many who feel the same way, but I stand by Ian Hunter’s “All-American Alien Boy” as an enduring work of musical art.  “Irene Wilde” is a beautiful ballad of a true story, bus station rejection that inspired Hunter’s rise to stardom.

BTW, Doug Geiger and I had plans to see the Mott the Hoople reunion tour in November 2019, but sadly Hunter developed a severe case of tinnitus.  He was advised by his doctors to discontinue performing until his condition subsides.  Will we ever get the chance to see Mott the Hoople?  Time may soon run out for the 80-year-old Ian Hunter, who I once saw in concert playing with Mick Ronson.

Day 10 – The Stranger (1977):  This record changed the direction of my life.  The album spawned four Top 40 hits: “Moving Out,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Only the Good Die Young” and “She’s Always a Woman to Me.”  But two lesser-known tunes convinced me to take a giant step outside myself.  When working as a management trainee at Seattle Trust & Savings Bank, I grew increasingly frustrated with my chosen direction.  Repeated listening to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Vienna” (waits for you) convinced me I needed a change.

Those two songs fortified my courage to quit the job with a month’s notice dated to the one-year anniversary of when I started.  I left for Europe in February 1978 with no set agenda and a budget of $10 a day.  I lived and traveled for the next five months and have never forgotten the debt I owe to Billy Joel for drawing out the courage I couldn’t find by myself.

 

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Alone Again, Naturally

Fifty years ago, a schmaltzy song by an Irish balladeer topped the pop charts for six weeks.  Gilbert O’Sullivan’s surprise hit, “Alone Again, Naturally” ranked number two on Billboard for the year 1972.   Because it doesn’t fit into the classic rock genre, the tune soon faded in popularity and is generally unknown to anyone born after 1980.

On a Saturday night in late October 2015, my Enumclaw high school buddies and I gathered to play poker as we’ve done since our junior high days.  We join together several times each year and call our outings Pokerques, with a barbequed meal part of the bargain.

At a 2013 Pokerque, clockwise from lower left: Bill Wheeler, Keith Hanson, Chris Coppin, Jim Clem, Bill Kombol, Gary Varney, Steve McCarty, Wayne Podolak, Jim Ewalt, Lester Hall holding a photo of a missing, Dale Troy.

That particular night apropos of nothing, Lester told the story behind the song, “Alone Again, Naturally” which centers on the singer’s plan to commit suicide over a wedding that never happened.  Lester assured us this factoid came courtesy of Wikipedia, so we knew it must be true.

At that night’s gathering , I laughed entirely too loud as old friends told stories and we all recounted misspent adventures of youthful revelry.  Having stayed out a little too late, I slept in on Sunday morning.  After breakfast, Jennifer drove our youngest son Henry to his noon soccer game so I found myself alone and naturally opened the iPad.

I checked out Lester’s story.  Clicking on the first Google listing, I cued a YouTube performance with an amazing 27 million views!  The video featured O’Sullivan on piano before a large orchestra complete with a dozen strings, piano, organ, drums, and the distinctive guitar solo which nicely cements the melody.

Sure enough, the first stanza of this mega-hit relates the tale of a jilted lover imagining a trip from an empty alter to tower top where he throws himself down, all to the amazement of congregants who concluded there’s no reason for them to wait any longer so they might as well go home – as did the prospective groom, who lived to write this melancholy song.

An alternate cover to O’Sullivan’s mega-hit.

The second stanza adds to the sorrow of the first and subsequent verses examine a contemplative soul, never wishing to hide the tears, relating – first the death of his father and then his broken-hearted mother – all remembered . . . alone again, naturally.

Isn’t it funny how a sentimental song from the summer of your 19th year calls forth buried memories, none specific but together conjuring a formative feeling?  I probably heard that ballad a hundred times back when Top 40 radio dominated my listening habits, all while driving around in the 1966 Renault that served my transportation needs.  But, I’d never fixated on O’Sullivan’s introductory lyrics, only the concluding verse describing the passing of his father and mother.

O’Sullivan is an Irish singer-songwriter who changed his first name to Gilbert as a play on the names of musical composers, Gilbert & Sullivan the craftsmen behind so many crowd-pleasing operettas from the late 1800s*.  Released in June 1972, the song’s popularity stretched from late summer to early fall, proceeded at number one song by Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and succeeded by Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” – recounted herein to set the mood and temper of that summer.

O’Sullivan’s follow-up single, “Claire” reached number two on the U.S. charts a few months later.  His disc sales exceeded ten million in 1972 and made him the top start of the year.  By 1974, O’Sullivan was practically forgotten in America though he continued to enjoy popularity in Great Britain.

From a trip Jenn and I had recently taken to Ireland, I remembered what two Irish musicians who led our Dublin pub crawl told us: Irish songs reflect the nation’s history – they’re either bawdy drinking ditties or sad songs of loss and love.

Having spent the preceding evening playing poker with nine life-long friends; eating, drinking, and laughing so hard my face hurt, I was reminded that we’re all then well into our sixties.  One of our buddies was lost to cancer and another to booze, but the rest have aged gracefully and we treasure time spent together.  We now resemble our dads and how much longer will it be till we look like our grandfathers?

Most of the Pokerque club traveled to Las Vegas in Oct. 2018 where we saw John Fogerty perform a spirited two-hour set at Wynn’s posh Encore Theater. L-R: Chris Coppin, Steve McCarty, Lester Hall, Jim Ewalt, Wayne Podolak, Keith Hanson, Gary Varney, Bill Kombol, Jim Clem.

All of our fathers are gone, and everyone’s mother save one, has also passed away.  One was recently robbed of his daughter, a parent’s worst nightmare.  With each fresh loss, we find ourselves looking to our children and families for solace and meaning.  And, often we look to each other for comfort.  We do so in full recognition that our present health and lives and families cannot be taken for granted.

Yet we still laugh and reminisce and natter and make plans, always looking forward to our next reunion.  And come away thankful for the multiplicity of friendships that have stood so many tests of time with rarely a pool cue drawn in anger.

So in hopeful jest, I offer this toast to my friends who’ve been by my side for sixty-plus years: May we all live another three decades; and may I be there to cheer your good fortune when each of us celebrates the centennial of his life.

*  If you want to see a spirited and historical account of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s music-making genius, watch the superb 1999 movie, “Topsy-Turvy.”

Link to the “Alone Again, Naturally” video referenced above: https://youtu.be/D_P-v1BVQn8

 

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Back in the Summer of ‘69

I didn’t get my first real six-string.  And Enumclaw’s five-and-dime was the last place this teenager wanted to be.  The allure of candy cigarettes and cheap toys had long since passed.  They may have been the best days of Bryan Adams’ life, but for me the Summer of ’69 was a middling byway on a slow road to adulthood.

Summer started off with a bang!  Literally! A Fourth of July bag of fireworks exploded on the front hood of my parent’s Ford LTD after an errant firecracker found its way in.  The following Monday, the Ltd with tarnished hood traveled three blocks to Enumclaw City Hall for my driver’s test.  Scoring 100 on the written and 96 in the car, I went home two days after my 16th birthday with a license to drive.

Woodstock Music Festival logo.

The summer of ’69 sounds so moving in retrospect – astronauts on the moon, hippies at Woodstock, Charles Manson in L.A, Kennedy on Chappaquiddick.  That wasn’t my summer.  Mine was frankly boring.  I didn’t have a full-time job.  Well, I actually had two part-time jobs: Office boy at Palmer Coking Coal manning the telephone and scale earning the princely sum of $5 for my five-hour shift. The second gig, as high school sports reporter for the Courier-Herald, I inherited from my brother, Barry.

I worked on July 5th, my 16th birthday earning $5, the cash receipt signed by my dad, Jack Kombol. It would mark the last time I ever worked on my birthday.

In the slow months of July and August, that second job meant little more than tracking down the two Franks of Enumclaw’s summer sports: Manowski and Osborn, for league scores and standings. That took all of a couple hours before Monday’s deadline.   During the rest of the week, tedium oozed.

I do remember going to the drive-in movies once at the recently opened Big ‘E” in Enumclaw and another time at Auburn’s Valley 6.  We rode in Wayne’s car.  I didn’t really see many buddies as most had jobs or played summer baseball, a sport I’d left two years prior. A very special thing did happen – one night Dad and I walked to the Roxy to see the film: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” It was likely the only time I went to a movie, just Dad and me.

That summer our family’s traditional vacation of one week in Grayland, and a second at Beacon Point on Hoods Canal ended.  The old-fashion cottage resort at Beacon Point shuttered and our joint vacations with the Cerne family were no more.  Those trips were the highlight of every summer since I could remember.  Barry graduated in June and headed to Alaska seeking his fortune. He returned soon enough finding out, that even in Alaska jobs don’t grow on trees.

Jeanmarie shipped out to Wilsall, Montana with her good friend, Cindy Johnson to help at her aunt’s cattle ranch.  Jeanmarie’s stay was cut short when Cindy’s grandpa died suddenly.  So the four remaining Kombols packed up and drove to Yellowstone retrieving Jean, coupled with a short tour of the park.  It seemed anticlimactic compared to our summer vacations of yesteryear.  The times they-were-a-changing.

Bill, Jack, Jeanmarie, Dana at Yellowstone, July 1969.  Mom as always was taking the picture.

I clearly remember the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 24th.  I remember not watching it.  It was an overcast day.  I bandied about the neighborhood, over at Jim Olson’s home, then here and there.  In the living room, Dad and Henry D. Gillespie, our Australian foreign exchange student sat transfixed on the sofa absorbed for hours.

Popping in that evening, I glanced at the TV then headed back outside.  I wasn’t slightly interested and had no appreciation for the magnitude of that moment – to me it seemed little more than a grainy television experience that went on for hours.  It turned out that Neil Armstrong’s one small step was viewed by more than 500 million across the globe.  In retrospect, my lack of interest was one giant failure to leap.

Henry D. Gillespie was a foreign exchange student from Australia who lived with our family for a year, from Dec. 1968 through Nov. 1969. This photo was featured in the 1969 Enumclaw High School yearbook.

Nationally, the Manson cult murders were a minor headline in the Seattle P.I., the newspaper I studiously read each morning.  Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick high-jinx was a much bigger story, which I earnestly followed.  I’d become a news junkie, with alternating subscriptions to Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report.  But, my perusal of the news was cursory – Woodstock in mid-August?  It didn’t register for me.  It wasn’t until the following year when Steve McCarty and I saw the movie that I even grasped what a music festival was.

What did register was a peevish, late-night, television personality named Bob Corcoran.  He hosted a channel 13 talk show.  Corcoran was the prototype for a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore character, later seen in “Network.”  Half his audience was bored teenagers listening to drunken adults who called in to converse with Bob.  When teens placed a call – you could always tell – they’d make rude remarks, before the inevitable kill button and dial tone.  Between callers, Corcoran offered screeds on controversial issues, then ceaselessly promoted Tacoma’s B & I Circus store.

Bob Corcoran, our late-night TV fascination in the Summer of ’69.

That summer, our family friends, the Hamiltons were staying with us, having just moved back from London.  Their oldest son, Scott was a year older and we took over Barry’s bedroom in his absence.  There Scott and I watched Corcoran, howling at the inanities Bob spewed forth each night.  We giggled mindlessly at the mere mention of his name.  His show was so bad it made perfect sarcastic sense to our teenage-addled brains.  We even tried calling his show once but hung up after waiting on hold too long.

Corcoran later parlayed his quirky television stardom into politics by running for Congress in 1972.  His shtick was rabble-rousing, stick-it-in-their-face, populist rant, but in the primary, he was soundly defeated by Julia Butler Hansen.  How I ended up with the Elect Bob Corcoran to Congress ruler, I’ve long since forgotten.*

Corcoran used his television notoriety to promote a run for Congress, but failed miserably.

Night after night we tuned into Bob and played chess.  I’d taken up the sport during my just-ended sophomore year after reading an article in the Hornet student newspaper announcing formation of a new chess club.  My game improved quickly, landing me one of the top five boards.

The student newspaper, Hornet announcement in the Sept. 28, 1968 issue that changed my high school trajectory.

Scott Hamilton was a decent chess player who desperately wanted to win.  Late each night, we played game after game, again and again – 49 straight losses before Scott finally won.  But playing chess was just a way to pass time. Our real goal was to laugh at Bob Corcoran.

Scott Hamilton in 1967, one-year earlier when our family visited theirs in West Byfleet, a suburb of London

Amazingly, those memories are the most poignant of my summer of ’69.  The summer I turned 16, during one of the most dynamic times of the Sixties, when all the world’s charms lay before me – staying up late to watch a goofball TV talk show host and playing chess were my highlights.

All the same, everything turned out fine.  Returning to high school as a junior, my driver’s license landed me behind the steering wheel of the family’s second car, a 1965 Renault.  Our winning chess team became an important cog in my developing personality.  That semester I took an Economics class from Wes Hanson that ultimately directed my life (B.A., Econ, U.W., 1975).  Second semester I joined the Hornet staff and learned how to write.

Mr. Hanson at the lectern, a typical pose for the teacher whose Econ class led to my college major.

Another favorite, English lit was taught jointly by Miss Thompson and Mrs. Galvin.  Novels like “Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace” jolted a new sense of existential feelings through my all-to-logical heart.  “1984” and “Lord of the Flies” called into question what that heart was made of.  We read “Romeo & Juliet” out loud in class.  Franco Zeffirelli’s movie version had recently captured the nation’s attention, so our whole class attended a special showing one night at the Roxy.

Life accelerated.  The following summer, I worked 12-hour days selling popsicles, fudgesicles, and ice cream sandwiches.  High school life gave way to feelings of liberation and control.

Looking back on things, that summer of ‘69 was a quirky way station on the road through life – no longer a boy, but not yet a man.

* One day a few weeks before writing this essay, I ruffled through my desk drawer and grabbed for a straight edge.  Out came a Bob Corcoran for Congress ruler.  I have little idea how it landed there.  It came decades past from a Corcoran campaign booth brimming with swag at the Puyallup Fair.  Only serendipity can explain how that ruler appeared while writing this essay.

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Musings

Come Saturday Morning

One’s 15th year of life is particularly fraught with change.  Childhood dreams give way to adult realities.  Adolescent collections such as baseball cards, coins, and comics sadly fall out of style – better left to tweens and those still trapped by out-of-fashion obsessions.  Jobs and college take center stage.  College prep means growing loads of homework and a heightened seriousness about school.  Grades play a more prominent, but still minor role in high school hierarchies.

If you’re of average athletic ability, competitive sports are increasingly past tense.  Pickup games with friends are fading options as those holding driver’s licenses abandon the glory of sporting fields for cruising in cars.  In Enumclaw, they called it posing – driving up and down Griffin Ave, from east to west and back again waiting for something to happen.  That September, we were sophomores all without driver’s licenses.  Without a license or car, we principally relied on parents, friends, or sometimes a special older sibling.

Girls grew progressively more attractive, though self-doubts played havoc with one’s desirability.  Acne pops up at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places. Growth spurts (or lack thereof) pit short boys against tall men, who share the same birth year.  Somerset Maugham didn’t miss the mark by much when noting the world is an entirely different place for a man of 5’7” to one of 6’2”.

In 1968, Chris Coppin had just moved back to Enumclaw following a five-year absence.  I’d first met Chris eight years earlier at Kibler Elementary.  There we’d shared a second-grade teacher, Mrs. Stobbs. But an earlier introduction came through his younger brother, Ed whose pet turtles inhabited a two-gallon glass jar with rocks, and a skiff of water.  I made repeated turtle visits to the Coppin home.  Chris and I were friends until 4th grade when their family moved to the Bay Area, where Mr. Coppin, a flight engineer for Pan Am was transferred.

Chris Coppin, left and Bill Kombol, right from our 2nd grade class photo. This collage is an optical illusion as Chris was (and still is) a half a foot taller than me.

At that young age, it isn’t long before friendships are forgotten.  In junior high, out of sight means out of mind.  In short order, Chris was a faded memory.  But like so many mysteries of youth, the Coppins moved back and Chris resurfaced.  We were soon again fast friends, meeting at their stately white house at Griffin and Franklin, built in 1922 by a local timber baron, Axel Hanson of the White River Lumber Company.  It was the biggest home in Enumclaw and had a front parlor, fashioned as a billiards room where we played pool after school.  The Coppin digs were ground zero during our high years.

With twelve kids, their household was a beehive of activity.  Mrs. Coppin was unflappable, often in the kitchen but always ready for a short chat that included a kind word and light-hearted banter.  When home, Mr. Coppin was typically puttering away with something.  His was of a quieter manner, still willing to engage in probing conversation, the better to pry us from our shells.  As for the cluster of Chris’ younger siblings, mostly girls, it was a constant case of asking, “Which one is that?”

The Coppin family in their stately home at 1610 Griffin Ave., circa 1968.  Chris is lower right.  Dan is the top row, right holding his sister, Alice.

His four older brothers were different, distinctive, and spirited.  Dan was the most inviting.  He was four or five years older than us.  And during that magical year, Dan was our ticket to ride to the movies.  I’m not talking about the Enumclaw Roxy, and later the Chalet.  Dan packed us in his car and off we’d drive to Seattle, destined most often for the UA-70 and UA-150 theaters at 6th and Lenora.

In 1969, they were brand new, state-of-the-art movie houses for the masses – their massive screens nearly outdone by amazing sound systems.  The Cinema 70 screen was equipped for 70mm films and UA-150 once showcased “Star Wars” for an entire year.  On occasion, we’d go to the Cinerama, another theater capable of projecting 70-millimeter films on its huge curved screen.

The UA-70 and UA-150 were located at 6th & Lenora in the Denny Regrade area of downtown Seattle.

Each was magnificent.  And for a bunch of teenagers from Enumclaw, they were a taste of sophistication – plus exposure us to films that wouldn’t play back home for another six months, if ever.

The outings were usually spontaneous.  We’d be hanging around the pool table Saturday afternoon listening to records, when Dan wandered in asking, “You guys want to see a movie?”  He normally had one in mind.  Phone calls were made and a couple of hours later we piled into Dan’s car for the trip to Seattle.

How I wish our conversations had been recorded – the shouts, giggles, chitchat, and nonsense.  We purchased our $1.50 tickets, double the price at the Roxy.  Someone bought popcorn.  I have no idea how many times Dan took us, but these movies jump to mind: “2001, A Space Odyssey,” “True Grit,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Sterile Cukoo,” and “If.”

Some of the movies Dan took us to, as best we can remember. “If” was a personal favorite (collage by Oliver Kombol).

It was truly a golden age, not just for movies but being alive to changes experienced during a time when fashion and culture were turned upside down.  Most discrete memories of the specific movie outings are gone, and only formless feelings remain.  But what I remember well were the books we read and movies we saw those years.

There . . . caught in the rye of Holden Caulfield’s world of phonies, with a growing awareness that we were living under the suspicious eye of George Orwell’s Big Brother.  All the while, transfixed within gorgeous romances like Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” seen weeks after reading the play in Mrs. Galvin and Ms. Thompson’s joint English class.

And equally enthralled by all-night showings at the just-opened, Big E drive-in of Sergio Leone’s trilogy of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns: “Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”  Or sometimes down to Auburn for the Valley 6 Drive-in.

The novel, “Wuthering Heights” was difficult to absorb.  Perhaps just as well, for it was the ‘best of times and the worst of times,’ the opening line we memorized from Dicken’s “Tale of Two Cities.” Our senior year with Mr. Bill Hawk (who every girl loved and every boy envied) was pure joy as he read out loud to us the entirety of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”

Mr. Hawk, left, in Senior English lit before a class of admiring students gathered around his desks as he smiles approvingly.

And what to make of the curious worlds described in “A Separate Peace” and “Lord of the Flies,” for there was something in that youth-filled air.  Change was everywhere, within us and without us.  One summer night Dad and I walked to see, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.”  It was one of the few times I remember going to the movies with Dad.

“The Sterile Cukoo” starred Liza Minnelli and featured the song, “Come Saturday Morning” in a 1969 tale of love between college freshmen.

To this day, I remain ever thankful to Dan Coppin, Chris’ older brother who asked us if we wanted to see a movie.  For, he was our chauffeur through a tiny part of those precious high school years.  And more than 50 years later, the lyrics from one of the movie songs still play in my head:

“Come Saturday morning, just I and my friends,
We’ll travel for miles in our Saturday smiles,
And then we’ll move on.
But we will remember, long after Saturday’s gone.”

 “Come Saturday Morning” was the soundtrack theme song from “The Sterile Cukoo” and a minor hit single for the Sandpipers.

 

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Epistle for Mr. McGreen

Have you ever wished you’d said “thank you” but never did?  For me, it wasn’t too late.  This essay was adapted from a letter* sent to my favorite teacher.  I just learned Mr. Wally McGreen passed away on March 19, 2022 at age 83, so share this essay as my parting tribute. 

Dear Mr. McGreen:  It’s a funny thing about life.  It takes time to realize how thankful one should be.  And, so it is with me as this letter is long overdue.  I’ve thought about writing it over the years but always found more pressing needs to consume the moment.  Today seemed perfect: St. Patrick’s Day, snowing, my children off to events, with an unengaged afternoon.

It was a very long time ago, September 1962.  I left the K–3 world of Byron Kibler elementary and began a fresh journey at a new destination, J.J. Smith.  I was one of the fortunate 4th graders to experience our first male teacher, a young man fresh out of college named Mr. McGreen. The other five classes were taught by women, as had been every teacher at Kibler.  Plus, my new best friend, Jeff Eldridge was by my side.  Surprisingly, this new teacher lived on my street in a boarding house of sorts, just a stone’s throw from our home.

Fresh out of college and a newly minted elementary teacher, Mr. McGreen, made a mark on our 4th Grade class at J.J. Smith, Spring 1963.

That fall Mr. McGreen organized the boys of our class into a football team.  Sorry girls, you were stuck playing four-square or jumping rope.  He drilled us daily through simple plays at recess.  Over and over we practiced those few calls.  Mr. McGreen entrusted me with the role of quarterback and Tim Thomasson as halfback.  Most plays were similar––I took the snap and handed the ball to Tim while linemen pulled left or right.  Mr. McGreen then scheduled a series of football games between ours and the other 4th grade classes. Though we lacked the pure talent of other teams, our tightly choreographed snaps and daily drilling resulted in clockwork plays. We crushed every opponent in that ad hoc 4th grade league.

One day, Mr. McGreen invited me to stay after school.  He pulled out a deck of cards and taught me to play cribbage.  It was a great game for improving arithmetic skills and understanding odds.  For weeks we’d play most days after school.  Soon I was good enough to play with my grandpa who also loved the game.  Decades later I taught my own children just as he’d taught me.

The annual 4th grade field trip in spring took us to the Museum of History & Industry, Ballard locks, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. What a delight to see a real hydroplane up close and personal.  Or seeing huge gates open and close watching boats magically rise and fall.  Mr. McGreen was our guide.  While eating sack lunches, he sat next to me.  Our last stop was the waterfront where we examined curios in a store with a real mummy of a Wild West origin.  What a thrill for a young boy from Enumclaw, but more important was the affection I felt from my teacher.

Near the last days of school, Mr. McGreen announced a class auction with currency from credits students had earned. We each brought in our trinkets and collectibles for all to admire until the big day, when we bid in a real auction for the items we’d lately grown to cherish.  The excitement and anticipation were no doubt better than the real thing.  I don’t recall what I bought, but my best friend Jeff purchased comic books based on classic tales like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.  They seemed so sophisticated compared to the Archie and Superboy comics I read.

4th Grade, J.J. Smith (1962-63) – Mr. McGreen’s Class.                                             Row 1 (L-R): Mark Myers, Joe Sharp, Billy Kombol, Tom R., Curtis Barber.
Row 2 (L-R): JoAnne Barret, Denise Alcorn, Gail Gardner, Loralyn Walden, Linda Ralston, Naomi Langsea, Sharlene Johnson. Row 3 (L-R): Danny Stanford, ??, Jack Person, Steve Rex, Sharon Peterson, Laurie Mitchell, Don Krueger, Ken Kurfurst, Karl Uhde. Row 4 (L-R): Cindy Nordyke, Tim Thomasson, Marsha Millarich, Pam Ziltner, Janie Whitbeck, Jeff Eldridge, Diane Jones, Tom DeBolt.

The 9th year of my life was not without its challenges.  On more than one occasion I disrupted class and was banished to the hall for Mr. McGreen’s classic discipline, a primitive form of yoga––sitting with your back against the wall in the shape of a chair, but without one.  This was punishment with a purpose: to improve one’s posture, develop muscle strength, and test your ability to sit uncomfortably for long periods, all the time remembering what had brought you there. My behavior improved decidedly after a few trips to the hall.

I did well in most subjects earning A’s in social studies, spelling, and arithmetic; B’s in most others, and a C in reading.  But Mr. McGreen delivered the only ‘D’ of my school career––in penmanship!  Still, he cared.  Mr. McGreen sent home writing lessons administered by Mom where I spent hour after boring hour practicing better handwriting.  The exercise books contained pages of blank lines to be filled by copying and recopying illustrated samples.  I carefully inscribed print and cursive characters within tight parallel lines over and over––diligently trying to make my penmanship legible, or at least less awful.  Their dedication toward my self-improvement paid dividends a decade later during college finals when scripting readable answers in blue books.

The dreaded D in writing (penmanship), the only one received during my school career.

That school year ended and another began.  Again I was blessed with the only male teacher, Mr. Thornburg in 5th grade.  He too was fresh from college and lived a few blocks away in a garage apartment. It was another wonder-filled year pierced by tragedy that November.  The assassination news came over the intercom that Friday morning with students immediately sent home.

During the 1960 election, Mom supported Nixon while Dad voted for Kennedy.  Thinking the thoughts of a 10-year-old, I asked her, “Are you glad Kennedy was shot?”  She sat me down and gently explained, “Of course not.  Kennedy is our president and after an election, he became my president too.”  I still had a lot to learn.  A few months later the Beatles hit America.  I had a crush on a girl who showed me her Beatle cards and told me everything about four guys from Liverpool.  My affection for that girl never blossomed yet never faded.

She had dozens of Beatles cards, which were almost as she was.

A year and a half later I entered 7th grade at an imposing, three-story brick building on Porter Street.  The first day brought good news, Mr. McGreen now taught junior high and would be my homeroom and social studies teacher.  Life with Mr. McGreen in junior high was a transforming experience.  He entertained us with stories of growing up in West Seattle, his college years, sorority panty raids––all of it filling me with dreams of one day attending college.  Each Saint Patrick’s Day, the very Irish Mr. McGreen came to school decked out in a bright green suit.  In my 7th grade yearbook, he affectionately wrote, “To the little general – from Mr. Wallace McGreen.”  The next year he scrawled, “To little Billy Kombol.”

Mr. McGreen’s signed my 1967 Ka-Te-Kan yearbook in Junior High.

In 7th grade, Coach McGreen guided us through flag football.  It was the last year many of us turned out for that fall sport.  It was also when I first realized my youthful sports prowess would soon be eclipsed by small size.  As I look back at the photo, all my friends were there, in one place. That winter he coached our 7th grade basketball team through drills and inter-squad games played in the girls’ gym. After practice, we took long showers under hot water that lasted forever, then walked home in winter air as steam rose from our still-damp hair.  Could life get any better than this?

7th Grade Football Enumclaw Junior High (Fall 1965) – Mr. McGreen, coach.
Front Row (L-R): unknown, Dale Troy, Gary Varney, Jeff Krull, Kevin Shannon, Billy Kombol, Bill Waldock, Kris Galvin, Bill Fawcett, Tryge Pohlman.
Inset: Lester Hall. Back Row (L-R) Scott Davies, Richard Babic, Rick Barry, Jim Partin, Tim Thomasson, Jim Ewalt, Jim Clem – Captain; Wayne Podolak, Del Sonneson, Jeff Eldridge, Steve McCarty.

The cleverest assignments he ever gave, but only to select students was to create countries of our own imaginations complete with maps, history, and customs.  No extra credit was given.  We worked on our projects for weeks. I regularly compared notes with Les Hall and Wayne Podolak, who were also in on the game.  What a brilliant and inspiring activity for cultivating fantasies.  It was a remarkable way for a teacher to challenge pet pupils.

One of our biggest thrills were the State “A” Basketball Tournaments.  Mr. McGreen invited a few of us (Jim Clem, Gary Varney, Les, and Wayne) to pack into his fastback Mustang, pure status for 12-year-old boys in Enumclaw.  After driving us to the UPS Field House we experienced a menagerie of teams and colors competing for the state title.  Later we stopped at Cubby’s on Auburn Way South for burgers and fries.  Back home I swam in the glory of the evening just spent.  You can’t make this stuff up––an engaged and enthusiastic school teacher expanding his students’ horizons by offering new experiences.  It was an amazing way to grow up!

Mr. McGreen from my 1966 Ka-Te-Kan yearbook.

Time marched on.  I said goodbye to junior high and left Mr. McGreen behind.  New teachers, coaches, friends, and interests arose. High school beckoned and so did a driver’s license, after-game dances, chess team, Boy’s State, Hornet newspaper, Courier-Herald sports writer, summers selling popsicles, Saturdays working at the mine office, water-skiing, movies, malls, graduation, then off to college.  Upon graduating in 1975, I received an unexpected congratulatory card from my 4th and 7th grade mentor.  Mr. McGreen remembered me after all those years.  Being a foolish young man of long hair and little regard, I hadn’t the presence of mind to write a proper thank-you note.  Decades passed and still, I hadn’t.

Many years later, I attended his retirement party where we exchanged pleasantries.  The next time I saw him was at my Mother’s funeral.  His kindly face had aged but it touched me all the same.  I began to consider that I was but one of thousands of students he taught.  Yet he made me feel so important.  Did he know how profoundly he’d impacted my life?  A thank you message was long overdue.  A year later, I sat down and finally wrote my rambling letter much of which is replicated here.

Mr. McGreen was one of the best people in my life.  The seeds he sowed took root and my life became richer for it.  Though eons ago, his mentorship was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.  

So I’ll end where I began.  Perhaps there’s a Mr. McGreen in your life who never knew the extent of your gratitude.  Maybe this could be the day your letter is written and that gratefulness acknowledged.

* Adapted from a letter written to Mr. McGreen on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2012, from his former student, Bill Kombol.

 

 

Categories
History Uncategorized

Poetry by Pauline

A photo album Pauline assembled during high school years yielded two of her poems.  Her first was brash and bawdy  while the second reflective and self-assured.   “Boyfriends” likely dates to her junior year (1944) judging by who’s mentioned in the poem and her album photos that year.

The second, “This world that we’re livin’ in” dates to after graduation – but it’s hard to say exactly when.  I’ve included the type-written poems plus select photos to illustrate her high school friendships.

This is my poetic tribute to the best Mom I ever had, Pauline Lucile (Morris) Kombol (1927–2011).  Happy Mother’s Day from your historian son, Bill Kombol – May 8, 2022.

Judging by the number of photos in her high school album, Shirley Stergion (right) was probably Pauline’s best friend among many.  In front of Enumclaw High School located at 2222 Porter Street.

Boyfriends

We girls and our boyfriends,
We have quite a time.
But for the ones we like best,
We wouldn’t give a dime.
I chase after everyone I know I can’t get,
But what do you care, it’s no skin off your tit.

Well, JoAnn likes muscles, Erna like chins,
But some like boys with plenty of sins.
And I’ve got one, you all know who,
It’s Howie I’m speaking about to you.
Valera likes to have about six on the string,
And her heart tells her it’s just a fling.
Now Beve likes Renton, and you know why,
Just mention Tony’s name, and listen to her sigh.

But this thing called love, has broken many hearts,
Yet it has only caused others to let a big fart.
What would you do, if there weren’t any boys?
Well, we wouldn’t be so sad and there’d be many more joys.
But as times goes on and variety is the spice,
You’ll probably be at the church getting showered with rice.

I can picture it now, Erna and her hubby,
She’ll love his chin even if he isn’t chubby.
And here comes JoAnnie showing her muscle,
With her butt held in by a big wire bustle.
And look! There’s Lois, the big old fat,
She hasn’t left the church, ‘cause that’s just where she sat.
She’s an old maid and will never get married,
She couldn’t get Howie, so now she’ll be buried.
Next comes Beve, with her big toothy smile,
There’s pompadour Tony at the end of the aisle.

And there stands Valera, all wide eyed and mad,
She couldn’t get married and am I glad.
She and Miss Calahan are figuring out a way,
That they can marry two guys and be happy that day.
But it isn’t possible and she should know,
And I’m afraid if she ever tried it, to jail she’d go.

It’s ten years later and what do you think,
Here comes a bunch of wopes and of garlic they stink.
If you saw their chins and looked at their nose,
You’d know right away they’re Erna Merlino’s.
Here’s a little boar with his hair piled high,
One look at him and you’d know who he was and why.
I said to him, “Where’s your daddy, Tony?”
He said, “Oh, home eating crackers and baloney.”
But now we will pass, through Renton right now,
And there’s a dame, sittin’ milkin’ a cow.

We look at her face and guess who it is,
It’s our own JoAnn milking a cow named Liz.
I asked her what had happened to all her husband’s money,
She gave me a dirty look and said, “Don’t be funny.”

As I started home, I stopped at the lake,
I wanted to see Howie, so I pulled on the brake.
I went to the door and rang the bell,
I heard Howie yell, “I’m out here in the well.”
In the well I thought, now’s my chance,
To corner him into the wedding dance.

I finally married him after this long time,
And after 80 long years
I’m a bride at 89!!!!!

Appearing in the poem:
Erna – Erna Jean Williams
Beve – likely Beverly Boland, but possibly Beve Rocca
JoAnn – JoAnn (Ewell) Clearwater
Howie – Howard Johanson
Valera – Valera Pedersen
Lois – Lois (Buck) Hamilton
Miss Calahan –De Lona Calahan, Tiger Tales Yearbook staff advisor
Tony – presumably Tony Merlino of Renton

Written circa 1944, during her junior year at Enumclaw High School

The final draft of Pauline’s “Boyfriends.” The first draft had typos and was missing the final stanza.
The boy she finally marries (in the poem) at the age of 89 – Howard ‘Howie’ Johanson (photo from Tiger Tales 1945, Enumclaw High School yearbook).
Valera Pedersen, Beve Boland, Pauline Morris, Erna William, and Shirley Stergion, May 1944 on the front lawn of EHS.  Interestingly, Shirley’s name did not appear in the poem, but then again she and Jimmy Puttman were a couple during high school and then married shortly thereafter. 
“Seniors” Spring 1945: Shirley Stergion, Yvonne Cross, Faye Timm, and Pauline Morris on a bicycle ride through the surrounding countryside.
Erna Williams at Enumclaw’s Avalon Theater, May 1944. Both Pauline and Erna worked at the Avalon, then located at the N.E. corner of Cole St. & Myrtle Ave.

This world that we’re livin’ in

This world that we’re livin’ in
Is awful nice and sweet–
You get a thorn with every rose
But ain’t the roses sweet.

I’ve shut the door on yesterday,
Its sorrows and mistakes:
I’ve looked within its gloomy walls
Past failures and mistakes.

And now I throw the key away
To seek another room,
And furnish it with hope and smiles
And every spring–time bloom.

You have to live with yourself, you know,
All your whole life through.
Wherever you stay, or wherever you go,
You will always companion you.

So–it’s just as well to make of yourself
The person you’d like to be,
And spend each day in the pleasantest way,
With the finest of company.

The typed original of Pauline’s “This world that were livin’ in.”
  • By Pauline Lucile Morris

    Pauline Morris, Valera Pedersen, Bev Boland, Shirley Stergion, at Enumclaw High School, May 1944, on the front lawn of EHS.
“Sub-debs” June 1945 – Top: Nancy Bruhn, Yvonne Cross, Faye Timm, Shirley Stergion, Pauline, Morris.  Lower: Jane Smitterlof, Dolly Grennan, Martha Hanthorn , Marice Heiberg.  Photo on the front lawn of EHS looking east across Porter Street to the stile-standing 18-unit apartment built in 1926, in which Pauline lived sometime after high school.

Post Script:   Morris – Stergion  – Puttman – Kombol

Pauline Morris and Shirley Stergion, May 1944 – their children, Lynne Puttman and Bill Kombol, 1968.

Our moms were BFF before there was such a thing.  We’ve been 5-year reunion friends since graduation.  Their names were Shirley Stergion and Ponnie Morris until they married Jim Puttman and Jack Kombol.

Her name is Lynne always misspelled Lynn and I was called Billy the name she still calls me.  They were Tigers from the Class of ’45.  We were Hornets from the Class of ’71.  Their 1944 picture was taken on the front lawn Enumclaw High School on Porter Street.  Our 1968 Ka-Teh-Kan yearbook photo was taken inside the gym of the same building – by then Enumclaw Junior High.

They have both passed to the world beyond ours: Shirley in 2019 and Pauline in 2011. We reached the 9th grade Hall of Fame with our funniest laughs.  Lynne became a stand-up comedienne helping people laugh.  Bill studied Economics which is no laughing matter.

But wherever our lives have rambled, we share the bond our mothers shared – Enumclaw.  Some say it translates as a ‘place of evil spirits’ while others claim it’s a ‘thundering noise.’

Whatsoever Enumclaw may be – where so ever Enumclaw may reside – long may her spirit dwell.

Categories
Musings

‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’

Some say it was ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played.’  I was there but have no memory of its magnitude. All I can remember is a box of Cracker Jack and a burning desire to own a bobblehead. Allow me to explain.

On July 2, 1963, San Francisco’s Juan Marichal faced down Warren Spahn’s Milwaukee Braves over 16 innings before a walk-off home run secured the 1-0 win for the Giants. Seven Hall of Famers played in the game: Hank Aaron, Orlando Cepeda, Eddie Mathews, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Spahn, and Marichal.

“On this day in sports” – the Facebook post by Bob Sims that inspired my story.

Marichal pitched 16 scoreless innings. Earlier that evening, Marichal was scheduled to bat in the 13th inning when Manager Alvin Dark asked if he still had enough gas. The fiery right-hander shot back at his manager, “A 42-year-old man is still pitching. I can’t come out!” Spahn managed only 15-1/3, until a still hitless Willie Mays blasted the first pitch to left field ending the duel. By the game’s end, the 25-year-old Marichal threw 227 pitches, while the 42-year-old Spahn tossed 201.  Today, pitchers are considered exceptional if they even make it to 100.

Until several years ago, I’d never heard of the greatest game ever played. A Facebook friend* I’d never met posted a vintage baseball article highlighting this 1963 showdown. Reading the story got me thinking. So I drifted downstairs to the keepsake chest Dad built for me as a boy and retrieved the San Francisco Giants official program I’d kept for 59 years. The scorecard inside was for the Milwaukee Braves series. Might that have been the game we attended?

The box score sheet inside the program proving we saw a  Braves game.

During each of my tween years (1962-1965), Grandpa Morris took my brother, Barry and me to San Francisco to experience city life and catch a Giants baseball game. I was 9-years-old the first time, and 12 the last. One year, Grandma and Mom joined us; on another Dad accompanied; and for the final two years, it was just Grandpa, Barry, and I.

Each trek was much like the others. We always flew Western Airlines where well-coiffed stewardesses pinned Jr. Wings to our sports jackets. When traveling back then, you dressed in a suit and tie – even kids like us from Enumclaw.

The Western Airlines wings the stewardess pinned on my sports jacket.
All dressed up with somewhere to go: Bill, Grandpa, and Barry, 1964.

We always stayed at the Maurice Hotel, a businessman’s favorite in downtown San Francisco.  It’s where our grandfather, John H. Morris lodged a decade earlier when negotiating a deal to acquire an asset-rich company on the downhill slide. During the early 1960s, the Maurice still employed uniformed bellhops who doubled as elevator operators guiding the lifts to just the right level, or within an inch or so. They manually opened the inner and outer doors allowing guests to step in and out. The building still stands on Post Street, though is now operated as Courtyard by Marriott.

The Maurice Hotel on Post Street in downtown San Francisco.

Each morning, Grandpa gave us money to buy breakfast. We walked around the block to Manning’s on Geary Street – my first exposure to a cafeteria-style restaurant. There we had the freedom to glide through the line choosing which dishes to place on our trays. With limited funds in our pockets, we carefully selected whatever juice, toast, pudding, or cereal to eat that morning.

The Maurice Hotel was four blocks from Union Square. After breakfast, we’d stroll to an alley store where paper bags of birdseed were sold. With feed in hand, we easily surrounded ourselves with dozens of pigeons and posed for the camera. Grandpa often had his shoes shined and on one occasion, so did I.

Getting our shoes shined in Union Square.  That’s Grandma and Grandpa to my right.

From Union Square, we’d catch a cable car to Fisherman’s Wharf. Grandpa sat comfortably inside while Barry and I held tight to the vertical bars leaning out as far as we dared, especially when passing other cable cars.

By afternoon, Grandpa was ready for a highball at Lefty O’Doul’s, just off Union Square. It was an early prototype of a sports bar with baseball memorabilia hung from every wall. This was long before televisions littered bars and restaurants broadcasting every sporting event known to man, beast, woman, or child. After his cocktail, Gramps might head back to the hotel for a nap, leaving Barry and me to explore the city on our own.

Our trips were always in late June or early July, so we wandered through Chinatown in hopes of finding firecrackers. The state of Washington had lately gone safe-and-sane, taking much of the fun out of the Fourth of July. It was a time when boys could carelessly roam the West Coast’s biggest metropolis. Today, self-respecting suburban parents wouldn’t dream of it. Perhaps there weren’t as many perverts or criminals back then, or maybe the police kept undesirables in check, particularly downtown. There weren’t yet hippies – just beatniks who by 1964, Grandpa took to calling “Beatles.”

Dinner was usually at a nice restaurant of Grandpa’s choosing, sometimes the Top of the Mark or the Golden Hind at the Sir Francis Drake Hotel.  By evening we were back at the Maurice to enjoy games of cribbage and pinochle.  On my first trip to S.F., Mom and Grandma taught me how to play – first three-handed, then four. Among the generations of my parents and grandparents, playing a game of pinochle was a common evening activity. Few play it anymore and that’s a shame – it’s a fun and strategic game with just the right balance of luck and skill.

On game day, we assembled at Lefty O’Doul’s for the bus trip to Candlestick Park. The Giants outfitted special buses to carry fans for the 15-minute ride to the coldest stadium on earth. The wind blew in from left field as crisp and frigid as the waters of San Francisco Bay. And if the wind wasn’t blowing, a chilly fog might settle in. We typically sat between first base and home plate, where the sun never shone.

I still remember the thrill of walking into that big-league stadium – barkers hawking game-day programs while the smell of hot dogs permeated the air.  Grandpa always bought a program, most of which I kept. The scorecard inside listed the lineup for whichever National League team the Giants played that series. That’s how I know we saw the Braves that trip – the center page featured the full Milwaukee lineup.

In 1963, the Braves visited the Giants three times, each a three-game series: one in April, then early July, and late August. The trips we took with Grandpa were always late June or early July, just before Independence Day. Both Barry and I remember a night game; and having seen Juan Marichal pitch, his left leg extending high above his head was memorable in and of itself. This was the first game of the series with the last on the 4th of July.  We were always home for the 4th of July at Lake Retreat with the extended Kombol family. So given a day for travel, we had to have been there for ‘The Greatest Game Ever Played.’

Juan Marichal’s high leg kick.

But how would I know? I certainly don’t remember it. My focus was on the prize at the bottom of a Cracker Jack box and trying to con Grandpa into buying me a bobblehead.  Plus, singing “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” during the 7th inning stretch. But, most of the time I wondered if it could possibly get any colder.

I’m sure we only saw part of the game. Knowing how impatient Grandpa was, there’s no chance we stayed past nine innings. The next day’s papers carried the news, but it was just another dramatic Giants victory. It took decades for sports historians to make their ‘greatest’ claim. Willie McCovey later recalled, “I don’t think any of us realized at the time how special it was. It was just a game we were trying to win.”

Meanwhile, the next morning we were at the airport, dressed up for our flight on Western Airlines back home. Our suitcases, filled with firecrackers we’d bought in Chinatown.

Grandpa and me at San Francisco airport on my first trip, July 1962.

After the ‘63 season, Warren Spahn pitched two more years in the majors, ironically finishing his career with the Giants in the last half of 1965. He retired at age 44. Like many of his greatest generation, Spahn’s early career was interrupted to join the Army, seeing action at the Battle of the Bulge. He returned to baseball at age 25, with experience and maturity future generations can only imagine. In Boston, before the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953, Spahn and teammate John Sain were the most feared starting duo in baseball.  Sports reporters condensed their pitching prowess to, “Spahn and Sain, then pray for rain.”

In this greatest game, Juan Marichal retired famed home run king, Hank Aaron six straight times. During the 1960s, Juan had seven seasons with 20 or more victories, winning more games than any other pitcher that decade. Marichal’s career didn’t match the longevity of Spahn. He retired at age 37, having thrown for the Giants all but two of his major league seasons. Ironically, his last two games were with the L.A. Dodgers, the team who taunted him in his glory years. It was also the Dodgers against whom he committed his greatest sin: clubbing catcher John Roseboro over the head with a bat, an action never seen before or again on a major league field.  Sadly, Marichal’s final season lasted just two games comprised of six ugly innings.

I wish there were a story by which my nine-year-old self recognized the significance of the game he witnessed. There isn’t. That night we rode the bus back to Union Square, or maybe Grandpa hailed a cab.  To me it didn’t matter – I clutched the bobblehead Grandpa bought me, with little regard for the game I just saw.

As for the bobblehead, it recently came out of my keepsake chest for a picture with one of my baseball icons – a close friend of six decades, Jim Clem. Now here’s a fresh new memory to cherish.

My Giant bobblehead trades notes with Jim Clem, a giant of Washington state baseball.

* Sadly, the Facebook friend I’d never met, Bob Sims (1950-2019) passed away six months after I wrote the first version of this story. Had he not posted this news item, it’s doubtful this story would have come to light.  Thank you Bob Sims, in memoriam.