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Tom Colvin and the Summer of 1966

It’s funny how a song can evoke memories of times long passed. I’ll never forget the song from July 1966, and where I first heard it. I was visiting a childhood friend, Tom Colvin who’d moved away after 4th grade. We were best friends during our elementary school years. On their last night in Enumclaw, he and his sister Julie slept over at our house. Somehow, three years later, Tom and I hatched a plan (made real by our mothers) where I’d stay with the Colvins for a week.

I didn’t know it then but I’d just played my last game of Little League baseball. Playing second base, in the second game of a double-header, a sharp grounder hit a rock bounding into my face and producing a nasty fat lip. I left the next day to visit Tom. Back then parents had neither the time nor inclination to spend six hours driving kids from Enumclaw to Port Angeles and back again. So Mom drove to Tacoma and placed me on a Greyhound bus. It was a long ride. The bus stopped at a half dozen towns along the way. I remembered my mother’s final directive, “Now make sure you get off in Port Angeles!” I called their home from a payphone to say I arrived, but it took some time for Mrs. Colvin to pick me up. In those 30 minutes, I discovered what shabby places bus stations really are, despite the allure of vending machines and pinball.

Enumclaw Little League Baseball 1966
7th grade baseball. Front: Les Hall (of course!) Back: Del Sonneson, Tom DeBolt, Jim Ewalt, Keith Parmenter, Jim Clem, Wayne Podolak. Sponsored by the Enumclaw Junior Chamber (J.C.), Summer 1966.

The Colvins lived in a daylight rambler several houses up from Highway 101. It was next to a two-story motel and restaurant, where Tom’s brother Jeff worked. That week was cloudy each morning, a summer weather pattern typical near the sea. Tom’s sister, Julie owned just about every one of The Animals’ albums. Most mornings we listened to their songs time and again until the marine air lifted and we went out to play. Mickie Most was a record producer who made pop stars of the Animals and would soon do the same for a Scottish folk balladeer about to become a groovy, trendsetting pop star. His name was Donovan.

Towards the end of my stay, Tom and I went to a beach party on the Straights of Juan de Fuca at Crescent Beach. Tom was popular with his friends. I was a shy kid from Enumclaw with a fat lip. There were lots of junior high girls, each pretty in their own way, but none turned their attention to me.

Someone’s car radio was playing in a time before “boom boxes.” I heard the song of that summer . . . and every summer for the next 45 years––Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Memories of that moment are etched in my mind. The teenage girls no longer mattered.  The syncopated beat, sing-along melody, and hip lyrics did.

Donovan album cover Sunshine Superman
Donovan’s Sunshine Superman single, released July 1, 1966.

At week’s end, I joined the Colvins and visited their friends who owned a cabin at a nearby lake. It was a serene and sunny Sunday when my Port Angeles vacation came to an end. I said goodbye to the Colvins and my family picked me up, coming from nearby Hood Canal, where they’d spent the first half of our summer trip. We ferried across the straights to Vancouver Island and made our way to Salt Spring Island where Mom reserved a cabin for the second week of our planned vacation.

There wasn’t much to do at the faded resort of rundown cabins where we stayed.  There was no television.  With little to do and the sun shining warmly each day, we had to figure out ways to have fun.  Near our cabin was a small inlet with a narrow channel opening producing strong currents when the tide ebbed and flowed.  We built a makeshift raft of logs and planks and at high tide rode the Tom Sawyer-like raft down what we pretended were rapids into the larger bay beyond.

In our cabin, a radio played, but the Canadian stations weren’t playing Donovan.  But, I must have heard Brian Hyland’s “The Joker Went Wild” thirty times that week. I Googled the song and found out for some strange reason, it was the number one song on Vancouver’s Top 40 station that week.

It was there I played the only round of golf I ever played with my father.  The course was dumpy and so were our rented clubs. The grass was bone-dry, so balls rolled easily along the fairway.  Dad, Barry, and I knocked balls about and putted across bumpy greens.  We didn’t keep score.

We soon exhausted things to do on Salt Spring Island, so cut our stay short.  Our holiday ended in Victoria, where we kids insisted upon staying at a motel with a pool and television.  That evening on the local news broadcast, the reporter told the story of a police crackdown on prostitution in the city. I asked Mom, “What’s a prostitute?”  She dissembled an oblique explanation. There was a hint of the end of summer in the air.

I saw Tom Colvin one more time before our friendship was set aside. His family visited Enumclaw and we spent an afternoon fiddling about in a makeshift tree fort we made in the empty lot behind our house. Much later Tom landed in Portland, but in days before the internet looking up an old friend was well-nigh impossible. Years passed and I’d hear occasional reports of his doings from friends of friends.

Quite by accident, we reunited one Friday night in July 2017 at the Bellingham Bells baseball game against the Port Angeles Lefties. He was there with his P.A. buddies. I was there to see Jim Clem, who coaches for the Bells and once pitched for the local Peninsula Community College team.  All of Jim’s baseball pals were part of the group that Tom came with.

Civic Stadium Port Angeles Lefties
Bill Kombol and Tom Colvin at Civic Stadium, Port Angeles on July 7, 2017.

Our worlds united on a warm night when two schoolboy chums reconnected 51 years later. Tom and I spent the couple hours at the baseball game reminiscing about our lives long ago and today. By game’s end, we said goodbye. Three-and-one-half-hour later, I was back home with new memories of another day.

Tom and I became Facebook friends but we haven’t seen each other since.  When our lives might next intersect, only fate knows.

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Musings

On Turning 68

Fifty years ago I turned 18, a few weeks after graduating from high school.  My head was filled with dreams of heading off to college.  My bank account was bolstered by countless graduation cards filled with $5, $10, and $20 bills.  I was filled with certainty in the knowledge that so many relatives and friends believed in me. The feeling was one of confidence.

Those first post-graduate weeks were spent lounging in Lincoln City in the company of Grandpa Morris and cousin, Dave Falk.  Returning home, I began my second season as an ice cream vendor for another cousin, Dan Silvestri selling popsicles from a three-wheel Cushman scooter.  That summer job netted me $1,032, plus all the Sidewalk Sundays I cared to eat. 

The graduate (left) and his 68-year-old self, standing beside the same home at 1737 Franklin Street, this time holding the high school diploma awarded 50 years earlier.

One thought however, did not cross my mind.  I spent no time reflecting on what life might be upon reaching the age of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, many of whom had sent cards and offered words of encouragement.  It isn’t in a boy’s nature to think about growing old.  It’s certainly of an older man’s to ponder what has long since passed.

My Dad never finished high school, but insisted I go to college.  My grandfather provided funds for my first year.  After that I was on my own and worked summer jobs to pay my way.  If I’ve learned one thing in the ensuing 50 years, its thankfulness––the knowledge that I stand today on the shoulders of those who came before.  We exist because our parents brought us into existence.  And they too, through generations stretching back to the beginning of humanity.

I’ve grown to recognize how blessed I’ve been by those who blazed the trail to where I now dwell.  And to recognize the debt we each owe to those who helped us along, taught us a song, or how to belong.  To better cultivate that sense of obligation, we owe it to those coming after to pave for them a better path forward, in gratitude for that trail blazed for us.  And through it all to rely on the grace of God whose plan unfolds every day, whether be helped or hindered by each daily action we undertake.

Perhaps my great-great grandmother who came across the plains on the Oregon Trail said it best:

“Our being in this world is not accidental.  We all have a mission to do some special work, and it is work that will honor Him and bless those around us.  If we do not find that work and do it, our life is a failure; the true end of living is not realized.   We may not learn in a moment; but step-by-step, day-by-day; as we go on things will be made clearer.  Those who do the smallest things well because they are God’s plan, are to be honored far above those who do great things for the world’s praise.”

Nancy Matilda Hembree (1837-1922)
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Musings

The Man Who Dredged, Filled, and Sculpted Lake Sawyer

by Bill Kombol

Jim Hawk was responsible for the vision behind dredging, filling, and sculpted what is now known as Lake Sawyer Park. He lived on Lake Sawyer for nearly two-thirds of his life.  That’s a long time for a 95-year-old who built his lake home in 1961.  His name is Jim Hawk and he’s arguably done more to craft the Lake Sawyer we know today than any other person.

LS065- Lake Sawyer, circa 1985 looking south east. Jim Hawk’s completed project can be seen at the top of this photo at the south end of the lake.

Jim Hawk was born in Seattle on April 27, 1926.  His father, Ray Hawk was of Dutch descent but left his Pennsylvania home at age 13.  His mother, Mary Romano, was the daughter of Italian immigrants.  His grandfather, Sam Romano was blinded by a dynamite blast at age 18, returning to Italy where doctors restored his sight. Sam came back to Seattle and started a family-owned construction company, Romano Engineering which developed the Riverton quarry and built highways, bridges, dams, and other projects.  

The extended family lived in one large home in the Mt. Baker neighborhood of Seattle with Jim’s Italian grandmother, Anna who spoiled Jim and his cousins rotten.  Growing up Jim loved chemistry and inventions.  With money earned from cutting lawns and landscape work, he’d head straight to Scientific Supply Company to buy chemicals and lab equipment.  Often his mother signed permission slips so Jim could purchase ingredients which could only be sold to adults.  Jim was known as the “mad bomber” of the neighborhood making rockets and bombs from his chemistry set. 

Jim graduated from Franklin High School in 1944 and would have been drafted for World War II, but for an automobile accident near Skykomish which left him nearly dead and lying in the river bed.  He spent a long time recovering from a collapsed lung.  That fall he enrolled at Seattle University graduating in 1948 with a degree in chemistry, his childhood hobby.  However, one of his most consequential lessons came from a Jesuit priest in an American history course Jim hadn’t wanted to take, but was required to graduate.  To this day, Jim remembers the opening lecture.  “All history teaches is that we never learn from our mistakes.”  A light came on in Jim’s brain.

After graduating from Seattle University, Jim was accepted into graduate school at the University of Washington.  He joined the chemical engineering program seeking a PhD in electro-chemistry.  Jim demonstrated his early brilliance by proposing an idea of creating fluorocarbons through electrolysis with hydrocarbons.  The professor was amazed as Jim described a process which had only recently been theorized.  However, his graduate studies fizzled when Jim took a heavy load of classes.  One consisted of memorization which didn’t teach him to think; another by a professor who on day one asked his students, “Which course am I teaching?” And the third, who, “Didn’t teach you to think outside the box,” as Jim recalled, “The biggest dud of my life.”

Around this time, the Romano family business began to disintegrate.  His dad, Ray Hawk started Black River Quarry, Inc. mining a rock deposit near Tukwila where the Black River once flowed from Lake Washington into the Green / Duwamish River.  The Black River disappeared in 1916 after Lake Washington was lowered 9 feet and connected to Puget Sound through the Ballard locks.  Ray was having problems running his quarry so reached out to Jim who dropped out of grad school.  He planned to help his Dad for a short time.  Jim easily solved early problems though each day brought new challenges so he stayed on full time.  Eventually Jim took over the business. 

Grand projects like redirecting the White, Black, and Cedar River, plus lowering the level of Lake Washington were common in the early 1900s.

Jim’s talents were always larger than his business life.  In 1953, he filmed a nature movie from the cockpit of his Super Cub float plane.  The movie was professionally shot in 16 millimeter wide-angle, commercial cinemascope, color film with Jim narrating.  He offered the movie to Disney but they declined.  In 1958, Jim married Mary Jo Burns and by 1961 they’d built the Lake Sawyer home where they still live today.

In February 1966, Jim purchased a 31-acre parcel of primarily swamp land from John D. Nelson for $37,000.  Nelson bought the property in 1945 from Pacific Coast Coal Co. at a price of $820. It was located at the south end of Lake Sawyer with access from the terminus of S.E. 312th Street.  Jim’s vision was to turn the marshy property into a lakefront residential development.

This 1936 aerial view of the south end of Lake Sawyer shows the swampy area where Hawk dredged and filled in the late 1960s. The Lake Sawyer Road is the bright white line to the left. Ravensdale Creek be seen to the north, while Frog Lake through which Rock Creek flowed is southeast of the lake.

Jim’s company, Black River Quarry (BRQ) mined rock much of which was sold during wet winter months.  But Jim had a problem of keeping key employees busy during the slow summer season.  He employed four extremely talented individual who could do just about anything when it came to earthmoving.  Chris Peterson was one of the best shovel operators to be found, even in his 70s.  John Yourkoski was a journeyman bulldozer operator who also ran loader and dragline.  Walt Schoebert was a master mechanic with a knack for tinkering and building machines from component parts.  Don Shay worked in the office and was always ready with sage advice. 

Jim spoke with experts, but nobody had ideas for building a road through a twin-creek delta, half swamp and the other half peat bog.  So he read widely about bogs and contacted Leno Bassett who mined peat in the Cottage Lake area.  Bassett provided good advice and Jim’s plans soon took hold.  Hawk obtained Hydraulic Project Approval from the Department of Game & Fisheries in 1967 for a channel change and excavation of the shore of Lake Sawyer.  The permit allowed dredging two creeks and the lake’s bottom with requirements to protect water quality.  Work was done on an intermittent basis to prevent excessive siltation.  Production was prohibited on weekends and holidays to protect recreational users of the lake.

LS015- Southeast end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1968-69. This view shows the early construction of gravel dikes and the dredging of the Ravensdale Creek inlet to the right. Aerial photo by Jim Hawk.

Jim’s plan was to refashion the swamp into 31 acres of dry land surrounded by open water the two separated by piling and wooden wall panels.  The topography was surveyed by Jim and BRQ employees using probing devices to determine whether they were standing on peat soils floating on water.  After the initial survey was complete a rudimentary plan was developed to build access roads and perimeter dikes throughout the dense jungle of interlocking vegetation. Behind these dikes new dry land would be formed from dredged and fill material.  Outside the dikes open water connected Ravensdale and Rock creeks to Lake Sawyer.

To gain access through the marsh, a floating road concept was utilized.  In some places peat and mud extended down over 40 feet before reaching compactible soils.  Downed logs, brush, and debris from clearing were used as a mat that was pushed down into the peat and mud by a bulldozer.  A gravel road several feet thick rested above the “floating vegetation mat” below.  Pit run gravel was obtained from three barrow sites on the property.  Those gravel deposits rose 10-15 feet above surrounding terrain.  Most of the older-growth trees outside the gravel extraction areas were preserved. 

LS026- South end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1968-71. This was the staging area for the piling and panels forming the pier wall which separated land and water. Photo by Jim Hawk.

This floating road needed to be stable enough to support bulldozers and a 53-ton Northwest brand cable-operated shovel.  The shovel doubled as a crane, equipped with a 3/4 cubic yard clam bucket for digging or a dragline bucket for open water dredging.  Other miscellaneous equipment supported the operation.  When remembering the challenge, Jim laughed out loud, “Nobody else in their right mind would have tried it.”

The long-term success of the project depended on using the best bulkhead materials available.  Jim found piling at the Wyckoff Company consisting of hemlock poles, pressure-treated with Chemonite preservative, yet still needed to find a long lasting cable to hold everything in place.  In a stroke of luck, Jim talked to Pacific Iron & Metal who’d just found 14,000 lineal feet of surplus 3/4” stainless steel cable which could be had for 50-cents a foot.  Jim bought it all.

During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the initial work of building a perimeter road to separate Frog Lake from Lake Sawyer was completed.  The dragline shovel operating from the road excavated mud from the lake and built a containment berm just inside the gravel road.  The pile driver used the same perimeter road to drive treated wood piling until these long poles reached a firm foundation.  The piling were driven at an average 10-foot spacing with treated wooden walls placed between, thereby providing a sturdy barrier between land and water.  

The first phase of the project ended, but the next stage of dredging and pumping was even more challenging.  The dredge–pumps Jim investigated were typically used in oceans and rivers, far too large for a small lake.  Once again he consulted experts but found no clear answers for available technology.  Ever persevering, Jim and his master mechanic, Walt Schoebert began designing their own machine.  It was a tall order as it had to float; move around the lake; cut through a dense mat of peat, roots, and mud; shred the mixed result; then pump it through pipes into diked areas.  In addition, the machine had to work around and through ancient logs littering the bottom of this jungle-strewn bog.  

LS021- The south end of Lake Sawyer, circa 1969-71. The cutting and dredging machine created by Walt Schoebert and Hawk is parked next to recently installed piling. The gravel dike road is partially covered by water to the right of the piling. Bob Eaton’s white boathouse located at 23232 S.E. 312th (now owned by Adam & Jenna Running) can be seen in the distance. Photo by Jim Hawk.

The next order of business was building a barge consisting of sealed floatation tubes connected by decking where machinery could be housed.  Paddle wheels were installed on each side of the floating wing tubes for propulsion.  A 4-cylinder GM diesel engine was bolted down to power the large hydraulic pump driving the machinery.  A cutting wheel was developed which could be lowered by boom into the muddy vegetated morass.  The cutting knives were protected within a collecting box.  The emulsified cuttings consisted of chopped roots, peat, mud, and wood shreds.  In order to suck this slurry and water mix, a pump designed for sewage plants was chosen.  That impeller pump thrust the slurry mixture through heavy rubber piping to containment areas behind dikes.  If they hit a log or something impenetrable, the cutting heads stopped and the differential caused the pump to stall.  The boom then lifted the log out of water and resume dredging.  Jim attributed the success of their home-made dredging machinery to his mechanic, “Walt Schoebert could build anything.”

LS029- All of the components of Hawk’s plan can be seen operating in this circa 1969-71 photo. The gravel dikes contain the hydraulically dredged and pumped slurry of lake sediment, while the log booms retain floating debris. Ravensdale Creek enters into the long canal in the center. The large peninsula of pumped sediment is to the right. To the far right is the larger inlet where Frog Lake flows into Lake Sawyer. Aerial photo looking east by Jim Hawk.

The system worked so well you could clearly see the cutting knives through the water when wearing Polarized sun glasses.  In addition, a floating log boom was constructed to curtain off the work zone and ensure no floating debris left the active dredging area.  No complaints were ever registered by lake residents.  Bob Eaton, the closest neighbor in the last residence on S.E. 312th Street was always supportive.  An official from Department of Fisheries and Game once stopped by the job site and declared the operation, “The cleanest lake clean-up we’ve ever seen.” 

The dredging work continued over the next three summers allowing the muddy mix to consolidate during the fall, winter, and spring seasons.  The project was completed by 1972.  During five years of operation there was never an accident or mishap. 

LS032 – This view looking southeast shows Hawk’s work circa 1969 with Frog Lake visible in the center right of the photo and Palmer Coking Coal’s slag pile near Highway 169 in Black Diamond in the far upper right. Aerial photo by Jim Hawk.

The completed land form was ready for development, but the property lacked sewers and wasn’t currently viable as the 31-lot plat Jim envisioned.  So rather than develop the few lots that could be served with septic tanks and drain fields, Hawk pursued other ventures.  When asked why he didn’t move forward, Jim said, “I’d accomplished the job and had no need to sell.  Frankly, we were hoping for something better than just a dozen more homes on Lake Sawyer.”  When asked if he was proud of all he’d accomplished, Jim demurred, “It worked,” then added, “plus it gave me satisfaction to do something that all those experts and soil engineers couldn’t do.” 

This June 1, 1970 aerial photo shows the vast changes completed to date. Hawk’s work was finished the following year.

With his newly developed dredging technology, Jim turned his attention to helping Lake Sawyer residents rid their shorelines of unwelcome milfoil.  This non-native and invasive plant sets down a deep set of tangled roots which envelope shallow areas of the lake.  Using concepts similar to his recently utilized dredging equipment, Jim invented a machine to remove milfoil.  It consisted of a cutting edge on the bottom surrounded by a screened cage allowing excess water to drain.  The machine worked so well, he even received a patent and named it the “Water Bulldozer.” It was mounted on a self-propelled barge.  Jim tested the equipment by cleaning out much of the boot at the north end of Lake Sawyer.  Inspectors from the Department of Fisheries told him it worked great but they would still require each lot owner to apply for a separate hydraulic permit.  Jim lamented, “It was a great idea that didn’t work because of bureaucracy.” 

In 1985, Hawk turned his attention back to the Lake Sawyer jewel he’d sculpted more than a decade earlier.  He installed rockeries along certain shorelines where unprotected gravel bulkheads were eroding. But, the regulatory climate had changed.  The government agencies which had once praised his work refused to issue permits.  King County filed criminal charges against Hawk in Aukeen District Court claiming he’d harmed the environment by failing to secure a hydraulic permit.  The judge who heard the case declared Hawk’s existing restoration sufficient and Jim was order to pay court costs of $8.  King County and the State Department of Fisheries followed up with letters certifying compliance with permit conditions.

LS184 – In 1985, Hawk undertook additional work on his property, but ran afoul of new regulations. Restoration included adding gravel to shorelines and planting Douglas fir and red cedar trees along the lake shore.

When completed, Jim Hawk had created over one mile (5,600 lineal feet) of Lake Sawyer waterfront in three main sections surrounded by two navigable bodies of water.  But Jim was on to other ventures.  In April 1989, Hawk sold his 31-acre Lake Sawyer property to Palmer Coking Coal Company, who owned 480 surrounding acres.  With proceeds from the sale Jim assembled acreage to build the Jade Green Golf Course on the Lake Holm Road, east of Black Diamond. 

Ten years later, much of Hawk’s Lake Sawyer improvements became part of a 162-acre acquisition by King County of a planned regional park.  Portions of the park land and open space within city limits were deeded to Black Diamond in 2005.  Today the developed Lake Sawyer waterfront created by Jim Hawk is the focal point of a park through which a future trail connecting the Cedar and Green Rivers will pass.

Jim Hawk in the kitchen of his home on Lake Sawyer. This photo was taken the day of the interview, March 25, 2017.

Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Hawk, the son of Pennsylvania Dutch and Italian ancestors constructed this remarkable development at the south end of Lake Sawyer.  After all, it was practical Dutch engineers in the Netherlands who created an incredible system of dikes and canals reclaiming vast areas of that country from the sea.  And in Seattle, it was Italian immigrants, with surnames like Segale, Merlino, Scarsella, Scocollo, Fiorito, Pierotti, and Scalzo who built the vast reach of roads, bridges, cuts and fills throughout the Puget Sound area.

Jim Hawk was never afraid to dream big. In 1983, he directed preparation of drawings showing a series of connected waterways anchored by his earlier work on the south end of Lake Sawyer. Environmental regulations had tightened and the grand ideas envisioned by his Lake Sawyer Project were out of step with the times and never seriously pursued.

This story was written from an interview conducted by Bill Kombol on March 25, 2017.  One key but little discussed element of Jim’s life was recounted by Scott Sandwith, his former son-in-law.  Scott suggests the foundation that enabled Jim to build so much was his wife, Mary Jo’s eternal support for his “brilliant plans and ideas.”  Scott continues, “Mary Jo and Jim are two matched souls who embody what a marriage can be” resulting in the amazing and supportive legacy of five children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.   Jim and Mary Jo Hawk live in the same family home they built in 1961, located at dock #104.

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Musings

On May 26, 1985 – I Gave Up Alcohol Forever

On May 26, 1985, I gave up alcohol forever.  I drank my last drink and never looked back.  As a drug, alcohol is a depressant.  Yet, alcohol induces depression in a sly manner – by disguising its psychoactive effects within the soft glow of frivolity.  Life without booze invigorated me. After quitting, many asked why?  My short answer: I’d already seen life saturated with booze – I wanted to experience something new and better and different.  For thirty plus years, I have.  It’s the second best decision I ever made.

Allow me to explain.  I had no serious issues with alcohol.  There were no DUIs, no courtroom appearances, no family interventions, no passing out, no automobile accidents, no slobbering drunken episodes.  Sure, there were morning hangovers cured by drinking copious amounts of water to work the poison out.  Though I sometimes drank alone, it was never to excess.  I enjoyed the camaraderie of friends when imbibing.  Wine accompanied a good meal, just as a cold glass of ale enhanced a steak or sausage.  A night of drinking beer over a card game or sporting event, were times to enjoy. I even pursued finer beverages such as cognac and bourbon.   Sweet drinks were fine for the right occasion.

Keith Hamilton and I serving champagne on the day of my sister, Jeanmarie’s wedding, June 18, 1977

My final night of “feeling no pain” included a couple neighborhood friends during a Saturday evening of merriment fueled by strawberry daiquiris.  Before stumbling home there was talk of getting together for breakfast the next morning.  It was Memorial Day weekend.  I awoke with a hangover, worse than previous but nothing debilitating.  I drank lots of water and went for a jog.  Back then I didn’t take the coffee cure.

Through the day I began thinking about life: where was I bound and towards what purpose.  Life seemed to be going nowhere.  I tried imagining a new age, a new direction to change the story I’d been living.  On previous occasions, I’d given up alcohol for short periods of time; one particular three-month calendar season came to mind.  Thoughts began to grow.  Memories fancied a youth – those carefree days before alcohol and mind-altering substances.   There stood a fit young adult, filled with vim and vigor, ready to embrace challenges and explore the world.  Instead the mirror offered a man imprisoned by conventions of social drinking; leaning on alcohol like a cripple leans on a crutch.  I’d studied drugs and knew alcohol was a depressant, fully interchangeable with barbiturates for those addicted to either.  The logic was inescapable.  This drug known as alcohol – chemically a depressant – was depressing me. 

I decided to change.  My first calculus was to give up drinking for a while, or at least until the damn hangover ended.  The more I thought about possibilities the more an idea of significant change grew – I would give up alcohol until its impact was fully reckoned.  I’d never know what that life might be, if I never tried it.  There would be no A.A. meetings for me.  The one meeting I’d been to (as part of a self-awareness class) involved lots of depressing individuals smoking cigarettes in a dumpy Auburn union hall.  There would be no support groups, no grand announcements.  I’d just stop drinking and experience life on the other side of the bottle.  So, I did.

Summer was approaching and opportunities arose for new beginnings.  I started riding my bike again and did more exercising, but nothing terribly radical.  The first big social event of the season was Maple Valley Days in early June . . . for which alcohol was standard issue.  I’d been part of the Cedar River boat races with cousin, Bob Morris several years previous and was friendly with the social circle following the sport.  I saw old friends and when offered a beer politely declined.  Drinking was an expected element of the weekend celebration so declining the proffered libation only heightened attention of the clique.  I answered casually, “Just quitting  for a couple of weeks.  Drying out, you know.” 

Two weeks later I joined my Enumclaw buddies at the monthly incarnation of the DGA (Duffers’ Golf Association).  There I made similar gestures to downplay any importance of “Bill’s not drinking.”  I observed others became uncomfortable if I were no longer part of the drinking fraternity.  To promote a relaxed atmosphere it was important to have some kind of drink in hand, anything would do.  The best prop I found to be non-alcoholic beer.  It allowed those who thought alcohol de rigueur for group dynamics, to more easily accept that my abstinence violated no rule of group etiquette.   They saw me holding a drink and felt at ease. 

DGA dudes: unknown, Jay Carbon, Tom Cerne, Mike Wickre.

The weeks turned to a month and a more formidable test emerged.  Bob was marrying Jill and I would be his best man.  I’d also be part of the close-knit group of friends for his weekend bachelor party.  Eight of us would fly to Reno, rent a van, and tour Lake Tahoe and environs – a four-day, summer bash.  I knew Bob’s friends pretty well from previous Maple Valley socializing much of which involved drinking.  They would be my party-mates during our weekend safari.  Only one of our gang, Keith Timm Jr. was a teetotaler.  Make that two.

In any group setting, every person serves a role.  I could easily take a break from abstinence and join the partying in Reno and Tahoe.  Multiple opportunities to cut loose were available.  Not everyone knew of my new sensibility, so the easy route suggested a reversion to the days of wine and roses.  But, a better plan was hatched – I would serve as designated driver.  The others could fully enjoy drinking and carousing, all under the capable hand of a sober chauffeur.   I’d safely guide the caravan.  Peer pressure melted like a daiquiri in the Nevada sun.  I became the indispensable cog whose sobriety allowed their intemperance; the driver of the bus who piloted the fun.  They admired my sobriety and I reveled in their esteem.  My avenue of abstinence was beginning to look like a freeway to self-fulfillment.

The summer months stretched towards autumn and fewer people noticed, “Bill isn’t drinking anymore.”  In time my sobriety became a non-event.  Most people who drink pay little attention to those who don’t – they’re too affected to notice the person who doesn’t.  Eventually, I gave up the ruse that teetotalism was a temporary phenomenon.  I would never drink again.  I was happy.  It was the second best decision I ever made.

I won’t leave you dangling.  About a month after my drinking stopped, I attended a cocktail party at the Smith Tower in downtown Seattle.  It was a political fundraiser for a King County Councilmember from the south end.  His daughter was there.  We shared a pleasant conversation.  She lived on Lake Sawyer.  Yes, she liked volleyball at the annual Fourth of July celebration.  We’d be on opposite teams for the East – West volleyball match played on the court near Mom’s home on the lake.  I’d probably see her there.  She came.  They won.  When leaving, the motor on her dad’s 10-foot dinghy caught fire.  She jumped into the lake.  Bob, Tom Cerne, and I flipped the boat upside down putting out the fire.  Mom comforted the water-soaked girl up at the lake house.  She called her parents to have someone pick her up.  No one was available . . . though her uncle had seen a fire across the lake.  I gave her a ride home in Terry’s outboard.  I knew I wanted to see her again. 

Jennifer and I at Seafair, Aug. 1985, one of our early group dates.

My mind was no longer clouded by booze.  I was free to pursue the life I needed to live.

Categories
History

Dam It! The Untold Story of Vern Cole and the Lake Sawyer Weir

By: Bill Kombol

Before Vern Cole, Lake Sawyer lacked a dam, also known as a weir to control the level of the lake.  Lake Sawyer is the third largest public lake in King County, Washington.

Over the years a number of stories were written about the outlet dam controlling the level of Lake Sawyer.  Most previous versions were steeped in oral history but light on facts.  Many portrayed Vern Cole as a renegade developer and defendant in a lawsuit he lost to Mary Burnett.  Quite the opposite is true.  It’s time to set the record straight on that dam outlet weir where Covington Creek leaves Lake Sawyer.

Like most lakes of the Puget Sound basin, Lake Sawyer was formed about 10,000 years ago near the end of the last glacial period.  Sheets of ice covered the region with heights reaching 3,000 feet at their thickest.  Retreating glaciers carved the landscape as melting ice deposited thick layers of sand and gravel, including areas around Black Diamond.  This barren landscape gradually supported primeval forests dominated by Douglas fir.   Low areas became ponds and lakes filled with water from meandering creek channels.  Lake Sawyer was fed by two: Ravensdale Creek and Rock Creek.

Water leaving the lake naturally gravitated to its lowest point, the Covington Creek channel located midway along the lake’s western shore.  By the time white settlers homesteaded Lake Sawyer, that channel was filled with several thousand years of logs, trees, roots, branches, and debris all of which clogged the natural outlet.  Busy beavers no doubt added their contribution to the morass of detritus.  The situation remained unchanged until the 1950s.

Aerial photo of the north and west shores of Lake Sawyer in Aug. 1937, the earliest aerial photograph of the area.

During the 1920s, most land surrounding Lake Sawyer was still held by a few large owners including Oscar Weisart, the Lochow family, the Neukirchen brothers, Lake Sawyer Lumber Co., Northwest Improvement Co., Pacific Coast Coal Co., and the lake’s first family, the Hansons.  They later operated Enumclaw’s White River Lumber Co. whose prominence became a defining feature of that town.  Carl Hanson’s original 160-acre land grant also boasted the lake’s first home, a log cabin built around 1884. 

In 1884, the first cabin was built on Lake Sawyer upon Carl M. Hanson’s 16- acre homestead.  This photo dates to 1887.  The two girls standing in front are Anna Elizabeth Hanson (age 12 years), Olga Olivia Hanson (10), while standing in the doorway are Ellen Thyra Maria Hanson (8), and Selma Victoria Hanson (6). 

By the mid-1930s, many owners began platting their land into small lots.  Most are now occupied by lakefront homes.  The plat names included Campbell’s Lake Sawyer Campsite; Lochow’s Lake Sawyer Tracts; Lake Sawyer East Shore Tracts; and Lake Sawyer Grove Park (currently the RV resort).  However the biggest of all was approved in 1939 – the North Shore of Lake Sawyer comprising 139 lots stretching from Hanson Point down to and including a two-acre park dedicated to King County (docks #104 to 189).  The North Shore Plat was owned by the Hanson, Smith and Olson families, descendants of Carl Hanson, and contained a low spot which periodically flooded.  That area is now referred to as the Boot, owing to its boot-like shape as seen on the plat map.  The Hanson family’s summer home (docks #102 & 103) was built in 1926 in the steeped-roof, gabled-style of the day, complete with caretaker’s cottage next door.   Both home and cottage still grace Hanson Point named for that pioneer family.  By 1947, the lake hosted 70 families in permanent residences and three times that many with summer homes. 

The Hanson family’s 1939 plat map of the North Shore’s 139 lots, with the Boot anticipated as potential lake frontage. The park deeded by the Hanson family is now the public boat launch.

Further south, the area around the outlet channel remained un-platted and owned by the Lochow family.  In 1950, Ludwig & Mabel Lochow, William & Marjorie Lochow, together with William & Gladys Gordon filed the West Shore of Lake Sawyer plat.  Their platted tract encompassed 36 acres stretching from the Hanson-donated park (now called Lake Sawyer Boat Launch) all the way south to the present site of the Lake Sawyer RV Resort (docks #191 to 258).  New roads were constructed to service the 73 platted lots including S.E. 298th Street, S.E. 300th Street, S.E. 302nd Street, and 225th Ave. S.E.  Lot sizes were restricted to a minimum of 6,000 square feet, but most were between 15,000 and 25,000 sf.  The West Shore plat involved extensive surveying of the outlet channel designated as Covington Creek on the map.  Each lot’s frontage on the canal extended to the centerline of the creek.  

The Gordon-Lochow 1950 plat map of the West Shore’s 73 lots.  The channel was fully surveyed before any dredging took place, most likely in 1951.

However, nature’s ad hoc dam which governed the lake’s level remained the same choked Covington Creek channel, resulting in periodic episodes of severe flooding.  As seen nearby, the Speery cabin located near the old Neukirchen mill site was inundated during winter floods of 1946.   In his August 5, 1952 findings of fact from King County Case No. 443504, Superior Court Judge Ward Roney declared “the residents and property owners abutting Lake Sawyer have been subjected to severe damage and expense during the past flood seasons.”  Roney further ruled “that said Lake constitutes a flood control problem within the meaning of the statutes of the State.”  

The north and west shores of Lake Sawyer in 1942, showing a clogged Covington Creek outlet and ponded water in the Boot area.

Judge Roney’s decision grew out of a petition filed in March 1952 by Mary Burnett, Perry B. Love, Wilbert Bombardier, Rebecca Miles, Frank Horne, William Gordon, Hans Sands, Perry J. Love, Leonard Cleaver, Adolph Samuelson, and David Cook, all owners of real property abutting Lake Sawyer.  As plaintiffs, the 11 individuals sought a judicial order providing specific proposed relief:

  1. To establish the maximum water level for Lake Sawyer; 
  2. To authorize construction of a dam and fish ladders;
  3. To authorize Vern Cole Realty Company, Inc. to install the dam and fish ladder, subject to the approval of King County, Dept. of Fisheries, Dept. of Game, and Supervisor of hydraulics; and
  4. To authorize the Supervisor of Hydraulics to thereafter regulated and control the maximum water level of the lake.
King County Superior Court Case No. 443504, with Mary Burnett as the first named plaintiff. The March 1952 petition to the court sought a judicial order to fix the level of Lake Sawyer, which led to building the dam and weir later that year.

Named in the action were each and every land and lot owners around the perimeter of Lake Sawyer, with lake frontages of each noted in lineal feet.  Contrary to previous accounts Vern Cole was not a defendant.  In fact, he was actually an ally and confidant of lead plaintiff, William Gordon who owned multiple lots in the just approved West Shore plat.  Vern Cole was described in pleadings as the most competent individual to spearhead efforts for design and construction of an outlet dam to solve winter flood problems and low summer lake levels.  As opposed to the usual formulation where every lot owner paid his or her proportionate share of design and construction costs, the plaintiffs proposed to pay all those considerable expenses.

To gain perspective we now indulge in some informed speculation guided by known facts, aerial photos, and the resulting landscape.  Throughout the Puget Sound region, earthmoving operation significantly altered the course of countless rivers, creeks, lakes, and wetlands.  The White River previously flowed into the Green, but was later diverted south to the Puyallup River.  Lake Washington once emptied through the Black River into the Duwamish near Tukwila, but was lowered nine feet after the Ship Canal was dug, providing a connection through Lake Union to Shilshole Bay and the Puget Sound.  The Cedar River was also rechanneled so it no longer left Lake Washington via the Black and Duwamish Rivers, but through Union Bay and the Chittenden locks in Ballard.  Those were but a few of the large projects financed by government to sculpt local landscapes in pursuit of enhanced waterfront and economic prosperity.

White River was diverted west to the Puyallup in 1906. The Cedar River was re-channeled directly to Lake Washington in 1912. The Black River disappeared when Lake Washington was lowered nine feet and the lake’s discharge henceforth flowed through the Montlake Cut to Lake Union, then into locks at Ballard and Puget Sound.  See When Coal Was King, May 4, 2021.

At Lake Sawyer the goals were modest and the means private – flood control plus fixing the lake’s level with a new dam.  At the end of World War II lots of surplus earthmoving equipment including bulldozers, diesel powered shovels, and draglines were put to use in nearby mining operations.  In the late 1940s, both Ravensdale and Franklin coal seams were mined for the first time by surface methods with bulldozers removing overburden while shovels excavated coal into dump trucks.  Previously almost all coal had been mined underground. 

A similar form of excavation likely took place in the Covington Creek channel and further north in the Boot, a part of the Hanson family’s North Shore plat.  The summer of 1951 is the most likely date for both dredge operations.  The Gordon-Lochow West Shore plat was approved in November 1950 and the lawsuit to fix the lake’s hydraulic problems initiated in early 1952.  Interrogatories exchanged between plaintiffs and respondents indicate that Vern Cole Realty was hired by the Gordon-Lochow forces to open the channel.  In those same questions and answers the Gordon-Lochow plaintiffs proposed that Vern Cole construct the dam, spillway, and fish ladder, designed to replace nature’s failing, log-choked outlet.  After the channel was cleared the lake’s summer level would have been far lower allowing easy excavation of the Boot. 

A trial without jury was heard on April 10, 1952 before Judge Roney.  Several procedural issues were ruled upon and the trial continued to May 19 at the King County Courthouse.  Plaintiffs were instructed to serve copies of the Judge’s interim order upon all parties.  A notice of proceedings was published in the Auburn Globe News for a period of two weeks.  A number of prominent Seattle law firms were involved including Rummens, Griffin & Short represented by Paul Cressman for the plaintiffs, and Bogle, Bogle & Gates for the respondent, John Nelson one of the lake’s largest landowners.  Plaintiffs and Respondents attended the trial as did three State Departments – Game, Fisheries, and Hydraulics.  King County was named in the lawsuit and served notice but didn’t appear.  Unfortunately neither testimony nor oral proceedings from May 19th were preserved.  But the parties must have agreed on most major points as Judge Roney’s decision mirrored the plaintiff’s requests and his order seemingly satisfied all the parties, as no appeals were filed.

On August 5, 1952, Judge Roney issued his final ruling which included Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and a Decree whose decision included the following:

  • That Covington Creek “is inadequate and incapable of carrying off excess water during flood seasons; that as a result thereof, the residents and property owners abutting Lake Sawyer have been subjected to severe damage and expense during past flood seasons.”
  • That “a maximum lake level be established to control and regulate the flow of water in Covington Creek; that the maximum water level on Lake Sawyer should not exceed 518.94 feet above mean sea level . . . that level is 16” higher, according to foot measurement, than the visible level of the Lake on the 19th of May, 1952 [and] that such a maximum lake level will not endanger or damage any property abutting the shores of Lake Sawyer.”
  • “That the Vern Cole Realty Co. . . . has advised the court it will bear the entire construction cost of a dam or spillway to control and regulate the flow of water from Lake Sawyer and through Covington Creek.”
  • That “Vern Cole has advised the court it is having plans prepared for construction of a suitable dam or spillway” . . . and that said plans be approved by the Departments of Game, Fisheries, and Hydraulics.
  • That the Dept. of Hydraulics provide regulation of the dam and spillway following construction.

So what did the lake look like by the end of construction?  And how much variance did the lake experience before and after installation of water control structures in 1952?

The variances experienced in the pre-weir era are not known, but were certainly extreme.  Evidence of severe flooding is seen in the Sperry cabin photo looking west towards the Hanson home built in 1926.  Jack Sperry believes that water level was 38” to 40” (between 3 and 4 feet) above today’s typical level.  The lowest pre-weir levels were likely 5 feet below today’s norms, that being the water elevation at the base of the dam.   A number of intact stumps from old trees can still be seen below water level including one between the two islands in front of the RV Resort.  It has a white buoy attached.  Another stump in front of Eble point (Dock 12) is about 7 feet below the average level.  These trees were probably Oregon ash or another specie which can tolerate long periods of inundation.  These high and low data points suggests that prior to the dam and weir, Lake Sawyer experienced wide variations in water level, as much as 8 to 10 feet.

The Sperry cabin during winter flooding in 1946.  The home on Hanson Point can be seen in the distance, just to the left of the cabin.

Following construction of the weir and dam, the highest recorded water levels in Lake Sawyer occurred in early February 1996.  Heavy rains washed out the dike road between Frog Lake and Lake Sawyer causing a cascade of water to fill the lake and overwhelm the weir.  Water levels were measured at 26” over the weir compared to a winter average of 6” above.  The lowest recorded water levels occurred in late October 2015 when beaver dams up and down Ravensdale and Rock Creeks cut off almost all surface flow to the lake.  Late autumn is also when groundwater flows ebb, contributing to that record low event.  On Oct. 28, 2015 the water level was 39” below the weir.  Thus, the maximum recorded variance in modern times between these two extremes was 65” or about 5.5 feet.  The typical annual variance between the average high and low water is now about 24” or two feet. 

The best evidence to further piece this puzzle together are aerial photos from 1937 and 1942 showing conditions before lake alterations, and from 1959 seven years after.  In the Boot section of the North Shore plat, the August 1937 photo shows definite farming activities.  Yet, the Hanson’s 1939 plat map clearly depicts that same Boot area within the high water line of the lake.   A pond in the north end of the Boot can be seen in the winter 1942 photo, where summer field harvesting was practiced five years earlier. 

Just as heavy rains facing a clogged Covington Creek channel resulted in severe winter flooding, it’s equally fair to assume that lack of a real dam controlling outflow allowed late summer lake levels to fall precipitously.  That would explain why the Boot could be used for farming in 1937, but on the plat map and in the 1942 photo seen as a potential water basin.  Oral history holds the Boot was once dredged, an event surely contemporaneous with the Gordon-Lochow dredging of the outlet channel which created optimum conditions for summer work.  This makes sense given that heavy equipment necessary for one project could easily be redeployed to another. The cleared channel no doubt presented owners with an historic low-water event perfect for carving future waterfront.

The post-dam era in 1959, seven years after dredging and construction of a dam at the outlet.  The wakes of motor boats can be seen on the lake.

A close-up of the west shore area in 1959 showing the dredged Covington Creek canal, the weir, and increasing development of homes within the West Shore Plat.

Despite a lawsuit just six months earlier, by late September 1952 all was peaches and honey in the neighborhood.  The Seattle Times reported, “A 94-foot-long dam has been constructed on Lake Sawyer, near Kent, at the mouth of Covington Creek to establish the lake level and improve property values and fishing.  The concrete structure is equipped with five-step fish ladders which will permit salmon to return to the lake to spawn.”  On October 5th a joint ceremony was hosted by the Lake Sawyer Community Club and Lake Sawyer Garden Club to mark completion of the dam.  That dam and weir still faithfully serve lot owners on Lake Sawyer over 68 years later.

Lake Sawyer weir and dam on Covington Creek, Jan. 1956, a few years after dredging.  Photo by Frank Guidetti of Black Diamond

Aerial and plat photo labeling by Oliver Kombol.

Sources:

  • King County Superior Court Case No. 443504 “In the matter of fixing the level of Lake Sawyer” (1952).
  • King County Assessor and Dept. of Transportation aerial photos from 1937 and 1959.
  • U.S. Army Corp aerial photo from 1942.
  • King County Recorder – Plats of the North Shore and West Shore of Lake Sawyer.
  • Metsker’s 1926 and 1936 atlas of King County.
  • “History of King County” Volume II by C.B. Bagley (1929),
  • Renton News Record, July 17, 1947 – News of Maple Valley.
  • Seattle Sunday Times, Sept. 28, 1952 – page 20.
  • Jack Speery, lake resident – oral communication.
  • Bob Edelman, lake resident – email communication, July 9, 2020.
  • Bob Edelman – “How the Lake is Measured.”
  • The Man Who Sculpted Lake Sawyer – BillBored.org

Vern Cole (1887 – 1970)

Though characterized as villain in some early and inaccurate stories about construction of the Lake Sawyer dam, Vern Cole was one of the driving forces behind designing the weir and creating the stabilized lake level residents enjoy today.  Born in 1887 to a pioneer family from Baker, Oregon, they immigrated to Canada when Vern was six-years-old.  After discharge from the British Navy, he joined the Vancouver, B.C. Police at age 21 serving as Constable Patrol Officer.  Cole moved to Seattle during World War I and became a salesman for a motorcar company.  He was later commissioned as a Washington State Patrol officer.  It’s unclear when Cole first pursued real estate as an endeavor, but he ended up running a very successful business known as Vern Cole Realty Co., which specialized in lake front homes, acreage, and view tracts.

Vern Cole as Patrol Officer in Vancouver, B.C., 1908.

Cole became involved with the Lochow-Gordon plat of the West Shore of Lake Sawyer in the early 1950s.  However, at the start of the 1952 legal action by Lochow, Gordon, and others, Vern’s wife of 45 years, Hazel (Downing) died.  Perhaps in grief, Cole poured himself into completing the lake’s transformation he helped set in motion.  A year later he remarried a widow, Edna Buckingham Raborn and the two of them lived on his 105-foot yacht moored at Shilshole Bay, just outside the Ballard Locks.  Vern Alexander Cole died in 1970 at age 83.  His obituary states he was an active yachtsman and member of the Elks and Masonic bodies. 

The Home on Hanson Point

One of the oldest homes on Lake Sawyer was built by the pioneering Hanson family on a peninsula of land that was part of their original homestead claim.  The patriarch, Carl M. Hanson owned a sawmill in his native Sweden before immigrating to the U.S. in 1883, after hearing of Washington’s vast timber tracts.  For a year he cleared land in Seattle before moving to Lake Sawyer where he filed for ownership of 160 acres under the 1862 Homestead Act.  Carl built a log cabin, proved up his claim, and in 1891 was issued a deed personally signed by President Benjamin Harrison. 

For several years, Carl and members of the extended family worked at the coal mines in Black Diamond and Franklin before building sawmills, first at Summit (Four Corners) and later Lake Wilderness.  Both were operated in association with his three sons, Axel, Charles, and Frank.  The Wilderness mill was owned until 1897 when the family moved operations to Enumclaw following purchase of the White River Mill.  That enterprise was renamed White River Lumber Company and thrived under Hanson family management.  Within a decade the firm employed over 500 men, by far the biggest employer in Enumclaw.  The company increased its land holding to 50,000 acres and later initiated a cooperative agreement with Weyerhaeuser.  In 1900, Frederick Weyerhaeuser purchased 900,000 acres of timber from railway magnate, James J. Hill.  The two companies, White River Lumber and Weyerhaeuser fully merged operations in 1949.

King County Assessor photo taken Dec. 20, 1939. The home still looks remarkably the same.

The Hanson family built this summer home on Lake Sawyer in 1926 and next to it a caretaker’s cottage.  In 1939, Rufus Smith and L.G. Olson, grandsons of Carl Hanson filed a plat named the North Shore of Lake Sawyer.  The lake front portion of the family’s 160-acre homestead was platted into 139 lots and included dedication of the two-acre park now owned by Black Diamond and called Lake Sawyer Boat Launch.  Their summer home which sits on 17-acres (docks #102 & 103), was not part of the plat but remained with the extended Hanson family until 1997 when it was sold to David & Maryanne Tagney Jones for $2.2 million.  A recreational guest house was added to the estate in 2007.  This December 20, 1939 photo of tax parcel 042106-9001 comes courtesy of the King County Assessor held at the Puget Sound Regional Archives in Eastgate. 

This history of the dam was originally published in the Lake Sawyer Community Club Newsletter, Spring 2021. Additional photos have been added to this version.

Categories
Musings

A Walk in Wales

How many walks do you even remember?  Walks to school as a child?  Your walk at graduation? Strolling home from campus late at night?  Walking down the aisle towards your life of marriage?  The solemn pace of the pallbearer when that dear uncle passes?

Some of life’s most memorable moments are seemingly mundane.  So it was with my walk in Wales in the spring of 1978.  I was 24-years-old and spending four weeks of my five-month pilgrimage to Europe, living with a friend in a tiny village of western Wales.  Scott Hamilton was in the service, stationed at a nearby U.S. Naval base.  Scott was something of a loner and rented a stone cottage far off the beaten path.  Middle Mille was no more than six homes and an abandoned mill.  A small creek that once powered the mils flowed through the town.  Remnant water wheels of rotting wood and rusting iron dotted a maze of surviving channels and canals. 

Middle Mille, Wales, April 1978. The old mill is to the left and Scott’s stone cottage is center. The stream is seen below.

A portion of the old woolen mill had been converted to a home.  A family lived there with two young boys, perhaps five and seven.  Most days I was at loose ends so made the acquaintance of their mother.  She was in her thirties and glad for the company in this isolated place.  On occasion, I’d share a cup of tea with Mrs. King.  The King family traded woolen goods from their storefront which doubled as the front room of their rambling stone house. 

The King boys (whose names I’ve forgotten) were game for an adventure so one day, with their mom’s approval, I proposed a stroll up the creek as far as we might go.  It was a typical spring day in western Wales with light breezes and sunlight broken by passing clouds.  The valley was mostly unkempt fields and broken-down fences.  It was a vestige of Wales that time and prosperity left behind.  Without plan, map, or lunch we began our trek with the creek as our guide.  We hopped fences as necessary and crossed stone bridges where sheep once roamed.  The stream grew smaller as we pressed further up the valley.

The King Boys ready at the village church.

The King boys reveled in discoveries and played imaginary games, while my mind drifted back to a childhood hike some two decades before.  The summer of my fifth year, we climbed the mountain just east of my grandparent’s house.  They lived in what was left of a coal mining outpost once called Hiawatha.  Only three homes remained identical miners’ cottages on the Kanaskat-Kangley Road. My dad was born in the middle house 35 years earlier.  The St. Clairs lived next door.  My climbing partners were Barry, age seven, and Billy and Dickie St. Clair, ages nine and ten. 

The Kombol kids the summer Barry and I climbed the mountain: Billy, Jean, Danica, and Barry at our home in Elk Coal, August 1958.

We crossed over the old railroad tracks and followed a creek up the forested hillside. Our first stop was a primitive dam where Pa Kombol maintained the water system which fed the three homes.  We played near the pooled reservoir then continued our climb through dense stands of fir, hemlock, and cedar covered with moss.  There was a trail of sorts but the path was steep.  Determined as only the youngest really knows, I struggled to keep up yet never admitted weakness.

The creek became a trickle but we climbed still higher.  When the creek was no more we determined the summit was reached.  A view appeared within a narrow clearing.  The sun shone down upon us which added to our sense of glory.  To memorialize the accomplishment a knife was produced from which shirt buttons and shards of cloth were cut.  We attached theses badges to the stump of a fallen tree.  The four of us stood in solemn camaraderie.  Our sacrificed tokens echoed a hope that one day we’d return to find proof of the ascent and reclaim our hidden treasures.  Little did I realize that future treasures will one day be found in memories.

Exploring the graveyard with the boys.

Back in Wales, I pondered, “Might these boys one day experience a similar feeling?”  Several hours into our hike the creek forked.  Neither branch provided sufficient flow to keep our interest.  Clouds gathered behind us and it was time to head home.  We left the valley floor climbing the upper ridge.  A trail led us back to the village.  By the time we reached Middle Mille, we’d rambled maybe five or six miles.  I deposited the boys with their mother with promises to explore again. The King boys and I undertook several more adventures during my stay.  We examined a nearby church and graveyard.  We found an old water wheel where I tried coaching the older lad to snap my photo.  He fumbled with the camera asking, “Which button do I push?”  As I leaned forward the shutter clicked. 

At the old water wheel in my trusted pea coat.

My time in Wales was coming to an end.  There was only so much to learn in Middle Mille.  My visits to the nearby market town of Haverfordwest began to grow stale.  London was calling, but I yearned for a piece of this green valley to take home.  Mrs. King helped me choose a Welsh-made woolen blanket.  It cost a pretty penny and I shipped it home in time for Mother’s Day.  Both of my Mom’s parents were children of Welsh immigrants, making her almost pure Welsh. When she died the red plaid blanket came back to me.  It reminds me of my walk in Wales.

Back at Middle Mille 37 years later standing by a water wheel

In October 2015 after visiting our son Oliver at Cardiff University, Jennifer and I spent a night in Haverfordwest before boarding a ferry to Ireland.  We drove along a narrow path barely wide enough for our car to reach Middle Mille.  I wanted to show her the place I’d stayed 37 years earlier.  There were a few new buildings but the village was mostly unchanged.  Scott’s stone cottage looked the same.  The old mill complex still sold woolen goods.  We wandered about the grounds.  Jennifer snapped my picture standing beside a restored water wheel.  We hadn’t time for a walk, for there was a ferry to catch.

Categories
Musings

A Tale of Two Maui’s

I returned to Maui in the spring of 2011, almost 35 years to the day I’d left.  In March 1976, Wayne and I embarked on an epic journey to Hawaii – epic at least in the minds of two 22-year-olds.  We’d just graduated: Wayne, a Cougar and me, a Husky.  Both of us were odd-jobbing, goofing off, and living at home.  That winter we’d played a bit of tennis at the old junior high and hatched a trip to Hawaii in spring.  Some details of this account are sketchy, primarily because I’ve forgotten much of what happened. Some memories are firmly embedded. 

Figuring it would be hot and unruly, I’d cut my shoulder-length hair a couple of days before we left.  We packed the little gear we needed and flew to Oahu.  In the classic fashion of first-time Hawaiian tourists, we laid on the beach in the blazing sun most of our first day. That night we were lobsters.  Our next three days would be fully clothed, so we decided to explore Oahu. 

White boy Wayne (soon to be red), with double thumbs up, on our first day in Hawaii.

First stop – the bars of Waikiki.  Back then these drinking establishments were open-air bamboo huts.  Midday, they were filled with the drifters, drunks, and pseudo-adventurers, the kind of story-telling guys from whom you rarely hear a good story.  While these Tiki bars were a pleasant diversion for a day, the drinks were expensive, and anyway, Wayne and I were in Hawaii for an adventure.

We decided to rent a car and explore the North Shore.  We chose a cheap sporty rig and headed north from Honolulu.  It was about when plastic garbage cans began replacing metal ones.  And the garbage had just been collected, meaning every driveway had an empty plastic garbage can, on the edge of the road.  Meaning we couldn’t resist smashing into empty plastic garbage cans along the way.  We had lots of fun bashing cans, changing drivers every couple of miles until we’d left the populated areas and there were no more garbage cans left to bash.  Is it any wonder car companies no longer rent to drivers younger than 25?  We made it to the North Shore, saw monster waves, and finished circumnavigating the island. The rental car was returned, no worse for the wear.  I don’t remember what we did over the next couple of days, but it wasn’t in the sun.  By then, it was time to fly to Maui. 

Bill and Wayne, ready for adventure . . . with our transistor radio in hand.

My Uncle Jack had recently bought a condo in Kihei.  He told me the name of the nice Asian gal who managed it for him and the address for his rental management company.  Uncle Jack had led me to believe that if we showed up at this certain rental agency, that this certain Asian girl could certainly do something for us.  The bus ride from the airport was filled with dreams of the sweet condo and sleek ride all courtesy of Uncle Jack, or something resembling it.  While Wayne waited in the park, I walked across South Kihei Road to the agency, and sure enough, there was a very attractive Asian gal, about thirty, who knew my Uncle Jack and yes, wasn’t Jack Morris a very nice client, but no she didn’t have any condos and no, there wasn’t any car, but thank you very much for stopping by, and if you’re ever back in Maui be sure to stop in and say “Aloha.” 

Well, it wasn’t the easiest conversation to have with Wayne. I stuttered to explained, “No, I didn’t score a condo in Kihei,” and “No, they don’t have a car for us either.”  Wayne didn’t say much, just an exasperated look as if to say, “What in the #%@&* are we going to do now, Kombol?” 

The rental management agency was across the street from Kama’ole Beach Park and within this patch of green was a parking lot and there to the far side were two hippies sitting at a picnic bench, near a faded yellow 1956 Ford station wagon with a “for sale” sign hanging in the window. The girl was quite attractive in a mid-seventies, hippie sort of way. Wayne sat impassively.  I went to investigate.  The hippie guy and gal were heading to New Zealand and willing to sell this gem of a rig, which included a 3” thick mattress laid across folded down back seats, with window curtains made from sheets, plus a 14” screwdriver in the glove compartment, in the event we might need a screwdriver.

Wayne, in the park with our 1956 Ford station wagon. Note the For Sale sign in the window.

They’d owned the car for six weeks or so and it ran well, except for its quirks, and got them everywhere they wanted to go.  And for $237 we would have both room and vehicle. (I hadn’t remembered the amount until the discovery of a postcard written to my folks with a full description of the finer points of our purchase). Plus, we could sell it when we left the island. Such a deal – I pitched the proposition to Wayne.  I can’t say he enthusiastically agreed, let’s say, reluctantly.  Anyway, with $237 fewer dollars in our wallets, we now owned a condo and a car.  But, part of the deal was to take the hippies to the airport as they were splitting for New Zealand.  When we asked about the pink slip, they said, “It’s a floating title – no one has transferred it for years, no insurance, no nothing; in that way you’re not responsible for anything.  Just sell it when you’re done.”  One of their last warnings was the suspension wasn’t very good, so don’t drive on rough roads.

We took the hippie couple to the airport and said goodbye.  Wayne hopped behind the driver’s wheel (no doubt owing to being my senior by a couple months).  As we left the airport and pulled to the stoplight at the intersection of the Hana and Haleakala highways, the motor stopped and the entire dashboard of our ‘56 Ford filled with smoke and the acrid smell of burning electrical wires.  Wayne turned slowly and looked at me, shaking his head in disgust.  Feeling sheepish, I watched anxiously as Wayne ducked under the dash, messed with a few wires, and in no time the engine was humming.  We turned left and were back on the road. I was feeling pretty happy. Wayne kept shaking his head, in time glancing my way, this time with a grin.

We drove back to Kihei and I suggested we continue on the unpaved road to Makena beach.  My cousin Bob spoke glowingly of Makena beach.  I was driving and must have hit some rough bumps in this well-rutted road because the muffler fell off.  The hippies turned out to be right. The suspension wasn’t very good. After chastising me with appropriate vigor, Wayne found some baling wire, crawled under the car, and tied the muffler back in place.  We’d already had two significant setbacks and only owned the car for a few hours.

On the road again.

Our days passed slowly.  We were now wise and brown to the sun.  We explored beaches by day and slept in parks and waysides by night.  We drove around a lot.  I can’t remember much of what we ate, but I do remember bananas for breakfast each morning.  Neither of us drank coffee back then.  We spent a lot of time at Makena beaches: Big Makena most of the time and Little Makena whenever we wanted to check out the nude sunbathers.  One day we drove the long and winding road to Hana.  We never made it to Haleakala Crater.  I suppose the station wagon’s radiator was too weak to drive 10,000 feet up a mountain and we didn’t fancy more chances with our condo on wheels.  We generally kept to the drier parts of the island because during heavy rains our condo leaked.  It was something of a rust bucket and after each tropical downpour; we had to drag our mattress and damp sleeping bags into the sun to dry.

Drying our gear after a tropical downpour.

We’d bought masks and fins, snorkeled a bit, and sunbathed a lot.  We drove around and swam, and occasionally washed our clothes at a laundromat.  I don’t remember ever meeting any girls.  We played lots of cribbage, for money – a nickel a point.  I’ve always prided myself at being an expert cribbage player, but Wayne was clearly my match.  I’d been a long-time political junkie and had great fun following the Reagan-Ford presidential primary battle in the local newspapers that spring.  I usually remember events by the music of the times, but I swear the only song I recall from our trip was Oh, what a night, late December back in ‘63” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

At the time there was a potent strain of antagonism from native Hawaiians, particularly those young and male, directed towards “haoles” (pronounced howl-lee).   The term was derisively used for white tourists who were taking over their island.  On one occasion at a state park, a gang of natives called out Wayne and me as “haoles,” with a tone and demeanor so menacing we promptly left without even a proper “aloha.”

Exploring the island, somewhere in Maui.

Did I mention we drove around a lot?  One day, we found ourselves in the working-class town of Wailuku, where there were far more natives than tourists.  We’d never taken down the “for sale” sign in the car window, no doubt hoping that P.T. Barnum was right about a fool born every minute.  Anyway, a Wailuku police office of large build, severe crew cut, and Polynesian descent rather forcefully informed us that it was a violation of the Wailuku municipal code to drive on city streets with a “for sale” sign in the window of a licensed vehicle.  I suppose we could have thanked our blue-clad public servant for providing us with such a useful bit of information, but instead, we took down the sign with perhaps a bit too much attitude.  As we drove down Market Street heading out of town, I begrudgingly turned and gave the cop the old stink-eye.  This was not my finest hour!  Blue lights flashed and this time he exploded with the force and temper of the Marine drill sergeant he resembled.  With an improper registration and perhaps half a dozen other vehicle defects he could have impounded our car and left us homeless.  Wayne took charge, blamed it on me, and apologized profusely, while I humbly sulked in the passenger seat. We were allowed to leave town with a promise to never come back to Wailuku.  We never did.

One late afternoon, we decided to drive as far north as we could on the Honoapiilani highway.  We left Lahaina and drove past Ka’anapali, Kahana, Kapalua, and beyond Honokohau Bay.  Eventually, the narrow paved road turned to hard-packed dirt.  On we drove, or should I say I drove as we generally shared driving duties, and I was commanding this particular expedition.  We came to a beautiful yet remote area of rolling grasslands and picturesque meadows all adjacent to a clear blue ocean.  At the top of one particular hill, Wayne wondered if we shouldn’t turn back.  Before the words left his mouth, I’d coasted down into the next valley. 

It was about 4:00 pm.  It often rains in Maui in the late afternoon.  At the bottom of this low point, the roadway was rain-softened.  With our semi-bald tires, we could neither drive up the hill in front nor back up the one behind. Of course Wayne took the steering wheel, but he had no more luck in the sticky red clay than me.  Turning his head, he said not a word, adopting the Stoic “Wayne look” while slowly shaking his head.  We prayed another vehicle would come along, but apparently, every other driver on that road had the foresight or wisdom to turn around.

This isolated dale would be our home for the night.  We had no food save for a coconut we couldn’t open.  We played cribbage for a couple of hours.  When twilight came, there was too little light to continue, so we crawled into our sleeping bags.  Giving our recent, less-than-friendly encounter with a posse of rather large and surly natives, Wayne retrieved the 14” screwdriver from the glove compartment – for protection throughout the night. 

The post card I mailed to Mom and Dad telling of our $237 purchase.

Morning arrived safely.  After several hours sitting around hungry and playing cribbage, a jeep came down the hill.  It was driven by this hip-looking guy and his sweet-looking girlfriend.  He stopped, listened to our tale of woe, and towed us back to safety.  We tried to pay him, but he wouldn’t take the money.  He told us of his T-shirt shop in Lahaina and we promised to stop in and buy something.  We drove back to Lahaina, with a solemn promise to never leave the safety of pavement again.  At the time Lahaina was a quiet, hippie-style town filled with shops selling turquoise jewelry, puka-shelled necklaces, and T-shirts.  And every third long-hair you passed whispered, “Want some bud, man?” 

It was there we met these two greaser-hippie-shyster dudes.  They told us of their cool condo called the Whaler up in Ka’anapali and we should follow them and check it out. Back then, Ka’anapali was less than a half dozen high-rise condos and nothing like the perfected tourist oasis of today.  So we navigated our rusty ‘56 Ford station wagon into the basement parking lot of the Whaler and zipped up the elevator to examine this posh 9th-floor condo with an ocean view. 

Once upon a time on the 9th floor balcony at the Whaler in Ka’anapali.

Wow, what a place!  Next, the greaser-hippie-shyster dudes pull out some Maui-Wowie bud and proceed to light up.  The pipe was passed around. And though we’d seen a lot of sunshine and slept out in the rain, unlike the John Denver song there was no talk of poems and prayers and promises and things that we believed in.  After the third hit, we stepped onto the balcony, looking straight down 150 feet.  That’s when the Maui-Wowie slammed us.  Wayne thought he could fly but fortunately didn’t.  We crawled off the balcony, said goodbye to the greasers, stumbled to the elevator, rambled through the parking lot searching for our car, got in, looked at each other, and realized – “We’re not in Enumclaw anymore.” It was the last time Wayne ever smoked anything stronger than tobacco.

Driving in a car, sleeping in a car, changing in a car, eating in a car, and living in a car grows wearisome after three weeks.  We were due for a change.  Back in Kihei, we ran into this Canadian dude who had a big condo with a pool and was staying there all by himself until his friend arrived a few days later, and he wondered if we wanted to move in for a while.  I can’t remember his name.  He liked to drink rum and coke – for breakfast with his cereal, at poolside in the afternoon, and nightcaps in the evening.  He was a lonely guy. 

In my electric blue Speedo, poolside at our Canadian’s Condo.

For our condo-warming gift, Wayne and I bought a case of beer, some food, and moved right in.  The second night we asked our Canadian host if he liked to play cards.  We started with a few games of cribbage, but it wasn’t long till the evening turned to poker. At first, it was small stakes – nickel-dime-quarter, but soon enough the game progressed to dollars-fives-tens.  When all was said and done, I was $125 richer and Wayne was up $75. A few hours earlier that $200 had been the property of our Canadian host – the lonely dude who invited us to stay in his condo; eat his food; swim in his pool; shower at his pad; and drink his rum and coke.  We were feeling a bit guilty, so the next day went out and bought steaks, and all manner of fancy food (including his favorite brand of cereal), plus more beer, rum, and coke.  We ended up spending most of our winnings on our host plus his two guests from Enumclaw.  Over the next few days, we ate well and drank well.  The Canadian’s friend finally arrived from Canada.

Back in Oahu visiting Pear Harbor.

Alas, all good things must end.  Wayne and I were running out of money and the Canadians were too smart to play poker with us.  Anyway, we had plans to meet Coppin on Oahu.  I have no idea how we made arrangements in those pre-technology days before e-mail, cell phones, and texts; when long-distance calls cost as much as a half-rack of beer.  We sold the car for $200, got a ride to the airport, and headed back to Honolulu.  Chris had flown in for a few days, courtesy of George Coppin and Pan American Airways. We went to the zoo, watched a whale and dolphin show, visited Pearl Harbor, saw Don Ho, and told tales from our Maui adventures.  I almost drowned, but that’s a story for another day. 

It’s all happening at the zoo with Chris Coppin and Wayne.

Eventually, it was time to go home.  Chris jetted back to Notre Dame while Wayne and I tried to fly home. We had standby tickets, but no flight called our names.  Of one thing I’m certain – it was March 29th.  That Monday night, we each sat in plastic airport chairs with small, built-in televisions costing $.50 per hour watching the Academy Awards on one channel and the 1976 NCAA basketball championship game on the other.  Eventually, we found a flight to San Francisco.  There was no connecting flight to Seattle so we stayed downtown at the Y.M.C.A., where clean rooms could be found for $8 per night.  This was a couple years before the Village People’s hit single, “Y.M.C.A.” changed public perceptions.  The next day we flew home to Seattle.

As for the meaning of our epic journey I can’t claim, we were born in the springtime of our 22nd year coming home to a place we’d never been before.  But we did have quite the time and our travel dollars went the distance.  We also made saved some pretty good memories.

Fittingly, I returned to Maui 35 years later on the Monday of the 2011 NCAA championship game, this time with Jennifer and our three sons.  We rented a bright red, Hyundai Tucson and stayed in an ocean-front condo in Kahana.  We made the drive to Haleakala Crater and skipped the drive to Hana.  We snorkeled and took photos with an underwater camera.  We played on boogie boards and body-surfed the shore break at D.T. Fleming beach.  We ate home-cooked meals in our full-suite, kitchen condo and enjoyed fine meals at nice restaurants.  We attended a Luau

Bill and Jenn, April 2011 in Maui.
Our three sons, Oliver, Henry, and Spencer – poolside in Maui, April 2011.

We drove to the places I’d remembered from 35 years prior, but most everything had changed.  I looked to find our yellow ‘56 Ford station wagon, but realized she was only 20-years-old when we owned her in 1976 and would now be 55-years-old.  On the way to the airport, I saw a flatbed truck hauling the crushed hulks of junk cars, and Neil Young’s song came to mind . . . long may you run; long may you run. 

We didn’t play cribbage, but each night I slept on a thick mattress in a king-size bed next to my wife with a cool breeze blowing in the window.  Some things change, some never do, but I wouldn’t change either trip to Maui . . . for all the sand on Makena beach.

  • Written on our United Airlines flight home from Maui to Seattle with a layover in San Francisco, April 11, 2011

 

Categories
Musings

Two Little Miners in Elk Coal

A child listens while pages turn.  He studies pictures as literacy begins on his mother’s knee.  He was three or four years old.  It wasn’t the first book read to him, for that happened well before memory.  And it wouldn’t be the last.  For little did he know that as he grew older, books would grow with him.

As for children’s books, I wasn’t fond of Br’er Rabbit stories, they didn’t make sense.  “Hansel and Gretel” rather frightened me—children left in a forest only to fall to the hands of a wretched old woman.  And really, Hansel, didn’t it occur that breadcrumbs trailed behind might get eaten? “Three Little Pigs” seemed too obvious on successive readings, but we read on.  I admired Goldilocks’ insistence on getting things just right.  She did after all get her fill of porridge, took a nap, and escaped unharmed.  “Old Mother Hubbard,” “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” were all fun stories to hear. 

But the book I loved best was Two Little Miners.  It spoke to me—most likely since both grandfathers were coal miners, as were a bunch of uncles. And so was Dad.  He operated mobile equipment, like bulldozers, shovels, and loaders outside the mines.  On special occasions, Mom packed an extra lunch bucket when I went to work with him.  If the day was nice, I played in freshly bulldozed dirt.  If it rained, I stayed in his pickup watching droplets become streams that wiggled down the windshield. 

We lived in the remnant of a forgotten town called Elk Coal.  Most pronounced it El-ko. Elk Coal, you ask?  It’s located halfway between Kanaskat and Kangley, pressed against the foothills of the Cascades.  The coal mine for which the town was named closed in 1953, the year I was born.  The shabby village fell further from grace as miners left.  Our family moved there from Selleck, one week before my first birthday.  The next day my sister, Jeanmarie, was born.  They called us Irish twins.

My earliest childhood memories belong to Elk Coal.  Further north was Hiawatha, where Dad was born in the same house where his parents still lived.  Sometimes my grandfather, Tony Kombol, babysat me.  An errant dynamite coal mine blast 30 years prior left him nearly blind with a face freckled purple from embedded coal dust.  Grandma Lulu taught school in nearby Selleck.  She was Barry’s first-grade teacher and beloved by every school kid she taught. 

Our home was a stone’s throw from Durham, where Mom was raised. It was once a company town.  Many of its residents were her uncles who worked in the coal mines and aunts who performed the many mundane chores that make a small town livable.

Her Uncle Jonas and Aunt Maggie managed the large brick building called the Durham hotel. It was really a boarding house for single miners. Twenty or more homes, built in rows along the hillside, housed most of Durham’s 70 to 80 residents. Some even worked the Elk Coal mines across the street.

Durham was fully deserted by the 1950s, but Elk Coal, situated on a county road, survived.  Durham’s impressive coal slag piles still dominated the landscape.  Its crumbling company houses were a source of lumber salvaged by Dad.  After he disassembled boards in the driveway, we scoured the gravel with horseshoe magnets picking up rusty nails. 

Our Elk Coal home still stands at 28603 Kanaskat-Kangley Road (April 1940 King County Assessor photo).

We lived in a four-room home my folks bought from Benj Whitehouse in late June 1954.  He’d been a coal miner in nearby Durham.  He built the house in 1930.  Its two bedrooms, one bath, and two porches spanned 952 square feet, and cost my folks $3,000.  Our yard bordered scrub woodlands on one side and a rundown farm on the other.  That’s where Anne Pearson, our babysitter, lived.

Rare was the day when kids our age visited, as none lived in Elk Coal.  Sometimes cousins would drop by, or maybe the Kahne boys—for their mother, Pat Hunt, had grown up there.  Two older kids, Billy and Dickie St. Clair, occasionally came by.  They lived next door to my Kombol grandparents half a mile up the road.  When Barry started school, Jeanmarie and I, a year and a day apart, became fast friends. 

Two hundred feet south of our home lay the Elk Coal gas station and grocery.  It was a tiny clue this village was once something more than a name.  Aileen (Pearson) Gregovich ran the store which served ice cream cones, had a penny candy counter, and carried basic canned and dry grocery goods.  Behind the cash register, one caught glimpse of a bedroom filled with musical instruments. A decade later, I learned the young man who studied music in that room was Aileen’s son, Bob Estby, Enumclaw’s choir director.  He too was a product of Selleck and Elk Coal.

The Elk Coal store and gas station. Our home was 200 yards beyond.

In my sophomore year at Enumclaw High, a chess team was established with Mr. Estby as coach.  Curiously, he didn’t play chess.  Practice was hosted in his classroom each day after school.  Every few weeks, he drove our five-boy team to matches played throughout the region.  For three years Bob was my mentor and coach.  Amazingly, he kept our chess team’s trophies for 40 years after we left school.  When Mr. Estby passed away, his daughter gave me those trophies.

The secluded nature of Elk Coal made for limited social lives.  The store was the brightest star on the horizon and a two-minute walk from home.  With pennies found atop the dryer, Jeanmarie and I walked there for candy.  We envied older kids who bought soda pop with nickels.  In that innocent time, Mom didn’t mind her three and four-year-olds, pennies in hand, wandering about unattended.  We napped together in separate cribs, those of a wooden-slat, jail-bar-style of the 1950s. When one awoke, we’d call across the tiny room to the other.  Soon we were chattering about.  Best of friends we were, for Barry was at school and Dana not yet born.

By May 1958,Jeanmarie (left) and I were too big for the old crib, as by now it belonged to Dana (right).

In the era before preschool, Jeanmarie and I played on our backyard swing set, hoping for visitors.  We sometimes saw an aunt or grandmother.  Desperate for excitement one day I hid on the back floorboard of Aunt Nola’s sedan after she visited with Mom.  I figured she was headed to Grandma’s and therein lay my escape.  Instead, she drove along to Mariani’s Goat Ranch.  Nola parked and went to buy eggs and visit.  I emerged from her car surprised we weren’t at Grandma’s, so drifted down the road with the vague idea of waking home.  I was picked by an adult who recognized me and promptly delivered me the mile and a half back to Mom.  It was that kind of place.

A typical King County bookmobile, or mobile library during the 1950s. Patrons entered on the side and exited the rear.

Each month a novel source of entertainment arrived.  That’s when the King County mobile library made its round to our secluded hamlet. The Bookmobile parked on the gravel strip across from our house where the road was widest.  Stepping anxiously through the side door, one entered a bus filled with books, any of which you could pick up and take home.  With Mom or Grandma in tow, we examined colorful covers then checked out volumes at the rear exit.  Upon its returned, we exchanged our previous cache for new selections. Once checked out, Two Little Miners through purchase or gift became part of our family’s library. 

The Little Golden Book had a thin hard binding.  Its child-sized pages were treasured art to these young eyes.  The story by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Richard Scarry was published in 1949.  Earlier books like, Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny had a rhythm and style.  Nearly 70 years after Brown’s tragic death at age 42, they still sold by the thousands. 

The copy I bought online more than five decades after it was first read to me.

Two Little Miners was Richard Scarry’s first illustration.  In subsequent years he wrote or drew more than 300 stories.  His sales eventually soared to several hundred million copies worldwide.  Typical of Scarry’s drawings was their emphasis on action with precise detail in depicting everyday life.  Two Little Miners tells the tale of coal miners and their hard work underground.  The story’s happy ending was reason enough to have it read again and again.  Memories of the book are warmly juxtaposed with Sunday evenings watching the Wonderful World of Disney in our cozy living room. 

We moved to Enumclaw in December 1958.  Kindergarten wasn’t available in Elk Coal, so I joined Mrs. Todnam’s class in January, halfway through the school year.  Many of the classmates I met that first day of school graduated with me twelve years later. 

Mrs. Todnam’s kindergarten class photo on a spring day, 1959.

Enumclaw was The Land of Oz compared to Elk Coal.   My eyes were opened and the world brightened. We’d left the dreary and arrived in a real town.  Our neighborhood had stately churches with steeples that reached towards the sky.  Paved streets, grass medians, and concrete sidewalks outlined blocks of well-kept homes.  Front yards boasted rhododendrons with flowers that bloomed in spring.   A thriving downtown with stores, cafes, and a movie theater was but a five-minute walk from home. 

Kids were everywhere—at school, in back yards, and throughout the neighborhood.  Our isolated existence in Elk Coal faded in memory. Enumclaw became my town and playing with kids my passion.

While Mom still read books to us at bedtime, my interests stretched well beyond fairy tales on printed pages.  There was football to be played and baseballs to be thrown; skates to be rolled and bicycles to ride.  There were streets to walk and alleys to explore.  But mostly there were boys everywhere. 

Jeanmarie was crushed when I dumped her for their companionship.  Oh, we still bathed together on Saturday night and stayed inside on rainy days playing board games or listening to records.  But once I stepped outside the backdoor my focus changed.  No longer was Jeannie my best friend and faithful companion with whom we would one day live together like two little miners.  My world was now messing around with other boys.  In some ways, I’m not entirely convinced she ever fully forgave me.

My walk to the clean brick school building was five blocks away.  At Byron Kibler Elementary we were taught under the “see Dick run – look, Jane, look” method.  It’s called sight-reading and its efficacy I’ll leave to others.  For me it was agonizingly slow, but apparently did the trick for learn to read I did. 

Billy and Barry walk to Kibler school, May 1960.

There was even a modern library four blocks from our Franklin Street home.  Alas, it was largely ignored as sporting fields beckoned.  Though I had a library card and could search index cards to find books, my dreams of being shortstop for the Detroit Tigers placed reading them firmly on the back burner.  How much the newspaper’s sports section and baseball box scores advanced my reading skills is substantial.  Comic books, particularly the Archie and the Superman series became my primary sources of literature outside of school.

It wasn’t until junior high—when paperbacks like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Mysterious Island captured my imagination—that I was first drawn to printed pages without pictures or batting averages.  I also became an avid reader of magazines starting with Boys Life, migrating through MAD to Sports Illustrated, before graduating to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.  Mom’s purchase of a complete, multi-volume, Collier’s Encyclopedia provided free reign for our inquisitive spirits.  It also made school reports much easier to complete, with fewer trips to the library. 

More advanced volumes like All Quiet on the Western Front and Hiroshima followed.  High school introduced captivating novels like A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, plus Lord of the Flies, 1984, and several others.

I’ll be forever thankful to our senior English teacher, Bill Hawk.  That spring semester, he recited the entirety of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet out loud to the class.  It was almost like being back on Mom’s knee.  College years were consumed with textbooks and assigned readings, so pleasure reading faded.  After graduation, the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Maugham, and Austen beckoned.  Eventually, my reading tastes evolved towards nonfiction particularly history, biography, politics, and culture. 

Mr. Bill Hawk (left) – his casual style and collegial manner inspired a love for literature, EHS spring 1971.

Decades passed, I married, and we raised three boys of our own.  Stories at bedtime became an evening ritual.  New children’s books were bought. Some of the old folk and fairy tale books were recycled from Mom to me.

One day I found the crayon-riddled, torn copy of Two Little Miners.  Foggy memories sifted back.  The old copy was beyond redemption, but the rise of online book-buying made finding a replacement a cinch.  The used copy arrived.  Fingering its worn pages released unexpected emotions.  The story endured: two little miners black as coal, scrubbed clean in wooden bathtubs, sit down to dinner.  Arising the next morning their lives of mining coal are told in exquisite detail, concluding with baths and supper on the table.  Though most pages were black and white, the ones in color are striking. 

It’s funny how childhood memories seize the mind of a fully grown man.  My thoughts turned to Elk Coal.  I toured the world’s vast web seeking evidence to confirm youthful recollections.  ‘Elk Coal’ was typed in the Google search box and up popped … nothing!  I tried Elko and Elco—still zilch.  I scoured all manner of keywords generating little better than Elk Plains, Elk River, or Big Elk. There were no links that even mentioned Elk Coal, Washington.  It seemed like an important part of my childhood didn’t exist outside of memories. 

“If it isn’t digital it didn’t happen,” is a fashionable view of today’s world. Following the French Revolution, a dramatist attributed to Napoleon the slogan, “If you want something done, do it yourself.”  I felt the same way. 

How could the curious people of Planet Earth enjoy full and fruitful lives knowing nothing of Elk Coal’s heritage?  Being an amateur historian, the answer was easy—I’d write its history.  Like any coal miner, I dug deep underground, excavated newspaper stories, and unearthed ancient mine reports.  I was in the fortunate position of having access to source documents allowing the narrative to be told. I submitted “Elk Coal: Forgotten Coal Mining Town,” to HistoryLink.org where it was published in May 2010.  Today, if you query Google regarding Elk Coal, several references now populate the list.  

The link below tells the story of that faded outpost where four of my first five years were lived.  For me it’s the place where literacy began … in Elk Coal with Two Little Miners.  

https://www.historylink.org/File/9419

Billy, the three-year-old future author, gazes intently at the camera, while Jeanmarie climbs and Barry swings, as Sugarloaf Mountain looms in the distance, July 1956.

 

Categories
Musings

A Tribute to My Mother: Pauline Lucile Kombol

“Our being in this world is not accidental.  We all have a mission to do some special work, and it is work that will honor Him and bless those around us.  If we do not find that work and do it, our life is a failure; the true end of living is not realized.   We may not learn in a moment; but step-by-step, day by day, as we go on things will be made clearer.  Those who do the smallest things well because they are God’s plan, are to be honored far above those who do great things for the world’s praise.”  – Nancy Matilda Hembree (1837-1922)

Nancy Matilda (Hembree) Snow (1837-1922)

Thus spoke Pauline’s great-grandmother, Nancy Matilda (Hembree) Snow decades before my Mother was conceived.  Pauline Lucile Morris was born to John Henry and Nina Marie, both had the last name Morris.  She was as Welsh as one could be.  Her father was a coal miner and her mother a school teacher.  Both her grandfathers and great-grandfathers worked in the coal industry.  Her great-grandmother, Nancy was a pioneer of the 1843 Oregon Trail. 

Pauline grew up in the coal mining town of Durham surrounded by an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins most of whom worked in or around the mines.  Her family moved to Enumclaw when she was six, first to a hop farm in Osceola and later a home above Newaukum Creek.  At school she made life-long friends many of whom are here today.  She edited the school newspaper and annual, graduating from Enumclaw in 1945, just as World War II ended.  Her obituary claims she briefly attended the University of Washington.  The truth . . . for about 15 minutes

Pauline Morris, left with Shirley Stergion in front of Enumclaw High School, circa 1944.

After a short stint in Seattle, she landed back home working at the Palmer Coking Coal mine office at Four Corners.  There she pumped gas and helped with bookkeeping.  In 1950, she and Jack Kombol eloped to California and married.  Eventually the couple made their way back to Selleck, where Barry, Jeannie and I first lived, and then to Elk Coal where Dana was born, just a quarter mile from the Durham of Mom’s childhood.

Mom had six life-changing experiences: Barry, Billy, Jeannie and Dana; but two others I’d like to tell you about.  Her second baby, a daughter Paula Jean died two days after birth.  Mom used to say that after the loss of that baby, she loved the rest of us so very much, so that she would never lose another child.  One day years later, Jeannie and I rambunctiously raced around the living room, and Mother’s prized china cup collection crashed to the floor shattering every piece.  Despite her initial sadness, Mom decided then and there that she would never value any possession more than the people in her life.

Pauline holding her second son, who 58 years later read this eulogy at her funeral, Sept. 1953.

Our family moved to Enumclaw in 1958.  There Pauline joined civic life as a den mother, Camp Fire leader, election-day poll worker, raising money for the March of Dimes, helping elderly aunts, and later caring for her own mother.  There she ran the home – baking cookies, canning homemade jam, making pies – always from scratch and never with a recipe or measured ingredients.  Menus were traditional and set: Friday – fish or tuna noodle casserole; Saturday – hamburgers; Sunday – fried chicken or pot roast; Monday – meat loaf, and so on.  We never had soda pop or potato chips, but did enjoy Kool-aid and homemade frozen popsicles.  Each summer we took vacations with the Cerne’s to Grayland and Hoods Canal – I later learned that we stayed at the same Beacon Point cabins where her family vacationed when she was young.

One of the big events of our lives was the family trip to Europe in 1968.  Mom researched and found our Welsh and Croatian relatives and planned our journey through ten countries in six weeks.  Using her dog-eared copy of Europe on $10 a Day, Mom found cheap pensions and small family-run hotels to fit her tight budget.  Jack drove us across Europe in a small station-wagon jammed with six people and 13 suitcases.  We played Hearts in the backseat and listened to Radio Luxemburg with Danica stuffed back amongst the luggage.

The Kombol family portrait, 1967.

In later years we spent our summers at Lake Sawyer where Dad built a cabin.  During one particularly inebriated summer party, Mom earned the nickname ‘Carrie Nation’ when she raced around the cabin pouring out booze and opening the tap of the keg refrigerator watching cold beer spill to the ground. 

In early 1979 Jack was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within 3 weeks.  A night before he died, he called me to his bedside and said, “I want you to take care of your mother.”  Since the girls were away and Barry was married with a growing family, the primary duty of caring for Mom fell to me.  So, I frequented her home where she cooked me delicious dinners.  And, made sure I brought my laundry so she could wash it.  And, she hemmed my pants and sewed buttons on my shirts; and, always sent me home with casseroles, lentil soup, and blackberry pies.  It seemed the more I tried taking care of Mom, the more she took care of me.  And who could ever forget the summer Keith Timm Jr. moved in with Mom and me.  Then there were two of us . . . “to take care” of Mom.

Pauline and her three siblings, Evan Morris, Betty Falk, and Jack Morris, June 18, 1977.

During the early years after Dad’s death, she kept herself busy on the Enumclaw School Board and as a Director of Cascade Security Bank.  But like a caterpillar, she spun her cocoon waiting to find the wings of the butterfly she became.  And that she did.  I can’t claim credit for pushing her out of the nest – I was too busy “taking care of her.”  But off she flew – first to Seattle where she bought a condo and found friends through extension classes and her beloved movie group.  More grandchildren were born and off she went to care for them.  She enjoyed traveling and over the years took trips to Russia, China, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere.  She loved her time in Lincoln City, and eventually spent her winters, first in Palm Springs and later Scottsdale. 

Coal Miners’ Daughters: with Loretta Lynn at Sesame Street studios, circa 1983.

Around the turn of the century, a wonderful gentleman entered into Mom’s life.  His name was Cal Bashaw.  He was a widower born the same year as my Dad.  Mom and Cal had known each other from their days as bank directors.  Well, I have to admit that Cal and I have radically different styles.  When he started to “take care of” Mom; he did things like always helping her with her coat; opening doors; helping with her chair, fixing things around the house, running errands, taking her out to dinner, and always being there to care for her needs.  It seemed the more we were around Cal, the more my own lovely wife began pointing out all of Cal’s far-too-many good traits.  I started hearing things like, “Why can’t you be more like Cal?”  Basically, Cal’s caring manner made my previous efforts to “take care of” Mom look fairly absurd.

Cal Bashaw, Pauline, and grandson Henry, Christmas 2004.

But truly, Mom and Cal had a wonderful ten years together.  And if only more people were like Cal, and like Mom, the world would be a far better place. 

So, I come to the end, but also the beginning: the beginning of our lives without Pauline, without her sunshine.

Still, her light still shines – a small, bright star to guide me – to guide me through the darkness and back to life.  So until that day when my light joins hers, I will rest easily, knowing that Pauline led a good life; a life worth living; a life which blessed those around her; a life of small things done well – done not for the world’s praise; but done through an honored existence, dedicated to her friends and to her family, and lived according to God’s plan.

Pauline Morris, graduation photo – Enumclaw Class of 1945.

And, if she were here today  . . . I’ll let you complete the thought.

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Giving Thanks to Mr. Hanson

Seated in the front pew of Maple Valley Presbyterian Church on a Sunday in late November, I listened to a sermon delivered by Pastor David Diehl.  It was a good one.  His words were drawn from many sources but grounded in simple lessons.  The Thanksgiving message was focused on the wonder of life’s blessings and how each of us has been enriched by others.  As the sermon drew to a close, he laid down a challenge – think of a person who’s touched your life, in a small way or large, then write a letter of gratitude to let them know you remember.  Perhaps to a parent, or uncle, aunt, teacher, boss, friend, or some hero who has no idea you still care.  Every good action demands a deadline.  Pastor David suggested this week or better yet why not today?

Meditating upon the homily, I considered my life’s journey in search of a juncture when someone’s action set me on the path I followed.  Several candidates no longer walked the earth, never knowing how they helped me in a time on need.  It felt sad for it was no longer possible to say, “thank you.”  There’s nothing like feelings of guilt as inspiration to be a better person. 

A week later, I’d done little more than imagine the letter that could be written.  Good intentions though admirable, produce few results.  A wise uncle regularly reminded, “The longest journey begins with the first step.” 

My school boy days came to mind.  There were plenty of kind and thoughtful teachers at the four Enumclaw schools I’d attended.  Many were influential.  But which of many made a significant impact on my life?  A decision was made, my letter would be to Mr. Hanson, who taught a one-semester class in economics at Enumclaw High School.  It took some time to compose what I wanted to say but finally mailed it a week before Christmas.

I didn’t hear back from Mr. Hanson.  Unbeknownst to me his health was failing.  A few months later news reached me that Wesley A. Hanson lay dead at age 75.  While golfing with one of his sons, Mike told me how my letter found a treasured place in his desk during the last months of his life.  He’d read it time and again.  It was a bittersweet revelation.

So, here is my sermon – far shorter than Pastor Diehl’s and lacking in eloquence.  Write a letter to someone precious in your life.  Let them know you’re thankful and still think of them.  For this is what Thanksgiving is all about – giving thanks.  Here’s what I wrote:

Mr. Hanson at his lectern listening to a student’s answer (1970 Cascadian).

December 18, 2006

Dear Mr. Hanson:

It was the autumn of 1969.  The previous summer witnessed the moon landing of Apollo 11, the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charlie Manson family, Woodstock, and my 16th birthday.  I could now drive.  Soon the fall semester of my junior year would arrive and among my classes were English, advanced Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish 3/4, Typing, and a new offering – Economics.  The class was taught by a certain Wes Hanson, the father of a friend of my brother.  Word had it that Mr. Hanson convinced the educational powers that be, allowing him to teach an informative one semester class to supplement the usual world history and contemporary problem classes.  Late in my sophomore year, I signed up for Economics on the conviction that it would be a college preparatory class.

My ASB card and photo from Sept. 1969.

The next four and one-half months proved most enlightening.  Mr. Hanson taught in his very likable style peppering instruction with stories from his days dealing with farm products in the great American plains.  Each Friday was a 25 question test in true / false or multiple choice formats.  Each Monday, the test results were returned and my paper was usually found to have 24 or 25 correct answers.  By the end of the semester, not only had I earned an A, but also an enduring respect for the subject and the man who taught us.  It would prove to be a lifetime love. 

Not only did Mr. Hanson teach Economics, I also had him for Government, 2nd semester.

Over the next several years I read newspapers and magazines, closely following the economic issues of the day, from Milton Friedman’s proposed negative income tax for replacing welfare, to the heady days of August 1971 when President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls.  During summers after my junior and senior years, I had a job selling Popsicles and ice cream bars from a three-wheel Cushman scooter in the suburban neighborhoods of east hill Kent.  From my cousin, Dan Silvestri (who owned the business), I learned that long hours of selling ice cream and a sliding 20-24% commission scale would net me $25 to $30 per day.  Working almost every day of the week has merit, because you never have time to spend your earnings, especially living at home during high school summers. 

With my bulging bank account of a couple thousand dollars earned during two summers selling ice cream; a daily job filling the coal stoker at my dad’s downtown Enumclaw building; writing weekly newspaper stories for the Courier-Herald; and working at Palmer Coking Coal on Saturdays, I headed off to the University of Washington in September 1971. 

I took typical introductory classes, not quite sure what to study.  I liked the idea of making money and had my one semester background in high school economics to prove it.  I also had a cousin in the Popsicle business who told me stories of his own ups and downs in the stock market. 

So, as any prudent (impudent?) 18-year-old would do, one day I rode a bus from the University district to downtown Seattle then marched into the local Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith office.  There I opened an account with one-half the earnings from my various high school jobs.  Four months earlier, Merrill Lynch became the first New York Stock Exchange brokerage firm to offer its shares to the public.  It was the name I knew.

My cousin Dan provided me with a ‘tip’ so I bought 100 shares of Pan Am stock for about $10 per share.  Each day, I dutifully read the stock tables in the Seattle Times or P-I.  My heart jumped or sank with every 1/8th or 1/4th point movement.  Several months later with Pan Am safely in the mid $14s, I sold and pocketed a nice three hundred dollar profit after commissions.  I was hooked.  Making $300 in the stock market was a lot easier than working 12-hour days selling Popsicles. 

From the 1969 Cascadian, the year Enumclaw students were first introduced to Mr. Hanson.

It was the spring quarter of my first year of college.  Among the several survey courses one took as a freshman, I selected Introduction to Economics.  It was taught to 600 dozing students in a huge auditorium that college administrators called a classroom.  It was a standard course for many (hence the size of the class) and a requirement for a number of majors, mainly business.  Thanks to my half semester in Mr. Hanson’s class, I excelled in Econ 200.  So, of course I took Econ 201 (Microeconomics), the second of the two-part introduction to what’s often termed ‘the dismal science.’  Again, I did well. 

My pragmatic nature calculated if I found a subject easy, that should be the subject for me.  I continued with classes in economics and sure enough by next year was majoring in Econ.  During one of those classes, students were given cut-rate subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal.  It’s the newspaper I read to this day.  To make a long story short, I studied hard, did well, and graduated with a B.A. in Economics, magna cum laude

Mr. Hanson was a winner in the classroom and as coach. Here he tells Bill Wheeler what a winner looks like (from the Nov. 26, 1969 Hornet newspaper).

Some philosophers and historians believe an individual is little more than a floating cork in an ocean of tides and currents too strong to resist. They call this determinism.  Others contend each individual is capable of free will and even small events in a person’s life can have profound affects, not only on one person, but upon history.   Though acknowledging the former, I’ve found life much more interesting by subscribing to the latter. I believe one small event – taking a semester course in economics from a high school teacher I highly respect – had a profound influence on my life. 

Another high school subject that proved fundamental was Mr. Worthington’s humanities class.  There we learned that ancient Greeks thought four questions worth asking: “Who am I?”  “Where did I come from?”  “Where am I going?” and “What is the meaning of life?  I’ve spent most time on the second question. 

In trying to answer “Where I came from,” I’ve written a letter to a person who may not know how big of impact his high school class had on one student.  Mr. Hanson – you are that person; your high school course was that impact; and I was that student.  Now, I can’t claim one student, taking a class and going to college to major in economics is going to change the course of human history.  But what I can tell you is how very grateful I am to you for that class you taught 37 years ago.  And for the energy and enthusiasm you put into a subject you loved.  And for the difference you’ve made in my life. 

Though, I admit that my preoccupation with all things ‘economic’ wasn’t always my smartest choice.  It too often diverted my attention from more important things in life.  Perhaps I took too long to fall in love.  But when I did, it was with the right girl, at the right time, and our marriage has brought forth three delightful boys who are the apples of my eye.  No one would suggest I owe this all to you. 

But, I want to say thank you for one very small thing you did, a very long time ago.  Because you might not have otherwise realized how you made such a very large impact on this person’s life. 

You are one of my heroes . . . and you probably didn’t even know it!

Yours truly . . . and truly a student of yours,

Bill Kombol