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Some Impressions of Japan

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Japanese rail stations were always clean and efficient.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A typical Japanese taxi driver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The five Kombols: Spencer, Bill, Jennifer, Oliver, and Henry in Fujiyoshida (near Mt. Fuji) on Christmas Day, 2017.
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Ten Album Turning Points – Desert Island Discs

Who didn’t love album covers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Alone Again, Naturally

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Back in the Summer of ‘69

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

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

Woodstock Music Festival logo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Musings

Come Saturday Morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Musings Uncategorized

Epistle for Mr. McGreen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Categories
Musings

‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Maurice Hotel on Post Street in downtown San Francisco.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juan Marichal’s high leg kick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories
Musings Uncategorized

My Week in Ireland with a Welsh Rugby Team

This essay came from a letter written to my parents from Middle Mille, Wales.  It was completed from memories of what I left out.  Back then, I was too embarrassed to tell Mom and Dad the rest of the story. 

April 24, 1978

Dear Mom & Dad:

Well, it’s been some time since I last wrote so I thought to dash off a few lines to keep you up to date.  By the time you receive this letter, Scott (Hamilton) should be back in the States, although not necessarily in Washington.  I’ve been here at Scott’s since my last letter, save for a brief sojourn to Ireland where I met up with a Welsh rugby team and toured around with them.  They were really friendly and a lot of fun.  I got to see my first rugby match and did a heck of a lot of something that Welsh rugby clubs do best – drink beer.

In the pub after the game with the Welsh rugby team.

Actually, it was a very strange week.  I met these guys my first night in a pub after I’d ferried from Fishguard, Wales and made my way to the town of Wexford on the southeast coast of Ireland.  They were staying in a big hotel and one of the mates said, “There’s plenty of room at our hotel, so why not come stay with us and go on tour?”  That sounded fine so I did.

I kind of became their mascot and they all called me “Yank,” never bothering to learn my name.  I endeared myself to the club (guys about my age) after their first match.  We were all sitting in the opposing Irish team’s pub.  We were drinking beer, lots of Irish-made Guinness, and eating sandwiches and drinking more beer and singing songs, and having a cracking good time.

The Tonna boys wore red and white.

The Welsh love to sing and we sang almost every song they knew (no not really, there is no end to the number of songs they know).  So, one of the Tonna boys (as they called themselves being from Tonna, Wales near Neath Port Talbot) challenged me to lead the guys in song.  He was a big, fat, long-haired, red-headed oaf named Daffy, but a heck of a nice guy too.

The Tonna Rugby Football Club emblem.

With cheering and jostling they stood me atop this heavy wooden table.  I had to do something and started singing the one song I was guaranteed to remember all the lyrics.  I led them in a rousing rendition of “If I Had a Hammer,” which they all got the biggest kick out of.  After that, I became “one of the boys,” as they’re fond of saying.

Love, Bill

Note: The letter to Mom and Dad describing my time with the rugby team ended here, leaving out the untold story of the rest of my week.

We continued traveling up the east coast of Ireland stopping at small towns along the way.  They played rugby in the late morning; we drank beer in pubs each afternoon; then back to our hotel for more drinking and some nights playing poker.  I even taught them a game or two.  The pattern continued for several days: big hotel breakfasts, sandwiches and Guinness at pubs, then more frivolity until falling to bed.  By this time everybody liked me so much I was almost one of the team, primarily as ‘Yank’ their lucky charm.

The Tonna Rugby Football Club (RFC) photo after a match.

Our final destination was Dublin where they’d catch a ferry back to Wales and I’d tour the Irish capital.  So far, my sightseeing in Ireland consisted of rugby pitches and public houses.  In Dublin fair city we found ourselves in Temple Bar, a lively district where patrons poured themselves from one pub to the next.  Many have street-side windows which open fully guaranteeing easy camaraderie between those in pubs and those passing by.

We’d been good mates for several days and planted ourselves for a sendoff glass to conclude our camaraderie.  After a couple pints, I begged forgiveness and bid farewell. With travel bag in hand, I said my goodbyes to each and wandered the streets of Dublin in search of lodging for the night.  Temple Bar has a confusing hodgepodge of meandering streets and alleys where it’s easy to circle back around.  After surveying several cheap hotels and B & Bs, I found myself walking past the very pub I’d left an hour before.  Cries of “Hey Yank!” were shouted and I laughingly saluted my old friends.  They waved me in and no sooner seated than a pint appeared.  One led to another, and soon I was thoroughly soused.

Relaxing after a ruby match and an afternoon in a pub.

The hours rolled by as we laughed and drank into the night.  They’d be catching the midnight ferry to Holyhead for the long bus ride back to Tonna.  My mind was a muddle – do I leave the pub, drunk as a skunk to find lodging?  Or cast my lot with this scrum and travel back to Wales?  It was late Saturday night and frankly, I was in no position to walk a straight line let alone find shelter.  Choosing the path of least resistance, I stumbled on the bus for a short ride to the ferry.

The Irish seas were choppy that night.  The ferryboat listed in rhythmic patterns perfectly calibrated to agitate a drunk’s equilibrium.  The details of my seasickness are as shabby as I felt and shan’t be detailed here.  The ferry landed and we were back on the bus for the 200-mile journey south along twisting roads to Tonna.  The all-night trip was gruelingly slow and sleep agonizingly fitful.

Upon arrival, Richard, one of the footballers offered a room in the row house where he lived with his folks.  We hit the rack that morning and slept until 2 pm.  I awoke that afternoon with a monstrous hangover.  I drank plenty of water trying to salve my aching brain.  Richard’s mum was a sweet lady who fixed us tea and biscuits.  It was the finest cup of tea I’ve ever tasted.  Oh, that lovely cup of tea, how it soothed my throbbing skull.

In small Welsh towns, locals gravitate to their clubs for the evening’s entertainment. Richard, his dad, and I wandered along to the Tonna RFC clubhouse.  It’s somewhat akin to an Eagles lodge in the U.S.  The largest room was filled with trophies in display cases surrounding tables where young and old rugby players socialized.  Not just the boys I’d traveled with, but their fathers, uncles, and townsfolk who played the sport a generation before. Another pint of ale was probably the last thing I needed, but being a polite young man I good-naturedly accepted and thus began another evening of drinking.   Being Sunday night we left at a reasonable hour.  Early the next morning I bid adieu to Richard who was off to work.  I then enjoyed a pleasant cup of tea with his mum before heading to the town’s station.

My week with this Welsh rugby team thankfully came to an end.  It was time for me to dry out and find my bearings.  I caught a bus to Haverfordwest and made the one-mile walk to Middle Mille for several more days with Scott before his planned departure and mine.  My next stop was London town.

Scott Hamilton’s home in the tiny village of Middle Mille was once the town’s public house, now called pubs.

Postscript: Seven years later, I realized alcohol was not my friend.  The story of May 26, 1985, the day I quit drinking is still being lived. It was the second-best decision I ever made. 

 

Categories
Musings

Abraham, Martin and PCC

In the fall of 1968, Dion released a song that touched my soul.  About the same time, I started working Saturdays at a job that defined my life.  I still work there today.  This is the story of the song, that job, and a 15-year-old boy.

The Beatles’ single “Hey Jude” backed by “Revolution” dominated the airwaves. The Detroit Tigers, my favorite baseball team would soon play in the World Series. A presidential election heated up following a deadly political year culminating in riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago.

Kris Galvin and I were freshly minted sophomores. Each day after school we played a board game called Mr. President. Two players strategized their way to victory by assembling a majority of votes in the Electoral College.  In the real election, Nixon did just that, defeating Hubert Humphrey while George Wallace carried five states.

In late September, I began a new job at Palmer Coking Coal as their Saturday boy.  After a day of training, I was in charge of the Black Diamond office from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., though typically worked longer.  I didn’t yet drive so Dad dropped me off each morning, picking me up a little after noon.

 

The mine office of Palmer Coking Coal on Highway 169, about the time I started working there.

The work consisted of sacking coal, answering phones, and operating a scale—but mostly selling nut and stoker coal to old guys driving pickup trucks.  It was quite a thrill to command an office, poke about in drawers, make change, and run the store.  I earned $1.00 per hour, paid with money drawn from the cash drawer and replaced with a handwritten receipt.

Dad signed for my wages and I’d take a $5 bill out of the drawer. Three years later when I left this job, I was earning $2 per hour. (I found this old receipt 40 years later in a box in the attic at the same mine office where I first started).

It wasn’t always busy so after reading the P-I, I tuned the radio to KJR-95.  My youth’s mind remembers where and what I was doing when certain songs played.  That October, I heard Dion DiMucci sing a gentle folk tribute to the assassinated heroes, “Abraham, Martin and John.”  The final lyrics delivered a stanza for Bobby Kennedy.

“Has anybody here seen my old friend Bobby

Can you tell me where he’s gone?

I thought I saw him walkin’ up over the hill

With Abraham, Martin and John.” Dick Holler

Dion’s single next to Bill Kombol on his first day of high school, Sept. 3, 1968.

I was a fervent reader of newspapers and convinced Mom to buy a subscription to U.S. News & World Report.  On the last day of March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the presidency.  Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis four days later.

On June 6th, the Kombol family checked into the Hotel Austria on Fleischmarkt Street in Vienna.  The tragic news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination splashed across the front pages of every paper on the newsstand.  The photo of 17-year-old, Juan Romero cradling the head of a fallen senator in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel has haunted me ever since.  An old Austrian woman draped in a black shawl stood in the lobby hissing, practically spitting the words out, “Johnson, Johnson!”

 Kombol family in Austria, L-R: Jeanmarie, Pauline, Bill, Barry, Dana. June 1968.

Dion’s song was poignant and melancholy.  It tugged at my heart while coaxing a tear.  Soon the three-minute radio broadcast was over.  It might be hours until it played.  I wanted to hear it time and again.

Work ended and I was home in the afternoon.  I usually fixed tomato soup and cheese-toast for lunch then listened to the Huskies on the radio.  Only the rarest of U.W. football games were broadcast on television.  Later friends and I might play a game of touch football at the Kibler school playground.  Time passes quickly in adolescence and evening came soon enough.  Dinner was promptly at 6 p.m.  Mom always made hamburgers on Saturday night.

While the song was introduced my first months of high school, “Abraham, Martin and John,” made a cameo appearance shortly after graduation.  A collage by Tom Clay joined “What the World Needs Now Is Love” to live broadcasts of the assassinations introduced by snippets from Dion’s hit.  That summer of 1971, I worked long hours selling popsicles east of Kent and often drove home listening to the six-minute spoken word hymn.

I never really left Palmer Coking Coal.  During college, I spent summers as a laborer.  I worked the afternoon shift at the Rogers No. 3 my senior year.  It closed a few months later, the last underground coal mine in Washington.  After graduating, I joined Palmer for employment stints of two and three months when no other adventure called.

On of my  stints working for Palmer involved relocating parts of the Stergion cement plant in Enumclaw to Black Diamond  With money made from those three months, I traveled to Hawaii with my high school buddy, Wayne Podolak, Jan. 1976.

In August 1978, I began full-time employment at PCC, back on the picking table.  A decade of college, loafing, banking, odd jobs, and traveling landed me back where I’d begun 10 years earlier.  Four years later, I was appointed Manager of the company.  The following summer we celebrated Palmer Coking Coal’s 50th anniversary. I was 29-years-old.

In early 1979, I was brought into the office to learn how to run the business. I sat across my uncle Charlie Falk who snapped this picture.  I continued to sit at the same desk for the next 44 years, Summer 1979.

It’s now 40 years down the road.  I’ll soon be leaving full-time employment at PCC.  It’s where I’ve spent all but two years of my working career.  Of these things I’m certain––this job and that tune will forever remain in my heart, intertwined in a romantic ballad where the only constant is change.

I look back with nostalgia yet forward in anticipation.  How these next adventures unfold will be the continuing story of my life.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Post Script: Here’s the short story of Dion’s life and the song that changed mine.  Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 to Italian-American parents in the Bronx.  Teaming with friends from Belmont Avenue, Dion and the Belmonts scored their first hit in 1958 with “I Wonder Why.”

While on the 1959 winter concert tour with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper; the bus’s heating system gave out so Holly charted a plane to their next venue.  Dion balked at paying $36, his share for the flight because it was the rent amount his parents struggled to pay each month.  The plane crashed, killing all on board.

Dion split from the Belmonts in 1960, pursuing a solo career with hits like “Run-Around Sue” and “Donna.”  After continually humming Dion’s rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the Disney movie Pinocchio, Brian Wilson composed the Beach Boy’s ballad, “Surfer Girl,” in 1963   It was his very first composition.

Dion Now & Then is how I titled my Dion tribute CD compilation.

Dion was one of only two rock artists to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.  Bob Dylan was the other.  With changing tastes from the British Invasion and a growing heroin addiction, Dion started recording blues numbers in the mid-1960s.  His records failed to sell so he lost his contract.

In April 1968, Dion experienced a powerful religious awakening.  He gave up heroin and his label agreed to re-sign him if he’d record “Abraham, Martin and John.”  The single was released that August, reaching #4 on the charts in October.  It was written by Dick Holler, composer of the Royal Guardsman’s novelty hit, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”

In the 1980s, Dion became a born-again Christian, releasing five albums highlighting his evangelical convictions.  In June 2020 at age 81, Dion released his most recent album, “Blues with Friends” featuring a range of artists including Jeff Beck, John Hammond, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Coda: On a warm summer evening in the early 1960s, Billy Kombol stood at the door of the open-air dance pavilion at Barrett’s Lake Retreat resort, mesmerized by the sight of teenagers dancing to the jukebox sounds of Dion and the Belmonts.

Categories
Musings

First Tastes of Mortality

“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever.” – Tom Stopppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

More than fifty years ago, two grandparents died on the same day.  It was the last day of summer, and the first time anyone close to me had died.

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
                                    – Leonard Lipton / Peter Yarrow

Released in Jan. 1963, Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” soon topped the charts.

I remember those first thoughts about dying.  It was the spring of 1963 and I was nine years old.  Grandma and Grandpa Morris lived in a large, white, country home west of Enumclaw on McHugh Street.  The radio played in the background.  The number one song was “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul & Mary.  It’s a children’s song wrapped in fabled lyrics released during the height of the folk era.  I’d heard it before, but never fully absorbed this line: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.”  My tenth birthday would be in a month or so.

Grandma (Nina Marie Morris) was in the early stages of dementia which even a boy could recognize.  She was easily confused.  One day, Billy Hawthorne (the son of Grandma’s part-time caregiver) and I played a cruel trick on her by hiding in the closet.  We watched her search for us in vain.  After frantic calls we reappeared, only to see a vacant look of despair on her bewildered face.  Mom explained she had hardening of the arteries, causing blood to flow slowly to her brain, meaning she couldn’t think as clearly as before.  She was ill and wouldn’t get better.  I felt bad about our trick.

Grandpa and Grandma – Jack and Marie Morris, a night on the town in San Francisco, 1959.

The song ended but a feeling lingered – I wouldn’t be a little boy much longer.  Just like Jackie Paper, my imaginary dragons and toy soldiers would soon be gone.  Those wistful feelings of melancholy floated in the wind like the down of a dandelion.

One evening that summer, I lay in bed.  It was a Friday or Saturday night.  Next to my bed was a cheap AM radio.  Late at night, I spun the dial picking up a distant station in Salt Lake City and listened to the final innings of a baseball game.  It ended and the nightly news was read – “At 12:01 a.m., a convicted murderer on death row will be executed by firing squad.  Growing tired I turned off the radio and saw a blindfolded prisoner led to a brick courtyard.  The moment passed but the memory remained – a boy, the radio, a distant broadcast, the bleakness of death.

Bad posture, Billy at Grandma & Grandpa Morris home, Spring 1967.

In the 14th year of my life, the grim reaper appeared.  It was 1967.  Music defined my world and I delighted in its sounds.  Newspapers called it the “summer of love.”  For me it was a summer of friends, family, fun . . . and Sgt. Pepper.  Each morning brought new sounds and adventures.  The sun shone day after rainless day, for so long it set a record – 67 days without rain.  The bluest skies you’d ever seen were in Seattle.

That September, I entered the final year of junior high as a 9th grader.  Three weeks later that cozy world was disquieted by the death of two grandparents: Grandma Morris and Papa Kombol.  On the same day, my father lost his father, and my mother lost her mother.  In a way, this double death was a tonic for both parents.  They told us kids of feeling like orphans, leaning on each other – weathering funerals and wakes, one after the other.  September 21st was the last day of summer . . . and the autumn of my youth.

Papa Tony Kombol and Grandma Nina Marie Morris died on the same day.

Both grandparents were elderly: 82 and 77, yet important fixtures in life.  Papa (Tony Kombol) babysat me when I was four and five.  Mom dropped me off at their home near Elk Coal where I’d follow Papa doing chores, fixing lunch, then put me down for a nap.  Legally blind from a 1925 coal mining accident, he stayed home while Grandma Lulu taught school in nearby Selleck.  Needing to be near Enumclaw’s medical facilities, Papa stayed at our home the last few weeks of his life.

Grandma Morris was the first person I remember reading to me.  We flipped through “Two Little Miners” so many times I could picture each page.  I boarded an airplane for the first time in late June 1962, a Boeing 707, when she and Grandpa took me to San Francisco.  We braved chilly Candlestick Park and watched my first major league baseball game.  The Giants won the pennant that season.

When in San Francisco Grandpa always stayed at the Maurice, a businessman’s Hotel near Union Square where that day we had our shoes shined, July 1962.

We dined in the Starlight Room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, celebrating  great-aunt Ruth’s 75th birthday . . . and my 9th.  I still have the menu dated July 3, 1962.  Two weeks earlier, Tony Bennett released the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Great Aunt Ruth’s birthday was July 4th and mine July 5th, so Grandpa Morris took us to the restaurant at Sir Francis Drake Hotel.  It was a fancy place with the date  printed at the top of the menu.  The waiter gave it to me as a souvenir.

In later years Grandma Morris was confined to the Bethesda Manor nursing home not far from our home, falling deeper into the darkness of dementia.  Mom visited her daily, sometimes twice.  I’d go on occasion, but in time she no longer knew me.

Jack & Pauline Kombol, late 1967.

Over the coming weeks, I began to imagine life without parents.  It was the year Mom stopped tucking me in and saying nighttime prayers together.  Alone in bed, save for a pink teddy bear won at the Puyallup Fair, I thought of the future.  One day Mom and Dad will surely die, just like Grandma and Papa.  A profound sense of sorrow consumed me.  Visualizing their deaths, I cried myself to sleep each night.  I tried to figure a way out – what if they never died?  Maybe I’d die first and be spared the heartache?  Whatever scenario I concocted, the end was always the same – falling asleep to tears.  The end of their lives and my childhood hung in the balance.  But I knew not how or when.

Unbeknownst to me, the thoughts of that 14-year-old boy were long ago known by Stoic philosophers.  The anticipation of hardship softens its eventual blow.  A Stoic prepares for the future by focusing on the worst possible outcome, a Latin principle called premeditation of adversity.  Seneca advised his followers to rehearse ruinous scenarios “in your mind – exile, torture, war, shipwreck,” thereby robbing the future of its awful bite.

By morning, I was awakened by Mom and skipped downstairs to find a hearty breakfast on the kitchen table.  Jean and I walked to the Junior High, a three-story, brick building four blocks away.  There I roamed halls, diagrammed sentences, and played with friends after school.

The male tear ducts shrink as boys become men.  It becomes more difficult for men to cry.  Evolutionary psychologists can no doubt tell you why.  My tears were gone in time.  Ninth grade led to new friendships and adventures.  I turned out for basketball and made the team.  I raised tropical fish in an aquarium.  At semester’s end, I earned my first perfect report card, all A’s.  As a special treat, Dad took me to the Four Seasons in downtown Enumclaw for Chinese food.  I felt pride in the glow of my father’s love.

Twelve years later, I wrote a poem to read at his funeral.  The lines recalled the mournful feelings of that earlier time in life:

The last day we expected was the morning that we feared feared                          the nights we cried so long ago have come to rest right here.                            And so we’ll cry these tears of pain from sorrow we must store                          the tears we have are tears we’ve cried a thousand times before.

Father and son, Jack Kombol and Bill, Lyon, France, Feb 1978, a year before he died.

In February 1968, Barry and I picked copper strands from piles of rocks and sticks at the Mine #11 wash plant in Black Diamond.  The wire came from blasting caps used when dynamite dislodged coal at the Rogers #3 mine.  Seven years later I’d work in that mine, learning just how those wires were used.  Over several weekends we collected nearly a pickup load of coiled yellow wire, then burned off the plastic coating.  Dad sold the copper for 40 cents a pound at the recycling yard.  It was souvenir money for us four kids to use during our family’s forthcoming trip to Europe later that spring.

We missed the last few weeks of school.  In Ireland, England, Wales, and the continent we saw historic sights, tasted new foods, and explored a world far removed from our own.  We also visited the embodiment of death – Dachau, the Jewish concentration camp near Munich.  The visitor’s center displayed black and white photos of emaciated bodies, showing all manner of depravity.

Mom kept a journal of our trip so I know the day we visited Dachau – May 31, 1968.

The guide told of Jewish children with tattooed numbers on bony arms – herded from rail cars, not knowing their fate. We walked through the barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums where thousands died at the hands of their Nazi henchmen. We saw death on an unimaginable scale.  I’ve never forgotten that visit or the sign on the entrance gate: Arbeit macht frei. “Work sets you free.” Mom read its translation from Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day,

The sign on the gate as you enter Dachau – Work sets you free.

Three weeks after coming home, I turned 15.  Four days later a boy I’d grown up with died.  John Sherwood attended our Presbyterian church.  His parents, Earl and Isabelle Sherwood were our youth group leaders and taught us Sunday school.  John was a troubled lad who’d just flunked 10th grade.  On a warm summer evening in early July, John went to a party and guzzled 190-proof Everclear from a bottle.  Mr. Sherwood found his son slumped over the front seat of their car just after midnight.  The Enumclaw police never figured out who provided the bottle, though some teens in town surely knew.

He was the first contemporary I’d known who died.  John was 16.  The coroner’s jury attributed his death to “consuming excessive amounts of liquor furnished by a person or persons unknown.”  The Courier-Herald ran articles linking his death to narcotic and alcohol abuse among local youth in 1968.  Glue sniffing was a particular concern that year.

The following spring our Cascadian yearbook printed his photo in remembrance, followed by a short poem:

John Sherwood’s page in our high school yearbook.

He is not dead, this friend not dead,                                                           But in the path we mortals tread                                                              Got some few, trifling steps ahead                                                             And nearer to the end;                                                                             So that you too, once past the bend,                                                         Shall meet again, as face to face, this friend                                                 You fancy dead.     – Robert Louis Stevenson   

Sporting a Nehru jacket on my first day of high school as a sophomore, Sept. 1968

                                                                                                          When you’re young, five years is practically forever.  “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a distant memory.  Heading to high school in September new adventures emerged.  I started a job as the Saturday boy at Palmer’s mine office in Black Diamond.  I joined the chess team and found a new sport calling.  By summer, I’d have a driver’s license plus two more jobs to fill my days.  Papa and Grandma were fading memories.

As boyhood drew to a close, a young man began to emerge.  My horizons broadened.  Ahead of me lay many deaths . . . relatives, classmates, and loved ones.  Those first tastes of mortality would always be with me, but  childhood fears were fading.  A new set of adolescent anxieties gripped me soon enough.  I was growing up and the world was growing bigger.