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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
* 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In the fall of 1968, Dion released a song that touched my soul. About the same time, I started working Saturdays at a job that defined my life. I still work there today. This is the story of the song, that job, and a 15-year-old boy.
The Beatles’ single “Hey Jude” backed by “Revolution” dominated the airwaves. The Detroit Tigers, my favorite baseball team would soon play in the World Series. A presidential election heated up following a deadly political year culminating in riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
Kris Galvin and I were freshly minted sophomores. Each day after school we played a board game called Mr. President. Two players strategized their way to victory by assembling a majority of votes in the Electoral College. In the real election, Nixon did just that, defeating Hubert Humphrey while George Wallace carried five states.
In late September, I began a new job at Palmer Coking Coal as their Saturday boy. After a day of training, I was in charge of the Black Diamond office from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., though typically worked longer. I didn’t yet drive so Dad dropped me off each morning, picking me up a little after noon.
The work consisted of sacking coal, answering phones, and operating a scale—but mostly selling nut and stoker coal to old guys driving pickup trucks. It was quite a thrill to command an office, poke about in drawers, make change, and run the store. I earned $1.00 per hour, paid with money drawn from the cash drawer and replaced with a handwritten receipt.
It wasn’t always busy so after reading the P-I, I tuned the radio to KJR-95. My youth’s mind remembers where and what I was doing when certain songs played. That October, I heard Dion DiMucci sing a gentle folk tribute to the assassinated heroes, “Abraham, Martin and John.” The final lyrics delivered a stanza for Bobby Kennedy.
I was a fervent reader of newspapers and convinced Mom to buy a subscription to U.S. News & World Report. On the last day of March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the presidency. Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis four days later.
On June 6th, the Kombol family checked into the Hotel Austria on Fleischmarkt Street in Vienna. The tragic news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination splashed across the front pages of every paper on the newsstand. The photo of 17-year-old, Juan Romero cradling the head of a fallen senator in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel has haunted me ever since. An old Austrian woman draped in a black shawl stood in the lobby hissing, practically spitting the words out, “Johnson, Johnson!”
Dion’s song was poignant and melancholy. It tugged at my heart while coaxing a tear. Soon the three-minute radio broadcast was over. It might be hours until it played. I wanted to hear it time and again.
Work ended and I was home in the afternoon. I usually fixed tomato soup and cheese-toast for lunch then listened to the Huskies on the radio. Only the rarest of U.W. football games were broadcast on television. Later friends and I might play a game of touch football at the Kibler school playground. Time passes quickly in adolescence and evening came soon enough. Dinner was promptly at 6 p.m. Mom always made hamburgers on Saturday night.
While the song was introduced my first months of high school, “Abraham, Martin and John,” made a cameo appearance shortly after graduation. A collage by Tom Clay joined “What the World Needs Now Is Love” to live broadcasts of the assassinations introduced by snippets from Dion’s hit. That summer of 1971, I worked long hours selling popsicles east of Kent and often drove home listening to the six-minute spoken word hymn.
I never really left Palmer Coking Coal. During college, I spent summers as a laborer. I worked the afternoon shift at the Rogers No. 3 my senior year. It closed a few months later, the last underground coal mine in Washington. After graduating, I joined Palmer for employment stints of two and three months when no other adventure called.
In August 1978, I began full-time employment at PCC, back on the picking table. A decade of college, loafing, banking, odd jobs, and traveling landed me back where I’d begun 10 years earlier. Four years later, I was appointed Manager of the company. The following summer we celebrated Palmer Coking Coal’s 50th anniversary. I was 29-years-old.
It’s now 40 years down the road. I’ll soon be leaving full-time employment at PCC. It’s where I’ve spent all but two years of my working career. Of these things I’m certain––this job and that tune will forever remain in my heart, intertwined in a romantic ballad where the only constant is change.
I look back with nostalgia yet forward in anticipation. How these next adventures unfold will be the continuing story of my life.
* * * * * * *
Post Script: Here’s the short story of Dion’s life and the song that changed mine. Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 to Italian-American parents in the Bronx. Teaming with friends from Belmont Avenue, Dion and the Belmonts scored their first hit in 1958 with “I Wonder Why.”
While on the 1959 winter concert tour with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper; the bus’s heating system gave out so Holly charted a plane to their next venue. Dion balked at paying $36, his share for the flight because it was the rent amount his parents struggled to pay each month. The plane crashed, killing all on board.
Dion split from the Belmonts in 1960, pursuing a solo career with hits like “Run-Around Sue” and “Donna.” After continually humming Dion’s rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the Disney movie Pinocchio, Brian Wilson composed the Beach Boy’s ballad, “Surfer Girl,” in 1963 It was his very first composition.
Dion was one of only two rock artists to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bob Dylan was the other. With changing tastes from the British Invasion and a growing heroin addiction, Dion started recording blues numbers in the mid-1960s. His records failed to sell so he lost his contract.
In April 1968, Dion experienced a powerful religious awakening. He gave up heroin and his label agreed to re-sign him if he’d record “Abraham, Martin and John.” The single was released that August, reaching #4 on the charts in October. It was written by Dick Holler, composer of the Royal Guardsman’s novelty hit, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
In the 1980s, Dion became a born-again Christian, releasing five albums highlighting his evangelical convictions. In June 2020 at age 81, Dion released his most recent album, “Blues with Friends” featuring a range of artists including Jeff Beck, John Hammond, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.
* * * * * * *
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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:
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
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.
We’d gone to a movie that Monday night – Scott Mitchell and I were at the Chalet Theater in Enumclaw. The Chalet has long been the ‘We-try-harder’ champion of small-town theaters. I hadn’t remembered what we saw until searching an archived copy of the Courier-Herald. “My Brilliant Career” was an early-century period piece detailing the life of a spirited Australian woman. Australian New Wave films were all the rage and the Chalet advertised Monday and Tuesday as Foreign Film Festival nights. Watching foreign films in Enumclaw on Monday night was the height of sophistication for those of us stuck in the sticks. I was living in Black Diamond and Enumclaw was the hometown I loved, and still do.
We arrived cheerfully back at Lake Sawyer about 9:30, stepping inside the Mitchell home. Scott’s sister, Nina excitedly broke the news – John Lennon was shot and pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby hospital. Howard Cosell was first to announce the tragedy, on ABC’s Monday Night Football around 8:15 pm. It was December 8, 1980.
The smile fell slowly from my face. I was shocked, but the intensity of my anguish went unreciprocated. Lennon was one of my heroes growing up. Each new song implanted a fresh childhood image, all tucked tightly as memories of things past. By college, I owned every one of their albums, most bought second-hand from record stores which populated the U-District’s Ave. I couldn’t yet stomach the news. How? Where? But most pressing, why?
The next day at work took my mind off the morning headlines. Yet, thoughts drifted in – there would never be a Beatles reunion. That hope died the previous evening. The following night, I watched TV news broadcasts and listened to my records. Over the weekend, I purchased the just released, “Double Fantasy” and savored his homey tunes. “Beautiful Boys Watching the Wheels and Starting Over.” But John wasn’t starting over. His dream was over, and so was ours. The dream weaver left, never to return. He told us in a song, “And so dear friends, you have to carry on. The Dream is Over.”
I carried on. Time marched along. Just after Christmas, while in San Francisco I purchased the first book released following his death. In January, I enrolled in a night class, “History of the Fifties and Sixties” at Green River Community College. It was taught by Nigel Adams. He was a passionate teacher, but he too died far before his time, ten years after Lennon. For his class, I wrote a review of the first new Lennon book. That’s what I always seem to do – write reviews of things I’ve seen or read.
It felt fitting to share it on the anniversary of the day that dream died.
Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered: by: Vic Garbarini and Brian Cullman with Barbara Graustark, Introduction by Dave Marsh. Deliah Books $2.95
Most events, at least most public events, are folded into time – the world stops for a moment, and then, a moment later, the world continues. This event refused to fold.
With the death of John Lennon on December 8, 1980, two facts became perfectly clear. First, the world was deeply shocked by the loss of Lennon. Second, the public obsession’s with his life and death. If newspaper headlines, record sales, radio play, and book publications are any indication of importance, Lennon’s assassination was an event of stunning magnitude for our collective consciousness. And though the public tried hard not to believe, it actually happened. It was almost as though we needed four or five days of newspaper front pages dominated by Lennon headlines, just to accept the fact, that yes, maybe it really happened. Yes, John Lennon, cultural hero was dead.
When the fact had finally settled in, writers and publishers took up the challenge – let’s see who can publish the first biography and how quickly get it out. In time for Christmas perhaps? I don’t know if this book’s publishers made their Christmas deadline, but my paperback copy was purchased on December 29th, a mere three weeks after Lennon’s tragic death. If there was ever a marvel of the modern world this was it. A book is written, edited, printed, published, bound, marketed, distributed, and in the reader’s hand in three short weeks.
In addition, two other exploitative paperbacks, which don’t even merit review, were in book stores a week after the initial effort. Timothy Green Beckley’s “Lennon Up Close and Personal” and “Lennon – What Happened?” by Sunshine Publications are trashy magazines of mere hype in paperback bindings. If nothing else, they are perfect examples of the mentality, mildly chastised by Yoko in her published message that said she didn’t mind people making a little money off of John’s death. She understood human nature.
“Strawberry Fields Forever: John Lennon Remembered” is perhaps as good of a book as one could expect given the time frame surrounding its publication. Parts might very well have been written before his death, with loose ends and a unifying theme added later. More likely though, the authors simply copped relevant facts from the libraries of Beatles books already in existence.
The book’s best chapters are those reviewing Lennon’s musical canon with special emphasis on his solo output. From well before the announced break-up of the Beatles until his voluntary retirement from popular culture in 1975, Lennon created the lifestyle that made him a cultural hero. Whether posing nude with Yoko for an album cover or bed-ins for peace in posh hotels, Lennon acutely recognized the power of the media. He was one of that tiny number of the truly famous who’ve effectively mastered how to manipulate the public’s thirst for the extraordinary. Yet, he never lost sight of the message he tried to communicate.
Lennon emerged as poet-philosopher to armies of fans dedicated to peace and love. Marshall McLuhan notwithstanding, Lennon justly transcended the famous dictum, “The medium is the message,” and perhaps even served up his fair share of peace, love, and understanding. If there were occasional lapses (being tossed from an L.A. nightclub for crude, drunken behavior), the incidents were quickly forgiven, if not forgotten with the release of his next visionary song. Lennon thrust himself headlong into life, and for this, he was idolized. Upon withdrawing to raise a family (he wrote, sang, and partied through the first try), he was missed but admired for being his own man.
“Strawberry Fields Forever” captures Lennon’s qualities as well as any of the post-Beatles, Beatles books. Included is an explanation of almost every important mid and late Beatles song chiefly attributed to John. “All You Need Is Love” is labeled one of Lennon’s “best Utopian fantasies, a national mantra.” The author’s finest prose is saved for Lennon’s inimitable solo work. “Instant Karma” both satirized and summarized Lennon’s search for higher awareness with its hit-bound hook, anticipating an entire generation standing on the threshold of Tom Wolfe’s Me Decade. “Plastic One Band” is described as a “raw and self-indicting confession, harrowing in its stark minimalism.”
Alas, the final third of the book is little more than filler. A 37-page interview with Barbara Graustark of Newsweek lacks the warmth and incisiveness of Lennon’s superior January 1981 Playboy interview. The concluding chronological biography is no different than a dozen other Beatles / Lennon chronicles.
After finishing the book, I was most struck by its speed of publication. It broke no new real ground but serves as a simple compendium of the many post-Beatles history books of the past decade. If for nothing else, the effort will be remembered as the first well-written book that long-time Beatles-freaks or newly converted Lennon-lover could enjoy, in a melancholy sort of way.
But, perhaps it’s little more than sweet-tasting medicine to help his fans swallow one seemingly irrefutable fact: Lennon is as large in death, as he was in life.
It’s funny how a song can evoke memories of times long passed. I’ll never forget the song from July 1966, and where I first heard it. I was visiting a childhood friend, Tom Colvin who’d moved away after 4th grade. We were best friends during our elementary school years. On their last night in Enumclaw, he and his sister Julie slept over at our house. Somehow, three years later, Tom and I hatched a plan (made real by our mothers) where I’d stay with the Colvins for a week.
I didn’t know it then but I’d just played my last game of Little League baseball. Playing second base, in the second game of a double-header, a sharp grounder hit a rock bounding into my face and producing a nasty fat lip. I left the next day to visit Tom. Back then parents had neither the time nor inclination to spend six hours driving kids from Enumclaw to Port Angeles and back again. So Mom drove to Tacoma and placed me on a Greyhound bus. It was a long ride. The bus stopped at a half dozen towns along the way. I remembered my mother’s final directive, “Now make sure you get off in Port Angeles!” I called their home from a payphone to say I arrived, but it took some time for Mrs. Colvin to pick me up. In those 30 minutes, I discovered what shabby places bus stations really are, despite the allure of vending machines and pinball.
The Colvins lived in a daylight rambler several houses up from Highway 101. It was next to a two-story motel and restaurant, where Tom’s brother Jeff worked. That week was cloudy each morning, a summer weather pattern typical near the sea. Tom’s sister, Julie owned just about every one of The Animals’ albums. Most mornings we listened to their songs time and again until the marine air lifted and we went out to play. Mickie Most was a record producer who made pop stars of the Animals and would soon do the same for a Scottish folk balladeer about to become a groovy, trendsetting pop star. His name was Donovan.
Towards the end of my stay, Tom and I went to a beach party on the Straights of Juan de Fuca at Crescent Beach. Tom was popular with his friends. I was a shy kid from Enumclaw with a fat lip. There were lots of junior high girls, each pretty in their own way, but none turned their attention to me.
Someone’s car radio was playing in a time before “boom boxes.” I heard the song of that summer . . . and every summer for the next 45 years––Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Memories of that moment are etched in my mind. The teenage girls no longer mattered. The syncopated beat, sing-along melody, and hip lyrics did.
At week’s end, I joined the Colvins and visited their friends who owned a cabin at a nearby lake. It was a serene and sunny Sunday when my Port Angeles vacation came to an end. I said goodbye to the Colvins and my family picked me up, coming from nearby Hood Canal, where they’d spent the first half of our summer trip. We ferried across the straights to Vancouver Island and made our way to Salt Spring Island where Mom reserved a cabin for the second week of our planned vacation.
There wasn’t much to do at the faded resort of rundown cabins where we stayed. There was no television. With little to do and the sun shining warmly each day, we had to figure out ways to have fun. Near our cabin was a small inlet with a narrow channel opening producing strong currents when the tide ebbed and flowed. We built a makeshift raft of logs and planks and at high tide rode the Tom Sawyer-like raft down what we pretended were rapids into the larger bay beyond.
In our cabin, a radio played, but the Canadian stations weren’t playing Donovan. But, I must have heard Brian Hyland’s “The Joker Went Wild” thirty times that week. I Googled the song and found out for some strange reason, it was the number one song on Vancouver’s Top 40 station that week.
It was there I played the only round of golf I ever played with my father. The course was dumpy and so were our rented clubs. The grass was bone-dry, so balls rolled easily along the fairway. Dad, Barry, and I knocked balls about and putted across bumpy greens. We didn’t keep score.
We soon exhausted things to do on Salt Spring Island, so cut our stay short. Our holiday ended in Victoria, where we kids insisted upon staying at a motel with a pool and television. That evening on the local news broadcast, the reporter told the story of a police crackdown on prostitution in the city. I asked Mom, “What’s a prostitute?” She dissembled an oblique explanation. There was a hint of the end of summer in the air.
I saw Tom Colvin one more time before our friendship was set aside. His family visited Enumclaw and we spent an afternoon fiddling about in a makeshift tree fort we made in the empty lot behind our house. Much later Tom landed in Portland, but in days before the internet looking up an old friend was well-nigh impossible. Years passed and I’d hear occasional reports of his doings from friends of friends.
Quite by accident, we reunited one Friday night in July 2017 at the Bellingham Bells baseball game against the Port Angeles Lefties. He was there with his P.A. buddies. I was there to see Jim Clem, who coaches for the Bells and once pitched for the local Peninsula Community College team. All of Jim’s baseball pals were part of the group that Tom came with.
Our worlds united on a warm night when two schoolboy chums reconnected 51 years later. Tom and I spent the couple hours at the baseball game reminiscing about our lives long ago and today. By game’s end, we said goodbye. Three-and-one-half-hour later, I was back home with new memories of another day.
Tom and I became Facebook friends but we haven’t seen each other since. When our lives might next intersect, only fate knows.
Fifty years ago I turned 18, a few weeks after graduating from high school. My head was filled with dreams of heading off to college. My bank account was bolstered by countless graduation cards filled with $5, $10, and $20 bills. I was filled with certainty in the knowledge that so many relatives and friends believed in me. The feeling was one of confidence.
Those first post-graduate weeks were spent lounging in Lincoln City in the company of Grandpa Morris and cousin, Dave Falk. Returning home, I began my second season as an ice cream vendor for another cousin, Dan Silvestri selling popsicles from a three-wheel Cushman scooter. That summer job netted me $1,032, plus all the Sidewalk Sundays I cared to eat.
One thought however, did not cross my mind. I spent no time reflecting on what life might be upon reaching the age of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, many of whom had sent cards and offered words of encouragement. It isn’t in a boy’s nature to think about growing old. It’s certainly of an older man’s to ponder what has long since passed.
My Dad never finished high school, but insisted I go to college. My grandfather provided funds for my first year. After that I was on my own and worked summer jobs to pay my way. If I’ve learned one thing in the ensuing 50 years, its thankfulness––the knowledge that I stand today on the shoulders of those who came before. We exist because our parents brought us into existence. And they too, through generations stretching back to the beginning of humanity.
I’ve grown to recognize how blessed I’ve been by those who blazed the trail to where I now dwell. And to recognize the debt we each owe to those who helped us along, taught us a song, or how to belong. To better cultivate that sense of obligation, we owe it to those coming after to pave for them a better path forward, in gratitude for that trail blazed for us. And through it all to rely on the grace of God whose plan unfolds every day, whether be helped or hindered by each daily action we undertake.
Perhaps my great-great grandmother who came across the plains on the Oregon Trail said it best:
“Our being in this world is not accidental. We all have a mission to do some special work, and it is work that will honor Him and bless those around us. If we do not find that work and do it, our life is a failure; the true end of living is not realized. We may not learn in a moment; but step-by-step, day-by-day; as we go on things will be made clearer. Those who do the smallest things well because they are God’s plan, are to be honored far above those who do great things for the world’s praise.”
Jim Hawk was responsible for the vision behind dredging, filling, and sculpted what is now known as Lake Sawyer Park. He lived on Lake Sawyer for nearly two-thirds of his life. That’s a long time for a 95-year-old who built his lake home in 1961. His name is Jim Hawk and he’s arguably done more to craft the Lake Sawyer we know today than any other person.
Jim Hawk was born in Seattle on April 27, 1926. His father, Ray Hawk was of Dutch descent but left his Pennsylvania home at age 13. His mother, Mary Romano, was the daughter of Italian immigrants. His grandfather, Sam Romano was blinded by a dynamite blast at age 18, returning to Italy where doctors restored his sight. Sam came back to Seattle and started a family-owned construction company, Romano Engineering which developed the Riverton quarry and built highways, bridges, dams, and other projects.
The extended family lived in one large home in the Mt. Baker neighborhood of Seattle with Jim’s Italian grandmother, Anna who spoiled Jim and his cousins rotten. Growing up Jim loved chemistry and inventions. With money earned from cutting lawns and landscape work, he’d head straight to Scientific Supply Company to buy chemicals and lab equipment. Often his mother signed permission slips so Jim could purchase ingredients which could only be sold to adults. Jim was known as the “mad bomber” of the neighborhood making rockets and bombs from his chemistry set.
Jim graduated from Franklin High School in 1944 and would have been drafted for World War II, but for an automobile accident near Skykomish which left him nearly dead and lying in the river bed. He spent a long time recovering from a collapsed lung. That fall he enrolled at Seattle University graduating in 1948 with a degree in chemistry, his childhood hobby. However, one of his most consequential lessons came from a Jesuit priest in an American history course Jim hadn’t wanted to take, but was required to graduate. To this day, Jim remembers the opening lecture. “All history teaches is that we never learn from our mistakes.” A light came on in Jim’s brain.
After graduating from Seattle University, Jim was accepted into graduate school at the University of Washington. He joined the chemical engineering program seeking a PhD in electro-chemistry. Jim demonstrated his early brilliance by proposing an idea of creating fluorocarbons through electrolysis with hydrocarbons. The professor was amazed as Jim described a process which had only recently been theorized. However, his graduate studies fizzled when Jim took a heavy load of classes. One consisted of memorization which didn’t teach him to think; another by a professor who on day one asked his students, “Which course am I teaching?” And the third, who, “Didn’t teach you to think outside the box,” as Jim recalled, “The biggest dud of my life.”
Around this time, the Romano family business began to disintegrate. His dad, Ray Hawk started Black River Quarry, Inc. mining a rock deposit near Tukwila where the Black River once flowed from Lake Washington into the Green / Duwamish River. The Black River disappeared in 1916 after Lake Washington was lowered 9 feet and connected to Puget Sound through the Ballard locks. Ray was having problems running his quarry so reached out to Jim who dropped out of grad school. He planned to help his Dad for a short time. Jim easily solved early problems though each day brought new challenges so he stayed on full time. Eventually Jim took over the business.
Jim’s talents were always larger than his business life. In 1953, he filmed a nature movie from the cockpit of his Super Cub float plane. The movie was professionally shot in 16 millimeter wide-angle, commercial cinemascope, color film with Jim narrating. He offered the movie to Disney but they declined. In 1958, Jim married Mary Jo Burns and by 1961 they’d built the Lake Sawyer home where they still live today.
In February 1966, Jim purchased a 31-acre parcel of primarily swamp land from John D. Nelson for $37,000. Nelson bought the property in 1945 from Pacific Coast Coal Co. at a price of $820. It was located at the south end of Lake Sawyer with access from the terminus of S.E. 312th Street. Jim’s vision was to turn the marshy property into a lakefront residential development.
Jim’s company, Black River Quarry (BRQ) mined rock much of which was sold during wet winter months. But Jim had a problem of keeping key employees busy during the slow summer season. He employed four extremely talented individual who could do just about anything when it came to earthmoving. Chris Peterson was one of the best shovel operators to be found, even in his 70s. John Yourkoski was a journeyman bulldozer operator who also ran loader and dragline. Walt Schoebert was a master mechanic with a knack for tinkering and building machines from component parts. Don Shay worked in the office and was always ready with sage advice.
Jim spoke with experts, but nobody had ideas for building a road through a twin-creek delta, half swamp and the other half peat bog. So he read widely about bogs and contacted Leno Bassett who mined peat in the Cottage Lake area. Bassett provided good advice and Jim’s plans soon took hold. Hawk obtained Hydraulic Project Approval from the Department of Game & Fisheries in 1967 for a channel change and excavation of the shore of Lake Sawyer. The permit allowed dredging two creeks and the lake’s bottom with requirements to protect water quality. Work was done on an intermittent basis to prevent excessive siltation. Production was prohibited on weekends and holidays to protect recreational users of the lake.
Jim’s plan was to refashion the swamp into 31 acres of dry land surrounded by open water the two separated by piling and wooden wall panels. The topography was surveyed by Jim and BRQ employees using probing devices to determine whether they were standing on peat soils floating on water. After the initial survey was complete a rudimentary plan was developed to build access roads and perimeter dikes throughout the dense jungle of interlocking vegetation. Behind these dikes new dry land would be formed from dredged and fill material. Outside the dikes open water connected Ravensdale and Rock creeks to Lake Sawyer.
To gain access through the marsh, a floating road concept was utilized. In some places peat and mud extended down over 40 feet before reaching compactible soils. Downed logs, brush, and debris from clearing were used as a mat that was pushed down into the peat and mud by a bulldozer. A gravel road several feet thick rested above the “floating vegetation mat” below. Pit run gravel was obtained from three barrow sites on the property. Those gravel deposits rose 10-15 feet above surrounding terrain. Most of the older-growth trees outside the gravel extraction areas were preserved.
This floating road needed to be stable enough to support bulldozers and a 53-ton Northwest brand cable-operated shovel. The shovel doubled as a crane, equipped with a 3/4 cubic yard clam bucket for digging or a dragline bucket for open water dredging. Other miscellaneous equipment supported the operation. When remembering the challenge, Jim laughed out loud, “Nobody else in their right mind would have tried it.”
The long-term success of the project depended on using the best bulkhead materials available. Jim found piling at the Wyckoff Company consisting of hemlock poles, pressure-treated with Chemonite preservative, yet still needed to find a long lasting cable to hold everything in place. In a stroke of luck, Jim talked to Pacific Iron & Metal who’d just found 14,000 lineal feet of surplus 3/4” stainless steel cable which could be had for 50-cents a foot. Jim bought it all.
During the summers of 1967 and 1968, the initial work of building a perimeter road to separate Frog Lake from Lake Sawyer was completed. The dragline shovel operating from the road excavated mud from the lake and built a containment berm just inside the gravel road. The pile driver used the same perimeter road to drive treated wood piling until these long poles reached a firm foundation. The piling were driven at an average 10-foot spacing with treated wooden walls placed between, thereby providing a sturdy barrier between land and water.
The first phase of the project ended, but the next stage of dredging and pumping was even more challenging. The dredge–pumps Jim investigated were typically used in oceans and rivers, far too large for a small lake. Once again he consulted experts but found no clear answers for available technology. Ever persevering, Jim and his master mechanic, Walt Schoebert began designing their own machine. It was a tall order as it had to float; move around the lake; cut through a dense mat of peat, roots, and mud; shred the mixed result; then pump it through pipes into diked areas. In addition, the machine had to work around and through ancient logs littering the bottom of this jungle-strewn bog.
The next order of business was building a barge consisting of sealed floatation tubes connected by decking where machinery could be housed. Paddle wheels were installed on each side of the floating wing tubes for propulsion. A 4-cylinder GM diesel engine was bolted down to power the large hydraulic pump driving the machinery. A cutting wheel was developed which could be lowered by boom into the muddy vegetated morass. The cutting knives were protected within a collecting box. The emulsified cuttings consisted of chopped roots, peat, mud, and wood shreds. In order to suck this slurry and water mix, a pump designed for sewage plants was chosen. That impeller pump thrust the slurry mixture through heavy rubber piping to containment areas behind dikes. If they hit a log or something impenetrable, the cutting heads stopped and the differential caused the pump to stall. The boom then lifted the log out of water and resume dredging. Jim attributed the success of their home-made dredging machinery to his mechanic, “Walt Schoebert could build anything.”
The system worked so well you could clearly see the cutting knives through the water when wearing Polarized sun glasses. In addition, a floating log boom was constructed to curtain off the work zone and ensure no floating debris left the active dredging area. No complaints were ever registered by lake residents. Bob Eaton, the closest neighbor in the last residence on S.E. 312th Street was always supportive. An official from Department of Fisheries and Game once stopped by the job site and declared the operation, “The cleanest lake clean-up we’ve ever seen.”
The dredging work continued over the next three summers allowing the muddy mix to consolidate during the fall, winter, and spring seasons. The project was completed by 1972. During five years of operation there was never an accident or mishap.
The completed land form was ready for development, but the property lacked sewers and wasn’t currently viable as the 31-lot plat Jim envisioned. So rather than develop the few lots that could be served with septic tanks and drain fields, Hawk pursued other ventures. When asked why he didn’t move forward, Jim said, “I’d accomplished the job and had no need to sell. Frankly, we were hoping for something better than just a dozen more homes on Lake Sawyer.” When asked if he was proud of all he’d accomplished, Jim demurred, “It worked,” then added, “plus it gave me satisfaction to do something that all those experts and soil engineers couldn’t do.”
With his newly developed dredging technology, Jim turned his attention to helping Lake Sawyer residents rid their shorelines of unwelcome milfoil. This non-native and invasive plant sets down a deep set of tangled roots which envelope shallow areas of the lake. Using concepts similar to his recently utilized dredging equipment, Jim invented a machine to remove milfoil. It consisted of a cutting edge on the bottom surrounded by a screened cage allowing excess water to drain. The machine worked so well, he even received a patent and named it the “Water Bulldozer.” It was mounted on a self-propelled barge. Jim tested the equipment by cleaning out much of the boot at the north end of Lake Sawyer. Inspectors from the Department of Fisheries told him it worked great but they would still require each lot owner to apply for a separate hydraulic permit. Jim lamented, “It was a great idea that didn’t work because of bureaucracy.”
In 1985, Hawk turned his attention back to the Lake Sawyer jewel he’d sculpted more than a decade earlier. He installed rockeries along certain shorelines where unprotected gravel bulkheads were eroding. But, the regulatory climate had changed. The government agencies which had once praised his work refused to issue permits. King County filed criminal charges against Hawk in Aukeen District Court claiming he’d harmed the environment by failing to secure a hydraulic permit. The judge who heard the case declared Hawk’s existing restoration sufficient and Jim was order to pay court costs of $8. King County and the State Department of Fisheries followed up with letters certifying compliance with permit conditions.
When completed, Jim Hawk had created over one mile (5,600 lineal feet) of Lake Sawyer waterfront in three main sections surrounded by two navigable bodies of water. But Jim was on to other ventures. In April 1989, Hawk sold his 31-acre Lake Sawyer property to Palmer Coking Coal Company, who owned 480 surrounding acres. With proceeds from the sale Jim assembled acreage to build the Jade Green Golf Course on the Lake Holm Road, east of Black Diamond.
Ten years later, much of Hawk’s Lake Sawyer improvements became part of a 162-acre acquisition by King County of a planned regional park. Portions of the park land and open space within city limits were deeded to Black Diamond in 2005. Today the developed Lake Sawyer waterfront created by Jim Hawk is the focal point of a park through which a future trail connecting the Cedar and Green Rivers will pass.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that Jim Hawk, the son of Pennsylvania Dutch and Italian ancestors constructed this remarkable development at the south end of Lake Sawyer. After all, it was practical Dutch engineers in the Netherlands who created an incredible system of dikes and canals reclaiming vast areas of that country from the sea. And in Seattle, it was Italian immigrants, with surnames like Segale, Merlino, Scarsella, Scocollo, Fiorito, Pierotti, and Scalzo who built the vast reach of roads, bridges, cuts and fills throughout the Puget Sound area.
This story was written from an interview conducted by Bill Kombol on March 25, 2017. One key but little discussed element of Jim’s life was recounted by Scott Sandwith, his former son-in-law. Scott suggests the foundation that enabled Jim to build so much was his wife, Mary Jo’s eternal support for his “brilliant plans and ideas.” Scott continues, “Mary Jo and Jim are two matched souls who embody what a marriage can be” resulting in the amazing and supportive legacy of five children, seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Jim and Mary Jo Hawk live in the same family home they built in 1961, located at dock #104.
Post script: James Leonard Hawk (Jim) died on May 29, 2021, a few weeks after this story was published. He was 95-years old. His obituary appeared in the Seattle Times on June 14, 2021