Seated in the front pew of Maple Valley Presbyterian Church on a Sunday in late November, I listened to a sermon delivered by Pastor David Diehl. It was a good one. His words were drawn from many sources but grounded in simple lessons. The Thanksgiving message was focused on the wonder of life’s blessings and how each of us has been enriched by others. As the sermon drew to a close, he laid down a challenge – think of a person who’s touched your life, in a small way or large, then write a letter of gratitude to let them know you remember. Perhaps to a parent, or uncle, aunt, teacher, boss, friend, or some hero who has no idea you still care. Every good action demands a deadline. Pastor David suggested this week or better yet why not today?
Meditating upon the homily, I considered my life’s journey in search of a juncture when someone’s action set me on the path I followed. Several candidates no longer walked the earth, never knowing how they helped me in a time on need. It felt sad for it was no longer possible to say, “thank you.” There’s nothing like feelings of guilt as inspiration to be a better person.
A week later, I’d done little more than imagine the letter that could be written. Good intentions though admirable, produce few results. A wise uncle regularly reminded, “The longest journey begins with the first step.”
My school boy days came to mind. There were plenty of kind and thoughtful teachers at the four Enumclaw schools I’d attended. Many were influential. But which of many made a significant impact on my life? A decision was made, my letter would be to Mr. Hanson, who taught a one-semester class in economics at Enumclaw High School. It took some time to compose what I wanted to say but finally mailed it a week before Christmas.
I didn’t hear back from Mr. Hanson. Unbeknownst to me his health was failing. A few months later news reached me that Wesley A. Hanson lay dead at age 75. While golfing with one of his sons, Mike told me how my letter found a treasured place in his desk during the last months of his life. He’d read it time and again. It was a bittersweet revelation.
So, here is my sermon – far shorter than Pastor Diehl’s and lacking in eloquence. Write a letter to someone precious in your life. Let them know you’re thankful and still think of them. For this is what Thanksgiving is all about – giving thanks. Here’s what I wrote:
December 18, 2006
Dear Mr. Hanson:
It was the autumn of 1969. The previous summer witnessed the moon landing of Apollo 11, the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charlie Manson family, Woodstock, and my 16th birthday. I could now drive. Soon the fall semester of my junior year would arrive and among my classes were English, advanced Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish 3/4, Typing, and a new offering – Economics. The class was taught by a certain Wes Hanson, the father of a friend of my brother. Word had it that Mr. Hanson convinced the educational powers that be, allowing him to teach an informative one semester class to supplement the usual world history and contemporary problem classes. Late in my sophomore year, I signed up for Economics on the conviction that it would be a college preparatory class.
The next four and one-half months proved most enlightening. Mr. Hanson taught in his very likable style peppering instruction with stories from his days dealing with farm products in the great American plains. Each Friday was a 25 question test in true / false or multiple choice formats. Each Monday, the test results were returned and my paper was usually found to have 24 or 25 correct answers. By the end of the semester, not only had I earned an A, but also an enduring respect for the subject and the man who taught us. It would prove to be a lifetime love.
Over the next several years I read newspapers and magazines, closely following the economic issues of the day, from Milton Friedman’s proposed negative income tax for replacing welfare, to the heady days of August 1971 when President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls. During summers after my junior and senior years, I had a job selling popsicles and ice cream bars from a three-wheel Cushman scooter in the suburban neighborhoods of east hill Kent. From my cousin, Dan Silvestri (who owned the business), I learned that long hours of selling ice cream and a sliding 20-24% commission scale would net me $25 to $30 per day. Working almost every day of the week has merit, because you never have time to spend your earnings, especially living at home during high school summers.
With my bulging bank account of a couple thousand dollars earned during two summers selling ice cream; a daily job filling the coal stoker at my dad’s downtown Enumclaw building; writing weekly newspaper stories for the Courier-Herald; and working at Palmer Coking Coal on Saturdays, I headed off to the University of Washington in September 1971. I took typical introductory classes, not quite sure what to study. I liked the idea of making money and had my one semester background in high school economics to prove it. I also had a cousin in the Popsicle business who told me stories of his own ups and downs in the stock market. So, as any prudent (impudent?) 18-year-old would do, one day I rode a bus from the University district to downtown Seattle then marched into the local Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith office. There I opened an account with one-half the earnings from my various high school jobs. My cousin Dan provided me with a ‘tip’ so I bought 100 shares of Pan Am stock for about $10 per share. Each day, I dutifully read the stock tables in the Seattle Times or P-I. My heart jumped or sank with every 1/8th or 1/4th point movement. Several months later with Pan Am safely in the mid $14s, I sold and pocketed a nice three hundred dollar profit after commissions. I was hooked. Making $300 in the stock market was a lot easier than working 12-hour days selling popsicles.
It was the spring quarter of my first year of college. Among the several survey courses one took as a freshman, I selected Introduction to Economics. It was taught to 600 dozing students in a huge auditorium that college administrators called a classroom. It was a standard course for many (hence the size of the class) and a requirement for a number of majors, mainly business. Thanks to my half semester in Mr. Hanson’s class, I excelled in Econ 200. So, of course I took Econ 201 (Microeconomics), the second of the two-part introduction to what’s often termed ‘the dismal science.’ Again, I did well.
My pragmatic nature calculated if I found a subject easy, that should be the subject for me. I continued with classes in economics and sure enough by next year was majoring in Econ. During one of those classes, students were given cut-rate subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal. It’s the newspaper I read to this day. To make a long story short, I studied hard, did well, and graduated with a B.A. in Economics, magna cum laude.
Some philosophers and historians believe an individual is little more than a floating cork in an ocean of tides and currents too strong to resist. They call this determinism. Others contend each individual is capable of free will and even small events in a person’s life can have profound affects, not only on one person, but upon history. Though acknowledging the former, I’ve found life much more interesting by subscribing to the latter. I believe one small event – taking a semester course in economics from a high school teacher I highly respect – had a profound influence on my life.
Another high school subject that proved fundamental was Mr. Worthington’s humanities class. There we learned that ancient Greeks thought four questions worth asking: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” and “What is the meaning of life? I’ve spent most time on the second question.
In trying to answer “Where I came from,” I’ve written a letter to a person who may not know how big of impact his high school class had on one student. Mr. Hanson – you are that person; your high school course was that impact; and I was that student. Now, I can’t claim one student, taking a class and going to college to major in economics is going to change the course of human history. But what I can tell you is how very grateful I am to you for that class you taught 37 years ago. And for the energy and enthusiasm you put into a subject you loved. And for the difference you’ve made in my life.
Though, I admit that my preoccupation with all things ‘economic’ wasn’t always my smartest choice. It too often diverted my attention from more important things in life. Perhaps I took too long to fall in love. But when I did, it was with the right girl, at the right time, and our marriage has brought forth three delightful boys who are the apples of my eye. No one would suggest I owe this all to you.
But, I want to say thank you for one very small thing you did, a very long time ago. Because you might not have otherwise realized how you made such a very large impact on this person’s life.
You are one of my heroes . . . and you probably didn’t even know it!
Whilst in college a poster hung in my room. Mom gave it to me at Christmas of my freshman year. It stayed with me through those four years then hung in my bedroom at home for many more. Titled “One Solitary Life,” it was printed on aged parchment paper in a distinctive script font. Winter quarter, I copied the text to the inside page of the 3-ring binder of denim-blue fabric I lugged to and from class each day in an Army surplus backpack. I lost the poster, but never the sentiment. This isn’t the photo which adorned the poster, but it is my calligraphy in blue ink of the poster’s text presented below:
Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another obscure village. He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher.
He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never owned a home. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put his foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He had nothing to do with the world except the naked power of his divine manhood.
While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth when he was dying . . . and that was his coat. When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.
Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone, and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.
I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched . . . and all the navies that were ever built . . . and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.
The veil lifts slowly like summer fog from a morning beach. Memories creep back but only in fits and spurts. I still can’t piece it all together, but the puzzle recently unfolded after discovery of chronicles from his probate. Yet a teenager I was to play a bit part in the tragicomedy that became my grandfather’s final years. His Oregon Coast beach cabin was center stage and like any drama the site of my several scenes. This magical place was destined to play an ongoing role in my life.
My first stay in Lincoln City was nearly two weeks long in June 1971. There’d be more visits to that cabin on a knoll Grandpa increasingly called home. Twenty months later I was attending his funeral. This is an incomplete tale of those days, his decline, and the first stirrings of my love affair with Lincoln City. Some bits are lost through mists of time but the central story is intact. For me it all began a few days after graduating from high school.
A long bus ride from Enumclaw delivered me to the DeLake bowling alley. It’s still there just a stone’s throw past the bridge over the D River, advertised as the World’s Shortest – river that is, not bridge. DeLake was one of five merged towns rechristening themselves Lincoln City on the 100th anniversary of their namesake’s death. The place even had an amusement park of sorts built around an eatery called Pixie Kitchen. Grandpa picked me up in his Lincoln Continental. He liked big, luxury cars. My cousin Dave Falk was at his side.
The man of whom I speak was John H. Morris, but most adults called him Jack. I called him Grandpa. Through my teen years he played an active part in our family’s life particularly after his wife of five decades entered a nursing home for three years of mental decline. Her room at Bethesda Manor on Jensen Street was a couple blocks from our Enumclaw home. Even as a boy I’d noticed signs of fading memory. The sweet grandmother who once bathed me and later taught me pinochle, slowly lost her ability to think. As she quietly slipped into a private prison of mindlessness, she no longer knew the people she loved. My Mom called it “hardening of the arteries.” Today we call it Alzheimer’s.
During her internment, Grandpa sought camaraderie from our family. He treated us, especially Barry and me to recurring weekend dinners at Anton’s in Puyallup, Harold’s in Enumclaw, or the Elks in Auburn. Dining out with Grandpa held few limits – anything on the menu, plus a Roy Rogers or Shirley Temple to accompany the cocktail he’d order. Life with Grandpa was all about motion: sleepovers at his big home; drives to Wilkeson as he reminisced of his youth; or trips to San Francisco to catch a few Giants’ games, ride cable cars, and feed pigeons in Union Square.
Once he took us to Carson hot springs on the Wind River in Oregon. It was a 200-mile drive to a dated resort which hadn’t changed since the 1930s. A dozen small cabins lined the road leading to a stately two-story Hotel St. Martin with a dining room featuring meat and potato dinners, served family-style at large tables to a clientele of geriatrics – except two teenagers: Barry and me. We took hot mineral baths in cast iron tubs resting on immaculate tile floors which looked every bit the part of a bygone European spa. We gagged down sulfuric-tasting water to “help sweat the poison out,” as Grandpa put it. Occasional bouts of gout from rich food and high living no doubt contributed to his need. At age 15, I felt no particular passion for sweating poison, but went along with the ritual and succumbed to the jelly-fish induced numbness of the hot bath experience. In our sparse cabin without television or radio, we played cribbage games under a bare hundred-watt bulb and waited for old-fashioned dinners, sure to include gravy and string beans.
Marie Morris (his wife and my grandmother) died on the last day of summer 1967. Without job or spouse Grandpa sought new horizons. He traveled south spending time in the desert with old friends and meeting new ones. He visited the homes of his four children, all living nearby. He indulged the 19 grandchildren they spawned. His grand white house on the west end of McHugh Avenue, where Jack and Marie raised four children and once hosted large family parties, was now a lonely outpost. His days there were reduced to caring for the lawn and tending dahlias. Not much remained in that empty home and he knew it. Always on the go, he couldn’t let go. A burning drive for control thrust him towards new vistas. So he found new ways to satisfy his wanderlust. But that took money, which a lifetime of business success handsomely provided.
Friendly with the ladies he enjoyed the companionship of several women. Maud, an attractive descendant of Columbia River Native Americans fancied his company as he did hers. But Maud remained a friend. He fell for another named Kathleen who went by Kay, and discovered too late that business acumen doesn’t necessarily extend to second wives. What developed was an oft-told story. Rich man, lonely upon his wife’s death falls under the spell of a gold-digging widow whose chief skill consists of convincing him to spend money on her. He suspects too late her ulterior motives as she cashes tickets to wealth. As to the particularities of any of this, I was yet unaware.
Back at Lincoln City in June 1971, Grandpa found himself in the company of two grandsons and oozed the charismatic charm I’d known of him for all my life. The grandfather upon whose lap I sat as a child, sipping beer from his 6-oz. glass. The grandpa I joined on enchanting trips to San Francisco with stays at the businessman’s hotel where his greatest deals were forged a decade earlier. The seasoned card player who carved a fine hand of cribbage and taught me the basic skill points, but more importantly the pace and banter of the game. The grandpa I admired, but whose fiery temper could turn on a dime.
The three of us made an odd party –– a 17-year-old, freshly graduated senior; a 27-year-old bachelor with no particular direction; and the 76-year-old retired businessman with a scheming second wife, from whom he alternately sought comfort or escape. Sometimes he’d secrete himself in the bedroom for long conversations. Back then I didn’t know with whom he spoke or why. Each morning Grandpa walked uptown for coffee at the bakery. And back to the cabin relaxing with Dave, who was out of the Navy, on unemployment, and loafing. They waited patiently for me to arise for I was fully capable of sleeping till 11 am. We were frequently visited by Jimmy, a six-year-old boy who lived next door with his single mother in a crumbling 400-square foot cabin, a rental relic from the 1920s. Grandpa bought his 1,200-square foot Lincoln City home with a stunning ocean view in August 1969 for $16,500. The purchase was made during one of many estrangements from his covetous new wife. That summer Barry cleaned out that 1926 home, filled with boxes of memories from former owners, as he helped Grandpa move in.
Grandpa, Dave and I led an unhurried existence – scenic drives up and down those “twenty miracle miles” of coastline in his Lincoln Continental, followed by games of cribbage, walks on the beach, and afternoon siestas. I skim-boarded the flat sandy beach and braved cold Pacific waves just to prove I could. By day, we lived on a diet of cheese, crackers, peanuts, and fresh crab from Barnacle Bill’s. Grandpa and Dave drank their afternoon beer. I drank my Pepsi’s poured into a pilsner glass kept cold in the freezer. By early evening we drove to classic old restaurants for dinner – those kinds of places where retirees enjoyed highballs before a steak dinner or seafood platter. We rotated our meals between a small circle of staid establishments including Mrs. Miller’s, Surf Rider, and the Spouting Horn Inn in Depot Bay. But Pixie Kitchen with its kitsch atmosphere and deep-fried seafood was my favorite, and Grandpa was happy to oblige. It was a style of living to which one could easily grow accustomed. The weather on the coast even cooperated showcasing fair skies and warm sunshine which burned the morning fog to submission.
Seven years retired, Grandpa’s business drive remained. He mused of buying the storied Jones’ Colonial Bakery, the quaint corner cafe on Hwy 101 which had served the Ocean Lake district of Lincoln City since 1946. Grandpa contemplated installing his grandson as baker. His acquisitive self was certainly getting the better of his senses. Didn’t he notice a late adolescent who rather enjoyed sleeping in? Didn’t he realize his 17-year-old grandson was bound for college in three short months and who held no dreams of awaking before the sun to bake bread? Whose only interest in baking was eating the Colonial Bakery’s signature treat – Sailor Jack muffins?
As his bakery dream waned so did my senior trip. I couldn’t have ordered up a better fortnight. I said goodbye to Lincoln City, having fallen for its beach town charms. Days later I began my summer job selling popsicles from a three-wheeled Cushman scooter, and then off to my first year of college. Three more times I ventured to Lincoln City in the company of Grandpa, and once without. I was to become his part-time minder and he would be my ward. But that wasn’t apparent to me then.
A year earlier, second-wife Kay convinced Grandpa to sell his family home of 35 years and redeploy proceeds towards two new homes, one at her native Marysville and the other in Palm Springs. Fur coats, cars, and jewelry were similarly acquired as community property with Jack providing the property and Kay claiming community. She persuaded him to buy quite a few things she was destined to enjoy. A woman on her fourth husband possesses certain advantages in this sort of game.
In late summer before starting college, cousin, Dave and I headed south in his Triumph TR6. We traveled Oregon 99-West and stopped in McMinnville where I looked up Patti Sloss, an EHS classmate and college freshman at Linfield where they start school early. We dined at one of those old-time Shakey’s Pizza parlors. It was dark inside as we sat on heavy wood benches eating pizza off rustic tables and watching Laurel & Hardy movies played continuously. In Lincoln City I was anxious to join him at the nearby Old Oregon tavern, then a hangout for long hairs and hippies. He gifted me his old Navy identification; a worn piece of green paper which served my fake ID needs during my first year of college even though my alleged age was 28 and my hair color red.
On our next rendezvous, Grandpa was without car, having gifted his Lincoln Continental to satisfy her birthday wish. Here’s how Kay put it in a later court filing: “Nov. 21, 1971 – My birthday present was a transfer of Lincoln car title to me.” A few weeks earlier Barry and I visited Grandpa and met the new wife at their new home in Marysville. This was the first time this new wife became news to me, though they’d married in January 1968, a mere four months after Grandma’s passing. That afternoon in Marysville, I saw Grandpa quiver like a trapped bird. This wasn’t the dynamic man I’d spent a pleasant vacation with in Lincoln City five months prior.
That Christmas, Grandpa joined our family and a plan was hatched for me to drive him to the coast for a week. He often sought sanctuary in that cherished retreat as the cabin was purchased in his name alone. Its modest furnishings suggest Kay never spent time there. I hold no memory of that trip, if not for this brief diary entry Mom produced during the ensuing legal battle following her dad’s death: “Dec. 26, 1971, Bill & Dad went to L.C. – stayed with him until Jan. 2, 1972.”
Three months later I finished my winter quarter at U.W. Grandpa had lately escaped Kay and Palm Springs when word filtered back that he might be Lincoln City bound. Less than a year away from his deathbed, a hobbling dotage was seen creeping in. How he found his way to Lincoln City remained unclear. Before his arrival I joined four college girls from Central led by my cousin, Robbie Falk and we traveled to the coast. They were on a planned spring break trip, while my mission was to intercept Grandpa and bring him home.
We rolled in late one night and the next morning set off for an adventure up the south side of the Siletz River on a narrow dirt road to find the river home used for filming “Sometimes a Great Notion” starring Paul Newman. A young boy, perhaps 8 or 9 gave an impromptu tour explaining which scene was filmed where. His parents were remodeling the shell Hollywood producers had built as a backdrop for the movie and used for some interior scenes. Early that evening as Robbie, Chris, Cathy, Janet and I relaxed in the living room, in through the front door blows Grandpa. A stern, shocked look on his face sent shivers down our spines, but following a short tense moment Grandpa smiles, invites us all to dinner, and down we traipsed to Mrs. Miller’s cozy restaurant whose featured dish was a crab, butter, and wine medley, eaten with toasted French bread.
Robbie and her Central girlfriends continued south on their spring break road trip. Since Grandpa and I were without vehicle I don’t recall how we got to Portland, perhaps by bus is my best guess. What’s clearly remembered was visiting a Toyota dealership where we test drove a Celica, then in its first year of production. The Celica was a sporty model alright, but Grandpa had difficulty getting in and out of the car. Plus, he no longer drove so trying out a sports car made little sense. Lots of things were no longer making sense. It was late so we checked into the Benson Hotel. Grandpa always stayed at the Benson when in Portland.
The next morning in a hurry to Enumclaw, he directs the hotel clerk to summon a cab. We hop in and the cabbie asks, “Where ya going?” Grandpa says, “Just across the river a little past Vancouver.” North of Vancouver the same cabbie question and similar Grandpa answer, “It’s a bit further north.” With each new fib I slink lower in the cab’s back seat. Somewhere near Kelso the cabbie pulls over and demands, “Now where in the hell are you two going?” Grandpa confesses, “Enumclaw, in the vicinity of Auburn.” The cabbie examines his map and shouts, “That’s another 100 miles!” A radio call is placed followed by wrangling with dispatch, until permission was granted and back on the freeway we cruised.
Two hours later the cab stops in front of our Enumclaw home. I go to get money from Mom while the cabbie keeps Grandpa for collateral. The fare ran to something like $130, which was a cab full of money back then. With cabbie dismissed, Mom snaps my picture preserving the moment. Around the kitchen table Grandpa and I tell the tale of how we convinced the cab to drive us from Portland to Enumclaw. In a day or so everyone thinks it’s the funniest story ever or at least pretends to. For me, it was an erratic adventure with an eerie premonition that a chapter in his life was ending. Days later I was back in college for spring quarter of my freshman year.
In June, Kay coaxed Jack back to Palm Springs where his check book could be better put to use. Their on-again, off-again relationship reconciled for a couple weeks. But he broke and cut his toe which landed him in the Desert Hospital. The ensuing infection triggered a health decline that first slowed and finally lassoed him. Dashing to escape, he checked out of the hospital, cleaned papers and belongings from the Palm Springs home, and retreated north. Kay followed and soon filed a court action seeking guardianship of her fleeing husband. Jack entered Seattle’s Virginia Mason for further toe treatment. A dramatic hospital showdown between Kay and his son Evan played out in soap opera fashion. Amidst allegations and recriminations Grandpa chose to go home to his family.
He spent July 1972 at the compound of waterfront lots on Lake Sawyer he’d gifted his children and a favored nephew more than a decade earlier. Our summer cabin was within that domain so he visited often. Somewhat rejuvenated, Grandpa asked to go back to Lincoln City. Again I was enlisted to drive south, this time with my 13-year-old cousin, Evan Jr. in tow. We took rides down Hwy 101, but Grandpa soon fell asleep. We dined out, but his diabetes flared as his health faded. Most hours were spent soaking his infected toe in Epsom salts. We came back home a few days later. It proved to be his last trip to the Oregon Coast and the cabin he loved. In a week or so Grandpa was placed at a Mercer Island nursing home.
In late November, his granddaughter Roberta visited him there. Grandpa quickly asked how she liked his new apartment. Then in a conspiratorial voice, he explained a need to head north followed by a whispered suggestion that she could bring her car round and provide his getaway. Robbie knew better, for she understood he wouldn’t be leaving. But she also saw his schemes to escape that gilded cage as the only thing keeping him alive. She speculated on how hard it must be for that hard-charging businessman to resist the call of the road and attend to business that needs tending. She reflected on a pensive thought, “Will he ever let go of the reins?”
On February 15, 1973, John H. Morris let go of the reins. A large funeral was held. The coal mines he’d opened shut down for a day. Most every coal miner who ever worked for him came to pay their respects. A bitter probate battle emerged between the parasitic wife and his four children. The lawsuit featured contested Wills and was fought for years. Lawyers swallowed a fair portion of his estate before settlement was reached. Mom received his Lincoln City home in probate; as I did from her 45 years hence.
A few months following graduation from college, I moved to Lincoln City with my motorcycle and a backpack of belongings. I collected unemployment checks as did my cousin Dave four years earlier. I drifted aimlessly along empty beaches, and wandered through ramshackle corridors of the nearby public library. I volunteered at the hippie food co-op by day and quaffed beers at the Old Oregon by night. I ate the Colonial Bakery’s Sailor Jack muffins for breakfast and baked cheese cakes at home for dessert. I watched every inning of the 1975 Cincinnati-Boston World Series. I read novels and wrote poetry, and learned how to be alone. After several months of introspection I returned home to Enumclaw.
Leaving that house on a hill, overlooking the Pacific Ocean whose waves regularly crashed onto rocks below, I realized a tiny bit of home would always be waiting for me there. I still do.