I didn’t get my first real six-string. And Enumclaw’s five-and-dime was the last place this teenager wanted to be. The allure of candy cigarettes and cheap toys had long since passed. They may have been the best days of Bryan Adams’ life, but for me the Summer of ’69 was a middling byway on a slow road to adulthood.
Summer started off with a bang! Literally! A Fourth of July bag of fireworks exploded on the front hood of my parent’s Ford LTD after an errant firecracker found its way in. The following Monday, the Ltd with tarnished hood traveled three blocks to Enumclaw City Hall for my driver’s test. Scoring 100 on the written and 96 in the car, I went home two days after my 16th birthday with a license to drive.
The summer of ’69 sounds so moving in retrospect – astronauts on the moon, hippies at Woodstock, Charles Manson in L.A, Kennedy on Chappaquiddick. That wasn’t my summer. Mine was frankly boring. I didn’t have a full-time job. Well, I actually had two part-time jobs: Office boy at Palmer Coking Coal manning the telephone and scale earning the princely sum of $5 for my five-hour shift. The second gig, as high school sports reporter for the Courier-Herald, I inherited from my brother, Barry.
In the slow months of July and August, that second job meant little more than tracking down the two Franks of Enumclaw’s summer sports: Manowski and Osborn, for league scores and standings. That took all of a couple hours before Monday’s deadline. During the rest of the week, tedium oozed.
I do remember going to the drive-in movies once at the recently opened Big ‘E” in Enumclaw and another time at Auburn’s Valley 6. We rode in Wayne’s car. I didn’t really see many buddies as most had jobs or played summer baseball, a sport I’d left two years prior. A very special thing did happen – one night Dad and I walked to the Roxy to see the film: “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” It was likely the only time I went to a movie, just Dad and me.
That summer our family’s traditional vacation of one week in Grayland, and a second at Beacon Point on Hoods Canal ended. The old-fashion cottage resort at Beacon Point shuttered and our joint vacations with the Cerne family were no more. Those trips were the highlight of every summer since I could remember. Barry graduated in June and headed to Alaska seeking his fortune. He returned soon enough finding out, that even in Alaska jobs don’t grow on trees.
Jeanmarie shipped out to Wilsall, Montana with her good friend, Cindy Johnson to help at her aunt’s cattle ranch. Jeanmarie’s stay was cut short when Cindy’s grandpa died suddenly. So the four remaining Kombols packed up and drove to Yellowstone retrieving Jean, coupled with a short tour of the park. It seemed anticlimactic compared to our summer vacations of yesteryear. The times they-were-a-changing.
I clearly remember the Apollo 11 moon landing on July 24th. I remember not watching it. It was an overcast day. I bandied about the neighborhood, over at Jim Olson’s home, then here and there. In the living room, Dad and Henry D. Gillespie, our Australian foreign exchange student sat transfixed on the sofa absorbed for hours.
Popping in that evening, I glanced at the TV then headed back outside. I wasn’t slightly interested and had no appreciation for the magnitude of that moment – to me it seemed little more than a grainy television experience that went on for hours. It turned out that Neil Armstrong’s one small step was viewed by more than 500 million across the globe. In retrospect, my lack of interest was one giant failure to leap.
Nationally, the Manson cult murders were a minor headline in the Seattle P.I., the newspaper I studiously read each morning. Kennedy’s Chappaquiddick high-jinx was a much bigger story, which I earnestly followed. I’d become a news junkie, with alternating subscriptions to Time magazine and U.S. News & World Report. But, my perusal of the news was cursory – Woodstock in mid-August? It didn’t register for me. It wasn’t until the following year when Steve McCarty and I saw the movie that I even grasped what a music festival was.
What did register was a peevish, late-night, television personality named Bob Corcoran. He hosted a channel 13 talk show. Corcoran was the prototype for a mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore character, later seen in “Network.” Half his audience was bored teenagers listening to drunken adults who called in to converse with Bob. When teens placed a call – you could always tell – they’d make rude remarks, before the inevitable kill button and dial tone. Between callers, Corcoran offered screeds on controversial issues, then ceaselessly promoted Tacoma’s B & I Circus store.
That summer, our family friends, the Hamiltons were staying with us, having just moved back from London. Their oldest son, Scott was a year older and we took over Barry’s bedroom in his absence. There Scott and I watched Corcoran, howling at the inanities Bob spewed forth each night. We giggled mindlessly at the mere mention of his name. His show was so bad it made perfect sarcastic sense to our teenage-addled brains. We even tried calling his show once but hung up after waiting on hold too long.
Corcoran later parlayed his quirky television stardom into politics by running for Congress in 1972. His shtick was rabble-rousing, stick-it-in-their-face, populist rant, but in the primary, he was soundly defeated by Julia Butler Hansen. How I ended up with the Elect Bob Corcoran to Congress ruler, I’ve long since forgotten.*
Night after night we tuned into Bob and played chess. I’d taken up the sport during my just-ended sophomore year after reading an article in the Hornet student newspaper announcing formation of a new chess club. My game improved quickly, landing me one of the top five boards.
Scott Hamilton was a decent chess player who desperately wanted to win. Late each night, we played game after game, again and again – 49 straight losses before Scott finally won. But playing chess was just a way to pass time. Our real goal was to laugh at Bob Corcoran.
Amazingly, those memories are the most poignant of my summer of ’69. The summer I turned 16, during one of the most dynamic times of the Sixties, when all the world’s charms lay before me – staying up late to watch a goofball TV talk show host and playing chess were my highlights.
All the same, everything turned out fine. Returning to high school as a junior, my driver’s license landed me behind the steering wheel of the family’s second car, a 1965 Renault. Our winning chess team became an important cog in my developing personality. That semester I took an Economics class from Wes Hanson that ultimately directed my life (B.A., Econ, U.W., 1975). Second semester I joined the Hornet staff and learned how to write.
Another favorite, English lit was taught jointly by Miss Thompson and Mrs. Galvin. Novels like “Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace” jolted a new sense of existential feelings through my all-to-logical heart. “1984” and “Lord of the Flies” called into question what that heart was made of. We read “Romeo & Juliet” out loud in class. Franco Zeffirelli’s movie version had recently captured the nation’s attention, so our whole class attended a special showing one night at the Roxy.
Life accelerated. The following summer, I worked 12-hour days selling popsicles, fudgesicles, and ice cream sandwiches. High school life gave way to feelings of liberation and control.
Looking back on things, that summer of ‘69 was a quirky way station on the road through life – no longer a boy, but not yet a man.
* One day a few weeks before writing this essay, I ruffled through my desk drawer and grabbed for a straight edge. Out came a Bob Corcoran for Congress ruler. I have little idea how it landed there. It came decades past from a Corcoran campaign booth brimming with swag at the Puyallup Fair. Only serendipity can explain how that ruler appeared while writing this essay.