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.
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.
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.
My senior year of college was as different as night and day. It wasn’t my original plan. By day, I inhabited the rarified air of life at a university where young men and women, often preening boys and girls, proffered great thoughts fueled by a steady diet of pot and booze. At night, I worked in a coal mine with gray-haired men at jobs they’d performed their entire lives.
I was bemused by the attitudes and mindsets of the two cultures. For me, it was the best and worst of times – the most wonderful and dreadful of any span of my then young life. I was fully exhilarated and completely exhausted – a caterpillar in search of a butterfly to escape from a cocoon of his own making. For years I’ve struggled to reconcile the feelings and emotions within those discordant worlds I simultaneously ingested.
I’d grown increasingly bored with college phonies fretting over which grad school to attend. I was steadily drawn to the stoic lives of coal miners. My fellow undergrads bemoaned petty stresses of their own making. Each day the miners completed the tasks set before them. The grad school gang imagined chic careers with grand salaries. The coal miners were content with life and their position in it.
In early September 1974, I prepared to return for my last year of college. Over three summers past, I worked for Palmer Coking Coal, a family-owned company. My jobs were common laboring at the Black Diamond yard and Rogers #3 mine. That mine was a succession of Rogers #1 and #2, started in 1958 and 1959 respectively. Located in Ravensdale, Rogers #3 was slated to close in less than a year. It would be the last underground coal mine in the State of Washington.
My uncle, Jack Morris was President of Palmer. He was navigating the company’s exit from the coal business, as gracefully as possible. It was a tough time for the firm. Jack was drinking heavily, and Palmer’s fortunes were not promising. There were sharp disagreements between three uncles, Jack, Evan Morris, and Charlie Falk, who collectively led the firm. I was thankfully unaware of building tensions and unresolved rivalries. I just turned 21. Little did I know that leadership of this company would one day fall to me.
Federal coal inspectors were bearing down on small mines like Palmer’s. Our operation didn’t fit the template for a subsurface coal mine. The Rogers coal seam stood nearly vertical, while most coal mines operate on horizontal planes, the way sedimentary formations containing coal seams are naturally deposited. The plate tectonic which uplifted the Cascade Mountains altered the local Ravensdale geology to a rare condition – a vein of coal tilted to more than 80º. Underground mine regulations hadn’t been written for that kind of operation.
Most men who worked at Rogers #3 were lifelong coal miners. All were in their late 50s and early 60s, except for a cousin, Bob Morris; my brother, Barry Kombol, and me. Two dozen miners had retired over the previous eight years, but enough experienced men remained allowing Palmer to finish its underground mine while honoring contracts supplying coal to State prisons. Palmer’s management was mindful of the decades those miners had worked in the industry and sensitive to union pensions that hung in the balance. A few more years would strengthen each miner’s retirement payout.
One day in early September, Jack pulled me aside and asked if I’d work the afternoon shift while attending college. It was my senior year where an easy slide towards graduation was a natural expectation. Jack explained I’d earn the wage rate under the United Mine Workers contract to which Palmer was bound. A Grade 2, Tipple Attendant made $45.93 per day. That UMW day rate was the equivalent of $32 per hour in today’s currency. To a money-hungry lad like me, that sounded awfully enticing. I talked it over with my folks and a decision was made.
The afternoon shift was from 3 – 11 pm, so it made sense to live at home. My first three years of college were spent at Pi Kappa Phi, where I enjoyed the camaraderie of fraternity brothers plus the assorted characters who boarded in spare rooms. Ours was a frat house with a classical facade, good cooks, and two hot meals a day. Staying at home would make me a “townie,” so I’d only pay fraternity dues plus the meal rate for lunch, a significant saving over full room and board. I drove my parent’s 1968 Renault, an unusual car in those days – basically a Volkswagen Bug for cheapskates. The no-frills Renault got good mileage, had a stick shift on the floor, with an A.M. radio. What else could I possibly need?
My schedule was grueling. Monday through Friday, I was up at 6 am, fixing breakfast while Mom packed my evening dinner in a metal lunch bucket. I loved yogurt and back then little was sold in stores, so Mom cultured her own which I ate from a squat thermos. She, Pauline (Morris) Kombol was herself, a coal miner’s daughter.
I left Enumclaw every morning at 7 am. Traffic was light with far less congestion than today’s clogged freeways. Interstate 5 was a breeze with only occasionally slowdowns. I arrived at the University of Washington campus about 8 am, parked at the fraternity, then walked to my 8:30 class. My first break came at 9:30, so for an hour I studied at the Husky Union Building, and then sped off to my 10:30 and 11:30 classes. By 12:30 pm, I rambled back to the fraternity for lunch, studied for an hour, and left Seattle at 1:45 arriving at the Ravensdale mine by 2:45 pm.
In the washhouse, I joined other miners where we changed from street clothes to working gear. There were only six miners per shift, but I was exclusively night shift so worked with alternating crews each week. We walked up a slight hill to the hoist room and met the day crew coming from the mine. Our counterparts were greeted and a light banter exchanged. The afternoon shift started at 3 pm, lasting eight hours including a dinner break. My job involved standing at a waist-high metal platform, where coal was separated from rock. It was called the picking table and I was its operator. The picking table was located in the belly of a triangular wooden structure called the tipple.
The job was simple – push coal to the right and rock to the left. There was one primary goal: don’t let rocks smash your fingers, lest you wind up with a throbbing fingernail rapidly turning purple. Still, it happened, and no matter how long you sucked that pulsing finger, the pain lingered. Sometimes it hurt so much, you had to heat a sewing needle red hot then drill down through the nail to release the pounding pressure caused when blood rushed to repair the wound.
The picking table was six feet wide and about two feet deep. The left third featured a hinged trap-door balanced by a pulley and weight. When 100 pounds or more of rock accumulated on that side, a trap door released the waste material that fell into a dump truck below. The large chunks of coal which landed on the table were pushed right into a crusher and broken into small pieces.
Above me was a chute regularly filled with coal and rock brought from the mine and dumped from the tipple above. A slanted door of thick steel, opened and closed by an electric motor, regulated how much coal came through that chute. After falling down, the coal mix vibrated over a sloped screen with square openings. The smaller-sized pieces (less than 4” in diameter) dropped onto a conveyor belt and were carried to the loadout bunker.
The slanted door on the chute had to be set to just the right level. Opened too much and excessive coal crashed down, blinding the screen, and left the picking table a cluttered mess. If the avalanche was too large you couldn’t separate the rock from coal fast enough and both ended up discarded. But when not opened enough, the screening process slowed, and the next coal car to dump was stalled, disrupting the entire operation. Getting it right was fairly easy when coal was uniform, and rocks were small. But sometimes large chunks of sharp-angled sandstone and sedimentary rock jammed between the chute door and vibrating screen. The rocks wedged together at such awkward angles that none could break through the hatchway. The bind got so nasty that rocks were stuck even with a fully opened door.
When that happened, I rushed to the hoist room and told the operator to stop pulling cars from the mine. The hoist-man operated a large spool, six feet across upon which was wound 1,000 feet of 1” thick steel cable. It resembled a gigantic fishing reel. The cable spun through a bull-wheel atop the tipple providing leverage needed for pulling five-ton coal cars up from the bottom of the mine. After the car was dumped, the hoist operator braked against gravity, allowing the car to free-wheel down rails tracks along the 48º slope, through a mine opening called the portal.
With coal cars stopped, I ran back to the picking table and turned off the vibrating screen. I climbed up and with a long metal pry bar tried dislodging rocks to coax them through the door. If that didn’t work, I’d pound repeatedly with a sledgehammer to break the burly rocks into smaller pieces that could fit through. Sometimes the clog was so bad, the hoist man joined me as we tried to get things moving. Some nights the work was so grueling my body was drained in sweat.
Other nights the coal was so perfectly sized that 95% of the mix cruised through the screen. The few melon-sized chunks which dropped to the picking table were easy to handle and my job was a breeze. After screening five tons, I had plenty of idle time awaiting the next coal car’s arrival at the top of the tipple.
A bucket seat salvaged from an old sports car had been set up in the picking table chamber. Trips arrived every six to eight minutes, and I usually screened a carload in two to three minutes giving me several minutes between loads. In between, I read my textbooks perhaps a page or two, until the next car arrived. Its approach was signaled by the pitch of the whirring cable and sway of the tipple. When coal and rock crashed into the hopper above, that meant another five tons to screen.
From time to time, I emptied the dump truck parked below. After 10 to 12 tons of rock dropped through the trap door to the waiting dump box, I scurried down, jumped in the truck, drove to the rock dump, and emptied the load. The truck was dumped five or six times a night depending on the percentage of rock to coal. I needed to be fast, as coal cars kept emerging from the mine.
On nights when coal wasn’t hoisted, I rode a coal car 800 feet underground to work with the miners. There I performed laboring tasks – sometimes drilling coal and loading dynamite. Other nights I helped set timber props that held up the roof of the mine. Or cleaned coal spilled on rail tracks.
The most mindless job was filling dummy bags with loose clay used for stemming plugs. After loading a drill hole with a dozen sticks of dynamite, the sausage-sized, clay-filled, paper bags were punched into the end of the hole. This focused the energy of the explosive force to blast intact coal into thousands of smaller pieces. Otherwise, the explosion would blow out the bottom of the drill hole, like a firecracker dud. Dummy bags were in constant use during mining, so I spent hours bagging up a week’s supply or more.
One shift, bored and alone in the crosscut, I turned off my miner’s lamp to see if my eyes could fully adjust to the dark. It was an experiment. After 10 minutes, I slowly drew my hand towards my eyes guessing ambient light would illuminate the outline of the appendage, but there was nothing – complete and total darkness. There was no sound beyond my breathing. The lack of sight and sound that far below the earth’s surface conjured feelings I’ve never forgotten.
People often asked what it was like working underground. The best part was a constant temperature somewhere around 50º. There was little air movement except for a slight breeze from fans that ventilated the mine. We didn’t have to worry about rain, as it was dry except for a stream of underground water that accumulated in a ditch next to the hanging wall. It flowed to a sump and was pumped outside. The mine tunnels were supported by a three-piece timber set, consisting of two uprights supporting a cross beam log all tied together by an overhead roof of rugged boards, called lagging. It was a comfortable working environment, save for the fact everything you touched was black.
At 7 pm, work stopped for our dinner break. I moseyed down to the hoist room where a pot-bellied coal stove kept the tin shack warm. On rare occasions, the miners came up from below to warm themselves and join us. But most nights it was just me and the hoist man, either Roy Darby, Bill McLoughry, my cousin, Bob Morris, or sometimes Frank Manowski. Pee Wee, the dirty black mine dog hung out in the hoist room.
Dinner break was a time to relax, chat, and eat the meal Mom prepared 12 hours earlier. Sometimes she packed homemade soup in a thermos, but more often a meat and cheese sandwich, which I toasted atop the hot stove. I was talkative and conversations with the old coal miners took curious turns. Almost to a man, they told me to get an education and stay out of the mines.
Following our half-hour pause, it was back to work until 11 pm when our shift ended. Then I dragged my tired body, covered with sweat and coal dust, down to the wash house where we showered on concrete floors, under three side-by-side spigots. It was like traveling back to a shoddy version of a junior high locker room. The hot showers felt good, as did donning clean clothes you’d changed from eight hours earlier.
Each night, your work clothes were hung from hooks on a wire basket, with gloves and hard hat placed inside. A chain and pulley hauled the gear to the eve of the wash house where heat naturally accumulated. If your clothes were wet, they’d be warm and toasty by the following day. Each Friday, I brought my dirty garments home for Mom to wash.
I was in my car by 11:20 pm for the 20-minute drive back to Enumclaw. I brushed my teeth and plopped into the same bed I’d slept in since sixth grade. Falling to sleep each night was the easiest part of my day. Six hours later, it started all over again – up for breakfast, in my car, and driving to the U.W.
On weekends, I’d sleep till 11 or noon. I had no life outside of school and work. All my friends were away so largely I kept to myself. Some Saturday nights, I walked to the Chalet Theater to see a movie. But mostly I studied, typed papers, and prepared to face Monday.
After two college quarters and more than seven months of this routine, I was burned out. Fortunately, the underground coal mine was preparing to shut down. My night-shift job on the picking table phased out shortly after the start of the spring quarter. I completed my senior year living in Enumclaw but no longer working at the mine.
In addition to my regular Econ classes, I took a one-credit P.E. in tennis and a two-credit course on nutrition. But my favorite class spring quarter was a three-credit course entitled the Living Theater. We studied drama, went to plays, and wrote reviews of those we saw. It was my favorite college class and fittingly my last.
During those days of school and nights of work, my dreams were filled with fears – of papers not completed and exams I didn’t understand. Remarkably, I scored all A’s, and only one B that year. Slowly my life recovered as I took pride in a fat bank account. It’s easy saving money when living at home with no time to spend it.
For more than a year prior, I’d suffered an emotionally embarrassing case of facial acne. I felt ugly. But nothing Dr. Homer Harris, a noted dermatologist prescribed seemed to work. I stopped getting haircuts and grew my hair out. To hide my pimpled face, I quit shaving. Perhaps it was the release from stress or maybe shaving irritated my skin. But the acne lessened and within a few months disappeared. I began to feel human again.
I graduated that June, with a B.A. in Economics. I was tired of college. My attachment to fraternity brothers dwindled and I abandoned the academic scene. I had no interest in attending commencement. My sister graduated from high school that same year, so the folks wanted to throw a party for the both of us. I declined their offer and also pointedly skipped graduation ceremonies. My diploma arrived in the mail four months later.
A few relatives and two high school teachers sent congratulatory cards. My Grandma Kombol, a school teacher for 44 years gave me Webster’s Third International, a 13-pound dictionary I still cherish. I loafed all summer. I bought a motorcycle in August and moved to Lincoln City that fall. There I collected unemployment checks, read books, and walked on the beach.
Working at a coal mine my senior year of college was an experience I’ll never forget. It was a lonely existence within a beehive of perpetual motion. My life was a rolling slog in squirrel-cage. That choice shaped my life, unlike anything before or since. Perhaps the Stoic philosopher, Seneca said it best, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.”
The mine and the old miners are now all gone. All that remains of Rogers #3 is the weather-beaten washhouse. Still to these memories I remain eternally grateful – the miners with whom I worked, the hours spent driving to and fro, the classes attended, and college papers written. Textbook pages studied, the picking table, cement-floor showers, and the sense of freedom that spring when released from the whirlwind into a world of plays and theater.
Of those days long-ago, this memory I shall never forget – dinnertime in the hoist room, standing beside a hot coal stove, and tasting the melted cheese on the sandwich Mom lovingly packed for me.