Writing about music is like dancing about architecture *
TWO SONGS – TWO STORIES
Songs evoke memories of times long past, each bearing a story to be told. This is mine. It’s a tale of two singles; we called them 45s back then. Both were favorites. Both were songs about war. Two soundtracks postmarked in my mind––songs that evoke a time and age.
I played them on a cheap record player in my childhood bedroom. Neither mentioned Vietnam, but everyone knew what they were about. The singles were separated by two years. In the lifespan of a boy, that’s an eternity.
When young I was fascinated with soldiers. Growing up in the fifties and sixties most men of my parent’s generation served in WW II or Korea. Mom gave me a book, “Stories of Great Battles” about the soldiers who fought famous wars throughout history. I must have been eight or nine. I read it time and again.
JANUARY 1966: “BALLAD OF THE GREEN BERET” RELEASED
A few years later a song embodied the spirit and courage of the brave men featured in “Great Battles.” Sgt. Barry Sadler released “Ballad of the Green Beret” in January 1966. It rocketed to the top of the charts remaining at No. 1 for five straight weeks and finished as the year’s top song. Mom bought me the record. I hummed the tune and memorized its lyrics. They told the bittersweet story of a father, son, and a shared military culture. I loved everything about that song. I was 12 years old.
During the 1960s, Vietnam was inescapable––there in newspapers, magazines, television, and endlessly debated. Even its spelling and pronunciation were disputed: Vietnam or Viet Nam? Did the second syllable rhyme with mom or ma’am?
We wrote reports about the war and by 9th grade, it was the debate prompt in Mrs. Gallagher’s speech class: “Resolved that the U.S. should withdraw its troops from Vietnam?” In the style of classic debate, we were expected to successfully argue both sides of the proposition. My debate partner was Jim Clem and together we clipped articles, copied quotes, researched facts, and assembled 3” x 5” index cards supporting and opposing the prompt. In real debates against fellow students staged before the entire room, we demolished our competitors. It was the fall of 1967.
JANUARY 1968: “SKY PILOT” RELEASED
Several months later another war song was released, this time by a blues-rock singer from Newcastle, England who’d moved his reformed band to flowery San Francisco during the Summer of Love. Eric Burdon and the Animals recorded a song quite different than any of their previous offerings – “Sky Pilot.”
How do you explain the feelings of a 14-year-old upon hearing Burdon’s spoken word introduction? “He blesses the boys, as they stand in line. The smell of gun grease and the bayonets they shine.” Or describe the power of bagpipes during the long instrumental interlude preceding the powerful final verse: “A soldier so ill looks at the sky pilot. Remembers the words, ‘Thou shalt not kill’ ”
On January 30, 1968, the Viet Cong launched their Tet Offensive, a military campaign that resulted in a sea change of American attitudes about the war. Four days prior Eric Burdon released “Sky Pilot,” all 7:27 minutes of it.
I purchased the 45 at Stan Boreson’s Music Center on Cole Street in Enumclaw. Side A is the 2:55 single, while Side B concludes the epic by showcasing the glorious sound of Scottish bagpipes. You had to flip the record to hear the entire song. Upstairs in that same bedroom once filled with notes from “The Ballad of the Green Beret,” I played “Sky Pilot” again and again. Two years prior Sadler’s ballad was the No. 1 song and the toast of a grateful country.
Zeitgeist is a German word that literally translates as ‘time-ghost’ but more generally renders it as ‘the spirit of an age.’ Those two records captured the spirit of my age. A 12-year-old smitten with soldiers and the romance of battle versus the 14-year-old touched to his soul by a verse adapted from the sixth Biblical commandment. Inside me two songs played, each battling for a hold of my conscience.
1971: COLLEGE AND THE DRAFT
Throughout high school, ad hoc debates erupted the few times we weren’t talking about ourselves. At family gatherings, U.S. involvement in the war often ended in arguments. When I arrived at college, students marched shutting down the freeway near campus. Eighteen-year-olds, including this one, registered for selective service while others spoke of fleeing to Canada. The Vietnam War would straggle for another three years.
That year’s draft lottery fell on Groundhog Day, 1972. We each saw the shadow of uncertain futures. It was an anxious time. What birth dates would be drawn? Mine drew a safe 139, with official expectations that only the top 50 numbers might be conscripted.
I was never called to serve and never joined the protests. I remained an observer to the events that unfolded around me. I generally held nuanced views on the war. Yet, two songs were buried deep in my heart––pulsating fragments of youth––imprisoned feelings of good and bad, right and wrong, Barry Sadler and Eric Burdon.
More than 30 years later, I assembled a music CD comprised of songs about the Vietnam War. I titled the collection, “Postmarked Vietnam.” It’s a refrain from another Barry Sadler song, “Letters from Vietnam.” The CD included both “Letters” and “Sky Pilot,” plus 20 others. The music therein still echoes through my inconclusive thoughts about a war that changed so many live.
DECEMBER 31, 2017: KARAOKE AND CLOSURE
In late December 2017, our family traveled to Japan to visit my son, Oliver who was teaching English in the small town of Hofu. It’s a small city about 60 miles southwest of Hiroshima. On New Year’s Eve, we booked our party of six into a Karaoke box, a private room in a building with dozens of similar sized rooms. Karaoke is very popular in Japan.
Each of our party selected several songs during an hour of entertaining each other. I chose “Sky Pilot” and Spencer joined me on vocals. Singing Eric Burdon’s masterpiece with my son was another piece in the jigsaw puzzle for processing feelings you can’t otherwise explain.
And maybe that’s why writing about music goes round and round like a record on a turntable. Always creeping closer to the center, but with no clear idea as to why and what we hear is mostly in the ear of the beholder.
* This quote has been attributed to many, including Martin Mull, Elvis Costello, Frank Zappa, Steve Martin, and others.
In Tom Stoppard’s play, “The Real Thing,” the lead character, Henry can’t figure out which songs to pick when he’s slated to appear as the castaway on Desert Island Discs. The problem is Henry likes mindless pop music, but he’s a snob who’s afraid to admit he like pop music, so struggles to find songs and performers those of his intellectual class should like. His wife suggests a more pragmatic approach: pick records associated with turning points in his life.
My list follows the turning point theory–– records that wormed into my ears during special moments experienced early in life. There are plenty of albums I grew to love after these, but none captured my heart and soul like those from my youth.
I compiled my Desert Island Discs during the early days of Covid-19 when the country was shutting down and a bored citizenry sought new ways to amuse themselves by posting lists of favorite albums. April Fools’ Day seemed a fitting day to start, so with thanks to Doug Geiger’s original Facebook invitation and Jim Olson’s posts of musical inspiration, I posted these favorites from April 1-10, 2020.
Day 1 – The First Family (1962): Though it’s April Fools’ Day, this is no joke . . . though Vaughn Meador’s First Family sure traded in them. It was the first record I listened to all the way through time and time again. It was my 9-year-old introduction to political humor, delivered with Kennedy-style Boston accents plus world leaders whose names I still remember: De Gaulle, Khrushchev, Ben-Gurion, and Castro among them. This spoken-word comedy album spent 12 weeks as #1 on the Billboard charts selling over 7.5 million copies. The Kombol family’s copy of the album, listened to so many times, was never played again after Nov. 22, 1963.
Day 2 – Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music (1962): “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was the #1 hit, and Ray Charles’ foray into C&W was what a nation listened to that year. The album spawned four singles and everyone liked it: kids, adults, even grandparents. I listened to it once again this morning. Its soulful, jazzy, easy-listening, country-feel, sounds just as sweet today as it did 58 years ago. This was one of the couple dozen albums our family-owned. My sister, Jeanmarie and I regularly rotated Ray Charles’ “Modern Sounds” with soundtracks from “Oklahoma” and “The Music Man” plus our own personal favorite–– the spoken-word soundtrack to the “Pollyanna” movie starring Hayley Mills.
Day 3 – Meet the Beatles (1964): From the opening notes of “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to the closing bars of “Not a Second Time” every song is a winner. Our family didn’t own the album, but my best friend’s family did. Every day after 5th grade we gathered at Jeff Eldridge’s home across Franklin Street from ours. Jeff’s older brother, Ron was a junior at EHS, and his album; “Meet the Beatles” introduced four lads from Liverpool into our lives. Most afternoons were the same––listen to “Meet the Beatles,” followed by watching “Casper the Friendly Ghost” cartoons and Superman episodes starring George Reeves. When not playing the Beatles, we cued up Roy Orbison.
Day 4 – Sgt. Pepper (1967): It was the perfect time to be 14 years old. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper the very week I said goodbye to 8th grade. That Summer of Love was our summer of sun. It shined most every day in Seattle, setting a record 67 days without rain. Most days Mom drove us to Lake Sawyer with the radio tuned to AM 950. That June the Beatles held seven of the top ten positions on KJR’s Fabulous Fifty record survey, published Fridays in the Seattle P-I. Each song spawned new mental imagery––from tangerine skies to meter maids.
A month later the Beatles defined the spirit of the era with their follow-up single “All You Need is Love.” It all added up to the best summer of my life; not to mention more than a few hours staring at the album cover or studying the lyrics printed therein. To this day when anyone asks my favorite album of all time – there’s one quick answer: Sgt. Pepper.
Day 5 – Tommy (1969): By the autumn of 1969, most of us had driver’s licenses. Lester Hall drove his parent’s Ford Fairlane with an state-of-the-art stereo. We’d drive around Enumclaw from here to there but mostly nowhere. When doing so we listened to the Who’s “Tommy” so many times I’m surprised the 8-track tape didn’t wear out. We occasionally rotated Creedence, the Beatles, or CSN to give the Who a rest.
“Tommy” is generally considered the first rock musical. In late April 1971, our senior year of high school, the very first theatrical production of “Tommy” was staged at the Moore Theater. This world premiere featured a yet unknown, Bette Midler portraying the Acid Queen with show-stopping ferocity. A bunch of us saw it. I was in heaven.
Forty-five years later I gave the double album a long overdue listen from a remastered copy. How did “Tommy” hold up? It starts great. In fact, the Overture is perhaps my favorite number. At times the album soars with melodies flowing nicely. It’s an album in the best sense of the word. But, the story (book in musical-theater parlance) isn’t convincing. As smart and clever as Pete Townsend was, he’s simply not a great lyricist. The best songs still shine: “I’m Free,” “Pinball Wizard,” and “See Me, Feel Me.” The worst, “Fiddle About,” “Cousin Kevin,” and “Tommy’s Holiday Camp” remain clunkers. I can’t claim it stands the test of time, but back then “Tommy” was the height of musical fashion and evidence of our growing sophistication.
Day 6 – Every Picture Tells a Story (1971): “Maggie May” will forever be embedded as my first song of college. It was late September when I began my freshman year at U.W. Rod Stewart’s hit album was the soundtrack for initiation to college life – the picture of my story. While I’m particularly fond of the “Mandolin Wind,” “Reason to Believe;”; there’s no better song than “Maggie” to put a smile on my face and a song to my lips.
“Wake up Maggie I think I got something to say to you, It’s late September and I really should be back at school.”
Day 7 – American Pie (1971): Don McLean has a special place in my heart. His performance at the Paramount on March 17, 1972 was the first concert I ever attended. I chose my sister, Jeanmarie Bond to be my date. It was her first concert too. We dined at Clinkerdagger, Bickerstaff & Pettsbeforehand. It was a swank and trendy restaurant on Capitol Hill.
When introducing American Pie, McLean mockingly mimicked some college professor who wrote a detailed analysis of its lyrics. The audience sang the words and chorus we knew by heart. The title song has never loosened its grip. The album’s second hit single, “Vincent” is a hauntingly beautiful musical evocation of artistry focused on the most stunning of paintings: Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. If it’s been some time since you last heard the entire album just say, “Hey Siri (or Alexa), play the album American Pie by Don McLean.” You’ll be rewarded.
Day 8 – Past, Present & Future (1974): My first introduction to Al Stewart came courtesy of FM radio’s penchant for playing extended-length songs like “Nostradamus” and “Roads to Moscow” in the early 1970s. Only later did I buy the album and discover Stewart’s lyrical genius runs through history. In fact, side one of this breakthrough album features a song for each of the first five decades of the 20th century. My love affair with Al Stewart’s music played out nicely over the decades – I’ve seen him in concert five times, more than any other music artist.
Day 9 – All-American Alien Boy (1976): While in college I liked Mott the Hoople. Their lead singer and songwriter, Ian Hunter left the group in 1975, the year I graduated. The following year I was drifting without direction when Hunter released his second solo album. It struck gold in this listener’s ears. There aren’t many who feel the same way, but I stand by Ian Hunter’s “All-American Alien Boy” as an enduring work of musical art. “Irene Wilde” is a beautiful ballad of a true story, bus station rejection that inspired Hunter’s rise to stardom.
BTW, Doug Geiger and I had plans to see the Mott the Hoople reunion tour in November 2019, but sadly Hunter developed a severe case of tinnitus. He was advised by his doctors to discontinue performing until his condition subsides. Will we ever get the chance to see Mott the Hoople? Time may soon run out for the 80-year-old Ian Hunter, who I once saw in concert playing with Mick Ronson.
Day 10 – The Stranger (1977): This record changed the direction of my life. The album spawned four Top 40 hits: “Moving Out,” “Just the Way You Are,” “Only the Good Die Young” and “She’s Always a Woman to Me.” But two lesser-known tunes convinced me to take a giant step outside myself. When working as a management trainee at Seattle Trust & Savings Bank, I grew increasingly frustrated with my chosen direction. Repeated listening to “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” and “Vienna” (waits for you) convinced me I needed a change.
Those two songs fortified my courage to quit the job with a month’s notice dated to the one-year anniversary of when I started. I left for Europe in February 1978 with no set agenda and a budget of $10 a day. I lived and traveled for the next five months and have never forgotten the debt I owe to Billy Joel for drawing out the courage I couldn’t find by myself.
Fifty years ago, a schmaltzy song by an Irish balladeer topped the pop charts for six weeks. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s surprise hit, “Alone Again, Naturally” ranked number two on Billboard for the year 1972. Because it doesn’t fit into the classic rock genre, the tune soon faded in popularity and is generally unknown to anyone born after 1980.
On a Saturday night in late October 2015, my Enumclaw high school buddies and I gathered to play poker as we’ve done since our junior high days. We join together several times each year and call our outings Pokerques, with a barbequed meal part of the bargain.
That particular night apropos of nothing, Lester told the story behind the song, “Alone Again, Naturally” which centers on the singer’s plan to commit suicide over a wedding that never happened. Lester assured us this factoid came courtesy of Wikipedia, so we knew it must be true.
At that night’s gathering , I laughed entirely too loud as old friends told stories and we all recounted misspent adventures of youthful revelry. Having stayed out a little too late, I slept in on Sunday morning. After breakfast, Jennifer drove our youngest son Henry to his noon soccer game so I found myself alone and naturally opened the iPad.
I checked out Lester’s story. Clicking on the first Google listing, I cued a YouTube performance with an amazing 27 million views! The video featured O’Sullivan on piano before a large orchestra complete with a dozen strings, piano, organ, drums, and the distinctive guitar solo which nicely cements the melody.
Sure enough, the first stanza of this mega-hit relates the tale of a jilted lover imagining a trip from an empty alter to tower top where he throws himself down, all to the amazement of congregants who concluded there’s no reason for them to wait any longer so they might as well go home – as did the prospective groom, who lived to write this melancholy song.
The second stanza adds to the sorrow of the first and subsequent verses examine a contemplative soul, never wishing to hide the tears, relating – first the death of his father and then his broken-hearted mother – all remembered . . . alone again, naturally.
Isn’t it funny how a sentimental song from the summer of your 19th year calls forth buried memories, none specific but together conjuring a formative feeling? I probably heard that ballad a hundred times back when Top 40 radio dominated my listening habits, all while driving around in the 1966 Renault that served my transportation needs. But, I’d never fixated on O’Sullivan’s introductory lyrics, only the concluding verse describing the passing of his father and mother.
O’Sullivan is an Irish singer-songwriter who changed his first name to Gilbert as a play on the names of musical composers, Gilbert & Sullivan the craftsmen behind so many crowd-pleasing operettas from the late 1800s*. Released in June 1972, the song’s popularity stretched from late summer to early fall, proceeded at number one song by Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and succeeded by Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” – recounted herein to set the mood and temper of that summer.
O’Sullivan’s follow-up single, “Claire” reached number two on the U.S. charts a few months later. His disc sales exceeded ten million in 1972 and made him the top start of the year. By 1974, O’Sullivan was practically forgotten in America though he continued to enjoy popularity in Great Britain.
From a trip Jenn and I had recently taken to Ireland, I remembered what two Irish musicians who led our Dublin pub crawl told us: Irish songs reflect the nation’s history – they’re either bawdy drinking ditties or sad songs of loss and love.
Having spent the preceding evening playing poker with nine life-long friends; eating, drinking, and laughing so hard my face hurt, I was reminded that we’re all then well into our sixties. One of our buddies was lost to cancer and another to booze, but the rest have aged gracefully and we treasure time spent together. We now resemble our dads and how much longer will it be till we look like our grandfathers?
All of our fathers are gone, and everyone’s mother save one, has also passed away. One was recently robbed of his daughter, a parent’s worst nightmare. With each fresh loss, we find ourselves looking to our children and families for solace and meaning. And, often we look to each other for comfort. We do so in full recognition that our present health and lives and families cannot be taken for granted.
Yet we still laugh and reminisce and natter and make plans, always looking forward to our next reunion. And come away thankful for the multiplicity of friendships that have stood so many tests of time with rarely a pool cue drawn in anger.
So in hopeful jest, I offer this toast to my friends who’ve been by my side for sixty-plus years: May we all live another three decades; and may I be there to cheer your good fortune when each of us celebrates the centennial of his life.
* If you want to see a spirited and historical account of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s music-making genius, watch the superb 1999 movie, “Topsy-Turvy.”
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.
A photo album Pauline assembled during high school years yielded two of her poems. Her first was brash and bawdy while the second reflective and self-assured. “Boyfriends” likely dates to her junior year (1944) judging by who’s mentioned in the poem and her album photos that year.
The second, “This world that we’re livin’ in” dates to after graduation – but it’s hard to say exactly when. I’ve included the type-written poems plus select photos to illustrate her high school friendships.
This is my poetic tribute to the best Mom I ever had, Pauline Lucile (Morris) Kombol (1927–2011). Happy Mother’s Day from your historian son, Bill Kombol – May 8, 2022.
We girls and our boyfriends,
We have quite a time.
But for the ones we like best,
We wouldn’t give a dime.
I chase after everyone I know I can’t get,
But what do you care, it’s no skin off your tit.
Well, JoAnn likes muscles, Erna like chins,
But some like boys with plenty of sins.
And I’ve got one, you all know who,
It’s Howie I’m speaking about to you.
Valera likes to have about six on the string,
And her heart tells her it’s just a fling.
Now Beve likes Renton, and you know why,
Just mention Tony’s name, and listen to her sigh.
But this thing called love, has broken many hearts,
Yet it has only caused others to let a big fart.
What would you do, if there weren’t any boys?
Well, we wouldn’t be so sad and there’d be many more joys.
But as times goes on and variety is the spice,
You’ll probably be at the church getting showered with rice.
I can picture it now, Erna and her hubby,
She’ll love his chin even if he isn’t chubby.
And here comes JoAnnie showing her muscle,
With her butt held in by a big wire bustle.
And look! There’s Lois, the big old fat,
She hasn’t left the church, ‘cause that’s just where she sat.
She’s an old maid and will never get married,
She couldn’t get Howie, so now she’ll be buried.
Next comes Beve, with her big toothy smile,
There’s pompadour Tony at the end of the aisle.
And there stands Valera, all wide eyed and mad,
She couldn’t get married and am I glad.
She and Miss Calahan are figuring out a way,
That they can marry two guys and be happy that day.
But it isn’t possible and she should know,
And I’m afraid if she ever tried it, to jail she’d go.
It’s ten years later and what do you think,
Here comes a bunch of wopes and of garlic they stink.
If you saw their chins and looked at their nose,
You’d know right away they’re Erna Merlino’s.
Here’s a little boar with his hair piled high,
One look at him and you’d know who he was and why.
I said to him, “Where’s your daddy, Tony?”
He said, “Oh, home eating crackers and baloney.”
But now we will pass, through Renton right now,
And there’s a dame, sittin’ milkin’ a cow.
We look at her face and guess who it is,
It’s our own JoAnn milking a cow named Liz.
I asked her what had happened to all her husband’s money,
She gave me a dirty look and said, “Don’t be funny.”
As I started home, I stopped at the lake,
I wanted to see Howie, so I pulled on the brake.
I went to the door and rang the bell,
I heard Howie yell, “I’m out here in the well.”
In the well I thought, now’s my chance,
To corner him into the wedding dance.
I finally married him after this long time,
And after 80 long years
I’m a bride at 89!!!!!
Appearing in the poem:
Erna – Erna Jean Williams
Beve – likely Beverly Boland, but possibly Beve Rocca
JoAnn – JoAnn (Ewell) Clearwater
Howie – Howard Johanson
Valera – Valera Pedersen
Lois – Lois (Buck) Hamilton
Miss Calahan –De Lona Calahan, Tiger Tales Yearbook staff advisor
Tony – presumably Tony Merlino of Renton
This world that we’re livin’ in
Is awful nice and sweet–
You get a thorn with every rose
But ain’t the roses sweet.
I’ve shut the door on yesterday,
Its sorrows and mistakes:
I’ve looked within its gloomy walls
Past failures and mistakes.
And now I throw the key away
To seek another room,
And furnish it with hope and smiles
And every spring–time bloom.
You have to live with yourself, you know,
All your whole life through.
Wherever you stay, or wherever you go, You will always companion you.
So–it’s just as well to make of yourself
The person you’d like to be,
And spend each day in the pleasantest way,
With the finest of company.
By Pauline Lucile Morris
Post Script:Morris – Stergion – Puttman – Kombol
Our moms were BFF before there was such a thing. We’ve been 5-year reunion friends since graduation. Their names were Shirley Stergion and Ponnie Morris until they married Jim Puttman and Jack Kombol.
Her name is Lynne always misspelled Lynn and I was called Billy the name she still calls me. They were Tigers from the Class of ’45. We were Hornets from the Class of ’71. Their 1944 picture was taken on the front lawn Enumclaw High School on Porter Street. Our 1968 Ka-Teh-Kan yearbook photo was taken inside the gym of the same building – by then Enumclaw Junior High.
They have both passed to the world beyond ours: Shirley in 2019 and Pauline in 2011. We reached the 9th grade Hall of Fame with our funniest laughs. Lynne became a stand-up comedienne helping people laugh. Bill studied Economics which is no laughing matter.
But wherever our lives have rambled, we share the bond our mothers shared – Enumclaw. Some say it translates as a ‘place of evil spirits’ while others claim it’s a ‘thundering noise.’
Whatsoever Enumclaw may be – where so ever Enumclaw may reside – long may her spirit dwell.
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 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.
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, Janet 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.
* * * Afterword:
This story has a sad ending. Four years after our reunion, his sister, Julie responded to a Facebook message I’d sent when my essay was first published. She told me Tom suffered from dementia and needed to be placed in a home. Like many suffering from diseases of the mind, some long-term memory remained intact, but his short-term cognition was impaired so frustration ruled his world.
Early on the morning of Aug. 29, 2022, Tom passed away. A Celebration of Life was held on Oct. 15, 2022, which would have been Tom’s 69th birthday. I attended with Jim Clem whose team’s game in Port Angeles led to our 2017 reunion. I introduced myself to his children, Jesse, Rick, and Angela plus other family members.
At the Celebration several people told me the same story. Though much of Tom’s memory was lost, one of the stories he told his family during those last years was of a friend from Enumclaw who met him at a baseball game and reunited a friendship forged so many years ago. May you rest in peace, Tom Colvin.