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Musings

Come Saturday Morning

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.

Chris Coppin, left and Bill Kombol, right from our 2nd grade class photo. This collage is an optical illusion as Chris was (and still is) a half a foot taller than me.

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?”

The Coppin family in their stately home at 1610 Griffin Ave., circa 1968.  Chris is lower right.  Dan is the top row, right holding his sister, Alice.

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.

The UA-70 and UA-150 were located at 6th & Lenora in the Denny Regrade area of downtown Seattle.

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.”

Some of the movies Dan took us to, as best we can remember. “If” was a personal favorite (collage by Oliver Kombol).

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.”

Mr. Hawk, left, in Senior English lit before a class of admiring students gathered around his desks as he smiles approvingly.

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.

“The Sterile Cukoo” starred Liza Minnelli and featured the song, “Come Saturday Morning” in a 1969 tale of love between college freshmen.

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.

 

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Musings Uncategorized

Epistle for Mr. McGreen

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.

Fresh out of college and a newly minted elementary teacher, Mr. McGreen, made a mark on our 4th Grade class at J.J. Smith, Spring 1963.

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.

4th Grade, J.J. Smith (1962-63) – Mr. McGreen’s Class.                                             Row 1 (L-R): Mark Myers, Joe Sharp, Billy Kombol, Tom R., Curtis Barber.
Row 2 (L-R): JoAnne Barret, Denise Alcorn, Gail Gardner, Loralyn Walden, Linda Ralston, Naomi Langsea, Sharlene Johnson. Row 3 (L-R): Danny Stanford, ??, Jack Person, Steve Rex, Sharon Peterson, Laurie Mitchell, Don Krueger, Ken Kurfurst, Karl Uhde. Row 4 (L-R): Cindy Nordyke, Tim Thomasson, Marsha Millarich, Pam Ziltner, Janie Whitbeck, Jeff Eldridge, Diane Jones, Tom DeBolt.

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.

The dreaded D in writing (penmanship), the only one received during my school career.

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.

She had dozens of Beatles cards, which were almost as she was.

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.”

Mr. McGreen’s signed my 1967 Ka-Te-Kan yearbook in Junior High.

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?

7th Grade Football Enumclaw Junior High (Fall 1965) – Mr. McGreen, coach.
Front Row (L-R): unknown, Dale Troy, Gary Varney, Jeff Krull, Kevin Shannon, Billy Kombol, Bill Waldock, Kris Galvin, Bill Fawcett, Tryge Pohlman.
Inset: Lester Hall. Back Row (L-R) Scott Davies, Richard Babic, Rick Barry, Jim Partin, Tim Thomasson, Jim Ewalt, Jim Clem – Captain; Wayne Podolak, Del Sonneson, Jeff Eldridge, Steve McCarty.

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!

Mr. McGreen from my 1966 Ka-Te-Kan yearbook.

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.

 

 

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History Uncategorized

Poetry by Pauline

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.

Judging by the number of photos in her high school album, Shirley Stergion (right) was probably Pauline’s best friend among many.  In front of Enumclaw High School located at 2222 Porter Street.

Boyfriends

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

Written circa 1944, during her junior year at Enumclaw High School

The final draft of Pauline’s “Boyfriends.” The first draft had typos and was missing the final stanza.
The boy she finally marries (in the poem) at the age of 89 – Howard ‘Howie’ Johanson (photo from Tiger Tales 1945, Enumclaw High School yearbook).
Valera Pedersen, Beve Boland, Pauline Morris, Erna William, and Shirley Stergion, May 1944 on the front lawn of EHS.  Interestingly, Shirley’s name did not appear in the poem, but then again she and Jimmy Puttman were a couple during high school and then married shortly thereafter. 
“Seniors” Spring 1945: Shirley Stergion, Yvonne Cross, Faye Timm, and Pauline Morris on a bicycle ride through the surrounding countryside.
Erna Williams at Enumclaw’s Avalon Theater, May 1944. Both Pauline and Erna worked at the Avalon, then located at the N.E. corner of Cole St. & Myrtle Ave.

This world that we’re livin’ in

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.

The typed original of Pauline’s “This world that were livin’ in.”
  • By Pauline Lucile Morris

    Pauline Morris, Valera Pedersen, Bev Boland, Shirley Stergion, at Enumclaw High School, May 1944, on the front lawn of EHS.
“Sub-debs” June 1945 – Top: Nancy Bruhn, Yvonne Cross, Faye Timm, Shirley Stergion, Pauline, Morris.  Lower: Jane Smitterlof, Dolly Grennan, Martha Hanthorn , Marice Heiberg.  Photo on the front lawn of EHS looking east across Porter Street to the stile-standing 18-unit apartment built in 1926, in which Pauline lived sometime after high school.

Post Script:   Morris – Stergion  – Puttman – Kombol

Pauline Morris and Shirley Stergion, May 1944 – their children, Lynne Puttman and Bill Kombol, 1968.

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.

Categories
Musings

‘The Greatest Game Ever Played’

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.

“On this day in sports” – the Facebook post by Bob Sims that inspired my story.

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?

The box score sheet inside the program proving we saw a  Braves game.

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.

The Western Airlines wings the stewardess pinned on my sports jacket.
All dressed up with somewhere to go: Bill, Grandpa, and Barry, 1964.

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.

The Maurice Hotel on Post Street in downtown San Francisco.

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.

Getting our shoes shined in Union Square.  That’s Grandma and Grandpa to my right.

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.’

Juan Marichal’s high leg kick.

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.

Grandpa and me at San Francisco airport on my first trip, July 1962.

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.

My Giant bobblehead trades notes with Jim Clem, a giant of Washington state baseball.

* 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.

Categories
Musings

First Tastes of Mortality

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

Released in Jan. 1963, Peter, Paul & Mary’s “Puff the Magic Dragon” soon topped the charts.

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.

Grandpa and Grandma – Jack and Marie Morris, a night on the town in San Francisco, 1959.

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.

Bad posture, Billy at Grandma & Grandpa Morris home, Spring 1967.

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.

Papa Tony Kombol and Grandma Nina Marie Morris died on the same day.

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.

When in San Francisco Grandpa always stayed at the Maurice, a businessman’s Hotel near Union Square where that day we had our shoes shined, July 1962.

We dined in the Starlight Room of the Sir Francis Drake Hotel, celebrating  great-aunt Ruth’s 75th birthday . . . and my 9th.  I still have the menu dated July 3, 1962.  Two weeks earlier, Tony Bennett released the song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”

Great Aunt Ruth’s birthday was July 4th and mine July 5th, so Grandpa Morris took us to the restaurant at Sir Francis Drake Hotel.  It was a fancy place with the date  printed at the top of the menu.  The waiter gave it to me as a souvenir.

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.

Jack & Pauline Kombol, late 1967.

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.

Father and son, Jack Kombol and Bill, Lyon, France, Feb 1978, a year before he died.

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.

Mom kept a journal of our trip so I know the day we visited Dachau – May 31, 1968.

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,

The sign on the gate as you enter Dachau – Work sets you free.

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:

John Sherwood’s page in our high school yearbook.

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   

Sporting a Nehru jacket on my first day of high school as a sophomore, Sept. 1968

                                                                                                          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.

Categories
History

Working at a Coal Mine

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.

End of the shift
That’s me at shift’s end I was covered with coal dust on one of my rare day shifts. The Rogers #3 hoist room and mine tipple are up the hill behind me.  Photo by Barry Kombol, April 1975

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.

Evan Morris, Sr. on the platform beside the portal into the Rogers #3 mine.  The sloped tunnel descender 800 feet underground.  December 1974.

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.

Coal seams in this area of Ravensdale stood nearly vertical as seen in this geologic cross section. – Golder Associates.

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.

Surface facilities at Rogers #3. The tipple to the left and load out bunkers to the right.  Photo by Don Mason, early 1970s.

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.

Joe Ozbolt, left and James ‘Bo’ Williams, right inside the Rogers #3 washhouse. Photo by Charlie Falk, February 1975.

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.

A loaded coal car is being dumped from the top of tipple into the chute below. The picking table was behind the silver-colored sheet metal above the dumptruck where waste material was collected before being hauled to the rock dump.  Photo by Bill Kombol, April 1975.

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.

Barry Kombol, ready at the picking table – notice how clean he is at the start of a shift.  Photo by Bill Kombol, April 1975.  
A Moulden & Sons dumptruck filling up with coal to be hauled to Palmer’s Mine #11 yard in Black Diamond for further processing.  Photo by Bill Kombol, April 1975.

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.

A closeup of Bill McLoughry operating the hoist. The drum and steel cable are in the background.  Photo by Barry Kombol, April 1974.

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.

Hoist operators: Roy Darby, top left; Frank Manowski, top right; and Bob Morris, below.

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.

The rail tracks lead to the portal opening, seen mid-photo as a darkened area. This photo of the portal opening into the mine was taken from atop the tipple looking down.  Photo by Bill Kombol, April 1975.

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.

Bill Kombol handing John Costanich a stick of dynamite ready for loading into a drill hole.  Photo by Barry Kombol, April 1974.
With a long plastic pole Bill Kombol helps John Costanich (on platform above) push the dynamite to the top of the drill hole.  Dummy bags were put in last to plug the hole and ensure a successful blast.  Photo by Barry Kombol, April 1974.

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.

Bill Kombol filling dummy bags and placing the finished sausage-sized bags into an empty dynamite box.  A “dummy bag” was a paper sack filled with clay or shale and used to stem drill holes. The dummy bag was about the same size as a dynamite stick.  After the drill hole was filled with dynamite, several dummy bags were tamped tightly as stemming, so that the dynamite blast would break and loosen the coal rather than simply blow out the end of the hole. “Stemming” means to tamp, plug, or make tight, to ensure a successful shot.  Photo by Barry Kombol, April 1974.

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 ManowskiPee Wee, the dirty black mine dog hung out in the hoist room.

George Savicke, right eats his lunch while Tony Basselli toasts his sandwich on the pot-bellied coal stove in the hoist room. That night the two miners came out from below for their dinner break.  November 1974.

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.

Pee Wee, the hoist room mine dog carrying a miner’s lunch box ,then seeking attention and perhaps a snack from the miners. Photo by Barry Kombol, April 1974.

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.

When the Rogers #3 mine finally closed, a retirement party was held featuring a cake with all Palmer personnel, who were part of the last underground coal mine in Washington State written in the frosting. 1975.

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.

Four years of study and 195 college credits produced this Bachelor of Arts in Economics, mailed to me several months later, as I had no interest in attending graduation ceremonies.

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.

* * *

After loafing all summer, bumming that fall in Lincoln City and cashing unemployment checks, seven months later, I came back to work for Palmer. Bill Kombol in Enumclaw helping the company relocate the Stergeon cement  bins to Black Diamond for use at the coal mine wash plant. Photo by Charlie Falk, January 1976.

 

 

 

Categories
Musings

Tom Colvin and the Summer of 1966

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.

Enumclaw Little League Baseball 1966
7th grade baseball. Front: Les Hall (of course!) Back: Del Sonneson, Tom DeBolt, Jim Ewalt, Keith Parmenter, Jim Clem, Wayne Podolak. Sponsored by the Enumclaw Junior Chamber (J.C.), Summer 1966.

The Colvins lived in a daylight rambler several houses up from Highway 101. It was next to a two-story motel and restaurant, where Tom’s brother Jeff worked. That week was cloudy each morning, a summer weather pattern typical near the sea. Tom’s sister, Julie owned just about every one of The Animals’ albums. Most mornings we listened to their songs time and again until the marine air lifted and we went out to play. Mickie Most was a record producer who made pop stars of the Animals and would soon do the same for a Scottish folk balladeer about to become a groovy, trendsetting pop star. His name was Donovan.

Towards the end of my stay, Tom and I went to a beach party on the Straights of Juan de Fuca at Crescent Beach. Tom was popular with his friends. I was a shy kid from Enumclaw with a fat lip. There were lots of junior high girls, each pretty in their own way, but none turned their attention to me.

Someone’s car radio was playing in a time before “boom boxes.” I heard the song of that summer . . . and every summer for the next 45 years––Donovan’s “Sunshine Superman.” Memories of that moment are etched in my mind. The teenage girls no longer mattered.  The syncopated beat, sing-along melody, and hip lyrics did.

Donovan album cover Sunshine Superman
Donovan’s Sunshine Superman single, released July 1, 1966.

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.

Civic Stadium Port Angeles Lefties
Bill Kombol and Tom Colvin at Civic Stadium, Port Angeles on July 7, 2017.

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.

Categories
Musings

On Turning 68

Fifty years ago I turned 18, a few weeks after graduating from high school.  My head was filled with dreams of heading off to college.  My bank account was bolstered by countless graduation cards filled with $5, $10, and $20 bills.  I was filled with certainty in the knowledge that so many relatives and friends believed in me. The feeling was one of confidence.

Those first post-graduate weeks were spent lounging in Lincoln City in the company of Grandpa Morris and cousin, Dave Falk.  Returning home, I began my second season as an ice cream vendor for another cousin, Dan Silvestri selling popsicles from a three-wheel Cushman scooter.  That summer job netted me $1,032, plus all the Sidewalk Sundays I cared to eat. 

The graduate (left) and his 68-year-old self, standing beside the same home at 1737 Franklin Street, this time holding the high school diploma awarded 50 years earlier.

One thought however, did not cross my mind.  I spent no time reflecting on what life might be upon reaching the age of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles, many of whom had sent cards and offered words of encouragement.  It isn’t in a boy’s nature to think about growing old.  It’s certainly of an older man’s to ponder what has long since passed.

My Dad never finished high school, but insisted I go to college.  My grandfather provided funds for my first year.  After that I was on my own and worked summer jobs to pay my way.  If I’ve learned one thing in the ensuing 50 years, its thankfulness––the knowledge that I stand today on the shoulders of those who came before.  We exist because our parents brought us into existence.  And they too, through generations stretching back to the beginning of humanity.

I’ve grown to recognize how blessed I’ve been by those who blazed the trail to where I now dwell.  And to recognize the debt we each owe to those who helped us along, taught us a song, or how to belong.  To better cultivate that sense of obligation, we owe it to those coming after to pave for them a better path forward, in gratitude for that trail blazed for us.  And through it all to rely on the grace of God whose plan unfolds every day, whether be helped or hindered by each daily action we undertake.

Perhaps my great-great grandmother who came across the plains on the Oregon Trail said it best:

“Our being in this world is not accidental.  We all have a mission to do some special work, and it is work that will honor Him and bless those around us.  If we do not find that work and do it, our life is a failure; the true end of living is not realized.   We may not learn in a moment; but step-by-step, day-by-day; as we go on things will be made clearer.  Those who do the smallest things well because they are God’s plan, are to be honored far above those who do great things for the world’s praise.”

Nancy Matilda Hembree (1837-1922)
Categories
Musings

A Tale of Two Maui’s

I returned to Maui in the spring of 2011, almost 35 years to the day I’d left.  In March 1976, Wayne and I embarked on an epic journey to Hawaii – epic at least in the minds of two 22-year-olds.  We’d just graduated: Wayne, a Cougar and me, a Husky.  Both of us were odd-jobbing, goofing off, and living at home.  That winter we’d played a bit of tennis at the old junior high and hatched a trip to Hawaii in spring.  Some details of this account are sketchy, primarily because I’ve forgotten much of what happened. Some memories are firmly embedded. 

Figuring it would be hot and unruly, I’d cut my shoulder-length hair a couple of days before we left.  We packed the little gear we needed and flew to Oahu.  In the classic fashion of first-time Hawaiian tourists, we laid on the beach in the blazing sun most of our first day. That night we were lobsters.  Our next three days would be fully clothed, so we decided to explore Oahu. 

White boy Wayne (soon to be red), with double thumbs up, on our first day in Hawaii.

First stop – the bars of Waikiki.  Back then these drinking establishments were open-air bamboo huts.  Midday, they were filled with the drifters, drunks, and pseudo-adventurers, the kind of story-telling guys from whom you rarely hear a good story.  While these Tiki bars were a pleasant diversion for a day, the drinks were expensive, and anyway, Wayne and I were in Hawaii for an adventure.

We decided to rent a car and explore the North Shore.  We chose a cheap sporty rig and headed north from Honolulu.  It was about when plastic garbage cans began replacing metal ones.  And the garbage had just been collected, meaning every driveway had an empty plastic garbage can, on the edge of the road.  Meaning we couldn’t resist smashing into empty plastic garbage cans along the way.  We had lots of fun bashing cans, changing drivers every couple of miles until we’d left the populated areas and there were no more garbage cans left to bash.  Is it any wonder car companies no longer rent to drivers younger than 25?  We made it to the North Shore, saw monster waves, and finished circumnavigating the island. The rental car was returned, no worse for the wear.  I don’t remember what we did over the next couple of days, but it wasn’t in the sun.  By then, it was time to fly to Maui. 

Bill and Wayne, ready for adventure . . . with our transistor radio in hand.

My Uncle Jack had recently bought a condo in Kihei.  He told me the name of the nice Asian gal who managed it for him and the address for his rental management company.  Uncle Jack had led me to believe that if we showed up at this certain rental agency, that this certain Asian girl could certainly do something for us.  The bus ride from the airport was filled with dreams of the sweet condo and sleek ride all courtesy of Uncle Jack, or something resembling it.  While Wayne waited in the park, I walked across South Kihei Road to the agency, and sure enough, there was a very attractive Asian gal, about thirty, who knew my Uncle Jack and yes, wasn’t Jack Morris a very nice client, but no she didn’t have any condos and no, there wasn’t any car, but thank you very much for stopping by, and if you’re ever back in Maui be sure to stop in and say “Aloha.” 

Well, it wasn’t the easiest conversation to have with Wayne. I stuttered to explained, “No, I didn’t score a condo in Kihei,” and “No, they don’t have a car for us either.”  Wayne didn’t say much, just an exasperated look as if to say, “What in the #%@&* are we going to do now, Kombol?” 

The rental management agency was across the street from Kama’ole Beach Park and within this patch of green was a parking lot and there to the far side were two hippies sitting at a picnic bench, near a faded yellow 1956 Ford station wagon with a “for sale” sign hanging in the window. The girl was quite attractive in a mid-seventies, hippie sort of way. Wayne sat impassively.  I went to investigate.  The hippie guy and gal were heading to New Zealand and willing to sell this gem of a rig, which included a 3” thick mattress laid across folded down back seats, with window curtains made from sheets, plus a 14” screwdriver in the glove compartment, in the event we might need a screwdriver.

Wayne, in the park with our 1956 Ford station wagon. Note the For Sale sign in the window.

They’d owned the car for six weeks or so and it ran well, except for its quirks, and got them everywhere they wanted to go.  And for $237 we would have both room and vehicle. (I hadn’t remembered the amount until the discovery of a postcard written to my folks with a full description of the finer points of our purchase). Plus, we could sell it when we left the island. Such a deal – I pitched the proposition to Wayne.  I can’t say he enthusiastically agreed, let’s say, reluctantly.  Anyway, with $237 fewer dollars in our wallets, we now owned a condo and a car.  But, part of the deal was to take the hippies to the airport as they were splitting for New Zealand.  When we asked about the pink slip, they said, “It’s a floating title – no one has transferred it for years, no insurance, no nothing; in that way you’re not responsible for anything.  Just sell it when you’re done.”  One of their last warnings was the suspension wasn’t very good, so don’t drive on rough roads.

We took the hippie couple to the airport and said goodbye.  Wayne hopped behind the driver’s wheel (no doubt owing to being my senior by a couple months).  As we left the airport and pulled to the stoplight at the intersection of the Hana and Haleakala highways, the motor stopped and the entire dashboard of our ‘56 Ford filled with smoke and the acrid smell of burning electrical wires.  Wayne turned slowly and looked at me, shaking his head in disgust.  Feeling sheepish, I watched anxiously as Wayne ducked under the dash, messed with a few wires, and in no time the engine was humming.  We turned left and were back on the road. I was feeling pretty happy. Wayne kept shaking his head, in time glancing my way, this time with a grin.

We drove back to Kihei and I suggested we continue on the unpaved road to Makena beach.  My cousin Bob spoke glowingly of Makena beach.  I was driving and must have hit some rough bumps in this well-rutted road because the muffler fell off.  The hippies turned out to be right. The suspension wasn’t very good. After chastising me with appropriate vigor, Wayne found some baling wire, crawled under the car, and tied the muffler back in place.  We’d already had two significant setbacks and only owned the car for a few hours.

On the road again.

Our days passed slowly.  We were now wise and brown to the sun.  We explored beaches by day and slept in parks and waysides by night.  We drove around a lot.  I can’t remember much of what we ate, but I do remember bananas for breakfast each morning.  Neither of us drank coffee back then.  We spent a lot of time at Makena beaches: Big Makena most of the time and Little Makena whenever we wanted to check out the nude sunbathers.  One day we drove the long and winding road to Hana.  We never made it to Haleakala Crater.  I suppose the station wagon’s radiator was too weak to drive 10,000 feet up a mountain and we didn’t fancy more chances with our condo on wheels.  We generally kept to the drier parts of the island because during heavy rains our condo leaked.  It was something of a rust bucket and after each tropical downpour; we had to drag our mattress and damp sleeping bags into the sun to dry.

Drying our gear after a tropical downpour.

We’d bought masks and fins, snorkeled a bit, and sunbathed a lot.  We drove around and swam, and occasionally washed our clothes at a laundromat.  I don’t remember ever meeting any girls.  We played lots of cribbage, for money – a nickel a point.  I’ve always prided myself at being an expert cribbage player, but Wayne was clearly my match.  I’d been a long-time political junkie and had great fun following the Reagan-Ford presidential primary battle in the local newspapers that spring.  I usually remember events by the music of the times, but I swear the only song I recall from our trip was Oh, what a night, late December back in ‘63” by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

At the time there was a potent strain of antagonism from native Hawaiians, particularly those young and male, directed towards “haoles” (pronounced howl-lee).   The term was derisively used for white tourists who were taking over their island.  On one occasion at a state park, a gang of natives called out Wayne and me as “haoles,” with a tone and demeanor so menacing we promptly left without even a proper “aloha.”

Exploring the island, somewhere in Maui.

Did I mention we drove around a lot?  One day, we found ourselves in the working-class town of Wailuku, where there were far more natives than tourists.  We’d never taken down the “for sale” sign in the car window, no doubt hoping that P.T. Barnum was right about a fool born every minute.  Anyway, a Wailuku police office of large build, severe crew cut, and Polynesian descent rather forcefully informed us that it was a violation of the Wailuku municipal code to drive on city streets with a “for sale” sign in the window of a licensed vehicle.  I suppose we could have thanked our blue-clad public servant for providing us with such a useful bit of information, but instead, we took down the sign with perhaps a bit too much attitude.  As we drove down Market Street heading out of town, I begrudgingly turned and gave the cop the old stink-eye.  This was not my finest hour!  Blue lights flashed and this time he exploded with the force and temper of the Marine drill sergeant he resembled.  With an improper registration and perhaps half a dozen other vehicle defects he could have impounded our car and left us homeless.  Wayne took charge, blamed it on me, and apologized profusely, while I humbly sulked in the passenger seat. We were allowed to leave town with a promise to never come back to Wailuku.  We never did.

One late afternoon, we decided to drive as far north as we could on the Honoapiilani highway.  We left Lahaina and drove past Ka’anapali, Kahana, Kapalua, and beyond Honokohau Bay.  Eventually, the narrow paved road turned to hard-packed dirt.  On we drove, or should I say I drove as we generally shared driving duties, and I was commanding this particular expedition.  We came to a beautiful yet remote area of rolling grasslands and picturesque meadows all adjacent to a clear blue ocean.  At the top of one particular hill, Wayne wondered if we shouldn’t turn back.  Before the words left his mouth, I’d coasted down into the next valley. 

It was about 4:00 pm.  It often rains in Maui in the late afternoon.  At the bottom of this low point, the roadway was rain-softened.  With our semi-bald tires, we could neither drive up the hill in front nor back up the one behind. Of course Wayne took the steering wheel, but he had no more luck in the sticky red clay than me.  Turning his head, he said not a word, adopting the Stoic “Wayne look” while slowly shaking his head.  We prayed another vehicle would come along, but apparently, every other driver on that road had the foresight or wisdom to turn around.

This isolated dale would be our home for the night.  We had no food save for a coconut we couldn’t open.  We played cribbage for a couple of hours.  When twilight came, there was too little light to continue, so we crawled into our sleeping bags.  Giving our recent, less-than-friendly encounter with a posse of rather large and surly natives, Wayne retrieved the 14” screwdriver from the glove compartment – for protection throughout the night. 

The post card I mailed to Mom and Dad telling of our $237 purchase.

Morning arrived safely.  After several hours sitting around hungry and playing cribbage, a jeep came down the hill.  It was driven by this hip-looking guy and his sweet-looking girlfriend.  He stopped, listened to our tale of woe, and towed us back to safety.  We tried to pay him, but he wouldn’t take the money.  He told us of his T-shirt shop in Lahaina and we promised to stop in and buy something.  We drove back to Lahaina, with a solemn promise to never leave the safety of pavement again.  At the time Lahaina was a quiet, hippie-style town filled with shops selling turquoise jewelry, puka-shelled necklaces, and T-shirts.  And every third long-hair you passed whispered, “Want some bud, man?” 

It was there we met these two greaser-hippie-shyster dudes.  They told us of their cool condo called the Whaler up in Ka’anapali and we should follow them and check it out. Back then, Ka’anapali was less than a half dozen high-rise condos and nothing like the perfected tourist oasis of today.  So we navigated our rusty ‘56 Ford station wagon into the basement parking lot of the Whaler and zipped up the elevator to examine this posh 9th-floor condo with an ocean view. 

Once upon a time on the 9th floor balcony at the Whaler in Ka’anapali.

Wow, what a place!  Next, the greaser-hippie-shyster dudes pull out some Maui-Wowie bud and proceed to light up.  The pipe was passed around. And though we’d seen a lot of sunshine and slept out in the rain, unlike the John Denver song there was no talk of poems and prayers and promises and things that we believed in.  After the third hit, we stepped onto the balcony, looking straight down 150 feet.  That’s when the Maui-Wowie slammed us.  Wayne thought he could fly but fortunately didn’t.  We crawled off the balcony, said goodbye to the greasers, stumbled to the elevator, rambled through the parking lot searching for our car, got in, looked at each other, and realized – “We’re not in Enumclaw anymore.” It was the last time Wayne ever smoked anything stronger than tobacco.

Driving in a car, sleeping in a car, changing in a car, eating in a car, and living in a car grows wearisome after three weeks.  We were due for a change.  Back in Kihei, we ran into this Canadian dude who had a big condo with a pool and was staying there all by himself until his friend arrived a few days later, and he wondered if we wanted to move in for a while.  I can’t remember his name.  He liked to drink rum and coke – for breakfast with his cereal, at poolside in the afternoon, and nightcaps in the evening.  He was a lonely guy. 

In my electric blue Speedo, poolside at our Canadian’s Condo.

For our condo-warming gift, Wayne and I bought a case of beer, some food, and moved right in.  The second night we asked our Canadian host if he liked to play cards.  We started with a few games of cribbage, but it wasn’t long till the evening turned to poker. At first, it was small stakes – nickel-dime-quarter, but soon enough the game progressed to dollars-fives-tens.  When all was said and done, I was $125 richer and Wayne was up $75. A few hours earlier that $200 had been the property of our Canadian host – the lonely dude who invited us to stay in his condo; eat his food; swim in his pool; shower at his pad; and drink his rum and coke.  We were feeling a bit guilty, so the next day went out and bought steaks, and all manner of fancy food (including his favorite brand of cereal), plus more beer, rum, and coke.  We ended up spending most of our winnings on our host plus his two guests from Enumclaw.  Over the next few days, we ate well and drank well.  The Canadian’s friend finally arrived from Canada.

Back in Oahu visiting Pear Harbor.

Alas, all good things must end.  Wayne and I were running out of money and the Canadians were too smart to play poker with us.  Anyway, we had plans to meet Coppin on Oahu.  I have no idea how we made arrangements in those pre-technology days before e-mail, cell phones, and texts; when long-distance calls cost as much as a half-rack of beer.  We sold the car for $200, got a ride to the airport, and headed back to Honolulu.  Chris had flown in for a few days, courtesy of George Coppin and Pan American Airways. We went to the zoo, watched a whale and dolphin show, visited Pearl Harbor, saw Don Ho, and told tales from our Maui adventures.  I almost drowned, but that’s a story for another day. 

It’s all happening at the zoo with Chris Coppin and Wayne.

Eventually, it was time to go home.  Chris jetted back to Notre Dame while Wayne and I tried to fly home. We had standby tickets, but no flight called our names.  Of one thing I’m certain – it was March 29th.  That Monday night, we each sat in plastic airport chairs with small, built-in televisions costing $.50 per hour watching the Academy Awards on one channel and the 1976 NCAA basketball championship game on the other.  Eventually, we found a flight to San Francisco.  There was no connecting flight to Seattle so we stayed downtown at the Y.M.C.A., where clean rooms could be found for $8 per night.  This was a couple years before the Village People’s hit single, “Y.M.C.A.” changed public perceptions.  The next day we flew home to Seattle.

As for the meaning of our epic journey I can’t claim, we were born in the springtime of our 22nd year coming home to a place we’d never been before.  But we did have quite the time and our travel dollars went the distance.  We also made saved some pretty good memories.

Fittingly, I returned to Maui 35 years later on the Monday of the 2011 NCAA championship game, this time with Jennifer and our three sons.  We rented a bright red, Hyundai Tucson and stayed in an ocean-front condo in Kahana.  We made the drive to Haleakala Crater and skipped the drive to Hana.  We snorkeled and took photos with an underwater camera.  We played on boogie boards and body-surfed the shore break at D.T. Fleming beach.  We ate home-cooked meals in our full-suite, kitchen condo and enjoyed fine meals at nice restaurants.  We attended a Luau

Bill and Jenn, April 2011 in Maui.
Our three sons, Oliver, Henry, and Spencer – poolside in Maui, April 2011.

We drove to the places I’d remembered from 35 years prior, but most everything had changed.  I looked to find our yellow ‘56 Ford station wagon, but realized she was only 20-years-old when we owned her in 1976 and would now be 55-years-old.  On the way to the airport, I saw a flatbed truck hauling the crushed hulks of junk cars, and Neil Young’s song came to mind . . . long may you run; long may you run. 

We didn’t play cribbage, but each night I slept on a thick mattress in a king-size bed next to my wife with a cool breeze blowing in the window.  Some things change, some never do, but I wouldn’t change either trip to Maui . . . for all the sand on Makena beach.

  • Written on our United Airlines flight home from Maui to Seattle with a layover in San Francisco, April 11, 2011

 

Categories
Musings

Two Little Miners in Elk Coal

A child listens while pages turn.  He studies pictures as literacy begins on his mother’s knee.  He was three or four years old.  It wasn’t the first book read to him, for that happened well before memory.  And it wouldn’t be the last.  For little did he know that as he grew older, books would grow with him.

As for children’s books, I wasn’t fond of Br’er Rabbit stories, they didn’t make sense.  “Hansel and Gretel” rather frightened me—children left in a forest only to fall to the hands of a wretched old woman.  And really, Hansel, didn’t it occur that breadcrumbs trailed behind might get eaten? “Three Little Pigs” seemed too obvious on successive readings, but we read on.  I admired Goldilocks’ insistence on getting things just right.  She did after all get her fill of porridge, took a nap, and escaped unharmed.  “Old Mother Hubbard,” “Three Billy Goats Gruff,” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” were all fun stories to hear. 

But the book I loved best was Two Little Miners.  It spoke to me—most likely since both grandfathers were coal miners, as were a bunch of uncles. And so was Dad.  He operated mobile equipment, like bulldozers, shovels, and loaders outside the mines.  On special occasions, Mom packed an extra lunch bucket when I went to work with him.  If the day was nice, I played in freshly bulldozed dirt.  If it rained, I stayed in his pickup watching droplets become streams that wiggled down the windshield. 

We lived in the remnant of a forgotten town called Elk Coal.  Most pronounced it El-ko. Elk Coal, you ask?  It’s located halfway between Kanaskat and Kangley, pressed against the foothills of the Cascades.  The coal mine for which the town was named closed in 1953, the year I was born.  The shabby village fell further from grace as miners left.  Our family moved there from Selleck, one week before my first birthday.  The next day my sister, Jeanmarie, was born.  They called us Irish twins.

My earliest childhood memories belong to Elk Coal.  Further north was Hiawatha, where Dad was born in the same house where his parents still lived.  Sometimes my grandfather, Tony Kombol, babysat me.  An errant dynamite coal mine blast 30 years prior left him nearly blind with a face freckled purple from embedded coal dust.  Grandma Lulu taught school in nearby Selleck.  She was Barry’s first-grade teacher and beloved by every school kid she taught. 

Our home was a stone’s throw from Durham, where Mom was raised. It was once a company town.  Many of its residents were her uncles who worked in the coal mines and aunts who performed the many mundane chores that make a small town livable.

Her Uncle Jonas and Aunt Maggie managed the large brick building called the Durham hotel. It was really a boarding house for single miners. Twenty or more homes, built in rows along the hillside, housed most of Durham’s 70 to 80 residents. Some even worked the Elk Coal mines across the street.

Durham was fully deserted by the 1950s, but Elk Coal, situated on a county road, survived.  Durham’s impressive coal slag piles still dominated the landscape.  Its crumbling company houses were a source of lumber salvaged by Dad.  After he disassembled boards in the driveway, we scoured the gravel with horseshoe magnets picking up rusty nails. 

Our Elk Coal home still stands at 28603 Kanaskat-Kangley Road (April 1940 King County Assessor photo).

We lived in a four-room home my folks bought from Benj Whitehouse in late June 1954.  He’d been a coal miner in nearby Durham.  He built the house in 1930.  Its two bedrooms, one bath, and two porches spanned 952 square feet, and cost my folks $3,000.  Our yard bordered scrub woodlands on one side and a rundown farm on the other.  That’s where Anne Pearson, our babysitter, lived.

Rare was the day when kids our age visited, as none lived in Elk Coal.  Sometimes cousins would drop by, or maybe the Kahne boys—for their mother, Pat Hunt, had grown up there.  Two older kids, Billy and Dickie St. Clair, occasionally came by.  They lived next door to my Kombol grandparents half a mile up the road.  When Barry started school, Jeanmarie and I, a year and a day apart, became fast friends. 

Two hundred feet south of our home lay the Elk Coal gas station and grocery.  It was a tiny clue this village was once something more than a name.  Aileen (Pearson) Gregovich ran the store which served ice cream cones, had a penny candy counter, and carried basic canned and dry grocery goods.  Behind the cash register, one caught glimpse of a bedroom filled with musical instruments. A decade later, I learned the young man who studied music in that room was Aileen’s son, Bob Estby, Enumclaw’s choir director.  He too was a product of Selleck and Elk Coal.

The Elk Coal store and gas station. Our home was 200 yards beyond.

In my sophomore year at Enumclaw High, a chess team was established with Mr. Estby as coach.  Curiously, he didn’t play chess.  Practice was hosted in his classroom each day after school.  Every few weeks, he drove our five-boy team to matches played throughout the region.  For three years Bob was my mentor and coach.  Amazingly, he kept our chess team’s trophies for 40 years after we left school.  When Mr. Estby passed away, his daughter gave me those trophies.

The secluded nature of Elk Coal made for limited social lives.  The store was the brightest star on the horizon and a two-minute walk from home.  With pennies found atop the dryer, Jeanmarie and I walked there for candy.  We envied older kids who bought soda pop with nickels.  In that innocent time, Mom didn’t mind her three and four-year-olds, pennies in hand, wandering about unattended.  We napped together in separate cribs, those of a wooden-slat, jail-bar-style of the 1950s. When one awoke, we’d call across the tiny room to the other.  Soon we were chattering about.  Best of friends we were, for Barry was at school and Dana not yet born.

By May 1958,Jeanmarie (left) and I were too big for the old crib, as by now it belonged to Dana (right).

In the era before preschool, Jeanmarie and I played on our backyard swing set, hoping for visitors.  We sometimes saw an aunt or grandmother.  Desperate for excitement one day I hid on the back floorboard of Aunt Nola’s sedan after she visited with Mom.  I figured she was headed to Grandma’s and therein lay my escape.  Instead, she drove along to Mariani’s Goat Ranch.  Nola parked and went to buy eggs and visit.  I emerged from her car surprised we weren’t at Grandma’s, so drifted down the road with the vague idea of waking home.  I was picked by an adult who recognized me and promptly delivered me the mile and a half back to Mom.  It was that kind of place.

A typical King County bookmobile, or mobile library during the 1950s. Patrons entered on the side and exited the rear.

Each month a novel source of entertainment arrived.  That’s when the King County mobile library made its round to our secluded hamlet. The Bookmobile parked on the gravel strip across from our house where the road was widest.  Stepping anxiously through the side door, one entered a bus filled with books, any of which you could pick up and take home.  With Mom or Grandma in tow, we examined colorful covers then checked out volumes at the rear exit.  Upon its returned, we exchanged our previous cache for new selections. Once checked out, Two Little Miners through purchase or gift became part of our family’s library. 

The Little Golden Book had a thin hard binding.  Its child-sized pages were treasured art to these young eyes.  The story by Margaret Wise Brown with pictures by Richard Scarry was published in 1949.  Earlier books like, Goodnight Moon and Runaway Bunny had a rhythm and style.  Nearly 70 years after Brown’s tragic death at age 42, they still sold by the thousands. 

The copy I bought online more than five decades after it was first read to me.

Two Little Miners was Richard Scarry’s first illustration.  In subsequent years he wrote or drew more than 300 stories.  His sales eventually soared to several hundred million copies worldwide.  Typical of Scarry’s drawings was their emphasis on action with precise detail in depicting everyday life.  Two Little Miners tells the tale of coal miners and their hard work underground.  The story’s happy ending was reason enough to have it read again and again.  Memories of the book are warmly juxtaposed with Sunday evenings watching the Wonderful World of Disney in our cozy living room. 

We moved to Enumclaw in December 1958.  Kindergarten wasn’t available in Elk Coal, so I joined Mrs. Todnam’s class in January, halfway through the school year.  Many of the classmates I met that first day of school graduated with me twelve years later. 

Mrs. Todnam’s kindergarten class photo on a spring day, 1959.

Enumclaw was The Land of Oz compared to Elk Coal.   My eyes were opened and the world brightened. We’d left the dreary and arrived in a real town.  Our neighborhood had stately churches with steeples that reached towards the sky.  Paved streets, grass medians, and concrete sidewalks outlined blocks of well-kept homes.  Front yards boasted rhododendrons with flowers that bloomed in spring.   A thriving downtown with stores, cafes, and a movie theater was but a five-minute walk from home. 

Kids were everywhere—at school, in back yards, and throughout the neighborhood.  Our isolated existence in Elk Coal faded in memory. Enumclaw became my town and playing with kids my passion.

While Mom still read books to us at bedtime, my interests stretched well beyond fairy tales on printed pages.  There was football to be played and baseballs to be thrown; skates to be rolled and bicycles to ride.  There were streets to walk and alleys to explore.  But mostly there were boys everywhere. 

Jeanmarie was crushed when I dumped her for their companionship.  Oh, we still bathed together on Saturday night and stayed inside on rainy days playing board games or listening to records.  But once I stepped outside the backdoor my focus changed.  No longer was Jeannie my best friend and faithful companion with whom we would one day live together like two little miners.  My world was now messing around with other boys.  In some ways, I’m not entirely convinced she ever fully forgave me.

My walk to the clean brick school building was five blocks away.  At Byron Kibler Elementary we were taught under the “see Dick run – look, Jane, look” method.  It’s called sight-reading and its efficacy I’ll leave to others.  For me it was agonizingly slow, but apparently did the trick for learn to read I did. 

Billy and Barry walk to Kibler school, May 1960.

There was even a modern library four blocks from our Franklin Street home.  Alas, it was largely ignored as sporting fields beckoned.  Though I had a library card and could search index cards to find books, my dreams of being shortstop for the Detroit Tigers placed reading them firmly on the back burner.  How much the newspaper’s sports section and baseball box scores advanced my reading skills is substantial.  Comic books, particularly the Archie and the Superman series became my primary sources of literature outside of school.

It wasn’t until junior high—when paperbacks like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Mysterious Island captured my imagination—that I was first drawn to printed pages without pictures or batting averages.  I also became an avid reader of magazines starting with Boys Life, migrating through MAD to Sports Illustrated, before graduating to Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Report.  Mom’s purchase of a complete, multi-volume, Collier’s Encyclopedia provided free reign for our inquisitive spirits.  It also made school reports much easier to complete, with fewer trips to the library. 

More advanced volumes like All Quiet on the Western Front and Hiroshima followed.  High school introduced captivating novels like A Separate Peace, The Catcher in the Rye, plus Lord of the Flies, 1984, and several others.

I’ll be forever thankful to our senior English teacher, Bill Hawk.  That spring semester, he recited the entirety of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Hamlet out loud to the class.  It was almost like being back on Mom’s knee.  College years were consumed with textbooks and assigned readings, so pleasure reading faded.  After graduation, the works of Steinbeck, Hemingway, Maugham, and Austen beckoned.  Eventually, my reading tastes evolved towards nonfiction particularly history, biography, politics, and culture. 

Mr. Bill Hawk (left) – his casual style and collegial manner inspired a love for literature, EHS spring 1971.

Decades passed, I married, and we raised three boys of our own.  Stories at bedtime became an evening ritual.  New children’s books were bought. Some of the old folk and fairy tale books were recycled from Mom to me.

One day I found the crayon-riddled, torn copy of Two Little Miners.  Foggy memories sifted back.  The old copy was beyond redemption, but the rise of online book-buying made finding a replacement a cinch.  The used copy arrived.  Fingering its worn pages released unexpected emotions.  The story endured: two little miners black as coal, scrubbed clean in wooden bathtubs, sit down to dinner.  Arising the next morning their lives of mining coal are told in exquisite detail, concluding with baths and supper on the table.  Though most pages were black and white, the ones in color are striking. 

It’s funny how childhood memories seize the mind of a fully grown man.  My thoughts turned to Elk Coal.  I toured the world’s vast web seeking evidence to confirm youthful recollections.  ‘Elk Coal’ was typed in the Google search box and up popped … nothing!  I tried Elko and Elco—still zilch.  I scoured all manner of keywords generating little better than Elk Plains, Elk River, or Big Elk. There were no links that even mentioned Elk Coal, Washington.  It seemed like an important part of my childhood didn’t exist outside of memories. 

“If it isn’t digital it didn’t happen,” is a fashionable view of today’s world. Following the French Revolution, a dramatist attributed to Napoleon the slogan, “If you want something done, do it yourself.”  I felt the same way. 

How could the curious people of Planet Earth enjoy full and fruitful lives knowing nothing of Elk Coal’s heritage?  Being an amateur historian, the answer was easy—I’d write its history.  Like any coal miner, I dug deep underground, excavated newspaper stories, and unearthed ancient mine reports.  I was in the fortunate position of having access to source documents allowing the narrative to be told. I submitted “Elk Coal: Forgotten Coal Mining Town,” to HistoryLink.org where it was published in May 2010.  Today, if you query Google regarding Elk Coal, several references now populate the list.  

The link below tells the story of that faded outpost where four of my first five years were lived.  For me it’s the place where literacy began … in Elk Coal with Two Little Miners.  

https://www.historylink.org/File/9419

Billy, the three-year-old future author, gazes intently at the camera, while Jeanmarie climbs and Barry swings, as Sugarloaf Mountain looms in the distance, July 1956.