It’s funny how a song can evoke memories of times long passed. I’ll never forget the song from July 1966, and where I first heard it. I was visiting a childhood friend, Tom Colvin who’d moved away after 4th grade. We were best friends during our elementary school years. On their last night in Enumclaw, he and his sister Julie slept over at our house. Somehow, three years later, Tom and I hatched a plan (made real by our mothers) where I’d stay with the Colvins for a week.
I didn’t know it then but I’d just played my last game of Little League baseball. Playing second base, in the second game of a double-header, a sharp grounder hit a rock bounding into my face and producing a nasty fat lip. I left the next day to visit Tom. Back then parents had neither the time nor inclination to spend six hours driving kids from Enumclaw to Port Angeles and back again. So Mom drove to Tacoma and placed me on a Greyhound bus. It was a long ride. The bus stopped at a half dozen towns along the way. I remembered my mother’s final directive, “Now make sure you get off in Port Angeles!” I called their home from a payphone to say I arrived, but it took some time for Mrs. Colvin to pick me up. In those 30 minutes, I discovered what shabby places bus stations really are, despite the allure of vending machines and pinball.
The Colvins lived in a daylight rambler several houses up from Highway 101. It was next to a two-story motel and restaurant, where Tom’s brother Jeff worked. That week was cloudy each morning, a summer weather pattern typical near the sea. Tom’s sister, 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.
At week’s end, I joined the Colvins and visited their friends who owned a cabin at a nearby lake. It was a serene and sunny Sunday when my Port Angeles vacation came to an end. I said goodbye to the Colvins and my family picked me up, coming from nearby Hood Canal, where they’d spent the first half of our summer trip. We ferried across the straights to Vancouver Island and made our way to Salt Spring Island where Mom reserved a cabin for the second week of our planned vacation.
There wasn’t much to do at the faded resort of rundown cabins where we stayed. There was no television. With little to do and the sun shining warmly each day, we had to figure out ways to have fun. Near our cabin was a small inlet with a narrow channel opening producing strong currents when the tide ebbed and flowed. We built a makeshift raft of logs and planks and at high tide rode the Tom Sawyer-like raft down what we pretended were rapids into the larger bay beyond.
In our cabin, a radio played, but the Canadian stations weren’t playing Donovan. But, I must have heard Brian Hyland’s “The Joker Went Wild” thirty times that week. I Googled the song and found out for some strange reason, it was the number one song on Vancouver’s Top 40 station that week.
It was there I played the only round of golf I ever played with my father. The course was dumpy and so were our rented clubs. The grass was bone-dry, so balls rolled easily along the fairway. Dad, Barry, and I knocked balls about and putted across bumpy greens. We didn’t keep score.
We soon exhausted things to do on Salt Spring Island, so cut our stay short. Our holiday ended in Victoria, where we kids insisted upon staying at a motel with a pool and television. That evening on the local news broadcast, the reporter told the story of a police crackdown on prostitution in the city. I asked Mom, “What’s a prostitute?” She dissembled an oblique explanation. There was a hint of the end of summer in the air.
I saw Tom Colvin one more time before our friendship was set aside. His family visited Enumclaw and we spent an afternoon fiddling about in a makeshift tree fort we made in the empty lot behind our house. Much later Tom landed in Portland, but in days before the internet looking up an old friend was well-nigh impossible. Years passed and I’d hear occasional reports of his doings from friends of friends.
Quite by accident, we reunited one Friday night in July 2017 at the Bellingham Bells baseball game against the Port Angeles Lefties. He was there with his P.A. buddies. I was there to see Jim Clem, who coaches for the Bells and once pitched for the local Peninsula Community College team. All of Jim’s baseball pals were part of the group that Tom came with.
Our worlds united on a warm night when two schoolboy chums reconnected 51 years later. Tom and I spent the couple hours at the baseball game reminiscing about our lives long ago and today. By game’s end, we said goodbye. Three-and-one-half-hour later, I was back home with new memories of another day.
Tom and I became Facebook friends but we haven’t seen each other since. When our lives might next intersect, only fate knows.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 justright. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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)
Thus spoke Pauline’s great-grandmother, Nancy Matilda (Hembree) Snow decades before my Mother was conceived. Pauline Lucile Morris was born to John Henry and Nina Marie, both had the last name Morris. She was as Welsh as one could be. Her father was a coal miner and her mother a school teacher. Both her grandfathers and great-grandfathers worked in the coal industry. Her great-grandmother, Nancy was a pioneer of the 1843 Oregon Trail.
Pauline grew up in the coal mining town of Durham surrounded by an extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins most of whom worked in or around the mines. Her family moved to Enumclaw when she was six, first to a hop farm in Osceola and later a home above Newaukum Creek. At school she made life-long friends many of whom are here today. She edited the school newspaper and annual, graduating from Enumclaw in 1945, just as World War II ended. Her obituary claims she briefly attended the University of Washington. The truth . . . for about 15 minutes.
After a short stint in Seattle, she landed back home working at the Palmer Coking Coal mine office at Four Corners. There she pumped gas and helped with bookkeeping. In 1950, she and Jack Kombol eloped to California and married. Eventually the couple made their way back to Selleck, where Barry, Jeannie and I first lived, and then to Elk Coal where Dana was born, just a quarter mile from the Durham of Mom’s childhood.
Mom had six life-changing experiences: Barry, Billy, Jeannie and Dana; but two others I’d like to tell you about. Her second baby, a daughter Paula Jean died two days after birth. Mom used to say that after the loss of that baby, she loved the rest of us so very much, so that she would never lose another child. One day years later, Jeannie and I rambunctiously raced around the living room, and Mother’s prized china cup collection crashed to the floor shattering every piece. Despite her initial sadness, Mom decided then and there that she would never value any possession more than the people in her life.
Our family moved to Enumclaw in 1958. There Pauline joined civic life as a den mother, Camp Fire leader, election-day poll worker, raising money for the March of Dimes, helping elderly aunts, and later caring for her own mother. There she ran the home – baking cookies, canning homemade jam, making pies – always from scratch and never with a recipe or measured ingredients. Menus were traditional and set: Friday – fish or tuna noodle casserole; Saturday – hamburgers; Sunday – fried chicken or pot roast; Monday – meat loaf, and so on. We never had soda pop or potato chips, but did enjoy Kool-aid and homemade frozen popsicles. Each summer we took vacations with the Cerne’s to Grayland and Hoods Canal – I later learned that we stayed at the same Beacon Point cabins where her family vacationed when she was young.
One of the big events of our lives was the family trip to Europe in 1968. Mom researched and found our Welsh and Croatian relatives and planned our journey through ten countries in six weeks. Using her dog-eared copy of Europe on $10 a Day, Mom found cheap pensions and small family-run hotels to fit her tight budget. Jack drove us across Europe in a small station-wagon jammed with six people and 13 suitcases. We played Hearts in the backseat and listened to Radio Luxemburg with Danica stuffed back amongst the luggage.
In later years we spent our summers at Lake Sawyer where Dad built a cabin. During one particularly inebriated summer party, Mom earned the nickname ‘Carrie Nation’ when she raced around the cabin pouring out booze and opening the tap of the keg refrigerator watching cold beer spill to the ground.
In early 1979 Jack was diagnosed with cancer and passed away within 3 weeks. A night before he died, he called me to his bedside and said, “I want you to take care of your mother.” Since the girls were away and Barry was married with a growing family, the primary duty of caring for Mom fell to me. So, I frequented her home where she cooked me delicious dinners. And, made sure I brought my laundry so she could wash it. And, she hemmed my pants and sewed buttons on my shirts; and, always sent me home with casseroles, lentil soup, and blackberry pies. It seemed the more I tried taking care of Mom, the more she took care of me. And who could ever forget the summer Keith Timm Jr. moved in with Mom and me. Then there were two of us . . . “to take care” of Mom.
During the early years after Dad’s death, she kept herself busy on the Enumclaw School Board and as a Director of Cascade Security Bank. But like a caterpillar, she spun her cocoon waiting to find the wings of the butterfly she became. And that she did. I can’t claim credit for pushing her out of the nest – I was too busy “taking care of her.” But off she flew – first to Seattle where she bought a condo and found friends through extension classes and her beloved movie group. More grandchildren were born and off she went to care for them. She enjoyed traveling and over the years took trips to Russia, China, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere. She loved her time in Lincoln City, and eventually spent her winters, first in Palm Springs and later Scottsdale.
Around the turn of the century, a wonderful gentleman entered into Mom’s life. His name was Cal Bashaw. He was a widower born the same year as my Dad. Mom and Cal had known each other from their days as bank directors. Well, I have to admit that Cal and I have radically different styles. When he started to “take care of” Mom; he did things like always helping her with her coat; opening doors; helping with her chair, fixing things around the house, running errands, taking her out to dinner, and always being there to care for her needs. It seemed the more we were around Cal, the more my own lovely wife began pointing out all of Cal’s far-too-many good traits. I started hearing things like, “Why can’t you be more like Cal?” Basically, Cal’s caring manner made my previous efforts to “take care of” Mom look fairly absurd.
But truly, Mom and Cal had a wonderful ten years together. And if only more people were like Cal, and like Mom, the world would be a far better place.
So, I come to the end, but also the beginning: the beginning of our lives without Pauline, without her sunshine.
Still, her light still shines – a small, bright star to guide me – to guide me through the darkness and back to life. So until that day when my light joins hers, I will rest easily, knowing that Pauline led a good life; a life worth living; a life which blessed those around her; a life of small things done well – done not for the world’s praise; but done through an honored existence, dedicated to her friends and to her family, and lived according to God’s plan.
And, if she were here today . . . I’ll let you complete the thought.
Seated in the front pew of Maple Valley Presbyterian Church on a Sunday in late November, I listened to a sermon delivered by Pastor David Diehl. It was a good one. His words were drawn from many sources but grounded in simple lessons. The Thanksgiving message was focused on the wonder of life’s blessings and how each of us has been enriched by others. As the sermon drew to a close, he laid down a challenge – think of a person who’s touched your life, in a small way or large, then write a letter of gratitude to let them know you remember. Perhaps to a parent, or uncle, aunt, teacher, boss, friend, or some hero who has no idea you still care. Every good action demands a deadline. Pastor David suggested this week or better yet why not today?
Meditating upon the homily, I considered my life’s journey in search of a juncture when someone’s action set me on the path I followed. Several candidates no longer walked the earth, never knowing how they helped me in a time on need. It felt sad for it was no longer possible to say, “thank you.” There’s nothing like feelings of guilt as inspiration to be a better person.
A week later, I’d done little more than imagine the letter that could be written. Good intentions though admirable, produce few results. A wise uncle regularly reminded, “The longest journey begins with the first step.”
My school boy days came to mind. There were plenty of kind and thoughtful teachers at the four Enumclaw schools I’d attended. Many were influential. But which of many made a significant impact on my life? A decision was made, my letter would be to Mr. Hanson, who taught a one-semester class in economics at Enumclaw High School. It took some time to compose what I wanted to say but finally mailed it a week before Christmas.
I didn’t hear back from Mr. Hanson. Unbeknownst to me his health was failing. A few months later news reached me that Wesley A. Hanson lay dead at age 75. While golfing with one of his sons, Mike told me how my letter found a treasured place in his desk during the last months of his life. He’d read it time and again. It was a bittersweet revelation.
So, here is my sermon – far shorter than Pastor Diehl’s and lacking in eloquence. Write a letter to someone precious in your life. Let them know you’re thankful and still think of them. For this is what Thanksgiving is all about – giving thanks. Here’s what I wrote:
December 18, 2006
Dear Mr. Hanson:
It was the autumn of 1969. The previous summer witnessed the moon landing of Apollo 11, the Tate-LaBianca murders by the Charlie Manson family, Woodstock, and my 16th birthday. I could now drive. Soon the fall semester of my junior year would arrive and among my classes were English, advanced Algebra, Chemistry, Spanish 3/4, Typing, and a new offering – Economics. The class was taught by a certain Wes Hanson, the father of a friend of my brother. Word had it that Mr. Hanson convinced the educational powers that be, allowing him to teach an informative one semester class to supplement the usual world history and contemporary problem classes. Late in my sophomore year, I signed up for Economics on the conviction that it would be a college preparatory class.
The next four and one-half months proved most enlightening. Mr. Hanson taught in his very likable style peppering instruction with stories from his days dealing with farm products in the great American plains. Each Friday was a 25 question test in true / false or multiple choice formats. Each Monday, the test results were returned and my paper was usually found to have 24 or 25 correct answers. By the end of the semester, not only had I earned an A, but also an enduring respect for the subject and the man who taught us. It would prove to be a lifetime love.
Over the next several years I read newspapers and magazines, closely following the economic issues of the day, from Milton Friedman’s proposed negative income tax for replacing welfare, to the heady days of August 1971 when President Nixon took the U.S. off the gold standard and imposed wage and price controls. During summers after my junior and senior years, I had a job selling Popsicles and ice cream bars from a three-wheel Cushman scooter in the suburban neighborhoods of east hill Kent. From my cousin, Dan Silvestri (who owned the business), I learned that long hours of selling ice cream and a sliding 20-24% commission scale would net me $25 to $30 per day. Working almost every day of the week has merit, because you never have time to spend your earnings, especially living at home during high school summers.
With my bulging bank account of a couple thousand dollars earned during two summers selling ice cream; a daily job filling the coal stoker at my dad’s downtown Enumclaw building; writing weekly newspaper stories for the Courier-Herald; and working at Palmer Coking Coal on Saturdays, I headed off to the University of Washington in September 1971.
I took typical introductory classes, not quite sure what to study. I liked the idea of making money and had my one semester background in high school economics to prove it. I also had a cousin in the Popsicle business who told me stories of his own ups and downs in the stock market.
So, as any prudent (impudent?) 18-year-old would do, one day I rode a bus from the University district to downtown Seattle then marched into the local Merrill Lynch Pierce Fenner and Smith office. There I opened an account with one-half the earnings from my various high school jobs. Four months earlier, Merrill Lynch became the first New York Stock Exchange brokerage firm to offer its shares to the public. It was the name I knew.
My cousin Dan provided me with a ‘tip’ so I bought 100 shares of Pan Am stock for about $10 per share. Each day, I dutifully read the stock tables in the Seattle Times or P-I. My heart jumped or sank with every 1/8th or 1/4th point movement. Several months later with Pan Am safely in the mid $14s, I sold and pocketed a nice three hundred dollar profit after commissions. I was hooked. Making $300 in the stock market was a lot easier than working 12-hour days selling Popsicles.
It was the spring quarter of my first year of college. Among the several survey courses one took as a freshman, I selected Introduction to Economics. It was taught to 600 dozing students in a huge auditorium that college administrators called a classroom. It was a standard course for many (hence the size of the class) and a requirement for a number of majors, mainly business. Thanks to my half semester in Mr. Hanson’s class, I excelled in Econ 200. So, of course I took Econ 201 (Microeconomics), the second of the two-part introduction to what’s often termed ‘the dismal science.’ Again, I did well.
My pragmatic nature calculated if I found a subject easy, that should be the subject for me. I continued with classes in economics and sure enough by next year was majoring in Econ. During one of those classes, students were given cut-rate subscriptions to the Wall Street Journal. It’s the newspaper I read to this day. To make a long story short, I studied hard, did well, and graduated with a B.A. in Economics, magna cum laude.
Some philosophers and historians believe an individual is little more than a floating cork in an ocean of tides and currents too strong to resist. They call this determinism. Others contend each individual is capable of free will and even small events in a person’s life can have profound affects, not only on one person, but upon history. Though acknowledging the former, I’ve found life much more interesting by subscribing to the latter. I believe one small event – taking a semester course in economics from a high school teacher I highly respect – had a profound influence on my life.
Another high school subject that proved fundamental was Mr. Worthington’s humanities class. There we learned that ancient Greeks thought four questions worth asking: “Who am I?” “Where did I come from?” “Where am I going?” and “What is the meaning of life? I’ve spent most time on the second question.
In trying to answer “Where I came from,” I’ve written a letter to a person who may not know how big of impact his high school class had on one student. Mr. Hanson – you are that person; your high school course was that impact; and I was that student. Now, I can’t claim one student, taking a class and going to college to major in economics is going to change the course of human history. But what I can tell you is how very grateful I am to you for that class you taught 37 years ago. And for the energy and enthusiasm you put into a subject you loved. And for the difference you’ve made in my life.
Though, I admit that my preoccupation with all things ‘economic’ wasn’t always my smartest choice. It too often diverted my attention from more important things in life. Perhaps I took too long to fall in love. But when I did, it was with the right girl, at the right time, and our marriage has brought forth three delightful boys who are the apples of my eye. No one would suggest I owe this all to you.
But, I want to say thank you for one very small thing you did, a very long time ago. Because you might not have otherwise realized how you made such a very large impact on this person’s life.
You are one of my heroes . . . and you probably didn’t even know it!