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