One’s 15th year of life is particularly fraught with change. Childhood dreams give way to adult realities. Adolescent collections such as baseball cards, coins, and comics sadly fall out of style – better left to tweens and those still trapped by out-of-fashion obsessions. Jobs and college take center stage. College prep means growing loads of homework and a heightened seriousness about school. Grades play a more prominent, but still minor role in high school hierarchies.
If you’re of average athletic ability, competitive sports are increasingly past tense. Pickup games with friends are fading options as those holding driver’s licenses abandon the glory of sporting fields for cruising in cars. In Enumclaw, they called it posing – driving up and down Griffin Ave, from east to west and back again waiting for something to happen. That September, we were sophomores all without driver’s licenses. Without a license or car, we principally relied on parents, friends, or sometimes a special older sibling.
Girls grew progressively more attractive, though self-doubts played havoc with one’s desirability. Acne pops up at all the wrong times and in all the wrong places. Growth spurts (or lack thereof) pit short boys against tall men, who share the same birth year. Somerset Maugham didn’t miss the mark by much when noting the world is an entirely different place for a man of 5’7” to one of 6’2”.
In 1968, Chris Coppin had just moved back to Enumclaw following a five-year absence. I’d first met Chris eight years earlier at Kibler Elementary. There we’d shared a second-grade teacher, Mrs. Stobbs. But an earlier introduction came through his younger brother, Ed whose pet turtles inhabited a two-gallon glass jar with rocks, and a skiff of water. I made repeated turtle visits to the Coppin home. Chris and I were friends until 4th grade when their family moved to the Bay Area, where Mr. Coppin, a flight engineer for Pan Am was transferred.
At that young age, it isn’t long before friendships are forgotten. In junior high, out of sight means out of mind. In short order, Chris was a faded memory. But like so many mysteries of youth, the Coppins moved back and Chris resurfaced. We were soon again fast friends, meeting at their stately white house at Griffin and Franklin, built in 1922 by a local timber baron, Axel Hanson of the White River Lumber Company. It was the biggest home in Enumclaw and had a front parlor, fashioned as a billiards room where we played pool after school. The Coppin digs were ground zero during our high years.
With twelve kids, their household was a beehive of activity. Mrs. Coppin was unflappable, often in the kitchen but always ready for a short chat that included a kind word and light-hearted banter. When home, Mr. Coppin was typically puttering away with something. His was of a quieter manner, still willing to engage in probing conversation, the better to pry us from our shells. As for the cluster of Chris’ younger siblings, mostly girls, it was a constant case of asking, “Which one is that?”
His four older brothers were different, distinctive, and spirited. Dan was the most inviting. He was four or five years older than us. And during that magical year, Dan was our ticket to ride to the movies. I’m not talking about the Enumclaw Roxy, and later the Chalet. Dan packed us in his car and off we’d drive to Seattle, destined most often for the UA-70 and UA-150 theaters at 6th and Lenora.
In 1969, they were brand new, state-of-the-art movie houses for the masses – their massive screens nearly outdone by amazing sound systems. The Cinema 70 screen was equipped for 70mm films and UA-150 once showcased “Star Wars” for an entire year. On occasion, we’d go to the Cinerama, another theater capable of projecting 70-millimeter films on its huge curved screen.
Each was magnificent. And for a bunch of teenagers from Enumclaw, they were a taste of sophistication – plus exposure us to films that wouldn’t play back home for another six months, if ever.
The outings were usually spontaneous. We’d be hanging around the pool table Saturday afternoon listening to records, when Dan wandered in asking, “You guys want to see a movie?” He normally had one in mind. Phone calls were made and a couple of hours later we piled into Dan’s car for the trip to Seattle.
How I wish our conversations had been recorded – the shouts, giggles, chitchat, and nonsense. We purchased our $1.50 tickets, double the price at the Roxy. Someone bought popcorn. I have no idea how many times Dan took us, but these movies jump to mind: “2001, A Space Odyssey,” “True Grit,” “Midnight Cowboy,” “The Sterile Cukoo,” and “If.”
It was truly a golden age, not just for movies but being alive to changes experienced during a time when fashion and culture were turned upside down. Most discrete memories of the specific movie outings are gone, and only formless feelings remain. But what I remember well were the books we read and movies we saw those years.
There . . . caught in the rye of Holden Caulfield’s world of phonies, with a growing awareness that we were living under the suspicious eye of George Orwell’s Big Brother. All the while, transfixed within gorgeous romances like Franco Zeffirelli’s “Romeo and Juliet,” seen weeks after reading the play in Mrs. Galvin and Ms. Thompson’s joint English class.
And equally enthralled by all-night showings at the just-opened, Big E drive-in of Sergio Leone’s trilogy of Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns: “Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.” Or sometimes down to Auburn for the Valley 6 Drive-in.
The novel, “Wuthering Heights” was difficult to absorb. Perhaps just as well, for it was the ‘best of times and the worst of times,’ the opening line we memorized from Dicken’s “Tale of Two Cities.” Our senior year with Mr. Bill Hawk (who every girl loved and every boy envied) was pure joy as he read out loud to us the entirety of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “Macbeth.”
And what to make of the curious worlds described in “A Separate Peace” and “Lord of the Flies,” for there was something in that youth-filled air. Change was everywhere, within us and without us. One summer night Dad and I walked to see, “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.” It was one of the few times I remember going to the movies with Dad.
To this day, I remain ever thankful to Dan Coppin, Chris’ older brother who asked us if we wanted to see a movie. For, he was our chauffeur through a tiny part of those precious high school years. And more than 50 years later, the lyrics from one of the movie songs still play in my head:
“Come Saturday morning, just I and my friends,
We’ll travel for miles in our Saturday smiles,
And then we’ll move on.
But we will remember, long after Saturday’s gone.”
“Come Saturday Morning” was the soundtrack theme song from “The Sterile Cukoo” and a minor hit single for the Sandpipers.
Have you ever wished you’d said “thank you” but never did? For me, it wasn’t too late. This essay was adapted from a letter* sent to my favorite teacher. I just learned Mr. Wally McGreen passed away on March 19, 2022 at age 83, so share this essay as my parting tribute.
Dear Mr. McGreen: It’s a funny thing about life. It takes time to realize how thankful one should be. And, so it is with me as this letter is long overdue. I’ve thought about writing it over the years but always found more pressing needs to consume the moment. Today seemed perfect: St. Patrick’s Day, snowing, my children off to events, with an unengaged afternoon.
It was a very long time ago, September 1962. I left the K–3 world of Byron Kibler elementary and began a fresh journey at a new destination, J.J. Smith. I was one of the fortunate 4th graders to experience our first male teacher, a young man fresh out of college named Mr. McGreen. The other five classes were taught by women, as had been every teacher at Kibler. Plus, my new best friend, Jeff Eldridge was by my side. Surprisingly, this new teacher lived on my street in a boarding house of sorts, just a stone’s throw from our home.
That fall Mr. McGreen organized the boys of our class into a football team. Sorry girls, you were stuck playing four-square or jumping rope. He drilled us daily through simple plays at recess. Over and over we practiced those few calls. Mr. McGreen entrusted me with the role of quarterback and Tim Thomasson as halfback. Most plays were similar––I took the snap and handed the ball to Tim while linemen pulled left or right. Mr. McGreen then scheduled a series of football games between ours and the other 4th grade classes. Though we lacked the pure talent of other teams, our tightly choreographed snaps and daily drilling resulted in clockwork plays. We crushed every opponent in that ad hoc 4th grade league.
One day, Mr. McGreen invited me to stay after school. He pulled out a deck of cards and taught me to play cribbage. It was a great game for improving arithmetic skills and understanding odds. For weeks we’d play most days after school. Soon I was good enough to play with my grandpa who also loved the game. Decades later I taught my own children just as he’d taught me.
The annual 4th grade field trip in spring took us to the Museum of History & Industry, Ballard locks, and Ye Olde Curiosity Shop. What a delight to see a real hydroplane up close and personal. Or seeing huge gates open and close watching boats magically rise and fall. Mr. McGreen was our guide. While eating sack lunches, he sat next to me. Our last stop was the waterfront where we examined curios in a store with a real mummy of a Wild West origin. What a thrill for a young boy from Enumclaw, but more important was the affection I felt from my teacher.
Near the last days of school, Mr. McGreen announced a class auction with currency from credits students had earned. We each brought in our trinkets and collectibles for all to admire until the big day, when we bid in a real auction for the items we’d lately grown to cherish. The excitement and anticipation were no doubt better than the real thing. I don’t recall what I bought, but my best friend Jeff purchased comic books based on classic tales like King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. They seemed so sophisticated compared to the Archie and Superboy comics I read.
The 9th year of my life was not without its challenges. On more than one occasion I disrupted class and was banished to the hall for Mr. McGreen’s classic discipline, a primitive form of yoga––sitting with your back against the wall in the shape of a chair, but without one. This was punishment with a purpose: to improve one’s posture, develop muscle strength, and test your ability to sit uncomfortably for long periods, all the time remembering what had brought you there. My behavior improved decidedly after a few trips to the hall.
I did well in most subjects earning A’s in social studies, spelling, and arithmetic; B’s in most others, and a C in reading. But Mr. McGreen delivered the only ‘D’ of my school career––in penmanship! Still, he cared. Mr. McGreen sent home writing lessons administered by Mom where I spent hour after boring hour practicing better handwriting. The exercise books contained pages of blank lines to be filled by copying and recopying illustrated samples. I carefully inscribed print and cursive characters within tight parallel lines over and over––diligently trying to make my penmanship legible, or at least less awful. Their dedication toward my self-improvement paid dividends a decade later during college finals when scripting readable answers in blue books.
That school year ended and another began. Again I was blessed with the only male teacher, Mr. Thornburg in 5th grade. He too was fresh from college and lived a few blocks away in a garage apartment. It was another wonder-filled year pierced by tragedy that November. The assassination news came over the intercom that Friday morning with students immediately sent home.
During the 1960 election, Mom supported Nixon while Dad voted for Kennedy. Thinking the thoughts of a 10-year-old, I asked her, “Are you glad Kennedy was shot?” She sat me down and gently explained, “Of course not. Kennedy is our president and after an election, he became my president too.” I still had a lot to learn. A few months later the Beatles hit America. I had a crush on a girl who showed me her Beatle cards and told me everything about four guys from Liverpool. My affection for that girl never blossomed yet never faded.
A year and a half later I entered 7th grade at an imposing, three-story brick building on Porter Street. The first day brought good news, Mr. McGreen now taught junior high and would be my homeroom and social studies teacher. Life with Mr. McGreen in junior high was a transforming experience. He entertained us with stories of growing up in West Seattle, his college years, sorority panty raids––all of it filling me with dreams of one day attending college. Each Saint Patrick’s Day, the very Irish Mr. McGreen came to school decked out in a bright green suit. In my 7th grade yearbook, he affectionately wrote, “To the little general – from Mr. Wallace McGreen.” The next year he scrawled, “To little Billy Kombol.”
In 7th grade, Coach McGreen guided us through flag football. It was the last year many of us turned out for that fall sport. It was also when I first realized my youthful sports prowess would soon be eclipsed by small size. As I look back at the photo, all my friends were there, in one place. That winter he coached our 7th grade basketball team through drills and inter-squad games played in the girls’ gym. After practice, we took long showers under hot water that lasted forever, then walked home in winter air as steam rose from our still-damp hair. Could life get any better than this?
The cleverest assignments he ever gave, but only to select students was to create countries of our own imaginations complete with maps, history, and customs. No extra credit was given. We worked on our projects for weeks. I regularly compared notes with Les Hall and Wayne Podolak, who were also in on the game. What a brilliant and inspiring activity for cultivating fantasies. It was a remarkable way for a teacher to challenge pet pupils.
One of our biggest thrills were the State “A” Basketball Tournaments. Mr. McGreen invited a few of us (Jim Clem, Gary Varney, Les, and Wayne) to pack into his fastback Mustang, pure status for 12-year-old boys in Enumclaw. After driving us to the UPS Field House we experienced a menagerie of teams and colors competing for the state title. Later we stopped at Cubby’s on Auburn Way South for burgers and fries. Back home I swam in the glory of the evening just spent. You can’t make this stuff up––an engaged and enthusiastic school teacher expanding his students’ horizons by offering new experiences. It was an amazing way to grow up!
Time marched on. I said goodbye to junior high and left Mr. McGreen behind. New teachers, coaches, friends, and interests arose. High school beckoned and so did a driver’s license, after-game dances, chess team, Boy’s State, Hornet newspaper, Courier-Herald sports writer, summers selling popsicles, Saturdays working at the mine office, water-skiing, movies, malls, graduation, then off to college. Upon graduating in 1975, I received an unexpected congratulatory card from my 4th and 7th grade mentor. Mr. McGreen remembered me after all those years. Being a foolish young man of long hair and little regard, I hadn’t the presence of mind to write a proper thank-you note. Decades passed and still, I hadn’t.
Many years later, I attended his retirement party where we exchanged pleasantries. The next time I saw him was at my Mother’s funeral. His kindly face had aged but it touched me all the same. I began to consider that I was but one of thousands of students he taught. Yet he made me feel so important. Did he know how profoundly he’d impacted my life? A thank you message was long overdue. A year later, I sat down and finally wrote my rambling letter much of which is replicated here.
Mr. McGreen was one of the best people in my life. The seeds he sowed took root and my life became richer for it. Though eons ago, his mentorship was one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received.
So I’ll end where I began. Perhaps there’s a Mr. McGreen in your life who never knew the extent of your gratitude. Maybe this could be the day your letter is written and that gratefulness acknowledged.
* Adapted from a letter written to Mr. McGreen on Saint Patrick’s Day, 2012, from his former student, Bill Kombol.
In the fall of 1968, Dion released a song that touched my soul. About the same time, I started working Saturdays at a job that defined my life. I still work there today. This is the story of the song, that job, and a 15-year-old boy.
The Beatles’ single “Hey Jude” backed by “Revolution” dominated the airwaves. The Detroit Tigers, my favorite baseball team would soon play in the World Series. A presidential election heated up following a deadly political year culminating in riots at the Democratic convention in Chicago.
Kris Galvin and I were freshly minted sophomores. Each day after school we played a board game called Mr. President. Two players strategized their way to victory by assembling a majority of votes in the Electoral College. In the real election, Nixon did just that, defeating Hubert Humphrey while George Wallace carried five states.
In late September, I began a new job at Palmer Coking Coal as their Saturday boy. After a day of training, I was in charge of the Black Diamond office from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m., though typically worked longer. I didn’t yet drive so Dad dropped me off each morning, picking me up a little after noon.
The work consisted of sacking coal, answering phones, and operating a scale—but mostly selling nut and stoker coal to old guys driving pickup trucks. It was quite a thrill to command an office, poke about in drawers, make change, and run the store. I earned $1.00 per hour, paid with money drawn from the cash drawer and replaced with a handwritten receipt.
It wasn’t always busy so after reading the P-I, I tuned the radio to KJR-95. My youth’s mind remembers where and what I was doing when certain songs played. That October, I heard Dion DiMucci sing a gentle folk tribute to the assassinated heroes, “Abraham, Martin and John.” The final lyrics delivered a stanza for Bobby Kennedy.
I was a fervent reader of newspapers and convinced Mom to buy a subscription to U.S. News & World Report. On the last day of March 1968, Lyndon Johnson announced he wouldn’t seek re-election to the presidency. Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis four days later.
On June 6th, the Kombol family checked into the Hotel Austria on Fleischmarkt Street in Vienna. The tragic news of Robert Kennedy’s assassination splashed across the front pages of every paper on the newsstand. The photo of 17-year-old, Juan Romero cradling the head of a fallen senator in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel has haunted me ever since. An old Austrian woman draped in a black shawl stood in the lobby hissing, practically spitting the words out, “Johnson, Johnson!”
Dion’s song was poignant and melancholy. It tugged at my heart while coaxing a tear. Soon the three-minute radio broadcast was over. It might be hours until it played. I wanted to hear it time and again.
Work ended and I was home in the afternoon. I usually fixed tomato soup and cheese-toast for lunch then listened to the Huskies on the radio. Only the rarest of U.W. football games were broadcast on television. Later friends and I might play a game of touch football at the Kibler school playground. Time passes quickly in adolescence and evening came soon enough. Dinner was promptly at 6 p.m. Mom always made hamburgers on Saturday night.
While the song was introduced my first months of high school, “Abraham, Martin and John,” made a cameo appearance shortly after graduation. A collage by Tom Clay joined “What the World Needs Now Is Love” to live broadcasts of the assassinations introduced by snippets from Dion’s hit. That summer of 1971, I worked long hours selling popsicles east of Kent and often drove home listening to the six-minute spoken word hymn.
I never really left Palmer Coking Coal. During college, I spent summers as a laborer. I worked the afternoon shift at the Rogers No. 3 my senior year. It closed a few months later, the last underground coal mine in Washington. After graduating, I joined Palmer for employment stints of two and three months when no other adventure called.
In August 1978, I began full-time employment at PCC, back on the picking table. A decade of college, loafing, banking, odd jobs, and traveling landed me back where I’d begun 10 years earlier. Four years later, I was appointed Manager of the company. The following summer we celebrated Palmer Coking Coal’s 50th anniversary. I was 29-years-old.
It’s now 40 years down the road. I’ll soon be leaving full-time employment at PCC. It’s where I’ve spent all but two years of my working career. Of these things I’m certain––this job and that tune will forever remain in my heart, intertwined in a romantic ballad where the only constant is change.
I look back with nostalgia yet forward in anticipation. How these next adventures unfold will be the continuing story of my life.
* * * * * * *
Post Script: Here’s the short story of Dion’s life and the song that changed mine. Dion DiMucci was born in 1939 to Italian-American parents in the Bronx. Teaming with friends from Belmont Avenue, Dion and the Belmonts scored their first hit in 1958 with “I Wonder Why.”
While on the 1959 winter concert tour with Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper; the bus’s heating system gave out so Holly charted a plane to their next venue. Dion balked at paying $36, his share for the flight because it was the rent amount his parents struggled to pay each month. The plane crashed, killing all on board.
Dion split from the Belmonts in 1960, pursuing a solo career with hits like “Run-Around Sue” and “Donna.” After continually humming Dion’s rendition of “When You Wish Upon a Star,” from the Disney movie Pinocchio, Brian Wilson composed the Beach Boy’s ballad, “Surfer Girl,” in 1963 It was his very first composition.
Dion was one of only two rock artists to appear on the cover of the Beatles’ 1967 album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Bob Dylan was the other. With changing tastes from the British Invasion and a growing heroin addiction, Dion started recording blues numbers in the mid-1960s. His records failed to sell so he lost his contract.
In April 1968, Dion experienced a powerful religious awakening. He gave up heroin and his label agreed to re-sign him if he’d record “Abraham, Martin and John.” The single was released that August, reaching #4 on the charts in October. It was written by Dick Holler, composer of the Royal Guardsman’s novelty hit, “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron.”
In the 1980s, Dion became a born-again Christian, releasing five albums highlighting his evangelical convictions. In June 2020 at age 81, Dion released his most recent album, “Blues with Friends” featuring a range of artists including Jeff Beck, John Hammond, Van Morrison, Paul Simon, and Bruce Springsteen.
* * * * * * *
Coda: On a warm summer evening in the early 1960s, Billy Kombol stood at the door of the open-air dance pavilion at Barrett’s Lake Retreat resort, mesmerized by the sight of teenagers dancing to the jukebox sounds of Dion and the Belmonts.
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.