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Musings

First Tastes of Mortality

“Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? There must have been one, a moment, in childhood when it first occurred to you that you don’t go on forever.” – Tom Stopppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

More than fifty years ago, two grandparents died on the same day.  It was the last day of summer, and the first time anyone close to me had died.

A dragon lives forever but not so little boys
Painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.
One grey night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more
And Puff that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.
                                    – Leonard Lipton / Peter Yarrow

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

I remember those first thoughts about dying.  It was the spring of 1963 and I was nine years old.  Grandma and Grandpa Morris lived in a large, white, country home west of Enumclaw on McHugh Street.  The radio played in the background.  The number one song was “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul & Mary.  It’s a children’s song wrapped in fabled lyrics released during the height of the folk era.  I’d heard it before, but never fully absorbed this line: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys.”  My tenth birthday would be in a month or so.

Grandma (Nina Marie Morris) was in the early stages of dementia which even a boy could recognize.  She was easily confused.  One day, Billy Hawthorne (the son of Grandma’s part-time caregiver) and I played a cruel trick on her by hiding in the closet.  We watched her search for us in vain.  After frantic calls we reappeared, only to see a vacant look of despair on her bewildered face.  Mom explained she had hardening of the arteries, causing blood to flow slowly to her brain, meaning she couldn’t think as clearly as before.  She was ill and wouldn’t get better.  I felt bad about our trick.

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

The song ended but a feeling lingered – I wouldn’t be a little boy much longer.  Just like Jackie Paper, my imaginary dragons and toy soldiers would soon be gone.  Those wistful feelings of melancholy floated in the wind like the down of a dandelion.

One evening that summer, I lay in bed.  It was a Friday or Saturday night.  Next to my bed was a cheap AM radio.  Late at night, I spun the dial picking up a distant station in Salt Lake City and listened to the final innings of a baseball game.  It ended and the nightly news was read – “At 12:01 a.m., a convicted murderer on death row will be executed by firing squad.  Growing tired I turned off the radio and saw a blindfolded prisoner led to a brick courtyard.  The moment passed but the memory remained – a boy, the radio, a distant broadcast, the bleakness of death.

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

In the 14th year of my life, the grim reaper appeared.  It was 1967.  Music defined my world and I delighted in its sounds.  Newspapers called it the “summer of love.”  For me it was a summer of friends, family, fun . . . and Sgt. Pepper.  Each morning brought new sounds and adventures.  The sun shone day after rainless day, for so long it set a record – 67 days without rain.  The bluest skies you’d ever seen were in Seattle.

That September, I entered the final year of junior high as a 9th grader.  Three weeks later that cozy world was disquieted by the death of two grandparents: Grandma Morris and Papa Kombol.  On the same day, my father lost his father, and my mother lost her mother.  In a way, this double death was a tonic for both parents.  They told us kids of feeling like orphans, leaning on each other – weathering funerals and wakes, one after the other.  September 21st was the last day of summer . . . and the autumn of my youth.

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

Both grandparents were elderly: 82 and 77, yet important fixtures in life.  Papa (Tony Kombol) babysat me when I was four and five.  Mom dropped me off at their home near Elk Coal where I’d follow Papa doing chores, fixing lunch, then put me down for a nap.  Legally blind from a 1925 coal mining accident, he stayed home while Grandma Lulu taught school in nearby Selleck.  Needing to be near Enumclaw’s medical facilities, Papa stayed at our home the last few weeks of his life.

Grandma Morris was the first person I remember reading to me.  We flipped through “Two Little Miners” so many times I could picture each page.  I boarded an airplane for the first time in late June 1962, a Boeing 707, when she and Grandpa took me to San Francisco.  We braved chilly Candlestick Park and watched my first major league baseball game.  The Giants won the pennant that season.

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

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

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

In later years Grandma Morris was confined to the Bethesda Manor nursing home not far from our home, falling deeper into the darkness of dementia.  Mom visited her daily, sometimes twice.  I’d go on occasion, but in time she no longer knew me.

Jack & Pauline Kombol, late 1967.

Over the coming weeks, I began to imagine life without parents.  It was the year Mom stopped tucking me in and saying nighttime prayers together.  Alone in bed, save for a pink teddy bear won at the Puyallup Fair, I thought of the future.  One day Mom and Dad will surely die, just like Grandma and Papa.  A profound sense of sorrow consumed me.  Visualizing their deaths, I cried myself to sleep each night.  I tried to figure a way out – what if they never died?  Maybe I’d die first and be spared the heartache?  Whatever scenario I concocted, the end was always the same – falling asleep to tears.  The end of their lives and my childhood hung in the balance.  But I knew not how or when.

Unbeknownst to me, the thoughts of that 14-year-old boy were long ago known by Stoic philosophers.  The anticipation of hardship softens its eventual blow.  A Stoic prepares for the future by focusing on the worst possible outcome, a Latin principle called premeditation of adversity.  Seneca advised his followers to rehearse ruinous scenarios “in your mind – exile, torture, war, shipwreck,” thereby robbing the future of its awful bite.

By morning, I was awakened by Mom and skipped downstairs to find a hearty breakfast on the kitchen table.  Jean and I walked to the Junior High, a three-story, brick building four blocks away.  There I roamed halls, diagrammed sentences, and played with friends after school.

The male tear ducts shrink as boys become men.  It becomes more difficult for men to cry.  Evolutionary psychologists can no doubt tell you why.  My tears were gone in time.  Ninth grade led to new friendships and adventures.  I turned out for basketball and made the team.  I raised tropical fish in an aquarium.  At semester’s end, I earned my first perfect report card, all A’s.  As a special treat, Dad took me to the Four Seasons in downtown Enumclaw for Chinese food.  I felt pride in the glow of my father’s love.

Twelve years later, I wrote a poem to read at his funeral.  The lines recalled the mournful feelings of that earlier time in life:

The last day we expected was the morning that we feared feared                          the nights we cried so long ago have come to rest right here.                            And so we’ll cry these tears of pain from sorrow we must store                          the tears we have are tears we’ve cried a thousand times before.

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

In February 1968, Barry and I picked copper strands from piles of rocks and sticks at the Mine #11 wash plant in Black Diamond.  The wire came from blasting caps used when dynamite dislodged coal at the Rogers #3 mine.  Seven years later I’d work in that mine, learning just how those wires were used.  Over several weekends we collected nearly a pickup load of coiled yellow wire, then burned off the plastic coating.  Dad sold the copper for 40 cents a pound at the recycling yard.  It was souvenir money for us four kids to use during our family’s forthcoming trip to Europe later that spring.

We missed the last few weeks of school.  In Ireland, England, Wales, and the continent we saw historic sights, tasted new foods, and explored a world far removed from our own.  We also visited the embodiment of death – Dachau, the Jewish concentration camp near Munich.  The visitor’s center displayed black and white photos of emaciated bodies, showing all manner of depravity.

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

The guide told of Jewish children with tattooed numbers on bony arms – herded from rail cars, not knowing their fate. We walked through the barracks, gas chambers, and crematoriums where thousands died at the hands of their Nazi henchmen. We saw death on an unimaginable scale.  I’ve never forgotten that visit or the sign on the entrance gate: Arbeit macht frei. “Work sets you free.” Mom read its translation from Arthur Frommer’s Europe on $5 a Day,

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

Three weeks after coming home, I turned 15.  Four days later a boy I’d grown up with died.  John Sherwood attended our Presbyterian church.  His parents, Earl and Isabelle Sherwood were our youth group leaders and taught us Sunday school.  John was a troubled lad who’d just flunked 10th grade.  On a warm summer evening in early July, John went to a party and guzzled 190-proof Everclear from a bottle.  Mr. Sherwood found his son slumped over the front seat of their car just after midnight.  The Enumclaw police never figured out who provided the bottle, though some teens in town surely knew.

He was the first contemporary I’d known who died.  John was 16.  The coroner’s jury attributed his death to “consuming excessive amounts of liquor furnished by a person or persons unknown.”  The Courier-Herald ran articles linking his death to narcotic and alcohol abuse among local youth in 1968.  Glue sniffing was a particular concern that year.

The following spring our Cascadian yearbook printed his photo in remembrance, followed by a short poem:

John Sherwood’s page in our high school yearbook.

He is not dead, this friend not dead,                                                           But in the path we mortals tread                                                              Got some few, trifling steps ahead                                                             And nearer to the end;                                                                             So that you too, once past the bend,                                                         Shall meet again, as face to face, this friend                                                 You fancy dead.     – Robert Louis Stevenson   

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

                                                                                                          When you’re young, five years is practically forever.  “Puff the Magic Dragon” was a distant memory.  Heading to high school in September new adventures emerged.  I started a job as the Saturday boy at Palmer’s mine office in Black Diamond.  I joined the chess team and found a new sport calling.  By summer, I’d have a driver’s license plus two more jobs to fill my days.  Papa and Grandma were fading memories.

As boyhood drew to a close, a young man began to emerge.  My horizons broadened.  Ahead of me lay many deaths . . . relatives, classmates, and loved ones.  Those first tastes of mortality would always be with me, but  childhood fears were fading.  A new set of adolescent anxieties gripped me soon enough.  I was growing up and the world was growing bigger.

Categories
Musings

Two Little Miners in Elk Coal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Billy and Barry walk to Kibler school, May 1960.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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