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Working at a Coal Mine

My senior year of college was as different as night and day.  It wasn’t my original plan. By day, I inhabited the rarified air of life at a university where young men and women, often preening boys and girls, proffered great thoughts fueled by a steady diet of pot and booze.  At night, I worked in a coal mine with gray-haired men at jobs they’d performed their entire lives.

I was bemused by the attitudes and mindsets of the two cultures.  For me, it was the best and worst of times – the most wonderful and dreadful of any span of my then young life.  I was fully exhilarated and completely exhausted – a caterpillar in search of a butterfly to escape from a cocoon of his own making.  For years I’ve struggled to reconcile the feelings and emotions within those discordant worlds I simultaneously ingested.

I’d grown increasingly bored with college phonies fretting over which grad school to attend.  I was steadily drawn to the stoic lives of coal miners.  My fellow undergrads bemoaned petty stresses of their own making.  Each day the miners completed the tasks set before them.  The grad school gang imagined chic careers with grand salaries.  The coal miners were content with life and their position in it.

In early September 1974, I prepared to return for my last year of college.  Over three summers past, I worked for Palmer Coking Coal, a family-owned company.  My jobs were common laboring at the Black Diamond yard and Rogers #3 mine.  That mine was a succession of Rogers #1 and #2, started in 1958 and 1959 respectively.  Located in Ravensdale, Rogers #3 was slated to close in less than a year.  It would be the last underground coal mine in the State of Washington.

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

My uncle, Jack Morris was President of Palmer.  He was navigating the company’s exit from the coal business, as gracefully as possible.  It was a tough time for the firm.  Jack was drinking heavily, and Palmer’s fortunes were not promising.  There were sharp disagreements between three uncles, Jack, Evan Morris, and Charlie Falk, who collectively led the firm.  I was thankfully unaware of building tensions and unresolved rivalries. I just turned 21.  Little did I know that leadership of this company would one day fall to me.

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

Federal coal inspectors were bearing down on small mines like Palmer’s.  Our operation didn’t fit the template for a subsurface coal mine.  The Rogers coal seam stood nearly vertical, while most coal mines operate on horizontal planes, the way sedimentary formations containing coal seams are naturally deposited.  The plate tectonic which uplifted the Cascade Mountains altered the local Ravensdale geology to a rare condition – a vein of coal tilted to more than 80º.  Underground mine regulations hadn’t been written for that kind of operation.

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

Most men who worked at Rogers #3 were lifelong coal miners.  All were in their late 50s and early 60s, except for a cousin, Bob Morris; my brother, Barry Kombol, and me.  Two dozen miners had retired over the previous eight years, but enough experienced men remained allowing Palmer to finish its underground mine while honoring contracts supplying coal to State prisons.  Palmer’s management was mindful of the decades those miners had worked in the industry and sensitive to union pensions that hung in the balance.  A few more years would strengthen each miner’s retirement payout.

One day in early September, Jack pulled me aside and asked if I’d work the afternoon shift while attending college.  It was my senior year where an easy slide towards graduation was a natural expectation.  Jack explained I’d earn the wage rate under the United Mine Workers contract to which Palmer was bound.  A Grade 2, Tipple Attendant made $45.93 per day.  That UMW day rate was the equivalent of $32 per hour in today’s currency.  To a money-hungry lad like me, that sounded awfully enticing.  I talked it over with my folks and a decision was made.

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

The afternoon shift was from 3 – 11 pm, so it made sense to live at home.  My first three years of college were spent at Pi Kappa Phi, where I enjoyed the camaraderie of fraternity brothers plus the assorted characters who boarded in spare rooms.  Ours was a frat house with a classical facade, good cooks, and two hot meals a day.  Staying at home would make me a “townie,” so I’d only pay fraternity dues plus the meal rate for lunch, a significant saving over full room and board.  I drove my parent’s 1968 Renault, an unusual car in those days – basically a Volkswagen Bug for cheapskates.  The no-frills Renault got good mileage, had a stick shift on the floor, with an A.M. radio.  What else could I possibly need?

My schedule was grueling.  Monday through Friday, I was up at 6 am, fixing breakfast while Mom packed my evening dinner in a metal lunch bucket.  I loved yogurt and back then little was sold in stores, so Mom cultured her own which I ate from a squat thermos.  She, Pauline (Morris) Kombol was herself, a coal miner’s daughter.

I left Enumclaw every morning at 7 am.  Traffic was light with far less congestion than today’s clogged freeways.  Interstate 5 was a breeze with only occasionally slowdowns.  I arrived at the University of Washington campus about 8 am, parked at the fraternity, then walked to my 8:30 class.  My first break came at 9:30, so for an hour I studied at the Husky Union Building, and then sped off to my 10:30 and 11:30 classes.  By 12:30 pm, I rambled back to the fraternity for lunch, studied for an hour, and left Seattle at 1:45 arriving at the Ravensdale mine by 2:45 pm.

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

In the washhouse, I joined other miners where we changed from street clothes to working gear.  There were only six miners per shift, but I was exclusively night shift so worked with alternating crews each week.  We walked up a slight hill to the hoist room and met the day crew coming from the mine.  Our counterparts were greeted and a light banter exchanged.  The afternoon shift started at 3 pm, lasting eight hours including a dinner break.  My job involved standing at a waist-high metal platform, where coal was separated from rock.  It was called the picking table and I was its operator.  The picking table was located in the belly of a triangular wooden structure called the tipple.

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

The job was simple – push coal to the right and rock to the left.  There was one primary goal: don’t let rocks smash your fingers, lest you wind up with a throbbing fingernail rapidly turning purple.  Still, it happened, and no matter how long you sucked that pulsing finger, the pain lingered.  Sometimes it hurt so much, you had to heat a sewing needle red hot then drill down through the nail to release the pounding pressure caused when blood rushed to repair the wound.

The picking table was six feet wide and about two feet deep.  The left third featured a hinged trap-door balanced by a pulley and weight.  When 100 pounds or more of rock accumulated on that side, a trap door released the waste material that fell into a dump truck below.  The large chunks of coal which landed on the table were pushed right into a crusher and broken into small pieces.

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

Above me was a chute regularly filled with coal and rock brought from the mine and dumped from the tipple above.  A slanted door of thick steel, opened and closed by an electric motor, regulated how much coal came through that chute.  After falling down, the coal mix vibrated over a sloped screen with square openings.  The smaller-sized pieces (less than 4” in diameter) dropped onto a conveyor belt and were carried to the loadout bunker.

The slanted door on the chute had to be set to just the right level.  Opened too much and excessive coal crashed down, blinding the screen, and left the picking table a cluttered mess.  If the avalanche was too large you couldn’t separate the rock from coal fast enough and both ended up discarded.  But when not opened enough, the screening process slowed, and the next coal car to dump was stalled, disrupting the entire operation.  Getting it right was fairly easy when coal was uniform, and rocks were small.  But sometimes large chunks of sharp-angled sandstone and sedimentary rock jammed between the chute door and vibrating screen.  The rocks wedged together at such awkward angles that none could break through the hatchway.  The bind got so nasty that rocks were stuck even with a fully opened door.

When that happened, I rushed to the hoist room and told the operator to stop pulling cars from the mine.  The hoist-man operated a large spool, six feet across upon which was wound 1,000 feet of 1” thick steel cable.  It resembled a gigantic fishing reel.  The cable spun through a bull-wheel atop the tipple providing leverage needed for pulling five-ton coal cars up from the bottom of the mine.  After the car was dumped, the hoist operator braked against gravity, allowing the car to free-wheel down rails tracks along the 48º slope, through a mine opening called the portal.

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

With coal cars stopped, I ran back to the picking table and turned off the vibrating screen.  I climbed up and with a long metal pry bar tried dislodging rocks to coax them through the door.  If that didn’t work, I’d pound repeatedly with a sledgehammer to break the burly rocks into smaller pieces that could fit through.  Sometimes the clog was so bad, the hoist man joined me as we tried to get things moving.  Some nights the work was so grueling my body was drained in sweat.

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

Other nights the coal was so perfectly sized that 95% of the mix cruised through the screen.  The few melon-sized chunks which dropped to the picking table were easy to handle and my job was a breeze.  After screening five tons, I had plenty of idle time awaiting the next coal car’s arrival at the top of the tipple.

A bucket seat salvaged from an old sports car had been set up in the picking table chamber.  Trips arrived every six to eight minutes, and I usually screened a carload in two to three minutes giving me several minutes between loads.  In between, I read my textbooks perhaps a page or two, until the next car arrived.  Its approach was signaled by the pitch of the whirring cable and sway of the tipple.  When coal and rock crashed into the hopper above, that meant another five tons to screen.

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

From time to time, I emptied the dump truck parked below.  After 10 to 12 tons of rock dropped through the trap door to the waiting dump box, I scurried down, jumped in the truck, drove to the rock dump, and emptied the load.  The truck was dumped five or six times a night depending on the percentage of rock to coal.  I needed to be fast, as coal cars kept emerging from the mine.

On nights when coal wasn’t hoisted, I rode a coal car 800 feet underground to work with the miners.  There I performed laboring tasks – sometimes drilling coal and loading dynamite.  Other nights I helped set timber props that held up the roof of the mine.  Or cleaned coal spilled on rail tracks.

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

The most mindless job was filling dummy bags with loose clay used for stemming plugs.  After loading a drill hole with a dozen sticks of dynamite, the sausage-sized, clay-filled, paper bags were punched into the end of the hole.  This focused the energy of the explosive force to blast intact coal into thousands of smaller pieces.   Otherwise, the explosion would blow out the bottom of the drill hole, like a firecracker dud.  Dummy bags were in constant use during mining, so I spent hours bagging up a week’s supply or more.

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

One shift, bored and alone in the crosscut, I turned off my miner’s lamp to see if my eyes could fully adjust to the dark.  It was an experiment.  After 10 minutes, I slowly drew my hand towards my eyes guessing ambient light would illuminate the outline of the appendage, but there was nothing – complete and total darkness.  There was no sound beyond my breathing.  The lack of sight and sound that far below the earth’s surface conjured feelings I’ve never forgotten.

People often asked what it was like working underground.  The best part was a constant temperature somewhere around 50º. There was little air movement except for a slight breeze from fans that ventilated the mine.  We didn’t have to worry about rain, as it was dry except for a stream of underground water that accumulated in a ditch next to the hanging wall.  It flowed to a sump and was pumped outside.  The mine tunnels were supported by a three-piece timber set, consisting of two uprights supporting a cross beam log all tied together by an overhead roof of rugged boards, called lagging.  It was a comfortable working environment, save for the fact everything you touched was black.

At 7 pm, work stopped for our dinner break.  I moseyed down to the hoist room where a pot-bellied coal stove kept the tin shack warm.  On rare occasions, the miners came up from below to warm themselves and join us.  But most nights it was just me and the hoist man, either Roy Darby, Bill McLoughry, my cousin, Bob Morris, or sometimes Frank ManowskiPee Wee, the dirty black mine dog hung out in the hoist room.

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

Dinner break was a time to relax, chat, and eat the meal Mom prepared 12 hours earlier.  Sometimes she packed homemade soup in a thermos, but more often a meat and cheese sandwich, which I toasted atop the hot stove.  I was talkative and conversations with the old coal miners took curious turns.  Almost to a man, they told me to get an education and stay out of the mines.

Following our half-hour pause, it was back to work until 11 pm when our shift ended.  Then I dragged my tired body, covered with sweat and coal dust, down to the wash house where we showered on concrete floors, under three side-by-side spigots.  It was like traveling back to a shoddy version of a junior high locker room.  The hot showers felt good, as did donning clean clothes you’d changed from eight hours earlier.

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

Each night, your work clothes were hung from hooks on a wire basket, with gloves and hard hat placed inside.  A chain and pulley hauled the gear to the eve of the wash house where heat naturally accumulated.  If your clothes were wet, they’d be warm and toasty by the following day.  Each Friday, I brought my dirty garments home for Mom to wash.

I was in my car by 11:20 pm for the 20-minute drive back to Enumclaw.  I brushed my teeth and plopped into the same bed I’d slept in since sixth grade.  Falling to sleep each night was the easiest part of my day.  Six hours later, it started all over again – up for breakfast, in my car, and driving to the U.W.

On weekends, I’d sleep till 11 or noon.  I had no life outside of school and work.  All my friends were away so largely I kept to myself.  Some Saturday nights, I walked to the Chalet Theater to see a movie.  But mostly I studied, typed papers, and prepared to face Monday.

After two college quarters and more than seven months of this routine, I was burned out.  Fortunately, the underground coal mine was preparing to shut down.  My night-shift job on the picking table phased out shortly after the start of the spring quarter.  I completed my senior year living in Enumclaw but no longer working at the mine.

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

In addition to my regular Econ classes, I took a one-credit P.E. in tennis and a two-credit course on nutrition.  But my favorite class spring quarter was a three-credit course entitled the Living Theater.  We studied drama, went to plays, and wrote reviews of those we saw.  It was my favorite college class and fittingly my last.

During those days of school and nights of work, my dreams were filled with fears – of papers not completed and exams I didn’t understand.  Remarkably, I scored all A’s, and only one B that year.  Slowly my life recovered as I took pride in a fat bank account.  It’s easy saving money when living at home with no time to spend it.

For more than a year prior, I’d suffered an emotionally embarrassing case of facial acne.  I felt ugly.  But nothing Dr. Homer Harris, a noted dermatologist prescribed seemed to work.  I stopped getting haircuts and grew my hair out.  To hide my pimpled face, I quit shaving.  Perhaps it was the release from stress or maybe shaving irritated my skin.  But the acne lessened and within a few months disappeared.  I began to feel human again.

I graduated that June, with a B.A. in Economics.  I was tired of college.  My attachment to fraternity brothers dwindled and I abandoned the academic scene.  I had no interest in attending commencement.  My sister graduated from high school that same year, so the folks wanted to throw a party for the both of us.  I declined their offer and also pointedly skipped graduation ceremonies.  My diploma arrived in the mail four months later.

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

A few relatives and two high school teachers sent congratulatory cards. My Grandma Kombol, a school teacher for 44 years gave me Webster’s Third International, a 13-pound dictionary I still cherish.  I loafed all summer.  I bought a motorcycle in August and moved to Lincoln City that fall.  There I collected unemployment checks, read books, and walked on the beach.

Working at a coal mine my senior year of college was an experience I’ll never forget.  It was a lonely existence within a beehive of perpetual motion.  My life was a rolling slog in squirrel-cage.  That choice shaped my life, unlike anything before or since.  Perhaps the Stoic philosopher, Seneca said it best, “Things that were hard to bear are sweet to remember.”

The mine and the old miners are now all gone.  All that remains of Rogers #3 is the weather-beaten washhouse.  Still to these memories I remain eternally grateful – the miners with whom I worked, the hours spent driving to and fro, the classes attended, and college papers written.  Textbook pages studied, the picking table, cement-floor showers, and the sense of freedom that spring when released from the whirlwind into a world of plays and theater.

Of those days long-ago, this memory I shall never forget – dinnertime in the hoist room, standing beside a hot coal stove, and tasting the melted cheese on the sandwich Mom lovingly packed for me.

* * *

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

 

 

 

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Giving Thanks to Mr. Hanson

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:

Mr. Hanson at his lectern listening to a student’s answer (1970 Cascadian).

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 arrived 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.

My ASB card and photo from Sept. 1969.

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. 

Not only did Mr. Hanson teach Economics, I also had him for Government, 2nd semester.

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, 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. 

From the 1969 Cascadian, the year Enumclaw students were first introduced to Mr. Hanson.

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

Mr. Hanson was a winner in the classroom and as coach. Here he tells Bill Wheeler what a winner looks like (from the Nov. 26, 1969 Hornet newspaper).

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!

Yours truly . . . and truly a student of yours,

Bill Kombol

Categories
Musings

One Solitary Life – One Salutary Poster

Whilst in college a poster hung in my room.  Mom gave it to me at Christmas of my freshman year.  It stayed with me through those four years then hung in my bedroom at home for many more.  Titled “One Solitary Life,” it was printed on aged parchment paper in a distinctive script font.  Winter quarter, I copied the text to the inside page of the 3-ring binder of denim-blue fabric I lugged to and from class each day in an Army surplus backpack.  I lost the poster, but never the sentiment.  This isn’t the photo which adorned the poster, but it is my calligraphy in blue ink of the poster’s text presented below:

Not quite the image which adorned my poster, but something like it.

Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman.  He grew up in another obscure village.  He worked in a carpenter shop until he was thirty and then for three years he was an itinerant preacher.

He never wrote a book.  He never held an office.  He never owned a home.  He never had a family.  He never went to college.  He never put his foot inside a big city.  He never traveled two hundred miles from the place where he was born.  He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness.  He had no credentials but himself.  He had nothing to do with the world except the naked power of his divine manhood.

While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against him.  His friends ran away.  One of them denied him.  He was turned over to his enemies.  He went through the mockery of a trial.  He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves.  His executioners gambled for the only piece of property he had on earth when he was dying . . . and that was his coat.  When he was dead, he was taken down and laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Nineteen wide centuries have come and gone, and today he is the centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress.

I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched . . . and all the navies that were ever built . . . and all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.

On the inside cover of my 3-ring binder I copied the text of the poster.
My photo a week or so before starting college.