This story is from a diary I sporadically kept in 1983. It’s a another Saturday night with friends (Bill Wheeler, Keith Hanson, Jay Carbon, Wayne Podolak, and Mike Hanson), this time at a hockey game.
Saturday night (Jan. 22, 1983): Wheels and I drove into Dez’s to meet Keith, Jay, Wayne, Mike, and others before the hockey game.
We parked at Tower records. Went in to buy the new Utopia album but they were all out. Shoot, I usually like to buy an album at Tower, leave the package face up in my car’s window so they know I bought something there.
The Breakers were lousy. Portland cleaned up despite the crowd chants of “Portland sucks.” Real class fans at these hockey games. Rodney Dangerfield said he went to the fights and a hockey game broke out. Keith, Wayne, Wheels, and Mike wanted to split after the 2nd period. We stayed for the 3rd and said, “Jay and I would meet them back at the tavern in Renton.” There were a few more goals scored in the last period but the Breakers still lost.
Jay and I walked back to my car. My car wasn’t where it used to be. Lots of people’s cars weren’t where they used to be. Jay and I made the 10-block walk to Lincoln Towing. I thought and expressed to Jay how a person chooses everything as well as his response to external events beyond his control. I still had to pay $50.58. Got a free Lincoln Towing key-chain out of it.
We drove back to the Tav and burned on the way. Listened to Elvis.
Told my stories and Keith, Wayne, Wheels, and I went to dinner at Red Robin. Retold our stories and ate ribs. Told new stories and drank our drinks. Laughed until we could laugh no more. Said goodnight.
Wheels and I dropped off at Caruso’s before we went home. It was 1:30 a.m. Wheels drinks Smith & Kearns. I had a Jack Daniels rocks. Came home, put on the tape, ‘Nobody else’s hand’ and dreamt.
Fifty years ago, a schmaltzy song by an Irish balladeer topped the pop charts for six weeks. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s surprise hit, “Alone Again, Naturally” ranked number two on Billboard for the year 1972. Because it doesn’t fit into the classic rock genre, the tune soon faded in popularity and is generally unknown to anyone born after 1980.
On a Saturday night in late October 2015, my Enumclaw high school buddies and I gathered to play poker as we’ve done since our junior high days. We join together several times each year and call our outings Pokerques, with a barbequed meal part of the bargain.
That particular night apropos of nothing, Lester told the story behind the song, “Alone Again, Naturally” which centers on the singer’s plan to commit suicide over a wedding that never happened. Lester assured us this factoid came courtesy of Wikipedia, so we knew it must be true.
At that night’s gathering , I laughed entirely too loud as old friends told stories and we all recounted misspent adventures of youthful revelry. Having stayed out a little too late, I slept in on Sunday morning. After breakfast, Jennifer drove our youngest son Henry to his noon soccer game so I found myself alone and naturally opened the iPad.
I checked out Lester’s story. Clicking on the first Google listing, I cued a YouTube performance with an amazing 27 million views! The video featured O’Sullivan on piano before a large orchestra complete with a dozen strings, piano, organ, drums, and the distinctive guitar solo which nicely cements the melody.
Sure enough, the first stanza of this mega-hit relates the tale of a jilted lover imagining a trip from an empty alter to tower top where he throws himself down, all to the amazement of congregants who concluded there’s no reason for them to wait any longer so they might as well go home – as did the prospective groom, who lived to write this melancholy song.
The second stanza adds to the sorrow of the first and subsequent verses examine a contemplative soul, never wishing to hide the tears, relating – first the death of his father and then his broken-hearted mother – all remembered . . . alone again, naturally.
Isn’t it funny how a sentimental song from the summer of your 19th year calls forth buried memories, none specific but together conjuring a formative feeling? I probably heard that ballad a hundred times back when Top 40 radio dominated my listening habits, all while driving around in the 1966 Renault that served my transportation needs. But, I’d never fixated on O’Sullivan’s introductory lyrics, only the concluding verse describing the passing of his father and mother.
O’Sullivan is an Irish singer-songwriter who changed his first name to Gilbert as a play on the names of musical composers, Gilbert & Sullivan the craftsmen behind so many crowd-pleasing operettas from the late 1800s*. Released in June 1972, the song’s popularity stretched from late summer to early fall, proceeded at number one song by Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” and succeeded by Three Dog Night’s “Black and White” – recounted herein to set the mood and temper of that summer.
O’Sullivan’s follow-up single, “Claire” reached number two on the U.S. charts a few months later. His disc sales exceeded ten million in 1972 and made him the top start of the year. By 1974, O’Sullivan was practically forgotten in America though he continued to enjoy popularity in Great Britain.
From a trip Jenn and I had recently taken to Ireland, I remembered what two Irish musicians who led our Dublin pub crawl told us: Irish songs reflect the nation’s history – they’re either bawdy drinking ditties or sad songs of loss and love.
Having spent the preceding evening playing poker with nine life-long friends; eating, drinking, and laughing so hard my face hurt, I was reminded that we’re all then well into our sixties. One of our buddies was lost to cancer and another to booze, but the rest have aged gracefully and we treasure time spent together. We now resemble our dads and how much longer will it be till we look like our grandfathers?
All of our fathers are gone, and everyone’s mother save one, has also passed away. One was recently robbed of his daughter, a parent’s worst nightmare. With each fresh loss, we find ourselves looking to our children and families for solace and meaning. And, often we look to each other for comfort. We do so in full recognition that our present health and lives and families cannot be taken for granted.
Yet we still laugh and reminisce and natter and make plans, always looking forward to our next reunion. And come away thankful for the multiplicity of friendships that have stood so many tests of time with rarely a pool cue drawn in anger.
So in hopeful jest, I offer this toast to my friends who’ve been by my side for sixty-plus years: May we all live another three decades; and may I be there to cheer your good fortune when each of us celebrates the centennial of his life.
* If you want to see a spirited and historical account of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s music-making genius, watch the superb 1999 movie, “Topsy-Turvy.”
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.