Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Man with the Brown Cigarettes

Living in a small-ish town has its benefits - shorter lines at the movie theater, very short commutes to work, and the comfort of continuity. It also affords the opportunity to see the same people over and over again on a regular basis - which can be a positive thing, or a negative, depending on whether you mind stopping to talk to people in the grocery store. Pullman was a small town, and often times, you knew of nearly everyone's business - but the town was just large enough so that you didn't know everyone's name or where they lived or worked. You pretty much knew if someone was a farmer, or if they worked for the university, or what business they owned in town. But there were a few people that you saw on a regular basis who didn't fit the mold of any one occupation, and they kept you wondering.

I worked at the newly-opened Serv-a-Burger during the summer of 1987, leading up to my freshman year at WSU in my attempt to raise enough money for fall tuition, which I remember as being $933 a semester back then. Serv-a-Burger was located in what is now Tam's Place, a family restaurant where most locals have eaten a breakfast or two over the years. Behind the counter at Serv-a-Burger, I served up burgers and fishwiches, milkshakes and onion rings to a mixture of summer students, WSU staff and locals who came through each day, calling out "number 34, your order is ready" over the loudspeaker, and doing my best to keep the cooks from serving up beef patties that had fallen to the floor after a bad flip of the spatula.

Of all of the customers who came through the door that summer, I remember one man in particular. He came in every day at about the same time, would walk up to the counter and say, "coffee," without a smile or an inflection of his voice, no additional chit-chat, no comments about the nice weather we were having, just a barely audible, "coffee". I'd seen this man before, but unlike most other people in town, he was a mystery to me because I'd never heard a story about him, didn't know where he lived, and didn't know anyone that knew him. What I did know of him was that he walked everywhere he went - with his head slightly bent to the ground as if he didn't want anyone to look him in the eye, and slowly, with a steady pace, his hands in his pockets and a book tucked between his arm and his side. His face was always the same too - expressionless - and somewhat sad, so that I imagined him without any friends or anyone to talk to. It made me wonder where he worked, because surely, no one would hire a person if they didn't have anything to say and were so quiet. I became convinced that he worked for the university because he didn't own a business in town and no farmer would be walking around town every day in the summer, but what sort of job did he have at the university that would allow him to be so introverted and how on earth did he get through the interview?

He was probably in his 40's and wore some sort of muted polyester pants with a button-down shirt that always had a front pocket. In that pocket he carried a pack of long cigarettes - the kind that were wrapped in brown tobacco paper - I'd never seen anyone smoke cigarettes in brown tobacco paper, which made me wonder about him even more. The only word I ever heard this man say was, "coffee", and even that word didn't come out with any flair or interest. After a few weeks of his patronage, we learned that he wanted his coffee black and didn't want anything else to accompany it - no fries, no banana split, just the coffee. I imagined him being from the East Coast, where people tend to be less sociable and don't look anyone in the eye - but maybe he was just painfully shy. While he didn't seem like a mean man, I wondered how happy he was, not thinking that I could do anything about it except to have his coffee ready each day without asking him if he wanted "fries to go with that". He always paid in cash, so I never saw a check from the man that entire summer and never learned his name, or where he lived.

I saw him a few years ago when I was in town. Still walking, still wearing polyester and a button-down shirt, with a book under his arm and a pack of long brown cigarettes sticking out of his shirt pocket. I guess I'll never know what he does for a living or where he lives in town, but I have him to thank for reminding me that Pullman wasn't too small of a town, because there were still a few people that I didn't know. Here's to you, man with the brown cigarettes - I hope you're a happy man. - Jana

Friday, June 16, 2006

Go Greyhounds! (A special guest post)

The following post was written by Ken Winward. Ken was in my kindergarten class and in many of my classes throughout our 12 years in the Pullman School District. Because we always seemed to be placed in the same classes throughout the years, I considered him a reliable friend, and his presence was reassuring. He was the kind of person you knew would stick up for you if you needed it, or would take the time to listen if you needed someone to lend an ear. Ken was an excellent athlete in his high school years, and I remember him stopping me in the halls of PHS one day, to tell me that I should "lift" because I had the calves for it! Ken found my blog a few weeks back, and I asked him if he had a memory of Pullman to contribute, and, true to his passion for athletics, he submitted the following story... - Jana

Living in a college town such as Pullman gives a unique experience to a high school athlete. Even though Pullman is a small town (25,000 during the school year, 10,000 when the college is out for the summer) you can never be a “big fish in a small pond.” For instance, as a footballer, no matter how good a game you played on Friday, all of your heroic acts would be well over-shadowed by the Pac 10 game that was going to be played 18 short hours later on, on the very same field (i.e. Martin Stadium).

The air was crisp. Three hours before kick-off we met at the PHS football locker room right next to the practice field. We changed as a team. The sounds of taping the injured filled the cement and tile quarters. The visiting team changed in the adjacent, mirror image facility, imitating our pre-game rituals. Some of us dressed early and had time to spend in the pad room. This room is where tackling dummies and shields are kept. The mason who set the cinder-block walls lining the pad room did a fine job on the outside of the building. People who sat on the bleachers could look down and see beautifully smoothed mortar; but the inside was rough and bulging where the mortar set in grotesque stalactites hanging from the wall at each groove. We didn’t mind though. To get-up for the game, we would lay on the tackling pads, and we would share tapes and walkmans, listening to AC/DC, Beastie Boys, Scorpions, Ozzy and any other teen-testosterone generating music that was available in the late 80’s.

Big Coach B. would come and shake the clutch of us who were in the pad room. When he shook us, we knew to stow our electronics because it was time to get last-minute instructions before we left for Martin Stadium. PHS did not have a lit stadium in the 80’s. We played on the WSU Cougar astro-turf. This was big time for a small town varsity football player. As we left the high school locker room, the light smell of sweat and mildew would be replaced with the scent of burnt or burning wheat stubble that filled the air in the fall around the Palouse. The cool night air and scorched farmland filling your nose was electric. It was game time.

The trip to WSU’s stadium was about 2 miles door to tunnel. The bus trip was like riding to Moscow -- it took forever!

Mr. H would drive the bus. He was a permanent fixture on local or road trips. He volunteered almost always. I believe he was living what I live now as I embark on my fourth decade of life. He had that desire to feel that electricity that one only feels when being a part of this high school ritual. I long for it and desire it now. It harrows my essence after tasting it once and knowing I will never have it back again. Mr. H wanted to feel it too.

When we off-loaded from the bus, the smell of diesel exhaust faded, as we approached the tunnel. The eradicated stubble once again filled our noses. The sound of the gravelly-idle of the bus was also replaced with “that sound”. That sound of a small high school band tuning in a Division-1 stadium. It was like throwing a hand full of pebbles in a canyon and hearing the echo of the stones hit the floor of the hole, but those few pebbles would never quite fill the crater. It was beautiful.

The moon was now rising. The smoke covering the area filtered the light from the moon making it appear to be blood-red. One would think that such a sight would possibly shock a visiting team and their fans that came to Pullman for the game, but all the towns that made up the Frontier League saw the same effect on the moon where they came from. They were all farm towns. The only shock to the visitors came when they walked into the stadium and found the place could hold the total population of Pullman and then some.

As we would head down the dark tunnel (they didn’t turn on all the lights in the stadium for the high school games), it was like crossing the Styx. You were transformed going from the dark to the well-lit field; you were now different. It was a type of baptism. Nothing you had on your mind mattered that did not pertain to the performance you were about to attempt.

Once emerged from the tunnel, the sight was amazing. So many empty seats. A stadium built for 30,000+ seating only a couple hundred fans all on the southeast side, visitors and hometown folks seated together. I never quite knew why they all always sat on that side. Maybe it was to avoid the walk between narrow bleachers, or maybe it was the limited shelter the slightly overhanging press box provided in the off chance of rain. Whatever it was, it was lonely. Our coaches only let us set-up on the far side of the stadium, away from the crowd. With the fans that far away in such a large bowl, to say the least, it was a delayed positive feedback when a play went well.

And now came the sound of the band as their tuning ended and they began the national anthem. Hearing them play, their sound passing and coming back again after bouncing off the empty bleachers behind our sideline, was simply surreal. With the right tempo, the echoing would create a round effect. That was Pullman High School football.

I am 37 now. My wife is a high school teacher, and I have been a spectator to many a high school football game since the 80’s. The school she teaches at now has the same fight song melody as Pullman’s. When they fire-up the band here, for a second, I am snapped back to high school looking through a full cage face mask at the field I am about to take with my teammates. Today Pullman High School plays football at the school on Hobbs Field (it was our practice field and the JV and Frosh teams’ game field until they decided to light it in the late 90’s or so).

The games I played were memorable, just as they would be for any other high school team, but the uniqueness of playing in Martin Stadium is going to be one of the sweetest recollections I will have from my time in Pullman. - Ken Winward

Thanks for bringing us back to those fall Friday nights at Martin Stadium, Ken! Go Greyhounds!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


A few years ago, I was renting a house in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood. It was the 4th of July, and I wanted to watch one of the grand fireworks displays, so we walked down to the park overlooking Elliott Bay and downtown Seattle. Upon first glance, it was what I was looking for - a nice wide lawn with neighborhood folks scattered about on lawn chairs or picnic blankets, staking their spot for the show. My boyfriend and I walked up to the south edge of the park, the closest spot to the fireworks, where several other people had congregated as well for the big show. As it got dark enough and the fireworks started, everyone fell silent - yes, silent - and they remained that way through the entire show. A few people down from us stood a father and a daughter. The daughter was being held in her father's arms and when she exclaimed, "Wow! Look at all of the colors!" her father 'shushed' her for speaking above a whisper. As I looked around me, I realized that everyone was silent and no one felt free to express an "ooh" or an "ahh" at the fireworks display. Maybe this was how they did things in Seattle, I thought, but I couldn't be sure - after all, it was my first time watching a Seattle fireworks display in a public place. But it did strike me deeply that these people were so staid, or so worried about what others thought that they kept absolutely quiet during the show. How could they be silent? Didn't everyone "ooh and ahh" in unison at all fireworks shows? Were these people without emotion? Had I landed on another planet?

It made me think of home, and how much I was missing out on. Pullman 4th of Julys had always been magical. When I was young, my dad would take us to the fireworks stand in the Dissmores or old Safeway parking lot (the really old one that now houses UPS) and we'd buy up ground bloomers, whistling petes, sparklers, roman candles, those boring snakes or smoke bombs, and a couple of fountain display fireworks, if we had the money that year. We'd take our bag of goodies home where dad would carefully stash them away until a day or two before the big day.

Dad was always a careful sort, but he did love to set off his fireworks for us kids. Ground bloomers were his favorite. They'd go buzzing around the street in front of our house, in their multi-colored display, looking a lot like those scrubbing bubbles in that bathroom cleaner commercial. We watched in fear as inevitably, one would bounce its way underneath a car parked across the street, and stay there, spewing out a flame of fire until it burned out, and we were able to exhale, knowing that we weren't going to be the cause of burning up one of our neighbors' cars.

One year - and I'm still not sure what prompted this idea - my mom made flyers on half sheets of white paper inviting neighbors on our street to join their neighbors on our lawn for a 4th of July celebration. I was assigned with the task of running these flyers up and down Clifford Street, placing them in-between people's screen doors and their front doors, until the flyers were gone. When the big day came, people brought out their card tables and lawn chairs and 4th of July cakes and snacks, and their own bag of 'firework stand' fireworks and the crowd was so big that we sprawled out onto our neighbor's lawn as well. We enjoyed each other's company for several hours, with someone keeping watch for cars coming down Harrison Street, setting off a grand display of everyone's favorite fireworks. It was wonderful to have all of the neighbors together for one day a year - we were usually either shut up in our houses all winter, or off on vacation all summer, or out working our summer jobs, so it wasn't often that we got together. In fact, my family wasn't really the social type - we didn't have many friends over except the police chief and his wife once in a while to play penny poker, so social events were a joy for me.

After the fireworks were gone and the detrius had been cleaned from the streets, everyone packed up their things and left for the big fireworks display at Sunnyside Park. To get a good spot on the lawn, (for us, preferably away from the drafty fish ponds and up on the hill behind the barbeque shelter) families had to leave well before dusk because parking was atrocious and you had to find a spot on a side street down the hill or make your own along the highway. My friends and I would look for our other friends who would be roaming around the park in an effort to distance themselves from their uncool parents, to enjoy the time before the first fireworks were set off. You could buy a slice of pie at the shelter, walk over to the announcer's stage, or play in the heavily barked play area in the middle of it all. Once the fireworks were underway, you found your space fast, and laid down on your back to get the full effect of the fireworks that were exploding overhead in huge balls of light and the occasional loud boom. Most years brought good weather for the 4th, but on occasion, it would be cloudy and threatened rain, and the fireworks display would be in doubt - even postponed, if necessary. The clouds weren't so bad - they'd bring a nice backdrop against which the fireworks would seem more illuminated even bigger at times. But it was always best if the day was full of warm sunshine and the night drifted into a beautiful Palouse sunset before turning to blue/black with stars twinkling overhead.

I've been back to town for a few 4th of July celebrations since I left town. Just last year, I wanted to do the whole 4th of July circuit with my friend who lives in Pullman, who I visit several times in the spring and summer each year. We drove out to Johnson for its wonderful, quirky parade - one neither of us had been to in all of our years growing up in Pullman, which I regretted. We took pictures, greeted old friends, marveled at others who had grown up, married, divorced, remarried and had children of their own. We then went back to my friend's house for mid-day margaritas and to cool off for a while as the weather was in the 80's. We tried to make it to the Albion picnic, but it was too hot in the mid-day sun so we opted to stay in and relax with our feet in the kiddie pool before we had to head off to the fireworks display that evening.

Moscow also used to have a 4th of July celebration that was set to music - I think it was originally provided by one of the local radio stations. They no longer have their own fireworks display, a loss to many in their community, but an opportunity for the two communities to celebrate together at the Pullman display, and an idea that will thankfully be safer for Moscow residents traveling to Pullman, once the new 4-lane highway is completed between the two cities.

At some point over the years, Pullman added music to their fireworks display, maybe in an attempt to make the show more interesting, or to fill the gaps in-between the launching of the fireworks. I find it much more enjoyable to watch the fireworks without music so that I can marvel at them and hear my neighbors' comments on them, rather than having to drown out the sounds of "I'm proud to be an American" garishly booming over loudspeakers that don't seem to handle the processing of quality sound. Regardless of the effect on my ears, last year's visit proved that the fireworks show is as great as it always was and it has some great new additions as well - Dan Maher performs early in the day, followed by the Kingpins who perform on a large stage over the baseball field. They've also added Transit service to the park so that you don't have to fight for parking. It's all still so charming, and so great to sit in a sea of what seems like the whole town of people yelling "ooh and ahh" alternately at every firework burst. As we walked through the old cemetery to our cars following the show, the smell of sulphur lingering throughout the town and a yellow cloud of smoke hanging heavily in the air, I was thankful that Pullman's residents were still not afraid to express sounds of delight during their fireworks display, and that while much had changed in the town, the important things, like community coming together on the 4th of July, still remained. - Jana

If you're planning to attend the fireworks celebration in Pullman this year, be sure to drop a few bucks in one of the collection jars located at local businesses around town or bring your donation to the Pullman Chamber of Commerce so they can pay the $12,000 bill that it takes to put on the celebration. If you haven't given already, there's no doubt that you may feel guilty driving past the fundraiser thermometer in front of the Chamber on Grand Avenue, so release your anxiety and give a few bucks to the cause. If you can't afford to make a donation, consider volunteering your time to the event. The Chamber needs many volunteers to pull this event off each year, and I doubt it would feel like work.