Breakfast in America [Pacific Northwest], March 1988

Cle Elum could be half the small towns in America--except for the people and what a century of hard work has taught them

Driving east out of Seattle on Interstate 90, Cle Elum is the first town you can actually see from the freeway, going by. There doesn't seem to be any reason to stop. You've only gone 84 miles, so the kids don't need a gas station yet, and the dog's still happy. You just passed all those semis going over Snoqualmie and if you stop you'll have to pass them again. And a quick glance is all you need to know there's nothing special down there in Cle Elum; no roadside zoo, no Northwest whatchagotthere information center, not even a restaurant with a playground. For its part, Cle Elum has done nothing special to attract you, either. It has been a working town for working people for a hundred years. And it still is.

Customer: Say there, Hon, can you tell me what a B cantaloupe is?
Waitress: Whazzat?
Customer: Up there on the specials. It says "B Cantaloupe with English Muffin, $1.50." So what's a B cantaloupe?
Waitress: No, that's B period cantaloupe. We had an A Special and a B Special, which is cantaloupe, but we're all out of the A now, so there's just B.
Customer: Uh huh. [Pause]
Waitress: So, you want the cantaloupe?
Customer: Steak and Eggs.

They roll into The Cottage at the east end of town early, even on Saturday. A few truckers, a few travelers from the motels nearby, but mostly local men on their way to work, or trying to look like it. Some wear adjustable hats advertising farm equipment or trucking lines. Nobody wears the official Cottage Cafe hat ($2.50, four colors to choose from). You wear that someplace else, if you won one, which for most of the Cottage regulars is unlikely. Adjustable hats, like calendars and matches, you don't buy. You have.

At The Cottage the boys wrap their legs around counter stools and their chops around ham and eggs and tell stories about each other and about themselves.

"... So every time his father got mad at him--and that was most of the time--he'd send the kid off to school wearing one of his sister's dresses. Eventually the kid started pulling his hair out in clumps and eating it..."

"... The mayor signs the football for all of us after the game. Only he misspells mayor, m-a-y-A-r. I still got the ball..."

"... Two Lebanese guys from Vancouver just show up on First, say they're lost and tryin' to get to Salt Lake City. By that night. Well, I told 'em it was impossible, but they said, 'Oh no, we have to, we have jobs waiting,' in that way they talk, so I pointed 'em south and off they went. I figure they have to average a good 140 miles an hour to make it. Gonna be tough in a Datsun..."

The boys at the counter look into their coffee cups and nod, smiling, as the next story begins to slide out like a cheese omelet on a hot plate. A stranger sits there, listening, and thinks Cle Elum is a mighty busy, mighty strange place. What he doesn't realize, not at first anyway, is that Cle Elum folk above a certain age live in a special time warp all their own, where everything that ever happened to any of them happened "a while back." The boy who had to wear the dress is in his 50s now. The Lebanese pair showed up last Thursday.

Connie Harper, who's been working the front counter at The Cottage for eight years now, was recently named "Waitress of the Month" by The Liquor Reporter newspaper. Connie is a good waitress, but she's also a good listener. She has to be. At The Cottage, or anywhere else Cle Elum gathers, listening is an essential skill. The town is a giant, ongoing oral-history project, not because a National Endowment for the Humanities grant has made it so, but because that's the way the people here like it.

Tourist: Can you tell me how to get back on the freeway going east?
Resident: East? Easy. There's an entrance at either end of town.
Tourist: Thanks.
Resident: Goin' to Spokane?
Tourist: Well, we're going that way, yes.
Resident: [Pause] There's not much past Spokane goin' east.

Tourists take their breakfast up closer to the center of town, at the Sunset Cafe or Cavallini's, where there's no counter inside, and no Kenworths outside. But there are campers. Sit in the window at Cavallini's ("A Nice Little Restaurant In The Mountains") any summer morning and it looks like a traveling RV show is going by on First Street. It's not Cle Elum that's lured them in off the freeway. It's Recreation. All those outdoor sports that look nice in a brochure are available in the immediate area. And even though they still do considerable logging near Cle Elum, and the climate is perfect for mink ranching (the local blackglama was once America's most prized ranch mink pelt), the city now bills itself as "The Gateway to Upper Kittitas County." Cle Elum, to its municipal credit, has just resisted hanging a lot of cheap tourist crap on the gate. You can find a "Coalminer Burger" in town, but you have to search for it.

Renee Daigneault-Hill, manager-secretary of the chamber of commerce and the most hyphenated person in town, thinks her town could do a lot more to attract new people and businesses, but she doesn't seem particularly concerned about it. She works part time at the information desk of downtown Cle Elum's only obvious tourist attraction, the Telephone Museum. Cle Elum had the last manually operated switchboard west of the Mississippi, the kind of phone system where you picked up the hooter in your house and Jo answered and said, "Whatcha want, Johnny?" and you said, "Gimme Frank over at the Autorest," and Jo said, "He's not there anymore, he went back to the Eagles." After 40 years as an operator, Jo Rigek made her last connection that way in 1966. To commemorate the event, Pacific Northwest Bell gave Cle Elum its building, her switchboard, plus other telephonic materials, including a display of "Phones Through the Ages." The Telephone Museum has, besides phones and Renee Daigneault-Hill, artifacts of the region, displayed in a sweet, simple manner that belies the history they represent: a lunch bucket; miners' tools; a logger's heavy boots. To understand Cle Elum today, you have to see these objects, not as nostalgic relics of forgotten days, but as powerful images of a century of sweat, blood and determination.

Interviewer: Have you been back up here much since you retired?
John Lelinsky: This is the first time. I retired in 1952. There's no reason to come back.
Interviewer: But don''t you miss it, just a little?
John Lelinsky: I miss the people. The people I worked with. I miss them. But miss the mine? No. Never.

In 1890 Cle Elum was little more than a wide spot in the horse path next to the Yakima River. By 1900 Cle Elum was booming, and would continue to boom for another 30 years. The difference was coal, and, to a lesser degree, timber.

John Lelinsky was five years old in 1890, back in his native Poland. When the Russian Army tried to draft him 20 years later, Lelinsky decided to broaden his horizons. He finally stopped broadening in Kittitas County. He was a miner by then and liked the fact that the United Mine Workers union was already active in central Washington. So with thousands of other Poles, Slavs, Croatians, English, Welsh and Italians who came before and would come after, John Lelinsky went down in the mines around Cle Elum and Roslyn. He worked below for 34 years and, at the same time, ran a farm and raised a family. Now, at the age of 102, John Lelinsky is the oldest dues-paying member of the UMW in the country. He's proud of that, proud of his family and, though you could never get him to admit it, proud of the very had work he did for so long. John Lelinsky is one other thing, too. He's lucky.

"I must have been on one end of a stretcher twice a month for 26 years," examiner Brownie Thomas says. "I followed along behind one with a sharp stick, to pick up the pieces that fell off. And they say logging is even more dangerous than mining. I don't know about that." Brownie may exaggerate a little, but his own mangled hands are no exaggeration, and neither are the hundreds of gravestones in the Cle Elum and Roslyn graveyards. With birthplaces all over the world, they came here, in the prime of their lives, to die in the mines and forests.

Brownie Thomas is a plumber now. Like a lot of mines he developed another skill in anticipation of the day the coal would run out, or nobody would want it anymore. After decades of steady decline, that day came in 1963. "The Gateway to Upper Kittitas County" was not far off.

Visitor: I'm writing this piece about Cle Elum for a magazine.
Local: What about it?
Visitor: Well, what it's like, I guess. I've been here, off and on, for 20 years now, so it won't exactly be an insiders view...
Local: Uh huh...
Visitor: ... but then I'm not a complete stranger, either. How long have you been here?
Local: Sixty-seven years. Continuous.

Cle Elum proper is a mile and a half long, eight streets wide and, at its highest, two stories tall. About 2,000 people live here, most of them descendants of immigrants who came through Ellis Island between 1890 and 1930. First Street, the main drag, is unusually wide. In the winter they used to push and snow to the center of First, not the sides.

The most modern building on First is a gleaming Safeway.

The most interesting building on First is Cle Elum State Bank, a 1906 brick box that alone survived the big fire of 1918.

The most popular building on First is the famous Cle Elum Bakery.

The saddest building on First--well, around the corner actually--is the shut-down Vogue movie theater, which looks like a movie set for a Shut-down Movie Theater. Across the street is the police station, which has gray-blue howitzers out front and whirlygigs in the lawn to irritate moles, who apparently aren't afraid of howitzers. Cle Elum could be, in other words, half the small towns in America. Except for the people and what a century of hard work together has taught them.

First, they know how to take care of each other.

"We lost a child five years ago, a two-year-old boy, and the people here were just wonderful. They brought food over and somebody would take our laundry away and bring it back clean and folded. There's a woman here who's sent me flowers every years since it happened. That's Cle Elum for you." Randine Glondo stands behind the counter of her shop of First and looks out at the town she's known all her life. The daughter of a Polish logger, she married an Italian logger names Charlie. A year ago, Charlie walked out of the woods for the last time. He and Randine and their five children opened Glondo's Sausage, selling meats prepared from Charlie's mother's original recipes. Randine is happy Charlie's out of the forest, but she misses the aroma.

"When loggers come into the shop--Charlie's friends--I just love the way they smell, so fresh, like the woods. My father used to smell like that every night when he came home." The loggers who are in the shop when Randine says this laugh, sniff at each other and then look at Randine like she's a little nuts.

Cle Elum people are straightforward, too, whether telling strangers how they like to sniff loggers or responding to official inquiries. In the U.S. Government Census of 1900, according to John Shideler's Coal Towns in the Cascades, one--just one--local woman listed her occupation as "prostitute." Given Cle Elum's famous red-light district at that time, she was either very honest or very busy.

Chances are she was also something of a linguist. The ethnic diversity in Cle Elum is unequaled anywhere else in the Northwest, but unlike some East coast cities, where the Italians have been fighting the Irish have been fighting the English have been fighting the Slavs have fighting the Poles have been fighting the Scandinavians forever, folks in Cle Elum get along.

"When I was a kid," says Fred Crosetto, "it wasn't us Italians versus the Slavs. It was the upper-town kids against the lower-town kids, regardless of ethnic origin. You just didn't cross Pennsylvania Street without a reason."

But all was not melting-pot perfect. In the old days, Italians weren't allowed in any of the bars owned by Englishmen. And Fred's wife, Dolly Ziemba Crosetto, remembers her Polish grandmother telling her not to marry an Italian because "it thins the blood."

Dolly's from Roslyn, just a few miles up the road, and a place most Cle Elumites mildly resent, whether they admit it or not. And the resentment is mutual.

"You just didn't associate with kids from Cle Elum," Dolly says. "They were too sophisticated. And better off than we were. Their junior high cheerleaders wore lipstick and had the right kind of sneakers."

Some Cle Elum families may have been better off, but nobody was well off. People learned to "eat it up, wear it out, make it do or do without," a lesson they never forgot.

"To this day, I wear out my oldest clothes first," says John Crosetto, Dolly's brother-in-law and a Boeing executive. "I've got new suits in my closet I haven't touched since I bought them. Cle Elum didn't produce many extravagant people."

Crosetto's fondest memory of his Cle Elum boyhood involves its cheapest amusement: music.

"There was a town band, and you were damned proud if they asked you to play with them. Cavallini's had a dance floor back then, the Eagles had big dances every weekend. The football team sang in the bus all the way to the games. I used to feel sorry for new teachers at school. Not only did they have to learn all our strange names, but they were expected to know the lyrics to Croatian folk songs."

Teachers in Cle Elum did have one advantage: vociferous parental support. The immigrant miners wanted a better life for their children; specifically, a life out of the mines. And that meant a decent education, college if you could possibly afford it, even for just one child. And the pressure on that child to succeed, to justify his or her parents' sacrifice, was enormous. Brownie Thomas' son works in computers now. Brownie doesn't understand what he does, but he knows one thing for sure. No mountain is going to fall on his son.

Customer: Can you tell me something about Attack of the Killer Tomatoes?
Dennis Maloney: What did you want to know?
Customer: Is it scary? I got a nine-year-old, she sees something too scary, she won't sleep in her bed. She comes in and sleeps with us.
Dennis Maloney: That's no good.
Customer: I'll say.
Dennis Maloney: I'm sorry, I haven't seen it.
Customer: I better not take the chance.

At the Eagles Hall there's more bingo than dancing these days, and they've boarded up the big windows that let the music float out over the town on cold Saturday nights.

Cavallini's hasn't had a dance for two years. The old dance floor is covered over for the new big dining room.

The town band is gone.

Jo Rigek is in a nursing home on Mercer Island.

People cruise slowly by John Lelinsky's house on Second Street like it's an official Scenic sight.

The current president of the Cle Elum Italian Club is named Starkevich.

The town now has three video stores.

Times change, even in a place like Cle Elum. But the old values linger, and enrich. Dennis Maloney, owner of Intermountain Appliance, on of the video stores, recalls with ill-concealed glee what happened when one of his Cle Elum-ignorant competitors tried to stock X-rated films.

"The town was on his butt right now."

Part of "the town" in that case was probably The Coffee Club, an informal group of retired businessmen who meet each morning and each afternoon in Cavallini's back room According to some local folk, The Coffee Club runs Cle Elum. According to others, The Coffee Club thinks it runs Cle Elum. No matter who's right, Coffee Club support can't hurt if you're planning something new in town. But it's not essential.

Ed Zackovich was invited to a Coffee Club gathering once, He never went back. Ed looms over a table one Friday night at the Eagles, smiling pleasantly at his guest, recalling yet another time when someone underestimated him. The 59-year-old, 6-foot-7-inch Cle Elum native is used to that, and used to taking advantage of it.

Ed grew up in the car and towing business. His coal miner father started East End Motors as a sideline in 1928. In 1980, Ed noticed that standard tow trucks were unsuitable for towing some new cars. So he began to tinker. The result was the Zacklift, first sold in 1984, a hydraulic arm using the "underlift principle." The Zacklift is a hit, and Ed now travels the world selling it, working 12 to 14 hours a day, six days a week, as he always has. And except for an Australian subsidiary that's just opened, the Zacklift is still manufactured entirely in a converted car repair shop in Cle Elum.

"If I'd started this business in a big city it would have cost me 10 times more than it did. I never would have tried." The Zacklift is now made by 15 people, all from outside Cle Elum. But the first general manager is Susan Zackovich Newton, Ed's daughter.

Family. Ultimately that's what Cle Elum is about. Half the people mentioned in this piece are related to each other, one way or another. And they are all related by a common experience, a common history unique to this place. That's something you can't see, passing by on the freeway.

You can't see the Cle Elum graveyard from the freeway either, but it's there, a gently sloping, almost desolate field at the west end of town. Here the graves aren't separated into ethnic groups, as they are in the much more famous Roslyn graveyards. In Cle Elum, Italians, Slavs, Poles and all the others bump up against each other as they did in life. It's a simple place, with simple stones that rarely list more than the departed's name and dates.

But if there is an epitaph, it's often one of three things that sum up life in Cle Elum as well as anything could.

MOTHER, FATHER, and finally: AT REST.