Ken Osborne was born in 1943 in a small town near the English Channel. His father ran off with another woman when he was eighteen months old. His mom bearing her own sadness didn’t have much time for him or his older brother and sister. “Mother didn’t take a great deal of interest in us,” Ken remembers, even though as adults his brother and sister told Ken that he was their mother’s favorite. “My brother, sister and I would roam wherever we could go. We’d go to the ‘Willow Woods’ to play. We’d take along a pop bottle filled with water. When we ran out of water, we’d knock at a door to fill it back up.” They needed the water as it was a seven mile walk to the woods. The upside of their mom’s disinterest was that they had freedom to roam and play. “Kid’s these days don’t have that freedom,” Ken says.
Ken “played truant all the time” until he was taken to court and told he had to go to school until he was sixteen. On his sixteenth birthday he walked out of school and never went back. He got a job on the channel ferries as a deck boy, ringing the engine telegraph, bells that signaled the engine room to change speed and direction. He did this for about a year. Then his brother arranged for them to go to New Zealand, as part of the crew on a passenger ship. They stayed for a couple of weeks with their half-sister and her family that lived there before returning to England.
The roaming life was the way it was for Ken over the next ten years. “I Bummed around a bit,” he says. He worked in an antique shop, then a factory, and wound up with a job with a company called Soil Mechanics. They did soft ground boring and diamond drilling into rock, for building foundations or for the construction of roads. Wherever the next job was he found “digs”. “I lived in some pretty iffy places,” Ken remembers.
It never occurred to Ken to look for a career job that fit his personality and skill set. “You just did what came along. It never occurred to me as a child. You never think of better things. You just get a job, get work.” One time he took a train to Maidstone. He got a job in a supermarket, breaking up boxes. His manager asked where he was living. Ken said he didn’t have a place yet so the manager set him up with a gal who had an extra room. “That was how I lived, without a care in the world. Surviving in a way,” Ken says. At age 23, wound up in Wales where he met his wife, Stella, his star. “That changed everything,” Ken says.
Ken and Stella moved back to Deal, the town where he was born. He started to be a bit more responsible, landing a job as a warehouse manager at a supermarket. At the interview he was asked all kinds of questions. “I just lied because I didn’t know anything about supermarkets. In a short time they made me a manager.” It was a growing company, and in a few years Ken was a controller, a supervisor of nine stores. Then he transitioned to head office of the company working as an executive with forty people working for him. Ken believed in the ability of the workers. Many of them were women. “I’m not very clever. Seriously. What I found was that if you ask people to do things but don’t tell them how, you get amazing results, very surprising results.” That’s how he learned, and that’s how he led.
Ken worked for the supermarket until 1985. when he was hit by bad health. He started losing his sight. They diagnosed it as a melanoma on the retina of his left eye. At the same time, doctors discovered a tumor on the pituitary, called acromegaly. The tumor starts producing masses of a growth hormone that effects the long bones, the fingers, foot, jaw. In children it makes them giants. A rare surgery was performed, cutting the cancer out of the retina. Radiation killed off the pituitary. Once you kill off the pituitary the growth hormone stops, but you have to take tablets the rest of your life. Ken has learned to live with an eye that can’t see so well. “The brain adjusts, and you get on,” he says.
Cancer gave Ken the opportunity to retire. One of the doctors said that the life expectancy for someone with his condition was just about 12 years. Ken went to his boss and asked about retirement. He told him that he didn’t think he was going to last more than twelve years. His boss told him to get a note from his doctor. He did, and Ken was able to retire.
Ken picked up his pen and began to write poetry again. When he was nine his teacher at school asked the class to write a poem. He did and the teacher said it was the best in the class. “That was the first acknowledgement of my having done something well. My mother never said ‘well done.’ So it impressed me. So I became a poet.” Ken began to write poems in a little black book a ledger his grandfather gave him. He still has them, neatly written. Writing poetry made him feel different, an individual. He continued to write poetry till he left school.
When he was fourteen he had the fortune of having a good teacher, named Nigel Horne. Nigel wore a black academic gown, and “came sweeping into class like a bat.” His enthusiasm inspired Ken. He introduced the class to the great English poets like Keats, Coleridge and Kipling. Ken still remembers one thing he said. They were analyzing a Masefield poem about old men playing cards, the poet described it as their “twinkling fingers.” “That just said it,” Ken reflects. His favorite poet was Dylan Thomas, maybe because Stella lived in Pendine, the village next to Laugharne, where Thomas wrote a lot of his poetry, and her mother had gone to the same school as him. “When I retired I simply picked up my pen, and started again. I joined a couple of poetry groups, and ran one for a while. I learned a lot more about poetry.
Ken and his son Mark loved playing video games when they went to the seaside in Tenby, Wales. They played Space Invaders, Phoenix, shoot them up stuff. Mark always won. They decided to program space invaders using BASIC on their new computer but it was much too slow, so they learned machine code, the native language of the processor. “I did all the work and Mark somehow learned it from me, over my shoulder,” Ken says.
When Mark moved to America Ken and Stella weren’t seeing him very often. Mark said why don’t you come over and live here so they moved to Redmond and have been living here ever since. They get to dote on their one granddaughter, who is now a teenager. Ken is grateful for the opportunities for poets in and around Redmond through the writing groups he participates in. There is the Redmond Association of the Spoken Word poetry open mike and their poetry circle where participants share a poem to be critiqued. Michael Dillon Welch, past poet laureate in Redmond, runs a poetry group at Soul Food coffee shop. Ken loves reading his poems at open mic gatherings. “You get a reaction from the audience. At least you know if it’s good.”
Poets help us see. In “Sammamish River” Ken sees behind the river and its creatures to the unseen people and history. The poem started when Ken heard a talk at the Redmond Historic Society on the Willows people, Indians who once lived along the river. They’re gone now, decimated by Smallpox and driven from their home. He sees the long meandering river that wound thirty miles down the valley before it was straightened when Lake Washington was lowered and the Ballard Locks engineered. Then paddle wheel steamers traveled to Bothel, Redmond and all the way to Lake Sammamish, bringing coal and passengers and the salmon ran so thick that Redmond was called Salmonburg. The Willows people, the meandering river and the paddleboats are gone, but still they matter. As part of the river’s history, as our history, they are still with us.
Sammamish River by Ken Osborne
A century past
the river meandered 30 miles
between lakes Washington and Sammamish.
The Willow People fished for salmon here,
logs were floated through,
stern wheel paddle steamers
carried coal and passengers
past Kenmore and Woodinville,
Mary Anne Bothel’s boarding house
and Redmond (known locally as Salmonburg)
all the way to Issaquah.
Too shallow now
since army engineers
lowered Lake Washington 9 feet
and reduced the river’s winding path
to 10 straight miles.
The salmon are returning.
I hear them jumping in the evening,
have seen the otter swim downstream,
Canada geese draw deltas to the sky,
ducks squawk and skim
and the great blue heron
knee high under the bridge
haul himself on wide fringed wings
up to the sailing stars.
But the Willows People,
sapped by smallpox plague
and white man’s greed
renounced this treasure,
abandoned their paradise
and never returned.
Sometimes at night
beside the ravaged river
I startle at the beat
of distant drums
the rhythmic shuffle
of moccasined feet
behind me on the trail.
Ken likes walking the river trail with Stella. They see herons swoop, then stand still fishing. At dusk the herons fish under the bridge, the lights illuminating their prey. They see beavers swimming. Once they were walking on the trail on the east side of the river near the storm water pond. A beaver crossed the path right in front of them, splashing into the river. Beavers love cottonwoods and aspens, notching the trees in concentric circles with their teeth. “They destroy their own breakfast,” Ken says. On their walks they hear salmon jumping, the racket of geese taking off, the swoosh of an owl flying up the trail. A fellow walker got hit by one.
The river is magical to Ken, partly because he just loves water: the sea, rivers, lakes, rain… anything with water. But more than that, the river is fascinating, the layers you get. Ken sees three, maybe four layers. You see the reflections. Then something – a stick or a duck or a leaf- floats through the reflections. Then you see through it to the rocks, mud and grass at the bottom of the river. Three layers; then there is the person who is gazing on the river, seeing it through the lens of self, so a fourth layer.
The river brings people together. Couples walk hand in hand, kids trip along after their parents, dogs strain at their leashes, bikes race by. Ken sees two rivers, the Sammamish, and a river of people walking. But that river is different. It flows in two directions, a kind of river of life. It is almost as fascinating as looking at water, you watch the people go by.
Two Rivers by Ken Osborne
The river runs determinedly
in one direction to the sea
its flow defined by floating leaves,
a plastic bag, a broken branch,
smudge of glistening pebbled light
tracing its twists and whirls of flight.
Side by side another flows
channeled by the blacktop’s width
mimics the other’s winding course
with flapping feet in rowdy rush
driven by spring’s heatwave glitch
and exercise’s latent itch.
Runners outpace the frantic throng
with pumping arms and squeaking feet
in silent scything super sync
slide through the file with swerving slink,
off-piste skier with clicking sticks
shuffles on imagined skis,
with walking frames arthritic crocks
divide the stream like jutting rocks.
Reckless rainbowed bikers wend
battery or pedal powered
with clicking gears and tinkling bells
bouncing trailer towed behind
beaming child with streaming hair
waving from a sedan chair.
Completely immersed in conversation
clustered families ignoring rules
like bickering ducks clutter the stream
their reckless kids lost in the fray
as sidewise youths on skateboards glide
and bobbing scooter boys outride.
This river’s crowded surface flows
in both ways simultaneously,
driven by human restlessness
ignores nature’s water rules
blindly rushing without thought
headlong down its cluttered course
to an uncertain resting place
as if to win the human race.
As he’s aged, Ken realizes that the most important thing in life are people: your family and friends. Soul Foods Coffee Shop is Ken’s home away from home. It’s part of his family. He’s there most afternoons and has quite a few friends there: “People are very friendly. You talk to people. You associate with people. That doesn’t happen down by the river. Here it happens. It’s a very eclectic place with a wide variety of people of all creeds and nationalities.” Ken doesn’t focus on the differences between people. He sees people as people. He values their personality, “the rest of it can disappear,” he says. Still, Ken knows we look at people through our own life, baggage, and even prejudice. We see things through the lens of ourselves.
We see people, but we don’t often see their depths. Breakthroughs in how we see people can happen. Ken had such a breakthrough. He had a friend called Dan in a poetry group in the UK who wrote political poems. But gradually his friend began to introduced poems about his family. He was on the ship called the Athenia, the first to be torpedoed in WWII. When she was torpedoed, his mother, who was disabled, was stuck on a bunk. She couldn’t get to the lifeboats. Dan waited in the cabin for someone to carry her up. His brother went to get help. Dan was at her side when the ship submerged and she drowned. He was rescued, and returned to Glasgow. He learned that his brother had gotten into a lifeboat that was broken into pieces by the propellers of a ship that had come to rescue them. He lost his brother and his mom. Ken’s friend had hidden it for most of his life. In the poetry group, it started to come out. Ken discovered the story when he collected all the poems of the group and read them. Poets help us see the depths.
Once Ken was walking along the river trail when he stumbled upon a homeless man living under the 90th Street Bridge. The man got upset at Ken’s invading his home. A few days later he saw the man’s graffiti on the bridge reflected in the water. The reflection made the graffiti look like a beautiful picture, a work of art. “It was really extraordinary,” Ken says. He wrote a poem about that experience.
Graffiti by Ken Osborne
My walk took me each night
along the river trail
beneath the concrete bridge
where I would pause and watch
the river wriggle by,
geese underfly the arch,
the wide-winged heron swoop down
alight and hunch upon a rock
poised for spearing in the light.
This night there seemed to be a plinth
risen from the glimmering river,
a canvas daubed by Monet or Matisse
dappled on the water’s rippled rush.
Raising my eyes to view the other side
where the homeless guy had made his camp
I noticed a bright mural on the wall
that cast this vibrant abstract on the flow.
Just then he mumbled and arose,
looked back at me accusingly
and yet, I hoped he’d cross the bridge and see
the magnificence of nature’s mastery
that brushed his bland graffiti into art.
Within the week the city’s team
removed the mural from the wall
and left a pallid patch beneath the bridge
but tonight, as I passed on my nightly stroll
the image shivered through my weariness,
flashed briefly on the flickering river’s face.
Most pictures we view are left behind
but masterpieces hang forever
in the magpie museum of the mind.
Poets, like pastors, help us to see in new ways. Poet of the river, Ken Osborne, can help us slow down and see the depths, the stories, the beauties that we might otherwise miss.
Note: You can find more of Ken’s poems in his book: Within Without.
The Bridges of Redmond Project
You can learn more about the Bridges of Redmond project here:
You can read about Jason Dorsey’s Redmond Roots here:
You can read the read the story of Redmond’s past mayor Christine Himes here:
You can read the story of Redmond’s past mayor Rosemarie Ives here:
I loved the article. I loved the poetry. I loved the paintings. I loved the photography. I loved the Sammamish River. Thanks for sharing.