Chapter XXI: The Big Chill
It was time I took a new look at my status. I had to start making changes in life. It was very clear that trying to work on the waterfront in San Francisco or Oakland was not feasible. I would have to make a shift, but it would have to be made with some intelligence, without standing on a soapbox and making an announcement of where I intended to alight.
By chance I had something to do at the ILWU international headquarters. I ran into an old dear friend, Jerry Bulke, who was vice-president. Bulke was a longshoreman who took part in the 1934 strike. He was well-liked among the rank-and-file longshoremen.
"I hear you're having a tough time holding down a job," he said.
"And just as tough a time trying to find one on the front. I'm sure I wouldn't have any trouble finding a job among the potato pickers in Idaho."
"Well," said Bulke, "there are two places I know where you can land a job and still stay on the front."
"Let's have it," I said.
"I have a friend who is president of Local 14 in Eureka. That port has one commodity, that's lumber. Only thing is, they are not overswamped with ships coming in there. The other place is Alaska. They always seem to need longshoremen in some of the Alaskan ports. The men doing the work are mostly fishermen. When fishing is poor, they hang around and work at longshoring. You may not make a lot of money, but at least you'll be on the waterfront."
"Alaska seems miles away and cold, too, but Eureka sounds near enough. Let me see if I can pull it all together in a day or two and when I do, I'll let you know."
"Okay," said Bulke, "and if you decide on Eureka, I'll give you a letter of introduction to my old friend up there and hope he can do you some good."
I didn't have to do much deep thinking on what the next move was to be. Now that I had the house dismantled, all that was needed was a place to store what one considered my worldly goods. The want ads in the local papers took care of that: a woman willing to rent her garage space for seven dollars per month. I called her, cinched the deal and rented a truck. I decided that I would tell no one about the pending trip north but just quietly disappear after dropping a few hints that someone in my family back East was sick and I may go and visit them.
There was one woman who used to pass my house and tell me how interested she was in wanting to live there in the event I should ever decide to move. I had her number. I would call her once I was on the road away from the city. I moved the truck up to the house quietly at two in the morning, and like a cat sneaking up on a mouse eased my stuff into it. I had figured that the FBI was not interested in 24-hour vigils, although they were interested in any change of address. Once everything was in the truck and the blinds and shades were pulled down in the flat to continue to give it that lived-in look, I headed for the other neighborhood where the garage was located. I slept in the truck for a few hours and waited till the neighbors were up before unloading. I returned to the agency, then got into my beaten-up 1937 Ford sedan and headed north.
On the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, I called up the woman interested in my apartment. I supplied her with the name and telephone number of the landlady. Three months later I found out what had happened: the landlady was happy to have her as a tenant. But when the new tenant submitted a list of improvements that had to be made to make the place livable, such as better wiring, plumbing, heating, water and drainage systems, the landlady politely told her that the last person to live there was a Mr. Bailey who never complained about anything. When there was something wrong he took care of it without bothering the owners, and that's the way it's supposed to be.
The new tenant had a boyfriend who was a building inspector. She gave him a nudge and within a few days the owner received a notice in the mail that the building was condemned. Listed was a series of items that had to be taken care of before anyone would be allowed to live on the premises. The cost of improvements was so high that she decided to raze the building to its foundation and build another two-story structure. The place remained vacant for months on end because of the high rent she put on the place.
It took me two days to make it to Eureka. The car was old and needed some loving care, like playing nursemaid to a leaky radiator. But we made it in one piece, and that I considered an accomplishment. The many hours to get there just gave me the time I needed to think some more about the future of the country, the world, and, yes, myself.
Eureka, a lumber town with a lovely little port, was a stopover for tourists, campers and backpackers. The main highway went right through the middle of town, leading you through the giant redwoods on the way to Portland and Seattle. Lumber and fish were its main exports to the rest of the country. Foreign ships, most of them Japanese vessels, took out shiploads of logs to their finishing mills to eventually return to America in the form of beautiful paneling. American vessels that came into Eureka took away finished cut lumber for the ports in the East.
I contacted the president of the little local of longshoremen. He read the letter, then told me that work was not in abundance in the port, but when a ship did come in, he would see that I got some work. That was fair enough for me. An ad in the paper steered me to a two-story house not too far away from the union hall. A bed and a small kitchen would take care of my immediate needs and the price was right--about$20 per month. The landlady did not live on the premises, and that, too, was okay with me.
Eureka was the size town where one could walk from end to end in 20 minutes. It had a number of restaurants and a few fish grottoes near the front, one movie house, a half dozen hotels, and a number of grocery stores. The third day there, a ship came in. True to the president's word, I was dispatched into one of five gangs of men assigned to the vessel. It was no easy job. Conditions were not on a par with those of the longshoremen in San Francisco and other major ports. Coffee breaks here were far between if they existed at all. Here, the loads of lumber came into the hold and all hands did their part to stow it quickly and with precision.
While there were rules to in the one contract that covered the entire coast for all longshoremen, this little port didn't enforce them. There were no stewards on the job to enforce the contract. In fact, most of the longshoremen working in the port were about 75 percent casuals who worked whenever the opportunity offered them work, be it in the lumber mills, felling trees, or in construction. The other 25 percent of the workforce were gang bosses, winch drivers and jitney drivers, all native in the area, who made their living, good or bad, from working the ships. Since this group was not down in the hold working cargo, there was the tendency to forget the hard work their fellow workers were engaged in. Thus many of the rules and safety features of the contract slid by.
I worked the ship for three days a nine hours per day. I would come home feeling like someone who had been beaten on all parts of his body, it ached so much. Each day on the job I would learn something new that made the work a little easier. I was also learning something about the men I worked with and what most of them wanted to get out of life.
I attended my first union meeting of the local. I was sent into a state of shock as I sat on the sidelines. Since I had no voice or vote, I just sat there. The best part of the meeting was taken up with some of the gang bosses complaining about the poor work output of their gang. A few of the gang bosses demanded that the union dispatcher be more selective in the casuals used to fill some of the gangs. There was no doubt that this local needed a lot of help in getting it in line with the rest of the locals up and down the Coast. I had my work cut out for me, that was for sure.
I was in Eureka when two friends came up from San Francisco to visit me--Frank Madigan, a screened-out sailor from the Sailors' Union of the Pacific and a Spanish Civil War vet, and Helge Swanson, a member of the Firemen's Union and also a screened-out victim. They were two of the three people I had told where I was. They too needed work, and here was a possibility for them to get some. Since they were low on money, it was decided that they would sleep on my floor. Until they amassed enough money for a place of their own, they would make themselves at home in my room and make sure the landlady didn't learn about it.
The port started to get lucky, as at least five ships were scheduled to arrive in the next five weeks and load out with full loads. That meant lots of work. In addition to that, two Japanese ships were due to arrive and take out full loads of logs.
While I was not a full-book member of the local, I did carry a certain amount of weight with some of the old-timers. The president, whenever he would introduce me to anyone, would preface the introduction by saying that I was a close and dear friend of both Harry Bridges and Jerry Bulke. Soon I was being asked questions about the contract and work rules. How would I handle this question or that problem? I was asked to sit in on their labor relations meeting and give an opinion, which I did. At the next labor relations meeting I sat on, I was asked to represent the local and was introduced by the president of the local to the employer representative as a steady and full-fledged member of the committee.
An accident on one of the log loading ships gave me the opportunity to make some good changes for the welfare of the men. A hold man got a broken leg when a log rolled over him. He was hoisted out to the deck, and for the next 45 minutes he lay on a stretcher, waiting for the ambulance to come to get him. This was an opportunity to insist that from now on blankets be made part of the emergency medical kit, so the injured person would not lie out in the cold waiting for an ambulance to show. There was also the matter of setting up a direct telephone line from the place of employment right to the hospital, instead of routing the call to three different places before the ambulance is sent.
I interested the local in putting a local bulletin once a week, a two-page mimeographed sheet dealing with local matters--especially safety--and insisting upon letting the employers know we intended to make them live up to the contract. As we moved in this direction, the rank and file responded. They had the bulletin to quote the work and safety rules. They carried it with them on the job, and whenever a beef came up, you could see someone out there with it in their hand, insisting that it was equal to the Bible. Slowly but surely the union meetings started to change. No longer was any gang boss taking the floor and squawking about the lack of character or muscles of the men dispatched to the hold gangs.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Three