the true stories
Once I found myself employed as a carpenter. I had never done any carpentry except building a rabbit hutch for my wife's bunny. Now I had a pair of Gorilla boots, a double sided leather carpenter's pouch, a twenty ounce Swedish hammer, a plumb line, a chalk line, a square, a tape measure, a flat pencil and a very big lunch pail.
I was working on the North Vancouver waterfront on a piece of ground that is today leased by a company from Texas. It was right next to a sulfur dock and the yellow mountain became a familiar sight. I told them at Manpower that I wasn't a carpenter, but in good times, they will always tell you to try anyway. In bad times, they will demand previous experience if you apply to wash cars.
I began to work in the summer and worked with a young man who was putting himself through law school. He was a few years older than me and very friendly. We got along well and he quickly taught me what I needed to know. The company was a newly created then and is still around today.
It's business at the time was crating up fourteen sawmills and shipping them to the Soviet Union. I had been born into the Cold War, so I remember scratching my head over the endless trains of prairie wheat and new sawmills being shipped to those Communists.
The foreman was a stubby German man about five feet tall. He smoked small cigars and could have stopped a locomotive with a single glance. He was fair, firm and knew his business. The man had gravity, guts and goodwill. The other fellows were a mix of Swedes, Danes, Canadians and Englishmen. They were, on the whole, a great bunch. We had a main shed where we stored our lunch pails and jackets before heading to our various sections on the huge property.
The German had worked out every detail of the operation and it was a beautiful, smooth running factory. There were other sheds about the grounds where different parts of the massive crates were constructed. One team built walls, another made ends, another constructed the the pallets (floors), another placed strong steel bands or straps around the machinery, another shrunk-wrapped this assembly. At this point a whistle would sound and all hands came up to heft the thirty-foot long finished walls into place alongside the pallets. A couple of dozen hammers would ring in unison as we hammered home eight-inch spikes we kept in our pouches for this purpose.
The ends would be put on by a smaller crew and then the roofers would take over and fabricate a sea-proof covering for the box. Lastly, a guy would come with a Cyrillic stencil and paint all the necessary Russian markings on the outside. When this was done our own trucker would appear honking the horn of his rig and hoist the monstrosity onto his long trailer and buckle it down. Two toots of his horn and he would hurry to the docks with his load.
The pay was seven dollars an hour and that stretched real far back in the day. I was eating lapin chasseur and drinking Rose d'Anjou in a French restaurant about five nights a week. I was on the wall building crew with the law student. He went back to school in September and I took over the shed as number one and got a new guy as assistant. This fellow was in from Ontario. I showed him the routine.
We first went to the huge lumber piles out front to choose straight 2 x 4s and clean ¾" marine plywood sheets. These we humped back to our shack and then using drawings provided by the German, we laid out the frame, cut it with skill-saws and nailed it together with nail-guns. Then we sheathed the frame with plywood, chalk marked where it was to be trimmed and did so with the saws. There were six different wall sizes. If we kept a steady supply of constructed ones of each size in reserve, the German allowed us an unscheduled day off from time to time.
My new partner figured kindness meant stupidity and patience meant weakness. He began telling fabricated prison stories while we toiled. All designed to scare me off the walls and into another unit, so as to have the shed to himself and a new buddy he'd made among the crew. I ignored him and this really got him animated. He began to get very vocal and erratic. No response was forthcoming from me.
Once he nailed my lunch pail down to the bench in the storage shed. When I went to grab it for lunch, I nearly ripped my arm out of the socket. Next day, I nailed his tool belt to the wall. Took him a half hour to get it undone. He realized that his body was going to have to cash the cheques his mouth had written in order to get me out of the shed. He began drinking heavy to get up his courage over the next few days.
One day the German walked by. It was rare because once you knew what you were doing, he left you alone. I hadn't seen him round my shed for months. He called Ontario over to the entrance and spoke something soft and short and then disappeared. To this day, I don't know what he said, but Ontario was offering to make me pancakes and darn my socks the next morning.
Work became a joy and the place ran like a sewing machine. There was recreation at lunch. We usually sat out on the piles of lumber to eat if it wasn't raining. After our sandwiches, we would take turns trying to shoot sea-gull with the nail-guns. No one ever got a bulls-eye. Our continuum was broken intermittently by the odd car or boat that needed crating. It was a chance to show off and construct something custom-size. We could make a Cadillac disappear in about two hours.
I only saw one bad accident, when a fellow who was standing on top of a crate of gears drilling air holes, slipped and fell in. The fall was about eight feet down and when we got up the ladder to haul him out he was perforated in a dozen places on his arms and legs with the steel teeth poking through. He lived but didn't return to work. I saw and got many a bashed thumb.
Months rolled on and I was really enjoying myself. One day, I saw the German walking the grounds with a new guy. This fellow was about three inches shorter than the German and had a shiny new white hardhat. He was Asian and turned out to be from Japan. He had expensive hiking boots without a speck of dust on them. He wore an Oxford shirt and spotless Levis.
Turned out he was now the part-owner of the operation. He took up residence in a shiny new Atco trailer where he loafed over coffee. Within a week he was smoking small cigars, very similar to the German. It was clear that he had pull from the interaction between the two. He was privileged, prejudiced and petty. In the second week, he began to make forays around the yard on his own.
He went from shed to shed and stopped a worker and demanded his name. This being given, he cast his eyes around til they lighted upon an object no bigger than a watermelon. In a voice worthy of a samurai he ordered the unfortunate to, "Put it on a pallet and strap it." The worker, who was already part of a team, had to stop his work, construct a pallet, and then haul the strapping machine away from the strapping crew.
This sent ripples through the yard. The next day and the next and the next this scene was repeated. The German had been let go and we were in the samurai's hands. Morale fell out of the grumpy tree and hit every branch on the way down. A perfectly designed, constructed and manned operation had been taken and forced to crawl between the legs of a joker with a big bank account. I detected petty bullshit!
You can take the Swede out of the country, but you cannot take the Cherokee out of the Swede. I went home one night and let my mind roll over the predicament. I had an idea. I told some fellows at work and they spread the word. By next day it was unanimous and all hands were willing. I collected a certain small sum from every man over the next day or two. On the weekend, I visited a tee-shirt printing booth at a local market.
Monday morning in the tool shed, I handed out stacks of brand new custom tee-shirts. Everyone knew what to do. That afternoon when the whistle blew for lunch we gathered as usual on top of the lumber stacks. Every man donned his tee-shirt and began to eat lunch. All hands watched the door of the Atco, waiting to see if the samurai would come out. One fellow couldn't wait.
He took his hammer and started pounding out the rhythm of a then popular song. The song was Queen's "We Will Rock You." Boom-Boom-Bap, Boom-Boom-Bap, Boom-Boom-Bap. Soon, close to thirty hammers were beating out this familiar tattoo on stacks of lumber and the noise was delicious. The trailer door flew open. Ontario started singing, "We Will We Will Strap You Strap You!" Everybody joined in singing immediately.
The samurai staggered out and rushed forward a few paces. He saw the tee-shirts. On front was written "Put It On A Pallet" and on the back was written, "And Strap It." The veins in his neck started to twist around like snakes in a pillowcase. His nostrils got huge. He clenched his fists and searched the crowd desperately for someone to hang. We sang louder. The crucial time for him to react passed and he was warrior enough to know it.
He walked back to his trailer and I cannot remember seeing him again, although he continued to run the place, if not own it. Shortly thereafter, I got an offer for a job gas-fitting for four dollars an hour more and I took it. Six weeks later I was laid off. I returned to the factory and learned from Ontario that the German had come back, the samurai was gone, the fellows had been given a seven dollar per hour raise and the samurai had reduced the workforce before he left and there were no vacancies.
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.