This is a story about how I grew up in a world of turmoil, and how I got to where I am today. Some people are born into it, some educated into it, some get lucky, and some work their asses off, but no matter which way they do it, all of these people end up in their place in life. Most have some combination of these paths that add up to getting them where they are today, and each of the categories can add or subtract from the total in the game of life.
My name is John Henry, yes, just like the story of the 'steel driven man'. I've heard it from many people and although people may sing a song when they hear it, the song is about a hard worker, and that's what I am. I was born and raised just outside of downtown Seattle in a place seldom visited and often ignored.
We lived in tenement housing that was barely enough to call home. I never met my father and my mother was an alcoholic. She traded her food stamps for either money or booze, and she'd have different men over all the time to 'pay off' what they bought for her at the bar. I wasn't a dumb kid and actually was above average on most of those tests they gave us to assess our I.Q. When I needed help on homework, it was easier for me to just re-read the book or totally skip it, rather than expecting my mom to help.
It didn't do any good to complain, because there was no one to complain to or anyone who would listen. I had to learn to survive, and that's exactly what I did. I became good at listening and watching. In retrospect, being observant was a skill that had saved me or helped me on many occasions. I'd see a store owner that had boxes to move, and I'd ask if he needed help with them. After completing the job, he might thank me with some food or a couple of bucks. I heard about a scout troop that was looking for boys. The scout master was a kind man, and even though I couldn't afford a uniform or any of the trips, he'd always help me. He found an old shirt that I could wear so I could look half-presentable, and he'd somehow always come up with some money to cover my part of the camp-outs. I learned how to tie knots, build a fire, survive in the wilderness, first aid, and when I completed my knife skills and safety lessons, he gave me a knife as well.
Although I had to walk a couple of miles to the meetings, I was never late and always was the hardest worker when we set up or tore down camp. I completed my service projects and helped many of the other boys on their Eagle Scout projects, although I never made it that far myself. In the summer, the rest of the troop would head off to camp, and I'd try to find work to help me, and my mom get by. On one of the jobs, I made good money delivering packages for a less than reputable man. I never asked what was in them, and they never told me. I just did my part to get some food and help with the bills.
When I was twelve, on the weekends I found some work helping work on some of the boats in the harbor. There were all kinds of boats, and even though I was a large boy, I was still smaller than the mechanics that always needed an extra hand to hold something or get a tool that was out of their grasp. I watched, asked questions, and learned. They'd pay me cash of less than minimum wage, but I really didn't care as it all helped. I always bought something with the money or kept the cash with me. If I didn't do that or hide it, then mom would use it to buy alcohol.
I was glad that I had a lock on my door because of the men that mom brought home. I walked in on her enough times to see her skin and bones body, and her having sex in most positions. She just needed her fix, and this was the work she did to get what she needed. I knew that when I found a way out that I'd never come back, and I'd never be broke or poor again. School was something that I attended and paid attention to, but I just didn't have many friends, so after learning to read and basic math, the rest just didn't seem that important in my life.
By the time I was fifteen, I knew my way around most motors and electrical systems, and I had turned into a strong hard-working young man. One day, I was down helping a guy rewire his boat and was on the dock about to stop for the day, when I heard an argument between two guys down the dock a ways. I just listened and observed what was happening, and figured out that the captain was firing one of his crew because he showed up drunk and had drugs in his bags. The crewman stomped off calling him some combination of cuss words that made no sense.
On my way by, I asked if he needed help. He was still fuming after the argument he just had and said, "Do you know anything about fishing for crab?"
"I hear its hard work and good pay. If you need some help I'd be happy to learn."
"Who do you work for now?"
"I was doing some work for captain Bob on the Whistlers Mother."
"We're casting off in an hour; can you be ready to go by then?"
Running down the dock, I yelled back that I'd be there. I found Mom passed out, so I just left her a note on the table along with the twenty bucks I had in my wallet. I grabbed the hand-me-down backpack from the scouts and packed all the clothes that I could fit in it. I grabbed my knife and was soon running back to the dock. He had the mate show me to my bunk and ten minutes later, when I returned topside, we were already under way.
The boat's name was the Hail Mary, I think the owner wanted to call it the Washington Huskies football team, but it seems that they were always losing, and at the end of the game they'd be throwing Hail Mary passes, so that's how it got its name. The captain's name was Ken, and he had two other guys on the boat, Mark and Larry. We had a few days to sail up to Alaska and outfit the boat for the upcoming season. We were just out of Puget Sound when an alarm went off in the engine room.
Mark and Larry went toward the engine room and tried to figure out what was wrong. There were two engines, and they could hear that one was struggling. They shut it down while I stood to the side and watched. They finally threw up their hands and didn't know what to do. I told them to restart the engine, and I ran topside to look at the exhaust. When I went back down, I told them to shut it down. I told them that it was probably the piston rings, but we'd need to open it up to make sure and then would need the parts to fix it. We went up, talked to Captain Ken, and told him the news. He wasn't happy, but it turned out that we did have the spare parts on board the boat. I told him that I could repair it, but he'd need to cruise on just the port engine while I worked on the other one. He seemed happier at what I told him. It would change the seven-day trip into a nine-day trip, but he didn't have much of a choice, and at least he would get there.
After locating the parts and the tools, I set to work systematically taking apart the motor and removing the pistons to replace all the bad rings. It took a few days, but when we started her back up, she purred. While I was down there, I took care of some other maintenance on the engines and then cleaned the engine room and shop, top to bottom. After we pulled into port at Dutch Harbor, Ken came down and was happy with my work. We hadn't seen much of each other as he drove the boat and I worked, so after tying up we finally had a chance for our sit down. He asked me about what I could do and couldn't do. I told him that I could do everything, but didn't know how to do all of it. When he asked about knots, I told him that I knew knots. He then asked about running equipment, I told him that I had never done that before.
He explained that I'd be a greenhorn and lower than shit in the rank of the crew, but since I had just rebuilt his motor that I'd also be the engineer and near the top of the list. We settled on a wage that was higher than most starting guys, but not a full share that a deckhand would normally make. Mark and Larry didn't have any problem with it, because what I did with the engine had just saved the season for all of them. Ken gave me some papers to fill out with my name and address for the payroll. I didn't have a social security number, so I just left it blank. When I handed back the papers, Ken threw them in a file cabinet without even looking at them, and sent me down to start loading the pots. We stacked the large pots or crab traps on the deck and tied them down so they wouldn't shift at sea. After the first few, it was all repetition.
After the pots were loaded on, then we dealt with the bait that went into the freezer; box after box went through the bucket brigade until we finished loading the bait. The last stop was to load up on food. It was then that they told me I had to pay for my share of the food, but that the boat would cover my upfront costs, and they would take my share out of my check. Captain Ken then went through my gear and saw that I didn't have shit to wear in cold weather, and that after the first ten minutes on deck, I would end up as frozen as an ice cube. He took me to the store and helped me get what I needed and again fronted me the money. We picked up one more person in Dutch Harbor named Matt, to provide more help on the boat. Matt said that he'd been crabbing for a few seasons, but just didn't have a boat to work on this season.
We were still two days before the start of the derby where all the ships left at the same time and fished until the quota for the year was caught. During the season, you could fill the boat three times or for one reason or another, not have even leave the dock, but when they say the season is over, it's not permissible to catch another crab. It was dangerous hard work with captains and crews taking big risks to make the big money. I went down and worked on the port engine while we waited for the start of the season, and when I finished, she was purring by the time we steamed out with a hundred and fifty pots stacked high on the deck. As we rolled through the waves, you could feel the heavy stacks wanting to pull the top-heavy boat just a little further than she wanted to tilt.
The waves got taller and taller while Mark puked for a couple of hours. He said that it happened every year, but that he was fine by day two. I felt a little queasy, but never had to throw up. I learned how to bait the traps, sort crab, stack pots, and everything else that they did on the boat. Once I figured out what they expected me to do and the proper technique to do it safely, it became a never-ending dance. For ten days, we set pots, hauled pots and moved pots. We unloaded full tanks of crab twice and were on our third haul when we got the word that the season had ended. It would surprise me if I slept more than fifty hours over those ten days, and most of that was while driving back to port to unload crab. When the ship was in order and it came time to receive my pay, they called me to the bridge to meet with the captain. He told me that I had done an exceptional job, and he wished that every new person worked as hard as I did for him. I still had stuff to learn, but I'd always be welcome on his boat. He went to the file cabinet and pulled out my file.
He looked at my W-2 and his face went white. "By god boy, you're only fifteen years old. Why didn't you tell me that before? I thought you worked on Jack's boat."
"I was re-wiring it for him when you hired me. You never asked how old I was. If I didn't think I could do the job, I wouldn't have come on board."
"Do you have a social security number or did you just not know it?"
"I don't know. My mom never told me I had one and no one has ever asked me for one before."
He took me into town, so I could fill out an application for a social security number. He told them my birth date, but added three years. I was now eighteen years old in the eyes of the government. The official made some calls and got me a number. He handed me a card with my name and number on it. Ken was still pissed, but he knew that I wasn't trying to screw him or get him in trouble. He paid me just over thirty thousand dollars, and I thought I'd shit. When we all sat down for our end of the season meal, he went into father mode. I told him the story about my family life and growing up on the wrong side of the tracks. I told him that I ate more in the last ten days on the boat trip than I had in the previous two months. He asked what I'd do when we got back, so I told him that I'd never go back to that place my mom called home.
Matt said, "You can come with me if you want. I'll make sure you get hired on."
"I work up in the oil fields on a drilling rig. The pay is great, and after watching you over the past two weeks, I'm not sure if you'd call it hard work like everyone else does."
"If it pays well, then I'm willing to give it a try."
Matt Lusk took me under his wing and even took a couple of days to help me get a driver's license and open a bank account. I was now officially eighteen and a legal resident of Alaska. When you look like a lost puppy in need, people tend to want to help. The officials turned a blind eye, and bent some rules when they found out that I didn't have official documents due to my mom losing them.
We got in his truck, and he started to explain about working on a rig. The job is very basic. You drill holes by planting pipe in the ground to reach the oil, so they can pump it out and then sell it. It's long hard work with shifts that are twelve hours on and then twelve hours off. Most guys work a month on and then a month off. Some do do three months. It all depends on how often they want to see their families. For most of the, it boils down to working six months a year.
Matt introduced me to the foreman Jerry Jones and with Matt's word, and that they needed help, made it easy for me to get a shot. They again trained me on the work and the safety and after that, it was a different dance, but once you learned the steps, it becomes simple. Repetition was the name of the game, 123, 123, 123, and 123. I never complained, and Jerry liked what he saw. After a month, they brought me on full-time with benefits and gave me a raise to two thousand dollars a week or fifty thousand a year for my six months. He asked, "What schedule do you want to work on, months, or quarters?"
"Can I just work all year and take a month off during crab seasons?"
"Matt has you brainwashed. To tell you the truth, I wouldn't get on one of those boats for any pay. He works a month on then a month off, but times it is so he can crab during two of the off months. He takes off four months a year to relax."
"Right now I don't need to relax, so if you don't mind me working, I think that I'll just keep on working."
"My brother Jeff works every other month, and I work the opposite months running this place. I'll introduce you to him when he gets here."
Jerry introduced me to his brother and acting foreman for those months when he was off. He seemed like a nice guy, and Jerry said good things about me, so it seemed like everything would keep on the way it had been, but with some new faces after the changing of the guard. We all started the next shift, and we all did our jobs. It was on the fourth day of the month when there was a problem with the switch gear and the power to the hydraulics for lifting the pipes and running other things shorted out. There was an electrician on site, but he was better at changing light bulbs and flipping tripped circuit breakers then correcting complicated electric issues.
Jeff was working with the young electrician, but they were having trouble coming up with a solution. Since we couldn't work, I walked into the electrical room and I looked over his shoulder and looked at the labels and diagrams that they had posted. I said, "We can eat sandwiches."
"What're you talking about; we're trying to fix this?"
"This site runs on multiple networks or electrical systems just like on a boat. Some parts of the boat run right off the generator. Other parts take power from the generator to charge batteries. Some systems run off the batteries and some take the battery power and invert it back to AC current. You're going to have to replace that gear. If you happen to have an extra one lying around, we can swap it out, but when I looked around, I didn't see one. The commercial kitchen you run has the same sized gear as the hydraulics. You could bridge it over and use the kitchen gear while you order a replacement, and we can run the refrigerator off of the housing gear or we can leave the back door open as cold as it has been to keep the food fresh," I said.
Jeff looked over at the electrician, and the electrician said, "That's Charlie's pay grade and he won't be back until the end of the month."
I said, "I can switch it out, but you should order the new gear before Charlie gets back and we can eat sandwiches until the new switch gear arrives."
Jeff said, "I can't think of a better plan, can you?"
He was talking to the electrician who shrugged his shoulders and shook his head.
I got some tools and dug in starting to work on the project. To make this work, we first had to shut down the power to both sets of gears. We then had to switch it over and make the appropriate compensations for the critical needs. Once we finished those tasks, we flipped the switch and things came back on-line so we could get back to work. In total, we lost three hours, but stayed on our normal schedule. Jeff thanked me for the help and said that he'd call in the order for the new gear in the morning. I went with him to give him the make, model, and specs that he'd need to place the order.
Three days later just before my shift Jeff said, "I need you to run an errand for me."
"What can I do for you?"
"I expect the switch gear will be in tonight, so I need you to drive into Barrow to pick it up. If you pick it up tonight, you should spend the night at the hotel, and then drive back in the morning. When you return, you'll be in charge of installing it."
"We'll have to shut down for a couple of hours again, but I can get the new one in place first and I expect that production will only be down for an hour or so. Given that plan, I expect that the kitchen will be up a couple of hours later."
"We'll do it between shifts. They can each have an hour off. Here's two hundred bucks to cover your hotel and meals."
"I don't know if you realize, but I've never been there before."
"There isn't much there, but you can get a beer, a burger, and a bed. I'll give you a couple of bucks to pick up some Jack Daniels for me, since my brother was in my stash while I was gone."
He gave me directions to the town and to the warehouse to pick up the switch gear. In addition, he gave me directions to the hotel and the bar, and told me where to find the liquor store. He said, "I could have sent anyone, but I wanted to say thanks for your help. Just don't do anything I wouldn't do."
He tossed me the keys, and I drove the two hours that it took me to get into town. The truck came in at nine, and I had the switch gear loaded in the pick-up truck twenty minutes later. I was hungry, so my next stop was to find a place for a burger. After the meal, I found the liquor store. It was still the early 80s and the drinking age was eighteen just as my driver's license said I was. I was about to walk in when a young mid-twenties woman stepped up and said, "Can you spare some for a woman in need?"
I could picture my mom saying that and knew exactly who she was and what she wanted. I asked, "What's your name and what's your preference?"
"My name is Koko, and I prefer vodka."