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.
.... There is more of this story ...