Somewhere near the close of my first year of university, my father and I had a severe falling out. Armed with whatever knowledge and confidence had accrued to me wandering the University of California residence halls, I decided to have a talk. With my father, that is. He was becoming awfully isolated, I told him. Thus, my expression of concern. Doubtless uttered in the wrong way, and the very sort of exchange that probably proves tricky for any father and any son. But there we have it. My pseudo-adult attempt at ‘helping’ the parent, a role I had been playing since eight years of age. Time had not improved my performance. My father exploded in bitter accusations, most particularly my failure to visit him more often and to proffer ‘support.’ That word is accurately reported, part of the transcript, and reflects reality older than I care to recall. I stormed out of his condominium. He told me he wasn’t going to pay for any more of my education. I said fine, emptied out a small savings account and made the final residence hall payment myself. Fuck him.
Which presented a problem. Money. With the second year of university looming, somehow I would have to scramble. There were jobs around, but not many. And students made student wages, which could help foot the bill, but I needed more than footing. My mother had an idea. It sounded rather grim, but I didn’t care about grim. I cared about survival. And so, without much thought, I filled in the paperwork, waited not very long and reported to work. At the Concord Naval Weapons Station.
The place was to become infamous. But not quite then. The Vietnam War was cranking up and quickly gaining momentum as a major campus issue. In short, I knew better. Or should have. But for now, that is, the summer of 1965, mentally I could look the other way, grit my teeth and endure. Damned if I wasn’t going to have enough money for the autumn term. Damned if I wasn’t going to sit through the orientation, get my worker badge, don my hardhat and go to work. Loading bombs. Not to mention wooden boxes full of…rockets, artillery, I honestly can’t recall. The whole thing was too scary to consider, just surreal enough to experience like a sort of dream.
And it was nocturnal. Newcomers got the night shift. Which meant driving into the place, flashing a plastic badge at a Marine and parking in a floodlit lot. As with long-term parking in some airport, one then boarded a bus. A grey Navy bus which drove across the Sacramento River swamplands, dark shining ditches and reeds and abandoned timbers, to the bustling docks. Liberty ships, resurrected from World War II, sat moored in islands of artificial daylight, the river’s blackness lapping beneath the pilings. Electric winches ground and whined, their steel cables sending immense loaded pallets up and off the dock, across the water, and down into the ship’s hold. Pier planks rumbled beneath forklifts. While men like me passed ammunition boxes hand-to-hand, rolled aerial bombs toward the winches, and the night hummed with testosterone.
For it was exhilarating, this is the simple truth. Ours was a hardhat world. It was guys with lunch pails. Guys with pickups. Guys who punched timecards, and occasionally each other. Laboring toward the dawn to load ships with cargo that would explode somewhere, and one hoped not here…knowing all the while that this was not guaranteed, just gaze upriver. For there was a dark space in the procession of docks and ships. This was where one night in 1944 something went wrong. And also went boom. The ammunition ship that exploded here at Port Chicago blew parts of its hull miles in all directions, cracking windows in Oakland. No one ever bothered rebuilding the dock, such was the extent of wreckage. A terrifying reminder in the workplace, yet the workplace had a whiff of war about it. And I could feel it, the young man’s attraction to danger, despite the terror or because of it. There was no English department, no dean’s office, no grade except passing on the night docks. I could even feel a kinship with both parents, who had spent all of World War II on hospital ships.
And then there was the other thing. Near the end of a shift, at four or five in the morning, the stars about to fade, a black foreman stood on the gangplank and surveyed the night’s work. He clapped his stiff leather gloves together and stated the obvious. ‘Well, we helped kill a lot of people tonight.’ His observation was enough to wake me ever so slightly from a monthlong daze. This, coupled with the knot of university students who were beginning to gather just outside the naval station’s entrance, tipped things in a certain balance. I quit without making enough money, though it was a start. I talked to my friend Tom about the dilemma of leaving a ‘good’ job. It sounds like you made your first real decision, he said. Now, and even then, I was grateful for such a friend.
For a while, the Navy had tried to train me to operate a ship’s winch. In retrospect, the sheer crudity of these devices boggles the mind. But when I had a go, the winches in question were already 25 years old, their origins predating World War II. One good thing about this training involved the hours. Daylight. Driving to and from work like any commuter. The winch training site consisted of a deep square pit cut in the coastal grasslands of Concord, dry with a summer’s brownness. This arrangement simulated a ship’s hold. At one end of the pit, large brass levers worked two winches. The trainee held one in each hand. Cables from the winches each ascended a large boom and came together at a single hook. By pulling one lever, the hook would rise straight toward the boom above it. Once the hook reached a certain height, pulling on the other lever began pulling the cable sideways…at which point, the first lever needed to be pushed in the opposite direction, unwinding to provide slack for the lateral motion. These coordinated actions brought the hook up, to one side, then down, simulating a trip from dock to hold or from hold to dock.
How exciting to drive big mechanical gear, great macho lengths of greased cable roaring back and forth. It took a certain boldness, plus a high degree of eye-hand coordination to make one steel spool wind just enough, then unwind at the right moment in conjunction with the other steel spool doing the opposite. Actually, it took something more. Sureness. Or oblivion. For however well one mastered this skill, one fact always seem to be staring any sane winch operator in the face. At the end of the hook was a load of explosives, often bombs, which might not do well being dropped on a pier or slammed against a steel hull. I flunked winch school. Within days, I was back on the docks, moving cartons of shells like everyone else. Back on the night shift.
Everything about the job was physical, and by the end of it I was acquiring a very un-English-Department physique. This might have impressed university women, if I was at that stage. I wasn’t, of course. And in my one phase of buff upper body development no one saw me but fellow stevedores. On the docks, even conversations were physical, the principal topic being female genitalia. I had little insight or experience to bring to this discussion. My sole contribution to the workplace consisted of two arms and legs. I held on to both, at least for the time being. The same cannot be said for people near Asian ports where these ships were headed.