Early Wage Slaves – Part Two
Island Voices

Early Wage Slaves – Part Two

By Seán Malone and John Sweetman

Last month’s issue of The Loop described Sean’s early experiences at earning money as a youngster by rubbing finish onto Skippercraft boats. Even though Sean is a few years older than I, our early experiences had a certain parallel. We had some good laughs together as we compared our young entry into the world of actually earning money. 

I came into the world as a wage slave after a summer working in Port Townsend, where I discovered the “real” world of time cards, pay slips, regular hours, and worst of all, the mysterious “payroll withholding” system.   

It was maybe 1959 or so, and I was barely old enough to drive. I was spending the summer at my grandparent’s farm on Marrowstone Island, which was a short distance from Port Townsend, except for when you actually had to get there. My grandfather was port engineer or some such title, and he contracted on a number of projects. I suppose I was a subcontractor to a sub-contractor, or maybe even further down the line. All his employees came from Ballard. They were mostly Scandinavian and one Finn who piloted a Piper Cub to some jobs. I was certainly at the bottom of any career opportunities. 

I was farmed out to George Cotton’s crew of skilled workers as a “gopher.” The Cotton family is still in Port Townsend. I learned later that term “gopher” meant I was the one to go for … this and that tool or heavy thing, and to bring it to whomever asked. I learned a lot of naughty Swedish and Norwegian words when I made mistakes, which was … often. My grandmother would admonish me, but corrected my pronunciation of the swear words when I used them. 

The first few weeks were good, as I rode into Port Townsend with my grandfather and worked on the ferry terminal. But then I was assigned to work in the paper mill, and my grandfather having another project, could not provide a ride.  

The alternative was to take our carvel planked rowboat with a 5 horsepower Johnson outboard through alcohol passage into the mill just south of Port Townsend. We had the boat up on the beach on the Oak Bay side of Marrowstone Island, where my Grandfather had a modest farm and a big log house that is still there. 

The problem was the tides and currents, and the occasional failure of the outboard, and my days at the mill sometimes being 16 hours. I did learn to crawl the edges of the channel and use the back eddies, but when a rip caught the bilge keels, sometimes the boat would swirl around out of control. At other times, I had to row along with the 5 horsepower outboard, because it didn’t have enough power to beat the tide.

I never actually knew what it was we were doing at the mill, except it was up under the roof through a maze of steel ramps and scaffolds. Naturally, my short career started at the bottom, and I was always scrambling up and down, bringing whatever was needed, and sometimes things that were not needed.  

The stink of the mill even to this day brings back wretched memories. Nobody could smoke, so the Swedes chewed Snus and the Norwegians some kind of plug tobacco. When I made a mistake, they would unload a large spit aimed at me. Later, though, they got to tolerate me enough to share their lunches, which is why to this day I despise lutefisk and love “sill,” or pickled herring. 

My first pay packet came a month later, after the job was finished, and I was put to work placing little rubber washers on thousands of bronze ring-shank nails for a dock in Port Angeles.   

I had calculated what I should have received based upon my $1.25 an hour wage, and when I counted up my net pay, I discovered it was short of my calculations. Bitterly disappointed, I complained to my grandfather. There was a faint smile on his face when he gave me a pre-college education in the tax and accounting world. Years later, I looked at the social security statement they give you. I never found my wages. That’s when I learned another accounting principle, namely that somebody could “fiddle” the books. 

March 7, 2023

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