Work

What were your first few jobs? What did you do and do you remember how much you earned?

Marty, Deck Hand, Boat Seanna, on Frederick Sound in Alaska
Marty, Deck Hand, Boat Seanna, on Frederick Sound in Alaska

My first job was helping Dad with farm work. Normally, I was not paid for this work, as it was like doing my share as a family member. On a farm with livestock, there are chores to be done year-round, and, traditionally, all family members help as they are able.

One exception was hay hauling, which was best accomplished by the efforts of a team of two or three strong boys. Dad needed to recruit one or two from the community and these boys needed to be paid. As I grew to be the same age and ability as our community helpers, Dad realized it was “complicated” if he paid the recruits, but not me.

Hauling hay meant loading the hay bales in the field, driving them to a barn, and stacking them to about 20 feet high for winter feeding. We would try to move 1,000 bales a day at $.07/bale, which allowed a crew of two to each earn $35/day.  Hauling hay usually lasted about a month each summer.

Dad provided the equipment, normally a truck for hauling, a mechanical field loader for lifting the bales onto the truck, and an electrical hay elevator for lifting the bales from the truck into the hay loft. Several members of my class at Oakland High School (Eddie Wood, David Little, and Ron Sanderson) worked with us for one or more summers of hay hauling.

After my Senior year in High School, I wanted a chance to earn more money for college expenses. Dad reluctantly agreed to this plan, although he would have preferred having my help at home.

I asked for and got a job at Roseburg Lumber in Dillard, Oregon. My job was to pull and stack lumber from the planer chain, and it paid $3.75 an hour. This work was unskilled labor, although it took some practice to do it well. The problem for me was that I didn’t fit in with the regular mill workers. One of them pulled me aside an said, “Slow down your pace, because working too fast will make the rest of us look bad.” As an older person, I can appreciate that working too fast will wear me down and increase my chances of injury. To have staying power, I need to pace myself.

The work lasted for three weeks, whereupon the whole mill shut down for two weeks of summer maintenance. I hadn’t been told that the shut down was expected, and was discouraged. Neighbor Bob Monett told me about a job opportunity in logging. The pay was $4.50 an hour and I jumped at the opportunity.

The new job required rising about 3:30 a.m., driving to Roseburg, meeting the van at 4:30 and traveling about 75 miles up the North Umpqua with the crew, arriving at 6:30 a.m. Travel time was not paid time, so the net result of this job change was a demotion.

My duty was to “set chokers” for a “cat skinner” named Wayne Rader, who was pioneering a new rough road for the U.S. Forest Service. Setting chokers meant placing a cable around a log and hooking the cable to a winch line on the bulldozer, so that logs could be “yarded” and “decked” for subsequent loading onto log trucks. Doing this job well included directing the cat skinner on how to position his machine so that a draft of logs could be gathered efficiently. An older choker setter worked with me for the first few days to help me learn this skill.

Terrain in the Umpqua National Forest is mountainous and wooded. To properly outfit myself for this new line of work, I needed proper logger boots. I went to the Sutherlin Golden Rule Store and purchased a pair of Wesco Calk Boots, with sharpened points embedded in the soles.

Dad suggested that I pour diesel oil in my new boots to soften them and prevent blisters. (Nowadays, diesel is considered a hazardous substance.) I discovered that diesel-treated boots raise a painful red rash on the feet and ankles, as bad as having foot blisters. I wore the boots intermittently during the first week until the hydrocarbons had mostly evaporated. I learned to value the extra traction of calks, especially when walking atop fallen logs.

After the first week on this job, I decided that riding the van from Roseburg was not for me. With Dad’s help, I took the Coleman canvas tent to the job site where we pitched it in the woods overlooking Wayne Rader’s travel trailer. With the tent, I could stay all week at the job site and sleep in until 5:30 or 6:00 in the morning. This gave me plenty of time to read and gain experience with cooking meals and packing lunches.

The work with Mr. Rader lasted about a month, whereupon I joined a crew of choker setters that were working a “high lead” logging show on a steep mountain side. This type of logging relies on a 2-inch cable stretched from the top of the mountain to the bottom to transport logs downhill to a landing. An operator at the landing controls the direction of cable motion, the tension on the cable, and starting/stopping the cable.

The crew of choker setters were tasked with manhandling 3/4-inch choker-cables around the logs and then connecting the ends of the chokers to the large, overhead high-lead cable. To survive, choker setters need to stay above and away from the commotion that logs create when yanked from their resting places and dragged thrashing down the hillside.

I found myself using high school physics to mentally estimate forces and trajectories, which helped work out nuances of where and how to set chokers. Obviously, it was important to set the choker close to the end of a log, but not too close, because it might slip off. Not so obvious, it was important to wrap the choker around the log in the direction that would take up slack if the log was predisposed to roll toward a side-slope. The foreman of the crew noticed that I was a thinker, and teased me about being “a fraternity boy.” I felt smug about being enrolled at Oregon State and relieved that my future would not include a career in logging.

Following my sophomore year at Oregon State, I fell into a fishing job with Nels Otness in Petersburg, Alaska. His son Alan was my roommate and Alan’s stories about commercial fishing in Alaska sounded too good to be true. Promptly after final exams, we drove my car north to Prince Rupert, Canada, and boarded the Alaska Ferry to Petersburg.

Petersburg, population about 2800, is a village on Mitkof Island in Southeastern Alaska between Wrangell and Juneau. Native Americans in this area are members of the Tlingit Tribe who inhabited this area for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Immigrants from Norway and Sweden populated this area in the early 1900s, because of similarities to their ancestral habitat.

The Otness family was kind to me, providing a rental room in their home, and orienting me to life in their world. My job was that of deckhand on the Boat Seanna, fishing for halibut, and later for salmon in Frederick Sound.

My experience as a farmer/logger did not prepare me for the rigors of fishing. As someone said, halibut fishing consists of hundreds of small repetitive tricks, which seem automatic — after you have mastered them: Sharpening knives, cutting bait, baiting hooks, coiling long lines properly, hauling gear, gaffing fish, clubbing fish, cleaning fish, icing fish, not to mention navigating, and living in a claustrophobic space on a small vessel for 5 to 10 days at sea. In retrospect, I think that halibut fishing is good training for being a NASA Astronaut.

Fortunately, Boat Seanna did venture westward to the Pacific Ocean and I avoided the big groundswell and sea sickness. The crew was more or less accepting of my ineptitude, Alan was very supportive, and Nels was patient with me. With their help, I avoided causing major problems for fishing season and wound up the summer with $2500 to help pay for an airplane ticket home as well as college tuition for my Junior year at Oregon State.