Skip to main content

Part Two - The Making of a Yardbird

I had been the wandering type of working stiff; young and not willing to put up with much from any boss without telling him that he could take the job and shove it where the sun don't shine. I had few cares other than keeping my pride against those who thought that they were better than 1, and struggling against the way things were. I sold newspapers in the streets of San Diego; worked as a line worker in Chicago; a fruit tramp in the northwest; a zinc stripper in Idaho. Early in my working life I ran across the Wobblies and found a home for my bad attitude.

All this changed when my wife became pregnant with our first child. That meant having responsibilities -- having to provide a home for this new living being. I could no longer mouth off at the bossman whenever I felt like it. I had to try to keep jobs now, and I had to find a way out of the string of low paying jobs that I had taken in the past. To do that I had to learn a trade.

Not knowing much about how one goes about learning a trade; I jumped at the first ad I saw from a trade school. I went down to look into it and the hustler gave me his line of talk about the school. I asked him but one question, "What is your shortest course?" The man said marine pipefitting. I told him to sign me up.

There are four ways that I know for a person to learn a trade.

  • You can try to learn what you need to know through public schools. This process is long, and public schools are rather incompetent in teaching job related skills.
  • Then there are the private trade schools. They seek to teach you whatever they can very quickly: the more students that they can get through their classes the more profit they make. They tend to overstate how much you will come away with in regards to skills, and their placements are often misleading to both the employer and the student.
  • Then there are the union apprenticeships; the best way of learning a trade if you have the time to wait for an opening.
  • Last, there is on 'job training' that some employers provide. This is not as common as it once was and tends to be training in skills that are specialized for that company. Sometimes you can find a company that is not getting all the trained people it needs from other sources and thus does some training.

Since there was a baby on the way I took the fast track, which may not have been the best decision I ever made. The trade school was almost worthless in teaching shipboard pipefitting. What real pipefitting it did teach was a limited amount of shop fitting, but the teacher was very good at teaching blueprints. Blueprints can be very hard to read if you don't understand what you are looking at. There are four different views on piping blue prints: the plan view, section view, elevation view, and isometric (which is mainly used in refinery prints). And there are three dimensions, X, Y, and Z. Then there are frame numbers (all ships have frames starting with zero at the bow and working their way back aft), and you have deck numbers. On cruise ships they will have names for some of the decks. The numbering system will start, in most cases off the main deck, with numbers working down and up. Those going up will generally have a 0 before the number. Sometimes it will let you know if it is port (the left hand side looking forward) or starboard (the right-hand side looking forward), but sometimes you have to figure that out for yourself. Plus there are symbols, references. material lists, in new construction prefabricated pipe will be numbered in the order that they are to be installed and a number of other things you must understand to be able to read a piping print.

For example, you could get a print of a section view of where a valve is to be put in; the valve will be marked by a symbol. First you must know which side of the ship it is on, then locate the frame number and deck number. Then it may say that Y is 10' and in your reference it says that all X dimensions are off the waterline (unless stated otherwise Y dimensions are off the deck). Then it may say that Z is 6' from the centerline rather than from a bulkhead, frame or the hull that is where most of your Z dimensions are from. Then it will give you another Z that will tell you how far off a frame or bulkhead the valve is. All this just to know where the hell a valve is to be placed. Then you must know your valves. If it is a one-way valve you must place it going in the right direction and your print should show you the direction of the flow.

You must be able to not only locate where the work is to be done but also visualize how your piping will go in. Some pipefitters just start at some point and just begin to fit pipe and if there is a problem, stop and run to the leadman. The way that our teacher taught blueprint reading was that we were building a system and that we should first understand that system and to try to locate all possible problems from the beginning. One way gets off to a faster start, the other way, in many cases, will be finished first. This method of blueprint reading has been very useful to me over the years.

I came out of the trade school being very good with blueprints, but lacking real fitting skills. There is no way that this school could have, in the short time of the course and having no way for the student to gain direct shipboard experience, taught the real skills we needed to be journeymen pipefitters. But coming out of the school as journeymen is the can of goods they sold us suckers who signed up. They also tried to con companies into believing that lie. Most companies knew better, because the industrial standard was that it took five years of on the job experience before you were a journeyman pipefitter.

Because of the line of bull the school was trying to sell, placement was difficult. The day after I completed the so-called training, the placement office told me that there was no openings locally, and sold me on a job in Seattle. My wife was too far along to make the trip, so I left for Seattle to try to get the job and set up a home before she came up.

There I was heading out of town in an old '52 Dodge pickup truck with a homemade camper on the back and most everything we owned. That old truck was not up to making such a trip. Because of a number of breakdowns it took me almost two weeks to make it about half way there before it just up and died. I then got a driveaway and made it to Seattle.

When I got to the company I was told that there were no more openings. They also told me they did not hire out of trade schools and that the school I had gone to had never contacted them. I was more than a bit pissed off, but what else could I do but keep trying? I called the school up and they told me of a job down in Long Beach, California, so I got myself a driveaway to L.A. I was able to get that job, which was in a chemical plant, and I borrowed some money to join the union. It didn't take long before the foreman saw that I was no journeyman and as soon as the job ran down I was one of the first to be laid off. I then went down to the union hall to see about getting another job, and was told that since I was not a real journeyman I would have to wait for a long time until there was an opening for a helper.

The school told me about another job right outside of Riverside, so I found an old '55 Chevy for which I paid $95 for. I got the job, which was overhauling passenger railroad cars, including some piping. This company did not care all that much that I had little real experience because few people there did. What they were after were low paid workers. All the union cared about was dues money. Again I borrowed some money to join the Brotherhood of Railroad Carmen. I was able to bring my family out to Riverside and we had an old two-room shack out on the backside of town. What I did not realize was that this company only had a contract for a few rail cars. Once we were nearly done with those the company began to lay us off. Like some type of damn fool, I went down to the union office to ask about finding another job. The union was so small that there was only one person working the office. I asked him about work and the man laughed at me and said; "What do you think we are, an employment agency?" Even though I was mad as hell, I did not say a word to that parasite. Now I was faced with having to make another decision; should I wait around in the hope that the company would get another contract, or should I try to find another job, which I knew meant moving again.

I felt like a complete sucker. I'm not sure who I was mad at the most -- the school, the employers, the unions, or the world in general. Here I was, with a family, trying like hell to work as hard as possible to make it, and all I was to any of these parasites was just a fool on a stool to be fleeced. All these experiences did was to make me a more committed Wobbly, for I knew there had to be a better way than this. Young people should not have to go through these types of things just to make it in the world. I believe that industrial training and job placement should be the job of the unions. Not only should they train people for jobs in industry, but also that training should include health, safety, environmental protection and good unionism. Unions should be out front in educating young people about the scams of trade schools. They should go out to the high schools and recruit directly from those future workers. In other words my view of unions is that they should be there for all working people and deal with their real needs. They should not just take your money when you're working, and then kick your ass out the door when you are not working.