Part Three - Down Houston Way
Fate has always played strange games with me, putting me in places where it seems I am meant to be. I had never planned on stopping in Houston; I was on my way to Louisiana. But fate had other plans for me. As it turned out, Houston was essential to my development as a pipefitter, a rebel worker and as a person. After I was laid-off in Riverside, I found out that a shipyard in Louisiana, called Avondale Shipyard, was recruiting workers from all around the country. I called Avondale and asked about work, and made a point of explaining what experience I had. They told me to come on down, and they would give me a job. I had a little bit of money saved, for I knew the importance of having a stake built up. With a trailer hooked to the back of our '55 Chevy, we loaded up all that we owned, three dogs, our baby daughter Val, my wife and me, and headed down the road to Louisiana. The trip was going well until the ball joint snapped on the driver's side front wheel. The wheel turned sideways and I believe that the trailer was all that kept us from flipping over.
There we were, a pitiful sight, broken down and plum out of luck, 50 miles west of Houston. We got the old Chevy towed to the nearest garage. The folks there were very understanding when they found that we did not have enough money to fix the car. They let us store the car there until we were able to come up with the needed cash. Then we made our way to Houston.
In Houston two local old-time Wobblies, Gilbert Mers and Blackie Vaughan helped us out. Damn, no wonder the bosses hated Wobblies, a union that truly cares about its members.
Gilbert was a retired longshoreman, who had spent his life involved in waterfront struggles of the Gulf Coast. He was one hell of a writer and working-class thinker. One of the things that most impressed me about him was how open he was to people who were different from him. Even though he looked like someone's straight-laced grandfather, he wrote for the local underground newspaper in the '60s. In later years he was the most consistent writer for the publication I published called Bayou La Rose.
His book, Working The Waterfront: The Ups and Downs of a Rebel Longshoreman is, in my opinion, one of the best labor books ever written. From the first page on you can tell the man knew what he was writing about, for he had lived the words that he put upon paper. He was wise beyond my understanding at that time, could analyze any given situation and come up with a practical solution to whatever problems there might be.
Gilbert encouraged me to take up writing about my labor experiences and ideas. He told me to write about what I knew and experienced and to draw my radical conclusions out of that. Most working stiffs, he said, don't give a rat's ass about the line of talk from people who ain't never experienced what they write about. The books of labor intellectuals are mostly written for other labor intellectuals. If you want to speak to real working stiffs then get down into their reality. Because of Gilbert I have gone on to write numerous job related articles and pamphlets, and it would be a true statement to say that without Gilbert's influence these words you read may never have been written.
Blackie was a long-time seaman, many would say he was the rebel spirit of the Gulf Coast Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union 510 (MTW) of the IWW. He was a man of action, and few words. When I landed in Houston he was in his 80s and still tending bar at a seamen's dive. He walked with a limp from an old gunshot wound in his hip, but he could still bounce a drunk, ill-mannered seaman out the door if needed. That did not happen often, for there were few seamen who did not have a lot of respect for Blackie.
Among seamen Blackie was a living legend. Many tales are still told among Gulf Coast seamen of that defiant Wobbly who always stood up to the employers and the union bosses anytime a worker had been wronged. But no matter how tough he may have seemed, he always had a kind heart and a helping hand for any worker in need. Though seamen loved him, the employers and the union bosses feared him as if he were Lucifer himself. His days as a seaman ended when the seamen's union blacklisted him and he was unable to ship out anymore. That's when he started to tend bar. He continued his Wobbly activities as the MTW Houston delegate. Even though the Wobblies had fallen on hard times, seamen continued to pay dues to him, out of their great respect for him, until he died.
Blackie let us use an extra room he had until we could get back on our feet. He also hooked us up with another Wobbly who worked in the machine shop at a nearby ship repair company.
As in many ship repair companies in the south, only a few workers had fulltime jobs: the rest of the workers showed up at the beginning of the shift for what is called a "shape-up", and the foreman would pick the number of workers he needed on that day. For the first few weeks I got all the work I could handle. I was able to get the old Chevy repaired and back to Houston. When work slacked off we moved just outside of Houston to Green's Bayou, which was close to Todd Shipyard where I landed a job.
It may seem a bit of a strange statement to make, but busting that ball joint was one of the luckiest things to ever happen to me. First off, it turned out that the shipyard that I was heading for, Avondale, was one of the worst shitholes in the country to work at, and staying in Houston became a great learning experience for me -- I was able to learn what true labor struggles were all about from Gilbert, Blackie and another old time Wobbly seaman, Fred Hanson; and I was able to learn my trade at Todd Shipyard.