Life at the Fort Bragg Mill (July 23, 2003)

June of 1977 there was uncertainty about the future of the mill in Fort Bragg. At that time it had been in operation for over 100 years, but only the year before, Louisiana-Pacific, which had been created, as it were, out of Georgia-Pacific's rib as the result of federal anti-monopoly action, had shut down the plywood mill on the south bank of the mill pond. Most of those workers had gradually been given jobs by G-P which was running, in addition to the famous Big Mill, several planing mills, a resorter, lath plant, fingerjoint, dry kilns, roundhouse, mechanics shops, plumbers, electricians, painters and numerous smaller units devoted to logistical support. G-P still owned and operated the woods division in those days as well, providing hundreds more jobs. Even the old Sea Fair company store was a part of the operation then. Old folks could remember the Union Lumber Company, which had sold out in 1969 because, as one old-timer told me, the relevant generation of the Johnson family was not interested in lumber production.

There was a legacy of heroic proportion, a mystical reverence for the old-timers who had gone before in those grimy buildings by the sea, but by the time Boise-Cascade and then Georgia-Pacific had absorbed Fort Bragg's productive capacity and made it into a small part of a growing economic empire with interests in chemicals, timber, gypsum drywall and related building materials throughout America and overseas, that legacy had been thoroughly commodified. Despite my antipathy for what I had already seen of the old place, and despite my doubts about its future -- having recently witnessed the departure of relatives who had worked in the plywood mill, and in the generally pessimistic atmosphere of those strangely confused and apathetic times -- I applied for my first "real" job there when my father urged me to seek one of several openings he had heard about through his connections as the business agent for the recently certified International Woodworkers of America Local, which represented all G-P's workers in collective bargaining. To my surprise, after sitting through an interview with Vern Hess, a wiry, lively Austrian, I was hired to work at the Resorter. "Can you run?" he had asked, challenging my fitness and stamina, and I had replied with my best level stare and said, "Yes."

Having been something of an athlete in my school days, and taking a workingman's pride in my ability to stand up to production demands, I figured I was ready for anything. A year of poverty and odd jobs after high school had convinced me that, although the mill might not be a dream come true, it was at least a good-paying job where I might be able to accumulate some savings against the day when G-P would shut the place down. I was hardly thrilled to be there.

I sweated out any illusions I may have had in short order. My first shift on the Resorter began at 4 in the afternoon on a fine June day. I had on my red hard hat, to indicate probationary status, a brand-new pair of heavy gloves, and a leather apron covering my chest and thighs. I saw people I hadn't seen since they had left high school, thoroughly immersed in their own brutal dramas, and I quickly fell into their rhythm, and assumed their assumptions. By way of training I was shown how to move lumber from the moving sorting table to its appropriate stack. I was left alone at the end of the chain to try and interpret this advice, and soon found myself buried in lumber.

I dug my way out, learning to handle the shifting, sliding weight that came relentlessly downstream toward me. The Resorter worked on a bonus system, so the veterans there, who considered themselves fortunate to have the opportunity to earn a bonus on any given day, kept me motivated. My first pair of gloves were soon destroyed by the sawing action of rough-dried redwood, which burned through my hands and produced a haze of tiny splinters that soon speckled my forearms. The leather apron was soon ripped and creased, and I understood why others had riveted reinforcements onto the apron where it covered sensitive areas. Within a week, my hands were painful, claw-like appendages which were usually numb until warmed up. As I slept, my forearms throbbed with fire and continuously woke me up. The only way to rest was to make sure my elbows remained unbent so blood could circulate through the swollen tissue of my wrists.

Within the appointed 30 days, I had learned enough to earn my brown hat with the little G-P logo on the front. Others around me had customized their own hats with IWA stickers or art of significance to themselves. Some wore tin hats with circular brims, which struck me as quaint and old-fashioned, a romantic touch. There was plenty of romance, once I had learned to relax and absorb a little atmosphere. The old dry kilns, fed by a flying crane, relic of the days before motorized lumber carriers and lift trucks, produced a steady supply of lumber in need of sorting, and sinister gasps of rich, woody-smelling steam burst unpredictably from vents located underground, or to be precise, under the shell of asphalt that covered most of the ground. There were eccentric characters who had worked in this or that mill all their lives, and had never expected nor attempted anything else. At break times, they smoked, drank vending-machine coffee, lagged quarters or played blackjack and poker for nickel-ante stakes. They told me their stories, full of strong men humbled and the mysteries of the opposite sex. Their preoccupations ran toward the decadence available in a small town fired by the Powerhouse boilers which ran continuously behind the Big Mill, burning waste and producing all the electricity we needed and then some.

My personal reserves of energy were tested as no football coach had ever dreamed of testing them. An eight-hour shift left me dazed and pale, and I ate everything in sight, downing up to a gallon of milk a day and often going over to the all-night Club Fort Bragg on Redwood Avenue to eat hamburgers and chef's salads for two or three hours at a time. My entire body was in shock, and I would sit with the veteran workers who ordered beers from the bar and pursued the salty, crusty old gals who inhabited the place. I rented my first apartment, a stucco hive on Fir Street, and eventually had a girl of my own, whose soft kisses and lingering embraces at the gate made all the pain a little more bearable. Our recreation was beer, and on Saturday nights we would drive up the coast to Wages Creek for the drag races.

I got better at handling lumber, and earned my place in the rotation, once I could handle the pace without jeopardizing the daily bonus by stopping the chain or missing lumber. However, that first winter I was laid off briefly when the Resorter eliminated its night shift. I bid on a job in the Big Mill, and soon found myself inside the massive structure where the big logs were cut down to size. My job consisted of controlling several fast-spinning belts which thrust lumber out of secret alleyways connected to trim saws. The boards were spat out dangerously close to where I was obliged to stand, and came at head-height. The floorboards were rutted from long use. I had a pickaroon. a short-handled hatchet-like tool with a pick instead of a blade, and an five-foot pike pole with which to hook and pull boards that slid too far and might cause tangles and jams farther down the chain. The noise in that building was such that ordinary speech was impossible. Even yelling into someone's ear might not get the message across, so workers had developed an intricate sign-language which not only served to expedite lumber production but was handy for discussing plans for after work.

Finally, a position on the greenchain came open, and I found myself back in the open air, learning to handle the heavy green lumber. There were times when the lumber would come out steadily and seemingly all for me. The sheer weight of production was staggering, with 20-footers of different grades and sizes, including six-by-sixes which we understood were sold whole to Japanese mill ships, which would transform the stock into decking and planking, fully dried and finished for the world market. We typically broke the minimum on the greenchain, and each day's footage was inscribed on a chalkboard, so the two shifts could admire and compare each other's totals. A good day was worth $75 or $80, while a great day might push $100. If things went wrong and we failed to break production quotas, we were guaranteed wages of around $7 an hour, which was decent pay when an apartment rented for $175 and Copenhagen snuff cost under a dollar a can.

It was hard work, done with honest men who liked to get the most out of their time off. One night, a squealing piglet came running though the mill and the boys chased it down and stuffed it into Frank Gatze's locker, as a little surprise.

There were men named Cupcake, Hairbear, Earthquake, Smoky, Grasshopper Al, The Cat Man, Bad Rob and Stinky. The very language we used was as much a product of that old mill as any stack of boards we shipped out. We were strong and capable and well-adjusted to our positions. I became a decent lumber puller, then a pretty good one, and eventually earned the respect of those who went through it with me.

They had seen plenty of young men, and older itinerant laborers, who could not stand up to the demands of those machines and schedules, who caved in before their probation was up and sought more appropriate occupations elsewhere. I had come from a long line of hard-working men, most of them tie-splitters, loggers and the like, who would take on any hard job and master it, so I guess success on the greenchain was in my blood.

I was not much of a pot smoker before the mill, and I still was reluctant to use it much for the first year that I worked there, but in time I came to understand the therapeutic value of the herb. Pot was something the younger workers took for granted, and they had no intention of getting through the day without it. At any gathering, in the parking lot at lunch time, or between stacks of lumber in the middle of a shift, someone would produce a joint and the group would share it.

The tedium was thus more endurable. The repetition of difficult tasks seemed more original if one's short-term memory was masked. Some of the older workers considered our drug somehow less moral than the wine, beer and whiskey they habitually consumed, on the job and off. Our paychecks were issued on Thursday afternoons, and could be cashed at local bars at the 8pm lunch break. It was not unusual for one or more workers to miss the second half on Thursdays, only to turn up on Friday looking a little haggard.

The mill was too big, too important, to be much delayed by a little thing like someone having a few too many at lunch time. The relief man and the utility man were there to step in, and things rolled on.

Thinking better of the whole experience, I quit the mill in 1979 and looked around the world a little. That was enough to have me back by the early spring of '81, where I secured work at the new Quad Mill, a unit designed to handle the second-growth timber now available. The Big Mill was dwindling, although it would linger until 1996, when the supply of logs big enough to fill its antique headrigs petered out. The mill by then was as anachronistic as a World War II jeep on the freeway. Time, as well as its timber supply, had swirled past.

The Quad Mill had no history, having been installed in the old plywood mill, and little of the color I had enjoyed among the old-timers and their old-timey machinery. It was all business. We were doing the same thing, but on a smaller and more efficient scale. I pulled lumber, often shipping out 20 units in a shift, each scaling out between 2500 and 4000 board feet. I learned to run the remanufacture saws, which was somewhat easier but incalculably duller than pulling lumber, with no one to talk to and often under the watchful eyes of the white-hatted bosses. I learned to drive the carrier, which could lift a four-foot-tall unit of lumber off the ground with a quick burst of energy and depart backwards at top speed over the broken asphalt.

In winter it rained on us, and in spring the hard north wind blew down our backs, often pushing the powerhouse smoke right through our working area. The wind in any case was full of dust and grit, and people tried to shut it out with wool hat liners and down vests, but the struggle involved with handling all that wood was usually enough that we stripped down to t-shirts on even the coldest nights, and we were a steaming cluster of men with a few women among us, working our way through the recession of the early 1980s when every day's news brought new steel mill closings and the shenanigans of corporate predators like Carl Icahn and Michael Milken. The Reagan years were not kind to working men. We were beginning to hear of a new group of ragged radicals hanging from trees in an attempt to halt certain logging plans, and the industry regularly issued propaganda designed to separate us ideologically from their ideas. They were cast as our enemies, while throughout the Northwest, companies were demanding, and workers were accepting, concession packages that cut deeply into wages and benefits.

In 1985 the company demanded such concessions at Fort Bragg, threatening to shut the place down if we refused. I was becoming radicalized by then, and agitated for a "No" vote, reasoning that we had all the expertise necessary to run the mill, and we could always hire accountants to keep track of the numbers. But the Local voted four to one in favor of the concessions that September.

One day, someone had dropped a Doug Fir 4-by-14 beam on the ground and I came along to pick it up. Something popped in my back and my mill days were over. I had never quite believed it could happen that quick, but then hadn't believed I would end up spending seven years in a brown hat and apron.

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