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‘Highload’ & His Mythic Gyppos

Sometime during the Summer of '73, after the unionization strike dust had settled at Philo Lumber, and I had resettled into the routine pulling strips at The Point, Sammy Prather, leader of the Green Chain lumber pullers asked me if I wanted to join his crew.  The Green Chain Crew had a special relationship to the work process at the mill wherein they were getting paid for their piecework, rather than with an hourly wage, at the time about $3.50/hour.

This arrangement, what he called “The Contract,”  Sam’s close friend and self-appointed Head Arkie in the Valley, Ken Hurst, had arranged with Landis Morgan and mill manager Jack Davies back in 1972.  I don’t know whether other mills on the North Coast had had arrangements like this one back in the boom-time 1950s or not, but Ken proposed and negotiated an arrangement with Morgan and Davies that cut the green chain team from ten heads to at first five, then six.  The pay was to be not by the hour, but the number of board feet milled and stacked by the pullers during the work day at a rate of $2.70/1000 board feet.  The pay went into a pool to be equally shared among the crew members.  Both Hurst and Morgan and Davies understood the consequences of the arrangement.  Productivity was the objective for both management and labor, and teamwork and efficiency were important to both sides of the deal.

When Landis Morgan bought the mill from Les and Jeanie Wright in 1972, he also invested shrewdly in its equipment with the intent of improving its daily production.  That included new saws, electric motors and chains, and redesigning the Green Chain, most important feature of which was to add rollers at its edge so a puller could slide the boards off the moving platform, across his thigh, then onto the unit of lumber he was building.  As a result daily production at Philo Lumber rose from, say, 40 thousand board feet in the Wright’s day, to 60, then 80, and I remember one week 120 thousand board feet a day.  Consequence for the green chain team was a wage in hourly terms of between $5.50 and $8.75 an hour.  Definitely an encouragement for teamwork and productivity.

Ken Hurst called the green chain gang “Gyppos,” a term in many industries including timber and milling, describing a business or operation independent of the manufacturing employer, with whom it negotiated a contract including terms of labor performance and pay.  Ken Hurst was proud to be a “Gyppo,” who controlled his terms of work, both its environment and pay.  But after functioning as the “Boss” of the Green Chain Gyppos for a few months, more important matters arose for him, and he decamped Philo and his job and headed for higher ground to walk and camp out along The Sierra Trail that follows the crest from Mt. Whitney to Lassen.  On his way out of the Valley he recruited Sam Prather to be the green chain “Boss.”

Juan Molina & Ken Hurst

Despite the attractiveness of the pay, I had two reservations about taking the puller job.  First, I thought there were probably more capable, long time loyal employees on the payroll who deserved, perhaps needed the pay raise more than I did.  And then there was the concern as to whether I would measure up to the work, having never done production labor before in my life.  What if I failed and had to quit with all these employed friends and neighbors of mine looking on?  Well, Sammy persuaded me I was capable of doing the job and thoughtfully assigned me to the easiest task at the end of the green chain, the “dunnage” boards, the ones that had bark on the edges or “wains,” were missing the sapwood there, or had big knots in the middle of the plank.  And I wasn’t called on to drive the straddle buggy when a “unit” of lumber was completed and bound in steel.

Ken and I had been friends almost from the first day I moved to The Valley. He was married to my neighbor Loren Bloyd’s wife’s daughter, Joanadel, was a wonderful bar companion and storyteller, who knew the whole history of the Arkie immigration to The Valley.  He was also claimant to the title of descendant of one of the first Arkie families, his Dad, Noel, arriving here right after World War II.  Ken’s romantic as well as thoughtful world view certainly influenced him and Joanadel to name their daughters Story, after his family hometown in the Ozarks, and Daisy Blue.  Early in the second year of my employment at the mill and after Ken had returned from his Sierra Pilgrimage, the Green Chain “contract” terminated rather abruptly.  In his disappointment in Morgan and Davies’s labor relations management, Ken wrote a mock sawmill industry saga elegy to the “Gyppos” he had led that was published in the local monthly alternative newspaper, The ADVOCATE I, wife and friends published for two years in the seventies.  Let me quote part of his page 1 article:

Sorry, citizens, but the spiritual electricity has been cut off at Philo Lbr dot.  The Gyppos are gone!

Among laborers, Gyppos stand far above the ranks.  Gyppos are men who create a job with wit and hold it with talent.  They are men who walk on water and don’t even sink in snow.  Gyppos hope that citizens will be fortunate enough to meet them.  They will not be hard to recognize.  Gyppos carry their heads high, shoulders erect, take long strides and drink boilermakers.

But, citizens, if you see a gyppo, shake hands with him quickly, because he is a vanishing breed.  Soon he will be mounted in a museum beside the men who wore togas, then armor, then chaps and Colt 45’s.  The Gyppo will be wearing levis, carrying 3 twenty foot two-by-sixes in one hand, and a case of Coors in the other.  His face will be filled with mirth and body bunched with muscle.  He will not be wearing wings, but somehow, citizen, you know he would try to swagger through the sky.

So one early summer Monday I moved over onto the Green Chain, donned my leather smock, fingerless gloves armored in their palms with industrial grade staples to protect our hands from splinters, and sky blue hard hat, and learned a new industrial routine at the tail position by the office.  My comrades were kind enough to divert regular attention from their pulling routines to spend a lot of the first two days teaching me the ritual of the job, grab one or two boards of the same length, slide them down the roller and your thigh and drop them gently and at matching length, no overhang at the end of the “unit,” swing around and grab some more.  The quality of the logs Morgan was purchasing was such there wasn’t that much dunnage, only 6 to 12 feet in length, and I bet I pulled half as much lumber as the rest of the crew, maybe even less, every day.

But what I do remember is how long that first day, and the rest of the week was.  It seemed like the 10 AM break, lunch and the end of the day each took all day to arrive.  By that first noon, I was exhausted, had a hard time consuming a sandwich and some water, even standing up from my truck tail gate, and I walked in a daze back to the truck when the day was over.  Dinner came early, and around 9 I crawled into the sack and never bothered with my bedtime ritual of reading a few pages or lines of some history or fiction or another.  Tuesday and Wednesday mornings started with I being almost as tired as I was when I went to bed the night before.  I also started not sleeping because of anxiety about having to admit failure doing the job, and when I awoke to the alarm each morning, after finally passing out at midnight, my finger muscles were locked in a grasping paw position and riddled with pain and stiffness.

Thursday morning once I woke up after the first hour or so on The Chain, I started to consider, no, I can’t do this job, more dignified to quit the mill rather than to get fired.  By noon I’d made the decision, I would finish the week and turn in my resignation after work on Friday.  Then after lunch something wonderful happened.  After another sleepy snack, I went back to work very relaxed because I had dumped my fear of failure and was enjoying thinking about retirement.  And all of a sudden deep into relaxation I began to catch the rhythm of a Gyppo Green Chain puller.  Maximum attention to the pace of the chain and its contents to achieve minimum energy consumption.  A few boards, don’t reach for them, let them get to you, use the roller to slide, not lift them, use your hip and wrists as a chute to guide your pull to exactly where they belong in the  unit stack, don’t have to shake or lift them into place.   If a larger flow of lumber appears don’t wait for it to arrive, move up the line and grab them in advance of your position and walk them down to it.  And so on.  Kind of like a simple two step minuet routine using  your brain to keep your body from running down.  By the four o’clock whistle, my confidence had returned, and I walked off the Chain body and mind focused, strode confidently to the pick-up, waving good byes to friends, and looking forward to Friday’s starting whistle.  Slept like a child that night too.

And as the Summer progressed so did my pulling skill and confidence too.  Next to me were the two kindly team members, Gil Sandvik and Corby Magnuson, who had been most supportive of me while I was struggling physically that first week on The Chain, and I was able to pay them back informally by helping them with their lumber on days when the mill was running at full capacity.  Their boards were in the medium weight 12 and 14 foot 2x4s, and when they were struggling to keep up with the flow, I would slide over next to Corby and pull the boards slipping past him and invading my “territory” on the chain.

Even more satisfying was to learn how to run the straddle buggy, the four wheel elevated gasoline tractor that lifted the bound units when completed and moved them from the Green Chain over to the north side of the mill yard where they were loaded on trucks hauling them to market.  The pullers’ job included moving the loader gently to straddle the steel bound unit of 120 boards.  The operator then lifted the whole unit up about a foot off the ground, backed away from the Green Chain then deposited the load across the mill yard ready for shipment.  Straddling a unit on the ground with one you were moving was perhaps the  most challenging part of the game.

Once I learned the straddle buggy driving skill I saw myself as a complete Green Chain member and that of course led to the usual routine work errors.  For instance one day toward noon, thinking about lunch in the shade with the old timer skilled workers and their stories, I cut the loader too close to the outside edge of the unit, broke the wire bindings and knocked half of it back to a random stack of boards.  In a way it was a  fortunate time to screw up, for I spent the whole lunch half hour restacking and rebinding the dunnage unit.  So much for the rest and stories in the shade of the log deck.

Sometime in September or so I got what I considered a promotion, though the new assignment didn’t change my wage scale.  Ken Hurst had returned from his Summer idyll in the Sierras, and reacquired his Crew Boss status.  Ken at 34 years of youth was also the largest and most muscular member of the team, and so took over the hardest job on The Chain, the pull of 16 to 20 foot studs or 2x6s, whatever the mill was cutting at the moment.  For reasons I still don’t know, he decided to move me to the position next to him further up the chain, perhaps for the quality of my company rather than my puller skill level.  What I do know is that thereon began a comradeship with the most consummate storyteller and work science mythmaker I have to this day ever met.

(Next Week:  Ken Hurst, and some Green Chain Follies stories.)

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