At dawn I’m in the grassy roadway just a few yards away from the Caspar cemetery, a peaceful and rustic spot surrounded by a venerable stand of Sitka spruce: the bluish, lichen-bearded grove briefly visible from nearby Highway 1, and the only hint most people ever get of the place. I’ve visited every so often over 40 years, since my high school forestry class dropped in to inspect the spruces on one of our many field trips. It’s not unknown for a new grave to appear, although the total number of residents is still small. According to the sign, it was founded in 1850. It shows every sign of being well cared for in recent years, although in the past vandalism caused some problems.
There’s no one around. In fact, since that high school class visit, in all my visits I’ve never seen anyone, although there must be regular visitors. It’s chilly as a damp wind comes up the hill, but it feels good. I miss this kind of weather and this kind of place. Standing quietly under spreading timber a little before six in the morning I get to see a fox come out of the thimbleberries to stand and look at me. The exquisite line of his grey fur comes to a distinct black tip on the tail, which is the last thing I see as he trots quickly away.
It’s a place that encourages reflection. I had come up the day before and spent the night nearby, thinking about how easy it is to miss what’s coming right at you. In that way life is like a baseball game. Sometimes, as I once witnessed, even the hardest-hit ball will sail into the most casually-deployed glove, as though it was meant to be, and other times you can employ all the fundamentals in the book without increasing your chances of success. As though in a dream, you feel yourself lunging toward a ball which was always headed for your thumb, off which it bounces harmlessly while baserunners slide and coaches make urgent signals all over the place. Life can be that way.
An hour later I was at Glass Beach, surrounded by dozens of Southeast Asians in wetsuits, some of whom stood in line at the little green johnny house awaiting their turn, while others made their way down the dusty road to the beach. Greeting them at the gate which prohibits vehicle traffic onto the headland were a couple of yellow-vested volunteers from Abalone Watch. They had a table set up, along with some plastic tarp on the ground and a variety of measuring and recording instruments. It would have been impossible to get by them with an abalone. By the time I came back to the car, and the divers were starting to come out of the water with their limits, a half-dozen volunteers crowded around the gate, keeping track of things and forcing all the divers to funnel through their checkpoint.
It was windy, kicking up whitecaps and making diving a challenge outside the most protected coves, but even in such weather a diver going in at Glass Beach can creep along the rocks and get into the spots in back of the mill which used to be among the best around. Company employees could go back there on weekends and dive or fish with little or no outside interference. That was probably the best benefit that mill ever provided. Tourists had to fight for access elsewhere while we drove right up to the bluff and carried our tubes down the easy trail to the beach. Now, a flotilla of small men in black suits made their way through the choppy surf, looking for those protected little spots.
I fooled around on the beach for a while, taking it easy while I recalled a day in 1985, when I collected a limit of abs in the same cove with my old diving buddy, Brian. It was just about as windy that day, but the tide was higher. I remember creeping around the rims of the rocks in the main cove, looking down into murk and roiling particles of seaweed, soil, glass chips, and who knows what-all. There were abs in there, of course, but nothing big. It’s too easy a place to get to if you want the big ones, too popular.
This year, it looks like the competition is a little fiercer than I recall. Brian and I had stood around that day in 85, and gossiped a while before we even got in the water, because there was nobody around, on account of the wind. It was just a quick dive before heading in to work the swing shift, but I wanted abalone and to be in the water, even if it was a little rough and murky.
On Saturday there must have been a hundred tubes floating off those rocks, nearly all connected to immigrant divers who lived in other lands in 1985.
At lunchtime, I stopped at my favorite Fort Bragg taqueria and was surprised to meet someone else I knew from those days, in fact another member of the same Quad Mill crew. I had taught him to pull lumber, he reminded me as he stood to offer a friendly greeting. We laughingly discussed whether my teaching him was a good or bad thing, but of course it was just luck: someone would have taught him to pull lumber eventually.
I remember Keith being a little on the doughy side when he showed up for that first day, not the type of guy you would automatically think would be a great greenchain puller. But mental toughness was as much if not more important than physical toughness on that job. We worked side by side for years and Keith transformed himself from dubious candidate to confirmed greenchain puller, just by sticking his head in and doing it. He moved up from pulling strips to being able to handle the biggest lumber in an efficient way. We got pushed around and rolled over; no matter how hard a guy pulled lumber, there was always more. I finally bailed out when I suffered my first back injury. I then spent three years declining invitations to return to the greenchain. I had had enough of it, but the money would have been nice.
Keith lasted 22 years overall, he told me, retiring as the #1 chop saw operator. But that career which I helped begin has left deep marks on him. He had trouble standing up (I couldn’t help contrasting his halting gait with the easy walk he possessed as a 20-year old, a kind of lunging forward, as though he couldn’t wait for it all to begin), and he couldn’t move comfortably between his table and the cooler in the taqueria.
After our separate meals, we sat for a moment outside to talk over old times. Mostly, he listed the aches and pains he and the other long-term GP employees now live with. The Koch brothers are paying out a solid figure for disability claims left over from the mill, probably a staggering figure if we added it all up.
But for Keith the reality is doctors who frown when they look at his X-rays while they explain that he is on a downhill slide into more and more pain. There’s no practical medical remedy for the kind of tissue-destroying body sculpting the average working person goes through in a lifetime on the job. The human body was never intended to stand up to what machines can do, at least not the crude and violent machines at an 80s-era sawmill.
There is no monetary award that will let any of those guys roll out of bed with ease and confidence in the morning, the way they did on their first day on the job. While the rest of America was obsessed with nutrition and stretching exercises, the greenchain and the Quad Mill and everybody who ever wandered around that now empty site, over the century-plus that the old building squatted over the creek in the center of town, just worked, and tore themselves down in the process.
Now, when I look out over the Caspar cemetery and take in the wind blowing up from the old mill site it’s difficult not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of pain represented by the average field of grave markers in any working class town. According to people who were there, the worst job at the first version of the Caspar mill was to be the poor bastard who had to lie in a crypt built into the floor, cranking a two-man bucksaw down each log that was drawn over him as another, luckier, man stood atop the log doing the same thing, from the opposite point of view. For the man in the hole, not only was the work itself nothing but tedium and strain, there must have been a constant stream of dust and crap filtering down into his eyes and mouth. The guy on top probably ended up with back pain and hands that curled and hardened, but was spared the redwood lung.
Photos of old tan bark workers show men who look like they’ve missed a few dinners for one reason or another, with work pants loose around their scrawny thighs and shirts folded over narrow bellies. The look in their eyes is hungry and sorrowful, even though they are lucky enough to have jobs. The whole damned thing is among the biggest swindles ever conceived, if we consider the scale of it.
I’m sure people worked hard before the Industrial Revolution, building pyramids and so on, but there weren’t as many dead end factory jobs, which turn out to be very hard on the human body.
I could hear sea lions in the distance, and there was a robin nearby calling loudly, but there weren’t any osprey in the treetop nests they keep near the cemetery. Generally, I see one up there, or at least hear their cries as they spiral over the cove. There was a fair amount of white feces sprayed over the vines at ground level, so birds have been up there recently. I found a single brownish feather, which I took home.