21 May 2013

Getting On A Crew

The bus left Anchorage on a road that followed the bay and we were surrounded by snowcovered mountains. A white bearded man with badly bowed and arthritic knees operated the bus and he pointed out nesting swans and eagles. There were tourists heading to Seward to board a cruise ship, a long haired biker who worked in engineering at the fishery, two forest rangers and trail cutters who were dropped off at a forestry service station, and an African from the Congo and a fellow from Oklahoma who had both signed on to work as I had in the fishery. 

Sitting in front of me was a Hindu family. The wife was very unhappy with her husband. She had just overheard the Canadian couple behind them discuss the cheap price they had paid for the cruise ship and she was disgusted with her husband for paying many times that price. The Hindu woman refused him to sit with her. Their son took many pictures of the snowcovered mountains which the mother told him were not very good. 

The road traveled away from the bay and we went slowly up a steep pass and we passed by three fully loaded touring cyclists and then down, descending, back to the bay and marshland and there were the dead-looking, scraggily, gray trees I had seen outside Ushuaia, Argentina. I supposed they were trees that only grew at the ends of the earth. 

We continued through more uninhabited country through the mountains until a US Forestry Service station and we stopped to let out the forest rangers. Some time after we arrived in Seward and the harbor, where there were many smaller boats and the cruise ship awaiting the Hindus and Canadians. 

It was short ride to the fishery where the African, the fellow from Oklahoma, the long haired bike and myself were let off. A short Mexican in a cowboy hat greeted us. The biker was not a new hire. The Mexican was called Jose and he showed us our rooms inside the cargo container village. I was to share my room with the Congolese, who was called Dieudonne, or 'God Given' from the French, but said he was also named Jean-Paul but that we could call him Paul. Paul and I did rock-paper-sisscors for the bottom bunk and I defeated him. Jose told us to eat dinner and then he would take us on a short tour of the fishery. 

At dinner the Oklahoman who was called Mike but said to call him Vern explained that his wife had just left him. She stopped paying the mortgage with the money he gave her and then took the three kids to Arkansas while he was at work welding school buses. He didn't know why she left. Soon after the bank took his home because of the unpaid mortgage. Then he was arrested and beaten by the police. There wasn't anything to do then but go to Alaska. I told him it was a good plan. 

We finished eating and Jose took us through the fishery. There were a number of departments that reported to crew chiefs who wrote up the next day's workload and hours on chalkboards in the break room. Each crew chief had his framed picture hanging above his chalkboard. Because only a few boats of fish had come in and salmon season had not yet begun, there was not much work up on the boards. 

The next day two women who ran human resources and the infirmery had us sign paperwork and we received our time clock cards and were fitted for rubber boots and rubber overall pants. The rest of the uniform consisted of rubber gloves and cloth liners, a rain jacket, ear plugs, a hair net, beard net, and a hard hat and life jacket if you were working on the boats that came in with fish. The more senior of the women said that they were short forklift driver and after her presentation I approached her and explained my exerience operating all types of those machines. Indeed, I had seen out front at least a dozen small forklifts and couple of the larger models. Before I could even explain or ask to demonstrate that I could pick up quarters with the forks, she said I needed to go down and talk to Gil, who was the crew chief of the Front Dock. It was hard manual work outside on the docks throwing fish from boats and weighing them and separating them and then moving them into the cannery. Gil ran a tight crew and always found his workers hours and they were very loyal to him for it but this year due to changes in the visa laws he was short forkliftdrivers. 

I found Gil inside his office eating and he opened his window and we spoke through the window screen. He was a bald stout man from Maine and I explained my forklift experience and he said that upon taking Wednesday's mandatory forklift class that I should come see him. I said that I would and thanked him and met up with Paul back at the cargo container and we went to dinner. 

Over chicken and potatoes and a salad of greens I explained to Paul what I was starting to understand. There were a number of crews with some workers churning vats of salmon roe all day while Japanese men berated their performance in Japanese and made wild hand signals, and also more interesting crews where the work was variable. Front Dock was one such crew, but there were others. I knew I did not want to churn fish eggs while Japanese men yelled at me and fork lifting was my way to avoid it. Paul would have to find his own way, but it was hard when none of the work had really started and it had not been explained to us. What little was written on the break room chalkboard was comprehensible only to the initiated. Also crew chiefs like Gil were very careful who they added to their crews. There would no doubt be a trial period and then perhaps he might take me on. I did not know how it would go but I was becoming more certain of where I wanted to work. 


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