My Brilliant Career II (again, with apologies to Miles Franklin, author of the real book My Brilliant Career)
I emerged from my broken marriage with dashed hopes and a shattered heart, but I had no time to sit around and feel sorry for myself. My ex-husband had promised me that I’d never see a penny of his money, so I had to find a way to support the household. I had been delivering newspapers in the wee hours of the morning to add the family’s income, but it didn’t pay enough to cover all our expenses, and besides, I needed to change my schedule so that I’d be working while my young daughters were in school.
I started putting out feelers in boat yards and marinas to see if I could find a job in the line of work that I was born into and educated in. My father had been a commercial fisherman and built boats in the back yard and I had a vocational certificate in Marine Repair and two years experience in a well-known boat yard. I was soon hired by a newly opened boat yard that was owned by Ollie Johansson. (Names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty.) He was just a few years older than I was and his expertise was in yacht racing. He knew painfully little about actually working on boats and he seemed to be a little short on gray matter, as well.
I was hired as a ‘finisher’ which meant I painted and varnished the boats. Ollie started out giving me detailed instructions as to how he wanted each job done, but there were times when I knew what he was asking me was just plain wrong and even detrimental to the boat. I’d have to tell him that why it wouldn’t work. We’d argue back and forth a bit, but Ollie was my boss, so in the end, he’d insist and I’d have to do it his way. After he saw the results of ‘his way’ a few times, he relented and then he’d just tell me the end result he wanted and let me get there on my own.
I think his wake up call came when he wanted me to caulk the seams on a sailboat that just happened to belong to my insurance man. Ollie wanted me to use a hard caulking, but because this was a wooden boat, I knew that when the boat hit the water and the planks began to swell, the hard caulking would pop out and then the seams would be wide open and the boat would probably sink. I patiently explained why I should use a soft caulking, but Ollie would have none of it. So, I did as I was told. A day or so later, I had an appointment with my insurance man and he cheerfully asked how his boat was. I cringed and blurted out the whole story about the caulking and told him what was likely to happen. He just laughed and waved it off. The next week I received a phone call from my insurance man, still as good natured as ever; “I just wanted to tell you that you were right! My boat sank!” There are some times when I don’t want to be right. “Oh, I am SO SORRY!” I apologized. “That’s alright!” He chuckled, “ It sank at the dock and I instructed Ollie to let you fix it right!”
Ollie wasn’t the only one at that boat shop who had less than professional ideas about how work should be done. Several times, I’d be working on a boat that was up on blocks in the yard and while I was busy, I’d hear scuffling under the boat and think nothing of it. Until I moved and the boat would tip over because an idiot had stolen some of the blocks to block up another boat! Once I was aware of what was going on, I’d listen for sounds under the boat and spring up like a jack-in-the-box when I heard the scraping of the blocks being dragged out from beneath the hull and I’d yell; “HEY! PUT THOSE BACK!” And the culprit would sheepishly return the purloined blocks to their original positions.
Once, Ollie gave a broken wooden boat part to an employee and told him to make another one “just like it”.... so the guy made another one just like it.... broken exactly the same way. Another guy was doing fiberglass work and accidentally sat in a puddle of wet resin. Despite that he was warned that he should change his pants, he ignored the advice. You guessed it. The resin dried and his pants were fiberglassed to his butt. I never found out how he got his pants off; he never came back to work.
Ollie had a maddening habit of mulling everything over as though his life depended on it. When I’d finish a job, I’d ask him what he wanted me to work on next and he’d stand there; “Errrrr.... ahhhh.... ummm .... well..... hmmmm.... let’s see.....” for quite some time. He was so famous for this that when he went on vacation and his foreman was running things, I approached his foreman for instructions and he outright admitted that he wasn’t sure it was his place to decide which boat was next. “Well,” I said, “ Since Ollie isn’t here and I need someone to decide, pretend that you’re Ollie.” The foreman’s eyebrows went up, but he was agreeable; “Okay! Errrrr..... ahhhh.... ummm.... “
One day, Ollie sent me to work on a customer’s yacht that was being stored at a big marina. I was sanding and re-varnishing the bright work, a job that would take several days. While I was working on the boat, Ollie showed up and arranged to have the boat launched while I was still onboard. It was almost the end of the day, so Ollie hung around and at five o’clock, he stood on top of the fixed dock, called a bulkhead, where the yacht was tied up and announced; “ It’s time to go home now!” I had been so immersed in my work that I hadn’t noticed that the tide had gone out and now the top of the bulkhead was about two feet higher than the top of my head. “Okay.” I said to Ollie; “so how do I get off this thing?” “Jump.” Ollie replied. I looked around. Even an Olympic athlete couldn’t make that leap. “Ollie,” I began, “There’s no way I’m going to make that jump and it’s April so it’s too cold to go swimming,” if I didn’t succeed that’s what I’d be doing, “so think of something else!” Ollie assured me that it was an easy jump and I was just as sure that unless I sprouted wings and was able to fly up, I’d never make it. We bandied “Jump!” “No!” “Jump!” “No!” for a short time and finally I firmly stated: “Ollie! The bulkhead is about 7 feet straight up! If I miss, I’m in the water and I’m not in the mood to go swimming!!!” Ollie relented and squatted down, holding his arms out over the water; “Oh, alright. I’ll catch you.” I was incredulous. “What?!” “Come on,” Ollie motioned me forward, “Just stand on that stanchion and jump to that ledge and I’ll catch you and pull you up.” I looked at the stanchion (for non-boaters, stanchions are the poles that hold up the rope rail around the deck of a boat) and gave it an experimental shake to see how sturdy it was. It wasn’t. The ledge was about five feet up and not more than an inch wide, but about two feet below the top of the bulkhead. At this point, I figured we were both going swimming, because with Ollie leaned out over the water like that, I was sure my weight would pull him off balance and down we’d go. But, what the heck! If Ollie was game, I was game! I placed one foot on the stanchion and pushed off for the inch wide ledge. I had no sooner hit the ledge when Ollie grabbed me and some how managed to pull me up as though I were no more than a sack of potatoes.
My last fond memory of my two years with Ollie was the day I had been painting boat bottoms. I had completed five boats, so I was covered with five different color paints, and I’d been crawling and laying in the mud and sawdust under boats all day. This meant that I wasn’t exactly looking my best, so I wasn’t thrilled when Ollie asked me to run an errand for him and take a package to a UPS shop to be shipped out. I walked into the UPS office and saw the clerk’s mouth drop open. She was an attractive blond with nice slacks and a frilly white blouse and I was wearing several layers of my worse clothes, liberally splashed with a wide variety of paint colors, and caked with mud and saw dust. The clerk gasped; “Oh, MY!!! You’ve.... you’ve..... you’ve certainly.... been doing... been doing.... SOMETHING!”
She was right- I’d certainly been doing something.
Ollie’s reputation grew to the point where years after I’d left Ollie’s employ, I met a new neighbor and we found that we both worked on boats, so I asked him whom he worked for. He said, “I’ve been at Ollie Johansson’s Boat Yard for about three weeks.” An involuntary giggle escaped me. My neighbor looked perplexed; “Why does everyone laugh when I tell them where I work?!” He soon discovered why.
I moved on to working for a more professional boat yard, but that job also only lasted a few years. Boat yards and marinas had been suffering through years of hard times that meant frequent lay-offs for the employees and I had been doing odd jobs like working as an assistant pressman, in restaurants, and getting my own jobs cleaning houses or working on boats in between. The self –employment turned out to be more lucrative than working for other people, so I started a business maintaining fisherman’s fishing gear, filling in the slow periods with painting boats and houses to stay busy. This worked out very well because I could make my own schedule and enjoy as much time as possible with my rapidly growing daughters. But, maintaining fishing gear was hard, tedious, wet, heavy work. One day I was walking back to my truck from the fish pier after a long day’s work and I was, as usual, dressed in my worst clothing, covered with fish slime and gore and a tourist couple stopped me and asked if I worked there. I was stunned that they would ask such a question. What other excuse could I possible have for looking this way? Did they think that Cape Cod was like many other tourist sites with characters walking around in costume for their benefit? They took my silence as a sign that I hadn’t heard them, so the lady asked me again; “Do you work here?” “Yes.” I replied. “Well, “ she continued, “I was wondering if you could tell me what kind of fish they had in those boxes down there.” She pointed a manicured finger down the hill toward the fish pier. I shrugged, “I don’t know. What did they look like?” (Lots of different kinds of fish were brought in.) She described the fish and I told her that they sounded like cod. “Oh,” She looked surprised, “I thought they might be tuna!” I was about to tell her that tuna that caught around here were big fish, too big to be in totes, when her husband piped up; “There’s no tuna here! They’re only on the West Coast!” I laughed, thinking of all my tuna fisherman friends, “Well if that’s true, there’s going to be a lot of disappointed tuna fisherman!”
Because I grew up in this area, many of the fishermen I worked with were old friends I’d known most of my life. Every time the morning news on the radio would announce that a boat had gone down, I’d be on pins and needles until I found out that everyone I knew was safe. But, although commercial fishing is one of the most dangerous occupations in the world, few fishermen waste time thinking about that fact. They were a lively, funny bunch and they enjoyed a good laugh as much as anyone. One day, I ran into an old school mate who was now captaining his own boat, as he and his crew were just coming in from a fishing trip. My friend and one of the crew were snickering, so I asked; “What’s so funny?” This elicited more guffaws but the story gradually came out. They had been out tub-trawling (long-lining) and had just made a haul, so they were culling and gutting the pile of fish that lay on the deck. One of the crew-, the one who hadn’t been laughing, was standing astride the pile, which had a big female monkfish on the top. Monkfish are a species of angler fish and they are mostly a big mouth full of rows of teeth that all angle backward and a tail. The females grow to about four feet long; the males are smaller- about half that size. This female monkfish was fully grown and she apparently didn’t like the predicament she found herself in, so to show her displeasure she chomped down on the closest thing- which was the crotch of the man standing over her. Luckily for the crewman, he was wearing baggy oil skins over his clothes, so all she got was a mouth full of rubber, but because her teeth angled back, she was hooked and the crewman couldn’t shake her off. So he turned to his buddies for assistance and said; “Guys....” thinking that they would be suitably alarmed by the gravity of his situation and run over to help him. But, no- they turned around and took in the scene and immediately started : HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA HA! They did eventually rescue their friend, but they were still laughing – except the crewman whose oil skins were ruined – even after they hit the dock.
By the time I was in my late 30’s, I was getting really burned out on doing very physical work and I was keeping my eye out for something more sedentary that would be easier on my aching joints and muscles. Jobs were few and far between, but I finally landed one in a shipping department for a local business. The joke was on me, though. Little did I know that 90% of what was shipped out was cut slate- ROCKS! So, now I was spending my days carrying around boxes of rocks! Oh well, it was still a step up in the world. I was warm, clean and dry and the rocks were lighter than the loads I was used to carrying. The owners of the company were very good to me and I was eventually promoted to shipping manager. I would have been happy to stay there indefinitely, but then another job opened up at a marina.... that’s another chapter.
Updated: 12:45 AM GMT on July 01, 2006
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