Labor


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Why do I call my blog amyeighttrack? It was a joke that came to me when I was starting my blog and I needed a name for it. I’m showing my age, I guess – I actually used to listen to music on 8 track. And I do write a bit about some of the music I like.

I attended the Seafarers’ International Union’s School of Seamanship in 1974. This school in rural Maryland has long been a model of union education. It’s approach to the training of personnel was innovative. It was founded, during the height of the Vietnam War in 1967, to meet the needs of a growing industry and provide a ready labor force. I don’t know whether working on ships back then as a merchant mariner got people an exemption from the draft – I’d be  interested in knowing.

I have some now-pleasant memories of sitting or working in the cafeteria, with “Free Bird” echoing out on the eight track, ad nauseum. It made a nice – if somewhat bluesy – soundtrack for all the young angst and passion – up, up and away!! Just pop it in the player and you’re good to go!

The sound was actually good, it reverberated nicely – especially when the cafeteria was empty; and was nice background music when the cafeteria was full and buzzing with conversation. Someone also had ZZ Top’s “Tres Hombres ” – nice; “I Can Help” by Billy Swan (mmmmm, yeah, right!) – nice; and BTO, “Blue Collar” – nice.

Later, on a ship, I went in with a friend on an 8-track stereo and some tapes. As you can imagine, 8 track tapes were a better system than a phonograph to have on a ship; though our stereo had a phonograph, too. We bought some tapes – “War Live” (which I recommend highly. The versions of the same material on “The Very Best of War” are highly truncated);  “Sally Can’t Dance” by Lou Reed; and “Bad Company”. Someone had a record of “Texas Gold” by Asleep At The Wheel, a very fine album (go to review here) with some really great Western Swing music; and some very serious drinking songs, indeed. The songs “Miss Molly”, “I’ve Been Everywhere”, “Miles and Miles of Texas”, “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” and many others by that band are also favorites of mine.

I met many interesting people at the school. There were a lot of guys from the East Coast and some from the South.  Shipping out of a few different US ports – Houston, San Francisco and Seattle, I met lots more people. There were new crews on every ship; and people who’d join the ship from whatever port that someone else got off in. I developed an abiding love for the many different peoples and regions of the US, each with their own unique character. It broadened my musical tastes and brings back some nice memories.

I worked on ships from 1975 through 1986. It wasn’t an easy lifestyle. It was pretty tough, at times. But I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

The industry in the U.S. has changed a lot since then. The little tankers I was on and most of the ships had a crew of about 42. Since then the ships have gotten bigger and the crews smaller, to maybe 23 or less.

Instead of there being what I would call a “merchant marine”, a lot of the jobs now are in support of the huge-and-growing military-industrial complex – one of the growth industries of the past decade or so. How regrettable that our society and values have come down to this – militarism. Then again, how many options are there for – especially poor – youth today? The merchant marine might still make an attractive alternative to the military.

I mostly worked in the steward department. They assigned me that, because of my glasses. I worked on freighters – mostly container ships, by then – and tankers – hauling fuel or grain. I worked on a ship that laid telephone cable on the ocean floor between Guam and Okinawa. I also worked on a Navy ship.

I sailed to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Bangladesh, Indonesia, The Philippines; Leningrad in the then-USSR; Italy, Spain; down the Pacific coast of Central America and through the Panama Canal; Jamaica and other Caribbean ports; Brazil and The Ivory Coast. I feel fortunate and believe that travel or living abroad is a valuable, enriching human experience.

It’s been interesting seeing some of the people I met through the Union’s educational program and political work rise through the ranks of Labor and the industry. It puts a human face on Labor, for me. I have a lot to be grateful for.

My god, how the school has changed. The way it’s grown, I hardly recognize it. The school curriculum and program has grown, too. We never had ‘Small Arms Training’, ‘Anti-Terrorism’ or ‘Chemical, Biological and Radiological Defense’; courses now required for employment on some government vessels, where so many of the jobs are. I hate guns. Marching in formation was bad enough.

Back then, there wasn’t a mandatory 3 month apprenticeship period ship-board after the 3 months of school training. Today this apprenticeship period includes 4 weeks in each of the shipboard departments (engine, deck & steward), followed by more courses and upgrading. We didn’t have as good a firefighting course, either. It sounds fairly challenging – but it’s a good skill to have, on a ship!

I see that they no longer have an academic course for art. That’s a real shame! Some of the favorite art that I’ve ever done was a result of assignments for the little 3-credit course I took. However, it looks like they have some other very good courses.

The Seafarers International Union has an excellent and interesting website. View website here They have many beautiful pictures of ships and the seafaring life. You can check out their monthly publication ‘The Seafarers Log’; read more about the school; and even download the school’s 90 page catalog under the subheading, ‘Paul Hall Center’.

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With a special thanks to Maia, a poet-teacher friend – a muse, even. She suggested that I edit out some harsher self-judgmental words – and leave in some of the ones I was squeamish about. It was a lesson in itself.

I tagged and categorized this under “muse” because it’s a good example of how I sometimes work out my grief/depression/confusion through prose or poetry. It often serves to clarify issues, codify ideas and concepts. Writing gives us time to reflect. We find ways to say things that we might otherwise be unable to express.

I have strong opinions about the romantic notion that art can only be produced  through great suffering.  From my own perspective as a survivor and Buddhist believer in the holiness of life, I came to the conclusion/rule-of-thumb that the art is never more important than the artist.

Which is quite different from saying one who suffers can’t or shouldn’t attempt art – there should be more art in our lives, not less. My love of classic reggae has taught me about that connection. One’s problems are often a great muse, a spark, a great starting point; as long as one doesn’t wallow in it; as long as it doesn’t become the object itself.

I question the wisdom of seeking the derangement of the senses as a muse (a la the popular conception about Rimbaud.) I’ve managed to do quite enough of that, without actually making a point of it. I suggest taking healthy risks as an alternative – like risking an unpopular opinion, or being thought foolish…

I seek for my muse to come from a higher life-condition, from more positive things – kindness and the sanctity of life. Art for me is a spiritual thing – or a function of spirituality.

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Memorial Day

Driving home in my truck
on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, 2006
after a job
risking my neck for something that seems so silly –
Well… money’s not silly!

But for clean windows?

I caught myself, mourning the passing of the oil age
No one’s troubling with the design of new cars, as much…
What’s the point, for an object so soon to be obsolete?
But then, I thought – oh! A return, for us, to god’s green earth
– a chance at regeneration for our much-maligned planet
and thus, humankind’s inadvertent partial redemption

Then, shortly after that, the blues tried to sneak back in on me
oh! They’re so insistent!
What is it this time!?

On my way home – to what?
Loneliness? An awful aloneness, so unconscious of itself…
Another transition in the structure of my day…
Is this what my freedom – being self-employed – gets me?
– Because it will force me to look
– at where in life – my actions have led me…
Yes, alone with my own thoughts – how bleak is that?!

Now, making a detour of one or two blocks
so that I can see the horizon
and have a guess at tomorrow’s weather
I’m lucky to be able to see the western horizon,
so close to home…
There’s so precious few places that one can do that…
A treat for this grizzled old sea-bitch
How long before something so soulful as the horizon is gone?
Replaced by higher buildings – apartments and progress…

Oh, god! Remembering another Memorial Day,
so many years ago, when I was 19
a huge, tacky Iron Cross around my neck
I think it said 1914 on it
painted pink on one side from fingernail polish
catching a bus, downtown
accusing stares, that made me remember what day it was
of which I had been so oblivious…
Ah! I had much to learn!
You pay a price for such youthful folly!…
Oh! The awful uncomfortableness of myself!
The shame I felt, to be in my skin!
And oh! The awful ignorance of that cross, worn in the name of hipness.

Did those German hordes not yearn for glory, too?
Were they so unlike us, today?

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footnote: one sign of my spiritual/personal growth/recovery was the day that the loneliness I felt when returning home alone changed into a pleasant realization that my home had actually welcomed me into its warm embrace…