The crane swung the container from the dock, lowering it into the ship's belly smoothly as a shot ofWild Turkey after a long shift. Perched in the operator's glass compartment above the hold, Blink followed the directions of his rigger 60 feet below for final adjustments before waltzing the load into place beside his last drop. Suddenly, Blink wanted someone else there to confirm what a goddamn master crane operator he was, a Houdini threading twenty tons into a space barely bigger than the container itself. His job was like sex, he thought, nudging your piece into place with some rocking and socking to get a good fit.
A member of Portland's Local of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Blink was proud to belong to a kickass union. When his father started on the waterfront, longshoremen were wharf rats hauling individual pieces of cargo up the gangplanks into ships, their bodies broken and twisted long before retirement. Under Harry Bridges, the president of the union, the members bulled their way up from the depths to become lords of the dock. The union was family; Blink was admitted because his father and uncle were members. Tradition. "You took care of your own and they took care of you, " that was the gospel of Blink. Years later with seniority and status, Blink was satisfied with who he was and where he stood, except for a worried sense that change was coming, especially from the Civil Rights Movement. As far as Blink figured it, blacks were whining for special treatment and hadn't struggled to make the union what it was. Blink wanted his son to follow him onto the docks after high school.
In 1962, President Bridges drove up from the union headquarters in San Francisco to attend a meeting in Portland, the only all-white local in a union known for its radicalism.
Bridges barely finished the beginning of his rant against the Local's racial exclusion when members shouted him down. "This is an issue for the local, " they yelled; "get your communist ass back to San Francisco. " On subjects like admitting new members, the locals enforced their own rules. Whenever one of the lefties in the local introduced a proposal to rock the boat, Blink, and a small number of others, would chant, "We ain' t going to have no niggers on our docks. " A lawsuit in 1964, succeeding where Bridges failed, forced the local to accept Otis as Portland's first black longshoreman."
At 5 foot 8, Otis was thickset, torso like a keg with a powerful neck anchoring his squarish head. Otis needed this j ob. Not a big talker, Otis had large dreams for his son and daughter. They'd go to college, maybe become lawyers or doctors. "You know, " he told his wife, "a black man can do more than own a funeral home now. If I can break this color barrier at the docks, anything's possible. I'm going to make sure our kids get a serious place at the table."
From the start, Otis understood some white workers would try to push him beyond his ability to endure. Within a week of working on the front, Otis pegged Blink as leader of the gang out to make him quit. The first three months were as bad as he'd feared. The dead rat in his lunch pail was a puker, but when he found the decaying raccoon splayed across the windshield of his car, Otis knew that bad was rapidly getting worse. Everyone in the part of town where Otis lived knew about the Black Panthers, but Otis wasn't a militant. He wasn't one of those step-and-fetchit types neither. " I' ll keep my head low and put up with this shit because I've go to, " Otis said to himself." If I can get along by going along, good; but, if not, I've got my limits." Sometimes, when pushed too far, Otis went off with serious consequences for all concerned.
When Blink's regular rigger called in sick one Tuesday, the super assigned Otis to replace him. Otis, a tightness clamping his chest, struggled to appear calm. Using hand signals to guide Blink to deliver the second load, Otis stood off to the side in Blink's full view and made a downward spiraling motion. The crane lowered the container, then paused before descending the final ten feet. Otis motioned left and then indicated a small space drawing his two hands close together, almost like in prayer. With a roar that sucked all noise in its departing wake, the load dropped, missing Otis by two feet but flattening him against the deck. Lying stunned, Otis tasted blood and couldn' t hear. Other workers and the walking boss came running and helped him off the floor. Surprised he could still walk, Otis hobbled to the office, his hearing returning slowly. The super gave him a band aid for a cut under his eye, slashed by a flying splinter. After half hour, as if being crushed like road kill was an ordinary experience, the boss declared: "Otis, you're one lucky sonofabitch; I'll put you on clean-up the rest of the shift. " But Otis didn't feel so lucky.
Blink swore there was an electrical shortage and the company wrote it up as "Near injury" accident. There wasn't no accident about it, thought Otis; that crazy racist was trying to kill me. Otis, needing somebody on his side, set out to find Grant.
Grant, one of the bigger men on the line, didn't say much, didn't have to after working the docks for 20 years. Everyone knew he was a communist. The lefties among the white workers respected him; the others stayed out of his way. "He may be red, " they'd whisper, "but he's also one crazy bastard. " Snorting his third boilermaker at The Dragon after graveyard shift one morning, Grant heard the guy two stools away muttering about communists. Standing, his bass voice booming, Grant sang the first stanza of the Internationale, snatched the stupid sadass off his stool and slammed him against the wall so hard Mr. Mutterer had nothing more to say. "The earth belongs only to men, " Grant shouted his favorite stanza, spraying spit at the heckler still barely moving and slumped on the floor where he'd fallen. At the door, he looked back at the silent bar. "Anyone else wanting a little taste of that, piss me off like asshole here and I'll be glad to oblige. "
Embellished with time, this story became part of waterfront lore. Otis heard several versions and that's why he went looking for Grant. All those socialists, communists, whatever, believed in black rights. Otis knew this because he'd read one of their papers once, The Call or something, about how Negroes, the paper called them African-Americans, were entitled to their own nation in the South. He didn' t know about all that shit, and wanted nothing to do with the South, especially Mississippi, but thought Grant might have some answer to the terrible fix he was in. Catching Grant during a break, Otis laid out what happened. Grant said he'd think on it.
Two days later at Grant's weekly cell meeting, the subj ect for the evening was Black Emancipation. He was in a worker collective, but there were some intellectual types, too.
The cell leader was an ex-college kid, Reed College for two years before dropping out to join the working class. After an hour of heated argument on the correct road to black freedom, Grant interrupted and told Otis's story, concluding with a simple proposition. "Sometimes, a bastard's gotta die." The response was not positive. This wasn't the first time Grant lobbed a grenade into an endless discussion and got everyone riled. Most of the other comrades criticized Grant. " Individual acts of violence are infantile leftism, not communism, " the cell leader summarized. His eyes sunken from exhaustion and faceflushed with frustrated fury, Grant stalked out of the room.
Half-way up the ladder to his crane the next day, Blink's foot slipped on a step.
Cartwheeling 40 feet to the concrete walkway like a Snow Goose dropped with a tight pattern of shot to the head, Blink lay unmoving in a crooked sort of way. All work stopped at Terminal 2; injuries were common, but death was a big deal. A crowd gathered, including Grant who'd been working nearby. Otis hung back, looking on, but not getting involved.
At a meeting next day, management delivered a big lecture on safety. Nobody claimed it wasn't an accident, but for awhile a rumor Grant fixed the ladder floated around anyway.
Grant resigned from the Party that week. Otis didn't say anything about Blink's death or the rumors about Grant, but from that point kept a red rag in his back-pocket, wiping his hands from time to time as if there might be grease on them.