This was in 1955, the days of the Waterfront Commission, established to clean up unions. Any time a union endeavored to clean up the horrendous, dangerous conditions under which workers were mutilated and killed, the bosses set in motion the propaganda machine to break the union under the guise of stamping out corruption.
Elia Kazan, who squealed on his friends to the House Un-American Activities Committee, got the job of directing the movie On the Waterfront as a reward for his treachery. Between Hollywood, the government, and the Church, they managed to practically destroy the International Longshoreman's Association by kicking out the great seekers for justice.
There was one dedicated little fellow with glasses who felt the union should do better. He ran for office time and time again. They'd shoot at him, beat him up, sabotage his car, and yet he lived to fight another day. The heart's a wonder, as Synge said.
I stayed out of the union doings, as I was not too keen on getting beaten up, and, being a fresh-faced young immigrant, I was still reasonably ignorant of the issues in dispute.
Was there thievery on the docks? Hell, yes! We helped ourselves to fine Italian shoes, and there were days we dropped our trousers and wound yards of suit fabric around the torso, so that at quitting time, you'd observe scores of portly males waddling off the pier. When there was a shipment of alcohol of any sort, it was a day of accidents involving fork lifts being drunkenly driven over the side of the pier, men falling into holds, fisticuffs, arguments, and much simple rejoicing.
There was a day I was working on a Brooklyn pier, and a cargo of artificial flowers arrived, which were duly tithed among the toilers. A thoroughly useless item it was, and I asked the other Irishman working there that day, an older fellow named McCabe, why they were stealing such a thing.
"Ah," sez he, "if they shipped shit over here in one-pound boxes, they'd steal all of it."
"They," of course, were the Italians, who stole everything, as distinct from the Irish, who only stole on principle--that according to my elder.
My favorite cargo was rubber: huge, five-hundred-pound bales of the stuff, imported from Malaysia. Sometimes the crane man would let a bale fall out of the net from a great height, and the huge projectile would come bounding and bouncing erratically along the pier, sending even the most arthritic nonagenarian leaping for safety with gay abandon.
Along with shifting cargo on my handcart, I was keeping fit by playing with the New York Rugby Football Club. This was a polyglot of expatriates from the U.K., New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa, plus a sprinkling of anglophilic Yanks, some of whom hoped they would be mistaken for English. For a while, I was the only Irisher on the team, outside of a fellow named Brad Brady from Cork, who was so Brit-oriented he could hardly speak.
Many of those Brits lamented the coarseness of the Yanks, their lack of sportsmanship. "They actually care more about winning than playing the game, old boy." Perhaps one day they would see the error of their ways, return to the Empire, learn good manners, and become good subjects.
There was a lot of swilling of beer, chug-a-lug contests, and the like. At our annual dinner, toasts were proposed to the President and the Queen. When I proposed a toast to the President of Ireland, I was ruled out of order, so I proposed we eliminate the Queen's toast. Though I followed Robert's Rules, this counterproposal received little support.
We played games against colleges, wherever we could get 'em, from Princeton to Boston to Dartmouth. One of my first games was against Harvard, and it was a rough one with a lot of dirty play and fisticuffs. Several players were ordered off the field by the ref, including one Boston boy named Kennedy, known to we lads as Ted.
(C) 1998 Malachy McCourt All rights reserved.
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