Not many Christian congregations include a foot-washing ceremony with their taking of the sacraments, but Christ said his disciples were to follow his example. He apparently didn't really mean what He said. Either that or His words were deconstructed so long ago that no element of Thirdness connects icon and object. I would never have been able to write the poem about authority, in which a contractor, a local deacon, pulls a chair from under his employee if Christ’s words were even naïvely believed—
(You haven’t read the poem? Here it is:
needed to borrow a cutting torch—
my deacon said, Any time.
I came by at noon
but his men were already eating
so a little reluctantly
he helped me load bottles & hose.
I wanted to thank him
so I stepped into the camp trailer
that served as job site office & lounge.
There weren't enough chairs
for either of us
but to my surprise
the chair from under one of his crew.
The fellow picked himself up, stood,
wanted to hit our deacon
but, I guess,
finally figured he wanted his job more.
He grabbed his lunch
I've not seen him since—a
while all this deacon said was,
He just doesn't understand authority
the way we do.
Apparently I didn’t understand authority the way our local deacon did—he would, within a few months, be ordained a local elder. But the question I have pondered over the years is, Could this contractor have washed his employee's feet? Or would he only have washed his minister's?
In 1974, I arrived in Alaska broke or nearly so. I drove George Connor's Land Cruiser North to talk with Harold Fuller and to see a town named Homer. My intention wasn't to stay, but I spent a day with Fuller, who told me he turned down building a gun a week. That is all a gunmaker can build by hand; so enough market seemed to exist for me to relocate. When I left Fuller's shop, I knew I would move, and I turned the Land Cruiser's radio on to get the news of the Kenai Peninsula.
State Manpower was advertizing for loggers, specifically for choker setters.
I had once set chokers for six days as fill-in for my neighbor when he injured his back. I drew pay for those six days, but I didn't work long enough as a choker setter to consider myself one. The few hundred trees I had fallen over a decade, most alders and maples, didn't qualify me to call myself a faller. The few weeks I had operated a D-6 as I pushed blown down walnut trees into piles to be burned after the Columbus Day storm didn't qualify me to call myself a Catskinner. I had never operated a heelboom or a shovel or a jammer or a yarder. I had never really worked as a logger although I did have a pair of caulk boots. I built rifles for real loggers. All of my neighbors were loggers. Some of the fellows I hunted with were loggers. And I wouldn't have wanted any of them to hear me identifying myself as a logger.
But I needed a job, and logging was something I knew about. Setting chokers isn't rocket science, and I wore hickory shirts and a pair of red suspenders, and I had stagged pants. I could talk the jargon. Oregon loggers fall timber, not fell it.
Manpower gave me a card to take to a certain address—wearing suspenders when I walked in, I gave the card to a woman at a front desk. A fellow behind the desk and across the room looked at me and hollered, "Can you fall?"
I glanced out the window and didn't see any spruce larger in diameter or taller than an alder: "Sure."
"Go to work in the morning."
"I didn't bring a saw up with me."
"You can use one of mine until payday."
I haven't applied for many jobs in my life, and I certainly hadn't expected to get hired so easily. I didn't even know what I would be paid. But I had a job, a foothold in Alaska, and I figured everything else would take care of itself in time.
The gyppo offered fifty cents a tree—fall, limb and top. No measuring. No worrying about scale. No measuring stumps. Every tree the same price. And there were a lot more six and eight inch trees than twenty inch in North Kenai.
Within a week, I was making a hundred dollars a day and getting out of the woods by two p.m.
Spruce on the Kenai Peninsula look like they have been stuck in a pencil sharpener. It's a rare tree that's more than one log tall. All have lots of taper. And even on short log scale, they don't fare well.
Concerning Kenai spruce, Denny Bell, a sawmill sawyer and owner, once told me that, "There's more scale in the first twelve feet than there is in the whole tree," when I asked how he wanted me to buck logs for him. He wasn't telling me what length of logs he wanted; he was telling me how to make the most money from the timber I was selling him.
For fellows unfamiliar with the terminology, scale is the theoretical number of footboard that can be sawn from the square of the small end of a log. Scale tables were established for full dimensioned lumber and for saw kerfs far wider than cut by modern bandsaw blades. So mills get to steal a little lumber. Nobody complains too much. It's a game everyone plays. It's only when a mill begins to cut, say, a hundred seventy percent of scale that questions are asked.
What that mill owner was telling me I can best illustrate by the example of a typical Kenai white spruce: a 12 foot long log with a 12 inch top has 210 boardfeet in it, but if that tree wasn't bucked at 12 feet but bucked at 34 feet (what Louisiana-Pacific wanted for export logs), that 34 foot log would have an 8 inch top and would have 130 boardfeet in it, with another 10 boardfeet in the eight foot long top log. In other words, there is 70 more boardfeet in the first 12 feet than there is in the whole tree. When a fellow contracts to fall and deck for thirty-five dollars a thousand, where he makes his cuts can either cost or make him a lot of money.
Would I wash the feet of Louisiana-Pacific's buyer who stole scale from us, or the feet of mill scalers who eyeballed rather than measured our loads of logs delivered to Seward? Do I have a choice?
In early September, Louisiana-Pacific quit buying from the gyppo for whom I initially started falling, but the corporation didn't bother telling the gyppo they were not buying until the end of October. Why L-P quit buying they never said. But they quit for long enough to break the contractor, who had paid me wages till the end. Then after the fellow's equipment was repossessed, L-P opened a company show up Anchor River, next to the Russian Village.
My sentiments towards L-P bordered on being unChristian, but I didn't have much choice: I needed to keep working so I started falling for L-P, $12. an hour. They actually recruited me.
But right after Thanksgiving, not even a month later, L-P shutdown their company show, because, they said, they couldn't keep it supervised. They wanted to contract out the logging of the two sections of timber they controlled up the Anchor River, but their reputation preceded them. By this time, their practices had managed to break seven little outfits; so they didn't have a lot of success finding anyone to log for them.
I still needed a job. So did a commercial fisherman who had a skidder he used to push rocks around on his beach site. We teamed up, and because he owned his skidder and because there were just the two of us, we figured we were immune to the games L-P played with their gyppos. We were optimistic—overly optimistic as it turned out—about avoiding the pitfalls that had trapped the other outfits.
But what we couldn't know is that L-P really didn't want the logs for which they contracted with us. Mill officials at Seward signed their contract with us in hopes that the U.S. dollar would weaken, that already overpriced export-grade white spruce logs would come down in price, thereby making Alaskan timber more affordable for Japanese customers who were considering importing additional Philippine mahogany.
Backing up in the narrative flow, I returned to Oregon to move my family North in August 1974. We rented a trailer house in a trailer court, and we settled into life on the Peninsula. We attended church with the same denomination we had in Oregon, and I became known as that logger from Oregon, an identifying tag I would not have assigned myself. My wife received lots of sympathy, and my daughters received more used clothing than they could possibly wear out.
That deacon who jerked the chair out from under his employee and who understood authority differently than I did only knew me as that Oregon logger. I don't think he ever saw me as a businessman, and he certainly never realized I didn't read Scripture the way he did. He would have counseled against me, a mere logger, opening a shop if I would have asked his opinion, but I never found the need to ask his opinion about anything.
Too many people judge Christianity by who attended the church of their youth. I know Dad did. But that's akin to making decisions about human hair based upon looking at someone's armpit.
What that deacon couldn't know is that one June morning I had a little car trouble not far from his house that left me afoot. I needed to borrow a few tools. It was bright daylight even though it was only five a.m. when I arrived at his house. Not knowing if he was up and not wanting to awaken anyone if he wasn't, I went around to his backdoor and looked in his kitchen window. There he was, bent over a chair, praying. I backed away, waited a half hour, then knocked on his front door.
I hadn't prayed that morning.
Because of what I saw that morning, I did not say anything to him when he jerked that chair. I should have, maybe. But I figured he was trying to practice righteousness, and if Christ was extending him additional time, so would I.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: Bob, the commercial fisherman, and I logged together until May. Then I worked alone, both falling and skidding, until July. The last time L-P paid us was in March.
Certain character traits are culturally elevated and labeled desirable: persistence, patience, forbearance, determination. The question I hadn't then asked myself was if a person could be too persistent, too patient, too forbearing, too determined.
Louisiana-Pacific, according to our contract, was supposed to send someone around to estimate the scale in our log decks at least once a month, and then to advance us pay for eighty percent of that estimate. We were to be paid the full amount when our logs were delivered to their Seward sawmill. But what civil authority could Bob and I call upon to force L-P to send someone around to estimate our decks? Attorneys want some money in advance, and we were buying fuel for both the skidder and chainsaws in cannery POs. And even if we filed suit, the length of time before the case could be heard would have left both of us broke. All we could do was what we did. He returned to fishing, and I kept going for as long as possible while camping on the job site in a couple of tents, camping between two muskegs between which mosquitoes ebbed and flowed as if they were a swarming sea. My daughters had fun. My wife never forgave me for being so persistent. Pig-headed was her word.
For more than a year after I went to work for a chainsaw dealership, our logs weren't hauled. Bob and I didn't have any means to haul them. We had no choice but to mentally chalk our spring of work up to being a learning experience, not necessarily one either of us was happy about. At least we were in better shape than other gyppos who had logged for L-P. We didn't lose any equipment, and weren't in bankruptcy.
But those logs were eventually hauled by L-P. However, they were delivered directly to Homer where they were loaded onto Japanese freighters without ever being scaled. I believe they were sold by the cubic meter for pulpwood. Regardless, Bob and I didn't get paid for them. We just weren't big enough to speak with authority when we talked to the corporation's managers.
My daughter once asked if a minister holds you under too long when you're baptize, will you turn into a fish? If I would have had the chance to baptize the manager for L-P's Seward operation, my daughter might have found out.
My intention was still to build muzzleloading rifles, but I had a family and no shop so I worked for Ron's Rental, the Homelite-Stihl dealer in Kenai. I bought an acre of raw ground, and I built, initially, a twelve by sixteen foot shed that I sold a year later for six hundred dollars. The fisherman who bought that building picked it up with the forks of a frontend loader after wrapping a chain around it. He then lifted it and drove down the highway as fast as the loader would go without damage to the building, so overbuilt was it.
But once I opened shop in that little shed, an unexpected development occurred: as I repaired saws for Ron's, I had been unintentionally building a clientele. Within a week of leaving Ron's, I had fellows coming by, wanting me not Ron's, to fix their chainsaws. My need for income warred with the ethics of stealing customers, and with my desire to build rifles. Perhaps this is why that deacon never saw me as a businessman.
Everyone who has signed a non-competition agreement (I hadn't signed one, but I felt I should adhere to the principles of such agreements as the right thing to do) will understand the moral dilemma, especially when opportunity knocks. I knew what I had to do to feed a wife and kids, and there weren't many employment opportunities on the Kenai that didn't require working on the Sabbath. Oil platform jobs were some form of seven-days-on, seven-days-off. Most construction jobs were seven-twelves (seven days a week, twelve hours a day) during the summer. But a test of character, of belief in right or wrong cannot occur unless a compelling reason exists for not doing what the person knows is right. Then there are those nagging questions about what is really the right thing to do. These questions always end, though, in a person finding a legalistic way of ignoring the spirit of the principle. For me, he who doesn't work was pitted against a vague concept of breaking a trust by going into direct competition with Ron's.
A sign was hung alongside Poppy Lane that identified my shop as Woodcutters' Supply, and I was in competition with my previous week's employer. I had, a few years earlier, built a rifle for a sales representative of a chainsaw distributor. I contacted this rep and became a house account. Within a year of hanging that sign, I was a dealer for five lines of saws and a line of outboards, but I wasn't building any rifles.
Day by day during those first weeks after hanging that sign, I repaired off-brand saws and many McCulloughs, a brand Ron's wouldn't service. That seemed ethically proper. But first a friend, then that fellow who had bought a Stihl because he previously hadn't been able to get his McCullough tuned up now brought me their Stihls. It wasn't long before I was too busy to consider the ethics of competing with my former employer. And within a couple of months, I began to routinely have a front-person buy out Ron’s stock of Homelite XL-12 crankcase gaskets: they were ten cents apiece. Most of the saws that Ron's, a Homelite-Stihl dealership serviced were XL-12s, and the dealership wouldn't, for economic reasons, make a gasket. An XL-12 that needed servicing just had to wait until Ron's received another order of crankcase gaskets. Deliveries to Alaska in the 1970s weren't overnight, or for that matter, even within a week. So by knowing Ron's service practices, his ordering and delivery schedules, I hamstrung the dealership's service program. And all of those unhappy customers who couldn't get their XL-12s serviced at Ron's Rental came to me. My business grew rapidly, but my character wasn't growing. If that deacon had known what I was doing, he would have thought I was, indeed, a businessman.
Would I have washed Ron's feet that spring of 1976? Yes, I would have; I take the sacraments because I need what they represent. Ron's feet weren't dirty.
When Pipeline construction ended, Kenai's economy dived into the bust half of its boom-bust cycle. In addition, by November 1978, the U.S. dollar was so weak against European currencies that I was receiving a five percent a month adjustment of chainsaw retail prices. So with saw prices rising rapidly and with three of every four of my customers drawing unemployment, I began to feel that it was time to go trapping, figuratively of course.
I endured December, January, February. But about the first of March, 1979, I looked around the shop and there wasn't a gun in the building, except for the loaded pistol I kept stuck in the insulation above the door. I remembered why I moved to Alaska, remembered how easy life had been not having to worry about a hundred thousand dollars of inventory. I also didn't like myself. Lying had started to become easy: "That piston is on order," "They shipped those two outboards last Friday."
The lies were what all of us expect to hear from service oriented businesses. There were the type of lies told when lying is easier than admitting a person is in the wrong. But there is either a moral authority against lying, or lying is just another form of truthtelling, something presidents do with apparent immunity.
An inner authority, a small quiet voice, that would not have let me pull a chair out from anyone also would not remain silent about the practices that had subtly crept into how I conducted my business affairs. By cultural norms, I was operating my business with high moral principles. But nearly a decade earlier I chose to accept as the moral authority for my life the deity of my Dissident and Separatist ancestors. In just three years I either ignored or found ways around the prescribed practices for how I should conduct my business affairs.
We choose what authority we will answer to.
But once we have chosen, we really aren't free to change our minds. We can change, but we have to pay for that change.
I was unwilling to pay the price attached to becoming a businessman like that deacon. I put my business on the market: it sold nine days later. It sold before I had the chance to change my mind.
* * *