A kid making sails and metal cables

William hitched his way to New York City around age fifteen, wanting to see the world’s largest city and figuring that there’d be plenty of jobs available. He found housing at Newsboys’ Home and was able to locate one short-term job after another. This was when he became a printer’s devil in a shop that turned out leaflets, flyers, and posters. Printer’s devil, he decided, was the dirtiest job on earth. As he describes in his memoir, at the end of each day he was covered with black ink that didn’t entirely come off. Quickly he sought other jobs.

Down at the docks, a ship chandler hired me. His company had a sail loft, an enormous room on the second floor of its warehouse. The business also stocked anchors, anchor chains, cleats, windlass, stanchions, and all sorts of other parts for ships and boats. I was more a go-fer than anything else, fetching items for the customers, but one of my tasks was to stretch out heavy sail canvas on the second floor.

Sail material came in widths about three feet wide. They stitched the canvas strips together on sewing tables; I helped feed the canvas into the sewing machines. After the correct number of strips was sewn together, I laid the canvas out on the floor. Then someone drew the sail shape onto the fabric and indicated about a six-inch margin. Next I helped feed that large piece through the sewing machines to hem the edges. At the end, after they folded over the sail’s margins to contain rope in the borders, they stitched up the borders.

Along the bottom of the sail, grommets needed to be added at intervals. I did that, too: Using a swaging tool, I secured the top of the grommet into the bottom piece and hammered them together.

My job at the ship chandler’s didn’t last long. Sail jobs were carried out by contract, and when a job was finished, they laid me off.  Afterward, I took jobs with one chandler shop and then another as each one landed contracts.

At the wharves I also became a cable splicer for a shop I believe had a contract with the Navy. My new employer made all kinds of cable, mostly metal cables used on ships or cranes but also in industry. The work was tough, and they had to train me. The idea was to create longer and longer lengths of cable by joining or splicing the strands of metal. In a way, it was like weaving.

To join two pieces of cable, you had to unweave the end of each cable back a ways. Wearing heavy gloves, I intertwined the unraveled cable ends and then pounded the newly connected segments with a hard leather hammer making sure that there were no lumps. The splice had to be as smooth as possible. We never joined cable any bigger than one inch in diameter but it could take several days to do a single cable job, and that one-inch cable was strong enough to haul a large ship.

Later, when I was a Marine on a ship in the Pacific, I saw a cable snap as it was being used to haul a derelict ship back to Saipan—probably an American ship that had been bombed. Whenever we pulled another ship, the officers made sure we all stayed off the deck, because a cable could snap with enough force to cut right through metal.