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Return to Part I of “San Francisco Faces West,” by John Dos Passos.

I went out and leaned over the parapet of the observation platform. The blue-gray Pacific was clear far out to where a fog bank smudged the horizon. Coming round from the Golden Gate—which I still couldn’t catch sight of—a gray patrol boat showed white teeth as it chewed its way seaward into the long swells. Still no black heads of sea lions bobbing around Seal Rocks... A few gulls circled screaming over the platform.

Beside me three very black G.I.’s stood in a huddle staring out at the ocean. Farther along two sailors had their backs turned to the view and were watching with envious looks a boy and girl in sweaters and slacks who looked like high-school kids, and were giggling and horsing and pushing each other around. A sergeant of Marines, very snappy in his greens, strutted out of the building that houses the slot machines; a girl with a blue handkerchief tied round her yellow head was holding onto his arm with both hands. For a couple of minutes the two of them stared hard out to sea as if their eyes could pierce the fog bank. Then they hurried back indoors to the slot machines.

Leaning on the parapet over the hushed and heaving expanse of misted indigo that marks for most Americans the beginning of the Pacific Ocean, I wondered what these two had been thinking. I suppose there’s the same question in all our minds when we look westward over the Pacific. Beyond the immense bulge of the world, is the ocean ours or is it theirs? When we’ve made it ours, what will we want to do with it? The young men in uniform know they are going to have the answer to that question printed on their hides. No wonder they keep their lips tight pressed when they stare out toward the western horizon.

In the restaurant on the level above, the tables are all full but the eaters are very quiet. There are many family parties. Old people and middle-aged people brooding around a young man or woman in uniform.

At the table next to mine there’s a white-haired man and woman and a stoutish lady with pixie frames on her glasses who’s evidently a doting female relative and seems to be somewhat in the way. They don’t take their eyes off a first lieutenant in khaki with a close-cropped black bullet head and ruddy cheeks who looks barely old enough to be in high school. The minute you see them you know that the old people have come to say good-by. Maybe it’s their last meal together. They are all trying to be very self-possessed. The father is always starting to tell little jokes and neglecting to finish them. They keep forgetting where the salt cellar is on the table. The mother handles the plate of rolls when she passes it round as if it were immensely breakable. They fork the food slowly into their mouths. None of them knows what he is eating. All their motions are very careful and precise as if they feared the slightest false move would break the fragile bonds that are holding the day together for them. The slightest fumble, and these last few hours will be spilt and lost.

It’s very different at the table between mine and the window. There a slender young Air Force major, with dark curly hair already thinning on either side of a high forehead, is taking out a strikingly pretty dark-haired girl. She might be his sister. There’s something slightly similar about the way the two of them are built, about the way the nostrils are set in their noses. Or she might be his girl or his wife or just the right chance acquaintance. They have had cocktails and oysters. The waiter is bringing them a bottle in a bucket of ice. They have ordered abalone steaks. They aren’t saying much but their eyes are shining and they keep looking at each other and at the wine glasses and at the food on their plates and at the fog bank creeping toward them across the black ocean as if they’d never seen anything in the least like these things before. They think they are alone in the restaurant. It’s not so much that they are smiling at each other as that smiles are bubbling up all around them. Time, you can see, stands still for them.

Better get going. I had begun to feel lonely. The rest of my lunch didn’t have much flavor to it. Coming out of the restaurant, the fog pressed clammy against my face. I turned up my coat collar and went shuffling up the hill toward the streetcar line. My coat felt suddenly out at the elbows. Everything about me felt shabby and frayed. Maybe it is that there are many things a civilian in wartime feels out of.

III. Spout Toward the Orient

“Come out here before it’s too dark to observe the military secrets,” said the man I had come to see, ushering me right through to the back of his apartment after he had opened his front door for me. We looked down at the dark-blue harbor sheened with lights and the grim shape of Alcatraz and the gossamer elegance of the bridge, and at the high hills beyond, a smoldering burnt-ochre in the last flare of the afterglow. “Gosh,” I said.

“Well,” he went on, “that’s the Golden Gate. That’s the spout our supplies are pumped through into the Pacific. Even if we wanted to keep it secret we couldn’t. As you have probably noticed, this town is built to give everybody a grandstand view. That’s why the little Japs had to be moved.... The troopships, the transports, the strings of freighters we’ve seen go steaming out through that narrow tongue of water.... So narrow Drake missed it and sailed clear past.

“We used to think of it as the back door of the continent.”

“Maybe it’ll turn out to be the front door...the military phase has hardly begun yet.... Then after we have cleaned up the Japanese what will be next on the program?”

The color had faded out of the sky. Everything was drowned in transparent indigo. Pinpricks of light throbbed yellow in the moist air. Right under our feet at the wharves where freighters were being loaded and unloaded clear round the clock, shapes of smokestacks, hoists, and cranes stood out inky against the white glare of floodlights. Across the Bay a shipyard glowed like a forest fire.

We turned away from the window and sat down in the warm orange light of the room. My host’s wife, who had been bundling two small squirming sharp-eyed children off to their suppers, came back bringing in some drinks.

“The Army and Navy have done an immense job in the whole Bay region. The war’s been the salvation of this city. That’s the truth. A few years ago we were dragging along the bottom. Nobody could talk about anything but class war. Now the Bay region has been turned into a pretty darned effective machine for repairing ships and spouting supplies out to the Antipodes. The state of mind round here has changed so much we hardly know ourselves. Five years ago the San Francisco waterfront was a strictly capital-versus-labor proposition. Of course it’s always been a labor town. Black was black and white was white. The working-class leaders told their boys the business men were trying to introduce fascism. The Chamber of Commerce boys thought Harry Bridges was hellbent for communism. And in a way they were both right.”

“What changed things? Hitler’s jumping Stalin?”

“That wasn’t the whole story. Of course that changed the line of talk of the comrades... but the hiring-hall system really works now.”

“Maybe one of the reasons people are turning on the New Deal all over the country is that so many New Deal measures have worked.”

“How’s that?”

“People forget how badly things were working before the New Deal moved in.”

“Might be.... The best example of the change around here is in the election for mayor we had last week. People had come to feel that the present incumbent, an elderly florist, was hopeless. I don’t suppose he’s any worse now than he has been right along. But everybody suddenly woke up to the fact that he was abject, so we had three other candidates. One was an old time politician who seemed to us to represent simply liquor, prostitution, and gambling—strictly gravy train. Another was a young progressive with what they call a good labor record; he was endorsed by labor. The third was the man who had been president of the American Hawaiian Steamship Company, who was way out front in the employers’ groups and had bought tear gas and brought in scabs to fight the longshoreman’s strike.... Halfway through the campaign the CIO decided their man, the young Galahad with a good labor record, was running behind. They promptly knifed him and switched to the old ward heeler with the gravy train to try to beat the steamship king. The result was that everybody got sore and confused and the steamship magnate got elected, though he spent less money than the other candidates....What I’m trying to bring out is that he couldn’t have been elected without getting a good slice of the labor vote.... Of course he’s changed too. He’s been to Washington on one of the labor boards and he’s probably learned a good deal. He’s a man of ability. I think he’s going to make a very excellent mayor.”

“And the ships are getting loaded.”

“We’re not loading as fast as the East Coast but efficiency is improving all the time. Labor did a little too good a job convincing our longshoremen that they oughtn’t to kill themselves for the boss. Now that the comrades have gone into reverse and are whooping it up for the war effort they aren’t quite so persuasive.

“But we’ve really made great strides. The union hiring halls work well under government supervision. The railroads have simplified the handling of freight trains so that the San Francisco yards now run clear across into the mountain States. The central control boards take a lot of the load off the dispatchers. Trains aren’t run out to the wharves until the boats are ready for them. At the control the position of every train is marked with lights on the board. Switching is done automatically, just like toy trains.”

“Doesn’t that mean that the men of the rank and file are pretty keen for the war effort?”

“You better go ask ‘em.’”

His wife came in to tell us that dinner was ready. Before going to the table we looked down again into the inky gulf of the Bay, as full of busy twinkling lights as the sky overhead.

IV. The Longshoremen Settle Down

Outside it was raining. We were sitting in my small hotel room. Something old fashioned about the lamp and the armchairs and the window curtains, something about the scrubbed white paint on the often repainted woodwork, made me think of a room I’d had years ago overlooking the Old Port in Marseilles. The young man had walked in bareheaded with a longlegged stride, shaking the rain out of his hair and sliding out of his wet raincoat as he came. He didn’t smoke. No thanks, he wouldn’t take a drink. Just getting over a stomach ulcer. Working too hard? Maybe. After we had talked of one thing and another I asked him if getting the waterfront straightened out was such a tough job as all that. Plenty tough, he said.

Then after a pause he leaned forward in his chair and burst out, “God damn it, people in this country are wonderful, they are so wonderful it makes me feel like crying when I think of it.”

He paused again and then started talking eagerly. ’You have to get around out in the Pacific a little to see how much some guys are doing with how little. I was out there four months. I work with the Army though I’m not in the Army. That gives me a better chance. I don’t get tied up with the ritual. They even had me talk to one of the grand moguls in Washington over the phone. He’d sent orders a certain boat had to be turned around within twenty-four hours and somebody had to tell him why it was impossible. Loading ships is a business full of definite limitations. It’s like packing a trunk. There’s a limit to the number of men you can put to work in the space... My, he was mad when I explained the setup to him. He asked me who the hell I was. I was just a mere civilian so there wasn’t anything he could do. It just was not possible....

He leaned back in his chair and moistened his lips with his tongue. Then he brought the fingers of one hand across his forehead with a gesture of brushing away fatigue, and straightened up. “Now at least all the stuff that comes into this town gets loaded and pushed out into the Pacific as fast as they can handle it on the receiving end.

“Well, those guys on some of those islands out there, they just about do the impossible. Honestly they do. Unloading alongside a dock with wharfing facilities and unloading heavy equipment on a coral reef or with lighters on a beach full of mangroves, with nothing to work with but a few hoists and the principle of the lever, is something else again. Enemy action is the least of your troubles. Usually there’s one guy—a corporal or a sergeant or at most a second loot who’s had longshore experience—and he’s expected to unload the stuff and carry it up to the depots in the jungle. And that’s that. He has to imagine up the tools and the men to do it with. What each one tells you is for God’s sake send me a couple guys who know how. Only a couple guys.”

He paused again. “I hope this is the sort of thing you want to hear. I’m so full of it I can’t talk about anything else. Along shore here we’re not doing so badly now. The main trouble is trying to get the boys to put in the kind of work they used to put in in the old days before the strikes. The old speed-up system was slavery and it was stopped and it ought to have been stoppedŠ The longshoremen were down then and now they are up. Harry Bridges did a wonderful job as an organizer. My people weren’t exactly on his side of the fence in that little argument, so we ought to know. . . He got the longshoremen their pork chops. He did it for sincere and idealistic reasons.

...But at running the union once it’s set up he’s no good at all. He can’t carry his people with him.

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