John Barleycorn HTML version
I was barely turned fifteen, and working long hours in a cannery. Month in and month
out, the shortest day I ever worked was ten hours. When to ten hours of actual work at a
machine is added the noon hour; the walking to work and walking home from work; the
getting up in the morning, dressing, and eating; the eating at night, undressing, and going
to bed, there remains no more than the nine hours out of the twenty-four required by a
healthy youngster for sleep. Out of those nine hours, after I was in bed and ere my eyes
drowsed shut, I managed to steal a little time for reading.
But many a night I did not knock off work until midnight. On occasion I worked eighteen
and twenty hours on a stretch. Once I worked at my machine for thirty-six consecutive
hours. And there were weeks on end when I never knocked off work earlier than eleven
o'clock, got home and in bed at half after midnight, and was called at half-past five to
dress, eat, walk to work, and be at my machine at seven o'clock whistle blow.
No moments here to be stolen for my beloved books. And what had John Barleycorn to
do with such strenuous, Stoic toil of a lad just turned fifteen? He had everything to do
with it. Let me show you. I asked myself if this were the meaning of life--to be a work-
beast? I knew of no horse in the city of Oakland that worked the hours I worked. If this
were living, I was entirely unenamoured of it. I remembered my skiff, lying idle and
accumulating barnacles at the boat-wharf; I remembered the wind that blew every day on
the bay, the sunrises and sunsets I never saw; the bite of the salt air in my nostrils, the
bite of the salt water on my flesh when I plunged overside; I remembered all the beauty
and the wonder and the sense-delights of the world denied me. There was only one way
to escape my deadening toil. I must get out and away on the water. I must earn my bread
on the water. And the way of the water led inevitably to John Barleycorn. I did not know
this. And when I did learn it, I was courageous enough not to retreat back to my bestial
life at the machine.
I wanted to be where the winds of adventure blew. And the winds of adventure blew the
oyster pirate sloops up and down San Francisco Bay, from raided oyster-beds and fights
at night on shoal and flat, to markets in the morning against city wharves, where peddlers
and saloon-keepers came down to buy. Every raid on an oyster-bed was a felony. The
penalty was State imprisonment, the stripes and the lockstep. And what of that? The men
in stripes worked a shorter day than I at my machine. And there was vastly more romance
in being an oyster pirate or a convict than in being a machine slave. And behind it all,
behind all of me with youth abubble, whispered Romance, Adventure.
So I interviewed my Mammy Jennie, my old nurse at whose black breast I had suckled.
She was more prosperous than my folks. She was nursing sick people at a good weekly
wage. Would she lend her "white child" the money? WOULD SHE? What she had was