John Barleycorn HTML version

Chapter 20
The jute mills failed of its agreement to increase my pay to a dollar and a quarter a day,
and I, a free-born American boy whose direct ancestors had fought in all the wars from
the old pre- Revolutionary Indian wars down, exercised my sovereign right of free
contract by quitting the job.
I was still resolved to settle down, and I looked about me. One thing was clear. Unskilled
labour didn't pay. I must learn a trade, and I decided on electricity. The need for
electricians was constantly growing. But how to become an electrician? I hadn't the
money to go to a technical school or university; besides, I didn't think much of schools. I
was a practical man in a practical world. Also, I still believed in the old myths which
were the heritage of the American boy when I was a boy.
A canal boy could become a President. Any boy who took employment with any firm
could, by thrift, energy, and sobriety, learn the business and rise from position to position
until he was taken in as a junior partner. After that the senior partnership was only a
matter of time. Very often--so ran the myth--the boy, by reason of his steadiness and
application, married his employ's daughter. By this time I had been encouraged to such
faith in myself in the matter of girls that I was quite certain I would marry my employer's
daughter. There wasn't a doubt of it. All the little boys in the myths did it as soon as they
were old enough.
So I bade farewell for ever to the adventure-path, and went out to the power plant of one
of our Oakland street railways. I saw the superintendent himself, in a private office so
fine that it almost stunned me. But I talked straight up. I told him I wanted to become a
practical electrician, that I was unafraid of work, that I was used to hard work, and that all
he had to do was look at me to see I was fit and strong. I told him that I wanted to begin
right at the bottom and work up, that I wanted to devote my life to this one occupation
and this one employment.
The superintendent beamed as he listened. He told me that I was the right stuff for
success, and that he believed in encouraging American youth that wanted to rise. Why,
employers were always on the lookout for young fellows like me, and alas, they found
them all too rarely. My ambition was fine and worthy, and he would see to it that I got
my chance. (And as I listened with swelling heart, I wondered if it was his daughter I was
to marry.)
"Before you can go out on the road and learn the more complicated and higher details of
the profession," he said, "you will, of course, have to work in the car-house with the men
who install and repair the motors. (By this time I was sure that it was his daughter, and I
was wondering how much stock he might own in the company.)