Clyde List at Boeings

Sherwood Scroll, May 1977
Americans pride themselves on being very individualistic. We have always admired the single family farm for example. Thomas Jefferson wanted the whole country to be that way. One big family farm with us Americans on the inside behind the hedgerow and "Them" on the other side. Even people born and raised in the city want to get back to the farm even if they never lived on a farm. They hang pictures of the farm on their walls. I guess that's why our office buildings have so many walls instead of windows.

Ten years ago I worked at Boeing Aircraft Company, in a building that had no windows. You didn't know what time of day it was or whether the weather was cloudy or bright. You couldn't see out. To get into the building, or even to walk next to it, you had to wear a special badge with your picture on it. Once you got past the security guards and inside, it was kind of nice. There was very little to distract you from doing your job. If the weather was rotten you didn't feel rotten. If it was nice out you didn't start daydreaming about being on the farm.

If you decide not to work at Boeings anymore you go to this office on the other end of the plant where a lady reminds you that you can not go back the way you came. In order to find your car, you need to to walk all the way around the fifty-some acre plant, with a storm fence always at your left side... a much longer journey than you had planned on.

View from 6th Floor during War Protest on 1st Ave.
Feb. 18, 1970
After I worked in this building on the outskirts of Seattle (in Renton) I got a job in downtown Seattle, on First Avenue. This building was owned by a small Jewish family and had nothing to do with Boeings. It had six floors and each floor had very large, ancient wood-frame windows. There were two things to look at through these windows. Most of us had nothing to look at but the windows in the building on the other side of the street. They belonged to an old hotel filled with poor and retired people. It was hard not to be distracted by what was happening at the hotel. Sometimes they would be looking back at us. Once, an old man raised some sort of bottle to me. I assumed he was saluting my superior position in life, since I was on the sixth floor of my building and he was only on the third floor of his. There was a shoe shine parlor just next door to the hotel. Some pleasingly plump middle aged ladies with long hair worked there. One day a policeman purchased some hiking clothes at our store and the employees from downstairs hurried up to the Sixth Floor to watch him and a lady standing in the big picture window of the shoe shine parlor doorway, making hand gestures at one another and shaking their heads. As soon as they shook hands, all hell broke loose. Police and long haired ladies were suddenly spilling across the sidewalk. The lady was waving a hammer in the air but did no damage. There was a dirty book store next to the shoe shine parlor. The facade of this book store eatery was decorated with large paintings imitative of the ancient artworks of the Pacific Northwest Indians. It was not unusual to see an ancient Pacific Northwest Indian or two crawling by and sleeping in front of this tribute to his people. There was also a fairly good cafe there. We employees occasionally met there for breakfast. The cook used to laugh and tell stories about all the people he'd serve. He couldn't believe it himself, he said: the customer who went out, got into an argument with the Seattle Police and committed suicide there and then on the spot. We all laughed with relief and no little amazement at how it must feel to be sitting in a First Avenue eatery, calmly discussing sports and weather with a person who is just minutes away from killing himself.

I worked on the Sixth Floor, the top floor. The Olympic Mountains were visible from up there. The view was spectacular. At certain times of the Spring and Fall, employees from the lower floors would crowd to the Sixth Floor and even climb out onto fire escape with a pair of field glasses borrowed from the Sporting Goods Department. Through these lenses, the mountains were bathed in a rose colored light that made them seem more like roses than mountains. "Man, ain't that something though?" was the comment heard over and over again. "Man, ain't that something?" It was a view that would cost you plenty of money anywhere else in town.

6th Floor View of Puget Sound with 1st Ave. Hotel at Lower Left
Seattle 1970

When I got a turn with the field glasses I spent all my time focusing upon a remarkably large article of women's underwear hanging in the window of the man who had waved the whiskey bottle at me. I tried to get my side of the street interested in it. But not this time. Even the guys from Shipping and Receiving were too fascinated with the horizon to lay their eyes on anything else.

Police Defending Federal Blg. at 1st & Washington
Feb. 18, 1970
There was one day when it was so foggy that there was nothing to see through any of the windows at all. There were no mountains and no hotel to see. There was certainly nothing for people downstairs to come up for. It was on that gloomy day that I learned the most important lesson of all about Seattle. The music on the radio was interrupted by a Special Announcement. This was when they used to interrupt the program with special sound effects that were enough to make you picture a dozen Soviet missles overhead (the Soviet Union was our favorite nightmare then) as they are just beginning their descent and grasp the fact that you have just enough time to put your head between your legs and pray there's a God. The actual news wasn't quite as bad as that, but it was bad enough. Boeing Company announced late this afternoon that 17,000 employees have been laid off and that more layoffs are anticipated.

"Whew! That was close!" I remember thinking. I was lucky. I quit working there before the lay-offs began. I never behaved well in an emergency, laid off situation. I could only imagine the stunned expressions on those who had been my fellow workers as they turned in their badges and went to the office on the other side of the campus and discovered how long the route was back to their cars.

And this is where the lesson came in. Within a few weeks the management where I worked was laying off people too. The unemployment rate was reaching 19 percent, similar to what the United States as a whole experienced during the Great Depression. A sign appeared on the edge of town: "Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn off the lights?"

It was only a matter of time before I realized that, in Seattle, it doesn't matter whether you work at Boeing Aircraft Company or not. Your turn comes anyway. I got in line at the Employment Office on Taylor Street with all the former Boeings employees. I remember thinking that being an American doesn't guarantee the satisfaction you're supposed to get when you go to an American school and the teachers open your eyes to the fact that as an American, you're an individual, and nothing more.

Copyright 2007 by Clyde List

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