A cooper makes barrels; I saw that right away as we turned into the yard of Mr. Pembroke’s workshop. Barrels stood in front of the shop, all along one side of the building, and behind it, down a long pier where men were busy rolling them onto a sailing ship. We had barrels on the farm—one by the side of the house to catch the rain, one in the barn to hold feed—they had always been there as if grown from the ground like tree stumps. It never occurred to me that someone had to make them, or that the world needed so many. I tried to reconcile myself to the idea that I would soon be making them.
Mr. Pembroke came out of the shop to meet us. He was lean and sinewy and wore a gray chin beard; he looked to me very much like a billy goat. He carried a cane that he did not seem to need for walking, and he never smiled. My father and Mr. Pembroke spoke quietly for some minutes then brought me into the conversation. After introductions and a few words of greeting, Mr. Pembroke read the contract. It was very formal and somewhat hard to follow, but I think I understood most of it. I would be indentured to Mr. Pembroke for seven years. During that time, I would be his servant, and in return, he would teach me the art and mysteries of cooperage. He would provide a bed and a suit of work clothes, an evening meal and a lunch of bread and cheese. I was forbidden to drink distilled spirits, ale or cider while in his service and I was not to frequent taverns, alehouses, or any locations where hard drink was served. I was not to marry, associate with lewd women, or visit bawdy houses. Work hours were sunup to sundown, Monday through Saturday. Sunday was a day of rest during which I would attend a Christian service; the denomination would be of my own choosing though he frowned upon Universalism.
The rules and duties seemed reasonable to me; I was accustomed to long days and hard work. I had no inclination toward hard drink and lewd women—at that time, I could not imagine either in my life. We stood outside the door to the workshop, and I could see men inside cutting wood and assembling barrels. The aroma of the sawdust was fresh and appealing. Maybe life at the cooperage would not be so bad.
As we spoke, a boy about my own age came through the door several times to fetch some long planks from a woodpile. I tried to catch his eye, but each time he only scowled back. On one trip he made a sharp turn and knocked my elbow with a wooden plank. Mr. Pembroke saw it and gave the boy a shove with the tip of his cane, so hard that the boy fell to the ground, the wood tumbling over him.
“Watch where you are going, you ignorant lout.” Mr. Pembroke shouted.
The boy shouted back from the ground, “Keep the fools out of my way then.”
Mr. Pembroke was livid, started beating the boy’s head and shoulders with his cane. “You’ll not sass me, boy, you’ll not sass me. The boy you hit is from civilized stock; if you pay attention, you may learn some manners from him.”
As the boy scrambled to get up from the wood and away from Mr. Pembroke’s cane he gave me a look that chilled me to the bone.
“Oh, I believe it’s he who’ll do the learning,” He said, rushing through the door ahead of another blow.
The boy’s name was Stricker—they called him Pip, I never did learn his true given name. He too was indentured to Mr. Pembroke, and he was not happy about sharing that job, such as it was, with another boy. I tried my best to make friends with Pip, but he would have nothing to do with me. In fact, he took every opportunity to make my life miserable. He would belittle me to Mr. Pembroke, tripping me up when I was carrying wood and drawing the master’s attention to my clumsiness. He would hide my boots, steal my food, put sawdust in my bed—I lived in constant vigilance, but still he would catch me off guard.
My job at the cooperage consisted of little more than carrying wood into the workroom and rolling the finished barrels outside. I would stack barrels, count barrels, and load barrels into wagons and ships. After I week on the job I had become quite familiar with barrels, but I had learned nothing of their manufacture. Sometimes I would stand and watch as the men worked the wood and metal, but Mr. Pembroke was never far away and would poke me with his cane to keep me moving. When I asked him about learning the cooper’s trade, he told me I wasn’t ready. I wondered how many barrels I would need to roll out the door to be ready.
Sometimes when the men were beveling the staves or hammering the rings—my estimation of what was being done, I wasn’t there long enough to learn a proper cooper’s vocabulary—the workmen would need an extra hand, and they would call for Pip. He would run to their aid and follow their direction and help them accomplish the task. Sometimes they would even let him use their tools, and as he worked in these brief moments, I could see he was learning their craft. This was the only way I would ever learn the trade of cooperage and Pip would never allow me that opportunity.
One afternoon in my second week there, I was sweeping the floor in the workroom, and two of the workmen, Will Stevens and Bill Johnson were assembling a barrel. One of them (I couldn’t tell Bill from Will) called out for Pip. Mr. Pembroke had sent Pip on an errand outside the building, and he was not within earshot. They both called out again for Pip then realizing Pip was gone they looked at me.
“Pratt, come over here."
I ran to where they were working and took hold of what they asked me to, while the men fitted a metal ring around the staves. Just then Pip entered the room and, incensed at seeing me helping Will and Bill ran over and knocked me down. The barrel we were working on fell to pieces as Pip, and I wrestled on the floor. When Mr. Pembroke entered Pip jumped up and pointed at the mess and shouted, “Look what Pratt done, Mr. Pembroke.”
Mr. Pembroke rushed over and started beating me with his cane, shouting, “Damn you, Pratt, I told you to stay away from the workmen.”
That was the point that I realized I was not cut out for cooperage. I continued working obediently, doing all and only what Mr. Pembroke requested. As much as possible I gave Pip a wide berth; I wanted no more trouble. Every waking hour I spent searching my mind for a way out of my situation but nothing came to me save packing my bag and walking away and that, for many reasons, seemed impossible. Then destiny took a hand.
I was rolling a finished barrel out the side door—the largest were kept on the north wall, near the door (fear of theft, I believe)—when I heard some music playing through the trees and across the road. A circus, I thought, or a traveling medicine man drumming up business. But I recognized the tune as a hymn I had sung in church. Why would a circus or a salesman play a hymn? I climbed atop a barrel to try and get a look. Through the trees, I could barely make out a wagon standing in an empty lot across Water Street. Behind the wagon was a platform upon which stood a man in a black coat and behind him sat a young woman dressed in white playing a lap organ. A crowd had gathered around them and some in the crowd were singing along. The woman’s voice thought was the purest and strongest, sailing above the rest on the high notes.
My vision was still obstructed by the trees on this side of the road, and I wanted a better view. I hefted another large barrel atop the first then rolled another over to use as a step. I climbed to the top and there, standing easily eight feet above the ground, I could see them quite clearly. They were itinerant preachers— trouble-makers my father would call them.
The girl put the organ on the chair then stood by the man’s side as he led his flock in prayer. He was tall and gaunt, clean shaven, wearing a black suit and white shirt. The girl stood next to him, as tall as his shoulders, wearing a simple white dress—father and daughter I guessed. Her light brown hair was long, tied back with a white ribbon and dancing in the ocean breezes. I could not take my eyes off of her; even from such a distance, she was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen.
Then something knocked the bottom barrel shaking the whole tower supporting me. I waved my arms trying to keep my balance, but in an instant, there was nothing under my feet. I dropped like a rock to the ground below. The barrels upon which I had stood were now rolling swiftly down the pier, knocking down others like nine-pins. The chaos continued until a good half-dozen barrels ended up in Salem harbor. I tried to get up, but Mr. Pembroke was soon on me with his cane. He knocked me back to the ground and continued to pummel me until I lost my senses.
When I opened my eyes again, Mr. Pembroke had his cane raised to strike once more, but his arm was stayed by the grip of an angel in a white gown, no doubt sent by God to save me. Her hair was the color of a fawn in spring, and her eyes were blue flames.
“You’ll not strike this boy again!” the angel cried.
As my eyes regained focus, I saw that the preacher was there too, and all those who had been praying with him had gathered around me. Then I realized it was not an angel, but someone just as heavenly— the girl who played the organ and sang.
“I thought you were an angel from God,” I said to her.
“Hear that Mirabile?” the preacher said, “an angel from God.” Then he turned and spoke to me loudly, as if speaking to a young child, “Tell us boy, what happened here, why was this man beating you?”
“I was standing on the barrels,” I said, “trying to see across the street.”
“Trying to hear my words?” he asked.
“Brothers and sisters,” the preacher looked up to the crowd, “the boy was beaten for trying to hear the word of the Lord.”
“He was beaten for being an ignorant fool.” Mr. Pembroke said.
“Let’s give him a taste of his own medicine.” Said a voice from the crowd and several others concurred.
Mr. Pembroke raised his cane against the crowd, “He is my servant, and I’ll treat him as I will.”
One of the men tried to grab Mr. Pembroke, but the preacher raised his hand. “Jesus said ‘turn the other cheek.’ We will not resort to violence.” Then to Mr. Pembroke, he said, “And neither shall you, sir.”
Mr. Pembroke saw how close he was to being torn apart by the crowd and pondered his options. The men from the workshop had gathered at the door; most were bigger than anyone in the crowd. But could they be counted on? Was a fight worth starting?
“You take him then; he’s no damned good to me.” Mr. Pembroke said and walked back into the cooperage.
The preacher and the girl helped me to my feet, and with an arm around each of their shoulders, I hobbled to their wagon.