Monday, December 13, 2010

The fourteen years I have been writing about wasn't all peaches and cream.

Far from it.

Alaska is a hard place and the time I spent there was an emotional roller coaster ride. I came to the edge of cracking twice and both of the times either directly or indirectly involved the commercial fishing industry.

If you look at the statistics and the enviornment, you see a crime rate that is a lot higher than New York City's. The rates of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence are staggering.

The worst part of the winter doldrums is actually near the very end of th season about the time the weather breaks and a lot of towns have an annual drunken blowout of some sort. Kodiak used to have the Annual Buskin River Raft Race, which generally could be described as a zoo in the water.

It served a very important purpose in that it gave people something to look forward to for weeks beforehand and some thing for people to talk about for weeks afterward and most of all, something to do. You built yourself a raft.

One year a local bar owner called up the Rainier Brewing Company and they sent us a pallet of sealed factory empties to build a raft with. I suppose they expected something creative like a glued together canoe made of beer cans, but we just slung them all into a chunk of old shrimp net and tied the mess together and rode the bag down the swollen river, getting soaked to near hypothermia.

I recall going under a bridge and some girl offered my pal a drink, which he didn't need, and from the bridge she poured about half a glass of some cocktail down his upraised throat with pinpoint accuracy. Not a drop was spilled.

Why didn't he need the drink? Because the race course had 6 mandatory beer stops!

Of course, the do-gooders made that one go away, and in the process shot themselves in the foot because they took away the safety valve and I imagine there was a lot more wife-beating and serious drug abuse as a result. The year it went away I recall miserably complaining of nothing to look forward to. The man I was commiserating with was an off-duty Kodiak cop and he agreed with me emphatically. I ought to do a piece on ths subject. Someone please remind me to sometime. Seriously.

When I mention the statistics people seem to go into shock, but the weather can make for strange things happening to human beings. People get wierd when the sunlight gets to be in short supply and winter sets in. Crimes of passion are prevalent. Come winter, a disagreement that would generally be settled with either a few words or a simple punch sometimes get settled with knives. The lack of sunlight and continual confinement breed a disease called cabin fever and it can effect people in any or a myraid of different ways.

Quite frankly, it didn't effect me very much as I generally found things to do to keep me occupied.

Still, during the eight-plus years I spent in Kodiak I came to the verge of cracking twice. Some kind of automatic safety valve popped first, though or I swear I would have been carted off to the damned booby hatch. Both of these involved the commercial fishng industry and oddly enough, the second time I let go and a Weeping Willie it was after the best winter I spent there.

The first time was when I qut winter fishing having seen what William Manchester in 'Goodbye, Darkness' refers to as the whore of death. I saw the elephant and found I could no longer go commercial fishing in the winter. I stood on the dock next to the boat and tossed my bag aboard, yet I could not force myself to get aboard. It was very much like Gregory Peck's character in the old movie '12 O'Clock high' where he couldn't force himself into the airplane.

I stood on the dock and stared and fought with myself, lower lip quivering, for almost an hour before I gave up and decided that I wanted to live. In many respects I felt like a guy committing suicide that was holding the pistol to his temple trying to pull the trigger, but just coulden't bring himself to do the deed. When I announced that I was not coming aboard, I felt, so to speak, that I had just put the gun down.

I walked away, headed straight to the nearest ginmill and quckly downed a couple stiff Cognacs.

A while later the boat went down with all hands.

The other time I almost lost it was the morning of 15 April, 1986.

My boat and I had arrived in early September of '85 following a summer long celebration of joy taking her up the Inside Passage and across the Gulf of Alaska. I had left to pick her up in Washington in either late April or early June of '85 and if I recall, we left 6 June '85 for Kodiak and bummed and screwed and drank our way all the way to Kodiak.

My pals in Kodiak had decided I was missing and probably dead so they decided to hold a memorial service for me at the Anchor Bar. I arrive in town a few minutes before, and with the help of a co-conspirator, sneaked into the back room and, much like Tom Sawyer, got to listen to most of his own funeral until someone tried to use my death to shirk out of something he did by pinning it on me. That's when I came charging out and knocked the low-life on his ass, to the amusement of all of my would-be mourners.

I had wintered aboard her and was looking toward a spring cruising season. I had spent the winter readying the boat.
I was looking forward to a long summer cruise of sorts.

The nights of 13-15 April were a bit fitful, as I didn't sleep very well. I kept seeing faces and it occurred to me that as I laid in the rack, an awful lot of my friends were dead. I kept seeing faces of people I knew. They were for the most part, fishermen, pilots and a few odd ducks, but it was pretty certain that all of thhem were now nothing more than rotting corpses.

What compounded things was that in late September the gang of us on the dock that were planning on living aboard had gotten together and shared our plans. There were a dozen of us. Later a terrribly irresponsible family of three moved in, but they were quickly run off after their kid fell off the dock a couple of times. Twice I went into the water to fish their damned kid out and the second time I slapped the father around a bit for being stupid. He tried to press charges, but the harbormaster knew the whole story and theharbor cop told us to go up on the beach and settle it like men.

I came down back onto the pier and explained to the cop that I bore no ill will toward the man anymore now that we had discussed the matter. The cop nodded sagely.

A while later, the other guy came back to the pier sporting the makings of a pretty good black eye and complined to the cop, who explained that because there were no witnesses, and that Alaskan courts don't take much stock in'he said, she said' that it was best to drop the matter. Then he mumbled something to the cop and the cop quietly walked off, shaking his head. The idiot had forgotten there are sometimes more than one round in a fight.

The next day the family was ordered off the dock, and they moved ashore. You have to love Old School Alaskan justice,

The morning of fifteen April there were two of the original dozen left.

Three were dead, one from fishing, another from his lack of knowledge of the Wilderness. He had gone hunting alone and perished in the wilderness. Some time later later someone found his bear-eaten remains.

The third died of his own hand by eating a 12 gauge shotgun.

I wound up taking care of his dog for a few days, the poor mournful animal. Don't say animals have no emotion. That dog sure did. With his master gone, he looked lost.

The other thing I did was to clean up the horrible mess he had made before his bereaved father showed up to claim his son's remains and personal effects. I almost got into trouble with the law for cleaning the mess up because I had tampered with a crime scene. It was one of a damned few showdowns I ever had with the law, and I stood my ground. I told the police officer that I was probably going to be one off the people the bereaved father was going to meet and that no father deserved to see his son's brains stuck to the ceiling.

The cops said I could still be charged and I told them to go ahead and although I'd be fined $10 and get the reprimand of the court as well as the off-the-record thanks of the judge, I win on appeal at the court of public opinion on the streets and they would face nasty comments from a lot of the townspeople.

The two cops looked at each other sheepishly and I walked off and never heard another word about it except one of them quietly thanked me for spending time with the grieving father.

So we have three dead. The married couple in a nearby boat turned on each other and it got vicious. A couple of us had to disarm the pair and keep them from carving each other up. It was an ugly night and they went ashore that night never to return as liveaboards. This brings it up to five.

Another guy wound up in a stateside clinic for several months with some kind of intestinal disease. Now we're at six down.

One guy fell in love and moved ashore with his sweetie. Seven.

One guy damned near died of an overdose. He was evacuated and sent off to some kind of rehab. Eight.

Two guys simply couldn't take it and left town. Ten.

Ten down out of an even dozen. Only two left of fifteen if you count the idiot family of three that got run off in late December.

I was one of two that had wintered successfully and not only had I survived, I had thrived. I was in great physical shape, my boat was ready to go cruising and everything looked peachy, but there was somethng bugging me.

I had been around death and dying too much for too long. In eight + years I had been to about fifty funerals and memorial services and about four or five weddings. This is 100% backwards.

Sure, the occasional accident and empty plate at the table is to be expected, but this was totally out of hand. I was nearing 35 and should have been going to numerous weddings and maybe the funerals of the older people like my friends parents or grandparents, but I was constantly losing people my own age in the prime of life.

I got off my boat and saw the harbor cop walk by. I looked down at the other guy that had wintered. Like me, he was fat and sassy. His boat was ready to fish the spring halibut opening. He had worked on it lovingly all winter. Every hook sharpened, every tub ready.

Then it hit me and I started sobbing uncontrolably and the harbor cop saw me and offered me hiis shoulder and held me as a I sobbed.

"Jesus, Pic! Not you!" he said, in a consoling manner.

I cried and the first words that came out of my mouth were the punchline from an old Bill Maulden cartoon.

"I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages!" I said. And then I spilled it all out about the faces and the fact that most of my friends were dead...or probably would be well ahead of their time.

As I sobbed, he waved the other liveaboard over and quietly told him to cough up something strong to drink. The man boarded my boat and snagged my bottle of Cognac and an open pack of Camels and the cop sat me on the dock bulwarks and administered a pretty good dose of Cognac and handed me a smoke, violating every rule of the police adage of keeping people away from stimulants.

After a while I settled down and he told me to meet him for lunch at the local greasy spoon.

I did, and we had a long talk about things and he told me he almost lost it when I broke down because I was the one he relied on to help things stay straight on the dock!

I got over it, but I when I started making my plans for the cruising season I knew I was not going to return to Kodiak as I had been typecast and the future there looked dim for me. If I stayed there I would remain a carpenter/fisherman for life, and the prospects of a long life looked pretty dim.

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