I was all packed. I’d stayed up all night taping jazz and reggae since I would be far away from my favorite music for months. It was upstairs at Blaine Street on Lake Union in Seattle. Even though it was late May the weather was awful.
Dad was driving me to the airport. We said our farewells and in no time I was aloft for Anchorage. I had no reservations that this would be a good move. There was good money to be made if I was willing to work hard for long hours. There were many fringe benefits. Foremost among them was the Grand Adventure.
Dad had been in Dutch Harbor during the war and I knew it had been attacked by the Japanese in WWII. The mystery lie in what I’d see and the people I’d meet. I knew also that I’d be working with crab and it is a tasty delicacy.
The plane flying into Anchorage takes a hard turn and the range of mountains come into full view. I transfer there to a smaller plane that carries 40 or so. I can tell many are doing the same as I am. Big, strong, young guys, some loud and boisterous. I get a window seat but theres not much to see through the clouds.
Along the Aleutian Islands, we go well beyond our destination to drop off passengers on Attu. Its slightly before dark when we touch down on this treeless, tundra covered rock. We all troop to what passes as a depot. Immediately you can see what use the US Army put this place to, rows and rows of barracks, buildings of all kinds, Quonset huts, large, gray bunkers installed high up on many peaks. One of the tallest is named Bali Hoo by Jack London, ostensibly. I subsequently came to climb it 5 times during the course of my stay. The largest processor operated by Vida Foods was an enormous 400 craft known as the Vida, but this was not to be my home.
My residence for the next 6 months was to be the Viceroy. Named after the cigarette, whose red, white and gold emblem was emblazoned on the side of the vessel that is approximately 120 feet long. I was later to learn that it was sister ship to the notorious spy ship Pueblo, that was captured by the North Koreans.
The porthole of my 4 bed cabin was directly below the Viceroy symbol right at mid-ships. I still had one more thing to do before I could sleep and that was to get rain gear from the purser and charge it to my account until I worked it off. Each bed had a tall, metal locker, a couple foot lockers, and a small table that jutted out from under the porthole. In the middle of the cell was a post painted like a candy cane.
I was totally exhausted and grabbed the top bunk on the left and tried to rest. All the noise and my excitement made this nearly impossible. Then, a friend from Seattle, who knew I was on the way and worked on the Vida found me, "Come On, I’ll give you a tour of the Vida before you sleep". I felt a little better, so joined him, walking along the edge of a small grove of cedar trees that had been planted by US army troops 50 years prior.
Curving along the road, the enormous ship came into view and we entered by a portal in the side. The shrimp operation was in full swing and reeked. I held my breath and headed for the galley. I met a couple guys but really felt I had to sleep.
It would be a few days before the crab season was to begin so I had time to explore my new surroundings. The ship itself was pretty basic. A dozen or so cabins with 4 bunks to most of them on two levels.
Below, the processing area, consisting primarily of two long conveyor belts. The first an extruding line. Huge, netted bags of crab would be emptied into a bin for the butchers, who wore chain mail aprons, and would grab each one of these slow moving crustaceans and hold the back of it to his stomach. 2 large dull axes were mounted in front of a big basket with a grinder like hopper between them. With a deliberate stroke the crab would be bisected, sometimes letting out a low squeak as it was split in two. Both halves would be tossed into the basket while the top shell and whatever guts would be chewed up and dumped in the grinder.
When the basket was full, it would be lifted by a chain into an enormous vat of boiling water. Then the contortions and squeaks of the crabs all occurred at once, a most unsettling sound. After 20 minutes or so, about the time it took to load another basket, the cooked crab, now a dark red color, would be hoisted into a cold water bath before going to the extruding line.
My first job and one that I excelled at was as a giller. This position set the pace for the whole operation. Tom was the lead man and stood on one side, I on the other. We wore special red gloves with a rough texture on them. Grabbing a cooked half of crab, we scrapped the gray green muck of gills from the shoulder and passed it onto the cutter. I did this quite a bit also. A vertical, serrated blade made this an easy job. The hard shell of the crab being rendered soft by the cooking.
Now the legs and shoulders were tossed onto the belt to be handled next by blowers, who would grab the shoulder or knuckle section, pull them apart, shove one end into a water spigot and with a knee, push a lever that would shoot the meat out onto another line where the packing was done. People lined both sides of the operation and this is where you couldnt help but get wet. If you didnt insert the knuckles just right the blast of cold water would come right back in your face or the blower on the other side would douse you.
Sometimes youd get squirted on purpose as a joke and often this would degenerate into a water fight affecting the whole line. The next job took the most skill and was the least desirable. The dreaded rollers. It consisted of two gigantic, black rubber cylinders, flushed with water rolling in opposite directions against each other. Three or four fellows would stand in front of these whirling pins, grab a leg and insert it tip first. The meat then getting squeezed onto a belt that would continue to the packing line.
The hazard here was the risk of getting your fingers caught in the pins since if you didnt let go of the leg in time it would pull your hand into the rollers. There was a switch to reverse the rollers if this happened but by then the damage would be done and most workers on the rollers had bruised finger tips. This operation was best performed without gloves since the rubber gloves were more likely to get sucked into the machine, but the cold water rendered fingers numb and also increased the risk. The one good thing about this job is that it was easiest to pilfer crabmeat. Simply holding out your hand and the whole delicious leg would be ready to pop into your mouth.
The packing line on the Viceroy was manned by women. Their 3’ x 6" white, cardboard box would be before them that was first lined with three layers of whole crab legs, then smaller pieces. At the end of the line was the black light tent. This was the only position where one could sit down on an overturned garbage can. Injured employees had priority in this position and it was highly coveted by others. Besides being able to sit down, the job was away from the eyes of the supervisor and was fairly easy. All that was required was to pick through the shredded crab coming through and remove bits of shell that would be illuminated by the ultra violet light.
This position also provided the most laughs for practical jokes and the only refuge from sporadic water fights. On occasion, a particularly large crab would be set on the line and allowed to enter the tented space. Invariably the scared workers, (women that is, who never came near live crabs) would flee in terror to whoops of laughter from the perpetrators.
There were other positions avidly sought after. The pay was the same but the labor was more relaxed and the extra hours added up. You had to be on someones good side to be on the glazing crew. These workers loaded the full cartons of crab into freezing baths, then stacked them into the lowest deck where the refrigeration unit kept things frozen until the delivery ship arrived, when all crew members would be pressed into service to load it. I only served on this crew occasionally but did land an extra job hosing down the area between shifts and during meal breaks.
Like virtually all members of the crew, male and female, I was searching for romance, someone with whom to share the long hours, perhaps move in with, and generally share the good times. Since the Viceroy had a limited crew, we single crew members also investigated options on the Vida where there were four times the numbers.
On my first full day, my intention was to hike an 800 foot mountain near the dock where the ship was berthed. A trail through the cedar grove wove its way along a waterway that sheltered a submarine installation. Naturally, the leviathans were long gone and only the storage area remained. It was a huge structure, showing its 30 some years of dilapidation. There was not much to explore here, the long tracks used to haul the subs up to dry-dock had been stripped of its valuable metal long ago and only the wooden substructure remained.
My path then began to ascend rather dramatically. I remember it as a bright, sunny day but only in the mid 50s or so. In spite of the cool, I was warmed by my exertion and soon was down to my T-shirt. In these days, I was a devotee of sunbathing in the nude and after hiking half way I decided to rest au natural. A natural depression in the tundra provided seclusion and shelter from the wind. I stripped and laid down on the soft grass using my rolled up pants as a pillow.
Time passed with graceful indifference as I lay there, looking up into the afternoon sky. Eagles circling high overhead, and ravens performing lazy, somersault like maneuvers while emitting curious sounds that were almost human. The warm sun felt wonderful on my face and only sound was the distant hum of the processing plant along with the birds. I must have lain there quite awhile for I could tell that my skin had achieved some color. It was near dinner time so I postponed the summit for now and returned to the galley of the Viceroy.
There were many other crew members waiting for the repast and my eyes focused directly on the prettiest lady among them. My fresh tan and long hair and frame made me stand out and even though these were days when my natural shyness was more pronounced, I was determined to connect with this girl. Only one problem. As I loaded my plate with fresh salad and even fresher crab and sat down at the end of the table she was at, I looked up to see our supervisor come over and sit directly beside her.
Under hushed conversation, I was to learn who she was. Her name was Anne and through her relationship with the lead, she had recently transferred from the Vida to serve as housekeeper aboard our craft. She and the lead shared one of the few 2 person cabins and it seemed obvious that she was off limits. I would catch her looking my way and acknowledge her with a smile, knowing I would at least get to know her a bit as I made friends with the rest of the crew.
Among my roommates was Tom, a kid from Queen Anne Hill in Seattle who was my age and who with his first paycheck bought a small stereo from someone finishing his contract. This made for great times in our dinky space. No one had even heard of reggae and I took pleasure introducing it to the musicians among us. Also, Joe, a refugee of the infamous "Love Family", whose members were normally restricted from leaving Queen Anne Hill and were required to wear long distinctive cloaks and go by the name of ‘man‘ or ‘woman’ until they received their attribute, i.e. Faith, Hope, Charity etc.; and this was what every one called you. Joe’s name might have been "intoxicant" for he got loaded every chance he got. He was a very likable fellow however, could play a little guitar and was a Dylan fan like myself.
The other guy in our space was Dave, from Tumwater, whos father worked at the Olympia Brewery and had promised him a job if he could prove himself. He had come here to work as his way of doing that. He had come up with a partner, Dick, whos blond hair was nearly as long as my own and was soon to move in with us after Tom was fired and sent home for breaking the no drug rule. Trying to sneak a reefer between shifts, he was found out and forced to pay his own way back to Seattle.
I rendered a few of these faces in a flimsy newsprint tablet I had brought with me and took many photos with an antique box camera I had also brought along.
Work began to pick up, and soon I had no time for sketching, hiking or much else but work and sleep. Sucking down cigarettes, I was forced to forfeit an hour of pay by being two minutes late clocking in finishing my butt.
When work finally did slack off a bit, beach parties would instantly form. Giant bonfires would signal the location and workers would bring beer, cracked crab and musical instruments to share. I blew a mean harp in those days, my favorite being a short vest pocket type. A couple blues aficionados and I worked up a couple numbers to impress the girls and we were a hit at these gatherings.
Our other diversion was across the water in Unalaska. A mix-mash of buildings, mainly used for storage, lined the Eastern shore. Two mercantile shops carried anything that might be needed at exorbitant prices of course, but at least credit could be had. Up the road it was strictly cash and carry.
The Elbow Room has the reputation of being one of the toughest bar in the world and this would be hard to dispute. Nearly every time I entered for my customary Black Russian, a fracas would erupt, tables over turn and fists fly. Even on sedate occasions when an inebriated patron would take a dancer to his fancy and try to cut in, a row would inevitably ensue. Im sure the brass bell is still suspended over the bar. When wrung, drinks were on the ringer - barwide. As this was the only bar in town, no IDs were checked and the drinks, though stiff in liquor, were also steep in price. The juke box was heavily laced with country western but had enough R & B to suit me and I rarely failed to acquire a dance partner.
As one song was ending, I glanced around to see a charming looking lady return my gaze. Without even asking each other, we danced the next tune together across the dance floor from each other. We came together half way through the song in the middle of the dance floor. She asked my name and invited me to share her table. Over a second and then a third Black Russian we came to know each other. After another dance or two I was beginning to become enraptured. She didnt tell me she had a date with her and when he came over she gave him the brush off. Taking him aside, I explained my ignorance of his connection with her and he let it go. Time was getting short and my shift was to begin in six hours, so I bid farewell without making another date.
Days would go by, this being the height of Tanner crab season. These smaller crabs, with their harder shells were difficult to process, but the King Crabs would be a breeze I was told and were even tastier.
One evening, playing poker in the galley, Renee, a rather tough broad, came in and declared the munchies. With the pantry locked, no treats were to be had. Next to the pantry door was an opening where dishes were kept and picked up for meals. With my long arms I was able to reach through the opening and turn the inside knob with my fingers and gain entry. A complete free-for-all ensued and goodies of all kinds were made off with. No one let on I was the culprit responsible.
My hours added up and soon my gear was paid off as well as my air fare, which would be returned to me if I completed my six months.
My first real chance to hike was two weeks after my arrival. I planned to scale Bali Hoo with three fellows who were even more anxious than I. Roughly a two mile walk along army roads, flanked by semi-demolished buildings attacked by Japanese forces 30 years before, led to the base of the mountain. We passed by the hospital which had the most eerie feeling about it, also was trashed and obviously had been struck during the bombardment. The atmosphere was full of the vibration of pain and suffering, but I felt compelled to linger and soak it in, feeling departed spirits and intense suffering. I was relieved of this finally as we began our ascent.
Early summer flowers, pink and yellow, contrasted vividly with the dark green tundra, but mostly were dwarf size and it was necessary to pick one to study it properly. Many resembled mini-orchids with lively patterns and dramatic shapes. The springy tundra wasnt very easy to climb up. Feet would give way, and it was impossible to ascertain where firm footing was. A road, reaching half way up, was further down the beach, but we all desired a challenge. An undeclared race to the small shed on the summit speeded our climb and I was the second to reach it. Various weathered names were carved into the shack and I searched for my fathers in vain. The vast Bering Sea lay before us and the curvature of the globe could be clearly seen. Scattered clouds were accumulating in the distance and it was apparent the weather would soon deteriorate. Happily, our descent was an exercise in frivolity. Like kids jumping on their parents bed, we bounced down the mountain side, rolling and somersaulting over the soft tundra and we were at the bottom in an eighth of the time it took us to climb it and were completely satisfied with ourselves.
Hiking back, I noticed a stand of spruce trees, most diseased, mature but scrawny. Wondering aloud how they came to be, I heard how early Russian Orthodox missionaries had planted them many years ago.
From my experiences with homemade cabins on Magnolia Beach, I entertained ideas regarding vacant army buildings along the shore facing the sea. I wasnt the only one and soon my desire became an obsession. I had recommended Dutch Harbor to a carpenter friend back in Seattle and he had preceded me up North. He had secured a room at the end of the barracks that he was willing to share if I would assist in the construction and upkeep. When time allowed, we would scrounge lumber, windows and whatever furnishings could be had.
Naturally, there were no lights or running water and it had to be locked to prevent lamps and things from getting swiped. It was my hope that I could use this space to reconnect with my solitary side as well as a spot where romantic liaisons could develop. The pounding surf outside the windows seemed to ensure this prediction but I was not yet in tune to decipher it.
It took mail and news from the outside world many days, sometimes weeks to reach us back then. Therefore, when Nixon resigned it took us some time to find out about it. Usually news of recent events would come through new arrivals. So much of our lives had nothing to do with the rest of the globe that I was content to ignore what was going on and concentrate on my immediate life.
I was getting to know many people, all who had various reasons for being there. Some were working off debts while escaping creditors. Some were running from the law or troubled relationships or family. All had something to prove to themselves and I was no exception. With no one aware of my past, there were no preconceptions about my character and I felt free to explore sides of my personality that even I didnt know existed.
About half way between our ship and Bali Hoo stood an empty water tower, it's deck encircling gives a 360 degree view of the surrounding scene showing the path the Japanese bombers used during their strike. Planes now flying overhead were simply bush pilots and commuter planes. An opening through the top gave access to the interior and a long ladder down to the bottom of the central pipe, I didnt descend that way but enjoyed the echo effects within the tank. Taking out my harmonica I blasted a few riffs.
There were Indian artifacts to be uncovered. After a particularly drenching down pour it was possible to come to the beach and find arrowheads of black obsidian washed down from their deposit. It seemed as though many items had significance to me. A green five sided rock captured my attention, I picked it up after kicking it a few times, carried it back and have kept it all those years. My own "touchstone" that connects me with that time whenever I hold it.
Friends came and went but the money was nowhere what I expected. Due to a protracted dispute between the fishermen and the Game department, the season was not declared open until certain measures were guaranteed and both sides refused to back down. The situation refused to improve and though I enjoyed the opportunity to hike, fish and spend time with friends it was not what I set out to do.
Things finally came to a head and our skipper decided to sail across the Gulf of Alaska to the far side of Kodiak where crab fishing had resumed. It was sad saying goodbye to the lady I had become close to but my affections were also with another who was part of the crew. I and a few others had decided to end our employment once we arrived at Kodiak. The savings to fly from there home instead of Dutch Harbor would offset the forfeiture of the full contract.
As the Viceroy passed the coastline into the open sea I was struck by the immensity of the North Pacific and felt a special respect for those watery elements. The sky darkened and the waves rose as the players in the casual poker game in the galley started dropping out one by one to take their bunks with the effects of seasickness taking hold. I too was stricken and joined the Captain on the bridge where it was possible to step outside and breathe the fresh air.
It took a couple days before we anchored in a secluded bay and had the processing line in operation. I was able to take a long hike with a few others to a remote cannery and it felt wonderful to get my feet on terra firma. I still had made up my mind to return home with the earnings I had managed to save and scheduled my flight to Kodiak and then on to Seattle.
As it happened the object of my affection required some dental care and would be on my flight to Kodiak. I said my goodbyes and gave away the gear I no longer needed. We exchanged knowing looks as we climbed aboard the seaplane and roared into the sky.
Decorum prevents me from describing the night we shared. She is a beautiful lady and I'm pleased to consider her a special loving friend. She left early the next morning and I took up a few day's residence in the Beachcombers Inn, an old cruise ship hauled up on land just outside of town.
I was pleasantly surprised to see reggae music on the jukebox and even more surprised to hear the house band playing it. A couple other crew members stayed here also and flew back with me. I had originally wanted to return on the Alaska Ferry System but the cost prevented this and one of my friends needed to borrow airfare from me to get himself home.
A magnificent adventure. I felt confident and ready to take on a new challenge. Little did I realize my next trip would completely and irrevocably alter my life.
The next chapter details the extraordinary events relating to the swimming accident that paralyzed my body and refocused my painting.