When I was packing to move in December Julie and I threw away probably 1,000 photographs, maybe more. It felt both good and bad. At this point, I’m tired of carrying around boxes with doubles of blurry pictures of me doing nothing in particular 20 years ago. But I was also afraid that I would forget things without being able to look at photos every couple of years. But I think it’ll work out. We saved the most important ones and I scanned a few a couple months ago, including this one.
This photograph was taken in 1994, in a cabin on a 225-foot factory trawler called The Royal King. This ship was one of three in the fleet for what was then called Royal Sea Fisheries. This was a company based in Seattle that operated in Alaska and caught pollack, cod, and sole for the American and Japanese fishing markets. I worked on this ship for six months over the course of two seasons. I did this because I had some debt after college and it seemed like a good way to clean it up quickly. My understanding was that I could work for a few months, spend no money other than for cigarettes (which were something like $15 a carton, pre-tobacco settlement + international waters), and get a large chunk of cash at the end.
There’s a lot going on in this photo. Out the porthole, you can see the Bering Sea. This was far along in in the winter season, so probably late March. We often fished above the Arctic Circle, so there was almost no sunlight. At one point during cod season, I didn’t see the sun or land for over a month. Below the porthole, there I am, lighting a Marlboro Red. I was smoking a lot of them in those days. On the wall over my left shoulder, there is a piece of art showing an abstract image of a fish. This was a little reminder to us that, yep, we were out there fishing. I don’t remember the name of the guy to my left. For some reason, I do remember that he was from Bellingham, Washington. The first season, the was clean shaven, the second, he grew a beard. Nice guy, pretty quiet and reserved. And yes, there was indeed a lot of pornography on the boat: Penthouse, Hustler, some magazines called Swank and Club International that I’m not sure I’ve seen since. It was generally the more explicit stuff. Don’t remember seeing any Playboy.
To the left of the guy with the Penthouse is a map of Alaska. We would sit around this corner table sometimes and look at that map and try and plot our position. Way out there at the end of the Aleutian chain is a large island called Unalaska. On it is a town called Dutch Harbor. That’s where we offloaded the fish we caught. And that is where we would go drinking after we finished our shift during the offloading.
Wedged into the bookshelf above the map is a knife with a white handle. I think it was just there if we needed it. One guy in my cabin the first season, who was kind of scary, used to open candy bar wrappers with a knife. Talk about overkill. He made a big show of it. I tried to steer clear of him. His name was Jack and I believe he got kicked off the boat because he couldn’t stop drinking. He called porn magazines “fuck books.”
We worked 16-hour shifts, seven days a week. So that’s 112 hours a week of work. Shifts were staggered, so that 2/3 of the boat was working at any given time, and the other 1/3 was sleeping. There were about 65 people onboard. My shift for both seasons was from 12 midnight to 4 pm. I never quite got used to getting up at 11:40 pm. After your shift, you had 8 hours to eat dinner, shower, get ready for bed, and sleep. Made for some very strange days.
The ship was a fascinating place. There were probably 10 or so other post-college kids like me. And then there were lifetime fisherman, guys who had been working two seasons and collecting unemployment for years. There were five or six guys from Mexico, a couple of whom were deported when the INS came on the boat to check everyone’s papers. There were two guys from Slovakia. There were five guys from Viet Nam who all lived together in a corner room that we called “Little Saigon.” A few other countries were represented.
One thing about spending days in Dutch Harbor is that you would get mail. When we did our final offload there before steaming home at the end of the season, one of my cabin-mates received a package from his girlfriend that contained two things: 1) a cassette of the Neil Young album Harvest Moon; 2) a half-ounce of good weed. So during the week-long steam back to Seattle, we spent a fair amount of time in the evenings smoking that weed, drinking whiskey, and listening to that Neil Young tape on a Walkman with portable speakers attached to it. We sat around the table in this photograph. The winter season was very difficult, andI was so glad to be almost finished. And getting high and drinking around this table while listening to Harvest Moon turned out to be a very special experience. And I still can’t listen to it without thinking of that week. The album was beautiful, but also sounded weary and wise and resigned and I felt like all of those things right about then.
I’d say there were 10 women on the boat. I worked down on the factory level where we processed the fish, and the boss of the factory was a woman in her late 20s named Denise. She was probably 4’ 11”, had very long hair, and was incredibly strong for her size. She could do most jobs better than anyone and was an intimidating presence.
The second season, a woman lived in my cabin, which was very, very small. It was five dudes and her, not sure why it worked out that way but I don’t remember it being a big deal. She was from Brazil and had come to fish because at that time the Brazilian economy was a mess and there were no jobs. She was also educated, had a masters degree in anthropology. The first time I met her, she was on the deck of the boat. She had an army jacket and a beret and was smoking a small corn-cob pipe. And she was reading The Portable Nietzsche in English with a Portuguese-English dictionary next to her. I was intrigued.
At one point, I lent her 5 or 6 CDs to listen to on her break, and the next day she told me that she really loved one and couldn’t stop playing it and it was The Velvet Underground & Nico. She had never heard of it, or Lou Reed, but she loved it immediately. I admit that I found this unbelievably cool. To me, VU were something I experienced through reading first. I knew they were “important” and that informed how I heard them. But to her, it was just a CD someone lent her, and she heard the greatness in it.
Over time, especially the second season, when she stayed in my room, I became infatuated with this woman from Brazil. And I talked to her about that and she told me that she was lesbian. I was crushed. But we remained friends. There was another lesbian on the boat and sometimes they hung out and at least once they hooked up and that was difficult for me. I was very jealous. The woman from Brazil wanted to move to Seattle and had green card trouble, so at one point I told her that I would marry her to keep her in the country. That’s where my head was. She agreed but, thankfully, it never worked out. Last year, we became friends on Facebook.