Gentle Reader, as is something of a tradition, as a young man I spent a season in Alaska, working in the fishing industry. My Grandfather was stationed up there for a time, with the civil service; my father and uncles from both sides fished for years; several of my cousins are fishing now. I was fairly young, so I didn’t make it onto one of the boats, but I did work in one of the processing plants in Dutch Harbor. Apart from a couple of road trips, it was my first time alone in the world. I was just 18.
I touched briefly on my time in the north in Post the Sixtieth, but of course one can’t contain an entire season in a single post. I didn’t mention Minh C. Tang, my elderly Chinese friend, who come through the plant. He would refresh our buckets of scalding water, which we used to keep our gloved fingers from freezing together. For months, including socially, I thought that the only English he spoke was the phrase “Hot Water!” until, my last week before flying home, he told a lengthy story about not trusting whores in Singapore.
I didn’t mention the day that, while I was waiting for the packing line to catch up with us – we had worked so quickly that they were backed up, and we had to shut down production for a half-hour – a loose octopus had somehow found its way to the Roe Line, squeezed its way through a grate, and vaguely gestured at me. I motioned my boss over – a beautiful Filipino woman who was four-foot nothing and had an impressive mustache – wondering what to do about the curious purple creature. I gazed, aghast, as she produced a knife from nowhere and hacked its living flesh right in front of me, dividing the prize amongst those who had been working extra hard. I declined my portion, feeling slightly sick.
Rod, an older man who mentored me, had been working occasional seasons at the cannery for thirty-odd years. He introduced me to the concept of being a Soldier of Fortune, travelling and finding work as one goes. He had just spent a year camped clandestinely in the Grand Canyon, living as best he could.
The last week that I worked there, I was eyeing the trays of Mixed Roe – containing the deformed ovaries, the broken, the cancerous. As an amateur taxidermist, I was quite keen to get my hands on an ovarian tumor from a black cod, and they passed through the line frequently. I was waiting for just the right one; I finally found it, and somehow had to smuggle it back to my room. That night, improvising, I bought a jar of maraschino cherries and some rubbing alcohol, and my bunkmates watched in disgust as I preserved the thing. It’s one of the prizes of my collection.
All in all, it was a solemn, transformative winter. I learned realities of racism, friendship, violence and loss. I learned of cultural diversity, I learned of manhood, I learned of self-expression. I learned of jealousy, harsh beauty, and the utter ridiculousness of existence. I began to learn who I was.