*Note: Seriously, I promise you I will write more new material soon. I’ve had some of these snippets in my folder for years and I’ve always wanted them to see the light of day and be appreciated. (Well, I can guarantee the first part of that, you’re in charge of the success or failure of the second.) I can hear how young my writing voice sounds (bleh!), but overall I am still pleased with the piece. I hope you will be too.
I love Alaska because Alaska, is well, ALASKA. The name—just saying it, it has this feeling, this taste. I tried to explain what it was like to some people once. I said, “Have you ever been in love? You know the way you feel, every time you hear someone say that person’s name? Your ears prick up, and you snap to attention. You can’t help it, you eaves-drop.” Well, that’s how it is to me. I hear someone like five miles away say, “Alaska,” and I hear it. I whip around and start listening. I have to bite my tongue to keep from interrupting this total stranger. I want to lean over and announce, “I’m from Alaska, you know. Just ask me. I’ll tell you anything. I’ll talk for hours.”
I wish I could show it to you. They don’t have real mountains down in Arizona, in the lower states. We Alaskans say the “lower 48” or more often we’ll say “outside.” Outsiders don’t understand us. We’ll say to another Alaskan, “Yeah, I think this winter I’ll go Outside.” They look at us like, “And? Doesn’t everyone?” Because we don’t mean we’re just stepping out the door. We mean were going to get in a plane and fly over Canada to the rest of America.
But down in Arizona, people say “mountain.” I look at them with pity. “Mountain? That’s a hill.” Because everything is bigger up there. In Arizona, people will look at a tiny trickle of water in a dry ditch and call it a “river.” Heck, we had huge, wide tongues of water flowing through our land, and those only qualified as a “creek” by Alaskan standards.
But I wish you could see it. The mountains, big and icy. All silvery purple. They wrap all around Anchorage, hugging her, like a mother cradles a baby. Big and safe and protecting, like the hand of God cupped around you. That’s what I grew up with. Everywhere you looked, there were mountains on all sides, until you got to the inlet. And in the winter, when the sun would be setting, (at three in the afternoon.) the snowy mountains would turn this glowing pink. They call it “alpenglow.” And in the morning—long, dark winter mornings—I would look out the bus window and see the sky turn this glowing blue, but still pricked with stars, and the huge jagged mountains would be silhouetted against it, like a black paper cutout.
Naknek was the first place I went to work when I went back. To get there, you leave the Anchorage airport, and leave the big jets and take this little plane. It skims so low you can watch the ground below you. Softly rolling tundra, emerald green, sprinkled with bright blue pools of water. Scrubby, twisted black little trees and hedges of willow.
When I first got to Naknek, I spent a lot of time just walking these hills. The tundra is spongy; it feels so neat to walk on it. It springs back when you step on it; it gives you this springy walk. From a distance, the tundra looks all the same, just a mossy carpet. But if you look closely, it’s fascinating. Hundreds of different kinds of plants are all living together. Tiny little plants, too many kinds to even imagine. And when you walk over the rise, if you are really quiet, you might spot a beaver in one of those silvery pools below. See his little nose push a V of ripples behind him, before he sees you and slaps his tail. And you might see swallows swooping up high and skimming down low across the water. They love it, you can tell. There is such a sense of joy in their flight, as they swoop and dive. And as you walk along, you’ll see little tufts of white cotton grass, blowing in the wind, like fuzzy little heads. The natives say that when there is a lot of cotton grass, it will be a good salmon run. I don’t know if that’s true, but there was plenty of both the last year I was there.
At first, however, there are no fish. You get shipped up to this place. Joining the cannery, it’s like volunteering to be a work camp prisoner. They shuttle you out there like Jews on a train and don’t tell you anything. You have no idea what you’ll be doing, and you just have to sit there and think about it. You know it’s going to be hard, but other people have done it. You keep telling yourself this, so that you believe it. But right at first, you aren’t quite sure. “What if I can’t handle this?” you think. “What have I gotten myself into?”
And there is nothing to do. Nothing. Because the booming metropolis of Naknek has exactly:
1. One general store with everything from fish bait, to fabric, to oranges, (for like four dollars a pound!)
2. Three bars
3. One tiny library, (rarely open.)
4. One really bad pizza parlour.
That’s it. And there’s nothing to do but wait, who knows how long? The salmon are running this show, and if they don’t feel like showing up for two weeks, well you just have to wait. In Naknek, there are three things to do when you aren’t working:
1. Sit on a log.
2. Get drunk.
3. Walk around.
Since I didn’t much care for the first two options, I walked around a LOT. But sometimes I would join the people sitting, staring, nothing left to talk about, because they’ve been doing this for eleven days. I sit down on this big log and breathe in their second hand smoke. Some guy from beach crew comes by. He thinks he’s hot stuff, because he’s on beach crew, and so always has work to do and gets to drive forklifts around.
“Hey girls,” He leers. “You’re doing a great job of holding down that log. Ha, ha.”
He winks, but we just stare at him. That joke was kind of funny, the first time, but we’ve probably heard it 46 times by now.
They have a white board in the break room, (Insiders know to call this stark white room “mug-up” because that’s where all the cannery workers crowd together, dripping with rain, to drink stale, hot coffee.) On this board some cute person draws a sad-face and writes: “No fish = No $.” Ha, ha.
And then, finally one day, the first tender pulls in and everybody cheers and dances.
“Hurray!” We yell. “Work!” And we all watch with fascination as all these knowledgeable, nonchalant fishermen whip their ropes around and tie the tender against the pier. We all crowd around, grinning, to watch the silvery fish bodies haul up.
But, two weeks from now, when we are sitting around on the dock at break time, and we see a tender pull up, nobody is going to sing. We’ll all want to throw rocks and shout “Go away! No more fish!” Because as long as there are fish in the holding tanks, you work.
Now, every morning, you haul your dead body off of this tiny hard cot and shove your legs into cold, fish-smelling jeans, (The laundry person washed them yesterday, but they still smell like fish.) And shove your feet into clumping rubber boots and run down the windy, usually rainy, hill to clock in and gear up. And then you’ll work and work…maybe, if you are lucky only until 10 or 11 p.m. This is an “early” day. Most people figure, there is so much night left, why not go out and get drunk? Big fun. Spend the rest of the night heaving in a ditch somewhere and then the next morning staring at all the rushing fish guts sliding in front of them, and turning green. No thanks.
But most nights, you will work until maybe midnight, when you hear a horn and someone shouts which means the last fish has left the holding tank. Almost done, and then only an hour of clean-up, hosing down the floors and sweeping every single stray salmon egg down the drain. And I mean every little, itty bitty egg. If your boss Diane, this tiny little female body that secretly holds a drill sergeant’s personality, sees even ONE egg, you will have to hose down the whole floor all over again. And now, at last, you can haul up the washable gear, a big huge sack bumping on your back like some kind of sick Santa Claus. And THEN, you get to take a shower…oh, heaven…and fall into bed.
Once, and this is no exaggeration, I fell into bed at 3:30 a.m. and my alarm was set for six. But only once. You are so sleep deprived, that even if they let you sit down, you couldn’t, because you’d fall asleep. Which is bad, because, if you have to use the toilet, you have to sit down, and might fall asleep in there. And if you try and read anything, you’re eyes will see about three words and you’re out. So you read your mail standing up, or if you have a crazy sense of humor, you read it out loud amongst all the crowded elbows at the lunchroom table. Chris did this. He could make his grandmother’s letters sound so funny.
In the egghouse, (That’s salmon eggs, not chicken eggs), we got to listen to music and could talk to each other across the belts. There was less noise here. I would have hated the canning line. You have to wear earplugs and even then you can still hear “Chink, chink, chink, chink!” banging in your head for hours. Even when it stops, your ears are still hearing it. I had to work in the canning line twice, and praised God for my job in the egghouse. In the egghouse, we would tell our life stories… there were hours and hours and days and weeks to fill. After a week, though, you run out of things to say. So we’d play games. I invented a game and everybody loved it. It’s called, “I’d Rather Be.” You start with the letter ‘A’ in the alphabet, and you have to think of something you’d rather be doing in someplace other than the cannery. Extra points if you can say the whole sentence beginning with that letter. A winning sentence for ‘A’ might be:
“I would rather be Admiring Awesome Alaskan Alpenglow in Anchorage with my Attractive and Affectionate Amigo, Andy.” (Ok, I cheated this time, I had a Thesaurus.)
And then the next person has to do this with “B.” We played this game a lot. Then, Lori’s boyfriend, Nick, and Shannon’s boyfriend, Mike, came up with their own game. It was called, “The Evil Elves Game.” You had to tell them a wish, and then everyone else but you would consult each other and come back to you. For example, on my turn I said “I wish I wouldn’t be lonely.” And the Evil Elves consulted and came back to grant my wish. They say, “Your wish is granted. You will never be lonely because you will go crazy and all the little voices in your head will keep you company. Ha, ha.”
I know, it’s twisted humor, huh?
(Oh, my goodness! I just realized! My wish came true! Ahh!)
But that’s what it was like at the cannery. And do you know? Sometimes I miss all that. I guess I didn’t mind anything, just to be back in the Northland.