Island thoughts

Anthony Esolen, in a post at Touchstone Magazine, shares a poem that contains these lines:

When your mother has grown older,

And you have grown older,

When what used to be easy and effortless

Now becomes a burden,

When her dear loyal eyes

Do not look out into life as before,

When her legs have grown tired

And do not want to carry her any more–

Then give her your arm for support…

It was written by a very famous man. Read the article and be troubled.

Christians, I think, have a leg up in thinking about things like this, because we believe in Original Sin. If you aren’t a Christian and don’t understand what I mean, feel free to ask.

In the room where I slept during my sleep study they had a TV with cable. I hadn’t watched cable in a while. I clicked through the stations, and noticed there was a show about fishermen, and I gathered from the narration that it had to do with crab fishing in the Bering Sea.

This caught my interest, for reasons I’ll explain, but I decided not to watch it because I assumed it wouldn’t relate much to my own experiences.

How wrong I was.

The latest issue of the Sons of Norway’s magazine, Viking, carries an article about that series (“The Deadliest Catch” on the Discovery Channel), and it connects to me in a couple ways.

First of all, the featured fishermen, Sig, Edgar and Norman Hansen of Seattle, are Norwegian-Americans. Not only that, but their parents and two of the brothers’ wives (one is single) were born on Karmøy Island, the birthplace of my great-grandfather Walker and one of my favorite places in the world.

Secondly, I spent a summer of my own life processing Bering Sea crab. I wasn’t doing the dangerous work, fishing with a crew, but it was a memorable experience.

My musical group (we spent nine years together) were still in college when our leader said “My cousin just spent this past summer working at a crab meat packing plant in Alaska. He put in a lot of overtime and came home with a pile of money. I think we should do the same thing, and finance a concert tour.”

Although the thought of lots of overtime gave me pause, I went along with the plan. The idea of going to Alaska sounded adventurous (and indeed I’ve found it one of my few sure-fire conversation sparks ever since). So we bought tickets to Anchorage, and from there we took a bush air service to Sand Point (that’s on Popof Island in the Shumagins. The Hansens sail out of Dutch Harbor, which is in the same general area [we touched down there on the flight]. I understand the plant where we worked was closed down long ago).

Popof Island is less than 40 square miles and had, at the time. about three miles of gravel road. It was a frontier place, and we learned something about frontier living. The most important thing about frontier living is that it’s generally, really, really boring. There’s nothing to do when you’re not working your glutes off, which helps explain the popularity of drinking and fighting in such places. Once a month we had to help unload the supply freighter, and the largest single commodity we moved was alcohol. Never was so much booze consumed by so few.

We lived in a “dormitory,” a large house that had once been a hospital, located at the top of a hill. I forget the precise number of steps that went up to it, but I believe it was closer to 100 than fifty.

On Fourth of July morning (a day off, of course) we found a drunk passed out in the basement.

He had a cast on his leg.

Somehow he’d scaled all those steps with his leg in a cast.

There was a desperate emptiness in the place, a feeling of being at the end of the world in a couple senses. Nowhere to go from here. If things don’t work here, drown in the sea or drink yourself to death.

We had a short summer in Sand Point. The crab fishermen went on strike and we didn’t get the expected overtime. We went home earlier than planned, with some money but less than we’d hoped.

I’ve never read a Western quite the same way since then.

2 thoughts on “Island thoughts”

  1. Several years ago (as it ten?) there was a documentary called ‘Dutch harbor; where the sea breaks its back’ It was shot in black and white, and so had a very bleak feel to it. (Very near the end; there was a short bit in color; and the contrast was remarkable.) Well worth seeing.

    – As you may know Martin Cruz Smith wrote a mystery or detective novel about the same area. A large part of it took place on a russian ship fishing off the coast around Dutch harbor I think. Like most of his books that I’ve read it was well done.

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