A Prison Without Walls

8 07 2014

alone-in-the-island

I can’t imagine a long-term punishment, from a psychological or mental standpoint, harsher than feeling like your own happiness is going to betray your family and your religious beliefs.  A punishment based on no crime other than being born.

Normally when writing a piece I have some research or data to go off of.  However, this is posed as a question to provoke thought.  The only real basis are several years of observations via Facebook.

So here we go… How difficult is it to be gay in an ultra religious conservative family?

From what I’ve observed it has to be absolutely brutal. How? When everyone else knows you’re gay.. except you.. it’s a problem.   I’m not going out of my way to paint religion in a bad light. However, I think we can all agree for a true believer there’s a much lower threshold for feeling  guilt. That associated guilt then attaches itself to the sin in question. If you’re raised to believe all sin is bad, and being gay is a sin, then etc etc, you see where I’m going with this.

On a personal note, I had the guilt card played on me at a very young age.  I was told that relatives could see me from heaven and would look in on me from time to time. Yikes, if all my deceased loved ones can really see everything I do, I’m sure for them, my death won’t come quick enough.  I can just hear my grandma now.. “Oh hear we go, he’s in the shower again.. and out-of-wedlock.” Luckily I don’t subscribe to this theory and subsequently live a fairly guilt free life.

For the person left dangling in the wind, struggling to understand why God has forsaken them, struggling to understand why all of there friends are married and starting families..There’s no amount of travel, no amount or reading, no Netflix movie marathons, no workaholism (made up word that I love), no endless amount of Spartan Races that are ever going to fill the mysterious void (pun intended) in their life.

As a mother or father how are you content to let your son or daughter meander through life wondering what’s wrong?  Wondering why they can’t seem to find happiness, even when and if they should attempt to participate in a loveless marriage.  How long before you step in and do your job as a parent and provide some tangible guidance? Denial is only creating a stigma of undeserving shame and simply praying on it isn’t going to work.

It’s not God’s responsibility to be a parent, it’s yours.  Time to step in and say, “Listen sweetie, you’re gay and we still love you.”

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We are who we are… (literal short)

23 11 2012

Forward:  Most of you who follow my writing know me as a somewhat negative and pragmatic person.  Those of you who have known me in real life, for any length of time, know that I’m not really that same person.  Negative yes, but in more of an upbeat manner and not quite as pragmatic.  Imagine if the Odd Couple were just one person, that would be me.  My writing is Oscar Madison and in person I’m more Felix Unger

Yesterday was like any other Sunday around our house, lazy.  I spent the entire afternoon throwing the football to a neighborhood full of future NFL receivers.  Once I go across the street to the park with my two boys, Conner (7) and TJ (9), kids seem to come out of the woodwork.  The end result for me is a good nights rest, and a really sore shoulder the next morning.

Added to the fray yesterday were two new kids I’d never seen before, Caleb (10) and Chris (12).  After spending some time talking to them, I found out they were new to the neighborhood, brothers from northern California.  They were polite and respectful, two things that are a rarity with most of the kids I come into contact with in the neighborhood.

After an entire afternoon of throwing the football around, it was time to head back across the street and home.  Walking home I noticed one of the kids bmx bike didn’t have a seat on it.  Seriously, how in the blue hell do you peddle a bike around with just a pointed chrome bar pointing at the family jewels?  This had complete disaster written all over it.  I mean you may as well find a WWI German helmet with the spike on it, and weld it to the frame.

So I had to ask, “Hey whose bike is this?”

The new boy Caleb owned up to it in a very sheepish manner, “mine.”

I could tell he was embarrassed and didn’t want to draw attention to it in front of all the other kids.  Just then, in a split second, 3rd through 6th grade came flooding back to me in an flash.  I remembered the freedom and importance of the BMX bike.  I also remembered how having a cool bike meant something, and how having a clunker, aka 4th generation hand-me-down Huffy, was a badge of shame.  Then somewhere four levels below that, in bmx hell, was having a bike with no seat.

Not on my watch.  I could just see it, this kid goes off a sidewalk or small jump and he spends the rest of his life thinking about how nice it would have been to have kids.  I waited for the other boys to clear out and asked him about the bike.

“So where’s the seat?”

“I don’t have one.”

“I.. see that.., so you just ride everywhere standing?”

“Yeah, my legs get pretty tired”

Then he proceeded to tell me it was free from his church.  I knew better than to ask why his parents hadn’t bought a new seat for him.  These are tough times and from the way the boys were dressed, it was obvious the family was on a pretty tight budget.  As luck would have it I just so happen to have a bike that a family who moved out left in the street.  TJ carried it home with designs on my renovating it… It’s sat along side the house for 6 months.  I’ve been busy.

“Caleb, this is your lucky day, wheel that thing over to our driveway.”

What started out as simply adding a seat, turned into adjusting and tightening his handlebars, which actually came off the bike in my hands.  We tightened and oiled the chain, which kept coming off as well.   Then added about ten pounds of air to each tire.  It may not have been the Hollywood ending of the brand new looking bike, but at least it was now serviceable.

To be honest, it was no more than fifteen minutes out of my day and some spare parts, but to this kid it was as if a miracle had just happened.  He spent five minutes testing the new ride, smiling from ear to ear, finally stopping back in front of me with a pretty nice power-slide.

“I forgot what it’s like to sit… I don’t know how to thank you or how to repay you.”

“I’ll make you a deal, next time you have the opportunity to help someone out, do it, and we’re even.”

“Deal!”

He shook my hand and headed down the street with his brother, sitting while he peddled.  Ordinarily I’d say that most kids would just blow my idea off.  But I have a feeling this kid will live up to his end of the bargain, and help someone else out.  Which does someone like me good.

It gives me hope that not everyone in this world is a selfish, thankless, self absorbed jerk.  For the next few days I’ll be a little less negative and a little less pragmatic.  I’ll try to remember that although few and far between there are still plenty of good people.  In simple terms, I’ll try not to be realistic and instead think there’s still good in this world and there’s hope for the future.

Oops, Sounds like the feel-good dust is already starting to wear off.  Oh well it was one hell of a 24 hours!





The Soundtrack of Life

25 07 2011

If your life was a movie, what would the soundtrack look like?  Everyone has their own personal soundtrack.  Music that defines a moment, a year, a decade, a loved one, and lastly…. you.

Twenty years ago I had a good friend ask me, “Can you imagine a world in which there was no music”?  The short answer is, “No I can’t.”  Music ties into so many things in everyday life.

It’s not the first time this premise has been explored.  You only have to think back as far as Kevin Bacon “Angry Dancing” in the warehouse in the cult classic Footloose.  Well I guess in that situation it was dancing that was outlawed, but you need music to dance, so ipso facto it’s the same thing!

Music is woven into the very fabric of our lives.  It brings up memories of wedding days, first loves and lost love ones.  It’s funny, as I’m typing this Dreams by the Cranberries just came on the radio, more about the significance of that later.  Music is the closest thing we have to actually traveling back in time.  Smell is a close second due to the fact that it’s fleeting.  Music however, evokes memories tied to specific events.  If I go home to my dad’s home in Onley, close my eyes and listen to Bob Seger or the Eagles I’m instantly transported back to the late 70’s.  I can almost hear my dad hanging net while the single speaker radio plays on.  I see myself as a small boy, sitting on a wood stool filling needles for him.

If I hear Robert Palmer’s Simply Irresistible or Def Leppard’s Pour Some Sugar on Me, I’m instantly transported to the Burrito Shack (aka my uncle’s shop) for lunch during my freshman/sophomore year in high school.  White Snake’s Here I go Again takes me to the back of a bus for an away basketball game in eighth grade.

For my white friends only:  Who doesn’t, (a) know the lyrics to Mr.Roboto and (b) sing along when it comes on the radio?

Then there is the full grade school skate ring montage consisting of:  99 Red Balloons, Burning Down the House, and Thriller. This was an interesting time in my life, which is a nice way of saying, “awkward”.  When you’re the chubby kid who has it in his mind that he will probably never have a girlfriend or get that first kiss out of the way, music is a great place to retreat.  I would say sports but that only takes up a few hours a week.  Music helped fill the gaps.  Think of it as the mortar that held the chubby kid, quasi-nerd persona together.

I mean if you’re between the ages of 35 and 40 who doesn’t have visions of a high school slow dance when you hear Drive by the Cars?

I guess one of the unique aspects of music is that each generation has its own music.  And each generation thinks its music is better than the next.  I have to say going to college at the height of  alternative music is something I wouldn’t trade for anything.  Soundgarden, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Alice in Chains, are you serious?  Sprinkle in some Cyrus Hill (wink wink) and the other ’90s rap icons who were finding their way (Snoop, Dre & Tupac) and you have a diverse collection of music that has not been duplicated since.

Flashing forward to 2001 and DMX’s Up in Here: brings back visions of a girl I knew, from Warrenton who flew down to visit me in Phoenix and ended up dancing on the bar after a baseball game.  That’s right, “take that” every girl from fourth grade to sixth who didn’t want to hold hands during couples skate!  It’s not how you start out but how you end up.

As a father I’m able to see how things come full circle.  My children call my Classic Rock station “old people music.”  It seems like only yesterday that I mocked my dad’s Credence Clearwater Revival album.  Growing up in the 1980’s, an era that saw the birth of music videos and Michael Jackson, somehow a bunch of white dudes with bowl haircuts bobbing up and down on stage seemed pretty lame.  Today I know different, although lame they had talent.

Which brings us back to the Song Dreams by the Cranberries.  At every major crossroads in my life it seems like this song will be playing.  I vividly remember this song playing driving home from Salem in 1995, it was during this drive I decided to leave Oregon.  As it turns out I decided to get married at 22 which was a disaster.  Look I didn’t say the song played at good points in my life, just major ones.

When I met my wife, Alexis, this song was playing.  We had our first kiss at her condo and it was the first time I thought there may be a connection.  It was the first time in my over-analytical mind I thought there could be some connection between this song and a potentially life changing event.  Is it coincidence, or is it something more?  Who knows, it’s music and for some reason it’s tied into my life.

On the way to the hospital on January 30, 2003, the day our first son was born, and this song came on.  To be honest I kind of expected it.  As I listened I smiled to myself and acknowledged the fact that music helps give meaning and define the story of us, as people taking a trip around this crazy thing called life.





A Coastal 4th of July

16 06 2011

The 4th of July has always been my favorite holiday.  Not that I’m any more patriotic than the next guy, but because my birthday is the day after.  It’s always been about parades, BBQs, presents, and real fireworks.  You know, bottle rockets, firecrackers, roman candles, etc.

The bummer of it is, I’ve lived most of my life in two states that frown upon real fireworks.  Nothing says, “lets celebrate our freedom” like being given a pack of snakes and smoke bombs.  While I’m sure the sparkler was cutting edge in the late 1800’s, today it’s a symbol of sucky fireworks.  Really, Oregon?  You’re one of the greenest and wettest states, but you’re hanging in there with the boring fireworks.  The new buzz phrase is “safe and sane” more like “safe and lame”.

Other crappy items you can add to that list of lame: pop-its, Crackling Fountains and my personal favorite of all time disappointments: The Piccolo Pete.  This thing lets out a high pitch whistle that sounds like it’s winding down to a nice big explosion.  Instead you get nothing but silence, like there was a misfire.  It’s the “USA Up All Night” of fireworks, just a huge tease that leaves you wanting.  That’s right, I’m talking to you Rhonda Shear.

Ironically, if you want to get the good stuff to celebrate independence, you have to seek out a historically oppressed people.  Back in the day in our neck of the woods it was a place called Tokeland.  I first heard about Tokeland Indian reservation in 1987.  We had just moved back to the Oregon Coast after being in exile in the greater Tri-City area, specifically Richland, for seven years.  My uncle Jack was visiting and asked if I wanted to see something cool.

Uncle Jack was the type of renegade anti-establishment guy who any young kid gravitates toward.  His primary interests were vinyl records and car audio systems.  He had a room at my grandpa’s place that was filled with boxes of vinyl records stacked to the ceiling.  In addition, he lived part-time in a sweet van that was similar to the A-team van.  Only it was a rust color that a decade later would actually be just rust, but that’s another story.

The “something cool” he wanted to show me was a pack of jumbo black cat bottle rockets.  These were still the days when you could find the glass Coke bottles without traveling to Mexico.  So he pulled out a pack and we lit them off, dropping each bottle rocket into the Coke bottle and listening to that whoosh and then a “pop.”

“Where did you get those?” I asked.  He responded, “Tokeland,”  which is located across the Columbia River in Washington.  Thinking back, things were so different 20 years ago.  There were no smart phones, there was no Internet, thus no mapquest or GPS.  Places like Tokeland were almost mythical in stature.  Usually it came down to some dude drawing a map on a napkin from the Dairy Maid.  Directions to places like this, we akin to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The first time I went there, I went with my parents and my other uncle, Vince, who had brought his family.  I remember looking at the selection in awe with my cousins.  They had everything, including two certain urban legends.  That’s right, the M-80 and the M-1000.  Just as the rumors had always stated, they were not out on display.  These were hidden under the counter for serious buyers only.  You had to ask the salesman a couple of times before he would break down, almost as if he wanted to make sure that you weren’t a cop.

Well thank god for my uncle Vince, because for entertainment purposes he was indeed a serious buyer.  In retrospect it almost went down like a drug deal, the heavy artillery was put in a small brown paper bag and slid nonchalantly across the counter.  There were other drug terms as well.  When you buy bottle rockets, it’s not by the pack, it’s by the brick.

Flash Forward to 2004:

The 4th of July is kind of a big deal in Warrenton, more specifically the 4th of July Parade.  People set up lawn chairs early to get a prime seat.  Getting pelted with rock candy from fire engines and clowns is life-changing.  When I took my wife home for the first time so she could see where I came from, it was over 4th of July weekend.  Did I have ulterior motives for picking this weekend?  Sure our anniversary is on the 4th, but I wanted to get her to the parade.  As we unfolded our lawn chairs, a single tear of pride rolled down my cheek.  Soon after the parade began, several tears rolled down Ally’s cheeks as she came to realize what she had married into.

Flash Back to 1993:

One of the high points in my life was getting “popped” with a “brick” in the back of my 1985 fire engine red Camaro.  Ah, Seaside Dairy Queen with Kelly Ray, I remember it like it was yesterday.  Dirty cop, looking in the back window with a flashlight, without probable cause.  One of those, “turn them over to me and I won’t give you a ticket” scenarios.

Had smugglers blues been playing on the radio, I would have done a huge burnout in the parking lot, leading to a high-speed chase.  The crowd would have cheered me on as Kelly opened a bottle rocket barrage from the T-top.   Instead, I think a more subdued Crazy by Seal was jamming, and I handed them over.  I’m sure Officer Friendly and his kids enjoyed them.

Flash a Little Further Back to 1987:

Sorry, I skipped ahead, we need to take the story back on track in the late ’80s.  On the day of the 4th we were going to have dinner and fireworks at our place on Smith Lake.  It was one of those awkward situations where it was the whole family including both my real dad and my step-dad.  Any who… I’ve noticed that when my real dad and uncle get together, they revert back to two 13-year-old kids, which was great for me because I was right around that age.  Now we could all act like kids together.  Allow me to explain:

Most of the fireworks purchased were of the rocket variety.  Because of this, my uncle had the great foresight to bring a large piece of PVC pipe to duct tape to the side of the back patio, at an angle.  What a great idea– you simply light and drop.  It was like a six-foot-long mortar cannon.  As the night progressed things started to get creative.  Uncle Vince realized that if you took the top off of the bigger rockets, and removed the two firecrackers, you could fit an M-80 inside.  So instead of two firecrackers going “pop-pop,” there was a pause and then a “KA-BOOM.”  I would classify it as something louder than a shotgun blast.  Let me put it this way, there was enough of a boom to rattle windows.

With the ante being raised yet again, my uncle took the PVC and hoisted it over his shoulder,  Then he yelled, “John Wayne!” and fired a rocket at my cousins and me who were out by the lake.  Don’t worry, there was no m-80 on board for that particular rocket.  That would have been irresponsible.

With the night winding down, there was one last rocket left.  Think of a bottle rocket only three feet long with a really thick red stick.  This was to be the grand finale.  However, the previous success with attaching m-80s to rockets had all the grown ups hard at work trying to figure out how to increase the payload.  Engineers at NASA don’t work this hard.  There was a buzz in the room, and a look of satisfaction adorned three grown men’s faces.  Here it comes, the big reveal:  Attached to the sides of this enormous rocket were two m-80s, but they didn’t stop there.  Strapped to the middle was the  pièce de résistance, an m-1000.

This was going to be awesome!  All the boys gathered on the back patio as my uncle lit this bastardized bottle rocket.  Looking like a futuristic space shuttle from hell, he dropped it into the tube.  Then there was a mighty “whoosh”!  We all looked up toward the black sky, ready to track the launch.

Warrenton… We have a problem.

It appeared the payload was too heavy, even for this massive rocket.  After the loud “whoosh” and nothing happening we all looked back to the tube, just in time to see six inches of the rocket peak its head out.  Then like a frightened turtle, or George Costanza in a cold pool, it receded back into the tube.  It was at this moment, that everyone did the most disorganized Chinese fire drill I’ve ever seen, looking for a place to hide and take cover.  Three seconds later, where there once was a six-foot PVC pipe there was only air, and the smell of gunpowder.

Obviously a major malfunction…

The explosion was so loud my ears were ringing, and I had managed to make it around the corner of the house.  My mother, who was inside cooking came out to find jagged pieces of the PVC shrapnel embedded in the side of the house.  As if she wasn’t pissed enough, everyone laughing and talking about, “how awesome that was” didn’t help matters.  But that’s what guys do.  We do something really stupid and ill-conceived and then laugh about how awesome it was that we didn’t die or lose an eye.

This year our two boys are getting old enough to appreciate fireworks, so I’m doing what any good father would do.  I’m driving 240 miles to the New Mexican border to buy illegal fireworks.  “It’s the smugglers blues”!

God bless The United States of America, and God bless Tokeland.





The Fortress of Solitude

10 06 2011

It appears there’s a dirty little secret becoming more popular in the United States: couples sleeping in separate beds.   Statistics from the American Sleep Foundation confirm about 1 in 4 couples are onboard.  I know right?  But the ASF actually exists and this trend is legitimate.

Consider this my coming out of the closet moment.  Not only was sleeping alone one of the best moves I ever made, but it just may have saved my marriage.  The wife and I have been married nine years this July, together for ten this October.

To try and pinpoint how exactly this happened is pretty easy.  Most of us with kids have had the pleasure of an extra two to four tiny cold feet somehow ending up in our bed.  Now I don’t care if you have a California king, you are an established swinger, or both.  Four people in a bed is, as it turns out, three people too many.

I hung in there for years, sacrificing sleep for something I thought was supposed to be the norm.  But I’ll bet the tradition of couples sleeping together was based more on square footage, than actual desire.

In the early 1900’s, blue-collar men were building skyscrapers in New York.  Or working 16-hour days on the Golden Gate bridge in California.  I’m sure they thought every night at quitting time,  “Ah I can’t wait to get home, have some potato peel soup, and fight for covers and pillows.  If only my shanty was bigger than 300 square feet.”  Why do you think they didn’t wear harnesses?  If that were me, I’d go to work every day hoping to take a header off the top.  Finally, some peace and quiet.

Homes today are significantly bigger than in your grandparents’ time and in preceding generations.  I’m skipping our parents because, as baby boomers, it’s a given they usually mess something up so we can learn from their mistakes.  The marital bed is one of them.

Anyway, after a few years of this, one night around 1 a.m., I gave up and headed to the couch.  A defeated man can only handle so many sharp little toe nails, cold feet, and headbutts.  I’m not sure what it is about a headbutt when you’re asleep, but the evolutionary response is to come out of a deep sleep throwing punches.  For the safety of those involved, the writing was on the wall.  A long-term solution needed to be put in place.

The sofa is stage one on your roadmap to freedom and sanity.  It’s easy and doesn’t require too much thought.  You simply stagger toward it with a pillow in hand.  After a few nights you realize, “Hey, we have a perfectly good guest room.”  You make your way down the dark hall, aim for the middle and just face-plant on the nice cool pillow.   There are no other obstacles or boundaries so you naturally try to touch all four corners with your arms and legs.  It’s like taking the nacho with all the guacamole, cutting the center out of a birthday cake, or peeing in the pool.  All of these things are so wrong, but they feel so right.

Then, just like that, you’re hooked.  Like a junkie taking his first hit of heroin,  it becomes your reality.  This is no longer a guest room, it’s your Fortress of Solitude.

Just like Superman, when you have to get away from putting out fires, saving kids and damsels in distress, or dealing with your a-hole boss, you head to the Fortress.  It’s a place where you can get away from it all and collect your thoughts.  Of course, one of the keys to making this whole thing work is keeping it a secret.

Don’t let everyone in the house know how great it is and what you’ve got going on.  In the context of relaxation: kid’s are like little Lex Luthors, tiny evil geniuses and the wife is sadly similar to Kryptonite.  Once they know you’re having fun in there, they’ll want to start hanging out.  Then, before you know it, you’ve got popcorn and Skittles in the sheets, and you’re getting yelled at for a drool spot on the pillow sham.  Not cool.

In the coming weeks the wheels start turning.  “I’ll bet if I added a nice TV to that room, some discretely placed surround sound speakers and started a little movie collection, that would be pretty cool.”  Guys, don’t sell yourself short by retreating to the garage.  The “man cave” is a non-climate-controlled area for bottom feeders.  Believe me when I tell you the guest room is where it’s at.

Step up and be a man, make a stand.  Stop pretending to enjoy lame late-night television like: Law & Order, NCIS, CSI, etc.  Control your own destiny when it comes to late night programming.  As an adult, if you want to be able to watch Hot Tub Time Machine or Inglorious Basterds, that should be your right.

Since I moved in I’ve made a few upgrades.  Of course, as mentioned before, there is an extensive video library of more than 200 classics.  Dolby surround complete with a center channel.  Oh, by the way, I now have my own closet space, which was a major upgrade.  Guys with walk-in closets, you know what I’m talking about.  The wife takes all the high-rent areas, namely all those little cubby holes.  You get the one short bent bar in the corner.  Your stuff is so jammed in there it looks like it was air packed.

The common misconception is that something must be wrong with the relationship, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  Don’t kid yourself, you can profess your love for someone on Facebook as much as you’d like: “Our hearts beat together as one.”  Reality is, when you’re around someone all the time, it’s nice to get away and have your own space.  This includes “you” obligatory contrarian whiner, who I’m sure is thinking, “I can’t imagine being away from my soul mate blah blah blah.”

You just don’t get it, and chances are even though you’re all about being needy, your partner isn’t.  But it’s not all about me, it’s very much a two-way street.  The wife doesn’t have to listen to my “light” snoring, and she gets full control of her remote.  Not to mention the additional closet space.  I was compensated nicely for the additional closet space.  Apparently it’s a big deal.  Who knew?  Did I mention that Brad and Angelina sleep in different rooms?  That’s right, even Brad Pitt knows what’s up.

To be honest, for about a year or so I was reaping the benefits, while at the same time secretly embarrassed about the situation.  During conversations I would let slip, “my room” or “Ally’s room.”  This was usually met with a confused look, at which point I would come clean.  There were only a select few who new about this “arrangement.”   As time went by there was increasing chatter from this inner circle like, “Man, that must be nice” or  “How do I do it without her getting mad?”  To which I would respond, “You don’t choose the Fortress of Solitude, it chooses you.”  Sorry, I don’t make the rules.

I’m heading into year three of this little arrangement and I’ve noticed that things over the last few years have been the best between the wife and I.  Not sure anyone would argue that having a good nights sleep is not important.  When you have children, “alone time” is also at a premium.  Not just taking a break from a six- and eight-year-old, but taking a break from everything.  That includes each other.  Most adult couples our age, friends of ours, have to go through a magnum of wine to get the same effect.

Looking at things from my wife’s perspective, a stay-at-home mother.   Being around two small children all day is like being a deep-sea scuba diver .  When it’s bed/husband time, if she comes up too fast, she risks getting the bends.  To avoid the bends it is absolutely imperative that she spend time in a “decompression chamber.”

For those who don’t get the analogy, by “decompression chamber,” I mean alone time in her bedroom.  Light some candles, maybe take a bath and listen to some Bob Marley.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen anyone with the bends, but they’re really close to what I would describe as “severe bitchiness.”  Every year millions of couples suffer from this affliction needlessly.  The more you know…

So we journey along the road in this thing called married life.  I with my “Fortress of Solitude,” her with her “Decompression Chamber” and all is right with the world.  I encourage you to join me is standing tall and proud.  Click that like button and behold the revolution!





An Alaskan Summer Part: Qankun

31 05 2011

After the marathon sprint that is salmon season in Bristol Bay, my dad thought we could use some rest and relaxation.

On the docket was spending time with Rick, a close friend of his from when he lived in Dillingham.  Then we were going to do a little recreational fishing.  You know, the type with just a pole and some beers.

We were well into July and I was getting my first experience of what summer is really like in Alaska: giant mosquitoes, trying to sleep with the sun out, and freedom.  Freedom to watch bears pillage the dump at will.  Freedom to really do what you want when you want to do it.  The absence of darkness really opens up a lot of options for a person.

At Rick’s house with my dad it was like I was one of the boys.  I remember staying up late and shooting pool listening to Pink Floyd’s Another Brick In The Wall, while they talked about old times.  By the way, if you’re going to survive in Alaska you need certain comforts.  Having a room in your home that is basically a small pool hall/bar is one of them.  My life’s lesson during those couple of days was how to make a proper bridge with my hand.  I also learned the basics of controlling the cue ball and how to practice my stroke with a coke bottle.  Trust me,  it’s way more impressive than it sounds.

Rick was a family man who lived his life his way.  He survived on money he made from his smoked salmon business.  I say survived, but he actually lived quite comfortably.  He took us in like we were family, and for the next few days we ate, laughed, and listened to classic rock.  Rick was the type of guy you could count on in a pinch.  The old cliché about the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back, that was Rick.  Or, say you needed someone to destroy evidence: Rick was your guy, no questions asked.

One year for Halloween, when my dad lived in Dillingham, they dressed up as a two-headed monster.  Spent the whole night in costume, now that’s a good friend.  The group photo of their early 80’s indoor volleyball team is priceless.  Rick has a two-foot beard and my pops has half a stache on one side, half a beard and no stache on the other.  It looked like they always had a good time together.  Of course it was the early to mid 80’s in Alaska there was plenty of snow to play in.

Sadly Rick passed away several years later from a heart attack.  My dad took it pretty hard, but I know Rick had few regrets.  When you live life your way on your own terms, the only regrets a person could possibly have is not seeing their children all grown up.  Although as difficult as life can get at times, if my last memories were of my kids when they were young without a worry in the world, I think I’d be fine with that.

After we wrapped up our time at Rick’s we met with another of my dad’s cronies, Dave.  Dave ran a charter boat business, but was taking us out, no charge, as a favor to my dad.  In the process of thinking back to these memories I’m also figuring out I was very much along for the ride.  I just went with the flow, like a leaf floating down stream.  What I mean to say is I was never really asked what I wanted to do.  I didn’t care, I was seeing everything for the first time, so it was all good to me.

We departed Dillingham early in the morning for Lake Aleknagik (uh lick na gick).  The road was a long straight line and covered in gravel.  Dave was the proud owner of a 70’s era Chevy truck.  It had some “added features” that you just don’t see everyday.  Here’s an example:  half way through our ninety-minute drive, it started to rain.  “What ever will we do?”  Not to worry, there are windshield wipers, which are manually operated by way of a left hand, a coat-hanger, and a shoelace.  For those of you who have always had the convenience of a Napa or Auto Zone, allow me to explain.

The coat hanger was tied to the first wiper on the driver’s side, then bent to come around to the driver’s window.  A shoelace tied the second wiper to the first wiper.  Dave would reach out the window and pull the coat hanger several times, thus clearing the window.  It was one part ingenuity, one part idiot savant.  Eli Whitney would have simply said, “You win.”  The cotton gin?  Really?  This is Alaska, go hard or go home.

Dave had a large ski/bass jet boat he used for his charter business.  It was a nice setup, two custom-built gas tanks which would hold more than enough fuel for our 250-mile trip.

We spent the first couple of days at a cabin on the lake mostly doing nothing but sleeping and playing cribbage.  It was the first time where it was just us with no noise.  No people who wanted to entertain, no sound… and really for that matter, no modern convenience.  You know, like electricity.

I should explain the geography.  Lake Aleknagik is a massive lake that is the end result of glacier run-off.  The Agulowak (Uh gool a wak) river is the river that feeds from the glacier into the lake.  Along the way, the Agulowak river puddles up into tiny lakes.  There are five of these lakes spread out over 100 miles, the last one being at the base of a massive glacier.  My dad had only ever been as far as the third lake.

Now the trick to getting up to the different lakes is to have a jet boat.  The jet boat has no propeller, so when it gets up on step, or top speed, it basically glides over the water.  Since these rivers are so shallow, it’s the perfect boat. If you have a foot and a half of water you’re good to go.

Dave was a master of his craft.  Like Han Solo navigating the asteroid field in Empire Strikes Back.  Dave knew these rivers.  I remember vividly as he asked me, “you ready for some scary shit?”  Then he punched it!  There’s something about going 45 to 50 mph in a boat that’s amazing.  In a car, not so much, but in a boat feels like the sound barrier might be broken.  Dave popped in a tape of CCR’s greatest hits.  Just as John Fogarty was getting warmed up, Dave sparked up a huge joint.

My dad would later explain that there were areas in the river where the boat was too wide to pass.  Specifically large boulders that were just inches beneath the surface of the water.  Boulders the size of VW van.  Dave would have to come in at an angle and then cut back, banking the boat up on its side in order to squeeze through.  This was all made possible by the use of Mary Jane to calm the nerves.  Whatever he needed to do to get the job done was fine with me.  I didn’t like the prospect of hitting a boulder, at top speed, in the middle of nowhere.

Looking back now there’s no way this guy didn’t fly a chopper in Nam.  I’m surprised he didn’t have a flashback and yell at me to, “get on the M60!”  This is as close to simulating a Huey ( Bell UH-1 Iroquois) yank’n and bank’n its way up a river in the Mekong Delta a person can get.

The trip was going to take a couple of days, so we stopped at third lake, and spent the night in a state park cabin.  One of the cool things about Alaska is there are cabins in the middle of nowhere, built by the state, that anyone can use.  The design of the cabin was very basic, but since we were in the middle of nowhere it was pretty impressive.  There was a table with two chairs, a pot belly stove, a couple of windows, and two sets of bunk beds.  The bunk beds were nothing more than plywood and 4×4’s.  The idea was you would roll out your sleeping bag and supply your own pillow.  There was a fresh supply of wood left behind by the previous guests.  The rule is: Use what you need just make sure you replace it for the next person.  (Selfish Authors Note: The world might be a slightly better place if we applied this rule to other issues.)

Once the stove was going we all started thinking about food, so my dad and I walked down to the river.  The salmon were so thick the water looked like it had streaks of red.  Realizing he didn’t want to invest any time by using bait, dad opted to cast a treble hook (three-sided hook) out and on the first cast snagged a red salmon.  As it turns out this is illegal, but when you’re hungry laws have a way of being over looked.  We fileted the salmon right there on the bank and chucked the remnants in the river.  Bears love fish guts, so you really don’t want them hanging around.  Oh yeah, I almost forgot to mention, this is grizzly country.

As we walked back up to the cabin I looked at the bark on a tree, “Hey dad, whats the deal with that bark?”  He replied, “There’s nothing wrong with the bark, that’s where a bear has sharpened its claws.”  I kid you not, it looked like someone had tried to keep tally marks with the tip of a chainsaw.  That’s how deep those claw marks were.  This was the first time that things started to get real for me.  This is Alaska: there are no phones, there is no hospital around the corner, and hungry grizzly bears kill people who camp by rivers.

Right behind the tree was an elevated wooden structure that looked like a small dance floor.  “What’s that?” I asked.  Half way laughing, dad said, “That would be a buffet line also known as a tent pad.”  I tried to do my best for the rest of the evening conjuring up images of every friendly bear I had ever seen.  You had Yogi, the dancing circus bear with a tutu, old Ben from Grizzly Adams.  Unfortunately, the .44 Magnum the old man kept at his side was a constant reminder of the actual danger involved.

After dinner, Dave sparked up another doobie and zeroed in on my bear concerns, pointing out how sturdy the door was.  The front door looked like every main gate you’ve ever seen in movies involving castles.  When the door was closed there was a huge 6×6 block of wood about four feet long that dropped in to brackets as a brace.  This is the part where my dad in his quest to always get the facts correct, chimes in with, “No, no, no, all that grizzly is going to have to do is lean on that door with all of his weight and it’ll cave right in.”  I’ve had better nights sleep.

After waking up alive and without incident, we had a huge breakfast.  Eggs, bacon and potatoes, like a skillet scramble, man was it good stuff.  There’s something about breakfast when you’re camping that’s just phenomenal.  We even managed to squeeze in a game of cribbage.  That little cabin was great, but it was time to move on, so we packed up our gear and started loading the boat.  As my dad and I loaded, Dave was smoking a joint preparing for the final push to 5th lake.

In the process of bragging about my cribbage victory over my dad, I realized I had forgotten my deck of cards at the cabin.  So I ran back and grabbed them off the table.  As I casually strolled back to the boat with deck in hand, the mood had changed.

My dad motioned me over to a mini sandbar that had formed near the river bank, just to the right of the boat.  I knew this type of summoning, it was of the “don’t talk, just move your ass” variety.  I stood there, like, “what are we looking at?”  With no words, as he peered into the dense brush south of the boat, he pointed down.  It was at this moment I noticed two things: A) The pistol was in his other hand and B)  There was a massive paw-print, so fresh it was still filling up with water.  Dads next words were clear and to the point, “get in the boat, now.”

I’m not really even sure if my feet touched the ground between that sandbar and the boat.  Dad’s may not have hit the ground either, because as soon as I was in, he was shoving the boat off shore, and then we was in right behind me.  In a world full of choices, a guy smoking weed and dodging boulders in a jet boat will always trump coming nose to nose with a grizzly bear.

After a couple of hours, and pushing the boat by hand through areas where there was only six inches of water, we arrived at fifth lake.  I kick myself for not bringing a camera, but things were different back then.  There was no social media, no digital cameras on everything like today.  The final lake was something to behold.  There were several waterfalls that poured into the lake from the glacier.  The water was crystal clear and ice-cold.

The sky was slightly overcast, which took the glare off the water, and allowed us to see all the way to the sand bottom.  The water was so cold that nothing grew, it was like staring into an enormous aquarium and watching the fish (arctic char) swim around.  Surrounded by forest, and the sound of roaring waterfalls, I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.  I remember thinking how cool it was to be in a place where very few people have ever set foot.  It seemed so unlikely there were still places like this in the world.  We spent the next hour or so fishing and taking it all in.  To add a little perspective: Even my dad, who had been going to Alaska for more than twenty years, was awe-struck.  We were taking this all in together for the first time.

The trip back down to the main lake was uneventful, sans one large exception.  As it turns out pot is good for calming your nerves in pressure-packed situations, and bad for doing mathematic calculations.  Dave had botched his calculation and we ran out of gas several miles short of home.

I guess it’s not really a boat trip unless you get the chance to paddle with an oar in your hands.  As I paddled I thought, “Surely this is nothing a coat hanger and a shoelace couldn’t fix.  Oh well, at least we won’t run out of daylight.”





An Alaskan Summer Part: Aalax̂

26 05 2011

 There are lots of little subplot stories I could tell.  I could talk about how our Captain, Walt, was bi-polar and quit taking his medication with two weeks left to go in the season.  Highlighted by his new-found obsession of rubbing olive oil on his face.

I could talk about the guy who lost his arm while trying to cut the cork line out of the prop.

Listening to Yankees pitcher Andy Hawkins throw a no-hitter on the radio, and lose 4-0.  Turning 16 and celebrating my birthday at sea.

Or my trip to the infamous “Star Wars Bar” in Egegik village.  Nicknamed after the movie locale based on the Obi Wan Kenobi quote, “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

There was the evening we got caught in a squall and had to make a run for on of the small rivers that pours into Bristol Bay.  Imagine thirty foot swells in high wind, only you’re not on a massive crab boat, but instead what you see in the picture.  I can still remember sitting at the table in the cab, looking out the windows, and at the bottom of a swell all you could see was water.  Waves breaking over the bow, thinking, “This is awesome!”  If it were today I’d wheelin and dealin with the man upstairs, offering up football on Sundays for church.

After sticking my head in the Star Wars bar, I wandered off by myself.  Purely by chance coming across my grandfathers legendary boat, The Green Hornet.  It hadn’t seen action in years and was dry docked at an abandoned cannery known as Diamond E.  It was the only boat still there, as thought it was left as a monument to my grandfathers legendary conquests.

For years growing up I had heard the stories from my father, uncles and of course my grandfather himself.  Stories about being the top boat on numerous occasions.  Then there are the stories I don’t even want to get into.  Somethings are better left to the inner circle of family.

I remember running my hand along the hull and knocking off chips of the peeling paint.  Thinking to myself, “If you could only talk”.  For me, in a way, on a personal level this was why I had come to Alaska.  To fulfill my destiny and join the other members of my family who had made the same journey so many times before.  It was almost as though the boat was waiting for me.  The same way a parent who has become very ill will hold off death until a child makes it bedside to say their good-byes.

I climbed on board and stood at the wheel in my grandfathers footsteps.  Realizing that was as close as I would ever come to filling them.  I looked over to the rail and found an old homemade fish pick which I brought home.  The pick was nothing more than a piece of wood, slightly bigger than a roll of quarters, with what appeared to be a nail driven through it, the point bent down at an angle, the handle wrapped with net hanging twine.  The fish pick is a deck hands weapon of choice, it’s used to release the salmon’s head and gills from the net.   Not as clumsy or random as a blaster; an elegant weapon for a more civilized age.  Sorry, I had to work in one more Star Wars quote.

When I got home I found out it was my Uncle’s.  To my knowledge he still has it on display to this day.  That’s the type of pride associated  with being a member of the Rubino fishing clan.  My grandfather was to my dad what Mr. Miyagi was to Daniel-san.  He taught him everything he knew and treated him like a son, not just a son-in-law.

To this day, even though my parents have been divorced since the 70’s, when he goes to visit, he calls him “dad”.  One of my few regrets in life is that it appears the lineage will end with me.  Now that I’m older I realize there’s nothing else I’d rather do.  I don’t belong stuck in a cube or an office, I’m at home and free on the ocean.

I’m sure you as the reader want action and adventure not sentimental rhetoric.  You definitely don’t want to hear about how I had a sweet mix tape featuring MC Hammer’s “You Can’t Touch This” or Matt’s off the wall purchase and obsession with an “Indigo Girls” cassette.  Both of which were played daily as they were our only tapes.  I will say Matty was a great cook which makes up of the whole Indigo Girls debacle.  Give the kid some garlic, tomatoes and Walt’s olive oil usually reserved for his weather-beaten face, and he was off and running.

CHANNELING YOUR INNER COOL HAND LUKE

In Alaska when fishing for salmon there are boundaries.  Invisible boundaries know as “the line” defined by the state and visible only by coordinates on a computer screen.  The line is patrolled by a heavily armed fish and game.  When there is money involved sometimes people do crazy things, like pull guns.

The place to be is as close to the boundary as you can be because that’s where the fish are.  The problem is: when you get too close the current can push your boat and net across the boundary.  Should you really hit it right and sink the net with fish, this becomes problematic because it takes time to clear the fish from the net.  Well this is exactly what happened to us.  We were picking fish like crazy when we heard a siren or air horn followed by, “prepare to be boarded!”

My dad has many qualities, one of which is the ability to think quickly in a crisis.  Like a modern-day Cool Hand Luke, without hesitation he took his knife and sliced the rubber tube that takes the hydraulic fluid to the stern real.  Then yelled to me, “Hit the lever twice” which I did without really thinking or knowing what was going on.  The result was hydraulic fluid spurting out all over the back deck.  “What is he doing and where are we going with this?”

In situations like this if it’s determined that you were purposely fishing across the boundary they can take your license, fine you, and take your catch.  Nevermind the intimidation of rounding everyone up on the back deck with automatic weapons and asking to see your licenses.  Why the weapons?  I think it’s safe to say a fisherman about to lose his catch may have pulled a gun or weapon at some point.

“Do you realize you were fishing across the line?”  I had visions of Boss Godfrey “The man with no eyes” looking on as we were basically being told “what we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And just like that my dad went into the explanation of how we really hit the fish and rubber hose had burst causing us to have to pull in the net by hand or “round hall”.  I have to hand it to the old man he was selling it like a classically trained Julliard actor.  Clearly this wasn’t the first time a hydraulic hose had been sacrificed for the good of the boat.

The end result was they bought it, and we got off with a warning.  After they left I remember him dispensing a life’s lesson, “Always have a spare hose” words I live by to this day.  Sadly this marked the high point of the season, not long after this  Captain Walt’s increasing bi-polar craziness started to get on everyone’s nerves.

Matt decided he had enough and “peaced out” on a Tender.  I always thought that was so bizarre, like how was he going to find his way home?  He just got off on a strange boat and was going to find his way home.  Clearly when you’re just a kid there is safety and comfort in numbers.  Update as of 5/16/2011:  During a fact check last night with my dad, I just found out that Matty Franchise took off with the blonde (from chapter 1) for another “job”… you old dog!  Twenty years later and it all finally makes sense.  Of course I’m only teasing, I also heard the blonde and the Steely Dan guy ended up getting married and started a family.  See everybody wins, it’s a happy ending for all!

When the dust settled and the season was over, I was the proud recipient of 57 fresh Hundred dollar bills.  Thinking back that was a lot of money for a 16-year-old kid and not bad for six weeks work.  But the story doesn’t end here.  We still had two weeks to relax and unwind before we headed home.  When you’re 16 you have no concept of danger, Lake Aleknagik and the Agulowak River here we come.