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.

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: Ataqan

23 05 2011

Growing up in a family of fishermen seems to solidify ones future.  I remember in the third grade we were asked what we wanted to be when we grew up.  I answered, “Commercial Fisherman” because even then I knew that “commercial” means you get paid.

This story is broken into three parts: Ataqan, Aalax̂, and Qankun.  That’s one, two, and three in Aleut (Eskimo).  As far as pronunciation is concerned, your guess is as good as mine.  Stuff a couple marshmallows in your mouth and you’ll do just fine.

In the summer of 1990 I would fulfill my destiny and take my place in a long line of fishermen in our family.  I had taken the trip to Alaska the summer before, but at the end of the season, to get my feet wet.  It was the summer of ’89,  New Kids On The Block had the number one song with “I’ll Be Loving You”.  A black and white buddy cop sequel known as “Lethal Weapon 2” was the number one movie.

But now it was 1990 aka the 90’s!  Things were going to be different.  Communism was on the way out, if you listen you can almost hear Scorpions Wind Of Change.

And on that note….

“Step By Step” by New Kids On The Block was the top song in the nation and black and white buddy cop movie “Another 48 hours” was the top movie.  Like Bob Dylan said, “these times were a changin.”  Maybe not in music and movies, but did I mention this time I wasn’t going alone?  I was being accompanied by local sports hero Matt Thompson.  It was going to be Matt and I as the rookies, my dad as the first mate, and then the Skipper or Captain….. Walt.

Unrelated Tangent:

Now I don’t care who has done what since.  In my mind Matt was part of one of the greatest high school baseball teams I’ve ever seen or had the pleasure of watching from the bench.  Based on the equipment, level of competition, and just raw numbers.  They were  a later day version of Murderer’s Row: Three players hit over .500 for the season, Steve Anderson .506, Mark Thompson .519, Matt Thompson .521.  Combine that with Danny McFadden going 15-0 with an ERA of 0.93 and you had the north coast version of the New York Yankees.

Matt must have been nineteen or twenty at the time, as he had just finished his freshman year at Eastern Oregon.  Our interactions prior to this were brief.  In high school, I was a freshman when he was a senior.  I had only limited conversations with him while I rode the pine as a freshman on the baseball team, but he came off as a quiet yet respectful person.  All I knew was he was a cool dude that loved baseball and I was going to get to spend some one on one time with the 1989 2A All-Star Game MVP.  It was like a white less talented Tony Gwynn getting to hang out and talk hitting with Ted Williams.  As it turns out I don’t think baseball came up once.  But he did introduce me to several terms and phrases popular on the college scene.  Matt if you’re reading this… I thank you for that.

Our Alaskan Airlines 737 touched down in Anchorage, but our final destination was the town of Dillingham.  We had to change planes, and change planes we did.  It’s a little bit of a shock to go from the comforts of a Boeing Jet to something that looks like an Indiana Jones movie prop.  As we boarded a ramp which lowered from the tail I noticed this appeared to be some sort of converted cargo plane that seated 30 to 40 people.  I ended up taking a window seat right on the wing so I could keep an eye on one of the two propellers.  In the world of air travel, cargo nets for overhead storage is top shelf.  I kept waiting for them to load the livestock and Short Round to show up screaming “Docta Jones!” (That’s “Doctor Jones” in standard stereotypical 80’s asian voice)

Did I mention I don’t like to fly?  Let alone fly in something where they don’t even bother to go over what to do in the event of an emergency landing.  I’d always heard that Alaskan bush pilots were like Top Gun… The best of the best of the best.  Of course I think I also heard they die at an alarming rate.  The flight from Anchorage to Dillingham was probably in the hour and a half range.  As far as I was concerned, it was not nearly short enough.

The landing was a rough one, cross shears coming off the ocean, moving the tail of the plane all over the place.  The type of landing where you don’t exhale until the wheels hit, which I did.  Only to freak out when the engine cover came completely off!  As my pupils dilated and fixated on the prop I thought, “Oh my god she’s breaking up!  We’re going to explode!”  Nobody bothered to mention the tops of both engines pop off upon landing to create drag and cool the motor.  I kept thinking, “Get me off of this plane and bring on the sea sickness.”

Besides three days of sea sickness for most people, here’s what else you don’t realize about fishing in Alaska, four men on a 32 foot boat for an extended period of time can be interesting, and lead to an aquatic version of cabin fever.  Here are some other nuggets of information.

  • Showers are not really an option, in four weeks I had the opportunity to take two showers.
  • Sleeping on the back deck while still in your rain gear, in a seated position saves time and makes sense.
  • The “#2” “deuce” “duker” or “admiral dump-n-stein” is persona non grata in the bathroom, instead you get a 5 gallon bucket with rope tied to the handle so you can toss it over the side and scoop sea water.  You can figure out the rest from here.
  • Crew members take turns cooking and get to pick out the food loading up several grocery carts pre-season.  It’s like going on supermarket sweepstakes!
  • In terms of livable square footage we’re talking about 150 for 4 people.  You get to know each other.

Now fortunately for us the boat we were on was brand new.  I’ve seen and been on some real rust buckets.  I’ve heard the stories about how the exhaust manifold doubled as your stove.  We had the benefit of a gas range, oven, fridge and sink, all stainless.  Unfortunately those are conveniences that don’t lead to you making more money.

In Bristol Bay, the next important thing to knowing where the fish are, is speed.  The faster you are, the more sets you make, the more times you unload, the more money you make.  Our boat was a classic example of American engineering at its finest.  Huge Detroit Diesel engine powering a boat that was way too heavy.  The end result was a boat that sounded fast but was slow as hell.  At the opposite end of the spectrum you had our old adversary: Mother Russia!  If this were a movie, we’d cut to a clip of Russian soldiers Goose Stepping through Red Square. (click here)  Just do it!  One click 45 seconds, totally sets the mood.

The Russians may have lost the cold war, but they dominated Bristol Bay.  Huge fiberglass hull boats that had jet propulsion, not propellers.  To put things in movie terms: we were Rocky (lots of muscle but slow and dumb) and the Russians were Drago (Fast, powerful and cutting edge).  Only this time unlike Rocky IV, they absolutely kicked our ass in a 15 round one-sided beat down.  A popular pastime would be to blow by our boat, full throttle, at night, while we were anchored.  Thus throwing a massive wake at our boat.  Always awesome when you were trying to have dinner and the boat goes from completely calm to rocking violently side to side.  “Dasvidanya Americana’s!”


Commercial Fishing in Bristol Bay is a series of “openers”.  For example they may open fishing for a 12 hour period, in that time you go wall to wall and try to catch as much as you can.  Then they close it down for a day or two.  In the down time you repair nets, or make repairs to the boat, if you’re all caught up on repairs you tie off next to one or more boats and play cribbage.  If you’re really lucky you head for shore.  By shore I mean the closest native village population always less than 200.

These villages were usually sustained by some sort of fish processing or cannery.  I always thought this is what a research station must be like in Antarctica.  There was such a feeling of isolation.  So much land and space and so few people.  It’s both peaceful, while at the same time giving you feelings of anxiety.  The anxiety comes from realizing you are not in control of just being able to leave whenever you want.  No wonder every year there’s a native who freezes to death with his face stuck to a gas can.  I guess at some point sniffing gas fumes and getting shipped off in a box seems like a good idea.

When there was no time for land, one of the boats we would tie off with was run by an older, jovial, slightly chubby Scandinavian man named Jorgen.  He spoke english with a heavy accent and had a two person crew.  His boat was something to behold.  Remember when I talked about rust buckets?  This would classify.  Or maybe I should say “wood” classify.  Wooden boat from the late 40’s early 50’s.  It’s at this point I overlooked how slow our boat was, and embraced the safety that welded aluminum with an airtight cabin provides.

Jorgen’s big plan in life was to fish Bristol Bay long enough to realize his dream.  His dream was to open a crematorium, it’s all he ever talked about.  How it was such a money-maker, and there was always going to be customers, low overhead etc.  Jorgen was an urn half full type of guy.

His crew consisted of two late 20-somethings whose names escape me.  One was a real earthy guy who was all about Steely Dan, nice guy, I think he was from New Zealand.  The other was a blonde woman who was kinda hot by default.  Consider this, she was the only woman with all of her teeth that any of us had seen in weeks.  Plus she was blonde, wore tight jeans, pink Vuarnet sunglasses and liked to talk about how cocaine made sex amazing.  That’s right, your heard me.  Inner Ron Burgundy monologue, “Hello Thomas, welcome to manhood and stay classy Bristol Bay.”  I’ve always had a soft spot for women who openly talk about their sex life and cocaine use.  I guess deep down I’m just an old-fashioned romantic.

It’s been said that most of the people in Alaska are there because they’re on the run from something or someone.  I think there is a lot of truth to that statement.  Consider it the last stronghold, technically you’re still in the United States of America but you’re just a short boat or plane ride from someplace where man may or may not have ever set foot.

Thinking back, it’s amazing that so much happened in such a short amount of time.  Who knew seven weeks would give me tales that would last a lifetime.  As an adult I sometimes go 3 months and forget everything that happened.  In the next part of this story I’ll touch on a few of them and go into detail on two specific events that I remember as though they were yesterday.  We’re just getting warmed up.  There are 1990 words in this story, now how cool is that?

The Big “O” Goes Hollywood

25 04 2011

I’m a huge fan of non-linear story telling.  So in the spirit of Tarantino and Christopher Nolan, I give you the final chapter in my journey home last year.

This picture cracks me up, try to find the one beverage that doesn’t belong.  Here’s a hint:  It’s not Rainier.

The Olney Store has been around ever since I can remember.  Over the years there have been many incarnations.  It’s been a general store combined with a bait and tackle shop, a movie rental store and of course currently a General Store slash Bar. 

I have fond memories of this little store going all the way back to being a small child.  In the summer as little kids my cousins and I would walk there from the farm-house with only a couple of bucks each.  We’d load up on Jolly Rancher sticks, candy cigarettes, a can of the beef jerky that looked like chewing tobacco,  and of course a Sioux City Sarsaparilla.  Half of you are thinking, “ahh the good ol days”, right out of a country time lemonade commercial.  The other half are deeply concerned that three out of the four items purchased were child versions of beer and tobacco. 

Visually it was like any country store you’d see in a movie: dusty wood plank floors with ruts worn in them from years of foot traffic (the type of wear that can only happen from close to a century of people dragging their feet while wearing work boots); coolers that are so dated they’re advertising RC Cola, 7 up and Crush; all around the door there are Polaroids of fisherman holding that prized Steelhead.  (each picture with the name and date written in black magic market at the bottom)… 

To put things in perspective it’s been 25 years since I’ve seen a Polaroid or RC have ad space over Coke and Pepsi.  For years it was the owner and his wife working the register.  Always in the standard work attire; overalls.  That’s all I ever saw him wear, the shirt would be different but always the same faded blue denim Carhart overalls. 

Now that I think about it the denim overall or coverall is a staple in just about everyone’s wardrobe in the region.  I even had a pair that I would wear when I visit my dad.  It’s basically a blue-collar leisure suit or the swiss army knife of work attire.  You’ve got all those fancy pockets on the bib, for things like cigarettes, eye glasses, and of course my personal favorite: The carpenter’s pencil.  You know, the really flat pencil that only gets sharpened with a pocket knife.  Oh yeah pocket knife, that’s another great fit for the bib.  Then of course you have the standard loop on the outer thigh for a hammer.  Try not to be jealous but did I mention my coveralls were pin stripped?   

Anyway enough fashionista talk and back to the story.  If there were a global apocalypse, two things would survive.  Cockroaches and the Olney store.  Not only is it recession proof it appears to be finding its stride in the 21st century.  Like a fine wine it only gets better with age.  If it had a theme song it would be, “In the year 2525,” by Zager & Evans.

Flash forward to 2010…  The Olney Store has since re-invented itself as “The Big O Saloon & Olney Store”.  Not only is it a happening place, it has an almost cult type following.  They even have their own Facebook page, 742 likes as of writing this story.  That blows me away, 742 likes for a place that seats 20.  Someone is a marketing genius!

 Meanwhile…. while the Big O was redefining the Clatsop County bar scene as we know it.  I was throwing a swanky little shindig of my own not more than a mile away.  On the menu was Smoked Salmon, garlic cheese bread, Oysters and Beer.  Now from an earlier story you know I got sidetracked on the beach and in my rush to get supplies I left off hotdogs and marshmallows.  I mean it was an outdoor party with a bon fire, what was I thinking?  Not to worry, one of the other dynamic innovations the Big O offers is once the general store side closes, you can still buy those items through the bar.  Marketing genius I say! 

One of my oldest friends Joel came to the outing with his wife and two young boys.  The boys weren’t really feeling the “seafood” vibe, and who can blame them.  I wasn’t initially thrilled about the oysters until a few beers into the evening.  Once I reached the tipping point — known as the blood alcohol level to hunger ratio — they were the best thing ever!  The kids didn’t have the benefit of alcohol.  So we thought we’d head down and buy some hotdogs and buns from the “O”. 

Now I’m not sure if it was the time of day we showed up, or what we were wearing, but when we walked into that bar we could not have been less well received.  I may as well of had a pink sweater tied around my shoulders and Joel a Chihuahua on a diamond studded leash.  In unison a bar full of wannabe tough guys and lumberjacks looked over their shoulders — no doubt wondering who in the hell these outsiders were.

The actual bar where you “belly up” was full.  Now what I wanted to do was wedge my way in and order shots of whiskey for myself and all these hard-working men.  Letting them know I’m one of them. Afterall, I grew up in these woods!  Instead I have to order a pack of hot dogs and hope that nobody hears me.  It’s not my first rodeo; drunken blue-collar dudes are not going to let a guy wearing a sweater vest order a pack of weenies, without saying something.

So we make our way to the corner of the bar.  “Um excuse me, could I get a pack of hotdogs?”, I said.  The bartender looked at me like I was ordering some bizarre fetish shot for me and my boyfriend.  With a confused look on her face she responded, “What do you want?  I can’t hear you!”  This time I was going to use my god given Italian talent of talking with my hands “Um Just a pack a pack of hotdogs,” I said as I made a small square with my hands, like two giant C’s facing each other.  Then it all made sense to her “Oh ok give me just a second.”  Success, I was going to get out of here sans any smartass comments from the peanut gallery!

Now for all of the “Big O’s” innovation, they really dropped the ball on what happened next.  I could see the bartender walking towards me with said pack of hot dogs and they were not in a bag!  It was at this moment that everything went into slow motion as she handed them across the bar… Joel screamed, “Nooooooooo!”.  I had a confused look on my face.. Abraham Zapruder continues to roll film from across the grassy knoll.   As soon as those tube-steaks were in my hands, things returned to normal speed.  Just in time for a very loud, “Looks like you boys are gonna go play hide the Weiner!” then there was a round of “LOL-ing” and chaos.   The bar is situated in a triangulated pattern and just like JFK, I never even saw where it came from.  Kill shot, lights out, to the back and left, to the back and left… 

Now normally in these situations I won’t even hesitate with some sort of smartass comeback.  Similar to Deep Blue playing chess against Kasparov I instantly ran 10 million scenarios, all of which end badly if I say anything.  So I did what you do in these situations, I took the hit.  It sucked, but like Kevin Bacon in Animal House, sometimes the best course of action is to just smile and say, “Thank you sir may I have another!”  In my mind, I thought, “You haven’t seen the last of me Big O… I’ll be back!”  but I decided to stop short of telling them they’d “rue the day” while shaking my fist.

So anyway three hours go by and “I’m back”.  This time it’s after the party and I’m with a good friend Bryan who had flown in from Des Moines, Iowa.  We were on our way to the Labor Temple when we decided to stop less than a mile into our journey for a drink.  I know I come off looking like a total booze hound but to be honest I really don’t drink that often.  I like to get all of my drinking done in about 5 to 7 days, then I shut it down for the rest of the year.   

It must have been close to 10 or 10:30 and by this time the crowd had thinned out.  There were just a few people, including a few of the world-famous stars of “Ax Men”.  (Earlier Bryan was star struck when we ran into some of the Dangerous Catch crew at buoy nine, now this.  You just don’t see this type of celebrity unless you’re at a Lakers game.)  So we sat at the bar and got an immediate pissy attitude from the bartender.  “It’s last call!” she snarked. 

Well hello to you too, clearly daddy didn’t pay enough attention to someone.  Just get some more tattoos, and sleep around, that’ll make it all better.  Without too much thought we ordered, “Two shots of Jäger”… at which point I asked random ax man guy if he knows what Jägermeister means in German.  He grunts and looks at me like he crapped his pants an hour ago and isn’t interested in conversation.  I went ahead and gave him the answer, “It’s Master Hunter”  Just then our shots show up, we came up with some funny toast in regards to being Master Hunters and threw em down.  By the way, the one thing that both of us seem to notice is that other people are still ordering drinks as if the “last call” was some sort of lie.

Just as I was going to call out the quench wench for obvious bias towards the deep end of the gene pool, Axe Man chimes in with, “Shot of Jäger”.  Bryan and I looked at each other and both thought, “Hey maybe he’s coming around and he’s going to join in.”  Just as we both started to say something along the lines of, “see there you go,” we were immediately cut off with, “no no no… I do  Jäger all the time”.  I should also mention he refused to actually look at us when he spoke.  As if possibly he invented it or his family brought it to America from the old country.  

Now if there’s one thing I’ve never been good at its holding in a laugh.  I’m the last person anyone wants with them at the following: (library, wedding, funeral, hospital, church or anywhere else laughing could be seen as inappropriate).  It usually goes like this, something funny happens and then I happen to make eye contact with the only person who also thinks it’s funny.  Bryan actually learned this the hard way by looking at me during his wedding.  Now granted I was one of his groomsmen, but not directly in the line of sight.  Somewhere in the vows, talking about for ever and ever, he made the mistake of looking at me.  At which point I gave him my best Robert DeNiro shoulder shrug and face, “lil bit, you insulted him a lil bit.”

The combination of false bravado and arrogance was too much for either of us to handle.  Besides I’d had about all I was going to take of the “hillbilly chic” attitude.  As usual it took but one glance, and we both started laughing.  The quieter we tried to be, the worse it was.  When Bryan dropped the phrase, “what an ax hole” under his breath, that was it.  I had to do the standup into a big laugh signaling that our time was up.       

“This place is dead lets hit the Temple, I hear they have karaoke that will blow your mind.” I said just loud enough for the bartender to hear.

 “Man I’m hungry, breakfast sounds so good”, Bryan replied. 

 “Yeah good luck finding breakfast around here this time of night.” 

 As we drove off into the night I moved our custom-made CD to track 5, Big Bad JohnThis one’s for you ax man, enjoy that  Jäger as the sweet sounds of Jimmy Dean rain down on you.

From Phoenix Arizona “Not Quite” All The Way To Tacoma

19 04 2011

In an earlier or previous story, depending on the order you read things, I talked about some observations on my trip home in August of 2010.  There were a few other “incidents” that took place I wanted to write about, but it would have taken the story off track.  So think of this as version 1.5 of my trip home.  Stay tuned for the final chapter: The Big “O” Goes Hollywood.

We’ll rewind to Saturday morning in August… The day was supposed to go like this: Golf at The Highlands, see some old haunts and family, then stop by Fred Meyer to pick up supplies for a party that evening.  It was three simple things, how hard could it be to screw that up?  Whatever I do I should probably grab some hot dogs and marshmallows, we’re having a bonfire…

The day started off great, clear skies and perfect weather.  I was going to get a chance to play golf with my dad and one of my best friends.  I can count on my fingers the number of times I’ve played golf with my dad but we always have fun.  Of course as mentioned in a previous story, A good friend of mine, Bryan, had flown into Portland to join the festivities.  

One of the things I admire about my dad is that he’s an extremely hard worker, but he does things at his own pace.  I know what you’re thinking, he must take his time.  It’s actually the opposite, work starts early and its full throttle, that’s his pace.  The ying to this yang is when it comes time to relax and enjoy himself, he does it right.  The rationale is: “Hey, I don’t cheat anybody with my work, so I’m not going to cheat myself relaxing”.  

Quick side bar: My dad and I have an interesting relationship, although I didn’t grow up under his roof, he knows me better than anyone.  He’s always been a straight shooter and the person whose advice I trust more than anyone… Unless it comes to marriage. He’s been married (counting on my fingers)… hmmm lets see… carry the one… Five times.  That’s right the ‘ol five timers club!  In my mind this comes back to his work ethic, he’s not afraid to keep working on something until he gets it right.

So we show up at the golf course and things start of normal enough.  Then at some point, which is still heavily debated, our round of golf went from casual outing to partying like we were on tour with the Allman brothers.  Time and reality slowed to a grind as Major Tom played in my head….4…3…2…1.  As you may have figured out from my previous writings my life has a soundtrack.  Actually so does yours, think about it sometime, it just might change your whole perspective on things. 

There was a surreal moment when in the middle of the round my pops opened up a picnic basket complete with sub sandwiches, expensive cheeses, red and white wine.  “Dad what are you doing?  We have people behind us.”  He casually looked up at me, “Don’t worry it’s fine, relax”.  I thought to myself, “well he is my dad, I guess if he says its fine, that’s good enough for me.”  Just then I saw Bryan fly by on a magic carpet, sitting indian style, dressed in pink bunny suit, using a giant egg beater as a motor.  “That’s right Thomas… it is good enough for you.  And no you’re not dreaming.”  While the band from Titanic played in the background, possibly foreshadowing the events to come.

Ok so the last part about Bryan I made up.  There was no bunny suit, magic carpet, or mind reading.  But the picnic basket thing did actually happen!  After golf, Bryan and I decided it would make more sense to head down to the beach and drive home that way.  Less traffic, slower speeds, less chance for any “entanglements”.  Plus it’s not a trip home unless you see the Peter Iredale.  We had a couple of hours before the party, so we were still on schedule.  Just as we left the parking lot, on comes a little Cyprus Hill.  It doesn’t matter what song it was. 

Somehow after entering the beach we lost an hour, again I can’t explain exactly how this happened.  I can only theorize that when you listen to Cyprus Hill and enter the Del Ray beach access it creates a rip in the space-time continuum.  No need to panic we still had an hour and the Iredale was in sight.  My jubilation quickly turned to concern when I saw the condition of the beach access.  The sand looked soft, and with deep ruts.  Not exactly ideal conditions for a high-octane street machine like the Toyota Corolla. 

We could turn around and risk being late or we could go for broke.  I seem to remember us joking about this being our Thelma and Louise moment.  “Bryan this is your first time driving on the beach right?” “Let me explain something, you need to get a head of steam, and whatever you do…. Do not take your foot off that gas”.  I put our mix CD on track 11, Barracuda by Heart and Bryan gunned it.  It was a thing of beauty, twenty to thirty people looking on in awe as we rocketed down the beach.  As co-pilot my role was jamming the air Bass Guitar like nobodies business. 

It was as if Bryan had been temporarily possessed by the spirit of Evil Kenevil.  For a moment I swear when I looked over he had the white jumpsuit and stars and stripes helmet on.   In the history of daredevils… There’s jumping the fountains at Caesars Palace (ONE) and Bryan taking a Corolla up a soft beach access (TWO)… then there’s everything else.  “Hello destiny”… It’s Bryan and Thomas.

The funny thing about destiny is…. as it turns out it’s easily derailed by Japanese engineering.  What neither of us realized is Toyota has a toggle switch which engages an anti slip mechanism.  Once the tires slip bad enough it kills the motor.  We would have made it further had we decided to hang a left and drive through the ocean.  We made it half way and had come to a complete stop, the party was over.  Barracuda came to a screeching halt like someone drug the needle across the album.  I could feel the negative mocking comments and laughter from those twenty to thirty people.  I remember calmly thinking, “wow this really sucks”.  Only one thing to do, get out and see how bad it is.  We weren’t high centered, but close enough to where we were going to only get one shot at getting out. 

Something you simply don’t do as a local (past or present) is get stuck on the beach… It’s the equivalent of Clark Griswold launching the family truckster 50 feet beyond the “road closed” sign.  To add to the humiliation it wasn’t long before I had some 17-year-old girl trying to tell me we were bottomed out just like she was fifteen minutes earlier.  Rambling on about how there was nothing I could do, but not to worry the sheriff was on his way, he had pulled them out.  “Nothing I could do?… wait, did she just say the Sheriff was on his way?”   

Now if getting stuck is bad… being stuck and then given a field sobriety test is a hundred times worse.  My mind instantly saw my name in the Columbia Press and the disgrace that comes with that dubious honor.  It was at this moment I told Bryan to put the car in reverse, “We’re getting out of here”.  Bryan flipped the toggle switch off, then like Apache Chief from Super Friends I summoned what can only be described as “retard strength”.  I pushed on the front bumper as hard as I could, tires throwing sand in my face… we started moving…  This was awesome, fifteen feet to freedom, then I’m going to tell all these by-standers, who didn’t offer to help, they can “eat shit” (I’m still bitter).  It wasn’t the smell of burning rubber against sand… it was the smell of sweet success and freedom! Each step got quicker, the car was building momentum.  It was going to take more than mere sand to derail my plans for the evening.

Then it happened, call it a tactical error, or rookie mistake.  Bryan didn’t turn the steering wheel to keep the tires in the ruts, the result was me shoving the car right into a fresh patch of undisturbed fresh soft sand.  This was our Battle of Dunkirk (you may need to google this for the analogy to make sense).  We had retreated as far as we could go.  Only it wasn’t the English Channel that had us boxed in.. It was a few feet of sand.  All we could do now was wait.  A German Blitzkrieg known as the Clatsop County Sheriff was en route, coming to wipe us out.  Just then the band from the Titanic showed back up to play us home. 

Bryan got out and joined me in a laugh as we looked at how close we came to making it.  This is typically the part in the movie where the two condemned characters share one last cigarette and talk about how it was a real pleasure to know each other.  There’s a certain inner peace that comes with accepting your fate, and we had accepted ours.  Nothing to do, nowhere to run. 

Just then…. as if WWII history was repeating itself, albeit on a much smaller scale, a savior appeared.  Not a boat crossing the English Channel but a four-wheel drive Jeep CJ with a winch.  “I say old chaps it looks like you could use a helping hand”  Ok so he didn’t have a British accent but five minutes later we were on our way to Fred Meyer.  With the worst behind us, a quick change to the CD track 8, Rock ‘N Me by Steve Miller.