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.

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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!”

DOWN TO BRASS TACKS

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?





A Beautiful Mind….Of Movies?

7 04 2011

 

      By sheer happenstance movies have always played an important part of my life.  I’m sure growing up in a small coastal town with nothing to do played a role as well, but that’s neither here nor there.  More specifically comedies have always been a topic of discussion in our family.  I remember “quotes” (yes I just put quotes in ” “) at young age from movies like Blazing Saddles, The Blues Brothers, Caddyshack and Animal House were always in heavy rotation in our household.  It sometimes seemed less about the movie and more about the funny lines or “one-liner” .  Everything from Chevy Chase “slip streaming” in Fletch and Dean Wormer talking about, “double secret probation” to “he’s a cinderella boy, tears in his eyes I guess” from Caddyshack.

Looking back and doing a little self diagnosis I’ve realized a few things.   A) The focus on singling out dialogue and not the movie has no doubt greatly contributed to my (A.D.D.)  2) I have a very active imagination and dream in color.   C) I have developed an almost super human ability to accurately recite random lines from movies after having only seen them once.  No doubt someday this will come in handy…. I’m just waiting for my moment in the sun. 

Of course the real tragedy in all of this is that I could have just as easily been blessed with this skill set in any field.  For Example: The precise knowledge of  human anatomy needed by a surgeon.  An engineers memory of mathematic equations and formulas needed to build skyscrapers.  A high-profile attorney’s ability to quote cases pertaining to legal precedents.  Sadly, the closest I’ll ever come to any of this is dropping a Kramer vs Kramer reference while playing Operation and helping out with 2nd grade math.  I’m the John Forbes Nash Jr. of something nobody really cares about…. movies.

How I picture my above mentioned skill someday being useful:  I see myself being called in by the FBI to help in some sort of hostage crisis.  A terrorist wearing a vest of dynamite has threatened to kill everyone unless someone can accurately tell him about the Blues Brothers car.  (shhh… just go with it)

Cut to me E-braking the classic Smokey and the Bandit Firebird in front of the building holding the hostages.  Special Agent in charge Dixen Cox runs up to me and says, “Try not to make a mess of things this time, we don’t need another Farley incident”.  Completely disregarding his authority I point to his tie and tell him he has a spot, he looks down only to get hit in the face with my finger as I take off towards the building.  Armed with only a Zippo lighter and a vast knowledge of movies, its go time. 

Walking through the front door I see a badly beaten off-duty Blockbuster employee who tried to be a hero.  He tried to answer the question, but panicked and recommended the terrorist ask a question about the Twilight Saga instead.  Blockbuster employees…frickin amatuers, they only know what someone else told them to say and dream of being the next Shia LaBeouf.

 I hold my arms up and turn around slowly showing that I’m unarmed….(At this point a guitar rift from Peter Frampton’s Do you feel like we do starts playing) With my back turned, I flip open my trusty Universal Studios Zippo, light a cigarette, take a drag, wink at the token hot chick and blow a smoke ring…..

In a tone that is both confident and arrogant (Clint Eastwood) I start in, “It’s got a cop motor, a 440-cubic-inch plant. (I turn around and start slowly walking towards the terrorist) It’s got cop tires…. cop suspensions…. cop shocks…. (Finally nose to nose) It’s a model made before catalytic converters, so it’ll run good on regular gas.”  Then staring into his eyes I take the cigarette and put it out on his forehead…  A bead of sweat rolls down across this face, which has just turned white.  

With a pale face and fear in his eyes, it’s at this point he realizes two things: First, he’s met his match. Second, when I distracted him with the cigarette, I lit the fuse on his jacket with the zippo.  Horrified, he takes off running out of the building, screaming “El Diablo Blanco” opting for suicide by cop.  As he explodes in a hail of gun fire, I have some sort of cheesy 80’s catch-phrase like “Looks like he blew his top”…. Kiss the girl…  Roll credits to Under Pressure by Queen.     Hey… It could happen…

Finding common ground & Passing the torch:

This love of movies is something that our oldest boy TJ has picked up.  Movie nights have become somewhat of a ritual around our home.  To lend some perspective: since October 28th 2009 I’ve rented and watched 490 movies from blockbuster online.  Movie night involves barricading ourselves in the guest bedroom with a bowl of popcorn and some drinks.  I with my cocktail and he with Capri Sun Roaring Water.  I explain the finer points of highbrow humor as we view such classics as: Vacation, Uncle BuckFletch and Plains Trains & Automobiles.  I explain the genius that is Landis, Hughes and Ramis.  The classic comedic timing of Chase, Akroyd, Murray and Candy.  

Last night for the first time he watched The Great Outdoors.  I found it in the $5 bargain bin, you know the one where you have to literally shovel the movies from one side to the other.  If you haven’t seen the movie you can probably stop right here… be thankful 1950’s style McCarthyism isn’t going strong and move back to whatever communist country you came from.  If you have, then you may or may not know the film was produced by John Hughes. 

I know we all love John Hughes films ( National Lampoon’s Vacation, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink; Planes, Trains and Automobiles; Uncle Buck, Home Alone to name a few). Whether he directed or produced them, they all have a similar feel… The most common term used is “teen angst”, but I feel Hughes is so much more.  He was somehow able to find a common thread everyone shares.  Everyone went to School with a Ferris Bueller, or has an Uncle Buck in their family.  You can easily see yourself in those same situations and you identify with the character.  That’s what makes John Hughes one of the best.

Without out getting too deep or philosophical, The Great Outdoors was a blast to watch with him.  Of course after the movie all he could talk about was when John Candy shoots the bear in the rear.  You remember, with the shotgun that doubled as a lamp.  If case you forgot, it skins the fur off revealing what is supposed to be the bear’s “behind”.  I thought TJ was going to pee his pants he was laughing so hard.   His laughter does more for me than any movie possibly could. 

If you have kids you know what I’m talking about.  Someone once told me, “A childs laughter is like medicine for the soul” and they were right.  I proudly watch in wonder when on occasion he puts two and two together and sees the humor in something that’s not overly obvious.  There’s something to be said for going to bed happy with a smile on your face and laughter in your heart.  Don’t get me wrong you’ll still hate work, and you have no desire to get up and leave that warm bed, but at least you can look forward to getting home and sharing a laugh.

The next morning in typical fashion, he bursts into our bedroom at 6:50 and has to tell mom all about the movie.  Which has backfired on me several times, due to a flawed and biased movie rating system!  Allie has come to accept these briefings and always looks at me as if somehow she could have done better, shakes her head, and asks, “what have you done to our child?” 

Every father and son has their “thing”, watching movies is ours.  It’s almost as if I’m passing the torch, passing along my useless skill set.  Someday with any luck TJ will sit down with his kids, download  Family Vacation.  Then talk about comedy and movies of grandpa’s era.  Or maybe he’ll become the next John Hughes of his.