Essay: Just a guy from a cold generation
July 28, 2006 by William K. Wolfrum
Here’s an essay I sent in to some Alaskan Web site, but the dude never paid me, so I figured I’d reclaim it so I could post it here. I honestly don’t remember if it’s any good. I’m sure I thought it was at the time. But you know how that goes. It is all true, however.
I guess every generation can look back on the previous generation and feel like they somehow missed something. This goes even further when we have one group that gets called “The Greatest Generation.” Sure, that’s wonderful for them, or whoever’s left of them, but hey, we get it, you got Hitler. You win. Where does that leave the rest of us though?
I’m pretty sure I fall into Generation X, having just missed the Generation-We-Never-Really-Got-Around-to-Naming, which followed the Baby Boom Generation. That would probably be a bad one, too. Your generation is basically known for being born. A lot. They just missed killing Hitler and all they got was Korea and Vietnam. Sucks to be them.
Of course, Generation X is basically known to be a generation that finally got sick of trying to do better than our parents. We believe we should leave our own children something more easily attainable. Call us Generation-Taking-A-Dive-For-Future-Generations, if you will.
Anyway, I suppose it boils down to the concept that every generation feels as though they missed out on something. I’m sure the greatest generation felt slighted by the Generation-That-Came-Before-We-Started-Naming-Generations for the fact that they had World War I. So the greatest generation had to go out and win World War II in the nick of time, kill some super villains and screw up everything for the rest of us.
Moving to Alaska at the age of 21, I was struck full force with the feeling that I missed out. Mostly because I had. In the late-1980s, Alaska was just shaking of the excesses of building a pipeline and all the money that came with doing menial labour in sub-zero temperatures. Digging a hole in the arctic was worth about $40 an hour in 1979. Digging that same hole in 1989 just meant you were probably discretely burying someone.
There’s a popular bumper sticker on cars in Alaska: “Please God, let us have another oil boom, I promise not to piss it away this time.” That’s mostly due to the fact that for every pipeline worker that made $100,000 a year, there was a bartender that made $120,000 and a hooker that made $140,000. They were heady times for sin in a land sinners tend to congregate to anyway. Alaska has always been America’s version of Australia — albeit a voluntary one. Give those criminals and shut-ins loads of money and a schedule that requires two weeks of work and two weeks of leisure and Satan can hardly keep up.
Oh, how I wish I could have been there to piss away $100,000 a year, but alas, I missed the whole damn thing. By the time I got to Anchorage, the crews were down to a cherished few at Prudhomme Bay, and they were mostly responsible, upstanding types. And with my first job being as a bartender in the city’s red-light district, I got all too accustomed to counting change for a Schlitz. Tips were as rare as bikini-clad blondes, and equally as aloof.
So while a decade earlier Alaska was swimming in money and rich drunks, I got to experience Alaska swimming in oil after an idiot drunk decided to park the Exxon Valdez on a rock bed. Of course, there was some temporary financial gain for those that were able to go clean up the oily mess, I, somehow, didn’t qualify to clean rocks and seagulls, as my application was rejected. So, I got to watch on TV as a bunch of scraggly-haired eco-lovers cleaned rocks and sobbed tenderly when they would find oily dead otters. Though a fellow bartender put that into perspective.
“It’s survival of the fittest,” he said. “What Alaska really needed anyway was tougher otters.”
My next Alaskan adventure was being a commercial fisherman in the Bering Sea. I like calling it an adventure because not many people have been commercial fisherman and their concept of a fisherman is based on endless PBS specials claiming it to be the world’s most dangerous job. I’m all for perpetuating that myth, even though the type of fishing I did wasn’t all that dangerous. I worked on a long-liner that caught the crafty and elusive cod on, well, long lines. The real dangerous job in the Bering Sea is working in the crabbing industry, which loses several boats and countless crewmembers each year. I like calling myself an adventurer of course, but that’s awfully hard to do while trapped in a wayward crab pot somewhere off the coast of Dutch Harbor.
So, I worked on a relatively luxurious long-liner for parts of three years, where I could make around $20-25,000 in five months. Not bad money really, but it took a lot less time to piss it away than the riches oil workers used to make. That was the big temptation of working on a crab boat, where you could make up to $60,000 in three months, which then your family could piss away on an extravagant, body-less grave site for you.
Still, working on a long-liner was no easy task. The working day would last from 16 to 24 hours, the weather was brutally cold most the time because for some reason, the crafty and elusive codfish was never hungry during the warmer months. Those cunning bastards.
I started my fishing career at the age of 24. I distinctly remember standing on deck on my 25th birthday thinking: “It’s my birthday. I’m working. In the Bering Sea. And it’s snowing on me.” So, while my memory constantly reconstructs my fishing experience as an adventure of man against nature, with me, shirtless with a scarf, the wind blowing through my hair while my muscles rippled with every rock of the boat, the reality is I was mostly cold, smelling of fish and doing work that was mindless dreck.
Aside from cold dreck served on a cold windy plate, the thing I disliked the most about working on a fishing boat was the conversation, or lack of. For the most part, there wasn’t any, aside from great sexual conquest stories. Fisherman, it seems, are not much for hygiene, but every last one of them has had sex with at least two women at the same time on several occasions. And all the women were hot. I know this because they told me, ad nauseam.
The big problem was that, on a long-liner, you spend most of your time working on the line itself in a small room. Therefore, you’re pretty much trapped with the same people, telling the same stories for three or four months straight. So for the most part, I immersed myself in music. There was always a stereo playing, and most of us also had walkmans and headphones. My headphones had to be surgically taken off my head after I got off the boat I had them on so much. In the middle of one trip, my batteries died and, not being able to find replacements, I just left the headphones on, trying my best to avoid conversation.
Listening to the stereo ceased to be an option for me after someone found a Janet Jackson tape they liked and played it over and over and over. Not that I dislike the lovely Miss Jackson, but every time I had my headphones off, one of my crewmates would inform me, in horrifying detail, the nasty sexual things he wanted to do to her. Which was all likely to happen, of course, as Janet more than likely has a secret fetish for smelly fisherman. I’m sure he not only finally got her, but she invited several of her dancers to join the fun.
This is not to say there weren’t some interesting characters around. We had a captain who was on his final voyage who must have been about 75. It was vaguely terrifying having him as the man in charge. He would generally walk around the boat, calling people by the wrong names and screaming about the stir sticks we used for our coffee and then left lying around. I always imagined that one day we’d sink and he’d be running around the galley screaming “Someone pick up these damn stir sticks! Everywhere I look, stir sticks! Stir sticks!!”
Luckily we never sank, because I personally was in charge of launching one of the emergency rescue boats, and it was never adequately explained to me how I was supposed to get in the boat after I launched it.
There was also an Ethiopian guy on the boat one time. He told me his name several times, though I never remembered it and couldn’t pronounce it anyway. I started calling him Fred, and everyone else followed. This was one of my bigger achievements as a fisherman of course. There are few things in life better than giving someone a nickname that sticks. Hell, even Fred started putting Fred on all his gear. I’m sure he dropped the name after he went back home. Not much of a call for Freds in Ethiopia I imagine.
Easily my favorite guy I ever met on a boat was a six-foot-four, one-hundred-and-thirty-pound, frizzy-haired, one-eyed guy named Matt. At first look, Matt was a scary dude. He had that psycho killer thing going on, and with one eye dead, it made for one imposing skinny guy. In reality, however, he turned into one of the few guys I’d actually take my headphones off to talk to.
Matt was from Seattle and loved fishing. It gave him six months a year off to pursue a life of heavy pot smoking and wandering through the wilderness of Seattle. He would actually talk about non-Janet-Jackson humping things, which I found fabulous. He was nice to everyone, and even called Fred by his real name. Matt was even-tempered and cheerful, unless someone was goofing off and came near his good eye. “I’m already down one eye, get away from me,” he’d yell.
The story about how he lost his lost eye pretty much summed him up as a person. He was walking off a nice buzz in the woods outside Seattle with some friends when he was 18 (he was around 28 when I met him). A lone BB pellet was fired from somewhere around his group, and somehow hit him right in the eye, killing it. I asked him if he thought someone had shot at him on purpose:
“That would just bring me down, man,” he said. “I prefer to think that it was an accident. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
And so it goes. Matt was born a generation late. He would have made a perfect hippie. Well, actually he was a perfect hippie in a world where hippies are a dying breed. He never complained about it though. He was much more interested in talking about literature, catching fish and reveling in his odd, freakish appearance. “I’m just a long-haired one-eyed freak,” he was fond of saying.
Matt was part of his own This-World-Can-Still-Be-A-Pretty-Cool-Place Generation, and for that, I still think of him sometimes. He’s just the type of person you could imagine meeting in Alaska.