I am a fortunate lady. I am surrounded by the love and understanding of a family of friends. For many years now we have individually navigated the pitfalls of life with the understanding we had a safety net beneath us. If things get tough we merely had to call out and the others would rally to give us strength no questions, no recriminations, no I told you so. We have never been our current circumstances to each other our individual joys and pains belong to all of us.
It was an email from one of these friends that set me to thinking about this thing that I take for granted as a part of life and how unusual it really is. Through the miracle of modern technology it has become possible for him to offer up opinions, criticisms and the occasional praise for the middle of the Bering sea where he is hard at work as the captian a crab boat. He uses my diary to relieve the stress of keeping his boat afloat and everyone alive. It helps him wind down before he tries to catch a few hours sleep when he can. It seems I am his personal non narcotic sleeping pill.
We have come along way from the old days when the Friday night entertainment was sitting around the ship to shore radio listening to what were essentially every bodies phone conversations. Commenting by clicking on the microphone if something really good turned up. When one guy proposed to his girl friend and she said yes it was a good ten minutes before they could hear each other again for all the clicking. I have noticed lately that we all use the same odd closing for our correspondence "Peace out" our generations sign off for ship to shore radio a twist on the "over and out" used by our fathers. We use it I think to remind us of the old days, good times, and the joy that is possible when innocence is still intact. It reminds us of where we came from and just why we are who we are today.
My little family was born from endurance and survival. If I had to point to one event I would say it was one winter day many years ago and it was a bad one.
Most of us spent our winters in college. Forced there by our dads, who wouldn't let us work the boats in the summer and make more money in four months than most people make in a year if we didn't spend some of that money learning something to get us out of that life. Our fathers were not stupid, the writing was on the wall fishing was not only dangerous, it was a dying industry. But, many of our friends would take a winter season usually because they wished to fund a dream or a project. The winter seasons were far more dangerous, but the rewards were huge and we were young and bullet proof or so we thought.
But then came the day when we learned differently.
The beginning of Opelio crab season, a derby of sorts. The season would open for six days a boat would have that long to catch all the crab it could. They would stack on as many of the eight hundred pound pots as the boats would carry without sinking on the spot and head out at the blast of the cannon. It was a free for all. But a simple deckhand could walk away with small fortune or die trying.
Shortly after the opening of the season that year a storm roared out of Siberia bringing hurricane force winds and tempatures that reached forty below.The waves broke over decks and through wheel houses turning to ice. The added weight made those boats that had not yet dropped their pots top heavy and helpless, they rolled over and sank. In a matter of hours five boats with all hands vanished forever. Among them many of our friends, our co workers, our family members.
There was Alexander the beautiful viking from Ballard, with a personality like sunshine, a spirit that lived for adventure, and a black belt in Karate. He was there to earn the money to open his own karate studio, his goal to teach kids the discipline that had served him so well. There was his friend Jessie equally beautiful, but one who chose to walk a very dark path. he was there because a court had judged that he had done wrong and fines were owed. There was Joshua the shy young man from Friday Harbor who had tried to work up the nerve to ask me into town only to step between me an a co worker as we were tossing fish to fill an ice tank. Nothing kills budding romance faster than a forty pound salmon straight face from the object of your affection. He was there to help his single mother pay her medical bills from treatment for breast cancer.
The list went on and on.
Then there was the collateral damage, Bjorne, Alexander's dad, sidelined from the season by a mild heart problem died of a massive heart attack less than a week after learning his oldest son had been lost. Paul, Alexander's brother, age 21, a junior in college watched his dream of becoming an architect disappear when he realized unless he took over the boat his family would be destitute. Today he still fishes and his sons now 22 and 20 work with him but their winters are spent in college. He has well funded trust accounts for each of them insurance their dreams will never be denied to them, no matter what. There was Julia, mother of Joshua, her medical bills paid by the out pouring of support from the fishing community but who seemed to lose the will to live after her only child vanished beneath the ice filled waters of the Bering sea. She died the following spring.
The shock waves were like tsunamis, crashing through our lives leveling everything we knew and everything we believed. We learned that day that death did not discriminate it took the good along with the bad, the powerful, the meek and the innocent and it didn't care about us or how well we lived our lives, or the futures it stole. There is nothing more devastating than knowing there is nothing you can do, nothing. That day we learned that life could be short and cheap and not one of us was ever the same.
We all died together in a way. This new information affected each of us differently our reactions were different and our choices as well. But at the same time we clung to each other we listened, we commiserated, we shared that hard time and we bonded for a life time. Our conversations were often deep, raw and wrenching as we worked our way through the afterlife of groping for the answers and some new understanding of life that would allow us to move forward somehow. We counciled each other toward the individual choices and viewpoints that would allow some form of healing and we did alot of listening. Together we chose to step out and embrace what life had to offer with a new zeal and new understanding that there are no guarantees, that if we put off something until tomorrow we would be there to follow through. To this day that knowledge is the lynch pin of each of our individual characters.
There were many bad choices by many people that led to this tragedy. Those who believed the fishermen were to greedy or uneducated to have a voice in the original system. The boat captains who overloaded the decks. The foreign factory trawlers that work just outside or marine borders and also in them when they think they can get away with it, which is often. Our own government for turning a blind eye to these trawlers and their flagrant violations that often decimate prime spawning areas with their drag and drift nets. The people themselves, born risk takers who believed it couldn't happen to them. There is reason to be bitter, yet there is no point, what happened many years ago can never be undone. We can only go forward.
The industry has changed a lot since that day, the derby system is gone replaced by quotas and a longer season making the events like this less likely to ever happen again.
Fishermen now sit on the regulatory boards to add their knowledge and their vote. The sinking of a boat, these days, is a rare event and that is a miracle in itself.
Over the years our tight knit family has seen us through much we have celebrated in grand style and we have pulled each other out of lifes tar pits a time or two. We have also grown to include spouses, children, and even some grandchildren. We give what I now understand is a rare gift of friendship that accepts the quirks, eccentricities, and good that each of us has to offer. Friendship that is born from knowing tomorrow may never come. The enjoyment of the ups and downs and the choices that create them while we spend the short and precious time we are granted to be on this earth. The knowledge that we are each doing the best we can manage to bring the best we can to this world. If sometimes we just make a wrong turn, that is to be expected, it's not like life comes with a road map. Together we face the world knowing there will always be someone watching our backs and offering us a hand up or a job well done slap on the back. That is the greatest gift of all.
Be safe my friends, you are in my thoughts and my heart. For that I will always be grateful.