Saturday, December 23, 2006

All Washed Up

For all I knew, Frank was just another old, washed-up fisherman who couldn’t leave the water and kept his ancient, somewhat run-down fishing boat and commercial salmon license so he’d have an excuse to hang out at the harbor and go out in the bay a few times a year when the weather was calm to catch enough spring salmon to load his chest freezer. Not a bad life when you think of it.

It wasn’t until the early nineteen eighties—when I was out of work as a carpenter, due to high interest rates--that I actually had a chance to get to know him. Frank had his boat up on the grid at low tide so he could put on a new coat of bottom paint, but at somewhere around eighty-five years of age, he didn’t quite have the agility to crawl around under the hull scraping off barnacles. When he asked if I wanted to make a few bucks, I said, “You bet.” After a few hours, we had her all ship shape, and motored over to Frank’s berth, tied up, and moseyed up the dock to the Web Locker for burgers and coffee. Over lunch, Frank and I talked about boats and fish and unions and weather, and he gave me thirty bucks cash and said, “Thanks, you do good work. Any chance you could come out to my place tomorrow and help me put up some firewood for winter?”

“Sure,” I said, “what time?”
“Not too early. My wife and I like to sleep in till ten or so. How about ten-thirty?”
“I’ll be there,” I answered.

The next morning, I grabbed some work gloves and hopped in my pickup and rolled along the bay out Marine Drive to Frank’s place and pulled in the gravel drive next to his pasture that sloped down toward the water with a view of Lummi Island and Chuckanut Mountain. Frank was sitting in the garage on a folding lawn chair next to an electric smoker, filling the aluminum pan with alder chips.

“What are you smoking?” I asked.
“Just a little Blackmouth for my wife’s Bridge club this afternoon. Have you had your breakfast?”
“Oh yeah, I’m ready to get started on that wood pile,” I replied.

While I split the alder rounds, Frank wheel-barrowed a few sticks over to his wood shed, and by lunch time we’d made a good start, so Frank called a halt to work saying, “Time for a mug up. Let’s have some tea and biscuits.”

Seated in the alcove next to the kitchen eating hard tack with butter and cheese, I asked Frank about the Pacific American Fisheries cargo ship framed photo on the wall behind him, and he said, “That was a real good job for a while, good pay, working conditions, and a better class of people than I was used to working with in the shipyard. Plus, I wasn’t really strong enough to put
in sixteen hour days swinging a mallet or lugging lumber around. But that was the depression, you know, and any job was a blessing then. So I was just ecstatic when they offered me a job as a merchant sailor on the Alaska run. We had nice cabins, hot showers, and excellent grub.”

“I wish there was a job like that available now,” I remarked. “Since New England Fish Company went out of business, I haven’t had decent or steady work. Things sure don’t look good.”

“You know,” Frank said, “since I was your age, I’ve been all washed up several times—or so I thought—but then something new always came up and buoyed my enthusiasm again. Kind of like you, I’ve been a carpenter, a boatman, a fisherman, and filled in the down times with all kinds of odd jobs, but I always believed if I stuck it out, I’d find something suitable, and that’s pretty much
the way things worked out.”

After we polished off the pot of tea and biscuits, the Bridge club ladies started to arrive, so Frank and I went back to work at the woodpile until it started to sprinkle, and once we had it tarped over, went back in the garage to check the smoker. It then started to really pour, so Frank gave me a twenty and a nice size piece of smoked salmon to eat on my way home, and said, “Good luck, I’m sure things will get better.”

I lost touch with Frank after that, busy with work and horses and family stuff—and like he predicted, we had our ups and downs over the next couple decades—but whenever I felt low about the way things were going, I thought of his advice and about the way he accepted what came with fortitude and good cheer and hope for a better tomorrow. Now days, with the world unraveling at every turn, I figure enduring with grace is an achievement itself.


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