How I Went to Sea: Father’s Day in October

9 10 2011

Many Hooked readers responded to the Mother’s Day post, available here. In true Libra commitment to balance and equity, this one’s for my dad, Ken Aadsen.

People often ask how I became a fisherman. It wasn’t an obvious path. I was born in Alaska’s Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a region that would later achieve infamy for its particularly potent strain of marijuana and an equally mind-numbing public persona. Land-locked, we were far from the briney deep.

My parents were veterinarians, and in the late 1970’s, their practice was the only one available for miles. I was barely a merger of sperm and egg when a client’s horse kicked my dad. A shot full to the face, he recalls, “It was like being hit by a four by four.” Surgeons struggled to rebuild his nose and cheekbones. As he lay in critical condition, my mom told him he was going to be a father.

The injury degraded his already-limited eyesight to a few degrees from blind. To call my dad a work-oriented individual is a laughable understatement, and he sought a project to stave off the ensuing depression.

Someone else might have taken up model airplanes or the guitar. He began building a 45-foot sailboat in the backyard. I was an only child, but the Askari was my sibling. To the tune of a static-crippled AM radio and my dad humming along with Willie Nelson, my playroom was the boat barn, carpeted with wood shavings and silky shards of fiberglass. I mimicked his meticulous work, nailing one block of wood clumsily to another. While other kids checked beneath their pillows for the Tooth Fairy’s deposits, I peered into the Askari’s newly-installed stove to see if “the Oven Fairy” had left a Tootsie Roll on the shelf within.

When you surrender 7 years of your life to building a boat, you surely deserve the reward of taking that boat to sea. The Askari said bon voyage to her Wasilla birthplace, cruised down the Parks Highway on an “Oversize Load” trailer bed, and bobbed confidently in the Port of Anchorage, where Ship Creek meets Cook Inlet. My parents sold the vet clinic and charted a course across the Gulf of Alaska. Neither had much ocean experience, but they trusted their creation, christened “protector” in Swahili.

I had never seen water like that, a surrounding blue so expansive that it swallowed even the memory of land. A black-footed albatross paddled along in our wake for days, our sole companion. When we landed in Sitka, the dock swelled with fishing families. “This looks like a fun way to make a living,” my parents thought. They quickly rigged up the sailboat as a hand troller. And with that, we were as hooked as each salmon that graced the Askari’s broad deck.

That was both a beginning and an end.

Another 7 years and another boat later, I watched my dad pull out of our Washington driveway, his blue Ford Taurus sitting heavy on the shocks. Staunch devotion to silence was my family’s religion, and the word “divorce” was never spoken. I learned he was moving to Los Angeles because a good job awaited him, one that would support our struggling family in a way that fishing couldn’t.

Our initial phone calls – weekly, Sunday evenings – rolled like tumbleweeds across empty prairies of wordlessness. We became pen pals instead, exchanging long, discursive emails that revealed far more than either of us ever would have in person. He sent Priority Mail envelopes stuffed with months’ worth of newspaper clippings – articles on topics he knew I’d be interested in, and those he thought I should be. I came to recognize those bulging envelopes as the currency of my dad’s affection.

Growing up protective of his limited sight, a self-appointed caregiver, it was easy to view him as an innocent bystander in my parents’ divorce. Today I understand that relationships – their entries, their exits – are never one-way streets. It’s hard country, living with the wordless. I’ve come to believe that humans are connected by stories and shared experiences, more than by blood or legal bonds. If your partner swallows their stories and speaks as if being charged by the syllable, where do you find and nurture a point of connection?

In moments of pessimism, I’ve wondered if people are capable of true, soul-deep change. But pessimism is not my nature. I have no stronger evidence that people can indeed choose another path than my father, a man raised on the curdled milk of suspicion, paranoia, and judgment, who now consciously embraces love, acceptance and forgiveness.

The past 70 years took him from Montana’s cowboy country to the Alaskan bush, from the fishing fleet of Southeast to the fertile fields of the Pacific Northwest’s farmlands. His time in L.A.’s urban machine led to a new career in D.C. as an international seafood inspector.  I received postcards from Vietnam, Chile, the Phillipines, Oman (to name just a few), and stood in attendance as he and my delightful Southern stepmom married. These days, his passport doesn’t collect new ink at such a rapid pace. The spiritual journey he’s on now doesn’t include clearing customs.

I am my father’s daughter in that we’re both listeners, quick to stifle our own stories in favor of hearing someone else’s. But I’ve learned sharing my voice is as valuable as making room for another. Intimacy is built upon equal invitation and vulnerability. I’ve learned as much from my dad’s oversights, as from his intentional teachings.

I’m thankful for those teachings.  Along with my mom, he bequeathed a work ethic so ferocious it borders on compulsion. More than once, he’s responded to major life transitions not as traumatic, but as opportunities. He’s encouraged me to find value in all people and experiences – particularly those I find most challenging – and to seek the lessons offered.

Not least of all, I’m thankful that his dream took me to sea.

"This was the most fun I've had since retiring," he said of his two weeks' helping me with boat projects.

This was originally intended as a Father’s Day post. Best of intentions. Instead, it’s posting on my birthday weekend – tribute to my dad’s part in bringing me to this life, this profession, this day. Love you, Dad – thanks for all of the above.


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30 responses

9 10 2011
Vicky Wood

Dear Tele……Once again you have brought me to tears with your beautifully spoken, heartfelt stories. Thank you for sharing. I love the picture of your Dad walking in the mountains. Be Well

9 10 2011
Tele

Thanks, Vicky. The photo is from last week’s trip to Glacier National Park – my and Cap’n J’s first time, but happily accompanied by my Dad, who’d worked there many seasons over 50 years ago. Felt awfully fortunate to share my first visit with him.

9 10 2011
Village Farmer

Me too.
Love, breathless, speechless Dad.

9 10 2011
Tele

Whew… I’d been a little concerned that this one would overstep a few bounds. As you know (all too well, after today) someone compelled to tell her own story will inevitably drag family members and friends under the bus with her. Being supportive anyway is a tremendously courageous, loving act, and I’m grateful. Your unconditional encouragement is in pretty radical opposite to the early childhood lessons of “Keep a low profile,” huh? (I seem to have successfully un-learned that one!)

I do recall that, after reading what I wrote about Steve, you expressed an interest in receiving something similar while still present on this plane. I didn’t forget, Dad… It just took the past 2 years to incubate properly!

9 10 2011
cedar

I echo Vicky’s sentiment, re: tears. A moving story, indeed.

9 10 2011
Tele

Thanks, Cedar. I’m a leaky-eyed person, myself, so I appreciate others who are similarly moved.

9 10 2011
beverlydiehl

Tele – you have a true gift with words. I get seasick even looking at pictures of boats – you had me homesick for the Askari.

So glad you had your father, and he had you.

9 10 2011
Tele

Thanks much for stopping by, Beverly, and for your kind words. Knowing how miserable it is to be seasick, that’s a great compliment!

9 10 2011
aurora

Amazing post about a amazing man and his equally amazing daughter

9 10 2011
Tele

Oh – thanks, long-time amazing friend!

9 10 2011
Nancy

What a beautiful post . . . You are such a gifted writer, Tele. I so understand what it’s like to “lose” and “find” a father through divorce. Peace ~

9 10 2011
Tele

Thanks so much, Nancy. That’s a powerful comment you made about the losing & finding – resonated quite strongly with my experience. Yes, as an angry, grieving teenager I felt very much that I’d lost my dad, yet it’s obvious now that we have a far closer relationship now, having had the opportunity to get to know each other over a distance. (Probably helped that he was spared first-hand encounters of my more-wretched behavior years!) That divorce gave him world experiences he’d never have otherwise had, and I gained a wonderful stepmom. Things work out as they should. :)

9 10 2011
Angela

Tele, I love this sentence: “I’ve come to believe that humans are connected by stories and shared experiences, more than by blood or legal bonds.” It is so true. All we have to share is our stories. This is my favorite post yet. looking forward to more stories.

10 10 2011
Tele

Thanks, Angela. Yep – stories are our greatest gifts, aren’t they? (And it sounds like your niece is collecting quite a few!)

10 10 2011
Jodi Aman

I loved reading this first thing in the morning. Inspiring story of love.
Love, Jodi

10 10 2011
Tele

Jodi, thank you so much for stopping by and commenting! My visit to your site was wonderful; I’ll be looking forward to your future posts. Be well, new friend!

10 10 2011
CJ

Pen pals is a good thing. My absentee fisherman father said more in his precious few letters than in our summers together when I was a child. Unfortunately he passed away prematurely in ’75. A memoir offers immortality. It’s wonderful your dad is around to partake and enjoy.

10 10 2011
Tele

Nice to hear from you, CJ! I’m glad that you got those letters, friend.

10 10 2011
Carol DeLude

Tele…what a wonderful message. Ken was truly touched. You have become the daughter I never had…..from your southern Stepmother….much love.

11 10 2011
Tele

Aw, Carol! Thanks for that. We sure missed you last week; will be looking forward to the next visit to give you some love in person.

10 10 2011
Rossandra White

You are truly a gifted “Tellah” of tales!, (That’s how I pronounce “teller” with my South African accent). Very touching, made me cry. I miss my dad..

11 10 2011
Tele

Thanks, Rossandra – I’m so glad that you stopped by so we could meet. Reading your own “Dad” post, I can see that you miss him. What a mystery, remembering his work in progress! My best wishes to you, friend.

10 10 2011
Julie Farrar (@Julie_Farrar)

The writing is so beautiful that I can’t choose a favorite line. I recognized Glacier Park — a place as beautiful as this story.

11 10 2011
Tele

Whoa, Julie – that’s high praise! I only had one day in Glacier this first trip, but was fairly bowled over. We gave it 13 hours and 400 miles that one day, so I feel like I got a pretty good first impression! Thanks for your kindness.

12 10 2011
Pat Dixon

Very nice! Well written, and wonderfully thought.

12 10 2011
Tele

Thanks for stopping by, Pat, and for the kind words!

14 10 2011
Claire

What a beautiful tribute and exquisite writing – time at sea and meditating on life have brought you extraordinary gifts, thanks for sharing them.

17 10 2011
Tele

Time at sea has definitely fostered periods of introspection… Sometimes too much! Claire, thanks very much for visiting and leading me in turn to your lovely site.

17 10 2011
(FL) Girl with a New Life

Another touching post, Tele. And your prose is beautiful.

As someone who endeavors to be as raw and honest in my writing as possible, I must confess that it is difficult to crack myself open and write about my father. I admire that you have done that so completely here.

Here is a past effort of mine.
http://www.girlwithanewlife.com/2010/05/happy-memorial-day-memories-of-navy.html

17 10 2011
Tele

I’m so glad that you posted that link, Tina; thank you for sharing your father here. I could smell the aftershave and heard the language so clearly – and totally related to the pride military kids took in their advanced cursing, because it was the same way for dock kids!

It IS scary to crack ourselves open. That’s been a huge internal barrier for me in tackling this memoir. There was a great interview with Pat Conroy and Cassandra King in the May/June Writer’s Digest, where Conroy said that his one piece of writing advice would be “to go deeper. Always go deeper.”

I think about that a lot. On pieces that people commend for their honesty or vulnerability, I’m eye-ing them with the awareness that the writing is a mere hairline fracture into my truths, rather than a complete break. Even with that awareness, even muttering “Go deeper” at my computer screen, exposure remains frightening. So here’s to courage and raw, unbridled honesty, my friend – I’ll be cheering for yours, as you cheer for mine!




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