You Never Forget Your First: Origins of a Fisherman

28 10 2011

The twenty-four hour daylight of Alaskan summers can allow a person to forget they’re in the 61st latitude, with the round-the-clock rays that foster 1200 pound pumpkins, 120 pound cabbages, and perpetually pants-less three year old children.

That day was no different. Clad in a T-shirt, underpants, and socks, I squatted amongst the construction rubble of our backyard, happily brrmbrrmbrrm-ing a yellow toy tractor over cement chunks.

Grandpa Jim’s truck lumbered down the drive with a gravel-chewing crunch, and I ran to greet him. The turquoise sock on my left foot slithered south, while the white one on my right held its northern course.

Grandpa heaved himself loose from the steering wheel and swung me up into a hug. He was a darker version of himself – a man in black that day, shirt sleeves to rubber boots. His trademark rainbow suspenders were missing – not right for a day on the river, perhaps.

(As an adult, I will see rainbow-striped suspenders hanging limply in a store, or strapped against a stranger on the street, and they will murmur gruff assurances of safety and love. Part of me will want to scoop my arms full and head for the cashier, and my feet will miss a step, tempted to follow the stranger home.)

A broad grin split Grandpa’s face as he shifted me to his hip. “Got something to show you.”

At the back of the truck, he set me down and opened the bed. He reached in, then straightened up with a soft grunt. My eyes widened.

The fish hanging from his curled fingers was taller than I was. Gills and guts still intact, a weary rivulet of useless crimson eased down the curve of its belly, to drip from the tail to the ground between us.

“What do you think of that?” Grandpa asked, pride bursting as clearly as his forearm  muscles.

I didn’t know what to think. Circling curiously, I tilted my head back to peer into unseeing eyes. The black mouth gaped skyward, wide as my grandpa’s grin. With a single finger, I skated the slime coat down its broad back, the unfamiliar texture mermaid supple and riverstone smooth. Chinook scent filled the air.

“What is it?”

His laugh was belly-deep and not unkind. “This is a king salmon.”

Thirty years later, I will have harvested thousands of king salmon, more than my grandpa could have dreamed of, his hands twitching cat-like on an imaginary rod and reel. I will struggle with what it means to make a living off of killing. I’ll whisper apologies to fish gasping for the sea and stroke their sides, tracing scales of emerald, amethyst and opal. I’ll watch the flat aluminum of death swallow their rainbow.  And with every unmistakable whiff of king salmon, some small, dimly-lit closet of forgotten memories will shine with the echoes of my grandpa’s pride.

Grandpa Jim, Little Tele, and the First King

Thanks, Maestra Laura Kalpakian and the Tuesday night “Memory into Memoir” class, for this recent homework: to write a short memoir scene out of a photo. For the writers amongst you, this is a great exercise. I wouldn’t have thought to explore this moment without the assignment.

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17 responses

28 10 2011
Herbster

That is great, enjoyed it and smiled. Thanks.

28 10 2011
Pam

Fabulously wrought. Tele you are so gifted.

28 10 2011
Vivian Faith Prescott

Great writing and a wonderful topic and photo. Reading this post started my day off right!

28 10 2011
pierrmorgan

Oh, BRAVA!!! Keep going! Stunning, moving, vividly visual.

28 10 2011
Gwen

Beautiful!! I could feel and smell the king salmon. It took me back to those long summer days growing up in Galena.
I had to write a memoir for a class last spring. I wrote about my 3rd halibut season in 1987 and the strange events that happened. It was just one of those memories that’s been kicking around. But having to put it on paper was very interesting and fun.
I really like the picture idea. That is a very useful tool for our memories.
Thanks for sharing! You paint pictures with your words!

28 10 2011
Kim Kircher

I love the photo, and the mismatched socks. I can feel your grandfather’s pride over his fish, and can imagine how proud he would be of you.

2 11 2011
Tele

Hello Kim! I hadn’t replied personally to your previous comment, and want to thank you for your kind words of encouragement and reflections on your own recent path to publication. (Congratulations – I’m eager to read The Next 15 Minutes!) Yes, kindred spirits, indeed… As challenging as it can be to juggle social media management with writing, I’m truly moved by how many amazing people we encounter out here. Thanks for taking time to stop by and say hello.

28 10 2011
Alaska Waypoints (@AlaskaWaypoints)

I am humbled to be able to repost this piece over at Alaska Waypoints, Tele. As with all your work, it is deeply affecting, and it brought back my own first king (and my Uncle Harry, who made it possible). I love this piece, thanks.

-SC

28 10 2011
Amanda

Nice piece! And what a great old photo!!
Just stopping by after seeing your name at SheWrites. I like your blog and very much look forward to reading more:)

2 11 2011
Tele

I’m so glad that you stopped by and introduced yourself, Amanda! Welcome, and best wishes to you for PiBoIdMo! (I had a lovely visit at your blog, and see a kindred spirit in you. Will be looking forward to hearing about your process over the month.)

29 10 2011
Annie

Wonderful memory of days gone by with your grandfather. What a photo! That fish truly was bigger than you! I love the way you describe your life and struggles of making a living by killing. I never feel good about it either, but I learned a long time ago to thank that which gives us food. I have found that with crab when you thank them they will literally drop their claws and relax.

2 11 2011
Tele

That’s amazing about the crabs, Annie! Articulated gratitude goes a long way in many things, doesn’t it?

31 10 2011
jon

Hope you caught a few smilies this past season. I fish just south of u around Queen Charlotte Islands I like your short stories about life as a fisher. Maybe our paths will cross if you ever fish around Prince of Wales Island. Fellow Fisher Jon.

2 11 2011
Tele

Good to meet you, Jon! Thanks for stopping by and introducing yourself. What boat do you have? Yes, we’ve been getting to know the southern end more over the past few years. It’s still pretty new to us and we try to stay out of the locals’ way – I’m guessing the Craig guys haven’t been thrilled to see the influx of Sitka-based freezer boats. Anyway, thanks for your kind words, and I’ll look forward to having a new friend to wave at on the tack next year.

1 11 2011
keneumey

Beautiful. How wonderful to have that photo to spark your memory!

2 11 2011
Tele

Thanks, all, for the kind words. I’m especially touched to hear that this one brought back some of your own early memories.

4 11 2011
Jen

Great piece Tele. I thoroughly enjoyed it!




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