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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