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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