Finding Rich in the Gulf of Alaska by John Unger

john unger fishing boat with large fish in Alaska

The author, John Unger, on the Kelly Marie near the Albatross Banks, off Kodiak Island, Alaska during a Halibut Opening in June of 1988.

I could hear a cacophony of blue from the bay and sky, shimmering and shuddering like those sheets of metal in old-style stage theaters, shaking out Shakespearian storms. The bay tensely hummed to the white peaks of mountains and the maladjusted sky; the forest pulsated green with blue spruce, visibly moving in colorful chants toward Mt. Saint Elias on the far shore of Yakutat Bay. I could clearly see, reach out, and almost touch music chanting ancient blue glaciers an acre at a time towards the sea. The mountains surrounding Yakutat Bay, which ran along the Alaskan and Canadian borders, were backwards, as if someone held a huge mirror, and I was looking at a carnival, fun-house reflection in the sky. With the boom of a shotgun, a seagull burst into crimson against dense blue sky, and a tiny heart squirted blood, whirling and squeezing with mechanical sense, high in the air long after the red-splashed feathers settled into the harbor.

I turned to see Freddy squat down next to me, his hand on the pump action of the 12 gauge, the butt of the gun resting on soft, green moss, inches from where I was sitting against a huge, beached log; I could feel it solid against my back, worn smooth by the wind and tides. Furious Freddy, everyone called him Fury, perpetually pissed off at one thing or another; picking fights with the biggest man in whatever bar we walked into, almost every time we got off the boat in town. He was shooting birds, like he did during breaks from long-lining codfish for miles and miles and miles and miles in the middle of the Gulf; though this time it was seagulls, not the grey, fat sea pigeons that surrounded the boat far at sea when we were hauling gear and gutting fish, or when he was in an ornery mood, Albatross, thought to be sailors lost at sea, and blasting these birds freaked most captains right out of their wheelhouse chairs.

When I tried to speak, my words were trapped deep in my chest, gulped in gasps, my tongue jammed against the back of my dry throat. In slow motion, he rose and pumped another shell into the chamber of the twelve-gauge and grinned wildly at the sky; then he stopped.

I followed his grin and face dropping suddenly to the surface of the water near an aluminum skiff. Breaking the surface next to the skiff were five dinosaur-like humps, spaced evenly along six feet of prominent backbone; something like those grainy photos of the Loch Ness monster, except the humps and what was below were becoming as magnified and clear as everything else.

As it swam towards us, I could clearly see that the huge fish had small black scales, tightly wedged together, shiny skin, and the rounded head of a black-cod; the fish which could grant us winters in Costa Rica, Mexico, or Hawaii, or be a maddening illusion, talked up from several days of drunken, coked-out rampaging though the bars in 1980s Kodiak, Alaska. If it weren’t for the humps, it could easily have been the biggest black cod I’d ever heard of, over a hundred kilos of oily, dense meat; a thousand-dollar fish, for sure. The humps on its back sent a slight wake through the chunks of seagull floating atop snow-capped St. Elias reflected by the harbor. As the cod swam into shallower water, it began to change.

The black humps slowly sank into a back becoming smoother, and the color of the skin lightened, as flabby arms suddenly sprang from the fins in front. The fork in the tail fin quickly grew into thick buttocks, which sprouted thighs, calves, and finally feet, while at the same time, the head was becoming human, with long, brown hair streaked with gray. The hair, flecked with brownish bits of elephant-ear kelp, floated in the water, like an un-braided mop.

A human figure was suddenly kneeling on all fours with its face in the water. It was beginning to move as if to shake itself awake, like a big, wet dog. As a scream began to build in my chest, I watched this thing begin to stand.

I pressed further into the log at my back when I saw the face rise from the water. The face was fleshy and old, slightly darkened by the same sheen of hard, slate-colored mud that often covered the gear as we pulled it up from the deep waters of the Gulf. The eyes made my heels dig into the soft moss as I tried to get up and run.

The lids of the eyes were sealed closed. I knew they were completely sealed by the way the water ran over the smooth new pink area where there should have been eyelashes and the slits of the eyes. No blinking, no wrinkles around the eyes, nothing. Although I wasn’t sure yet, I felt that it was a woman’s face by the way the delicate sheen of mud highlighted, feminine lines in her face, which seemed frozen in a wide questioning look from the pink skin of her round, sealed eye-sockets.

As the woman stood up and walked toward me, I dug my heels further into the moss that kept giving way, my feet sinking into green, and I felt the log pressing at my back, almost pushing me forward. My pent-up screams were again swallowed in gulps as she stood up and I saw the rest of her.

Her breasts were those of a younger woman, looking completely out of place in a sea of late, middle-aged folds. The rounded cones of her breasts were covered by the same kind of smooth and shiny pink skin covering her eyes: no nipples, useless like the eyes. Her genitals were also covered by this same satiny skin, as hairless and as smooth as the eyelids. The log at my back began to push me toward her. I began to scream; then heard my name.

 *  *  *

I opened my eyes to my room in Tottenham, forty minutes by the Underground from London’s Trafalgar Square. My heels were pressed into the mattress, and I was pushing against the headboard. A voice downstairs was calling my name and saying that I had a call from Alaska. I pulled on a pair of sweat-pants and a sweatshirt and ran downstairs.

Mrs. Ward, the host mother, handed me the phone, and I stepped into the cramped phone closet under the stairs.

“Hello,” I said dumbly into the phone.

“John, it’s Joe. I’ve got some bad news.”

“What—what is it?”

“Rich is missing. The Coast Guard’s been looking for three days now.”

“What happened?”

“No one knows. He was out with Randy on the Capon. They’re just gone.”

“Why were they going out in the middle of January?” I asked, already knowing the answer. I’d escaped that crazy winter fishing by going back to college on the GI Bill.

“They needed the money. You know how it is in the winter.”

“Maybe they’re just anchored up in some hidey-hole; broke down,” I suggested.

“They’re not anchored up. The Coast Guard’s been flying around looking for three solid days of good weather. They’ve been overdue for ten. Look, I don’t want to stay on the phone too long. It’s a pretty spendy call.”

“Where can I reach you?” I asked.

“Tell you what; I’ll call you if they find anything. They might at least find the dogs.”

“The dogs?” I hadn’t thought of the dogs; as many others did in the slower winter fishing, they brought their dogs out with them.

“Rich had Ty with him, and Randy brought his dog. If they weren’t too far out, those Labs should be able to swim to the beach.”

“Do you think they’ll find them?” I asked, knowing the answer to this question too.

“I don’t think so, John, Rich is gone.”

“I’m sorry.” I said, not meaning really to say the words out loud.

“I’m sorry to be the one to tell you; hey, how’s your studies going?”

“Just fine, Joe. Look, I’ll let you go now. Thanks for calling to tell me.”

“Forget it. Someone had to. See you in the spring when you get back.”

“See you in the spring,” I said and hung up the phone.

I stepped out of the little closet under the stairs. The Wards, my host family for my winter semester in London, were sitting around the breakfast table and looked concerned. I always felt strange telling them about fishing and Alaska. Now, someone close was gone, and I was telling them about that.

 

With the stunning clarity of slow, habitual movements through empty air, I showered and shaved as grief rolled into the morning. What happened? Rich and Randy were good men. They knew their boat and the sea.

“What happened?” This question began to hang beside the dream as I got ready for the day. I kept searching for something concrete from the dream, as if I could find something of Rich. The man shooting gulls, Fury, was also good friends with Rich, and the three of us and Fury’s girlfriend once had a long January night broke-down in Keku Straits, near Petersburg, trying to get the bilge pump going and wading in the dimly lit engine room of the Miss Helen in a mix of diesel, herring-slimed bilge water, and the icy glaze of death pouring in from a corroded valve; then bucking against a bitch of a northerly up Chatham Straits to get back to Sitka, all the while working back-searing turns at a manual pump on the windward side of the wheel house. We were just packing winter bait-herring around.

Dick Oranson, the skipper known around town as “the man who can’t catch his ass in both hands,” was too drunk to take the boat out this time; he sent us out without survival suits because he had stripped down the boat to sell it. A couple of months later, Dick got drunk and coked up with Rockin’ Rob Skordahl. They took the Miss Helen out to Peril Straits in a snowstorm, jimmied one of the flush covers in the strong following sea as the full-moon tide changed, climbed into the life raft, snuggled up in their survival suits with some Jim Beam and distress beacons, and later on, collected the insurance. And me, drunk asshole as I could be in those days when the work at sea was easier than living in town, called Dick a “dick” for sinking a boat I really loved, loud enough for others to hear one night in the bar after a lean trip, and he would have broken my face if Rich had not stepped in with that calming way of his.

 

I sat through my classes that day in the empty air, my pen making small circles on paper, unable to talk to anyone about these things.

I left the campus of the University of London early and began walking.  All the famous and well-known sights I passed didn’t matter. I didn’t really know where I was going with the rush of the crowds.

I finally sat down on a bench in a very small, square piece of grassy park, tired-looking trees, and dirty granite walls near a busy intersection. I was sitting there thinking of Rich when I noticed the four tall walls enclosing a small space in the middle of the park. I got up to have a closer look at the walls.

By the fading light of the winter day ending and the sudden light of the park and streetlights coming on, I could make out long lists of names engraved in stone. I looked closer and could see that these were the names of the men, boats, and ships lost during the Second World War. I walked through a stone arch to the space inside. The names of hundreds and hundreds of men, boats, and ships completely covered the walls in neat columns. I was drawn to a particular section of the wall with F/V initials above the lists. The F/V stands for “Fishing Vessel”.

I pressed the ends of my fingers into names of the boats as I read the lists of names. I also thought about the thousands upon thousands of names missing from the lists. As I sat on a stone bench in the middle of the enclosure, Rich rose above it all. After a couple of hours in the dim light of the memorial, I walked back to the campus and caught the Underground home.

Another time, before I left London, I returned to that place with the names and prayed for my friend, thought of him, thought of the dream, the hundreds of names engraved on the walls; and the millions and billions and trillions to drown or be swept from life in one way or another, forever and always, as it is, as it always has been, thy will be done, amen. That spring, I returned to the sea as I had every year for fifteen years.

There was a lot of talk about Rich and what happened to the two men and dogs. There were always the speculations and lighthearted talk in the Shelter Cove Bar and Grill: that Rich would walk in at any moment and say he was just hiding from the IRS. The unanswered questions and the dream would wash into my thoughts; until, after a midnight wheel-watch off Salisbury Sound, near Sitka, it all finally came down to this:

 

I stood on deck

six miles

off Klokachef Island,

near the place

we all think you were lost.

 

The night sky chimed with stars

gloriously draped

in red and green billowing

northern lights.

The deck was awash

in shiny flecks

of cascading phosphorous

sparkling

all over my boots.

 

I knelt down in the wash

and cupped my hands in the sea.

Raising cold fingers

glittering to my lips

I suddenly found you,

 

in the stark taste of salt

and beauty of the sky.

 

In memory of Richard Behmlander. Lost at sea in the Gulf of Alaska, January 1986.

John Unger is a Literacy Educator, currently teaching developmental reading and writing courses at a college near Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He has taught undergraduate and graduate courses in topics related to literacy and language education at several universities and colleges in the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S, and northern Thailand. Before his life in higher education, he was in the U.S. Navy for four years and worked for fifteen seasons on coastal and deep-sea commercial fishing boats in the Northern Pacific, Gulf of Alaska, and Bering Sea. He’s working on a creative non-fiction book about fishing boats and the academy.

IMAGE: The skipper of the Kelly Marie, Joe Malley, too this photo of the author, John Unger. It was taken near the Albatross Banks, off Kodiak Island, Alaska during a Halibut Opening in June of 1988. Joe is the one in this story that notified John about Rich’s disappearance.

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  • Wonderful poetry, John–made all the more poignant by the prose you wrote before these ending lines of verse. Like the ring-setting sometimes can make a diamond sparkle in the light all the more beautifully.

  • I guess I have more to say about this piece. What makes good writing great? Hemingway said it was something called “true-felt emotion.” I find that here, in this memoir and poetry. I have been reading this e-mag (Hippocampus) for about a year now, since I first found it, and what you wrote here is among the finest things I have read so far. Maybe it is the finest. All I can say is “wow.” This knocked my socks off.

  • John Unger

    three years later: thanks for taking the time to read my work and the comment. I’m very new to this.