Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
In the fall of 1964 I started college at the University of California at Berkeley, but I hated it. I lasted one year, and as soon as school let out in June of 1965 I went to Alaska to seek my fortune. My cousin and I had heard that fishermen in a place called Kodiak Island were making big money up north. I had a few dollars I’d made working as a cowboy. So I grabbed my guitar and pack and bedroll and I went north to be an Alaska fisherman and strike it rich.
I’d never been on a jet before. Heck, I’d never been on a plane before, just bought the ticket and got on. We flew to Juneau, flying hour after hour over untouched northern forests. Mountains, valleys, no sign of man. Juneau sits on a skinny foreshore, with an entire panoply of waterfalls laughing down the cliff behind. I’ve never seen it other than overcast. I’ve never seen it in the winter. I love Alaska in the summer.
Juneau and waterfalls. SOURCE
In the winter, not so much, but at that point I hadn’t ever seen an Alaskan winter.
Juneau has a smell about it that is common to North Pacific port towns, a ravishing smell made of equal measures of exposed tidal flats, creosote from the pilings, fish parts of various sizes and antiquity, and the resinous scent of the trees inland. To me it smelled like adventure.
DANGER: More Alaskan strangeness follows. If you push the button marked “Continue reading →” you assume all risks of both mosquito- and frost-bite .
In Juneau, we got into the seaplane for Sitka, which is on an island a ways offshore from Juneau. We were going to see my erstwhile stepdad, Bill, the ex-Marine … not really an “ex” Marine, no such thing as far as I know, let me say he’d been a Marine. We knew he was the skipper of a tugboat. We figured he could point us to work.
The plane was a Grumman Goose, an amphibious seaplane. It was parked on the beach. We got in. The engines sounded dubious. The plane slowly waddled off the beach into the water, and started to taxi out.
Spray streamed over the body. It leaked through the window and was dripping on my leg. I moved my leg, and watched a steady driblet of icy seawater fall to the floor. Alaska, gotta love it. We lifted off under a middle overcast, and the dripping stopped. The plane threaded through endless vistas of ocean passages curving between green forested islands. We landed in Sitka and went to find Bill.
Sitka had a pulp mill back then, closed twenty years now. The logs were harvested on the island and on surrounding islands. They were dumped into the ocean, and steel cables were connected around thousands of them, forming a huge log raft. These rafts were towed by tugboats to the pulp mill in Sitka. It was tricky, demanding, dangerous work that my stepdad was doing, but he was a timber feller and an erstwhile Marine Drill Instructor, he liked that kind of life.
We found my stepdad, but sadly the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA) had found him first. He was still a nice guy, but they took all the starch out of him. He was like a tire that was only partially inflated. We stayed with them for a couple days. It was uncomfortable. We found a place to camp out. Too much tension in the house. Here’s why.
Bill’s new wife Sharon, as things always happen, was an alcoholic just like my Mom. Life’s like that, we re-create earlier relationships, we get to re-fight our battles until we win them, and so Bill had married another alkie. She was a nice lady, sweet and kind to wandering shirttail relatives such as we were.
Now, the SDA is no worse than your average religion in most regards. But they have one perfectly stone-age habit. If one of their members can’t straighten out some problem like alcohol, they “shun” them.
Shunning doesn’t mean you don’t talk to the person. It means if you are a church member walking down the street and you see someone who has been shunned, you cross the street right then. Presumably, so you won’t be contaminated by their hateful evil proximity, I don’t know. The population of Sitka then was maybe 3,500 people on a good day, it was tiny. Many of their friends were SDA members.
Anyhow, I was out walking with them one day, and someone crossed the street to shun poor Sharon. The look on her face when she saw that biddy cross the street near to broke my heart. It was a mixture of shame and anger and anguish and guilt that no woman should ever have to bear, regardless of whether she drinks too much. I decided then and there that “shunning” should have been abandoned with the “dunking stool” and other appurtenances of witchcraft. Perhaps the SDA have abandoned it by now, I hope so. It broke sweet Sharon’s heart, plus it made her more likely to turn to the bottle … what good is either?
But even though Bill had been domesticated, and there was no work on the tug boats with him, the good news was that in Sitka I got my first job playing in a honky-tonk band. I’d played music for money and for dinner lots of times by then. But before Sitka I’d always been a solo act, or very occasionally played with another acoustic guitarist.
In Sitka I got a gig as the rhythm guitarist and lead singer, complete with electric guitar, in a bar band which was usually composed entirely of what used to be called “Indians”. Columbus wanted to believe he’d gotten to India, so he called the locals “Indians”. This led to centuries of confusion, where people had to continually be asking “You mean Indians with a dot, or Indians with a feather?” So they decided to change their name. Fair enough.
It’s not politically correct to call them Indians now, I know. These days, I’m a reformed cowboy, so I use a more modern name which reflects their actual heritage. I call them “Early Asian Immigrants”, to distinguish them from the “Later Melanin-Deficient Immigrants”. I don’t generally use the term “Native Americans”, though, unless a man insists on it. According to science, they’re no more native to the Americas than any human is, and that’s not native at all.
To maintain the historical accuracy, however, I’ll use the terms of the era. The guys called themselves Indians the first time I met them. It was early one evening, they were playing in a roadside dance hall bar in Sitka. The conversation opened with something like me saying “Where’re you guys from”, and them saying “We’re Indians. Sitka tribe.” Good enough for me. They had a lead guitar, bass guitar, and drums. They were on a break. I bought them a drink. I told them I liked their music. I said I was a musician. They had a spare electric guitar, we played a few tunes, we had fun.
They told me the rhythm guitarist was in the local slammer for a few months. He’d gotten arrested after a drunken fight. Did I want to join the band?
Well, I thought, let’s total up the pluses and minuses. First, the pay was lousy, although it included dinner as well. They got forty bucks a night plus tips. Then, that had to be split six ways. One share each for the four musicians. One for the drummer’s girlfriend who ran the soundboard. One share to the guy who actually owned the guitars and equipment. And the free dinner was rubber chicken cafeteria food. Plus acoustically, the bar sucked, the flat walls made the room ring like playing music inside a cheap cowbell. Not to mention the air was chokingly thick with cigarette smoke and sweat from the dancers.
So what’s not to like, I thought? Sign me up!
And so later that very night I found myself playing in a real, live, roadside band for money and food, albeit small money and below-average food, and best of all, people were dancing to my music. I loved to see folks happy like that. I was eighteen, living on my own. Playing dance music, standing on the stage watching folks dance their hearts out to some blazing sound that we were laying down, that was a true joy for me. I was an idiot, but I was a very contented idiot.
Unfortunately, I discovered for the first time that I was also at times a drunken idiot. As were my Indian brothers-in-arms.
The problem was, people always wanted to buy beers and drinks for the band. It was in Sitka that I started drinking what they called “Coke-High”, whiskey and coke.
Evenings with the band were a slow slide backwards, by both musicians and dancers, from civilization to some much more primitive, elemental, and, well, atavistic level, to put it plainly. I began to understand why the rhythm guitarist was in jail.
After playing with the band for a few weeks, I finally figured out that he wasn’t in the Sitka jail for violence. That had just been my naive misunderstanding of the situation. The most likely reason he was in jail was that he was taking a holiday from the violence.
The evenings always started with such great promise, too. Everyone showed up early, we ate dinner on the house. No drinking alcohol with dinner, we wouldn’t do a thing like that. We were young men on a musical mission, noble and pure of heart.
Such nobility in young men, however, has a severely limited shelf-life. In our case, we usually, perhaps even often, made it through the entire first set of the evening with the temples of our bodily purity unsullied by the demon rum. We played hard, driving music, pick you up and yank you onto the dance floor music, can’t ignore it music. The dancers loved us. People did the twist and every other kind of step, we had them shaking and baking.
During the first intermission, as a reward for being so noble and pure, we might have one drink. One Coke-High. Just one, you understand.
During the second set, people were glad we were back, they’d start buying us drinks. And we’d start drinking them. Slowly. Just sipping, you understand. My throat was dry from all the singing I was doing. Plus, I wasn’t really drinking. Just wetting my whistle. And the second intermission was not entirely alcohol-free either.
Alcohol and enjoying music works fairly well. Alcohol and playing music, not so much. Fortunately, through some strange symmetry the two tend to offset each other. As our music deteriorated, it was matched by the deteriorating musical judgement of the dancers and other drinkers. I figured we just had to stay ahead … where “ahead” meant the situation where a majority of the dancers believed that they had lost the beat, not the band.
And of course, as in many places I’ve played, the amount of violence was proportional to the average alcohol consumption. Fights were so common that the bandstand had a waist-high solid wood railing around it. The first night I played with the guys I thought oh, how nice, we have our own little kind of stage to perform in … I hadn’t realized the wall was there to protect the guitar amplifiers from the random flying chair, and to protect the lead guitarist from the drunk guy staggering backwards after being punched in the mouth. I’m sure you’re surprised to learn that many of these fights were about women. Others involved long-standing feuds.
Occasionally one of my Indian brothers-in-music couldn’t stand it, his cousin or someone was getting pummeled, he’d jump the bandstand fence and join in the fray. When that happened, of course, the whole band was honor-bound to down instruments and join in trying to rearrange some stranger’s facial molecules, mostly I just tackled guys to stop them fighting … I could see how after while, jail might seem like a peaceful alternative to playing in this particular rock band.
Of course, getting dinner plus ten or twenty bucks a night, three nights a week, is not much of a survival plan. Everyone in the band had day jobs. The band guys took me down to the Hall, and I got on at the local Longshoreman’s Union. At that time there were two industries in Sitka — fishing, and pulp. In a giant, reeking mill on the edge of town, the forests of the surrounding islands were converted into 350 pound (160 kg) bales of pulp and shipped to Japan to be made into paper. Huge freighters came into Sitka Harbor. A crane would sling four bales down into the hold at a time. We had big two-man stevedore type two-wheeled hand trucks and cargo hooks. Layer by layer, we laid out sheets of plywood and rolled the huge bales one by one into place. There’s an art to tipping one off the handcart. If done right, the bale rolls over once and slams tightly into both sides of the corner made by the other bales. If done wrong, it lands a ways from where you want it, and you sweat and swear with your cargo hooks to hump it in tight, and the old guys laugh at you. I got laughed at. I could see why, and I got good at moving bales very quickly.
Now, to be fair, I wasn’t fishing. But I had accomplished at least part of my Alaskan dream. I was playing music in a combination bar and fight club, and making really good money and I only worked part-time. When a ship came in we worked around the clock. We got regular time for the first eight hours work, time and a half after that, and double time for any night work, that was six PM to six AM. Triple time for overtime nights. Sometimes the ships would start work at around dusk. So we’d go to work making double time, work through dawn. A couple hours at regular time, from then on we were at time and a half until six pm, when it went to triple time for night overtime, we’d work a full 24 hours at times. I was making stacks of money, working part-time, playing in a killer-good band … at least killer-good for the first set of the evening … and living in my own apartment.
So my stepdad Bill was shocked when I told him that the endless world was calling, that I was moving on. He asked why. From his point of view, I had everything that a man could want— a good job, my music, my own apartment, in his mind I was set for life. Bill thought I should settle down, that I was crazy to leave such a good situation, that I had it made.
For me, that was the problem—I did have it made. I had seen the future, and it sucked. I could look forward to an unending string of incoming pulp ships, mindlessly moving giant cubes of pulp into place, gaining seniority, maybe someday sitting in an office, making increasing money, then married, couple kids, a life moving blocks of pulp and then working in the union office or at the pulp mill itself until I was 65, gold watch and chain, having done nothing interesting at all … Yikes! Terrifying! I had to escape quickly before that vortex sucked me down. I said goodbye to my Indian friends in the band. You grow close quickly when you’re playing music and dodging flying chairs together, I thanked them for the opportunity, and they said they understood the call of the road. We shook hands and parted friends. I said goodbye to Bill and Sharon, took the money I’d saved, and left town.
My cousin and I bought plane tickets to Skagway, and from there we took the ferry to Haines. After that, the road goes through Canada to Alaska. You can’t drive from Southeastern Alaska to Anchorage, the main Alaskan city, without going through Canada. Heck, you couldn’t drive to the capital, Juneau, at all. No road went there from the outside. Boat or plane, that was your choices to get to Juneau … well, dogsled, I suppose. Alaska, I loved the place that first trip, and I would return many times.
From Skagway, we took the ferry to Haines, and boarded the bus for the ride through Canada. That was the first time I ever saw Indians drying salmon on long racks over low fires, whole fish split in half and being dried and smoked to get them through the winter. They stopped the bus, the drying salmon fascinated me. They were filleted from the head along the spine, but still joined at the tail. We got off the bus at Tok Junction to hitchhike south, and went right straight inside the store, because it was chilly. The locals in the store warned us about the mosquitoes. They said that at that time of year the moose would sometimes be driven mad by the mosquitoes. They would run in circles shaking their heads, or jump into muddy waterholes to escape them. At the time I didn’t believe them, I thought they were making stuff up to see if we newcomers believed it. We walked outside.
The mosquitoes also sized us up as newcomers. They descended, not singly, not in groups, not in clouds, but in storms, in serried ranks, in battalions. They were unbearable. I stuck out a bare arm, it turned black with mosquitoes. I slapped it. That left a bright red handprint on my arm in my own blood. I knew when I was beaten, they drove us back inside. The owner of the store said to stay inside, someone would stop in. Someone did, and gave us a ride to Anchorage. This was just a year after the huge 1964 earthquake and tsunami, and large parts of Anchorage were still in ruins. I wasn’t there to see the cities, though, I mostly gave it a miss.
We hitchhiked down the Kenai Peninsula to Homer. One of the most amazing things was how far the land had dropped during the earthquake. In places the land had fallen so far that for mile after mile, only the top half of the telephone poles were sticking out of the water, with the wires still strung between them. It made me understand the origin of the giant tsunami that had accompanied the quake, that’s what happens when the ocean floor just drops ten or fifteen feet or so (3-4m) or so.
Finally, we arrived in Homer, the last step before arriving at our destination. We slept on the beach, and the next day we took the long walk out to the end of the Homer Spit and got on the ferry to Kodiak Island. We’d heard that the fishermen there were making good money, and by gum, I hadn’t come to Alaska to get a Union job moving bales of pulp and to make money singing—I was there to make my fortune fishing in Kodiak.
The trip across to Kodiak was rough as hell. We left before dusk and the wind just kept rising. As I was to experience more than once, the Gulf of Alaska is no friend to boats or seamen. I puked my guts out. I blamed it on the food, I said I’d be fine just as soon as I got fishing … I was sure that if I could only refrain from throwing up my upper intestines and assorted sweetbreads before we reached Kodiak Island, that pretty soon, once again I’d have it made in Alaska.
I was an idiot.
… [© 2013] collected for Willis’s autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … And Often” …