When I was 15, I was sent off to work with Uncle Bill for the summer. Bill was very well educated, often married, and always broke. He worked really hard long-lining for halibut in southeast Alaska. I had just finished ninth grade in Anchorage and my folks had had enough of me. "Go spend the summer fishing, that'll fix whatever's wrong with you," they said.
The gravel airstrip in Petersburg, Alaska, was just a few feet longer than the FAA required for a 727. You could see the dust cloud for miles in all directions each day as the single flight reversed its engines hard to stop in time. The outdoor baggage claim was a wooden shed about big enough to hide four trash cans.
Day 2 began with conflict. The pay for fishermen was divided equally, I was told. The boat and each man received a share of the take after expenses. Since I was not a man, I'd start out with a quarter share and see how it went from there. I didn't think that was fair. I was old enough, and I was strong and could work as hard as any man - you'd see. Uncle Bill thought that was amusing, and he agreed.
The early season was a bust. After our first three-week trip, I owed the boat $124. That's big money in 1978 summer-earnings dollars. The first trip had to pay for the annual overhaul and new gear, in addition to the usual expenses of fuel, grub, ice, bait, and Grateful Dead cassettes. Not quite the big money I was hoping for, which is maybe one reason Bill agreed to my having a full share. I was in debt for the first time in my life, to a cannery. It was kind of a company-store deal: The cannery was the hardware store, the grocery store, and the fisherman's supply. I never even saw the money.
By early July, things were no better. We worked seven days a week, 20 hours a day, with every fourth week off. I had expected a hard summer, although not quite that hard. But Bill decided we should take a day off and celebrate our country's independence in Port Alexander, on the southeast corner of Baranof Island.
"P.A.," if you want to sound like you're part of the crowd, was a fishing boomtown in the 1920s and '30s. It crashed during World War II and was largely abandoned until the 1970s. That's when the back-to-the-earth movement and Alaska state land disposals fed the picturesque village with new residents.
The families who settled there were adventurous and rugged. The village clings to a gorgeous rocky cove and has no road. There is a fish-processing facility and a string of beautiful old and new houses along a boardwalk through the woods. Pretty much all of the residents at the time were involved in fishing one way or another. Some big shots with prosperous boats lived there, but most of the population were day-fishers who ducked out into the productive open water of Chatham Strait in between storms.
Everyone took the Fourth of July off in P.A. It was truly a grand party. Boats from all around pulled in for the day. It doesn't get dark enough in that part of the world in the summer to appreciate fireworks, so the main event was the greased-pole contest. The town put up a $50 prize for the first person who could retrieve a handkerchief that had been nailed to a six-inch-diameter spruce pole that stuck out off the end of the cannery pier.
The green-cut pole had been peeled of bark and was thoroughly lubed. I suppose the pole was about 20 feet long and was at least that high above the low-tide water. The would-be winner had to shimmy, slide, swing, walk, crawl, or dive to the end and grab the bandanna before falling into the water.
It was a spectacular show. Everybody had a special trick for getting out there. None of them worked. After an hour the onlookers had run the pot up to $87, enough to get me to take off my shirt and boots and give it a whack. Today I don't mind embarrassing myself for a few bucks, but at 15, partway through my first summer posing as a man, just getting up there should have paid $87.
But it was easy. I have always had pretty good balance, so by keeping my weight perfectly vertical, I was able to walk out to the end of the pole and neatly pull off the bandanna before diving in.
When I crawled out of the barely thawed water, the mayor was right there with cash and congratulations. I was elated, partly because I had avoided total embarrassment, and partly because I now had a little money to put toward my share of the boat's losses. But Uncle Bill would have none of it! Greased-pole money was for having fun, not for paying debts, young man.
So when we got back to town I bought a cheap camera, because I knew someday I would want to see pictures of all this; a belt buckle that bore the boat's name, the Helen B; and a new Pendleton wool shirt because halibut fishermen always look ratty, and I was sick of it.
Eventually, we caught some fish. By the end of the summer, halibut prices were up and I was so rich I was sure I'd never be broke again. When I got back to Anchorage and the 10th grade, I was ready for anything. I had seen more and worked harder and slept less than I'd ever known was possible. If I could survive a summer with Uncle Bill, anything could happen.
Now my oldest daughter is about the age I was that summer in Petersburg. I still live like a fisherman, from modest boom to overwhelming bust. Next week my wife and I are taking the kids for a short vacation that we can't really afford.
But I'm still faithful about greased-pole money whenever it comes. Uncle Bill isn't around to teach that lesson to my kids, so I must stand strong.