My son-in-law’s sister, April, is married to a commercial fisherman who works in the North Pacific. With her six month daughter in tow, she is visiting my daughter’s family here in Denver from her home in a small community on the Oregon coast. She needs the break: her husband, Keith, left for the Gulf of Alaska in January. He won’t be home until April.
My wife was in Spokane for the weekend visiting our younger daughter. So I got an invitation from my other daughter to come to her home for a Korean dinner. It was delicious: kimchi (my very Caucasian daughter’s contribution to the meal), barbecued Korean ribs, sticky rice, seaweed wraps, spicy pork wrapped in marinated sesame leaves. It was a sister and brother effort; although they are half Caucasian, they learned well at the apron stings of their full blooded Korean mother.
I don’t know much about Keith; I’ve only met him once. But I am curious about his life as a fisherman. Over dinner, I asked April about his work.
“What are they fishing for? What’s his boat like?”
“They’re fishing for pollock; it’s a mid-water fish”
“It’s not a bottom fish like cod or flounder. Fishing for them is dirty. That’s what Keith’s father is doing now with his boat up in the Bering Sea. His boat broke down recently and had to be towed in.”
“So how big is Keith’s boat?”
“It’s about 100 feet long.”
“And how many people are on it?”
“Three: Keith and two hands that work the back where the net is.”
“Three people for a 100 foot boat? That’s amazing. How many fish do they catch?”
“He called the other day and said it’s been going pretty well. They came into port a few days ago with 150,000 pounds.”
“A 150,000 pounds for three people?! How many tons is that?”
The three of us kicked it around for a few minutes and then, laughing, gave up. And April has a degree in accounting. But now, my iPhone tells me it’s 75 tons.
“How do they run a ship that big with three people? ”
“Well, the deck hands manage the net. The greenest does the cooking. The hands get to rest when they are looking for fish. But Keith might go 48 hours without sleeping. He has to drive the ship, pay attention when the net is going out and when they bring it back in with fish. And the rest of the time he has to try to find the fish with the radar. But he gets a nap sometimes.”
“I bet the food’s nothing to write home about.”
“That’s true.” She paused. “It’s dangerous work. One boat in the fleet has already gone down without a trace this season. And another wound up on the rocks and the crew had to be rescued.”
The discussion ended as the meal did. My two and a half year old granddaughter, Bridget, was becoming increasingly restive. The two infants had been in bed even before I arrived for dinner. I read Bridget a book. The other adults cleaned up and then went to the living room.
The book finished, I looked up and noticed that April was on her cell phone. I didn’t give it much thought except that it was, perhaps, a bit odd that she be on her phone with all that was going on. “But,” I reasoned to myself, “isn’t everyone on their ‘device’ virtually all the time?” With that, I went into the living room also and took a chair near April.
It was only then that I realized that April was talking to Keith as he steered his boat back out to the fishing grounds from where they’d been in port. When I did, I hurridly moved back to the kitchen table. I felt like I had interrupted something sacred. Even more so when I heard, from across the room, “I love you. We miss you. And I’ll be praying for you.”
When I got home that night I did a quick google search on the hazards of commercial fishing. It was worse than April let on; it is the most dangerous job in the country.
That was Friday night. On Sunday, I went to Haden and Lauren’s church so I would have the opportunity to see April and her daughter before they went home. Chloe, like her mother, is beautiful. Gentle, almond eyes. A ready smile in a broad face.
After the sermon, which was a good one, we were invited to come to the front and receive the bread and wine. “You can also light a candle off to the side if you would like.”
With the rest of the congregation, I shuffled forward. After receiving the elements, I lit a candle for Keith and his family. And his comrades who have gone down to the sea.
Next time you pass the fish case in your grocery store, I invite you, in sprit, to do likewise.