For about fifteen years after I graduated from high school I would dream about it. Recurring and convoluted dreams that were, at turns, both absurd and meaningless as well as fraught with transparent and obvious relevance. This should not be surprising for a period that is clearly formative for most people. I had a mixed time in high school socially. Most of my friends were from the neighborhood where I lived, and were three and four years older than I was, and so I sometimes had a hard time relating to the kids my own age. And it seemed that I couldn’t get the dating thing right no matter what I did. I had deep, almost obsessive crushes on girls that were obviously not suited for me, while I ignored the girls who fell for me, who were almost all very cool and absolutely beautiful. In ninth grade I completely blew off Miss Orange County, who was also one of the coolest and probably the most sexually advanced girl in the school. Looking back, it’s easy to see that this behavior was based entirely on fear, but that doesn’t excuse it, and even now, more than 30 years later, this part of high school looks like a wasteland of missed opportunities, stupidity and awkwardness. The death of my younger brother, which happened more than a year after I graduated from high school, woke me up and turned me into a sensitive human being, but it was too late .. so I continued to be haunted by high school dreams for more than a decade. But those dreams stopped years ago.
We all agree that this period is a formative time of our lives, but if you lead a halfway interesting life, there are others. For me I suppose it was the ten years I spent fishing in the Bering Sea, and since I quit that life in 1998 I have had recurring dreams about that period as well. They still go on. In fact two nights ago I had another one. In this one, much like many of the others, my wife was heading back out to sea on one of the ships we both worked on for a decade. In this particular dream I wasn’t going — very often I do — but not this one. And there was not a small amount of anxiety in this dream, since on the boat would be her ex-husband, who was also one of my very best friends during a good part of those ten years. As you might imagine, there is a story there.
In 1990 American Seafoods was on a sort of tear — they had tremendous success with their first endeavor, the fabulous “American Empress” – a fishing boat longer than a football field and that could accommodate, in relative luxury, a crew of over 100. I was employee number 137, and came onboard on the second 4-week trip the boat ever took, back in early 1989. Less than a year later Kjell Rokke asked for some more money from a Norwegian bank, and launched the American Dynasty, arguably one of the most successful fishing vessels in the history of factory trawler fishing. By 1990, I had managed to reach the status of deckhand on the American Empress, and my Norwegian mentor, Webjorn, was leaving the Empress and moving to the new ship named the “Acona” that American Seafoods had built for the New Zealand market, but then changed its mind and moved to the Bering Sea for pollock. Webjorn would be first deck bosun. I begged him to take me with him, and pulled every favor I had in the office to get on that boat as a deckhand. The deck department consisted of 6 people — 3 on each shift. With a crew of a 120, and in the quasi-medieval environment of American Factory Trawling, the deckhands were knights, who strutted around the boat with belts in their knives and performed acrobatics against a furious sea while being watched from wide-windowed wheelhouses where young women were always welcome to sit and watch. There was no better boat in the Bering Sea at no better time to be a deckhand than the Acona in the summer of 1990.
Six months later, in the winter, we had arrived in Dutch Harbor after about a month of successful fishing, and received, along with a few tons of groceries, a partial new crew. The deckhands weren’t going anywhere, but about half the processing crew rotated out. It was January, and cold. It was also Roe Season, where the daily rate for the processors could exceed $1,200. This is where I first laid eyes on the woman who would years later become a huge part of my life, and from the moment I saw her, I was struck. With the money made in those days, it wasn’t entirely uncommon to see pretty young girls show up at the dock in Dutch Harbor, but none of us in the deck crew were prepared for a 95-pound exotic beauty to show up like some kind of angel dropped out of the gray forbidden skies of the Bering. At least that’s how I saw it. I literally lay on the steel deck of the shack where the deckhands hung out waiting for the next bag of fish and moaned quietly, my deckhand brothers stepping over me, shaking their heads at my lovestruck silliness.
A few days into the trip as we were “steaming” — that is, moving from one place to another as fast as possible without towing a net, searching for fish — and the sea blew up a bit, and as we ran from it, you could stand on the back deck and watch the 30-foot waves breaking just behind us at eye level, as we outran them in a pitched frenzy. A spectacular site by any standard. I worked up the courage to descend below-decks to the factory and tapped her on the shoulder as she stood in line pulling the roe from a pile of fish moving slowly by on a conveyer belt. She looked up at this deckhand, wide-eyed, thinking maybe she was in trouble. I asked her to follow me, and she did, up the steel steps and out onto the deck where we stood just behind the massive steel doors and watched for a few moments the fury of the sea behind us. Memories like that you don’t forget. They creep into your dreams, sometimes pure, sometimes distorted.
The story took a number of turns — the first one brutal for me, when she chose one of my best friends on the boat, Chris, a good-looking blonde kid from Florida, over me. During those next seven years, for me it was string of what we called “boat romances”, and a tumultuous 7-year relationship for her. Toward the end we both got married. She to Chris and me to someone else. Both mistakes that each lasted less than a year.
In 1998 I was quitting the industry. Divorce, my father’s death .. I had had enough. I had passed my captain’s license, but it was clear that it would be awhile before I sailed in that position, and when we pulled the Ocean Rover into Pier 47 in Seattle, I knew that it would be for the very last time. Over the radio I heard her voice. This woman, who I had quietly obsessed about for seven years. We had always remained friends, although not what you might call close. She was picking up a car .. or something. Impulsively, I waited on the stairwell below the wheelhouse just outside my cabin. When she came up the stairs I pulled her into my cabin and asked, with a little more force than I maybe should have, if she would have breakfast with me the next morning. I had this feeling that it was the very last time I would see her, and it probably accurate, given the changes that were taking place in our lives.
The next morning I met her at a diner on lower Queen Anne, just up the street from 22 John, where I had quietly lived for five years. As I watched her walk down the hill, amazed that this moment was actually happening, I considered the confluence of forces had made this breakfast possible. How much of it was free will, how much unseen? It wasn’t long after we sat down that the conversation began to take turns that neither of us expected consciously, but which were evidently very clear to our hearts. Breakfast led to lunch, and to dinner, as we walked around the city, and finally back to the park near lower Queen Anne — a circuitous route and series of events that had all the markings of a complex mating ritual.
She was at the end of her marriage with Chris, and I had just divorced a few months before. Her situation was not generally known in our circle of friends. So I was stealing her, at least that’s how it would seem, and no doubt seemed to those in the industry that knew us. I took a different view. Property, you can steal. People, you cannot.
Years have passed since these events took place, and other significant events have replaced them in our memories. Four kids, as an example. But the dreams remain. Two days ago I stood just outside the wheelhouse of the American Empress and chatted with my dream-version of a Norwegian fishmaster as the ship prepared to leave for a cold and windy season in the Bering Sea. These are not nightmares, but seem to be torn fragments of memory, re-stitched slightly and patched together from a time when the days were measured not in hours, but bags of fish, and 12-hour shifts of work where dancing with heavy equipment while the ship rocked side to side fed a stream of adrenaline that kept us very much alive, and awake.