Butcher of Heartache on the Bering Sea

A former newspaper copyeditor finds his way onboard a fishing boat.

  • Fishing for opies, also known as snow crabs, on the Bering Sea.

    Chris Miller/CSMPhotos.com
 

One blue-dark hour after midnight, a Coast Guard rescue diver in the Bering Sea grins his dimpled, manly grin at me from a TV show on the dangers of commercial fishing and cheerfully exclaims, "These are the major leagues of death!"

Just after New Year's, I ride an overnight bus from Spokane, Wash., to the Fishermen's Terminal in Ballard, a Scandinavian sea-faring enclave of Seattle. In the harbor you can see the MV Stellar Sea, its creased and battered blue sides looming high above smaller vessels out at the far end of the wharf. The Stellar, an ocean-going factory ship, is loading for a three-month voyage to the Bering Sea, west of Alaska. I am a middle-aged former newspaper copyeditor unmoored by loss. I have to go.

Lat. 47.6 N
Long. 123.3 W
Jan. 5. 1600 hours.

We sail today. The diesel fires up in the early afternoon and a sudden jet of oily smoke from the stacks hangs in the pale drizzle above. We idle at the wharf for an hour with the gangplank down, tempting anyone who has last-minute doubt. There are no takers, not after what Tom said last night.

Tom, a short redheaded guy from Montana, is the main production boss and our chief manipulator, astonishingly aggressive about telling us how much the work sucks. With his old-fashioned cowboy mustache and faded ball cap, he paced back and forth in front of us in the galley last night, eyeballing us with a mixture of pity and seemingly genuine concern.

"If you don't think you can do this, leave now or in the morning. There's no shame in it," he said.

Already I was certain, standing like a graying shadow amid the piercings, tattoos and swagger as we lined up for meals in the cafeteria-style galley, that I wasn't on anyone's list of someone who'd finish the contract.

But no one left. Not when everybody, in their inner ears, had just heard him say, "You pussy!"

And soon enough, the skipper uses the bow thrusters to spin the boat out into the ship canal. We're away.

Last night, I dreamt that I would see her at the Ballard Locks. And so as the Stellar inches in, I stand on deck with others, scanning all the sightseers. As the Stellar's bulk sighs lower in the draining chamber and our deck comes level with the sidewalk, a smiling woman tosses questions at me.

"Where are you out to?"

"The Pribilofs."

"What are you fishing for?"

"Opies."

We banter briefly. In parting, she says, "We're from Anchorage." What are the odds, I think. That's where the woman I'm missing went.

Lat. 55.05 N.
Long. 166.3 W.
Jan. 16. 1840 hours.

The Stellar is booming. Wind and current combine to create 25-foot seas as we shoulder our way north up Unimak Pass, headed for the Bering Sea. From the bridge, aft, the long stretch of main deck resembles a great rusty whale as the bow rises, rises, shedding water, only to arc into the next wave with a shuddering whoomph! exploding a brilliant curtain of spray. Over and over, all day long.

Lat. 57.07 N.Long.
170.16 W.
Jan. 21. Off Village Cove, St. Paul Island.

The factory kicks up today with 138,000 pounds of crab delivered by the Polar Sea, our first load.

In my journal, I describe my first shift as a butcher: "Crab, crab. Piles and zooms of crab. Gloved, sleeved, robed and booted. Ceremonial, the butcher awaits."

Crab pours out onto a conveyor belt and soon piles so high I can't see the guy across the line from me. Grab one. Spin it around and gather its legs into each of my hands. Steady its nose against a piece of angle iron. Pull! The carapace breaks in two, falling away to the flume to be carried off. The legs convulse and wrap around my hands. Worms and parasites. Barnacles. Missing legs. Big ones and little. Goo flies in the giller brushes. Crab water sprays as the carapace is broken. Go! Go! Go! Some look at me as they ride past on the belt. Others walk off, into my hands, and death.

The work is ugly and miserable. It's like heartache.

Lat. 57.12 N.
Long. 170.07 W.
Jan. 26. Off Big Lake, St. Paul Island.

JT is big, biker big. Big arms, big shoulders, big gut. A big walrus mustache that can't hide his smile if he is happy, but augments his big mean stare if he isn't. He's among the few guys aboard who really scare me. JT is such a bully that the spot opposite him on the packing line is almost always empty, but that's where I go after break, ditching my assigned job elsewhere. I didn't come here to be meek, I tell myself. As crab rains down from the butcher line above, I race to be first to fill a wire basket with 40 pounds of crab legs. My orange-gloved hands and JT's dance around each other. Then one of his meaty hands swats mine away. Or his other fist swings around and snatches a bundle of crab legs away from me.

"Do you know why I do that? Because I can."

So I watch JT for awhile. Watch his hands. Snap an arm across the line and pluck a fistful of crab away. Glare at him and don't say a thing as I punch it into my basket.

His eyebrows shoot up and his mouth forms a perfect little "o." JT laughs and booms out
"TAYLORMAN!"

He'd done two combat tours in Vietnam but had been living under bridges before he found the Stellar. He's made a stand here, living onboard the last six years in this ghetto of the seafood industry. For all his bluster, JT is one of the invisibles – people we don't see.

One night he says a most unexpected thing: "A poem. I have a poem I want to tell you," he shouts over the factory noise.

Next morning, in the quiet of the galley, he walks over with a bemused smile, rubbing his mustache with one of his great fists, his hair all wonky with sleep. The poem describes the arc of a love affair, using descriptions of the sky as markers for how the love was going. It isn't a great poem but it's clean, honest; ends sad.

We are both silent.

"Who wrote that? You write that?"

He names a woman with his own last name.

"Any relation?"

"She was my wife," he says.

When he came home from his first tour in Vietnam, he came home to this poem. It was on the kitchen table.

"I read it once, tore it to shreds, went around and punched out every fucking window in the trailer and signed right back up for a second tour," he says.

We're silent again. I do the math. This is easily 35 or 40 years earlier. After 35 or 40 years, how can someone recite a poem – word for word – that they have read only once?

"I loved the woman," he says.

Kevin Taylor is a journalist and writer in Spokane, Wash., who once found a very different note on a kitchen table, although it still, ultimately, led him to the Stellar Sea. This piece is excerpted from a longer memoir.

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