My dad just came back from a day waiting around at the dock for the mail plane to come in, and said he spent the time chatting with pretty much every person in the village.
The dock has always been the gathering place for the locals as far back as I can remember. People go there to wait for planes, school kids to wait for their skiff ride home (chopping up kelp and throwing it at each other in the interim), hang out, exchange tall fishing tales, gossip, tender sympathy.... It's seen everything from wedding parties, to graduation parties, to end of the fishing season parties. If there's a party going, the spot to hold it is at the dock. More than one person has been thrown off the dock, or bumped into the bay while music was pounding and spirits, of more than one variety, were high and flowing.
When we first arrived in Myers Chuck, as it was spelled then, there was a sturdy, central dock made of wood that everyone called "the state dock" since it was built with state funds. Along the wide, warped-plank causeway that led away from land and to the ramp down to the float system, local boys had laboriously carved current events and opinions into the wooden rail. Most of it involved the village's prettiest teenage girls and the local boys' territorial stake to one or the other of them, their admiration for both, and their unfriendly advice to and libel against competitors for the girls' affections.
I loved the dock as a child. It was the most alive, happening place in the world. I could go down the dock, the fishing boats rafted alongside each other two or three deep, and get treats as I went from one barbecue and dock party to the next. Who could say no to a pig-tailed blonde girl in a life vest bouncing on a pogo stick?
The men would gather in groups talking fishing, cards, and politics while someone's rock music blared in the background. The women were busy at barbecues, coming and going from their cramped galley kitchens, chatting about "Chuck Doings," the boats swaying and squeaking against the bumper buoys. The scent of saltwater and low tide mixed with beer, cooking chicken, burgers, and franks.
Some of my school friends lived down at the dock on boats. Two sisters had their own boat that was towed behind their parents' fishing boat wherever they traveled. I loved going aboard and seeing their tidy, cozy floating bedroom.
The dock was moored in place by a series of tall, barnacle-encrusted pilings that sea gulls stood atop, flat-footed, making raucous, melodramatic remarks and looking for handouts.
Could there be a better place to go pogo-sticking?
My cousin Mark has his own dock story:
August 16, 1977
As the only summer residents of the Back Chuck, along with our mom, during our first summer in remote Myers Chuck, my brother Alex and I often ate a quick breakfast and headed for the Front Chuck for some human interaction.
Myers Chuck was tiny, but its population jumped in the summer as boat captains sought refuge or came in to offload their fish at the tiny fish-buying/fuel station attached to the post office and general store. The store had the only land-line telephone in Myers Chuck, allowing us to collect call our father in Atlanta to say hello and check in on the world.
This particular day when I called my dad he told me that Greenie, my pet paraketet, had met his maker. I was devastated. Later, I'd find out the truth about Greenie's demise (an uncle's cat), but for now I just knew I was sad that I'd lost my close companion.
I went to the state dock to have a good cry and found that a grizzled old captain was having a cry of his own. He couldn't possibly have heard about Greenie, but at 9, I asked with all the innocence in the world if that was why he was crying.
He replied, "No, son. Elvis Presley has died."
I knew of Elvis from one of my dad's three 8-track tapes. Dad wasn't a big music guy, but we had The Beach Boys, Elvis, and The Outlaws. Not bad for a non-music guy!
Me crying for Greenie, and the old captain crying for the loss of Elvis, along with the rest of the world, is a day I'll always remember. Only in 1977 remote Myers Chuck could a 65-year-old weathered fishing captain console a city boy out of place about a rock 'n' roll star and a little green parakeet.
"I like your sister's whimsical and intricate artwork," one person commented after ordering a copy of my sister's coloring book, In the Garden, off Amazon. "It is very happy."
I thought that was perceptive of her. My family has always been impressed with the way my sister, Megan, has a positive attitude and can laugh even when she's going through something difficult and painful.
And she can even turn a past unhappy experience into a bit of whimsy to delight other people. Take, for instance, the dragonfly she drew for her coloring book.
My oldest brother, Jamie, not to put too fine a point on it, was a beast when we were kids. For some reason his victim of choice was usually Megan. One day he decided to terrorize her by telling her that dragonflies had a poisonous bite. He described with scientific precision what the poison did to a person--I've blanked out the horrific details, but I remember it was graphic and nightmarish.
There was a method to his madness. He'd found a large, dead dragonfly, perfectly preserved, and his evil plan was, after filling her full of his bloodcurdling tales of death by dragonfly, to produce the preserved dragonfly, its wings frozen in flight, and chase her with it.
She ran screaming, with him and the dragonfly in hot pursuit, along the salmon spawning creek we grew up beside. I managed to catch up and tell her he was lying--though, to tell the truth, he was so convincing I wasnt entirely sure about that. Despite my reassurances, though, she was scared of dragonflies for a long time to come.
Yet, all these years later, she draws them with her characteristically joyful and quirky style.
While my sister visited us this year, from her home in Florida, she shared that she was going to do another coloring book, this one based on the Alaskan sights of our childhood.
As I watched her draw an orca (killer whale), I was suddenly reminded of the way she and I, as teens, used to draw dust jackets for imaginary books. We would draw and color a cover picture and then on the back, we'd summarize what the imaginary book was about.
These summaries were chock full of high adventure and romance. It cracks me up now, thinking about those outlandish tales. Growing up on the fringe of civilization, in the remote bush, gave us fairly extreme ideas of what "normal" life was all about.
My mom loved coloring long before the current craze for coloring books, and has perfected the art of it. We grew up watching her and wanting to be as good as she was. Her shading skills, in particular, made us despair of ever producing anything even remotely as fascinating. She'd always tell us, modestly and generously, that all it took was practice.
I've long since realized that no amount of practice will give someone the innate genius she has for capturing light, texture, and nuance with crayons, pencils, and pens. All the same, as children, we believed it and, as Megan wrote in her dedication to my mom on the first page of her coloring book, we spent many hours in our floathouse home in the wilderness lost for hours in stacks of coloring books.
My mom would play her books on tape (audible books) as we colored, exposing us to the classics. I still get images of the pages I colored when I think of those readings of H. G. Wells' The Time Machine, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (read by Basil Rathbone) and the more typical children's fare of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, The Railway Children by E. Nesbit, and The Call of the Wild by Jack London. And so many more.
It does not surprise me at all, with our many fond memories of coloring that my sister would one day create a coloring book of her own and have my mom color the pages that she'd put on the front and back of the book.
Color, in all its forms, has always been a big part of our life.
"It's not the end of the world, but you can see it from here." That was what the T-shirts said that could be bought at the tiny store in the fishing village where my grandparents lived. We lived there, too, for a short time before my parents moved our family of seven to the end of the world.
Where we were going, there would only be us, no other people for miles of trackless wilderness, approachable only by the unpredictable sea. We would have to live without most modern amenities and support ourselves with hard labor, depending on each other for everything.
We had our flloathouse towed several miles away to an abandoned, burned cannery that had operated in the early years of the twentieth century. When we got there the remnants of burnt and rotting buildings were being submerged in the vast, quiet forest. On the beach were the tangled, rusted remains of massive pieces of machinery and the blackened pilings, some with stunted trees growing out of them, of what had once been a pier and dock. The smooth, rounded rocks of the beach were permanently stained by being washed in decades of rust.
My young uncle Lance on a visit, with an artist's eye, took one look at the large rusty gears, levers, and corroded machinery and designed an automobile of sorts out of these parts and assembled it down on the beach. We admired it and played in and around it until the tides and storms scattered it.
Out on a rock lookout that had a spectacular view of the bay was an enormous fuel drum. I used to dance there on the old concrete pad it sat on with my headphones on, rocking out to Bruce Springsteen as a sunset filled the sky and water. I was the last human being on earth.
That feeling came over me so many times, wandering through the ruins. I was particularly drawn to a set of blackened steps that led up to the foundation beams of an invisible building. I would climb up them and stand there, wondering about the past, about the future, wondering where those steps were supposed to lead me.
The five of us kids dug around in the forest and discovered what must have been where the cookhouse had burned to nothing. We found all sorts of dishes and cutlery, pots and pans, and metal plates to stock our forts and play with. We also found odd, Asian looking cups and saucers, most of them broken. When I did a school report looking into the background of the old cannery, I learned that many of the workers were from the Philippines.
Near the creek, where the bears fished for salmon and ignored us, lay a giant steel ring with a heavy, round door flung open. It was the door to the enormous cannery retort. I used to stand on the lip of the ring and stare at the rocks inside it and imagine that it was a portal into the past, to when the cannery was full of life and movement and men working long hours on the edge of nowhere to send wages to their loved ones on the other side of the Pacific.
We found, in a lonely place overlooking the bay, a bleached grave marker, half buried in tall grass above the driftwood. There was no way of knowing who it was that was buried there. If the marker had borne a name the years and weather had wiped it away.
Everywhere I looked, everywhere I wandered in the woods and on the beaches, I was accompanied by a sense of wonder and mystery, an awareness of a past civilization, of long ago people who had stepped where I walked. They had thoughts and dreams and hopes that I sometimes thought they hadn't taken with them when they left. They were still here, in whispers and glimpses.
These ruins were home; the end of the world was the most beautiful, wild, and free place on earth. I never tired of wandering though that old, destroyed and abandoned world.
Years later my whole family flew to Ketchikan, the nearest city, for dental appointments. Coming directly from years in the wilderness, the city was exciting, so full of people and motion and alien noises. We stayed in a hotel and were amazed and delighted with everything, particularly the TV and the indoor bathroom. Being able to order food in the restaurant from a menu was an exhilarating experience. That first night was filled with lights and the sound of music, fireworks, and reveling people. More by accident than by design we had wound up in the city on New Year's Eve.
The next morning we got up at our usual early hour and ran downstairs to the street to absorb more of this fantastic, lively world.
But when we got to the street it was empty. Overnight the city had died. No traffic, no people, no life. We wandered down the deserted streets under an overcast sky, past the silent, tall buildings. The stores were closed and dark--nothing was lit. A dog trotted down the middle of the street. It was the only sign of life.
We had gone from an old post apocalypse to a much more recent one, I thought. We were the last human beings on earth again, this time in a city that had housed thousands instead of a hundred. We were the only survivors; the abandoned city belonged to us. It was a familiar sensation, not frightening. We belonged.
When we finally returned to the wilderness, that was the memory that stayed with me. And when, years later, we left the ruins of the cannery, I partially filled a canning jar with rust-stained rocks from the beach so I could take the post-apocalypse with me wherever I wandered.