It's funny now, but as a kid I didn't think anything of it that my dad's best friend, when he was logging on SE Alaska's vast Prince of Wales Island in the Seventies and Eighties, was called Pitch. All of my dad's stories, when he crossed the strait to be with us out in the wilderness on the weekends, featured things Pitch had said and done that week. Pitch was a giant in my mind.
He was the shovel operator to my dad's scaler/bucker and we kids heard with awe the stories of Pitch picking up tiny coins with his giant grappling tongs. My dad would shake his head in wonder, not only at how smoothly and fluidly Pitch operated the shovel, but also at how it was even possible that he could see the coin to be able to pick it up from his seat back there in the cab.
Pitch operated a "Triple 6," the 666 Koehring on an 866 undercarriage. Because of the three sixes, whenever anything went wrong, as it inevitably would at some point, Pitch and my dad would assert "Satan has it in for us today!" The shovel, a modified excavator, weighed 70 tons and could easily pick up, with Pitch at the controls, an 8 foot in diameter, 40 foot long spruce log.
My dad had such trust in Pitch's precision and situational awareness that he'd buck the logs off with his chainsaw while they were in the clutches of the shovel's grapples. This was impressive because he'd had logs dropped on him by another shovel operator. (By chance he'd fallen into a hole in the ground just before the load dropped on him so he wasn't hurt.) There was no one who could match Pitch's skill--he manipulated the huge machine with its load of heavy logs with complete ease and control. This particular model was considered "slow," but as my dad said, "It was never 'slow' with Pitch at the controls."
Pitch and my dad worked together at Winter Harbor on Prince of Wales and though their crew was small, only five men, they managed to out-log the other much larger crew by a lot. My dad gives the credit to Pitch. He said that once the logs were sorted Pitch had the trucks lined up and could fill and dispatch them so quickly that no other team on the island could keep up. If there was an Olympics for shovel operators, Pitch would have taken Gold home every time.
When I saw Pitch as a kid, I was impressed by how he and my dad complemented each other--they were a lot alike in a lot of ways, but different enough that they could get a kick out of the other guy's perspective. They'd shared a lot of extraordinary life experiences, both being Vietnam vets who became loggers in remote Alaska and who built their own homes themselves. They worked together in Thorne Bay, on Prince of Wales Island, when it was the largest logging camp in the world.
One of my favorite memories of Pitch was when my mom, my sister and me, and two other kids from our bush school, crossed the strait to attend the prom in Thorne Bay. Pitch and his first wife Dale and their three daughters Cheri Dee, Kimery, and Kristi, were kind enough to open their home to us. Before he knew it, this rough and ready logger found his kitchen turned into a beauty salon.
I remember perching carefully on a chair in the living room, trying not to disturb my finery and hairdo, while Pitch entertained us with deliberately hair-raising logging tales. There was a twinkle in his eyes and a rich appreciation for the incongruity of the teens decked out in full prom regalia, the hairspray hanging heavily in the air, politely listening to his stories while my mom finished beautifying the other girls in the next room.
He was good at telling stories. Boom man Tim Lindseth recalls: "Every machine in the sort yard and on the pond had a CB radio and often there would be kind of a topic for the day as chatter, besides the important work stuff. So work stuff could be happening and a story or some ad lib comment going on all through the day.... Pitch made the comment (on the CB) that the Gov. was keeping tabs on who was sitting on a pile of money [through the strips inside $50.00 and $100.00 bills]. To that, every one yakked about this, off and on for an hour and the general consensus was that it must be some sort of tracking device! Pitch chimed in, if you bit the edge off the bill you can pull that strip right out. Now came all of our comments one by one what happens to the strip when the government finds out? Pitch says, he puts it in the cat's food...let 'em track that."
Pitch had a soft spot for cats and kittens. My dad tells the story of how Pitch invented a game that his cat's kittens adored, a little something he called "Cat Darts." He marked out a huge bull's eye on the living room curtains and would toss one of the kittens at the bull's eye. They would stick with their tiny claws to the fabric for a moment or so, then drop down and scamper back, crawling up his leg to have another turn, in the way kids the world over say: "Do it again, Daddy, do it again." He'd tire before the kittens did.
Chris Lewis, who worked as scaler/bucker with Pitch after my dad, told me this funny story about Pitch's soft heart for baby animals: "In the spring every year the area does would bring their fawns into the sort yard and hide them in and around the log decks, etc. Pitch always made sure that at least one skid had logs laid out so the does could hide the fawns against where the skid and the logs intersected and every morning while his shovel was warming up he would check to see if any fawns were hiding along his skids. Well, one morning as I was gassing up and getting my saw ready I noticed Pitch about halfway down a skid looking down at the ground...obviously looking at a fawn, when all of a sudden the little fawn got up and went right between Pitch's legs and tried to start nursing!! Well you can imagine the look on Pitch's face!! I'll never forget it. Of course Pitch just stood there trying to convince the little thing he wasn't its mama. Big tuff logger Pitch. Yeah, I believe he had a very kind heart."
He did have a kind heart. And he liked to share tips that made a person's life or chores easier. My dad was splitting firewood recently and he said, "Pitch taught me to do this better." He said he was chopping wood in the sort yard for the burn barrel one day, driving the ax into the center of a round the way he learned as a kid, when Pitch, who was watching him from the cab of the shovel, said, "There's an easier way to do that." He suggested my dad chop from the outside of the round inward. Sure enough, the tough rounds split far more easily that way and my dad uses the technique to this day.
Wherever Pitch went he was always willing to give of his time and his experience, and many people over many years have reason to be grateful.
After a long illness, lovingly tended by his wife Kathryn, Gerald Pitcher died on April 4, 2018. Pitch was a big guy in the ways that mattered: a man with a big heart, and with an enormous personality, and no one who ever met him will forget him.
An early memory that I treasure and often revisit is of when I was about eight years old and I was staying with my grandparents at their cabin in Meyers Chuck on a dark fall or winter day. It was overcast, windy, and raw outside. The water was a dark, angry grey, slapping at the boats moored at the dock across the harbor and rocking them, making the bells on the tops of the trolling poles ring out. Inside the house the wood stove was crackling and a pot of fragrant coffee perked on top of it. My grandparents were quietly reading books and exchanging comments while I was curled up on the couch coloring.
The waxy smell of the crayons, the rough texture of the paper in the coloring book about fairytales, the picture of a young man attempting to strike a flint stone and my grandmother's explanation of what a flint stone was and why it had been so important--she knew that as a bush kid I'd appreciate the need for fire in heating, cooking, and lighting--all come back to me in a flood of warmth accompanied by a deep sense of security.
It's not a lone memory. My mom always loved coloring and she brought us kids up to color alongside her, particularly during those cold, dark days when we couldn't play outside. I have many memories of all of us grouped around the table or on the floor with the stove emanating heat and an audiotape playing The Lost World or Wind in the Willows as we shared stubby, broken crayons, squabbling over whose turn it was to use the peach or sky blue.
We were in perpetual awe at my mom's intricate coloring and asked her how we could color like she did. Her reply was always the same, "It's just practice. The more you do the better you get at it."
We all tried, but I don't think any of us ever really believed we'd be as good as she was. And, to be honest, we never did attain to her level. Her ability to put light and shadow into a bland, flat drawing, to bring people and images vibrantly to life, is, in my opinion, without parallel. Many was the time I'd give up coloring for the greater pleasure of watching a scene come to life under her skillful fingers.
All of the children who have stayed with us get hooked on the joys of coloring. Twelve-year-old A. C. Darden, who visits us regularly and spends summers with us (along with her brother), asked if we'd get her a coloring book based on the Archie comics, her favorite reading material. We were able to do so and when she visits us in these cold days she takes pleasure in spending quality time with Archie, Betty, Veronica, Jughead, and Reggie in summery Riverdale.
"What's your favorite part of coloring?" I asked her.
"The colors," she said firmly.
My mom said she'd have to agree. "It's all about the colors. I can remember the very first picture I colored," she added. "I was about three, I think. It was of a chicken and an egg. I remember trying really hard to get the colors just right and I must have colored it really well--I think I was shading even then--because the adults all raved about it."
With that kind of validation, not common from adults to children when she was growing up, she became addicted to coloring, and not just for the pleasure of it.
Long before the current adult coloring book fad, before therapists found out the soothing qualities of coloring and recommended it to their patients, my mom always turned to her coloring books whenever she was going through a stressful time (being often entirely alone in the wilderness with five kids, for example), and especially when she's coping with Seasonal Affective Disorder.
Dr. Nicki Martinez, Psy.D., LCPC, writing for The Huffington Post, says that "There are many times when I suggest adult coloring books to patients and they look at me like perhaps we should be switching seats. However, time and again, they come back to me and tell me how beneficial they find them to be. Many psychologists and therapists 'prescribe' these to patients for various reasons, and many occupational therapists presribe them as well!"
As additional good news--my mom is always worrying that she's on the verge of complete cognitive disintegration--Dr. Martinez also maintains that "coloring has intellectual benefits as well. It utilizes areas of the brain that enahance focus and concentration. It also helps with problem solving and organizational skills. This may sound strange, and like perhaps the usefulness is being stretched, but it is all true. Our frontal lobes are responsible for these higher level activities and functions of the brain, and coloring detailed pictures activates all those properties."
Plus, she adds: "Coloring utilizes both hemispheres of the brain, right and left. When we are thinking about balance,color choices, applying colored pencil to paper, we are working on problem solving and fine motor skills."
My sister, Megan. A Duncanson, a world-renowned artist, created her own coloring book titled "In the Garden." (Available at Amazon and elsewhere.) In the front matter she wrote a dedication to my mom, saying, "She raised my four siblings and me to appreciate the arts and we would spend endless hours coloring in stacks upon stacks of coloring books as children. It was one of the most memorable and enjoyable parts of my childhood growing up in the remote bush of Alaska."
I feel the same way, and, in fact, I'm getting the urge to pick up a coloring book and start coloring to ward off the cold and short days of winter.
Note: A version of this story appeared previously in Capital City Weekly.
The ringtone of the emergency boat phone woke me sometime after midnight.
It's an ancient flip phone that we take with us when we go anywhere in the skiff, but I keep it at my house beside my bed in the event of a family crisis since my parents don't have a signal in their bedroom. I sat up instantly, wide awake, my mind flashing from one family member to the next. When I saw the caller ID was my older brother Jamie, my heart sank. My nephew Sterling (Jamie's oldest son) and his entire little family, were in the process of moving South--had something horrible happened?
It was actually a momentary relief when Jamie said laconically, "There was an 8.2 earthquake in the Gulf, off Kodiak. A tsunami warning has gone out."
When the size of the earthquake and the position of it registered I realized we'd definitely be in the path of any tsunami from it. My first thought was, "Oh, great. Now I won't be able to make the dinners for my parents' 50th Anniversary."
My sister Megan had ordered the makings for a lobster tail dinner, while my second youngest brother Robin, who is renowned far and wide for his incredibly scrumptious coffee-rubbed prime rib roast, was sending out the makings for a second dinner. After all, a 50th wedding anniversary deserved to be recognized twice!
I already had the dessert Megan had sent in my freezer, but the makings for both dinners were supposed to come out in the mail tomorrow on our once-a-week, weather permitting mail day.
After I got off the phone with Jamie, I tried getting enough of an Internet signal to find out what was going on with the earthquake. The official tsunami warning was on my tablet but I couldn't find a usable signal. I called my sister Megan in Miami. There's a four hour time difference between us so it was pushing five in the morning her time and she's an early riser--but she's well aware of the time difference and would know something was wrong with me calling at the hour. I could hear the expectation of something bad in her calm voice, much like the time I'd had to call her when Robin was in a near-fatal car crash.
While I talked to her I slipped on warm clothes and put things in my two emergency backpacks that were already stocked with survival supplies and important documents--we'd been through tsunami warnings before. My Maine Coon, Katya, wasn't in the house, but I trusted that she'd get to high ground in time to avoid being swept away.
I went over to my parents' house to wake them up, though I hesitated. We had a tsunami safe spot, the only high spot on the tip of this peninsula where we live, but it was quite a trek up a rocky, seaweed strewn beach, around and over a tangle of drift logs, a long walk and then a steep climb up to Tsunami Hill. Both of my parents have mobility issues and I didn't think either of them would be able to make it through the obstacle course of the drift logs, let alone the rest of the way. So should I just let them sleep? Odds were the tsunami warning would be a false alarm, like all the others we'd gotten over the years.
But the size of the quake and the position of it were just too ominous. I decided they had to make the choice themselves of whether they'd try to get to our tsunami safe spot or not.
I woke them up and gave them the bad news. My mom, for one, felt the same relief I had. She said she thought I was waking them up at that time of the night to tell them something bad had happened to one of their kids. Her mind went immediately Megan and her daughter Aroon for some reason--maybe because of the worries we had when Hurricane Irma was bearing down on Miami a few months back.
When I told her the even worse news, that if there was a tsunami they wouldn't get their anniversary dinners, she laughed and then added wistfully, "And no dessert!" She shared that she and my dad had been brooding about the dessert they knew was in my freezer for the last week. When you live out in the bush, locked in by winter, these are the sorts of things that can quickly develop into an obsession. It sounded like they'd been planning a commando raid on my freezer to liberate the dessert before their anniversary.
Both of my parents were matter-of-factly certain that they wouldn't be able to make the Iron Man trek to Tsunami Hill. My mom insisted that I go, though. I knew it was a mother's need to keep her children safe, but she cunningly added, to get me to comply, "That way someone will survive to help me and Dad." I couldn't fault that logic.
I contacted my sister again to get more information before setting out into the cold night, and to relay to Jamie who lives in the nearby village. He had a woman and two kids staying with him and had to worry about the need to get them to high ground in time. My dad was working the other phone, too. At one point we heard that the city of Seward, the first place that would be hit by a tsunami, had been evacuated and/or already wiped out. Megan's next news to me confirmed that there was definitely a tsunami. A tsunami buoy in the Gulf of Alaska near the epicenter of the quake had detected a thirty-five foot change in sea level.
Again, my first reaction was relief. "A thirty-five foot tsunami headed our way? Good. Now I don't have to climb Tsunami Hill." The hill was only thirty feet high--at low tide. And the tide was coming in. I might as well stay with my parents.
We figured out that their house would probably be the safest. Mine was closest to the trees and would be crushed into splinters by the weight of my parents' house and their large workshop. I carried my backpacks over there and heard that the wave was due to hit us four hours after the earthquake. We worried about all of our friends in Alaskan towns that were right on the ocean, like Sitka and Craig. At that time the warning was going out for the entire West Coast of the U.S. and I worried about friends and family in Washington, Oregon, and California.
Around three a.m. the tsunami warning was canceled for our area. As it turned out, despite the massive, shallow quake--later downgraded to a 7.8, followed by hundreds of aftershocks--only a few small waves, under a foot high, were generated. The tsunami buoy that registered the 35 foot wave was actually so close to the epicenter that what it recorded was seismic energy affecting the seafloor rather than the surface.
Katya seems to have suffered the most from the false alarm. She has some post traumatic issues from returning home in the middle of the night to find me gone, all the lights on, and the hated, horrible backpacks out (which usually means I'm going somewhere). In the nights since the tsunami warning she's taken to lying on my boots so I can't leave and glaring at me. When I try to reach for them she swats at me, or lightly bites me. Unbeknownst to her they're actually my summer boots--my winter boots are a couple sizes too big so that I can wear bulky, warm layers of socks in them. But whatever gives her peace of mind is fine with me.
At any rate, the anniversary dinners were back on!
Robin rubbed his roast the next evening, despite a sleepless night and a long day at the Shipyard in Ketchikan where he works. He packaged it up, put in some wine, garlic cloves, mashed potato mix, and--being the bush kid he is--threw in a bunch of flashlights. You can never have too many flashlights in the bush. He got up at four a.m. to get the package to the floatplane airlines to make sure it got out on the mail plane that day, and we'd be able to cook it as soon as we got the mail. He was assured that the weather was good and the plane would be on its way that morning.
However, our community is so tiny--only about twelve year around residents--that the sole floatplane company that handles the mail for this entire outlying region, routinely puts us on the back burner. We rarely get our mail on the scheduled mail day. Sometimes that's due to bad weather, but far more frequently it's because the airlines will put other community's needs, and paying customers, ahead of our mail. Which was exactly what happened this time.
Both anniversary dinners, having survived a tsunami, were now sitting in storage. (We weren't even sure that Megan's dinner had made it to the airlines. My parents called them, and then the store she ordered it from, but no one seemed to know where it was.) The next day the floatplane came out, but by then the tide was out and our skiff was high and dry and wouldn't float again until after dark. We wouldn't be able to pick up the mail from the post office. Jamie picked it up for us, having to break through ice with his skiff to get to the post office, but after he took the mail back to his place the tide went out on him, too. The dinners were a little bit closer to us, but were still in transit. We were most concerned about the pre-rubbed roast--it had been traveling for longer than most roasts are intended to travel--or marinate.
But finally the roast made it to us, a couple days before my parents' anniversary. Rather than wait until the day, we cooked it almost as soon as it came in the house. Marinating it for that long in the coffee rub turned out to make the roast even more succulently tender and flavorful than usual--and that's saying something! I've included Robin's recipe below. But I'm not sure you'll enjoy it as much as we did without the tsunami warning, floatplane hassle, and tide issues!
ROBIN'S COFFEE-RUBBED PRIME RIB
This recipe is for an 8-pound prime rib roast cooked to medium rare.
Combine the following:
1 cup instant coffee ground to a fine powder
1 1/2 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoon Lawrey's season salt
1 teaspoon celery salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon oregano
1/2 teaspoon sage
1/2 teaspoon red pepper
Pat the roast dry and then liberally apply the coffee rub to the entire roast with your hands until the rub stays dry. Let sit at room temperature for 15 minutes as you preheat the oven to 500 degrees F.
Put uncovered roast in a skillet or roaster [we put a rack in and film of water under it] and surround with garlic cloves. Cook for 20 minutes.
Remove roast and re-seal using some of the remaining rub any place that has peeled back. Replace in 350 degree oven. Check every 30 minutes for peeling back outer shell and repair with rub. Cook until center of roast reaches 120 degrees.
Remove from oven and let sit for 10-15 minutes. Roast interior will continue to cook. [Ours was a little too rare and we had to put it back in for another 10 minutes.[
"Cut huge chunks of flesh off and enjoy the juices running down your chin as you devour it!" --Conan the Barbarian (a.k.a., my brother Robin.)
Tara Neilson (ADOW)