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.
4/11/2018 05:00:41 pm
That was beautiful and brought back lots of memories of working with him for 20 years
4/11/2018 06:59:10 pm
4/11/2018 07:46:53 pm
Kimery! It's so good to hear from you. I'm so sorry you have this loss. I know what it would mean for me to lose my dad. He's pretty broken up about losing your dad. Hold fast, Kimery.
4/11/2018 06:37:05 pm
Thank you for commenting, Mr. Cook. My dad, Gary Neilson, mentions you often and with respect when he's talking about his logging days on POW. I think everyone who worked with Pitch remembers those days fondly.
4/11/2018 07:39:00 pm
Thank you for writing this. I grew up with Kristy, Kim and Cheri, and of course Pitch was a big part of it. He was one of a kind and I am going to miss him dearly. You are right, he had a big heart and if you’ve met him you’ll never forget him. In the less two years he would message me and tell me where to fish out at the mouth of the Thorne Bay. Like you mentioned, he kindly always offered advice because he was a good person with a good heart. Thanks again for writing this. We will be spreading his ashes some time in the near future where he wanted them, at the mouth of the bay.
4/11/2018 07:48:59 pm
Thank you for sharing this Sam, it's so true about Pitch, what a great big heart he had, and how generous he was. It's good to hear that he'll be coming home. I will think of him every time we cross the strait and enter the mouth of Thorne Bay.
4/11/2018 08:16:39 pm
That was so awesome! Made me cry....happy tears . What a wonderful way to celebrate my daddy. So many good memories . Thank you so much for writing this. You have no idea what it means to us. Love you all.💞
4/11/2018 08:44:30 pm
Cheri, I love hearing from you--thank you so much for commenting. Your daddy was well worth celebrating. He's one of the most unforgettable people I've ever met. I remember you and your sisters, too, like when we came over for the prom, and another time when we visited while your family was building your house across the bay. I only wish we'd gotten to see more of you. But my dad made up for that by talking about all of you, a lot. You were like his second family over there in Thorne Bay. Love, Tara.
4/11/2018 09:16:22 pm
Thank you for celebrating Gerald in this manner. He grew up in Oregon the only boy in a family of five kids. Having four sisters that loved him greatly.He loved the outdoors all of his life and bagged his first buck when he was 10 years old. A huge 4 point blacktail! When he moved to Alaska we were all sad but soon knew Thorne Bay was the perfect fit for him. He loved that place and the family he made there. His girls were the light of his life. I visited them and got to experience the highlights with him as the tour guide. The beach, the fishing and yep, the garbage dump. Good memories. His wife Katherine took such good care of him as his health failed. We will all miss him forever and are so happy he will return to his Thorne Bay for eternity.
4/11/2018 09:28:46 pm
Pam, thank you so much for sharing earlier parts of Pitch's life --I loved reading what you wrote. I can so easily picture him at ten being a serious and successful hunter! When we go to Thorne Bay these days it always feels empty knowing he's not there. It will be bittersweet to have him back.
Patricia Ann Groshong
4/12/2018 03:34:04 pm
I'm so sorry Kat, I didn't know until today. Good old Pitch. Life just keeps happening. I love you dear. Do take care. Love, Pat.
4/12/2018 08:20:01 pm
What a wonderful memorial you gave about Pitch. Although I have never met him, I felt I knew him. You conveyed the essence of a very kind man on multiple levels. A life well lived and missed by many and those like me who wish we could :have met him.
4/13/2018 09:58:46 am
Thank you, Nancy. I feel like everyone who never had a chance to know Pitch missed out. I'm so glad I've had the chance to share him here, he was truly unforgettable in every way.
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Tara Neilson (ADOW)