The Toughest Job I Ever Loved

Another story from my college days…

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I’m a victim of advertising. I admit it. The first time I saw the vacation ad I was hooked — the announcer said that if you stood on the shore in Alaska you could see whales jumping in the water. The idea fascinated me, so when I saw an Alaska employment advertisement in the school newspaper, I figured they had printed it just for me. I called the number — for $50 they would send me a book on how to get a job in Alaska. It was a lot of money to me back then, but I didn’t know where else to look so I bought the book.

Through this book I found out that the salmon industry in Alaska employs thousands of college students every year during the summer months. The book covered every aspect of the Alaskan salmon industry and was designed to help students find jobs at any one of the hundreds of salmon plants in various parts of Alaska. It explained how seasonal employment in the Alaskan fishing industry works and the different types of jobs available. I didn’t know much about Alaska before I bought that book; I had heard of Alaska’s fishing industry but I didn’t know what kind of fish they processed, and I hadn’t realized there was such a large demand for summer workers.

Salmon enter the southern coast of Alaska every summer on their way back to the streams where they were born. Different salmon come through at different times during the summer, but each “run” only lasts for about three weeks at a time. That means that the fishermen have to catch as many fish as they can while the fish are running, and the canneries have to process all of this fish before it spoils. The canneries only have about seventy-two hours, at the absolute most, from the time the fish is caught until it goes bad, if it is well iced in the meantime. But, when each plant buys two or three times that much fish at once, they have to work almost around the clock to get it processed. The canneries usually provide room and board so that their employees don’t have to leave the plant to sleep and to attract more employees to the remote areas of Alaska. They hire a lot of students and international workers who don’t mind the temporary work and hard hours.

The book made me realize that the trip to Alaska might be possible. I knew I couldn’t possibly afford one of the cruises the television advertisements were pushing, but I could justify the trip if I knew I could make some money once I got there. So it was settled; I was going to Alaska.

Every summer for three years I planned the trip, and every summer for three years something happened and I couldn’t go — I would lose my job; I would lose my apartment; I didn’t have enough money. I wasn’t sure if I had the courage to do it alone. I almost gave up on the idea entirely until one day I mentioned the idea to a couple of friends of mine; they were as interested as I was. They thought it was a great plan and gave me the little shove I needed to get going. So one day in May we hoarded our money, loaded up my friend’s pickup, and off we went. We spent three weeks on the road, taking turns sleeping in the camper-shell in the back of the truck and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to save money.

When we finally got to Alaska, we drove straight to Anchorage to the Alaska Employment Service. The lady at the counter was very nice to us; she got us a job working for a company called Ocean Beauty Seafoods. We couldn’t believe our luck — our first day there and we already had jobs. We found a campsite and celebrated, drinking beer and toasting our success until three in the morning. It was one of the happiest and proudest days of my life. I had actually made it.

The following day we flew into Cordova. It was a very small, landlocked town, located on Prince William Sound, in Southern Alaska. Landlocked means that the mountains and glaciers surrounding it are so dense that building a road to it is impossible; to get into town you have to fly or take a ferry. It was a peaceful town, almost entirely supported by the salmon industry in one way or another. The harbor contained more than a hundred boats of various shapes and sizes. There was a grocery store, a drug store, a couple of small gift shops, three or four restaurants, and a bar on almost every corner. The bars were supported by cannery workers and fishermen and always smelled of salmon.

Our first day in Cordova we arrived at the office and filled out our paperwork. We received our room assignments and settled into the routine of cannery life. I shared a room with five other girls; I ate three meals a day in a mess hall provided by the company; I learned what it was like to be shackled to a can line for seventeen hours a day, and I learned how close people can become when living, eating, working, complaining, and aching together. With the massive amounts of fish processed, each job was extremely boring and monotonous. Everyone had a station, and everyone did the same thing over and over again. The only things we had to look forward to were coffee and cookies at breaks and the processed meals they served in the mess house. You couldn’t really even look forward to the end of the day because it only ended long enough for a six-hour sleep and the pain of waking up the next morning and facing another day.

The Ocean Beauty plant in Cordova can process over 360 thousand pounds of fish a day. To handle these massive quantities of fish requires major machinery and job specialization. We had about eight different motors running the machinery for the can line, where I worked. Processing started in the fish house, the room next door to the can line, where the fish were decapitated, and their internal organs and eggs were removed. Then the fish were put on a huge conveyor belt that brought them to the can line. Here we had machines to cut the fish, machines to stuff them into cans, machines to run the conveyor belts, machines to add lids, vacuum machines to seal the cans, and large round pressure cookers blowing steam into the air. There wasn’t much of a wall separating us from the fish house; the echoes of their machinery formed a background for the grinding and clinking and chopping of ours.

Our “uniforms” consisted of white cotton smocks, like doctors wear, covered with blue plastic aprons. We wore three sets of gloves: a bright yellow pair that covered our arms, a cotton pair to keep our hands warm, and a plastic pair to keep the cotton ones dry. We wore fluorescent pink and green earplugs, white hairnets, and the mandatory head covering, which was usually a baseball cap or handkerchief. To complete the ensemble we wore knee-high rubber boots.

My station was at the beginning of the line. As the cans filed by on the conveyor belt in front of me, I was responsible for cutting off any bones that stuck over the edge of the cans. These bones would mess up the seal when the lid was put on and had to be removed one by one. I held a pair of scissors in one hand, using the other to pull cans off the line. That’s all I did, all day long. There were ten women working this line; we worked side by side but rarely talked to each other. We had to yell so loud to be heard over the machinery that it wasn’t worth the effort.

To make the time go by, I spent my days reciting poetry and singing. It was the only thing that kept me sane. I sang every song I knew and memorized poem after poem after poem. The company didn’t make us wear earplugs at work, but I did anyway. I liked to hear my voice echoing in my ear drums to the great words of Blake, Browning and Coleridge. But my favorite poet for the can line was Shakespeare; he must have worked a can line sometime in his life: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow creeps in this petty pace from day to day, to the last syllable of recorded time.” The words pounded against the orchestrated background of the cannery machines. It was, to me, the very essence of cannery life.

At the end of my shift I would straggle into the break room to clock out. It generally smelled of cigarettes, coffee and fish blood. Most people went straight to their rooms when they got off to shower and sleep, but I liked the break room; I liked to relax and joke with the guys. We had people there from all over the world: Chile, Columbia, the Dominican Republic, Laos, Thailand, Burma, Romania, Mexico, the Philippines, Honduras, etc. They were attracted to the cannery for the money. It was unskilled labor, and in three months they could make as much money as they could in a year back home. The Filipinos would always tell me goodnight in English as they left the break room; it was our joke. I would respond by trying to tell them goodnight in Tagalog, the Filipino language. My accent was horribly off, but they always met my attempt with laughing encouragement.

Fred worked in the fish house loading fish onto one of the conveyor belts. I never knew his last name and I can’t remember where he was from. He was Fred, that was all that mattered. I would almost always find Fred in the breakroom at night, smoking a cigarette and relaxing before getting ready to go to the bar. He went to the bar every night, and he got drunk every night, and every morning he showed up to work with a smile and a cheer. I didn’t know how he did it.

I loved Fred. He was the one person you could count on to be happy and cheerful no matter how tired he was. He was probably in his fifties, but the alcohol and his good humor preserved him pretty well. Except for the pallor of his skin and the color of his hair, you never really thought of him as old, at least I didn’t. He rarely shaved, and he wore his gray hair pulled back in a pony tail. He dressed in blue jeans and tennis shoes and had the stocky, wiry body of a man many years younger. I would put my arm across his shoulders and sit down next to him. He’d usually respond with a casual “How ya doin’ girl?”, and we’d sit there for a few minutes and relax. There were no machines buzzing, no cans going by, no conveyor belts to make me dizzy — just a slight hubbub coming from the other side of the room as everyone got ready to go home.

I would get so tired that sometimes I forgot where I was. Working as often as we did, inside with no windows, I would forget that I was thousands of miles from home. I would get off work at night and walk outside only to be met with broad daylight in the middle of the night and a row of mountains silhouetted against the blue sky. The peak of Mt. Eyak and the smaller mountains surrounding it towered over the plant like monarchs reigning over their empire.

You’d think I would get used to it after a few months but I never did. Every time I saw them I would get the urge to reach out my hand to see if I could touch them; they seemed so close. Sometimes I would forget myself and reach my hand out only to pull it back quickly and look around to make sure nobody saw me. On a good night the mountains were so clear you could see the snow and ice clinging to their tops, streaking down their sides, showing off the different greens from the moss and pine trees and rainforest. It didn’t look real; the colors were too bright; the sky was too blue. I would close my eyes and picture the plane ride into Cordova; from the air you could see ice and mountains spreading for miles and miles. I could smell the salt from the sea and the freshness in the air. I could taste the ice on the mountains and feel the cool wetness of the moss on my skin. I would breathe in the crisp, sweet smell and, for a few minutes, I would feel like I was part of that ancient kingdom of ice and rocks.

There were breaks between the salmon runs, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for a few days. If we got off early enough, I would take walks down the coastline so that I could get away from the smell of fish and get some privacy. It was quiet along the coast. The road didn’t really go anywhere, so it wasn’t used very often. It was bordered by mountains on the right and the ocean on the left, so it was a perfect place for being alone. I climbed out on the rocks one day to write a letter when I heard really loud splashing noises. My head jerked up just in time to see a tail fin sticking out of the water. I had never really seen a whale before, except on TV and at Seaworld, so it took me a second to realize what it was. There were two of them chasing each other down the Sound. They were so close to me I could hear them breathing: an eerie whooshing noise that bounced off the sides of the mountains and echoed against the rocks where I was sitting. The water went out of their blow-holes with so much force that it formed little fountains on top of their backs.

I threw down my notebook and scrambled up the rocks to the shore so that I could see them better. They breached the water at the same time, showing the whites of their bellies which I later learned proved they were Orcas, “killer whales.” They crashed back into the water, sending small waves splashing toward the shore. They dove headfirst and kicked their tails up in the air, waving at me. Whales — “from the shore line” — just like the advertisement said. I yelled. I screamed. I danced a little jig right there on the shore, waving my arms up and down in a playful attempt to get the whales’ attention. I don’t think that in all of my preparations for the trip to Alaska I had actually believed the advertisement was telling the truth. But there they were. Never in my life had I seen or heard such a glorious spectacle.

When people ask me why I work in Alaska, I find it really hard to explain. It’s the freshest air I’ve ever smelled, the closest friendships I’ve ever made, and the hardest job I’ve ever attempted. And, if you stand on the shore in Alaska, you can see whales jumping in the water.

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