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FOOD AND LOATHING : The Sea, My Enemy

March 18, 1993|MARGY ROCHLIN

The summer that I was 18, I lived on Kodiak Island in Alaska, working 12-hour shifts at several fish canneries. It's too complicated to explain what I was doing there in the first place. The short version is that the luxurious rent-free three-bedroom country house that my friends lured me up there with turned out to be an abandoned World War II Quonset hut with no running water or electricity or indoor plumbing, located so far out in the boonies that no one would come visit us.

Our drafty quarters were completely unfurnished, unless you counted several khaki Army cots and some overturned packing crates. To get to town we had to sprint up an unpaved three-mile road to get to the main highway--the garbage dump near our encampment drew killer Kodiak bears. I had blown all of my savings getting up there.

I stayed nearly three months--until the day I had enough money to buy a plane ticket home. That evening my friends and several neighbors threw me an all-night bon voyage party at the bar at the Kodiak Island Coast Guard base. The specialty of the house was cocktails that cost 15 cents each. No proof that you were of drinking age was required. By dawn, we'd all been arrested for disorderly conduct, our mug shots had been snapped and we were warned that we'd be jailed if we ever set foot on the base again. Like I needed an excuse.

My first day in Alaska, my friends took me to buy a pair of rubber knee-boots with steel shanks inserted in the sole for added support and discomfort. Then they got me a job sizing crab claws, which meant putting pieces of crustaceans into piles of small, medium and large. Two hours into my first shift, I noticed that I was much faster and more efficient than anyone else at my work station. In fact, by the day's end, I had arrived at the incredible realization that when it came to crab-sorting, I probably was a natural.

It wasn't until much later that I grasped the concept that anyone with any brains had already figured out: Whether you worked fast or in slow motion, at the end of the week you still got the same paycheck. I can't imagine how irritated my co-workers must have been to see me hustling away. But before they could advise me to knock it off, the head boss promoted me to crab de-giller.

I'd stand in front of a machine that looked like a long sandpaper-covered rolling pin, while an aproned man facing me buzz-sawed live crabs in two and then tossed them at me. My responsibilities were as follows: I'd knock out the crab's creamy innards by whacking the half-shell on my upper thigh. After that, I would strip off the outer hull, thus exposing the gills--gray gelatinous strips that to me looked like a hula skirt. Next I'd remove the gills by holding the crab against the spinning rolling pin. Then I would fling the de-gilled crab over my shoulder into a gigantic blue plastic tub and start all over again.

The chore required more physical endurance than my last position. It was also boring--at least big, little and medium involved minor estimatory headwork. To break the monotony, I hit upon a private game that involved trying to predict what color the internal organs would be before they went flying past my kneecap. For whatever it's worth, I discovered that crab guts come in three shades--pale avocado, orange and a lemony yellow. I forget which one got the most points.

It was during this period that whatever enthusiasm I had for fish slipped away. New friends that I'd made would invite me over to eat food they'd swiped from the cannery--for swordfish steaks, for crab cakes, for shrimp salad. But I'd politely decline. My ban on seafood blossomed into an overall boycott on all things nutritional. The only things I liked to eat were Swiss Miss Instant Hot Cocoa, cake doughnuts and Rice-A-Roni Noodles Romanoff.

Eventually, I traded on my prestige as a crab de-giller to get transferred to a picturesque wharf-side shrimp cannery. What I did there was stand on a six-foot-high steel scaffold, which shuddered violently from the force of a machine that shook bits of rock and seaweed from the piles of freshly caught shrimp moving along a black conveyor belt.

As cannery jobs go, it wasn't bad. The only drawback was that when they switched off the vibrating mechanism, the scaffold stopped rumbling but your legs didn't. One day, on my way to my coffee break, I missed a rung while climbing shakily down the tall ladder and crashed to the concrete floor below. The foreman, sensing that I'd had about all I could take, took pity on me and gave me the dreamiest assignment of my entire stay: sitting on a high wooden stool and yanking a rope cord every so often to open the chute from which tons of still-wriggling long-tailed decapods came slithering out.

At this point in my Aleutian Islands adventure, I had nothing left to prove. I was stuck in a world that was neither light nor dark, a place whose equatorial location made it seem as if the earth's dimmer switch had gotten stuck mid-twirl.

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