Aug/Sep 1998 Nonfiction

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
-Chapter Three-

by Dail Bridges

Chaos surrounded me. The deck of the Japanese boat was filled with men in black rubber suits, scurrying like ants over piles of nets that seemed as if they would topple at any moment. The wind threatened to blow me back over the side from which I had just come. It filled my ears with a loud shrieking sound, like a vacuum cleaner with a live animal caught in its rollers. I spotted my duffel on the back of a man who matched it in size. The two staggered away from me, toward the enclosed front of the ship. A small man stood in front of me, mouthing words with no sound attached. I tried to wipe the icy rain from my eyes, shaking my head at him. He motioned for me to follow.

I stumbled over various ropes and hoses, dangerous snakes coiled on the deck, trying to keep pace with the man in front of me. He yanked down, hard, on a handle in the white wall in front of us and pulled open the passageway door. I ducked my head and entered a dim hallway. Bending to pass through any doorway on this boat would soon become second nature. The passageways—and the ship overall—were designed not for my 5' 9" frame but for the shorter-statured Japanese men.

My guide slammed the door behind us, latching the handle into place. It was like entering a vacuum; the roaring wind was sealed off behind the solid door. My ears rang in the sudden silence. Warm air rushed against my face, the only exposed part of my body. The freezing rain outside had turned my eyelashes into thin, icy strips and now melting water droplets blurred my vision. I took a few steps after my guide, and he opened a tiny door, motioning me through. I entered a rectangular room where, if I stood in the middle of it and stretched my arms out, I could almost touch the walls on either side. I wondered why I had been led into a closet—then realized this was my cabin. Two bunks, well under six feet in length, were built along the wall opposite the doorway, about three giant steps from where I was now standing. Nestled into the wall on my left was a tiny metal desk with an even tinier stool tucked underneath. Beside it, also built into the wall, was a small wood paneled closet. A miniature sink, with a shiny mirror mounted above it, completed the furnishings in my cabin. There were no windows. The ceiling contained a three foot plastic panel with fluorescent lights, which bathed the tiny space in a gray, artificial glow. The already dull gray metal walls looked even duller.

My duffel bag had miraculously appeared in the tiny doorway. Together my guide and I wrestled the huge barge into the cabin. We somehow managed to get behind it, and, standing tightly wedged against each other, we hoisted it onto the top bunk. It lay like a beached whale, taking up the entire bed space. My guide said something in Japanese, pointed toward the ceiling, smiled, bowed slightly, and left me alone in the small, dim space that was to be my home for the next two months.

Protocol dictated that I meet the ships' officers as soon as possible. I wanted to get to the bridge, which is where I assumed they would be. But where was the bridge? And how to get there? And—oh, god—I had thought that being on a ship substantially larger than the pilot boat would calm my stomach. However, I still felt acutely the motions of the ship, and the ever-present nausea threatened to overwhelm me. I struggled out of my rain jacket and life vest, pushing them into a corner of the room. Taking a deep breath, I opened my door and stepped tentatively out into the corridor. Trying to keep my mind off of my queasy stomach, I studied my surroundings. The chocolate brown linoleum floor cleverly disguised any dirt that might appear on its surface. Like an underground tunnel, dull green metal walls stretched before me. The same feeble florescent light glowed over the area, and a faint and rather unpleasant aroma permeated the hallway. Eventually this ever-present odor would become synonymous with the KYOWA MARU. Being enveloped by the combined smell of fish, diesel, cigarettes and fried food became simply a part of the ship.

The ghostly corridor throbbed quietly with the pulsing of the vessel. The dashing, frantic men of only minutes ago might have been a dream; I saw no one and heard no one. I had come in on the deck level, so I knew I had to go up to get to the bridge. Dozens of closed doors dotted the tunnel walls. Squiggly black Japanese characters danced on their surfaces. I felt off center and dizzy, like I was in a maze. Everything looked the same and wandering around only enhanced my disorientation. Finally I heard laughter behind one of the closed doors and tentatively knocked on it. The door immediately flew open and I stood face to face—actually, chest to face—with a tiny man who must have been about five feet tall.

"Umm...excuse me, could you tell me where the bridge is? I smiled politely.

A torrent of Japanese filled the tiny cabin. Various men sat cross legged on the floor, dressed in pristine white long underwear. Through the cigarette haze, I saw two of the men pulling a chubby fellow to his feet. They dragged him to the doorway and placed him in front of me. He grinned hugely and his face shone like a rounded red apple.

"English! English!" several of the men shouted.

"Oh, do you speak English?" I almost collapsed with relief.

With great effort and many facial contortions, the gentleman replied "I best English speak."

"Great! Where is the bridge? Can you take me to the bridge, or at least point me in the right direction?" I babbled happily along, only to be met with a totally blank stare. The fellows sitting around continued to laugh and prod at the man in front of me.

"Bridge," I pointed upward and made steering wheel motions.

"Ahhh!" The "English speaker" quickly stepped ahead of me, leading me down the corridor to one of the dozens of indistinguishable doorways I had previously passed. I tried to fix in my mind an image of the indecipherable black character on the door before my guide yanked it open. He pointed up the narrow stairway.

"Arigato!" I had learned how to say thank you in Japanese, which made my friend blush even more fiercely.

I climbed the dozen steps, my stomach rolling in time to the ship. I squinted as I emerged from the darkness into the daylight of the bridge; windows all around allowed the soft gray light of the overcast sky to fill the compact room. Instruments, humming and clicking mysteriously, packed every inch of space. Four men stood at the stern window smoking cigarettes. They turned at my unsteady approach, immediately looking at my feet. Perhaps they were too shy to look me in the eyes. I understood nothing of the excited chatter that streamed in my direction.

"Ohayo Gozaimas!" I managed to gasp out Good Day in Japanese, willing my churning stomach to remain calm. This greeting caused great guffaws of laughter among the men, but still their gazes remained fastened to my lower extremities. One of the men rushed forward and thrust a small pair of plastic sandals with inch high heels into my hands. They appeared to be about a size three.

"Miss, no shoes on bridge! Please, must use these! Please!" Agitated, the man literally jumped up and down.

Unable to stand any longer, I flopped heavily down onto the carpeted floor, embarrassed by my major breach of etiquette. Japanese never wear shoes indoors. House slippers or sandals only. I yanked at my heavy steel toed boots, hurriedly trying to make amends. I managed to squeeze my toes and an inch more of my size 10 feet into the tiny slippers. I tottered to my feet, now unbalanced not only by the rocking of the ship but also by my ridiculous footwear.

This shoe switch seemed to calm the men. A second one stepped forward, bowed and said "I Captain."

"I...I...I am...I am going to throw up!!" I looked frantically around for an open window, motioning wildly at my stomach.

One of the men appeared at my elbow with a trash can. I grabbed it and dropped to my knees, gagging. The contents of my last meal spewed into the metal container. I bowed beside the can, hanging my head, breathing deeply. I managed to stumble to my feet and, for support, draped myself over a machine that hummed under my aching body. No one seemed fazed by the fact that I had just spent three minutes on my knees in agony. In fact, all four of the men grinned from ear to ear.

The shoe man stepped up to me and bowed. The Captain said, "Radio Officer."

I released my hold on the supportive equipment and flailed around for the waste bin. Kneeling and vomiting, I felt as if this would never end. Finally it did, and I rose to my feet. However, as soon as the third man was introduced, I fell to my knees again, retching. I clung tightly to the sides of the round receptacle, swaying on the floor with the rolling of the ship. My Cinderella slippers were long gone, having been lost in the first round of my wrestling match with the trash can.

Above me, I sensed no sympathy from my companions—only excited talking, interspersed with laughter. I retched so hard that my eyes watered and my stomach muscles cramped, doubling me over even further. I could not bear the misery of being so sick combined with the humiliation of puking in front of these strange, unconcerned men.

I staggered to my feet, now covered only in wool socks, trying to orient myself enough to get back down the stairway. One of the laughing men hurried forward and removed the reeking trash can. The Captain handed me my boots, at the same time, motioning me down the stairs. I grasped the handrail at the top step and my knees buckled under me. On my butt, I bumped my way down the stairs and banged into the closed door at the bottom.

Somehow, I made it back to my cabin and dove onto the bottom bunk. A volcano out of control, my stomach churned and rolled, continuously threatening to erupt. My hands shook, and sweat drenched my clothes; hot flashes warred with the cold chills that shook me. A small trash can under my desk stood ready to take over duty from the one on the bridge. Thankfully, lying down helped considerably, and I only had to reach for it once.

I tried to fluff up my hard pillow to make it more comfortable. However, it would not "fluff up." I poked at it feebly and tried to twist it into some sort of softer shape. It felt like a mound of hard sand encased in a scratchy cotton cloth, resisting my every jab. I wondered if all of the pillows on the boat matched the construction of this one. Perhaps this was a special Observer pillow, meant to enhance my agony.

Everyone has her own method of coping with seasickness. I quickly learned that as long as I lay down completely flat, I would not throw up. The minute I sat up, however, I vomited. Finally identifying this as the way to manage my illness, I settled in to try to sleep it off. Then, of course, I had to answer the call of the other end of my body. Finding the toilet in the maze of the ship proved to be a formidable task. I lugged the trash can with me, stumbling around until I made myself understood. Twice I heaved into my trusty companion before finally making it to the toilet. Japanese eyes and laughter followed my every move. By this point, I no longer cared.

Indeed, as the skipper of the pilot boat had predicted, the weather kicked up again. The KYOWA rode like a roller coaster, pitching up and over mountainous waves as she headed out into the open sea. My cabin could have been mistaken for one of those paperweight winter-wonderland scenes—the kind you shake to make the snow fly. Notebooks, pens and pencils that I had foolishly laid out on my desk took to flight. My favorite tea mug smashed into the far wall and splintered into pieces. The drawer in the tiny desk slid open and crashed to the floor, skidding first into one corner, then another, a boxy ice skater gone mad. My wooden closet door banged open and shut, open and shut—thudding in time to the frenetic moves of the boat. I didn't have the strength to fasten things down. All I could do was brace myself in my bunk, fighting every roll and pitch of the ship and my ever rising nausea. A far cry from my previous cruise in calm seas of the tropics....

Every once in a while, the cooking master waltzed in and waved various steaming, strange dishes under my nose, which only made things worse...a lot worse. Once he even lifted a piece of food from the plate, pushing it toward my lips and smacking his own. He turned and fled when I raised up like Frankenstein and lunged toward him. Of course, he assumed I was a madwoman, not realizing I was only after the trash can and not him. Later, he bravely crept again into my room, bringing me much needed cans of juices and soft drinks.

I lost all track of time. Day and night ran together. My windowless cabin allowed no glimpse of the outside world. The digital watch I wore stayed set on Alaska time, but I had noticed the clock on the bridge read a totally different time, which I assumed was that of Japan. At first during this extended period of misery, I tried to track the time, needing desperately to stay oriented in this foreign world. Then I gave up; since death would probably take me any minute, it did not matter. I dozed fitfully, waking and peering through the darkness at the lighted display on my wrist. Sometimes minutes had passed, sometimes hours.

Thankfully my watch was equipped with a date display. Three days had gone by when I awoke from one of the endless dozes to realize that the boat was no longer being tossed about with wild abandon. In fact, we seemed to be rolling along in a constant forward motion

I cautiously sat up in my bunk. My head spun as I slowly got out of bed. I stood up, grasping the upper bunk for support. Miracle of miracles—I didn't feel the onrush of nausea that had plagued me constantly for the past three days. Could it be? Was it really over? I took a few deep breaths, stretched my arms over my head and immediately smacked my hands into the ceiling. A few minutes passed, and I still felt no desire to throw myself on the floor and kneel over that wretched trash can.

I had won the first round, surviving the hell of seasickness. I recalled our class instructor telling us of observers who had been defeated by seasickness—some so violently ill from the minute they set foot on their boat that they had to radio NMFS, giving up the job and requesting to return home. Early on, I had told myself that I would not be one of these. I needed to prove to myself—and to everyone else—that I was tough and that I could take it, whatever "it" was.

I remember, sometime in junior high school, my excitement at discovering the word feminist—finally, a word that fit me as I struggled to define myself in my confining world. So what if my friends snickered at the mention of the word, or, worse yet, didn't know its meaning. I was relieved to have a name for the need I felt to prove myself equal to any man at any task set before me. Being a Foreign Fisheries Observer combined just about everything that was difficult—physical strength, stamina, endurance, harsh living conditions and other things that I did not even know yet. And, I felt at the time, all of these were the things that I had to conquer to prove myself as competent as any of the men in the program. They represented the real test.

I felt giddy, triumphant and tough, recalling that the instructor had used the masculine pronoun when he referred to the last Observer who had returned home due to seasickness.

Wobbling to the door, I opened it, peering out into the corridor. There was no sign of life anywhere. Stiff and cramped, but feeling like I had been given a new lease on life, I decided to wander around and try to determine the lay of the ship. I slowly moved out of my cabin and headed left, grasping the handrail that lined the corridor walls for support. Three days of seasickness had certainly robbed me of my strength, but it felt absolutely invigorating to simply be out of my sweaty bunk. Not only was my pillow filled with what surely had to be sand, but the mattress was also stuffed with the same unyielding material. No feather beds on the KYOWA.

Suddenly, a door flew open and a young man stepped partially over a cabin threshold. He stopped abruptly when he saw me. Quickly he turned and said something over his shoulder. Instantly, four faces appeared behind him, peering around each other, trying to get a glimpse of me.

I smiled at the men and said "Ohayo Gozaimas."

This sent them off into gales of laughter. They jostled among themselves and, finally, the same fellow who "spoke English" and had shown me to the bridge stepped forward.

His face, once again, was bright red, and he grinned from ear to ear. He pointed to his nose and said "Kazukisan."

"Oh, your name is Kazukisan." I smiled happily. "My name is Dail."

Kazukisan gazed at me blankly. I pointed to my nose, just as he had done, and said slowly "Dail."

Kazuki turned to confer with his friends over this. Someone found a piece of paper and pencil and Kazuki thrust these at me. I wrote my name out in capital letters. Taking the paper from me, Kazuki slowly read aloud my name—or his rendition of my name. It sounded close, but the "L" was giving him trouble. I remembered a friend's story of the Japanese diplomat who, at a political function in D.C., asked a campaigning Senator how his erection was going.

I repeated my name slowly. Kazuki's brow wrinkled in concentration. He conferred again with his friends. A couple of them grabbed the paper and scribbled on it. Eventually he turned back to me and said slowly "Day-ru. Day-ru-san."

And so I became Dairusan, the first American woman Observer the KYOWA MARU had ever had on board. Only with my training class had the program begun placing women on Japanese ships. For years, their fishing companies and government had refused to have us on their vessels, feeling that this was an "unacceptable environment." Many of the fishermen also considered it bad luck to have women at sea. However, if they wished to continue fishing in United States waters, they had to accept female observers. Alaskan waters provide exceptionally lucrative fishing grounds for the Japanese, producing millions of dollars worth of fish, so they acquiesced without much of a struggle.

I was very aware of the traditional view that Japanese men held of women. I was also very aware of the need to be respectful of a culture vastly different from my own. I have never felt the ethnocentricity that seems to afflict so many Americans; I wanted to try to "fit in" culturally. I needed to bury my own judgements and biases to do this "right,"; to open my mind to a totally different way of viewing the world. Yet, at the same time, I was driven to show these men that I was tough, strong and capable. I refused to be viewed as a weak female. The characteristics that Japanese men valued in women were anathema to me: submissiveness, weakness and servility. My mission, an easy one, was to portray none of these characteristics. I hoped I would not offend anyone by simply being myself.


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