Aug/Sep 1998 Nonfiction

Otoliths, Icthyology and Fish Slime
-Chapter Four-

by Dail Bridges

"Dairusan! Dairusan!"

A rapid knock on my door, and before I could reply, the smiling face of the Cooking Master peered into my room. He motioned for me to follow him. Since I was actually beginning to feel hungry, I fell into step with him.

"What is your name?" I asked slowly. He smiled in reply but said nothing. I pointed to my nose and said "Dairusan, " then pointed at him.

"Ahh!" His index finger paused just before his nose and said "Sasakisan." By now, I realized that instead of pointing to their chest, as we would, when referring to themselves, the men pointed to their noses.

"OK—Sasakisan." I returned his grin. Shining brown eyes and a salt and pepper crew-cut set off Sasakisan's constant smile. I guessed him to be in his fifties. He was a short, trim man with very large hands. His tight white T-shirt outlined a powerful, compact body.

Sasakisan led me into the tiny dining room, which was forward of the ship, right near the bow. Three rows of wooden tables and benches packed the space running port to starboard. They were fixed to the floor and the walls. The ever-present fluorescent lighting glowed over the plastic flowered table covers and the sickly green walls. Huge Sumo wrestlers rolled around on the screen of a small Sony television mounted in one corner. A serving window was at the rear of the room, and through it was the tiny kitchen where Sasakisan, alone, did all of the cooking. Instead of the diesel-like smell from the corridor, the heavy air hung with the smells of grease and cigarette smoke.

Men packed the galley, and their response to my entrance varied. Several of them jumped to their feet and fled the room. Others giggled and poked each other. Two stood and motioned for me to sit down. I sat between these two men, one of whom I vaguely remembered as the Captain from our initial meeting on the bridge. A chubby fellow, the Captain's sweetly rounded face radiated kindness. His soulful brown eyes glistened with intelligence and curiosity. He was so soft-spoken and gentle, I had trouble picturing him carrying the mantle of Captain.

He gestured to the man across from me and said "Fishing Master." The two stood in direct contrast. Instead of somber and soulful eyes, the Fishing Master's danced with mischief. Even his wire rimmed glasses couldn't hide their sparkle. Laugh lines creased an otherwise baby-smooth complexion. I pegged him at 45 or so. Later I would find my estimate had been 15 years too young. I envisioned him dressed in a red suit and white beard, easily filling the role of a jolly Santa Claus.

Even on a boat with only 26 crew members, hierarchy ruled the galley seating arrangement. The Captain explained that only Officers sat at the "head" table. My officer status dictated that I sit with him, the Fishing Master, Chief Mate and Radio Officer.

Sasakisan raced in with steaming plates of food, which he placed in front of the Captain, Fishing Master and me. My round plastic plate contained a damp mound of unidentifiable slender stalks and two pieces of raw fish. I contemplated these items, wondering if my newly gained appetite might fade away. Sasakisan fairly skipped to a large pot on one end of the table and dished out three bowls of rice. Next he dashed back into the kitchen, returning with three bowls of a soup containing bits of fish and potatoes. We were the only ones he waited on. All of the other men crowded around the tiny galley window and served themselves.

All around me, men ate their soup with loud slurping sounds. The galley could have been a Hoover vacuum cleaner demonstration center. I watched the Captain and Fishing Master hold their bowls up close to their mouths and, with artful chopstick manipulation, suck up their soup. Sasakisan brought my soup, and I ate it as most Americans do—quietly—a marked contrast to those around me. Later in the cruise, the men would encourage me to slurp while eating, clearly letting me know that this was THE only way to truly enjoy food. They sat beside me, bowls raised, sucking air in preparation for the real thing, insisting that I follow their movements. Though I tried, this was the one thing I could never bring myself to do in the entire eight weeks of eating meals with them. My Mama had done too good a job of ingraining table manners.

I tried to take my cues from the two officers with whom I was sitting. When they finished their soup, they began using their chopsticks to eat from their plates. Sasakisan had given me a knife and fork, but I wanted to learn how to eat with the real thing. I pointed to the Captain's lacquered utensils and then at myself. He realized what I wanted and shouted something to Sasakisan, who came running with a pair of the shiny tools.

I was unsure of even the proper way to pick them up, though I had been closely watching the Captain and Fishing Master. I gripped the needle-like instruments tightly and went after a vegetable. Flipping from my fingers, one of the pointed missiles followed a trajectory path straight into the face of the Fishing Master. It bounced off of his glasses, and was followed by the soft thud of the vegetable, which slid from the glass lens down his cheek. Just as it reached his mouth, the Fishing Master stuck out his tongue and captured the runaway stalk. The table erupted into loud laughter which, thankfully, the Fishing Master joined.

After observing this fiasco, one of the men at the other end of the table moved to sit near me—and teach me chopstick etiquette. He introduced himself as Masadru. I instantly thought of a Kewpi doll. A slim face, surrounded by short, springy black hair sat atop his wiry frame. Later in the cruise, he would confess to me that he had given himself a permanent wave to obtain these locks. He would also never believe me when I insisted that my short red curls were natural and not aided by chemicals.

I imitated Masadru's eating technique as closely as I could, providing a good deal of entertainment for everyone in the galley. Other fishermen decided to get into the act. Soon I was surrounded by an entire group, waving their miniature batons, proudly giving lessons to their novice twirler. Instead of cramps from seasickness, my stomach now ached from continuous laughter.

After the decidedly hilarious meal, the Captain motioned for me to follow him to the bridge.

"Arigato, Sasakisan!" Sasakisan's face lit up when I said thank you, and he bent forward slightly and smiled as I left. From class, I knew that one person bowed to another to show respect. Other crew members would often bow to me. Mindful of hierarchical etiquette, I did not return their offerings but always bowed to the officers, the only people on the ship who were my "superiors."

I had begun to study my surroundings to identify subtle landmarks on the KYOWA. Masadru lived behind a door whose symbols were round and curly, like his hair. The character on Kazukisan's cabin contained three horizontal slashes. I strode confidently behind the Captain and easily recognized the door to the bridge, which had small red writing beneath the main black characters. Of course, the living area was only one small part of the boat—I had yet to even go out on deck or down into the fish factory.

We emerged from the dark stairway onto the bridge, and I blinked my eyes, trying to adjust to the daylight after so long under the artificial glow of fluorescence. I looked around at the equipment that, through my seasick haze, had appeared so mysterious. The Captain pointed out various devices crowding the compact space. Some I knew, others would remain a mystery to me right up until I left the ship. I recognized the Loran unit, which showed a digital reading of the ship's latitude and longitude. The old-fashioned wooden steering wheel, surrounded by high-tech navigational equipment, stood prominently in front of the window facing forward. The Fishing Master cackled loudly at someone over the VHF radio, which hung by the chart table. Determined to portray a show of strength on this visit to the bridge, I marched over to the charts spread out on the wooden surface. Using the reading from the Loran, I pinpointed our location: several hundred miles north of the Aleutian islands, in the middle of the Bering Sea. No surprises here. Leaning over the table, I swung my leg under it and kicked an object that tipped over. I bent down to see what I had disturbed, and my old companion, the metal trash can, rolled out and bumped against my shin. I hastily stuffed it back under the table, hoping this was not an omen.

The Captain motioned me over to a waist high desk, on which he had spread out the ship's trawl logbooks. As the Observer, I had unconditional access to these, the official records of the ship's catches, and would need to check them daily. I pretended to understand as his finger traced line after line of indistinguishable words, written in tiny Japanese script. The Captain flipped the page. Nodding thoughtfully, I wrinkled my forehead; I like to think this is my intelligent look.

I wondered when we would begin fishing. I pulled out my Japanese/English dictionary and questioned the Captain. Finally understanding my query, he looked up the word "tomorrow" and underlined it carefully with a pencil. My stomach knotted with anxiety. So many pieces of the puzzle of my work remained a mystery. I did not even know where the factory was, had no idea what the processing equipment looked like, barely knew my way to the deck...and setting up my work station was a mammoth task in itself. My mind reeled with the things that had to be done before the first net was brought aboard.

I looked at my watch and saw that it was 2:00 in the afternoon. As I remembered, the clock on the bridge read something totally different. For the entire voyage, I would remain thoroughly confused by the time differences of the ship, my watch (Alaska time) and Greenwich Mean Time, which I was required to use in my work.

I looked up the word "tour" in my dictionary and showed it to the Captain. He nodded vigorously and made an announcement over the loudspeaker.

"Kazukisan come here soon. He is your assistant to help you. Help English, help work. OK?" The Captain surprised me with his English.

Within minutes, Kazukisan appeared. When he saw me, he blushed violently. Kazukisan, I had decided, was a very earnest young man and eager to please. His round face was sweetly cherubic. He and the Captain talked for a few minutes, and he started off down the stairs, looking over his shoulder for me to follow.

I stopped by my cabin to gather my warm clothing. Wool sweater, polypropylene jacket and raingear. The living area of the ship was fairly warm, but I knew it would be bitterly cold outside. I grabbed my steel-toed boots to put on just before stepping onto the deck. After my disastrous faux pas on the bridge, I wore only Birkenstocks in the living quarters of the ship and kept my boots on stand-by behind my cabin door.

I followed Kazukisan to the tightly bolted door that led to the deck, the same one I had come through on my first day on the ship. In the small changing room beside the door, Kazukisan yanked down a pair of black rubberized coveralls from the dozens hanging on hooks. While he donned his coveralls, I put my rain gear on over my warm clothes. I loved the cheerful yellow color of my shiny new gear. I would soon discover that this shade would last about four days before the fish slime took over, turning my sunny outfit a sickly green.

My companion's gear seemed meant for a person several sizes larger than me. He hoisted his pants almost up to his chest and pulled a beige strap, like a rubber band, around them so they wouldn't slide off. The cuffs of his jacket had been rolled up several times but still his gloved fingers barely peeked out from the ends. We grinned at each other, two sausages encased in plastic, ready for the display case.

Kazukisan pulled open the hatchway. I stepped out onto the deck and immediately spun sideways into the port railing, buffeted by the force of the wind. My hands clung to the icy railing as I struggled to remain upright, averting my face from the burning gale. I inched along behind Kazukisan, the railing my lifeline. The searing wind threatened to blow my contact lenses right out of my eyes. Slowly we made our way over the icy deck to the stern of the boat, leaning into the fierce wind as we plodded forward. We circumnavigated coils of nets, lines and other fishing gear in piles that towered over me, menacing with their unsteady wobbling. What if I got crushed by one of these before I even made it to the factory? Would I be given a burial at sea? Or perhaps I would be stuffed into the fish freezer, laid out beside frozen blocks of Pollock, until the KYOWA returned with my body to Dutch harbor.

Before I could further develop these fatalistic thoughts, we reached the stern of the ship. Kazukisan opened a hatchway and led me down into the fish processing area. I closed my eyes and sniffed, my mind filled with olfactory images of coastal North Carolina seafood shops, a briny low tide smell mingling with the scent of freshly caught creatures; but overlying it all, the odor from day old fish, edging close to rotten, piled out on the dock behind the shop.

After spending countless hours in this environment, the factory air would become just another part of me, rather like the hair on my head or, say, my left leg. My nose would no longer twinge at the pungent aroma surrounding me. In fact, when my cruise was completed, I ended up flying back to Seattle wearing my rain jacket. Though I had cleaned it as best I could, my friends who picked me up at the airport refused to allow me into their house with the jacket on. I had wondered why no one sat beside me on the flight home....

A gleaming, wet maze, the processing area stretched before me like a football field, an entire world under the deck. White pipes of all sizes snaked haphazardly along the low ceiling, a plumber's nightmare. Behind me, flush against the stern of the vessel, loomed two cavernous fish bins, immobile Dempsey Dumpsters built into the ship. Metal chutes and endless conveyor belts that moved the fish along the processing line packed every inch of the factory floor. The equipment glistened in the dull fluorescent glow from the overhead lights. We had studied factory diagrams in training class, but I anxiously wondered if I would ever be able to figure out this chute and ladder puzzle that confronted me. I envisioned thousands of fish flying along the conveyor belts, too fast for me to keep up, as I trotted alongside, dodging sharp corners and trying to grab the slimy creatures.

The only elemental difference between the deck and factory was the absence of the howling wind. I puffed out air, watching my breath hover, cloud-like, before me. How I would manage to stay even semi-comfortable for hours on end down here? I stamped my numb feet in a futile effort to keep them warm. Already blocks of ice, they seemed more of a hindrance than a help as I stumbled along behind Kazukisan, trying to keep up.

In order to do my job, I needed to set up a work station near the beginning of the processing line. The work station is where I would remove samples of the catch for weighing and measuring. I spotted an area that seemed appropriate, and motioning to Kazukisan, indicated that I would work here. He nodded vigorously and said "I tell Akihamasan you here work." I vaguely remembered a man named Akihama being introduced to me as the Factory Master.

Kazukisan helped me haul my baskets, scales and other work equipment to the spot I had chosen as my work area. We hung the scales from one of the several sturdy overhead pipes. Kazuki found tools and we constructed a wooden work bench. As we worked, we stamped our feet and clapped various body parts, trying desperately to keep the blood flowing. When we had built the waist high bench, I asked Kazuki to help me measure the fish holding bins. One of my tasks would be to estimate total catch size, and one way of doing this was by a volume (how much the fish bins held) and density (dependent upon the type of catch) formula. These bins appeared to be fairly easy to measure, so this seemed the most efficient way of calculating catch size. Kazukisan raised a wooden door that allowed fish to flow out of the bin and onto the first conveyor belt. I climbed onto the belt, dragging plastic forms with me, and squeezed through the narrow door way into the fish bins, Kazukisan close behind. I stood up inside the box-like cave and immediately slipped on the wet metal floor, sliding with the rolling of the ship until I stopped against the starboard wall of the bin. My plastic forms fell to the floor and slid into the corner with the next pitch of the ship. Kazukisan nose-dived after the thin sheets and, staggering to his feet, clutched them against his rubberized chest. Daylight from an opening above my head trickled feebly over us. I fumbled in my jacket pocket for the heavy, waterproof tape measure and flicked the release button. The sharp-edged metal tape sprung out of the holder like a coiled snake, stopping its slithering motion only when it hit one of foundation posts in the middle of the bin. I forced the out of control snake into every corner and crevice of the dark prison, stretching and pulling and calling out numbers to Kazukisan, who dutifully recorded them with a slime proof pencil on the plastic forms.

My measurements completed, we crawled back out the doorway and into the factory. I asked Kazukisan to describe the flow of the fish and processing to me. He led off on another brisk jog around the factory, dodging sharp edges and dangerous-looking machinery, pausing to point and exclaim. As with the Captain's trawl log book explanation, I nodded, looking thoughtful, and comprehended nothing of what he said. I did not worry about my total lack of understanding. By tomorrow, assuming the Captain's estimates were accurate, I would be in the middle of processing a trawl and it would all become clear. Or so naively I believed.


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