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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

The Night Orion Fell

June 2020

We are free to choose but not
free from the consequences
that follow that choice.

Christopher Robbins

The Night Orion Fell is a nonfiction book about a 1982 tragedy at sea—a commercial fishing accident, the Coast Guard rescue, and how a person rebuilds his life after the tragedies of loss and disability. Here are some excerpts.

Sunday, Feb. 7, dawned still clear on land as well. At home, Bev threw a Pendleton mackinaw over her bathrobe as she went out for the Sunday Oregonian, Portland’s paper read throughout the state. She stood there in the chill for a moment looking down at the bay and out to sea, at Venus in the west, and wondered what Larry was doing at that very moment.

Please bring him home to us. Plugged. We sure could use the money. Realizing she was chilled and the coffee was probably ready, she hurried inside.

At the kitchen table with her coffee, Lincoln still sound asleep, she pulled out the ads to read later, read the funnies then set them aside for Lincoln. Having read the first section, she turned to its Northwest Magazine.

On the front page was a photograph of the now-upright crabber, Sagacious, grounded and obviously damaged from its capsize. The headline read, “TRAGEDY STRIKES THE WEST COAST: At least 33 people have died in fishing-related accidents in recent months.” She, the wife of a fisherman out with a green deck hand, did not need to see this. She already knew it was a deadly season. Every restaurant on the coast that ever served a cup of coffee to fishermen or Coasties knew this. You could see it on any face in the grocery store as locals gave a somber nod or wan smile to friends, avoided eye contact with the occasional stranger who traveled the road in winter. Must have money. Is he gonna make it back?

Turning to page 2, the lead article title, “The Grim Harvest in Fisherman’s Lives,” was not written with coastal families in mind. Portland lies 50 miles inland as the crow flies. Fishermen don’t live in Portland. No. The cover with its headline and photo was designed for those who lived in the city, the Valley, the Cascades, or Eastern Oregon. Its message was: Be glad you’re a rancher, a logger, or an office worker. Be glad your life isn’t being harvested. It didn’t mention until the fifth page of the article, that the four crew of the Sagacious were rescued.  

As it turned out, between October 1981 and Feb. 7 1982 when the article was published, 33 fishermen from San Francisco to the Canadian border had died; more deaths were yet to come. This would become the deadliest season on the century’s record.

As Bev read the Sunday Oregonian, her brother, David, was trawling deep water out off the entrance to Tillamook Bay. Her other two brothers, Tony and George, were trawling off Astoria, and Larry and his deckhand, Dick Cooley, had just hauled up the net off Pacific City’s Haystack Rock. All she knew was that her worry, just below the surface, was now about to explode. She tried to read the article. She tried not to read the article. She didn’t see the words, but she did see names of boats and people she knew. A knot gripped her and she couldn’t release it. She silently chanted over and over and over all that day and the next and the next, everything will be fine. Everything will be fine.

She had skipped over the name that caught every Oregon and Washington Coast Guardsman in the throat—Capt. Frank Olson, the CO of Station North Bend was killed during an attempted rescue mission when his helo malfunctioned and crashed in the ocean. Lt. j.g. Ray Shultz with his crew including flight mechanic, George MacGillis, was headed down from Station Astoria to rescue Olson and his crew but the southerly headwinds blew so fiercely, it took Shultz an hour to get the 20 miles to Seaside. Still having over 100 miles to go, he called Station Tillamook Bay, 40 miles farther south, and was told they’d just had a gust of 115 miles per hour. After this Marine-turned-Coast Guard pilot maneuvered the dicey but judicious turn back north, his helo was in Astoria in minutes. Years later, with a catch in his voice and turning his head away, Shultz described this turning back as the most difficult thing he’d ever done. A pilot doesn’t leave a fellow pilot and his crew in the ocean…unless the rescue means losing his own life, crew, and helo. Fishermen and Coast Guardsmen knew this was the worst fall and winter they’d ever seen.

But Larry didn’t think of his father. Oh no. His father meant he could die also. Leave Bev. Leave Lincoln. Leave his mother too, losing him to the profession she hated his having. He could not think that Dick Cooley’s boys had lost their father, suddenly and just like he had as a boy. Billy about the same age too. No, he couldn’t afford those thoughts and the guilt that would shroud him.

He didn’t connect his father’s death to his own life and entrapment. First Lt. L. Bruce Hills was called back to active duty four and a half years after World War II where he had served in seven Pacific locations. Arriving in Korea in October 1950, he led a rear guard for the Eighth Army’s withdrawal from the Chinese assault, guarded a mountain pass, wrote letters home December 12, January 13, and was killed February 13. Today was February 9. No, Larry could not afford to think of his father or Dick’s boys. He didn’t hear his mother playing and singing “Onward Christian Soldiers” over and over, breaking down, sobbing as she played. He saw only his own stubbornness and will to survive. By damn! Fuck it! I’m gonna make it.

Briefly, he tilted his head to see an upside down view of Neahkahnie Mountain backlit by the stars. The net, containing tons of rex sole and Dover sole, hung over the stern of the Fargo. Jammed, the hydraulic motor had stopped rotating, as the noise of that mechanical monster changed to a sustained ear-piercing screak. The false daylight from the deck lights scorched down on the net reel and the men it held but did not change the darkness that lay beyond the edges of the stern.  

When the Forest Service asked for volunteers to check accessibility compliance in the capital’s hotels, Larry volunteered. The next thing he knew, he was on an airplane for D.C., part of a team of 10 people with disabilities to check out 20 hotels to ensure they were accessible and could be used by any government employee traveling on business.  As many people do, he had often cussed the government that took place so many miles away. As he and Bev explored the city, the Washington Monument in its perfect and pure plainness brought tears to his eyes. Wherever he was, he stood stunned by the reality and beauty of Washington, D. C., its architecture, and his sense of pride and patriotism. Lincoln, accompanying his father there on a later trip movingly described their visit to the Korean War Memorial.  The memorial consists of a company of soldiers, such as Larry’s father might have led, crossing a rice paddy, made all the more real that day as rain pelted down on solid soldiers in their capes and gear, now literally in a field of water…statues in the rice paddy viewed by the son and grandson of a lieutenant killed in Korea.  

It is the law of the sea that the captain is responsible for his vessel and all souls on board whether it be one crew or 2,500 crew and passengers. How many lives had Leslie Hills been responsible for? What were his feelings when one of his men was killed? Larry has such conversations with his father while driving, hiking, falling asleep. He knows he now has a permanent identification with him: the feeling of responsibility for a life not saved. But this one person he could talk to, the most important person who could understand, is not available to exchange the few sentences that would acknowledge their shared personal grief and level, at least for the moment, the density of that feeling.

In his years as a fisherman, Larry had the motion of the water beneath the vessel.  Now he walks the ancient ocean, the solid soil and rock of the mountains, alkali and desert lakebeds. He has helped build trails for those whose lives are pavement and city lights so they may experience an original part of our land, enjoy the pleasures of walking on earth, of listening to birds, wind, and silence, of smelling trees, grasses, and sage, of seeing mountains and valleys, trails and blue sky with starlit nights, desert and forest flowers in bloom.  He has helped build a small portion of the national trail.  One hundred years from now this trail through the mountainous forest of the Oregon Outback will still offer the opportunity to shed the skin of jagged nerves and send hikers home with a peace that will last for weeks or a lifetime because Larry has helped to plant the seeds for peace of mind and strength of body.

His legacy lives in more than his survival; it lives in the leadership he has offered those with disabilities. It lives under the feet and in the thoughts, feelings, and memories of those who travel any portion of the trail. Walking up Moss Pass, I met a hunter carrying his deer a good mile to his pickup on the opening day of hunting season.  He announced to me, “Tell him thank you! I appreciate this trail!”

I smile and say I shall—and I do. I ponder the resilience of the man who made this trail, admire—yes, even envy—his drive, but I also ponder the thanks this hunter doesn’t know he owes to the Coast Guard and doctors who saved Larry’s life, to the families—his wife’s and the Forest Service people—that have offered him support. Yet it is a life always shaded by the shimmering image of the Fargo, when at dusk many years ago it leaded its hull to the black of the ocean floor under the weight of Susan Cooley’s words.

The Fargo now rests in the darksome weeds of the ocean floor off Oregon’s northwest coast, its Gibson Girl and denim wallpapers still firmly attached. The waters of the Kuroshio current flow past the vessel, fish swim in and out of its parts unaware of anything but their safe haven, unaware of the human stories that inhabit its remains, unaware of Susan Cooley Hadley’s lingering widow’s words, “I curse the Fargo to the bottom of the sea.”

Additional selections from The Night Orion Fell are at Fisher Poets Gathering website

The Night Orion Fell is available at Amazon.

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