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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Personal Thoughts

Tragedy at Sea: Selections from The Night Orion Fell

February 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 three excerpts. 

 As the lines continued winding over the portside gunwale and onto the drum, Larry heard a short, gut-launched scream. He whirled around to see Dick’s feet going over the top of the net reel. Part of the line lashed Dick ever more tightly in its mechanical turn as it rolled over him and rolled him over the reel. In that instant, Larry saw Dick’s terror-stricken face, pallid and frozen. His adrenalin surged and although he considered the longer, safer route around the net reel, he instinctively took the shortest route racing over the incoming line to shut off the hydraulic motor Putting his hand on top of the core of the net reel, he boosted himself across the starboard hose line, something he’d done countless times before…although never while the lines were moving nor while wearing his heavy foul weather gear. With its normal wear on even one haul, the line had developed indentations and small frays that snagged first his gloved right fingers and wrist, then took hold and whipped up his arm. It pulled him over the line and slammed him face down against the net reel, his arms flung out as he reached to rescue Dick. Over the noise of the boat and its hydraulics and on his own first revolution, Larry heard Dick’s bones snap as the line wrapped and crushed him in its vise. The steel hose line cudgeled down Larry’s left arm, jolting and jerking him repeatedly. Fastened to the reel, Larry spun in continuous revolutions, feet over head, head over feet, again and again. The force flung his hat, boots and a sock God knows where. 

 The lines had now whipped and wrapped the two men against the reel like captured fish. Only the wind and Dick heard Larry’s cold words: 

“We’re dead.” 

 As soon as his feet left the deck, Larry thought this thing’s gonna grind us up. He visioned himself and Dick as mush. Innards out in the air. Two lives mulched into the beyond. 

 One cross of the line against his torso would break and crush his bones as easily as it had just done Dick’s. The wings and body of the net ground over the gunwale and across the deck toward the reel. Within a minute or two, its slow, steady, unstoppable pace would pull tons of fish on board. In moments, the weight and webbing of the net would bring to bear the final pressure needed to kill Larry and Dick. 

 If only the net’ll fall over the flange on that side of the winch…. If it’ll just fall over that flange, it’ll jam up that roller bearing. I’ve seen it happen. The motor won’t turn the reel. It’ll jam it ‘cause it can’t break that hose line inside the gear. 

 A skilled skipper maneuvers his boat to roll the hose lines and net evenly onto the reel. Wrapped against it, Larry could not steer. The line began to wind unevenly and drag toward the edge of the spool. It wedged over the drum’s flange and onto the chain and gear sprocket to catch in the bearing, jamming the hydraulic motor, preventing it from turning the drum. When the drum stopped, the trawl doors were still drawn against the sides of the boat, hanging unfastened from the gallows posts. Larry hung upside down suspended facing the reel, bowed against its underside, his back toward the deck, arms spread eagle, his feet not far from the stern and not quite touching the deck. Motionless and trapped, he listened to the prop wash of water against the stern, the drag of the net webbing, and the hydraulics screak of a siren’s call. 

He called out, “Dick. You OK?” 

Expecting Larry home that day at the latest, Bev spent Wednesday morning making bread, cookies, and a pot of soup, even though she knew the first thing he would do was unload his fish, clean the boat, then go to bed and sleep for hours, perhaps even a day. She cleaned house and now ready to do her laundry, she left mid-morning carrying the basket across the street to her parents’ house. She had plenty of time before Lincoln came home from school; it was only 10:30. She’d have lunch with her mom. 

 Corky Povenmire, a local fisherman, driving by, stopped and said, “What are you doing?” 

 “What do you mean, ‘what am I doing’? I’m doing my laundry.” 

 “Aren’t you worried about Larry?” he asked. 

 “What are you talking about?” Bev recoiled. 

 “See you around.” Corky shrugged his shoulders but said nothing more as he drove off thinking Larry had turned up and everything was fine, or Bev didn’t know yet. Yeah, that was more likely, he thought. 

 Her laundry scattered in the road as Bev dropped the basket and ran to her parents’ house. She immediately feared Larry was the next number on that list of Northwest fishermen who had died at sea. 

 She took the back steps into her parents’ house in two leaps, flung the door open into the length of kitchen and living room, full of silent people with long faces, standing and sitting wherever they found a spot, their faces already anxious and guilty. To a person, they looked up when the door opened, glanced uneasily at Bev, then averted their eyes, sipping their coffee or looking out the window. 

 “What’s going on?” she demanded, while she hung back by the door, reticent to expose herself to the room and people it held. The wood heat in the house had never been so ineffective in warming the chill that ran through each person’s heart. Chicken soup, started as soon as Lorraine Vandecoevering had poured her first cup of coffee for the morning, no longer held its promise of a good lunch. The teakettle simmered on the back right burner of the stove and the coffee pot was in constant use. 

“Well. The Fargo’s missing.” 

 “The rest of the fleet came in last night but not the Fargo,” someone else offered. 

Bev burst into tears. By choice, she did not have a VHF in her house and no one had called her this morning because they did not know how to deal with what they knew would be her intense reaction. Nor did they know how to deal with their own reactions. A fishing community goes about its everyday business unconsciously waiting for the next disaster. It will come and this one landed directly on four Garibaldi families—the Hills, the Cooleys, the Fishers, and the Vandecoeverings. As it turned out, it also landed on one of the Coast Guard families, the MacGillises. 

 Someone got up from his seat at the table. “I’ll try again,” but as he approached the VHF on top of the fridge, a voice came over saying, “Fargo, Fargo, Fargo. Calling fishing vessel Fargo. Come back.” Eyes on the electronics, everyone on the water or in the imaginations of those in the Vandecoevering house stretched their vision out to the distant sea, and tasted the silence before Bev gasped and began sobbing. 

 She did not know some fishermen who had finished short trips and unloaded their catches were having coffee or a well-needed breakfast at The Troller or Miller’s Seafood, sharing tales of plugged holds and downs, discussing other aspects of their recent trip and the current weather. They had just put themselves through three to five days of little to no sleep, hard physical labor, and snippets of food when they received word of the missing boat. Dog-tired, some had gone home for a much-needed sleep of the dead. Those at the restaurants called those asleep at home. These men of the Garibaldi fishing fleet just in and exhausted from their labor of the past days, all roused immediately, returned to their vessels, and headed back out to sea to search for Larry, Dick, and the stricken Fargo. Independent thinking and living people who may not have two words to share dockside came together without hesitation, without thought for their own safety to look for fellow fishermen in harm’s way. This morning they spoke to one another, offered coffee from a thermos and reassuring words of “Yeah, we’ll get out there, we’ll be out there really soon,” as they walked from pickup to boat, started their engines next to one another, backed out, and headed out to sea. Inside their hearts though, as clearly as if written on the walls of the wheelhouse, was that deep foreboding everyone had: Whatever we find, it’s not gonna be good. 

Fargo. Fargo. Fargo. On our way out. Looking for you. Fargo, Fargo, Fargo.

 “Fargo! Fargo! We’re out here. What’s your position?” 

 Families and locals kept their vigil in restaurants and homes up and down the coast. They hung on to every word and sound. Even static, any airwave vibration, had people stare at their radios immediately. They hoped, and they waited. On other days, standing by on the radio offers comfort because it lets them know all is well as families on land hear their chatter. 

 'What's the catch? How much? Where?” 

 “I got an albatross here picking nets for lunch.” 

 Weather, always the weather, they passed back and forth. 

 A VHF radio that did not produce wanted information, however, unsettled everyone. All knew the truth of “There but for the grace of God go I.” 

 Not far away at the east edge of town, the school nestled against the forest on the first range of coastal hills. Its bell rang and Lincoln was one of the many students out the door. In second grade, his skills were well above those of his classmates. With his brown-framed glasses and some books to read at home—Oh this one to Dad, he thought, he dashed out the door like everyone else. He knew his father would be home from fishing today since he didn’t come in the day before. The walk home was straight down hill a couple of blocks. 

 “Mommy? Daddy?” Neither of them was home. That’s odd, he thought, and crossed the street to his grandparents’ house. Different from his mother, who had walked into a house full of people, he walked into an empty house. His grandpa was down at the restaurant; that he knew. His grandma must be also. He saw coffee cups everywhere and figured there must have been a lot of people stopping by earlier. He looked—many of the cups were still half full. Grandma burst the door open. He watched her tears as they flowed down her cheeks and dripped off her chin. 

 “Oh, Lincoln!” She threw her arms around the boy and cried, “Your father’s missing. Everyone’s out looking for him.” He felt both suffocated and lonely but made no attempt to escape this tight embrace. 

 His world changed. The boat had not come in. Going to the dock with Daddy, sitting in the captain’s chair pretending he was going out to sea, wrestling on the living room floor, listening to Daddy tell stories about the Indians of Eastern Oregon, reading Treasure Island or the encyclopedia to Daddy, and all his other memories from the first seven years of his life disappeared as if the events had never occurred. 

 Lincoln, nor anyone else in the family, remembers where he spent that night or any other night for the next month when Larry’s mother and stepfather came to take him to Lakeview to live with them for six months. The Vandecoevering family knows he stayed with someone in the family, but it quickly became irrelevant with which family or families. 

 Already a young boy separated from his peers by his intelligence, he buried himself even more in books and thoughts rather than in games and pranks. His father was missing, and he felt his mother was missing too for she was hysterical, and then left for months in Portland. Plunged into greater solitude than he comprehended, he began his life anew. At age 7, he was as trapped in solitude as his father in the lines. A vast emptiness had come and taken away the sweetness of childhood and its memories. He lost his stories to tell anyone unless they started with, ‘After Dad was caught in the cables….’ For the next month, he watched the adults swirl their lives and oceans of words around his father. No one crawled down to his level to ask, “Lincoln, what are you feeling? How are you? Do you know what happened? Are you doing OK, buddy?” He was 33 when first asked how he felt when he learned his father was missing, and had long since forgotten what he thought or how he felt. He just knew no one had asked. Lincoln, and Bev, continued their lives as trapped against the net as Larry. Only no one knew it. 

 AS Shultz approached the stern of the boat from the bow, Larry turned his head, looked up over his right shoulder at the helicopter. The two men fixed a glance frozen in time. An instantaneous scrutiny of situation and relationship each would remember and spontaneously imitate 23 years later. Larry sat in my living room imitating his own actions as he told me. Shultz described that look by phone. As he turned his head away from the speaker, his voice faded. Unconsciously, Shultz mimed the behavior of the man he had been about to save those many years earlier. 

Larry fastened his eyes into the pilot’s Someone staring straight at him. Into his eyes. Into his life, Gonna save him. 

 Larry thinks about Dick almost every day. He was a good person who wanted to work and to be more than the usual waterfront guy on a dock. Straightforward, honest, and likeable, Dick was going to make it whatever he decided to do. All the more reason for Larry to feel bad about his early demise on the Fargo. It will haunt him until the day he dies, so he tries to keep these thoughts in a portion of his mind so they don’t torture him beyond sanity. 

 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 in the heat of World War II or the winter in Korea? Leslie never came home, but 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. 

 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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