Rich Paxson

4.8 The grandeur of the everyday: Remembering ourselves
How do our memories remind us of who we are?

We were fishing for halibut on my friend John’s boat in Kodiak Island’s Roslyn Bay on the Gulf of Alaska one breezy June 1973 day. Our long-lines had been soaking on the seabed for a couple of hours, so it was time for us to reel them in. We hoped there were at least a few halibut caught by the sharp steel hooks. The day had been sunny with a slight breeze, but our timing was bad because we began reeling in the lines just as the early-afternoon onshore wind began to blow.

The rising wind made for choppy waves. We hadn’t caught any of the up to one-hundred-pound halibut when one of the hooks on the ocean floor got snagged on something. The big stern drum kept reeling in the line, which pulled the boat lower and lower in the water. My friend John believed that a big fish, not a snag, was dragging the gunwales down to the waterline, so he refused to cut the fishing line.

It was a snag that was dragging us down. We knew for sure only after clambering into our lifeboat, a dinghy tied to the stern, to escape a now swamping fishing boat. It all happened so fast. We could untie the dinghy only after abandoning the sinking fishing vessel. Untying the dinghy was now my job.

The North Pacific water was icy and very choppy that afternoon when I reached down into the water to undo the knot in the line holding the dinghy fast to the fishing boat. I wasn’t the most accomplished fisherman and had tied a square knot in the line. That square knot, underwater and under high tension, was impossible to untie. The swamping fishing boat was close to pulling the dinghy down with it under the water. John struggled forward in the dinghy with a knife. He reached down into the water, cut the line, and the dingy immediately bobbed free.

We were about a quarter mile offshore. It took awhile, but we finally made it. I’ll never forget the feeling lying there in the rough seagrass in the sun-heated, black sand. Gravity pulled me tight to the earth, and I wanted never to leave that spot.

John and I are still friends. We may have talked about this incident in conversation over the years. John went on to captain several large North Pacific ships in a long career at sea. Capsizing a boat on a sunny, breezy day in a protected bay for him is probably just a blip on his radar screen of years of sea stories.

The memory for me, however, reminds me now about trust, and dependence on others, and our frequent inability to control an unpredictable world. The story tells me that rather than individuals, we are inter-dividuals. Our actions can reflect new arrangements, or they can undo existing arrangements; for example when a knot in what was a safety line turns that line into the instrument of our drowning.

My story leaves me with a question. Where in my life do today I find the knotted lines working no longer to save but now to harm?