Pieces Of The (Midnight) Sun: Sketches Of An Alaskero

Pieces Of The (Midnight) Sun: Sketches Of An Alaskero

Oscar Peñaranda


"Egg pullers" were in charge of pulling the fish egg skeine out after the "egg extractor" (red equipment on the left) pushed down the body of the fish thus causing the eggs to protrude from the body. (Photo by Steve Connelly, 1978)


They were the summers of my youth, the summers of life. I started working in Alaska in 1966 when I was just finishing my twenty-first year. When I came home to San Francisco just before the Fall to start school again, I was a father. That was my first year in Alaska. It would be fourteen more consecutive summers before I would see what would become my final trip to South Naknek in Bristol Bay, the salmon goldmine of the world.

You took three planes to get there: a big one from Seattle to Anchorage, a 747 sometimes, then a smaller one with about 50 people from Anchorage to King Salmon, a military base.

And then a cub plane or a bush plane  (which is the most common mode of transportation in Alaska) to the cannery itself. I always liked the ride. It felt like I was in a flying sports car. I could see everything underneath me, and I remember the pilot telling me, “Well,  there she is...a lot of...nothin.’” And true enough, as far as my eye could see, there was nothing but tundra, low bushes of vegetation for miles and miles and miles. Until all of a sudden, some construction made of lumber (for it would contrast with the greens, like a naked part of a hairy anatomy) would jump into view, and  we would know that the cannery is nearby, as towns and buildings and ships and boats emerged and took shape.

The airport in which we landed sported a sign “South Naknek International Airport.” It was nothing but dust and gravel, one hut or shack of a building with just galvanized roofing and a wooden bench. There, one waited to be taken to the cannery by truck and jeeps and all kinds of transportation dispensed by the cannery at that time of arrival. Usually, the fish had not yet started its run, and at that leisurely time there was plenty of transportation available from the cannery. I remember one flat truck that I was on one summer, early in my years in Alaska. We had stood on the truck, some of us not holding on to anything, hats and bandana scarves blowing in the dusty wind, waving goodbye to the place where planes landed. Even the airport was a character in South Naknek. That’s the kind of place it was.

“They say that the first time you get to Alaska, it’s the company’s fault; the second time and any time thereafter, it’s your fault.”

Another place worth noting was, of course, the lobby of the Filipino bunkhouse.  The Indians, Jimmy Walker’s crew, were upstairs. In that lobby, which was the first thing you see when you entered the bunkhouse, were benches, two or three big, round, blanketed tables (for gambling), ashtrays and tin cans, and a big window to look out of, though there was really nothing to look out to. It had a view but then again it didn’t have a view. But the little view it did have (the young healthy shoots of wild, yellowgreen grass on  a patch of mound about ten feet away) was most welcome at times of severe loneliness and sentimenatilty, and could take one’s mind to a journey of a thousand miles.

In that lobby, beside the gamblers, the anglers, the talkers and the good old fashioned socializers were the great orators. Great Debaters of the ages. You could tell who did not like whom in these debates. They would participate in a bantering and bandying with words, in Tagalog, with some good piece of useful information as fringe benefits. A balagtasan, Alaska style. A word-war of cleverness and wit and information and inspiration. All extemporaneous. Sometimes the audience would help out by calling out topics or issues for discussion. Here you would see year after year “Humpy” ( a young, late twenties-early thirties, very dark Pinoy), and  “Mr. Exciting”, (an Ilocano about 15 years an Alaskero.

I think he started when they still came by boats,) debate great and minute details in history, language, values, philosophy, common sense, justice, revolution and religion. You name it, they debated it. However, in the Fish House, where they both worked, they put aside their differences. The time for gambling and great debates, however, were numbered; they usually occured in the beginning and end of a season, a time of relative leisure. Or at some other moderately busy time when people only worked till 8 or 9 p.m. Work then would be relatively bearable. We all started at 8 a.m. Breakfast was at seven. But you soon realized that breakfast was skippable. Sleep was valued by the workers. Sleep, not the salmon, was what was really precious in Alaskan canneries on those days.


The Mess Hall where Filipinos and Native cannery workers ate. This building reflected the discriminatory policy prevalent in Alaska’s salmon canneries. With the passage of the EEO Act of 1972, the Alaska Packers Association (APA) established Affirmative Action Standard Procedures that set goals in hiring minorities and women and desegregating the mess hall. After the new Mess Hall was integrated, the old Mess Hall was converted into storage, cooks' quarters and a laundry for fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Ringsmuth, 2018)

The Mess Hall where Filipinos and Native cannery workers ate. This building reflected the discriminatory policy prevalent in Alaska’s salmon canneries. With the passage of the EEO Act of 1972, the Alaska Packers Association(APA) established Affirmative Action Standard Procedures that set goals in hiring minorities and women and desegregating the mess hall. After the new Mess Hall was integrated, the old Mess Hall was converted into storage, cooks' quarters and a laundry for fishermen. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Ringsmuth, 2018)


Leo, a fellow Waray was bragging again about what had happened in Delano in September of the previous year, when they had the grape strike. Our foreman was from there, so the crew had plenty from Delano, and Leo was one of them. The union rep in that cannery was actually the leader and organizer of the strike, an experienced and skilled and tough Union man, Larry Itliong. Three-fingered Larry.

“I stood there all alone. Ebriwer police and cops…” continued Leo.

“What’s the difference?” Slim Gator interrupted.

“Shuddap. I saw Hubert, one of our Delano Police, chatting and bullshitting with a group of growers when I threw that molotov cocktail. Madapakas.”

“Bullshit. I saw you run away looking for a place to hide.”

“I was looking for a better bantage point, Pare. Das part of it. Defense offense.”

In Delano, the September of the past year, the September before my first summer in Alaska, the Great Delano grape strike broke out, where 1,500 Filipinos, and only Filipinos, went on strike against the giant agribusiness industry represenataive, the Grower, the white Grower.

“Besides,” continued Leo the Waray, “there is no place to hide. You know dat. It was now or neber. We did our part. We met, planned and organized. We’ve done our part in discipline and preparation. Now it is up to whatever gods or Bathala may be, bahala na.”

Leo was the first one of a string of tragic deaths that would follow many of my fellow Alaskeros. They found him floating face down in a nearby swamp in Delano. Throughout the years, I would hear of their passing, one by one, or three by three, dropping out, cashing in,  diminishing, fading, going, going…

We would stay in our Alaskan cannery in Bristol Bay about a month and a half to two months average. You were a  “contract worker” for until the salmon season ends, which meant till it became too costly for the company to keep you, and there was no more fish. Eight a.m. to five p.m.,  the company owned you. You were on company time. But anytime before and after, it was overtime: time and a half and sometimes if it’s a holiday like July 4th, double-double time. One could make $500 that day, very big money in those days.They say that the first time you get to Alaska, it’s the company’s fault; the second time and any time thereafter, it’s your fault.


Printed labels with names of former Filipino fish house workers hang above hooks that once held yellow rain gear, reminders that Filipinos contributed to the history of the South Naknek cannery until it closed in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Ringsmuth, 2016)

Printed labels with names of former Filipino fish house workers hang above hooks that once held yellow rain gear, reminders that Filipinos contributed to the history of the South Naknek cannery until it closed in 2001. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Ringsmuth, 2016)


I guess it would have to be the sunsets, if one were to recall what kinds of things one remembers most about South Naknek in the summers. You overlooked a wind-blown bay fed by a widening river, the Naknek. Some said it meant Snake in Athabascan Indian. Over a cliff behind Cliff Johnson’s Bar, one could see all this. And if somehow you lingered long in this Long Branch Saloon and found yourself wending homewards alone to your bunkhouse at near midnight, and looking up to a sunset that spread all across the sky, through ruffles of puffy, thin, wispy technicolor clouds, you knew you would remember clearly -- when sitting comfortably in your  respective abodes down below in the lower forty-eight -- those specatular nights.

One did not have to look for the sunset. In Bristol Bay, the sunset  found you. It came to you like a constant visitor or the voice of the town-crier. Its colors flooded and spilled across the whole sky with streaks of rust-red, fire-yellow and petal-magenta. The sunsets did not last for only five or ten minutes, like the sunsets we know here. The sun lay low in the horizon and lingered for about an hour or two. It seemed to move along the horizon, first to the left and then to the right. The glory of the sunset held the people in awe, with the skies lit up in hues of gold and orange and purple and blood red, the clouds above in streaks of fire and silver. It always seemed a rare sight for us because we were always working. Those sunsets were actually always there. It was we, cannery workers, who were not.

Cliff Johnson’s Bar was nicknamed the Long Branch Saloon. Ol’ Cliff Johnson is probably still around, still tends to the place at times. Like my Spanish-speaking mother always said: “La  mala yerba, nunca muere” (the bad weed never dies). He had an Aleut wife, Irma, and she had a lot of relatives that helped and hung around Ol’ Cliff Johnson. He’s definitely the richest man in the village, though he looks just like a commoner himself. Some made fun of that, some admired it. “What’s the use of having all those millions of dollars if you still smell like fish?” some would say. Yet others would say, “He worked for every penny he has now. Even if some of that money was acquired mysteriously, he risked his ass everytime.” Cliff Johnson, though in the sunset of his years, was one tough white man. A Filipino once shot him back in the forties.

He pulled a gun right in front of Johnson and shot him almost point-blank. Somehow Johnson was only grazed on the head and when he came to, he started coming after the Filipino. But of course, the Pinoy knew when it was time to ”fight another day.”  He was gone before Johnson could clear the bar. The  Filipino’s close friend, a witness to that event,  told me this story himself. He said he did not know how his friend could miss. But then again, he said that his friend had been drinking all night. Something about him buying the groceries while someone else in his hometown was eating it now. That song “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now”  was our foreman’s favorite. He sang that at least once a season. Everybody laughed above their loneliness. The gesture was comic, but the music and lyrics hit too close to home for many whose loved ones down below were loving someone else.

But Cliff Johnson’s Bar, called The Long Branch Saloon in local folklore, was not the only one so christened. In fact, if one really thought about it, there was hardly anything in South Naknek that was not renamed or “christened.”


Filipino cannery workers posting with Steve Gillon (back), a machinist. (Photo by Tom Connelly, 1979)

Filipino cannery workers posting with Steve Gillon (back), a machinist. (Photo by Tom Connelly, 1979)


Then there was the mail, the blessings of which droppeth from heaven but once a week…usually…in a manner of speaking, that is. Depends on the weather really. If the weather was nice, sometimes twice a week. In fact, that was the consistent charactererisitc of the mail there -- inconsistency of its arrivals. One day, in my rookie year, confounded by this, I set out to find the answer myself. I asked our foreman and he said once or twice a week. Just to confirm things, I asked the store clerks’ school boys and they said Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays only, “like those classes in college.” The mechanics told me Tuesdays and Thursdays. The cooks, weekends only. The carpenters, never on weekends. Only on weekdays. Frustrated I went to the radio man himself, the one who signals and radios the planes’ comings and goings to Bristol Bay, and he just shrugged his shoulders at me and said, “Don’t ask me. I just work here.”

It was, of course, the people themselves, the characters that dominated and perpetuated this christening practice, especially in their nicknames and the rumored stories behind those nicknames. There was Golden Boy Sige-Sige and the “awat” incident. It was about breaking up a fight that you really did not want to get involved in. Golden Boy Sige-Sige was a known killer down below. If he wasn’t a killer, he sure looked like one. And who was going to ask or argue? He took on the name Sige-sige after the desperate gangs in Manila in the fifies and sixties. He was one of those few whose nicknames were self-given.

He was stocky for a Filipino, and about 5’7.” He stood with his boots on almost all the time, his long straggly black and banded hair falling on his vest over his hulking shoulders. And when he smiled, you saw no upper front teeth. And that somehow contrasted sharply with his red bandana wrapped around his neck. I too wore such a bandana. I liked the bandana. For me it was multipurpose and I had one (storebought red or blue) for almost all occasions in the canneries. One reason of course, was for the harsh winds that blew hard and mean at a moment’s notice. Then just as fast, it would disappear. That neck felt awfully naked in those times. One thing you didn’t want to be in Alaska was vulnerable.

This particular night of the awat incident was cold and the wind was almost howling. In front of the women’s bunkhouse, on a patch of moonlit  grass, there was a lot of merriment. Junior, the son of the President (and Business Agent) of the Local 37-- the Union that enabled all of us Filipinos to get dispatched and signed up to work here in Alsaka--was with a couple of white boys. Golden Boy was there with Mary Ellen, an Athabascan Indian whose family I knew quite well. They were seven siblings and Mary Ellen, was the youngest. They were like brothers and sisters to me, well, not all of them; I liked one of the sisters.

Because of this “in-law” situation, Boy called me “Bayaw” jokingly. Mary Ellen was about sixteen at the time. It was a shitty night as usua,l but the moon’s light was extraordinarily clear. All of a sudden I heard The foreman’s wife yelling, “Stop them, stop them! Someone stop them!” I was just by myself on my merry way from Johnson’s Bar, walking home to the bunkhouse. I heard my name being called by the foreman’s wife. I had to do something. I looked around and saw a fight going on in front of me, right under the light of the moon. This partic, it seemed. That particular midnight, I had no specific memory of seeing the sun. Must have been just another shitty, drizzly day when the fish came out by the millions.


Aerial photo of the NakNek Cannery ca. 1979. Courtesy of Gary Johnson, former superintendent, 1979-1997.

Aerial photo of the NakNek Cannery ca. 1979. Courtesy of Gary Johnson, former superintendent, 1979-1997.


In front of me, I saw Junior, the son of our Union president, duking it out with Golden Boy Sige Sige. From where I stood it seemed that Boy was getting the worse of it. Realizing this, Boy’s friends—Romeo, Obet and the Wolfman—jumped on Junior. Junior was one of the few cannery workers who were born here in the States and did not know how to speak Filipino. However, there were even many more who did not speak Filipino but could understand. Junior was one of them. That’s when the foreman’s wife saw me and looked at me squarely in the eye and screamed again. What could I do? So I jumped in. I  don’t remember if I said anything or not. I grabbed Boy Sige Sige.

He turned around seemingly stunned and paused for a brief fraction of a second then quickly punched me right in the face. I was pretty sure it was the right side of my face.Things went blurred for an instant, but I kept looking at him. When I sensed that he was not going to swing again, I turned around and looked for Boy’s friends. They looked stunned, too. When I looked at Boy again, he was sobbing, quite pronouncedly. I went closer and before I could ask anything he said, “Bayaw, I hit you. I actually hit you! What were you doing there anyway?” And he cried some more. We were sort of close before this incident. I thought about it later and realized his point. How would he know I was trying to break up the fight? Everything happens quickly in a scuffle.

 I got home to the bunkhouse around the same time as Boy and his friends, but we did not go home together. I headed straight to my room and, as usual, there were other people there. I recalled my two roommates and I won the messiest room in the bunkhouse for three years in a row. I greeted everyone there and climbed up the double decker to my bed, but found I could not do it. I was losing consciousness, I could feel it. With the metal handleof the bedpost, I pole-vaulted myself quickly with one last effort and I sunk into the bed relieved and very tired all of a sudden. In a moment I was myself again.

I felt things were coming back to me. I was feeling comfortable again, that’s when I knew I was geting better. People around me were saying, “Oh, are you all right? You passed out trying to climb into your bunk.” Those few moments that I found myself relieved weren’t so few after all. Like they told me I had passed out trying to lie in my bed. Some said they saw me hit the bed’s metal pipe frame with my head. I also found out the next morning that I had lost my right contact lens that night. It was when Golden Boy Sige Sige punched me in the face. I knew it was the right side.


The Cannery Worker Bunkhouse. Built in 1910, this is one of the oldest buildings on the property and was built to house the Italian fishermen who fished for APA. In the 1970s, APA integrated its living and mess hall buildings, after which, Filipinos and white processors occupied the bunkhouse together. Photo was taken during the historic and architectural assessment of the NakNek Cannery History Project in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Ringsmuth, 2016)

The Cannery Worker Bunkhouse. Built in 1910, this is one of the oldest buildings on the property and was built to house the Italian fishermen who fished for APA. In the 1970s, APA integrated its living and mess hall buildings, after which, Filipinos and white processors occupied the bunkhouse together. Photo was taken during the historic and architectural assessment of the NakNek Cannery History Project in 2016. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Ringsmuth, 2016)


Rick Wilson was a white man from New York. People would go to him and say things about New York City like how’s Broadway, or  the Booklyn Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and he’ll say “Never seen any of ‘em. I’m from upstate New York. New York is a state, too. I’m from Troy, New York.” and he would smile. Troy, he told me, was near Albany, the capital city of New York State. Rick Wilson was into the drama, the moment, the ridiculousness of existence. He visited me once when he passed by in San Francisco before he took the trip back home to New York. Troy, New York.

He was somewhat apprehensive. He was to meet his parents (his adopted parents, that is), after being absent, gone from them for about ten years. He stayed with me in San Francisco for several days then he moved on to New York. He took the plane. He left me his M.G. Roadster. A “Triumph,” it was,  convertible, sporty, but beat up. He told me that if he didn’t come back in three weeks, “It’s yours.” And he left me the keys. What the hell. It was the early ‘70s, and people were into existentialism and Sartre and Camus. He came back before the three weeks was up, though.

One of the most memorable incidents (and there were more than a few) with Rick the Stick was the very first time I met him, and how we lost over $6,000 in about half an hour. Men on the boardwalk were playing dice. Rick was the kind that always wanted to get involved, participate. I remember in the night clubs of Kodiak that we occasionally visited, he would always call out to the older, over-the-hill entertainers, straining his neck, “You’re the one for me, baby. Where have you been all my life. I’d like to kiss your belly button! From the inside out! You drive me to a frenzy of unspeakable desires!” Strangely enough, there was a gentleman about him and his attitude towards women, especially. In fact he often got taken for a ride by many a young  trickster. But the amazing thing about Rick Wilson was that he would forgive in an instant.

And he would forgive repeatedly. He was one white man who was a close though brief friend of mine, and one of the very few whom I ended up trusting. Maybe it was because we lost about $6,000 once in a crap shoot. We had two hundred each and we (of course it was actually only he) had challenged everybody into taking our money with a quick dice shoot. “We got four hundred dollars right here, gentlemen. Yours for the taking. What do you say? Let’s shoot some dice.” And right then and there, on the docks and the waterfront boardwalks creaking with the sway of the sea, he took off his jacket and started rolling the dice. “Give me your two hundred, man,” and he quickly and confidently stretched his hand out to me.

What could I do? The fishermen were in town, fresh from cashing in on their catch. Everybody had big bucks and the money was loose like a long-necked goose, as Rick the Stick liked to quote the Big Bopper of the late fifites.“Here it is Rick.” I said. “Go get em.” And Rick was hot that late afternoon. His left hand was burning. In about three passes, three winnings, we had close to a thousand. After that I started to lose count and it didn’t matter anymore cause Rick was just throwing one pass after another, getting his number everyt ime, and no sevens were coming out. Surprisingly, we were looking at over two thousand dollars in front of us and we, that is Rick, had thrown eight passes already.

“I think I’m good for another one,” he said. “What do you say pardner?”, he would turn to me, confident and ebullient. What could I say? “Let it roll; fuck it.” And he rolled and rolled until he got his number again. Rick the Stick  asked the pit boss, Long Arm Charley, for the count. Pit boss Charley was only too glad to accommodate. Anything to stop the flow of luck that had bitten this young white man with a lot of gray hair. Hopefully, this would stop the rhythm and change the luck. Long Arm Charley asked his boys to count the money. We had six thousand, four hundred  twenty dollars in front of us. “I feel that ten is  my number.” he said. “We’ll let it roll one more time.” And the number ten showed up as his point.

Though the numbers ten and four are the hardest numbers to get for a point, that’s when he got real confident that we were going home with about $13,000. “See the number ten is our number and this is the tenth time. It is all written, pal, all written in our destiny.” But it didn’t happen. He sevened out, and we watched them rake in all the money that were ours just seconds ago. I wanted to stop at nine passes. I wanted to tell him so, but I couldn’t. I did’t want to spoil a quality of experience that he really strove to live for. So we lost all our money that night. It was only really two hundred dollars that we lost. What’s 200 dollars? “But what do you think it all means, Stick?” I was forced to ask. “I mean, we had everything, and then, nothing. Gold already, and it somehow turned into shit! Why me? Why us? What is it, Rick? What’s it all mean?”         

“One thing you didn’t want to be in Alaska was vulnerable.”

This Filipino (name unknown) worked as a

This Filipino (name unknown) worked as a "slimer." He was one of the longtime fish house workers from Delano, California. (Photo by Katherine Ringsmuth, 1988)


Rick the Stick would give that sudden laugh that abrublty stopped, his eyes widening a bit, but with pleasure. His hawked nose would twitch a bit and the gray streaks on his young head would catch your attention. “What’s it all mean? Fuck if I know’” Rick would say and laugh at the same time. “At least,” he said “we had something to lose...huh?...he,he,he. Think of all the fuckers in the world who have nothing to lose, kid! We’re lucky for having had so much to lose, even only for a moment.

Our whole lives are only for a moment anyway, right?” He would burst into uncontrolable laughter. “Well, you can’t win ‘em all,” he said. I told him he reminded me of my uncle the boxer who fought one hundred and nineteen fights and lost one hundred and nineteen. And when I asked him why and how, all he said was “You can’t win ‘em all, son.” Yes, two hundred dollars, six thousand dollars, what’s the difference? I have squandered more in pettier things, and much more in counter-productive kalokohan.

One night, one of the last nights that I saw him, he confided in me. He had been awfully, unusually quiet. He had not been his usual rowdy self. It was his last night on shore for they would be leaving in the morning, fishing, for several days to a couple of weeks.


The Butching Crew at South Naknek Cannery. Benji Uclaray is on the far left, and his nephew Angel Uclaray Jr. is on the far right holding the salmon. The fellow giving the “thumbs up” worked for TK, the Japanese company that packed the salmon roe. The group was butchering the king salmon, which are too large to be processed by the machines. (Photo by Katherine Ringsmuth, 1988)

The Butching Crew at South Naknek Cannery. Benji Uclaray is on the far left, and his nephew Angel Uclaray Jr. is on the far right holding the salmon. The fellow giving the “thumbs up” worked for TK, the Japanese company that packed the salmon roe. The group was butchering the king salmon, which are too large to be processed by the machines. (Photo by Katherine Ringsmuth, 1988)


“Kristen,” he told me “is going to be at my place while I’m  gone. If it’s not too far out of the way, look in on her every now and then.”

“Sure,” I said, “Sure. Don’t worry.” 

“And,” he paused quite definitely, “if she’d want to do it with you...well, you know....it’s okay with me. I just want to let you know. Really..”

“It’s not going to happen, Rick,” I said. That young white woman, Kristen, that Rick spoke of was the girlfriend of Bobby Gomez. I don’t know exactly when she became the girfriend of Bobby Gomez. It could have been before, after, or during or all three of the times that Rick Wilson knew Kristen. This boyfriend was Romeo “Bobby” Gomez of the Philippines. He was a movie star there in the ‘60s and ‘70s. But somehow, because of a combination of fate, luck, character and bad judgments, regrettable decisions were made and he found himself in the salmon fishing canneries of Alaska and their nearby towns. Bobby Gomez worked as a slimer in the cannery, the Red Salmon Fish Company, across the river from us.

I got a postcard from Rick the Stick one time. Out of the blue. Hadn’t heard from him for years. In the card was a cut-off, folded copy of a poem I wrote and in that poem I had mentioned some shared experiences with Rick. He wrote on it saying,”I was taking a shit in a public restroom one day in Oregon, and I saw this cast aside in a corner and when I looked, it had a poem that you wrote. The poem wasn’t worth a fuck, but it’s nice to be remembered. Thanks. Rick, the Stick.”

There were some you only met in Seattle, before and after each season. They were going to different canneries, too far from each other. One usually had a week, give or take, between dispatch and actual departure to Alaska. Most would hang around Seattle because it would be cheaper and by that time everyone was almost broke. Once a person gets hired, he would sign papers upstairs of the Union Hall, then go on to the other side of downtown on Industrial Street, to take the medical. If you passed, and 95 percebt passed, you got a $50 advance the next morning to tide you over till departure. I have seen people spend that before the day was over. And I have seen many who did not make it to the airport. Seattle was the seat of Local 37, the Filipino-run union, and that was where people got hired.

They hung around the International District or Chinatown because the Union Building was on Main Street in that district. There were hotels there that my body has known, like one night stands, condemned when visited the next year, so you had to find another cheap hotel. The Bush Hotel, a regular alternative, was a pretty steady interim home for many a transient. Lots of Alaskeros stayed there. And the Reynolds, too. I used to invent names when checking into these hotels. Johnny Murder, I remember was one of them. Also, Shane X. Christmas. Who became a character in my play Followers Of the Seasons.

He played the town Idiot, if I recall correctly. Christopher Sunday was another. I was becoming the fiction I was creating from out of raw life. Maybe I just wished it so. My friends were complaining that they always had great difficulty in finding me for a pre-departure get together. I also had family in Seattle. I know. Who doesn’t have family in Seattle? I wanted to see them. That was one reason why I was glad for the week-long stay in Seattle. In a span of 15 consecutive years, a couple of times, I stayed less than a week, and  a couple of times I overstayed up to a month in that city.


The Cannery Workers Bunkhouse when it was newly constructed. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Libraries Heritage Resources of Western Washington University)

The Cannery Workers Bunkhouse when it was newly constructed. (Photo courtesy of the Center for Pacific Northwest Studies, Western Libraries Heritage Resources of Western Washington University)


The  Cannery Workers Bunkhouse as it looks now. Photo was taken during a visit to the cannery in spring 2018 by Katherine Ringsmuth.

The Cannery Workers Bunkhouse as it looks now. Photo was taken during a visit to the cannery in spring 2018 by Katherine Ringsmuth.


My first year of waiting in Seattle was agony. That’s another story altogether. My two friends from San Francisco and I waited for about three weeks. We did not know if we were going to get the job. Hanging around the Union Hall every day for those three weeks for possible openings, I was in a good position to view a lot of characters along with the comings and goings at the Union Hall.There was Jacksoon and Dooglas. I had seen them a couple of days before in the Union Hall on Main Street. I never thought they, two very old men, would make the physical in the Medical Exam Building.

They were at least 70 years old. I don’t know how they passed the exam, but I saw them walk out of the building doors and out into the Seattle wind leaning against each other as they walked and talked, perhaps shielding as well as holding each other up. After a moment, I was sure they passed for I thought I heard them singing Dahil Sa Iyo  or the up tempo march of Lupang Hinirang, the Philippine National Anthem. I never thought they would make it. On my first year, I had yet to set foot in Alaska and already I had my first lesson. Never underestimate a Manong. 

In Seattle, there was also Tony Moon. They called him Tony Moon because he had a moustache like Antonio Luna, long and curled up at the ends. He had a snake coiled around his neck, a live snake. In the  streets of urban Seattle. The area is now called the International District, but we did not call it that then. Just downtown, Chinatown, King Street, Jackson, or the Union Hall (Main Street). He liked to freak people out, this Tony Moon. Believe me, he did not have to have a snake, alive or a toy, to freak people out. He was a big Flip. Handsome and loud. Occasionally he liked to test me because I was tall. “Is this guy...who is this guy?  “ he would say jokingly, pointing at me but looking at the fellow he was asking.

But I was not sure whether it was said jokingly. “He’s Visayan. Waray,” my friend would tell him. “Oh,Yeah? I’m Visayan.” He would say. And he would test me by talking to me in Visaya. I didn’t know what kind of Visayan he was speaking, but I would answer in Waray. Somehow that convinced him. Actually his Visayan, whatever kind of Visayan it was, was the shits. But of course, I didn’t tell him that. He came up again in a conversation some years later. He had been killed. Murdered. I guess he tested one too many. Or tested the wrong person. Same with Tambok. Tambok was a Tagalog, a great orator and an ex-jailbird, convicted of larceny and possesssion (“possession op an ugly pace,” his friends would say).

He could and would talk about anything without breaking the flow of the music of the words he was saying. And occasionally when he would get stuck he would invent words, but not any old word, but words that sounded like you heard them before. I have tapes of his improvised monologues. I hope I can still find them. I’d let you listen to them. But I guess he fell too in love with words because he bullshitted too much. Abused his gift, as the old folks would say. They say he conned one too many listener. They found Tambok dead in a Reynold’s Hotel room, a knife stuck in his throat. He was very good with those Tagalog words, but I guess they were not good enough.

I was there 15 consecutive years, 15 consecutive summers. At about the seventh year, I finally had the discipline to bring a camera and take pictures. I pushed myself to take pictures of as many aspects of cannery life as I could. I took about 20 rolls of film. And I finished those 20 rolls, too. When I got back to Seattle,  a friend offered to develop the films free for me, all  of it, because he had just gotten some grant money for a project . I gave him all 20 rolls and I waited for the film. But I didn’t hear a word from him for a while. When after about a month had passed, I asked him. He said he had lost it.

He said he did not know what happened but the rolls of films along with some other items of his group just did not come back. I was crushed and I still am. But then I said to myself, “This is why you know you must write about them, that is why you hear me now, and that is also why I know that I will once again return to that distant land, though perhaps in a different time, when times have changed, because that’s the nature of time, and I don’t know which is more distant to me, the land or the time.”

The NN Cannery History Project is a grassroots public history endeavor that, through the historical lens of work, aims to share the oft-forgotten stories of the multitudes of laborers who canned salmon in Alaska and created an ethnically diverse, economically vital, cannery culture.

We are in the process of developing with the Alaska State Museum the exhibit, Mug Up, which will share the little-known stories of cannery people with visitors from around the world. If you would like to learn more about or get involved with the NN Cannery History Project, please contact director Katherine Ringsmuth at info@nncanneryproject.com, or visit our website at https://nncanneryproject.com/.

You can also find us on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/NNCannery/

Oscar Penaranda

Oscar Peñaranda is an educator, writer, and culture-bearer for and from both shores of the Pacific, and is a recipient of the prestigious Gawad Alagad ni Balagtas for lifetime achievement for his writings and endeavors. He currently sits on the board for the San Francisco Filipino Cultural Center.


Published on : 28/02/2019 by Papagei

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