John Hansen

Up in Naknek by John A. Hansen | Hippocampus Magazine

You’re one among over 700. Typically, we don’t see your faces. Bandanas shield noses, cheeks, lips from the dry chill, from the salt in the air, from the stench of the fish. But I see yours. You aren’t sporting a bandana.

Skin, dark and chapped. Eyes, bloodshot. A dim warmth, though, someplace behind the weathered layer. You seem like a dad.

Purple pants, yellow rain jacket, blue apron, green gloves. My garb matches. Everyone’s does. Commonplace-issue. It’s less than 32° Fahrenheit in here, in the processing plant. The fish should remain cold, recent, worthwhile. Water, tinged crimson, dripping down each floor, coats the floor an inch or so deep. It jogs my memory of Jaws.

The platform we stand on, I can’t see it. It seems like we are floating on a rug of mashed salmon organs, tissue, roe — a morbid magic carpet. My breath fogs up my safety glasses. Numbness overcomes my toes.

I don’t understand how lengthy you’ve been up here, sorting fish into two rows, tails dealing with in, on the metallic tray between us. I don’t even know your identify. I need to ask. However I doubt you might hear me over the rumble and clanking and thumping of the monstrous silver slaughter machines. I additionally doubt you converse English. A lot of the processors don’t.

Likelihood is, mainland America is overseas to you. Silver Bay Seafoods harvests a considerable chunk of its workforce from Puerto Rico. A handful of staff think about Africa — Nigeria, Kenya, Liberia — residence. Others, Japanese Europe. What country are you from?

Even in the event you might hear me, perceive me, we’re instructed to not interact. Management — the Johns, we name them, as a result of each single one in every of them is an unpalatable 60-something man named John — explicitly tells us to not speak to you. It makes issues simpler, they declare, to only permit human assets to talk to you. I’m wondering why.

5 weeks in the past, once I landed in Naknek, a 500-person village sustained by salmon canneries and accessible only by aircraft, none of you had arrived. Hundreds of thousands of salmon, nonetheless busy chugging up the southeast Alaskan coast, hadn’t flooded into Bristol Bay. All the bunkhouses sat empty. Silence occupied the plant as an alternative.

“Welcome to Hell.” Cyrus, one of many dust-covered foremen with the beginning baby bump of a beer belly, greeted me in this warm, welcoming means. His bandana scraped towards unshaven chin as he exposed his face. A sickeningly sadistic smile crept from ear to ear, like he was a fraternity brother getting ready to haze a new pledge. He thought I was a processor; he must get a kick out of saying this to all of you, seeing your faces. Perhaps it’s a solution to weed you out, eliminate the weak ones early. Nonetheless, I corrected him.

But, if you arrived, you didn’t right him. You couldn’t. Cyrus’s grin taunted you, his assertion frightened you. And now you’re sorting fish — fish ripped open, fish gutted, fish with their blood vessels torn out, decapitated fish, fish whose tails have been chopped off, eggs-extracted fish — in Hell. Both of us are.

I’m a university scholar, though, a sophomore. I’m cooped up in the workplace, answering phones, submitting papers. My boss, your boss, is my uncle. Everybody calls him “Coach.” I call him Chris. Only for tonight will I be on the ground of the plant — properly, above it, I assume, on this Halloween decoration of a platform. I couldn’t inform you how lengthy you’re going to be here. I wish I might. It’s not my name.

You’re on C shift — 2:00 p.m. to six:30 a.m.. Two 15-minute breaks, reduce brief more often than not, divide the labor. Rumor has it, they run about five minutes. No less than you get a stale cookie and a few too-hot-to-drink watered-down espresso to tide you over until you get pulled off the road.

After standing for 14 and a half hours, foremen change out processors at 6:30 a.m. Besides you shortly study that they don’t, particularly when peak season hits. Foremen shove extra processors in wherever they fit, bumping up the variety of fillets cleaned, frozen, sealed, and shipped. It’s not a secret. However no one will admit to it.

What if my coworkers overlook me in here, desert me just like the foremen do? I advised them to return grab me at 10:00 p.m.. But they may not keep in mind. A wave of telephone calls from our fleet might out of the blue swamp the workplace. Will you be here, opening the tiny gate to the river of lifeless fish, pushing a gentle stream of slimy our bodies to stream onto our tray, and then sorting away? Will you be here to help me carry the tray back onto the rack? With all of the sockeye on it, my arms falter.

My practice of thought derails because the tray of 20 or so corpses slips out of the stabilizing latch, crashing down on my left foot. The headless, tailless fish hit the platform, sliding off in all directions. I step on considered one of them in my haste to attempt to catch the others. Processors around me don’t flinch, don’t stare, don’t help. I don’t blame them. Foremen terminate processors who abandon their publish, trapping them in Naknek. Silver Bay normally covers processors’ flights residence, which easily exceed $1,200 a bit. But not should you’re fired. Or for those who give up.

A thumb pops into my periphery as yet one more fish slithers out of my grip. I flip my head — it’s your thumb. It’s a thumbs-up. A question or a press release? You level to my foot. It’s a question: “Are you okay?” I reply, with an similar thumbs-up assertion, adopted by a nod: “I am okay.”

Kindness. The tundra right here is so wealthy in minerals, full of something from gold to mammoth fossil. Salmon clog the rivers. Exploited oil fields just some hundred miles north fill the world’s wallets and fuel tanks. However Alaska lacks one useful resource: kindness. Revenue comes first. You’re here, although. Life dealt you an exceptionally unfortunate hand of cards. You need cash, a mattress, some meals. That’s why you’re here, in this inhumane place, regardless of being human.

However did you know about what happens here earlier than you boarded that flight? Concerning the cold, harsh dangers of this chilly, harsh place?

Individuals lose issues here — on function and by accident. So tempting are these mini fish guillotines to a processor who misses their family but whose bank account can’t take the blow of a flight house. A fast slip of a finger or two down the conveyor belt, underneath the protective hood, and into that piscine execution chamber grants them medical depart: a free ticket out of Hell.

What concerning the recurrent security violations? A Google search of “Silver Bay Seafoods,” and you’d have unearthed the Puerto Rican authorities’s investigation and the failed inspections carried out by the Occupational Safety and Well being Administration (OSHA). Data of the absence of moveable hearth extinguishers, detrimental publicity to ammonia, potassium hydroxide, and phosphoric acid, electrical shock hazards, and important infractions of kit security would have popped up right in front of you.

Yes, OSHA fined Silver Bay. $28,925. A one-hundredth of a % of the corporate’s $220 million worth. And it cannot be ignored that the one purpose they did examine was because the governor of Puerto Rico personally requested them to, after hearing about what had happened to his individuals.

You may need discovered the uncorroborated, however however disturbing, ex-employee testimonials concerning the armed guards surrounding the plant one summer time. Semi-automatic weapons fenced the processors in.

Another article or two concerning the infamous “King Salmon Inn” might have resulted, as nicely. KSI, because it’s referred to, is an abandoned motel-turned-bunkhouse purchased by Silver Bay Seafoods. The only drawback is that it’s falling apart — mould climbing up the walls, mattress shortages, a pathetic trickle of operating water laced with heavy metals. KSI can also be plopped right in the center of a forest grizzly bears contemplate house. A rickety faculty bus shuttles the motel’s overworked friends 17 miles to work and 17 miles again to their humble abode. I only drove there as soon as. Everyone was drunk and/or excessive on whatever they might snort, drink, or chew. It was midday.

Did you know that you simply wouldn’t have the ability to name your loved ones? Your cellphone doesn’t work up right here. I’m positive you’ve figured that out by now. Down the street a mile and a half, you possibly can shell out $150 at Naknek Trading and get a useful SIM card. That’s the place the one well being clinic in city is, too. Bears and lynx cross that street all day long, although. And for those who’re not working, you’re sleeping or eating, not going for a stroll. Theoretically, the landlines up in the workplace would instantaneously connect you to the decrease 48. The Johns explicitly forbid it, nevertheless. Their want is our command, but their command is definitely not our wish.

I didn’t find out about all of this before I obtained on that aircraft, either. I had no concept. No one advised me. Not even my uncle. Ashamed of the business? Perhaps. He talks to all of you, befriends you, even sneaks into the plant typically to assist out. Pumping “dog food” – the Pepto Bismol-colored purée of heads, tails, and organs – is his job of selection. The Johns decided to switch him from Naknek to False Move, 361 miles away.

We finish a rack, only for a couple of moments, although. You hurriedly stretch your arms, in preparation for the subsequent set. However you only loosen your left arm earlier than 10 trays stop at our station and lock in place. Your thumb presses the inexperienced button, elevating the rack to our peak. A rhythm materializes in our sorting. Slide the tray out. Click into the stabilizing latch. Open the gate. Tails inward. No overlap. Slide again onto the rack. Repeat.

You would have ended up in the strawberry fields of Central California. They sit proper next to the highways. Wandering eyes on a 110° day might land on you. You, sporting long pants, two layers of long-sleeve shirts, and heavy gloves, all to protect your skin from the tough pesticides, fertilizers, simultaneously cooking you.

Or you may have been somewhat extra hidden, behind partitions, in the slaughterhouses of the Midwest. Eviscerating hogs, cows, chickens, ducks, no matter comes your approach. You’d see your breath, wince with every repetitive movement, simply as you do here in Naknek. The difference arrives whenever you clock out. On the mainland, you would go away. You’d go house. There can be docs, too, no less than someone that will help you.

But there isn’t any one here, up in Naknek. No one can see via the blue tin partitions from the Alaskan Peninsula Freeway, which is sparsely used as it’s. Nearly all of the population here is rather like you — processors. So, you’ll stand right here, for an additional I don’t know what number of hours, arranging I don’t know how many fish, together with your pleas for assist imprisoned in your mind, muffled by the roaring.

Meet the Contributor

john-hansenJohn A. Hansen is a nonfiction scholar in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He has also lived in California, Ohio, Texas, West Virginia, and Alaska. Writing for social justice, as well as science and medical writing, all intrigue him. This is his first publication.

STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Artistic Commons/Kirsi L-M

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