When I was 14, my father contracted to build a log-worm fence west of Stanley, beside the then-new State Highway 21. He put me to work cutting 16-foot logs out of jumbled piles of lodgepole dozed from the right-of-way. It was hard and dangerous work, made more so when it rained 26 out of 30 days that June.
My work clothes were olive-drab rubberized pants and a matching hoodie, wet logging boots and slick wet cowhide gloves that made running a chainsaw more a matter of grip than skill. When the sun finally hit in July, I folded my rain gear, stowed it above the garage rafters and called it good riddance.
When I was 30--16 years being long enough to finally forget one rainy June--I signed on as the crew on a two-man gill-netter in Alaska's Bristol Bay. My work clothes were yellow rubberized overalls and a matching hoodie, rubber boots and fish-gripping gloves.
It was hard and dangerous work, made more so by the storms that swept in from the Bering Sea. Six of our fellow boats--their holds full of fish--sank in a storm where the waves rose higher than our 25-foot radio mast. We were lousy fishermen, so we bobbed around like a cork. A good thing, as we only had one survival suit between the captain and me. One of us would have drowned.
There were weeks of horizontal rain, days of being soaked inside my rain gear when I slipped and fell flat on a deck sloshing with two inches of fish slime. Back in Idaho, I folded my yellow suit, put it on top of the green one, and called it good riddance.
Last week Julie and I tossed out an enormous amount of torn and worn old clothes. I remembered the rain gear, and crawled up into the top of the garage. Both suits were cracked and useless. I added them to the rest of the load.
"I'm going to miss my good ol' rain gear," I told Julie as we entered the dump station.
"Good grief," she said. "You haven't worn it for 30 years. And it smells like rotten salmon."
"It reminds me of how little I've had to worry about rain in my life," I said. "It reminds me I didn't spend my life building log-worm fence or pulling salmon out of a net."
In truth, I enjoyed building fence, just not in the rain and not for a career. As for commercial fishing, for a long time after Alaska I got nervous just taking the shuttle boat across Redfish Lake. And having caught my lifetime quota of fish, I quit fishing altogether.
"Why hold onto things that remind you of what didn't happen?" Julie asked. Her questions are often designed to discourage theoretical conversation. It never stops me.
"That summer on the fence," I said, "picking up one end of a 300-pound log and loading it on a trailer--I was strong and getting stronger and thought there would be no end to it. And I got to be a Chainsaw Samurai. And in Alaska, after we had loaded a full load of fish into a tender, when we had hosed down the decks and the sky was clear and we were sitting on the deck with a bottle of wine, waiting for the tide to turn and broiling a couple of big salmon fillets, half asleep in the midnight sun, listening to Bette Davis Eyes and Another Brick in the Wall on the Dillingham radio station--even that life felt good."
"Life feels good right now--and we don't have to listen to pretentious Pink Floyd songs," said Julie. "Besides, you've got good rain gear."
I nodded. Two years ago, on a trip to Vietnam, we purchased Gore-Tex rain suits, light and compact enough to fit in our carry-ons. They stayed packed. No rain the whole trip.
No sense telling Julie I sometimes get up at 3 a.m. and listen to The Dark Side of the Moon three or four times on headphones. It's part of life feeling good now, of integrating an iffy and worrisome past with a present I am thankful for. Anyway, when Pink Floyd songs were brand-new, they didn't seem pretentious at all. Roger Waters could get away with a few cosmic lyrics, considering that Charley Manson had found a whole universe of meaning in the Beatles' White Album.
Hanging in my closet beside my unworn rain gear is another set of work clothes--my academic gown and mortarboard, still in good shape, worn once a year in a different kind of unlived life, one where all the fish get away and you build fence all week only to have someone tear it down on the weekends.
This time of year our Sirius Radio more or less continuously plays Pomp and Circumstance on its classical station. At the fast part in the middle, I do a little dance, celebrating my happily unlived lives: the commercial fisherman I never became, the professional fence builder I never became, the academic who refused to retire.
It's a ritual, a mute kinetic interpretation of the fact that any life floats precariously over unactualized thoughts, unfulfilled yearnings and barely ducked risks. I dance until the slow cadence of the march returns. Then I think about going outside, where a cold rain falls on an unraked lawn that reflects an unlived life as a landscaper. But there's tea water boiling on the woodstove, and Julie in the kitchen, starting dinner. There are more unlived lives to contemplate from the safety of the couch, as well as this one I'm living, which promises more happiness than all the rest of them put together.