Fishermen remembered - what a gathering it would be

On the Waterfront

Posted: Friday, April 25, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends." - John 15-13.

It is humbling to stand before the Fishermen's Memorial by the Taku Smokeries plant, to view the names of men and women who have pursued a livelihood from the sea. If this group could by magic reassemble, most of them would know each other, respect one another, and would have a good time together.

One image comes to mind, of Ernest Shackelton, the great Antarctic explorer, after crossing an 800-mile tempestuous ocean from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island on the tiny boat, the James Caird, and then with two companions, crossing the mountains of South Georgia to the Norwegian whaling station, he was then treated to a dinner celebration. One by one the great Norwegian whaling captains came up to shake his hand. Can you imagine our gathering of men and women on the Fishermen's Memorial at a similar time of celebration.

Remembrance has a vivid meaning. In his novel "War and Remembrance," Herman Wouk tells a romantic tale, but he offers an historical message as well.

After his description of the Midway battle, he lists the members of the American torpedo squadrons, who scored no hits on the Japanese carriers, who were almost all destroyed by the Japanese fighter escorts, but in the process of sacrificing their lives, drew the fighter cover down so that the American dive bombers could succeed. Wouk says in the few short years since World War II and the publication of his book that it was difficult to find even the names of these men from the records, and so he has memorialized them for all time, as long as readers take up his book.

Looking at the names on the Fishermen's Memorial, one stands out. His name is Rick Nelson. He lived in Thane with his mother and dad. His mother, Georgia, was a school teacher. His neighbor, Margo Lewis, remembers him as a wonderful person.

In the early 1970s, I was spending the summers running a cold storage plant in Yakutat. In the winters I was in Juneau, working out of a tiny office in the Valentine Building. Often Rick Nelson would come by and he and I would talk about the fish business.

On Oct. 26, 1977, he was fishing for crab in Icy Straits. He had one deckhand, but, unfortunately, he had taken only one survival suit abroad. They ran into trouble. Imagine, that he had no thought in his mind except the urgency of the water coming up and the need to act. What did he say? "Get in the suit," to the deck hand. "Hurry." She survived. Rick did not.

Remember to celebrate the men and women on the Fishermen's Memorial, but, especially, to a man, who had no greater love than this, that he gave up his life for a friend.

• Elton Engstrom is a lifelong Alaskan, retired fish-buyer, lawyer and legislator (1964-70) who lives in Juneau. He can be reached at 586-1655.

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