Pure in heart, a star in the kitchen

On the waterfront

Posted: Friday, May 23, 2003

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

In "This Day in History," Jan. 17, the Empire reported that in 1956, the fish house of the Juneau Cold Storage was destroyed by fire. This did not include the loss of the freezer or the cold storage plant.

The event produced a memorable summer for me. Because the new fish house was not rebuilt in time for the halibut season of late spring and summer, it was decided to start the work day at night. The halibut boats were unloaded and the catch processed in the cool evening hours, to avoid the bright daytime sun.

Our work began at 6 p.m., with a 15-minute break at 8, and an hour lunch or dinner break at 10. We unloaded, usually, about 70,000 to 90,000 pounds per day, and finished at about 1:30 to 3 in the morning.

When you went for your lunch break at 10, you went down to the City Café, where Papa and Mama Tanaka might serve you, helped by Mr. Komatsabura and the Taguchi brothers. The restaurant was located on the corner close to the present Mount Roberts tram. It stayed open all night long.

One of my favorite fellow workers at the fish plant was Helen Sarabia, whose husband Ed was a salmon seiner and halibut fisherman. She was born in 1926 in Douglas, of a long family of residents Her uncle, Frank Wilson, 82, still lives there.

When she was 14, Helen moved to Hoonah, where she met her husband. They were married in Juneau in 1943 by a famous Juneau lawyer, Mike Monagle, who was serving as a judge at the time.

Helen and Ed had eight children. Barbara is no longer living, but son Norman works in Juneau for the Marine Engineer's Beneficial Association, and Edward lives in Connecticut; daughters Gloria, retired from state service, Teresa and Virginia live in Juneau; Melissa is a college student at Seattle University, and Patricia lives in Auburn, Wash.

One of Helen's great experiences was going out on her husband's boat, the Alert, from 1982 to 1984, where she served as cook, to feed a crew of eight, including herself. She said that the old Tlingit custom kept the women at a distance from the actual fishing, so it was special to her as she and her husband grew older, to be involved in the exciting business of seining for salmon.

The season started around Hoonah, then they went to Sitka, and finished in the late summer in Ketchikan. She cooked on a small oil stove, but was saved by her husband, who installed an electric current to a rice cooker. Once she stopped in Tenakee, famous for its salmon berries covering both sides of the trail, and she picked a big bucket for the crew to enjoy.

Helen always acted with such dignity and kindness, that, as a fellow worker, I think the biblical saying applies to her, that blessed are the pure in heart.

• 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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