Elder remains homeless after his boat sinks in Auke Bay

Hero boat cat saves his master's life

Posted: Wednesday, December 05, 2007

While the rest of us lay in our warm, dry beds dreaming of turkey and good times with friends and family in the early morning hours last Thursday, Tom Carpenter was woken up by his faithful boat cat, Princess. Her important message? "Abandon ship boss, the boat is sinking!"

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Carpenter groggily swung his feet out to hit the deck and stepped down into shockingly cold Auke Bay water up to his knees, and it was rising fast. He grabbed his pants and coat, climbed out onto the dock and five seconds later, his grubby old yellow 26-foot home for more than 15 years slipped quietly into the deep blue seas. As deep and blue as it gets at the bottom of the ramp at Auke Bay Harbor, that is.

Assistant Auke Bay Harbormaster Greg Craig called me at home at 7:30 a.m. Thanksgiving Day to relay the sad news.

"Tom's old boat sank a few minutes ago, taking everything he owns with it, but we saved Tom and we saved Princess the cat," Craig said.

Craig had arrived on the scene a few minutes earlier and heard Princess crying out for help from inside the small portion of cabin that remained above water. Thinking quickly, he grabbed a crowbar and smacked the cabin window, breaking it into a million tiny bits. What happened next was fairly amazing, according to Craig.

"That little kitty ran right across the top of the water in the flooded cabin to get to the opening where the window used to be, shot out that hole and leaped into the arms of a passing stranger, all without getting so much as a paw wet!" Craig said.

The bottom line though, was that Carpenter and his cat had just become homeless in less than a minute, after living in Auke Bay Harbor for more than 30 years. As if that weren't enough, he had a minor oil spill to clean up and a sunken boat full of 15 years' accumulation of clothing, heaters, battery chargers and fishing gear to deal with.

I first met Carpenter some 25 years ago in Auke Bay Harbor, when I was running fishing charter boats. Back then he lived on the Peggy II, his green 36-foot bow picker rigged for gill netting.

To avoid paying moorage, he anchored out just inside the green harbor entry pilings, out in front of the condos. He would come and go daily in his skiff with outboard power when it would run, and by rowing when it would not. He was a shy, elderly fellow, who didn't have much use for people in general. If it wasn't for the day I tuned up his little outboard, we may never have become friends.

After that, we would get together occasionally for an after-work toddy. Those sittings were some of the best, most educational and entertaining hours I ever spent, since Carpenter devoted many hours to showing my deck hands, other skippers and me, "how the old timers do it," and he even went as far as to mark the best hot spots to fish in pencil on our charts.

Once he opened up, Carpenter had a lot of very strong opinions about a lot of things. So strong in fact, he spent a great deal of time on his CB radio late at night, providing an ongoing narrative about government, liars, and anything else that came up.

Before long, Carpenter became well known as our very own version of Rush Limbaugh, decades before that genre of talk radio was invented. Many of us affectionately called him "Radio Free Auke Bay." It wasn't long before we figured out that one of his pet peeves was us charter operators taking small halibut, which became obvious after we spent hundreds of hours fishing those so-called "hot spots" without catching so much as a cold.

One time I confronted him about this and he just laughed and said, "Free advice is worth what you pay for it!" The joke was on us.

Over the next 20 years or so, a few of us harbor regulars made an effort to get to know him better and as we did, his history took shape and it was not pretty.

After serving in the U.S. Army, Carpenter spent an entire career as a middle school science teacher here in Juneau. But he got fired only days before retirement "for being late to work." They handed him a severance check for little more than a month's pay. Anybody over 40 who grew up in Juneau probably spent at least some time in a class taught by Carpenter, and they all say he was the best teacher they ever had. Many of his students were so inspired by his unique and effective teaching methods that they became teachers themselves.

Opinions vary on the subject, and only Carpenter knows for sure, but how does a man devote an entire career to teaching only to end up homeless, broke and barely surviving?

At some point, he sold his Southeast gillnet permit on a payment plan. As was the custom at the time, he did so with a handshake and a small down-payment, and he has been trying to collect the balance due ever since. Around four years ago, he retained a local law firm to either get the permit back or collect. They have managed to take the buyer's dividend once a year and succeeded in recording a lien on the guy's house, which has generated a couple of small payments. Those minor windfalls were Carpenter's only income until he recently signed up for social security. The net result is, the man lives on an annual income equal to a month's salary for most of us.

In the days that followed the disaster, Carpenter discovered who his real friends were. Less than an hour after the sinking, Red Cross director Reid Bowman dispatched Linda Wahl to the scene to make sure Carpenter would be okay.

Using Red Cross emergency funding she bought him a week's stay at the Super 8 Motel, and gave him a debit card with enough money to get new clothing and winter boots. Co-Manager Mitch at Super 8 gave Carpenter a special rate reserved for victims of disaster, well below the regular rate.

Carol Young, manager of DeHart's Auke Bay Store and Tom's good friend, has set out a coffee can to collect contributions, and she has bought several nights' lodging at the motel.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Liberty, Carpenter's Auke Bay neighbor for the last few decades, passed the hat and gave Tom another debit card to help. Iryna Weafer, of St. Vincent DePaul; Stan Marsten, of Alaska Housing Finance Corporation; and Robert Martin, of Southeast Senior Services, are working hard to find Carpenter an opening at senior housing. Bob Clauder, Craig, Doug Unruh and the rest of the Auke Bay staff all pitched in to help in various ways.

Other major contributors are Captain Don Kubely, of Alasa International Marketing and family; Alfie Cook, of Cook Construction; Doug Trucano, of Trucano Construction; and Mark Brooks, of MB Services. Cook, Trucano and Brooks coordinated with Auke Bay Harbor personnel to raise, pump out and haul the wrecked boat to Trucano's boat yard where it awaits disassembly and disposal.

So hey people, this is a wakeup call. Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to support our elders, especially when they are in need.

Carpenter still needs contributions to continue to pay for his room at the Super 8 until his aprtment is ready about Dec. 15 at Senior Housing. So please make a contribution at DeHart's Store or help by bringing their contributions directly to the Super 8.

And if you need to find some new fishing holes, bring your chart to the Super 8 and ask Carpenter to break out his pencil. This way you'll be able to learn a few great places to not fish.

• Jon Stetson is self-employed marine mechanic for Channel Marine Services.

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