The Art of Island Conversation

By Timothy Smith

Long time Kodiak island residents are champion talkers. A visitor who spends any time around local Kodiak residents or stays for awhile in one of the island villages will soon become aware of this inescapable trait. In fact, many rural residents of the Kodiak archipelago possess a spontaneous rhetorical style and a command of colorful local expressions reminiscent of something penned by Mark Twain or Joel Chandler Harris. There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that old timers were deprived of the canned entertainment of satellite TVs and rented videos, and had to entertain each other with local legends, gossip about relatives or humorous asides about recent local events. As a young boy in Ouzinkie, one of my favorite things was to visit the Opheims down the island in Pleasant Harbor and have a talk. In the days before the Tidal Wave we would be frequent visitors to the Opheimís place, and I would sit spellbound while the adults would swap stories. Several recent books by Ed provide a rare opportunity to enjoy some of his tales in print, but I can vouch that his late wife Anna was his equal at storytelling. The many happy visits around her kitchen table helped me learn to cherish the wonderful stories and colorful oratory of the islands.

Old Homes in Ouzinkie, 1974

In the days before prefab government housing invaded the villages, the typical native wood frame house did not even contain a living room. In its place, homes had large kitchens, and family life centered around the cookstove and a large, oilcloth-covered dining table. If there was room, there might be a small davenport along one wall, used mainly for housing guests or as a place for the young kids to jump around on while the adults talked. And talk they would. The ritual of coming over to a neighborís house for a "cup of coffee" typically involved the partaking of fresh bread, garnished liberally with canned Dairigold butter and homemade salmonberry preserves, in addition to a generous sampling of the host familyís home-smoked baleek (smoked salmon). Stiff, grounds-laden coffee from ancient percolators and steaming hot "chai" from battered teakettles would flow freely (cigarettes and beer optional). The stories would fly and voices would rise and fall in a cadence impossible to duplicate in print, as the eager participants alternately shared hearty laughter or solemn head shaking and tongue clicking, as the subject required. And of course, the object of the game, aside from the obvious enjoyment of neighborly company, was a subtle but definite contest of one-upsmanship, as the best storytellers from each family would vie for the most creative way of getting the other family caught up on the latest news. Likely as not, the visit would extend into dinnertime, and the host would scurry off to butcher a can of Spam and continue the festivities. And when, much later, the participants parted, the visiting family would leave behind a jar of freshly-made cranberry jelly they just happened to bring along, and the host family would insist that the somehow uneaten pie hiding in the cupboard just had to go home with their guests. The carefully washed pie dish would make a perfect calling card for a repeat visit.

The rural style of conversation was not limited to the warm and cozy environment of the kitchen table. In every chance meeting on the dock or along the beach the same rules of rhetoric would apply. Even today, many a rural Kodiak islander will bend your ear with unbelievable skill if given half a chance. Under no circumstance will an experienced village storyteller content himself with going logically from point one to point two. With great flourish, the storyteller will spend time with you in a way that few adults steeped in modern culture have the skill or inclination to do. It can be taken for granted that you will be treated to a tale filled with so much hyperbole and colorful metaphor as to make your head spin. But in your rural friend you will find a listener of such sincere focus that even a paid psychologist could not hope to duplicate it. Not that the local loregivers look like they are talking or listening to you; instead, experienced communicators look past each other, out the window, down the channel or anywhere other than straight into each otherís eyes. One of my clearest memories of village life is the way a small group of conversants, sitting on the dock or a porch or the side of a skiff will stare off in roughly the same direction, while paying complete and enthusiastic attention to each other. I have seen this verified in old photos. At appropriate points in the discussion, when a question needs an answer, or when the speaker needs a good-natured verbal ribbing, the listeners will make direct, intense, brief eye contact, then lapse back into seeming preoccupation with some object in the distance.

A group of Ouzinkie men conversing, 1965

I suppose such a culturally natural manner is hard for a newcomer to adopt. It is certainly hard to shake once it has been absorbed. Imagine my chagrin when, as a village-raised young adult, I found it my lot to interview for a job in a formal, South-48 setting. The prospective boss asked the inevitable questions about my life and interests, and I found myself immediately staring out the window, appearing for all the world to be talking to a bird in the tree. It was literally painful and distracting to wrench my gaze back to the interviewer. Likewise there are times when I launch into some colorful description of a recent event, and my uninitiated listeners start giving me that "how old will I be when you finish this story" look, and I have to struggle to regain the required Yankee brevity.

Although missing something in print, it may be possible for me to replicate the vocabulary and stylistic elements of local storytelling. There are some creative components that are common in all the stories. The first characteristic is a delicate self-deprecation, which allows the speaker an easy and painless way of explaining a goof-up while heading off any potential criticisms from the listeners. Once, a South End fisherman named Eddie told Dad and me about an experience he had while giving his little seiner a fresh coat of copper bottom paint. It went something like this: "Yeah, I found a good spot on the beach and brought the boat in when the tide was starting to go out. I ran the boat up on the beach and waited for her to roll over. As soon as I could walk around her I started scraping. I barely touched her and two planks fell right out of the bottom. Just missed my boots on the way down, too. I was staring right up at daylight through the bottom of the boat. I thought she was leaking a little more than usual before I beached her!" At that, Eddie roared with laughter, repeating the line about "Two planks fell right out!" What this little story did not include was the chilling reality, lost on none of us at the time, that if her seams had opened up while he was far from shore, Eddie might have quickly been one of the many new residents of Davy Jonesí Locker. The implicit blame that Eddie bore in seafaring culture for not taking better care of his boat was blunted by the humorous spin of his tale. Also absent from the story, but in the local shorthand easy to assume, was that Eddie had spent an extra long time with boat nails and a caulking gun before he ever dared float his little seiner again. It would be no exaggeration to assume that Eddieís boat spent that season with the tightest, most seaworthy hull of the fleet! Dad, not having any good beaching stories handy, and not being inclined to cast aspersions on another seafarerís plight, laughed heartily and moved on to the next subject of conversation, thus completing the cycle of confession and absolution.

Jenny telling a story, 1996

Another important element in village storytelling is to pretend that you donít know as much as you really do, to keep your audience guessing or allow the listeners to read between the lines, and of course to achieve maximum humorous effect. A master of this style of talespinning was Jenny, a dear friend of mine who was like another grandma to me in my early years in Ouzinkie. I had the great honor of visiting her on several occasions in the 1990s, when she was well over ninety years old. She welcomed our family into her astonishing little cottage, a rare remnant of cozy old village homes with its low ceilings, small rooms and cheery "kelleydoor" sun porch filled with brilliant potted flowers. As we gazed appreciatively at the reverent corner of beautiful icons and the sideboards laden with a collection of great-grandkid photos and colorful knicknacks, my gaze fell on a television, a seeming incongruity in the time warp. Jenny caught the irony of my ensuing questions immediately. "Oh, I donít like the TV," she averred. "Thereís too many no good things on it. I saw two grown men just jumping on each other. They were throwing each other around and stepping on each other. I couldnít understand why the crowd was cheering when people were beating up each other. It was horrible. I got up and shut it off. No good stuff on that TV." Jenny shuddered dramatically and paused for maximum impact, witnessing our faces as we visualized the image of a nonagenarian village matriarch watching World Federation Wrestling for the first time. Presently she added, "But I do like Barney the purple dinosaur!" Then she admitted that she was a regular watcher of The Golden Girls, letting us know that our legs had just been thoroughly pulled. Knowing Jenny as I did, I should not have been surprised that she would not only be able to figure out the TV culture, but also keep herself distant from it.

Jenny possessed a warm-hearted, teasing spirit that got her labelled by some impatient locals as a grouch. Always playful, yet with a mastery of the deadpan delivery, Jenny could almost fool you into thinking she was complaining, when in fact her meaning was quite the opposite. I must admit that it took me quite a while to figure her out. As it turns out, all the Old Timers whom I remember most fondly from my school days in Ouzinkie shared similar personality traits. On the occasion of my visit with my family in 1996, it was the first time I had seen her in over twenty years. She greeted my mom, who was nearing her eightieth birthday at the time, as "My Girl", then promptly began complaining loudly to me about a photo I had surreptitiously taken of her back in 1976. In this way I was led to understand that if I took a few more pictures it would be ok. Understatement and implication were always her fortť, as when one day in the mid-1970s I chanced to visit her. She looked me up and down and said matter-of-factly in her soft village brogue, "Hey Timmy, ever since you come back from college I hardly recognize you. Pretty soon you get bride?" Her deadpan facial expression and abrupt change of subject did not fool me, for it was Jennyís affectionate and grandmotherly way of saying, "I like the way you are growing up. Who will be the lucky girl that gets you?" She passed away in December of 1997, and I feel the loss acutely.

The champion talker will of course incorporate all the rhetorical elements I mentioned and invent a few more. Some of the most memorable talkers also exhibit a less-than-definite hold on conventional reality (often as part of the storytellerís persona). Talkers of this type may reserve their best stories for total strangers, because acquaintances are wise to their verbal shenanigans, or may know the chemical circumstances behind some of the more lurid tales. With that in mind, I present to you the story of a man I met some time ago whom I shall call "One-Eyed Ted" (name changed for obvious reasons). This individual in the span of about fifteen minutes bent my ear and blew my mind as few have ever done. It was an unusually hot day for the Kodiak area, with the temperature near eighty with high humidity and no breeze. I was hiking on a nearby island, and headed through some dense forest toward a beach I knew. Even the mossy shade of the woods was no solace from the warmth, and when I reached the beach, I was thoroughly drowsy. You may suspect my recollections as a result; certainly I was no match at the time for the oratory which I was soon to experience. I decided to wait on the beach, because some of my friends were going to join me there. I watched an eagle doing a few lazy fly-bys and soon fell fast asleep.

When I awoke, I noticed that I was not alone, for there was a figure of a man walking in my direction. I got up slowly from behind the log which partially obscured me, careful to gradually announce my presence so as not to invade his privacy. The rules of encounter in such cases are that if you wish to remain incognito (the privacy of your walk being interrupted already by the presence of another) you may wave and continue on your way without troubling each other. Ted was of the mind to make contact, and so ambled up to me. He was of about my height, with a long shock of whitish hair, a scraggly gray beard and a tight pair of old blue jeans which were held up with a belt and an enormous buckle. I mention this because somewhere in his travels, Ted had abandoned his shirt, revealing a large barrel chest. He looked at me intently, revealing that he had once lost an eye in a misadventure that I am not party to. We approached each other until we reached the armís-length distance that is favored for having a talk, and he began to speak.

"Youíre not one of them religious guys that doesnít smoke are you? I need a smoke." Such pleasantries aside, Ted launched into an explanation of his activities on the beach. "I walk on the beach to stay in shape," he declared, pulling in his chest with all his might. Presently he exhaled mightily, and the chest exploded back into its previous dimensions, an exercise he thankfully did not bother to repeat. I politely occupied my attention with a boat in the distance. "I like looking up and down the beach for useful stuff. I find a nice piece of driftwood I could use, and I carry it for awhile, then I find a better one, so I throw the first one away. You know, by the time I get back home I got nothiní in my hands!" As I was processing this, I noted his hands, one of which was partially wrapped with a crude bandage. As if in anticipation of my next question, Ted continued: "Oh, I chopped the end off my thumb with an ax." He gesticulated in the general manner of one who has just accidentally guillotined an appendage, as if his words would not suffice. "Didnít have any ice to put it in, so I just threw it away." Again he acted out his words, tossing an imaginary thumb into the underbrush. I mumbled something about doing something, and he waved me off. "Oh, donít worry about it! Itís gone now, anyway. I started to get worried about my thumb, what with that bone hanging out and all, so I rode into town. I got tired of looking down at that bone. They were real happy to see me in the emergency room. The nurse said she wanted to carve off a piece of my butt and stick it on my thumb. I looked at her and said, ĎLook, Iím sixty-six years oldówhat do I need a pretty thumb for?í" At this, he stood up straight, looked me in the eye and appeared to be on the verge of another diaphragm-sucking maneuver, but apparently thought the better of it. Before I could finish visualizing his word picture about the reconstructive surgery, he was off again with his narrative: "That nurse said thank you for coming and gave me all kinds of peroxide, mercurochrome, iodine, Clorox and such to put on it, and sent me home." At this he raised his hand and tentatively wiggled his bandage. "Should heal up pretty good. You sure you donít have any smokes?" With that he turned on his heel, picked up a nearby piece of driftwood, and walked down the beach. As I walked back through the woods, my thoughts remained captive to his tale, and to this day, the longer I think about it, the worse it gets. Such is the skill of a master storyteller.

Written by Timothy Smith, web author. See the About Me page for more information. Always feel free to send me comments, suggestions or corrected information about this article or any of the articles on this site. (Write to: Tanignak@aol.com) This article and website is © 2005 Timothy L. Smith, Tanignak Productions, 14282 Tuolumne Court, Fontana, California, 92336 (909) 428 3472. Images unless otherwise listed are from the collection of Rev. Norman L. Smith or the Timothy L. Smith collection. This material may be used for non-commercial purposes, with attribution. Please email me with any specific requests. You are welcome to link to this site.

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