The Summer of '56: A memoir

Published on Wed, Aug 6, 2014 by Michael J Hicks

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Graduation day for me was June 1, 1956. My mother drove down with my pal Ralph Prosceno to my school, St. Martins High School, near Olympia, to see me walk across the stage and get my diploma as a high school senior. Getting to graduate wasn’t a walk in the park for me but here it was; it was actually happening. I didn’t have any brothers, or sisters, or cousins, or aunts, or uncles or even a full-time steady girlfriend but I had that diploma and it was something important. A big step into the world and adult freedom which I was looking forward to. 

I had my bags packed and after spending a part of the day with the celebration and goodbyes, we headed to Seattle in Mom’s 1955 Pontiac. I hadn’t lived at home for two years. During the school year, I would visit my mother one week-end a month after I hitchhiked the 60 miles back home. She would drive me back to St. Martins on Sunday. 

I would stay at her house in the summer months unless I was working a little job somewhere else. My mother gave me $100
 for graduation and that was supposed to mainly pay for a one-button-roll powder blue suit. Well, during the next few days, I partied like a fool and blew the entire wad of money like a drunken sailor. 

I had gotten a tip about a summer job from a friend of mine’s dad, who told me to hightail it up to Bellingham, where I could possibly get a job working as a commercial fisherman. I cranked up my ’47 Desoto and headed to Bellingham to meet Mister Halgair Dahl. We sat and talked for about a half hour. Mister Dahl explained to me in detail what the job was, what I was expected to do and all the things he expected from me as a person. I could tell he was sizing me up every minute this conversation went on. When we were finished talking he said to me, “You look like you might be able to do the job – do you happen to have two friends in pretty good shape that could come up to Point Roberts with you and work for the summer?”

I told Mister Dahl I was pretty sure I could get two but they went to public school and didn’t graduate until June 8. He said, “OK, you and your two friends be at the old cannery at Point Roberts on the 10th, ready to work hard and bring good rubber hip boots, a bucket hat and a pair of Polaroid sunglasses.” I said fine and headed back to Seattle feeling real good about things. 

While driving the 90 miles back to Seattle, I had a good idea who I was going to ask if they wanted to work up there for the summer. Jobs for young people back then were a little different than in today’s world. We didn’t have the junk food places we have today. 

A lot of the jobs were rural and would involve going to eastern Washington and working in the harvest. I had worked one week in Moxee the summer before, bucking hay with my good friend Lyle Brulotte. 

As a city boy, I found out fast what hard work really was. I had applied for a job in a Chevron station more than once. You wore the white shirt with the black bow tie and the job paid $1.25 an hour back then, which was real good. I never got the call. 

I had decided I would first ask my friend Bill Spur if he wanted to go up to Point Roberts and work all summer. I had known Bill less than two years, didn’t see him all that much but we had good chemistry. He lived a long block from my mother’s house on 95th and Sand Point Way behind the family Signal service station. He went to Lincoln High School. He had a solid family and his dad was the very first person to take the time to tell me what to do when working on cars. He was an old fashioned straight shooter, just like my grandpa had been all the years I grew up under his roof before he passed away in August, 1954. After I had explained everything that Mister Dahl had conveyed to me, Bill was real high on going up for the job. So that was a lock, and we planned to go up on the ninth to be there by the 10th, ready to work. 

I drove out to my old neighborhood in Highland Park, where I was raised, and looked up my longtime friend, Tom Weirmac, to tell him about the job and see if he wanted to go up and work. He was graduating from West Seattle High School. Tom thought it was a great idea but we had a little problem there. Tommy lived in a normal family situation but his mother had always hated me. 

She had this fantasy of me being a thug, which wasn’t true at all, and it was totally based on the fact I lived in a broken home, which was bad, bad, bad in her eyes. Tom would always say, “My mother says you are a bad influence on me,” and we joked around with that into adulthood. I hadn’t lived in the neighborhood for two years, but somehow I had built this pseudo legacy in her mind. Tom’s dad was OK with the whole thing but convincing his mother was another story. It wasn’t easy, but she finally softened and the plan was put in place. 

We got our gear together and on the ninth we headed for Point Roberts in my car. All three of us had graduated that week and I know Tom had never been allowed to sleep in a bed outside of his house unless he was up in his folk’s cabin with them on the Raging River. He was seeing a kind of freedom for the first time in his life. 

Point Roberts was a real rural area in those days. They had a general store in Ladner, B.C., where we could charge groceries in lieu of the share we would get at the end of the fishing season, and the area we worked out of was right near the water on Boundary Bay in the Strait of Georgia where it connected with the Strait of Juan De Fuca. 

In the past, before they outlawed fish traps there had been a cannery there. The buildings were still standing and we were bunked in this pretty good sized cabin. Some of the buildings were used to store the boats and repair parts and other miscellaneous merchandise. It would all become home pretty quick. 

The boss didn’t waste any time putting us to work. We started out by building anchors on the beach. We used the existing sand for aggregate, mixed it with the cement and water and poured the wet concrete into some roughed forms with a clevice eye to tie a line to. The next day, after it had dried and cured, we towed the anchors a ways off shore and attached the permanent painter line for tying up boats, after which we had to bring the boats from the sheds, get them in the water and out to the anchors. 

I don’t mind saying here and now, that Norwegian worked our asses off. All three of us were pretty buff and competitive with one another and boy, did the boss capitalize on that. He knew how to pull our strings.

It was a few days before we would actually start fishing and the way we were paid was that every working hand got one share, so all this work we were doing was gratis for him. The name for the type of fishing we did was “reef netting.” It took the place of the fish traps that had been made illegal. It was kind of the same idea but was deemed legal. We fished strictly for salmon and only salmon. 

The days were really long. We got up at four, had a huge breakfast and then got down to the beach and loaded the skiff with whatever gear we were carrying out to the boats. Our daily dress was Levis, hip boots, bucket hats and Polaroid sunglasses, just like Mister Dahl told me. All the other fishers called us “Nature boys,” always seeing us early in the morning motoring to our boats with no shirts on. We would be out there all day till 4 or 5 before we came in. The amount of food we ate was enormous but the three of us stayed raw-boned. 

After we had gotten settled in working the reef boats, the boss planned on having a gillnetter working from one to four nights a week. Mister Dahl would select guys to work on the gill netter, which meant if you were one of the chosen guys, there would be one time during the week where you worked all day and all night to boot. You would stay up all night watching the net, and then spool it in early in the morning and hopefully pick the salmon out before you ate and went back out on the reef netter. I tell you, it was a long day. 

The first of us that he took out with him was Bill. I know Halgair took an immediate liking to Bill because he grew up working in his dad’s service station on Sand Point Way, and Bill had an edge on Tom and me mechanically at that time. Halgair mined that find in a heartbeat. He had Tom, I think, go out with him the second time on the gill netter. The third time out, he took me and we had a bonanza night! We caught 160 salmon that night and he thought I was his good luck charm. So I instantly became one of the guys who didn’t miss his turn on the gill netter. 

Summer began to truck along and the reef netters were not producing a lot of fish. It was slow! It wasn’t until we got into August that we started hauling in some salmon. In the entire summer on the reef netters, most of the fish we caught were hauled in during a two- and a half-day run. We worked our tails off during that time and had to make hay while the sun shined – no breaks. 

Labor Day weekend would be the cutoff date and our job would be over. Tom and I had both signed up to attend Everett Junior College, which started the day after Labor Day. Bill had worked out a deal to stay up three or four more weeks till school started for him at UW. Halgair was going to take advantage of his mechanical skills and keep him busy till then doing a lot of things. 

Bill went on to UW, got a degree in metallurgical engineering and went to work for the Boeing Company. A little later in life he bought a fishing boat and became a commercial fisherman. 

Tom went to Everett Junior College and later to UW and took a job – the only job he ever had besides that summer on the fishing boats, working at Boeing in engineering. Tom passed away in 1975. 

As I said, I was supposed to start school but I joined the Air Force instead, had four honorable years, half of them spent in a small top-secret installation on Okinawa. I came back to Seattle after nine years away and was in the trucking business most of the next 40 years until I retired, and eventually moved to Texas in 2004.

The summer of 1956 was the greatest summer of my life. We worked hard at times. Ate real good. We weren’t that far from a resort where a lot of Canadian teenage girls were available, when we had the time. We really didn’t make much money, especially when you take out the money for groceries. The three of us didn’t have an ounce of fat on us but the food that we put away on a daily basis was out of this world. That three-month piece of my life will always get an A+.