The following are excerpts from Facebook posts written by Stan Viernes and Stephen Viernes, brothers of Gene Viernes who worked with Gene and their father in the Alaska canneries. These posts were written as a way of documenting the Filipino American experience in Alaska and Yakima Valley.
We would head to Naknek in June, so Gene was 15 years 10 months old when he first went to Alaska. That was about the time we moved out to the river. I remember the first summer he came home. I had spent the summer swimming and was well tanned. I came home one day to find Gene sleeping on the couch. He was white as a sheet. Not too much later he left with Dad on second season to Ketchikan, so he never did get much of a tan that year. I’m not sure what Gene did his first two years, but given his size I’m sure he started on the sliming tables. Dad was always a fish house guy. Gene probably moved to the butcher line his second year. He was there his third year when I first went and seemed like a veteran. I started at the sliming table, but had started growing by then. Those sliming tables were about mid-thigh for me, so I spent the work day hunched over, wet and cold.
I remember waking up at 4:00 a.m., picking up a #1 at the McKitchen and heading out with my sliming knife in hand. We would work till 7 and head up the hill for breakfast. Back to work till noon, then back up the hill for lunch. Back to work till 5 then up the hill for dinner. Back to work till we finished the day’s fish which was usually around 10:00 p.m. We would clean the fish house till about midnight and then back up the hill to the bunkhouse again. Less than 4 hours of sleep then back for the next day at 4 again. That was the schedule during the fish run.
Pulling eggs was done by the female workers, so if Gene pulled any salmon roe it would have been to break the monotony of butchering, occasionally. The salmon roe went down a chute and then over to the egg house next door. The Japanese crew processed the eggs with the help of the rest of the female crew. When the fish run just started and when it was slowing down was when Gene, I, and other young buffalos would help out at the egg house. Gene was well liked by the Japanese crew and female crew and was therefore the de facto, young buffalo, foreman at the egg house. Making wooden egg crates was like making tomato flats, so we Wapato Farm Boys were highly recruited because we could also nail them shut with a tap and a single hatchet swing per nail. Just like at the packing shed on the farm. I’ll share more about my 2-4 years in the fish house later.
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When salmon exited the butchering line, if it still had a blood vein or any fins it passed to the sliming stations (6 per line if I remember right). They would fall off the conveyor belt into our industrial size sinks. We would grab one, clean it up and send it on the lower belt back to the line heading upstairs to Stephen and the canners. Our most important accessory was our wet stone (never forget it or lose it), because unless you keep your knife sharp at all times you are working twice as hard. If you didn’t become an expert at sharpening your knife very quickly, you would be buried in salmon and would work twice as hard again catching up. Also, you had to be careful not to cut off too much meat when you took off a fin. Old man Brindle would have a heart attack if he found any meat not heading to the canning line. Earned every penny I made and then signed my check over to my Dad. Say What? That’s what we used to do in the old days young ones. Family First and then my Dad gave me spending money and gas the rest of the year. It was a good life.
I just remember Gene telling me how he enjoyed pulling eggs. He always wanted to be better than anyone at everything he did. Some memories to attest as to how he was: He worked on the farms, worked hard. I remember how he lived in the cabin at Teddy Arreola’s farm on Lateral A and West Wapato. He could have been picked up but that what he wanted to do. Very independent. Uncle Ted just loved him. Working for the Japanese brother by the last name of Uchida. They loved how he worked. Or working for Uncle Roy Baldoz. He would go to the warehouse and start at 8:00 a.m. That late since the farmers don’t deliver yet. He would work till 9:00 p.m. at night and then drive the truck to Seattle to deliver vegetables. Come home and sleep a short while and then go back into the warehouse. He was an animal! I knew when he worked for UPS in Seattle, he had a route on 2nd Avenue downtown area. He would haul ass getting everything done and get off early. Basically almost running. He didn’t have to keep working.
If I remember right he got paid regardless of how long it took. Of course look how he wrestled, He wrestled many a champions and beat many of them. How can someone wrestle the eventual state champion and beat him with a dislocated shoulder. He was unbeaten and met this guy from a much bigger school system. AC Davis AAA vs Wapato AA. Otherwise he would have been Wapato’s first state champion in 1969. He was amazing to watch wrestle. I knew Dad loved to watch him. I wish dad would have been able to watch him wrestle when he won the Washington State Community College Wrestling Championships in 1971. It must have been amazing because there was great competition. He was the most valuable wrestler in that tournament. He had a natural weight of something like 145 to 150 lbs and wrestled 118 lbs. They won’t let you lose that kind of weight now days. Of course there is also documented history of how when he volunteered at the park in Seattle’s Chinatown. How he would run with the wheel barrow and do twice the work of anybody else. Course that was the farm boy in him. Amazing young man that was always an inspiration!