A chapter from Book 2, Venus Mons Iliad

No Dramamine for stupid

Bill Burkett
6 min readJan 20, 2022

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The outdoor newspaper was the first place I ever worked where when a lull came the boss said “Let’s go fishing.” Oddjob lived in a sprawling trailer park south of the city. One of those lulls we drove down to crack skim ice out of his drift-boat, parked in his minuscule yard, while his patient wife made hamburgers for lunch. We put a case of beer in the boat and trailed it to Des Moines Marina behind the pristine old Ford 4x4 pickup his dad gave him. They used an overhead winch on an elevated track to lift the boat off the trailer and run it out and lower in the water. We sat in the boat for the ride.

Oddjob rowed into Puget Sound. I trolled for salmon. Blackmouth scarred my herring, but didn’t take, so we tried a hole he knew for bottom fish. I immediately caught a three-pound cod. We knocked off a six-pack apiece and caught more cod and a small sablefish he said was best-eating. He filleted and his wife packaged my fish, and we shot pool in the trailer-court rec hall before stuffing ourselves on her burritos. Sunday at my place was batter-fried seafood. He was right about the sablefish.

Ten days before my daughter’s birth I followed him to the Cowlitz River for my first taste of drift-boating. Parked my Beetle downstream. We launched his drift boat upstream to drift down. River flow was eleven thousand cubic feet/second. He got me on the oars. Powerful, twisting currents tugged the hull.

“Everything you do in a driftboat is backing up,” he instructed. “You row facing downstream. That retards your speed. You lean into oars to back away from a problem, drift sideways to pick up speed, turn sharply to shoot the white water.”

Easier said than done. I flailed, buried an oar, banged rocks, generally looked like an idiot. We didn’t raise a single steelhead. I hooked a downstream six-inch Chinook smolt, put it back. A bald eagle ambled majestically above us when we left the boat under the watchful eyes of Japanese shore-fishing ladies. Took my Bug up to his truck, came back and loaded it up.

My daughter’s “natural” birth was much easier than my son’s. Chloe had the hang of it now. In the short time since Junior’s birth hospital staff had been trained to accommodate both parents in the delivery room. When I left Chloe and daughter resting comfortably, I went to work with a jar of cherries that had nothing to do with the birth.

Our Paul Bunyan was moping. A controversial story he wrote for Montana had been refuted by his source. A state agency issued a formal complaint. This was his first time blindsided by a reneging source. Oddjob and I formally presented him the cherries as a symbol that as a reporter his had been taken. It helped restore his good humor.

Meantime I was onto an Oregon story about a recreational-land developer planning to plow under a remote coastal lake’s spawning beds for a thousand-unit resort. A fish-camp guy, one of our regular contacts, said it was heavily financed, bribing its way past Oregon land-use rules. Like a rerun of my investigative days in Gettysburg and the Pocono Mountains, I worked the phones hard. Everything our source said was true.

Each time I had enough for a story, Oddjob used “sampling” techniques to drop our paper in non-subscribers’ mailboxes. My stories unearthed new information: the gubernatorial appointee who cast the tie-breaking vote exempting the developer from land-use rules belonged to a law firm on retainer to the developer. The governor’s spokesman couldn’t tell me if the retainer preceded the vote or came after, as a reward. A classic when-did-you-stop-beating-your-wife conundrum. The developer folded its tents. Our fish-camp guy said my stories saved the lake.

The other hot topic was a federal-court requirement Fish and Wildlife Service write an Environmental Impact Statement to justify continued duck hunting. An EIS hearing was set for Portland. Oddjob and I testified. I designed cover-art that ran in all eight state editions featuring a sample letter for duck hunters to copy and submit. A lot of them did. Some included my cover art, which became part of formal exhibits.

Despite press of work, the owner provided sociable family cake-and-ice-cream parties and winked at Friday-night happy hours, where cute women from advertising and special-projects were friendly and flirty. After one family get-together, one of them gushed at happy hour how handsome my son was. My top-of-head response was I can make you one just like him.

General merriment. More intoxicated innuendo led to drunken confidences. Oddjob said I owlishly advised the women that affairs with married men were not a good idea, which upset his office paramour. Oops. And she wasn’t the only one listening, as I found out through an odd chain of events.

The publisher stood us to a party-boat salmon trip offshore. The ocean was calm, just a ground swell, but lifelong mal de mer struck me soon as land was out of sight. My unattended rod on the rail caught a small Coho while I miserably hugged the head. Co-workers had fun laughing at the seasick outdoor writer.

But not lovely Lacie of special-projects, who had kidded me about wearing suits and ties to work until I donned khakis and flannel. She sympathetically offered advice from her father, a doctor and dedicated blue-water sailor: with my slow metabolism I should take Dramamine a day before, keep taking it until back ashore. In July, my sixth company freebie on an Oregon party-boat proved her father’s wisdom. Not only did I win the boat pool with a 26-pound ling cod, I spent a day at sea without queasiness. The Oregon coast was magnificent, huge black rock stacks sculpted by the sea, steep evergreen-swathed hills above the white boil of breakers. Co-workers aboard, having seen me violently ill, thought me crazy to risk it again. I munched fried chicken and smiled while the boat did the displacement-hull mamba on a greasy ground-swell. Couldn’t wait to tell Lacie.

When state wildlife agencies held a Seattle convention we hosted a hospitality room. Liquor flowed as usual. I had plenty of time to enjoy Lacie’s company and praise her dad before she led me to a bar to discuss my forgotten advice not to have affairs with married men. I was drunk enough to tell her the sad ending of my love affair with Giselle. She listened with absorption. Then sighed when the bar lights came up. Said, “Well, you talked me out of it. Too bad.” Why too bad? “Because the married man I was thinking of having an affair with is you, dummy.”

Never saw that one coming. Felt strange to go help her start her car, though it wasn’t the first time. She drove a VW too. Parked it on a hill because her starter was shot. I would push it downhill while she engaged first gear. She said she would get around to having it fixed sometime. That’s how VW people, their own little clique, did things. I was drunk enough and confused enough to suggest a kiss, just to see what we’d be missing.

“No,” she said. “If I kiss you, I will sleep with you. And you say it’s a bad idea.”

Me and my big mouth. Wanted to say I doubted my kisses were that potent. But I’d said too much already. I was halfway home, Mt. Rainier a looming white beacon beneath a full moon, when I pulled my Bug off to be uncharacteristically sick in a ditch. Evidently a botched tryst opportunity with an attractive woman, on top of all-night drinking, was as rough on my system as mal de mer. There was no Dramamine for stupidity.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.