Pickled Onions

I’ve been thinking for the last few days about an old friend from back when I lived on Vashon Island. His real name was Andrew but everyone called him Ted, and I first met him in a backpacker hostel when he was still employed as a chief engineer for an Alaskan fishing operation…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Two things brought him up unexpectedly in my memory…the first happened the other day when I was removing hardware from the tops of these metal posts in the vineyard that support the wires. They rust pretty solid and getting them off takes some serious force. So I was applying that force to the wrench when it slipped and almost in slow motion I punched myself in the face. Ouch. It took a few moments of bewilderment to actually work out what happened; it reminded me of an incident where this guy, Ted, actually broke his own nose doing pretty much the same thing, with a wrench while working on his sailboat. And I remember he just sort of CRUNCH reset his nose and poured some super glue on the laceration and held it shut til it stopped bleeding and then just sort of carried on. He said his nose had already been broken so many times that one more time wouldn’t make much difference, and while his nose did sort of bend to one side after that, I can’t swear that it didn’t make him look better.

It made me be more careful with the wrench for the rest of the day. Like not putting my nose right behind the hand applying the torque to a particularly stubborn bolt.

I guess the second reason he came up in my memory: pickled onions. M and I had made a trip down to the Spanish border to this town called Palau del Vidre to go to a glass festival and we decided to cross into Spain to do a supply run…food and booze and cigarettes are less taxed in Spain…and I wound up stocking up on an enormous jar of these little onions; cebollitas they call them…just soaked in white vinegar and delicious and crisp. And I remembered the first time I ever ate them was on Ted’s sailboat in Quartermaster Harbor when he got so tanked I actually tried to sail the sailboat…and sailed it right into some hidden (and illegal and unmarked) salmon nets. We had brought bread and sausages and cheese and olives and these little pearly vinegary onions and I ate pretty much the whole jar.  It was actually really fun. Not the net entanglement part, or the inevitable stomach ache from basically swallowing vinegar…but the onions, how crisp and cool and perfect they tasted, and how the taste of them has gotten entwined in my memory with this crazy time in my life.

At the time: I was living on this little island in the Puget sound called Vashon…Vashon Island had its share of characters and counterculture types and I was working part of every month for a glassblower out that way (one of the best jobs in my life). I was renting a room in this amazing cabin that had been masterfully renovated to look basically like the inside of an 18th century shipping vessel, complete with maps and a woodstove and lanterns everywhere, a galley and a real working brass cannon and a sleeping loft and, no joke, a brewery in the basement. The guy who owned the house, Captain John, was a carpenter, a free spirit, a home brewer and haggis-maker and all-around rabble rouser who also happened to be a wealth of knowledge about maritime history. The hops grew up the side of the house, there was a wood-fired cedar sauna in the back of the house, and in the driveway was an old wooden sailboat, complete with a berth and a little place to put a lantern and a kind of kitchen.


This is me climbing the ladder to the wooden sailboat in the driveway.

My boyfriend at the time lived still over in Seattle in a backpacker hostel where he did night cleaning, and I’d visit him periodically throughout the week and sometimes stay for a few days if I had glassblowing work in the city. While at the hostel one morning, I was helping out with the night cleaning and it was probably 5 am, but the smoking room was firmly occupied by this guy in a nightrobe and boxers, short with skinny legs and maybe in his sixties, with large dentures and big glasses and black hair. He hadn’t slept, chainsmoked, spoke with a kind of northern English accent, and didn’t really stop talking. Over the next few days, I found out that he was the chief engineer for a huge factory trawler owned by a company based out of Fishermen’s terminal in Seattle, and was in the midst of some sort of lawsuit. He was pretty different from the typical backpacker that came through the place, simultaneously more and less functional than most in that really typical way you see often with these guys that have been fishing up in Alaska…just a half step off with the rest of the non-fishing world, a weird mix of super-competent, independent, and serious combined with a sort of confusion and dysfunctionality operating in the world on land.

I liked talking to the fishermen, they tended to be really interesting people in a world I couldn’t really fathom. And I liked Ted…he seemed destined to get in trouble and at the same time had been an officer at one time in the British navy, had actually joined up when he was underage, and had sailed all over the world, lived in Tonga (I had to look it up in an atlas at the time!) and had a couple of kids about my age. Although he was in his mid sixties, tiny and bandy legged and oddly shaped, he had a serpent tattoo wrapped around three quarters of his body that he had gotten somewhere on his travels in Asia.  I also found out his lawsuit was dragging on, his final paycheck was being held by the fishing company (fishermen get paid at the end of a contract, so this final paycheck represented a sizeable chunk of cash) and he was no longer able to afford the twenty dollars a night it took to stay in the hostel.

He had two kids near my age. And I’d just found out my dad was terminally ill…so even though this guy was nothing like my dad, he was SOMEONE’S dad, and that thought alone made me upset, to think about him being out on the streets.

I was headed back to Vashon, so  I invited him to crash for a few nights back at the cabin on Vashon. He didn’t have anywhere to go. And I hadn’t been that far away at a few times from getting kicked out of that hostel myself, so I felt bad on that level too. He packed his suitcase and I took him back with me on the ferry.

To my knowledge, until his death several years later, he never left again.

WIthin a day he had set up house right there in the wooden sailboat in the driveway, treating it like some sort of guest cabin with an extension cord snaking out the window and back to the house, a tiny little black and white TV flickering at night.

Within a month, every sailor and boat owner in the harbor wanted to hire this guy to fix their boats. I mean, EVERYONE.

Within two months he had saved enough to buy his own sailboat, and he moved into that, anchored firmy out in Quartermaster Harbor. He’d row his skiff to land and hitchhike into town for his groceries and to drink the bar dry, sing and get into fights and wander home one way or another.

Not shockingly, within a month everyone loved or hatred Ted, and a lot of us loved and hated him sinultaneously. I wondered frequently what I had unleashed on the island, but in some weird way I was happy that Ted found his home, and proud in some weird way of the part I played in his life.

Years later, I got a call from Captain John, and stopped by to visit him. The back of his 18th century shipping vessel had been transformed into a Japanese tea house and garden, aligned with the moonlight and full of the silent little buddhist slugs that Washington is so famous for, huge and black patent leather and unsettling. We talked about a lot of stuff, I had just started keeping bees and John gave me an antique beekeeping helmet, He also told me Ted had been found floating in the water outside the dock last week.

No one knows what happened really; most of us think he was on the slippery ladder in the dark, his arms full of groceries and his head full of Pabst’s Blue Ribbon in the dark, coming home from town, when he slipped and hit his head and knocked himself out. The coroner report simply said drowning.

He still comes up in my thoughts a lot, not in a sad way…but he was a true original and I learned a lot from him. And I think for a sailor like that, probably dying by drowning while drunk…it’s not ideal, but it’s right out of the sea shanties he used to sing when he was sideways, and I think he would have at least appreciated that.

At the very least…whenever I taste the crisp, pungent vinegary freshness of a pickled onion, it’ll always bring back Ted and the first time I ever tried them.

We drive to Chamonix tomorrow for a wine tasting. Even though it’s August in the Mediterranean, on Thursday I will be walking on a glacier in the Alps.


One thought on “Pickled Onions

  1. I just remember Captain John’s crazy, jealous girlfriend. What was her name? Pam maybe? 🙂

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