Combating ignorance while we fish for salmon

Forrest Johnson

As a goodwill ambassador for the National Union of Friendly Americans (NUFA), it is my job to listen to all viewpoints, no matter how screwy they may be.

That often unenviable task is written into the NUFA bylaws, right next to the bylaw informing people that they are eligible for free drink coupons from a personal bartender of their choice as long as they keep an open mind and combat ignorance.
NUFA services include access to the Anthology of Open Minded Thought, known far and wide as the bible of intellectual and factual clarity. In its pages you can find information ranging from the latest findings on the God Particle and the failed notion of economic elitism as touted by the New Conservative Neanderthal Party (NCNP) to the best gin fizz recipe.

Here in Bristol Bay, Alaska, there are plenty of screwy viewpoints, believe me. The sockeye salmon fishing fleet includes thousands of fishermen, from religious and conservative sorts, who send their children to good Christian schools, to sustainable planet leftists to “edgers,” those toothless working wonders who seem to arrive with the tides, men who seem as likely to live in culverts and abandoned cars when they aren’t sleeping on a boat out on the open sea.

One tender boat captain I met as we delivered a load of fish is a case in point. We’ve had our moments to chat over the past few weeks out in the waters near the mouth of the Kvichak River.

As we looked out over the rolling waters to the wide horizon, I mentioned that it would be a good thing to bring out those people disconnected from the real world to see just how this old world fits together. The millions of salmon and the seals, the brown bears, beluga whales and sandhill cranes, the jellyfish, the tides. It all works together. All form the web of life that makes it possible for human beings, for all species, to exist. I told him that an inordinate number of people just can’t see that world, that shared world. Many homo sapiens just seem to think that they live in a different sphere from the rest of life on the planet, that we could get along just fine without all the other razzmatazz as long as we have food to eat and stuff to watch on TV and Facebook and the worldwide web, that wonderful and false interface where it all comes together.

The tender captain begged to differ. He said if you brought too many people out to see the world, you’d end up with those types who want to save everything telling the rest of us what to do. 

Tree-hugger types? I asked.

Exactly, he said. How many seals do you need, for crying out loud? he asked. He said he was tired of people freeloading off the system, just like seals that eat the occasional fish out of the nets. They’re freeloaders. Others want to steal our rights. He then said he liked Ron Paul, the libertarian ringer of the NCNP.

We went from seals and tree-huggers to politics real quick. I listened carefully.

He told me that this was the first year that he and his wife had thought about politics. His wife was a delegate in their local caucus, and they were pushing a government-free, free market agenda.

Just like the one we’ve been employing unsuccessfully for decades now, I told him. You know, the trickle-down economic model that’s made life great for those with money but pretty tough for the rest of us.

Oops, I wasn’t listening at that point, I was forming an opinion.

He shot back that he saw too many lazy people making it good on welfare at our expense. Government handouts were providing a pretty good living for those people, he maintained. I mentioned that the reality of outright welfare payments, you know, handouts, was a pretty minimal percentage of our overall federal budget, less than two percent.  I asked if he knew exactly how many people, how many working people, were in poverty or near poverty? He responded that no one ever gave him anything for nothing and he expected the same from everybody.

I threw in the need for universal health just to stir him up a bit more. Don’t ask me why I did that. I’m a nice guy, I don’t go looking for trouble. He didn’t have health care, he said, didn’t need it right now, didn’t want ObamaCare ruling his choices.

This was getting good.

We visit twice a day. I told him he was a NUFA member without knowing it—hopefully we all are—and will eventually notice an amiable change in his beliefs, from sourpuss to neighborly.  

All I can do is provide him the numbers to combat ignorance and be nice about it. I smile a lot as we bring him as much salmon as we can catch.