“Welcome to orientation. I’m Jim, your haole counselor.”
His audience is a group of kids, all sitting at the edge of the A-Ring dock, where they’ll be learning to Scuba dive as part of their safety course. You finish with a PADI card, so it’s not a complete waste of time. “The one thing I want you to remember about the Colony,” Jim continues, “is that it is dangerous. You can get hurt out here, you can die out here … everybody has to work together.”
“What’s a haole?” one boy asks.
“You are,” Jim answers. “As of right now, you are an outsider to the community of Pacific Fisheries Colony Complex D and that’s what they call you. I’m here to help you transition from haole to Hanai … someone that gets adopted by the Colony.” Jim can see some eyes being rolled. He knows it’s hard to accept how different things are out here on the ocean, so he decides to tell them the story. “Let me start by telling you about my friend Noah. Last summer, he and I were both haoles. Noah is dead now.”
That gets their attention. Jim tells them about Noah, the son of a South Carolina family who migrated out here, a hundred-fifty miles offshore, to raise fish along with a thousand other people. “Before they started doing haole counseling, it was really hard for new kids to figure out how everything worked. After Noah died, they asked me to start teaching this class.”
“How did Noah die?” a pre-teen girl asks nervously.
Jim ducks the question. People flip out when they hear about Jim finding Noah at the bottom of his own fish pen with an anchor padlocked around his chest. “It doesn’t matter right now,” he replies. “What I want you to focus on is learning how the community works. Pacific Fisheries Colony Complex D is somewhere between a company town and island culture, and they use a lot of Hawaiian words.”
The rest of the lecture is about leading them through the basic community rules: respect, responsibility, and etiquette. Always return a lost child to their home. If someone needs help and you have two free fingers, you help them. Dumping trash into someone’s fish pen is a capital offense. “I had to learn some of this stuff the hard way, so do yourself a favor and start following the rules now.” He wraps up by saying: “You’re going to learn most of this as you go along. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open and you’ll be just fine.”
One of the Pac Fish security guys does the swimming and safety part of the class and it lets Jim get to his other job. He’s the Pen Patrol diver for his father’s boat, the Horner C. Jim performs all of underwater work needed for the family’s mariculture operation.
Being a Pen Patrol diver is hard work, but it’s vital to the success of an ocean-based fish farm. Fish live in football-field-sized pens that need constant maintenance. They could unravel, get damaged by sharks trying to get in or be clipped by passing boat propellers. Ripped nets could let their investment escape, so Jim had to check and maintain them. Some operations use automated management. Most ships manage their fish the old-fashioned way. Jim was in the water doing Pen Patrol, sometimes for hours every day, to ensure the fish stayed where they belonged.
Today, Jim is diving alone. His father, Rick, is off somewhere running little errands and scams to bring in extra money and food. It’s best to have someone else there as a backup, but Jim can do it on his own.
The underwater work requires most of his concentration, and Noah isn’t far from his thoughts. Before his friend died, life was pretty miserable for haoles. Noah had appeared on their back deck the day before he died with a new black eye and a story about getting jumped by other kids. Being a haole made you a target. All of this was just part of Colony D life. They teetered on the edge of anarchy and death every day. Kids made their own rules and were expected to solve their own problems. It was a weird way to live.
Everyone knew about the bullying, but Rick refused to protect him. “It’s like jail,” he explained. “If you don’t handle it yourself, it just gets worse. Find the biggest kid and take him down. You’ll have respect, even if you lose.”
“This isn’t prison, Dad,” Jim responds.
Rick snorts. “Who said there was a difference?” His many years spent as a guest of the state made father and son into virtual strangers. Rick is out here on Colony D because, like many others, he literally has nowhere else to go. In a bygone era, the members of the Colony would be ‘Okies’ or ‘migrant workers’ … the people who work at a dangerous job in the middle of nowhere. Raising fish by mariculture subjects them to the whims of the seafood industry, the corporate office and the sea itself.
Jim finishes Pen Patrol and climbs out of the water. The dive leaves him tired and hungry, but he has another job to do. He packs his diving equipment onto a red dolly with fat, knobby tires and wheels it over to Noah’s boat. His family remained on the Colony after their son died and Jim lends a hand whenever he can.
“Ready, duder?” Jim asks when he arrives at Noah’s family ship to find Todd, Noah’s little brother, waiting for him. Todd gives him a fist-bump and they set to work, prepping for Pen Patrol. Jim keeps the conversation light. Nobody wants to focus on what happened. Very few people use Scuba tanks out here. Instead, Jim uses a hookah rig to pump air directly to his regulator. He starts the hookah rig compressor and straps on his fins. Todd is nine years old now and still too young for a PADI card, so he acts as Jim’s backup, his line tender. His job is to keep Jim’s air lines untangled and hand him any extra tools he needs.
Carla, Noah’s mom, found a note among his things. He had written, It’s not your fault … I just can’t be a haole anymore. She read the letter to Jim. Part of him died when she got to the part where Noah wrote Tell Jim I’m sorry. They held a small service on the Phoenix and Noah’s name was added to the small brass memorial plaque in the ship’s office. His name was one of the several dozen others under a banner that reads: ‘Hear us when we cry to Thee, For those in peril on the sea.’
Jim is good to go by the time the compressor warms up. He bites into his regulator and gives a thumbs-up to the boy when Todd asks, “Ready?” Then he steps off the dock into Pen Three. Jumping into the cold water of the Pacific in the morning is always a shock. You never get over it, but it really isn’t that bad once you go numb. It helps if you pee in your wetsuit.
The teen feels weightless, swimming through schools of tilapia in the fish pen. Diving has always been therapeutic … it distracts him from whatever is bothering him. It helped him get over the overwhelming fear and grief of Noah’s suicide. Beyond the clouds of fish and the edge of their pen is the vast blue of the Pacific. Life and death happen here every day. Wars have been won and lost on these waters, ships have sailed and sank in them for centuries. Through it all, the ocean has silently carried on: giving, taking, comforting … suffering. True, people were trying something new by raising fish in open pens on the ocean to feed people around the world, but living on the water is a very old story. The new technology of mariculture didn’t change ancient truths about what the ocean takes from the men and boys who dare to survive on the sea.
Jim climbs out of the water to see Carla waiting for him and he grits his teeth. Pen Patrol is easy; having Noah’s mom look at him with her thousand-yard stare is hard. Jim knows that every time Carla looks at him, she’s really seeing her son.
“Fish look great today, Carla.”
She smiles quietly, hands him a ham and cheese sandwich wrapped in a paper towel and disappears back inside the boat. They were the kind of dirt-poor white trash that Pacific Fisheries looked for … too dumb to know what Colony life was like or too desperate to care. Pac Fish’s ‘start up costs’ ate up their nest egg, leaving them no money for necessities like wet suits and hookah rigs. Noah’s family poverty was part of the reason he was taunted so mercilessly as a haole. They never talk about it, but Jim knows they can’t bear to stay and they cannot afford to leave. He took over Noah’s Pen Patrol chores last summer and would continue to help them until Todd was ready. He tears his sandwich in half and shares it with Todd before wheeling his gear back to the Horner C.
Noah’s loss had changed things. Jim returned to the Colony the following summer to find that life moved on. Through the bush telegraph, word got around that the bullying and hazing of new kids must stop. Jim had a new nickname now … they called him ‘hanai haole’ … adopted outsider. He became the ‘haole counselor,’ teaching new kids how be accepted by Colony D.
Jim uses a towel soaked with fresh water to rinse off the salt as soon as he’s back aboard the Horner. He only has time to strip off his wetsuit and leave it leaves it to dry in the afternoon sunshine before exhaustion overtakes him. Jim barely manages to change into a ragged pair of gym shorts before collapsing onto the sofa with sore and knotting muscles from hours of underwater work.
“The working man returns,” Rick says, coming through the door. In his hand, Jim’s father is holding a bag of fresh vegetables grown by one of the Colony floating hydroponic gardens. He walks into the galley, noticing Jim’s weary form. “Tired?”
“Did Noah’s pen patrol today,” Jim mumbles.
“Got it,” Rick nods. Out here, fresh produce is a gift beyond price. Jim’s father turns the groceries into a dinner of tempura veggies and grills fresh fish from their pens. It will be an early night for Jim, he’s got Haole counseling and Pen Patrol again in the morning.
The Colony changes you. Jim knew that now. Before he came here, Jim had an allergy toward hard work or social obligations. Now, he embraced responsibility, work and the tired muscles that went along with them. It isn’t easy, but at least I’m alive to feel it.