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Halibut, Alaska

It's not Ketchikan – it's better!

Stories from a small town in SE Alaska
Copyright (c) 2018 by Cruin MacGriogair
Halibut better sign cropped.jpg

​Alice Macray stared at the new sign, painted directly onto the boards, above the entrance of the Halibut Visitor Center. Her mind wandered and wondered for a moment, 'What was that part of the building called? -- A gable, a gabbly end – something like that.'


Why ha they not painted it onto a big board, and then hung it up there?' She eyed Bobby Olafson suspiciously. 'Because if it was painted directly on the wall it would be hard to reject it and refuse to pay, that's why!' She thought of objecting, but then Bobby would just tell her that she had wanted the job done cheap, and it would be much more expensive for them to get a board that big.


Alice could smell the paint. "Welcome to Halibut Alaska" proclaimed the sign in blue on blue on blue. At least they had used some kind of stencil, and the letters were straight. Bobby Olafson held the ladder while his twin brother Benny was at the top, painting. That was the way of it; Bobby was the thinker and talker, while Benny was the doer. They were hard to tell apart sometimes, but she was betting it was Benny up the ladder. He was filling in the last blue character, an exclamation point. He was concentrating, the tip of his tongue was sticking out the side of his mouth, and he carefully following the pencil lines; Bobby must have drawn those.

Alice had arrived at the ferry terminal early that morning feeling energized and enthusiastic after spending a week at the annual Visitor Center Director's Conference in Juneau. There had been workshops and panel discussions on how to run a Visitor Center, and how to deal with larger and larger numbers of tourists, and how to keep them happy, and how to motivate employees, and how to handle a crisis. But there had been no workshops or discussions on how to deal with people like the Olafson twins. 'I should teach a workshop,' she thought, 'on what happens when you leave them to themselves for a week.'

She was going to have to talk to him. 'Be Calm,' she told herself, 'be professional.' She took a deep breath, then immediately regretted it because of the lungful of paint fumes she had just inhaled. 'Yuck! Did people really still use oil-base paint? Had not the ERA banned it long ago? Oh no wait – it was still used in the boating industry.' A suspicion started in Alice's mind. Had Bobby and Benny got some ancient blue oil-base paint that was going cheap at Halibut Marine Supply?”

She squinted at Bobby. He grinned back. He nodded up at the sign and said, “Thing of beauty, isn't she?”

Keeping her expression neutral, she said, “Hmm... Blue sky, with some white clouds, over that the text in a different shade of blue, with a highlight in another shade of blue – did you mix up those colors yourself, Bobby?”

Bobby's grin did not waver. “I sure did, Yes. Great ain't they. That's the modern way of doin' sign painting – 'subtle contrast' is what they call it. Gives the sign, what ya call it, an 'understated Authority.'”

Alice eyes went wide. He had been ready for the question. He had rehearsed that little speech about “subtle contrast”. 'Subtle contrast!' she thought, 'Understated authority!' Now she knew he had got the paint cheap. 'I'll show them some understated authority when I fire their paint-speckled little backsides!' Why had she even hired these two clowns in the first place?

But she knew why. Because they were the Olafson twins, and were practically a Halibut institution, and because they needed the work, and because she needed the sign, and, finally, because she could only afford them, rather than importing more professional, and more expensive, sign painter from... where? Where else? Ketchikan! Drat the horrid place!

And he was still grinning at her. She asked him, “And the message, Bobby, on the bottom of the sign: “It's Not Ketchikan, It's Better.” I thought you had agreed with Joseph to paint... Oh!.. what was it? - 'Halibut, the Best Town In South East Alaska' - or something like that?”


“Ah, yes, we did originally think that. But me and Benny ran into Joe in Anna's Haliboose a few nights back, and we got to talking about that. Duncan MacAlpin is just back from Ketchikan, and he saw a big new sign up over their Visitor Center that says that Ketchikan is the best town in South East Alaska – So we thought that if we put up a sign saying the same thing, then all the tourists would think we were just copying Ketchikan. So we had to come up with a new idea fast like - seeing as you wanted it all done and the paint dry before the first cruise-ship arrived.”


'And since,' Alice thought, 'you had some oil-base paint that would take so much longer to dry than latex.' The smell of the paint was now almost overpowering. 'Please,' she prayed silently, 'Please let it be dry before the first tourists get here'. She concentrated. 'Forget the paint for now,' she told herself, 'stick to the more important issue – the message.'


“So you and Benny and Joe and Duncan MacAlpin and the crew at Anna's Haliboose did not worry that saying “It's Not Ketchikan, It's Better!” might lead a tourist into comparing us with Ketchikan, and perhaps thinking we were just trying to copy them?”


“Well actually, Alice, we did think of that, but then Gator Gary said that the tourists were already thinking that anyway, and if we wrote that we were not Ketchikan, just better, then that would kind of set them straight about it. Heh! I really did not think you would make a fuss about it. Everyone in the Haliboose thought it was a fantastic idea. And Joe was all for it, and he is your, whatchamacallit? Your Curative Director.”


“My Creative Director, yes he is.” Alice thought about all his jobs and titles she had given to Joseph Penny over the years: Creative Director, off-season night watchman, tourist-season desk person, tour-pamphlet-stand stuffer, Building Maintenance Director (aka Janitor), and angry tourist bouncer. Why had she given him the title Creative Director? Because three years before, when she had no budget to give him a raise, she had made him Building Maintenance Director and he had beamed, and worked happily for that year. Then two years ago, when she still had no budget to give him a raise, she made him Creative Director, and he had beamed again, and set about finding cheap ways to decorate the place and put up signs.


Performance review time was coming up next week, just before the first cruise-ship arrived, and she still had to figure out what title she was going to give him this year. 'Maybe I should just give him my job!'


“Yes, Joseph is my Creative Director. Come to think of it, where is my Creative Director? Is he inside – I would like to have a word with him.”


“Ah yes, well Bennie and I ran into him in the Haliboose last night, and we walked him home after, and he seemed to take a bit ill, like, and he mumbled something about taking today off.” Bobbie let go of the ladder and stepped closer to her, dropping his voice, “Tell you the truth, Alice, I think he might have had a bit too much to drink. I don't think he is used to drinking that much.”


The ladder seemed to wobble a bit as Benny shifted around to touch up a couple of leters. Alice made shooing motions with her hand, and nodded in alarm at the ladder. Bobbie looked puzzled for a few moment, until he figured out what was distressing her. The he grinned sheepishly, then stepped back and took hold of the ladder once more, on either side of Benny's legs.


Alice wondered how much time the gentle sole that was Joseph had been spending at the Haliboose tavern, and wondered if she should try to find a way to discourage his friendship with the Olafson twins.


In the meantime, she asked Bobby “And what about you and Benny? You were drinking with him, but you did not 'take a bit ill.' here you both are, painting the sign and looking not much worse for wear.” She hoped he would take the hint that perhaps Joseph was not up to the life that Bobby and his brother led.


Bobby just grinned. “Oh that's alright, thanks for asking, Alice. Benny and me are used to drinking that much! We never take sick from it”


Alice closed her eyes and sighed out a long breath through her nose. She feared to breath in again, and get more paint fumes. She stepped a few steps away from the entrance and the paint, and inhaled cautiously. The breeze from the sea blew over her, fresh and clean.

She glanced over Dock Street, to the intersection with Main Street. There was a big sigh, a huge big wooden Halibut, strung with ropes over the entrance to main street, from the top of the building on the left, to the top of the building on the right. Steve Wallace, the local totem pole carver, had carved the Halibut from red cedar. And now she remembered, it had been Bobby and Bennie who had found some wooden letters at Halibut Handy Hardware, and they had painted them then screwed them in around the Halibut fins to make the words. Not too bad a job they had done there, she had to admint.

That sign had ate up most of last year's budget. That sign said “Welcome to Halibut – The Halibut Capital Of The World.” It had been Joseph, newly made Creative Director, who had thought up that that sign. Said it would be a landmark that tourists would remember. He had just read a book on Brand Name Recognition


She had not had the heart to point out to him that the repeat of the word Halibut might make the sign seem a bit silly. Or that it looked so like the big sign in that other town, a sign that read “Welcome to Ketchikan – The Salmon Capital Of The World” that some tourists might suspect that one was just a copy of the other.

But Joseph had been right, the sign had become a kind of landmark. Tourists would line up to have their pictures taken under that sign.


Alice filled her lungs with the sea breeze. She could smell the kelp. Some gulls flew by, squealing at each other. An Eagle, sitting on top of the cross of the Second Lutheran Church, screeched back at them, and the gulls went suddenly quiet. Alice laughed.


Yes, Halibut – this was her town. the town she loved. Where if paint fumes were bothering you, you need only take a few steps away to be washed by a clean sea breeze. Where quaint old fishermen like Joseph could become Creative Directors and talk of “Brand Name Recognition”, while battered, bent-up old sea divers like the Olafson twins could become sign painters and talk of “subtle contrast”. She looked at the new sign once more, and decided that actually... she kind of liked it.


Yes, indeed, it said it all: Halibut – It was not Ketchikan, it was better!

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