Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Who Is Mark Lewandowski Anyway?

I did not go to Alaska because I wished to live deliberately; I went to make money, hopefully enough to fund a trip to Sweden. The plan was to work in a cannery for the first half of the summer, and then fly to Stockholm, hometown of Hans, a college buddy from the University of Kansas. Things didn’t work out that way. When we arrived in May salmon wasn’t running yet; jobs at the fish processing plant in Homer were scarce. By the time the jobs arrived at the end of June, Hans, his girlfriend, and her brother had given up and left Alaska. I stayed on for the rest of the summer, sometimes working 18 hour shifts “sliming” salmon for many days in a row. I never overslept, even though I didn’t need an alarm clock. Before I went to bed each night I popped some Tylenol. Like clockwork I’d wake up five hours later, once the Tylenol wore off and the pain returned to my hands. By the end of the summer things so striking before, like the bald eagles as common as crows in the Lower 48, or moose lumbering down the main street, clogging up early morning traffic, had become the norm to me.

In August I started a Master’s of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at Wichita State University. I arrived in Wichita in the middle of the night, about four hours before Orientation was to begin. The second story I wrote for my first workshop was called “The Slime-Line Queen.” It became the first story in my collection, Halibut Rodeo. Like all the other stories in the book, “The Slime-Line Queen” was inspired by the jobs I did, and the people I worked with at Seward Fisheries.

That was 1988. I planned on going back to Homer the following summer, but in March 1989 the Exxon Valdez spilled its load into Prince William Sound, setting back the Alaskan fishing industry for years. Seward Fisheries had no immediate use for slimers. Full time residents found work scrubbing oil off of sea rocks with paper towels. I never returned to Homer. But I continued to visit places outside my comfort zone. I lived in Poland as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and in Lithuania as a Fulbright Scholar. I travel just for fun, too. My experience traveling infuses all my writing, both short stories and essays. I like to believe that I have a keen eye for “place.” In all my narratives setting plays a primary role.

Now I am an Associate Professor of English at Indiana State University, with a modest list of publications in numerous literary journals. Halibut Rodeo came out 22 years after that summer in Homer. When I think of how much time has passed, I recall a conversation I had with a single dad I worked with on the Slime-Line. He had just finished his first year of classes at the local community college:
“You know why I’m going to college?” he asked.
“So I can get a job where no one looks over your shoulder and tells you to go faster.”

I think I took his words to heart.

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1 comment:

Crazy Fox said...

Mark, you have lived a fascinating life and have an expressive and pleasing way of writing about it! I love the panda too!