Tokeland, Washington is a fishing village (population 300) located on Willapa Bay. One of its most cherished residents is Loretta Brockhoff. Approaching her 93rd birthday, she can tell you many stories about life here; from the 1962 Columbus Day storm to the day the cannery burned down. Next to her home is an old gear shed where her husband, a commercial fisherman, once worked on his crab pots. Like a lot of old Tokeland shacks, its exterior was covered in faded fishing floats.It was picturesque and funky, the kind of subject matter favored by Gene Landry.
She remembers, “One day, Gene knocked on my door and asked if I would mind if he drew that old gear shed.” He spent an afternoon in her yard drawing the shed from various angles, she recalled. A watercolor he later made of it now hangs in her home, next to photos of her husband’s fishing boat, the Shirley Lee. And the old shed, now empty, still stands next door.
Loretta’s poems about the fishing life capture a world unknown to most. They are rich in detail and specific experience.
Loretta, whose “big dream” was to become a newspaper reporter, came to Tokeland in the summer of 1947. A high school student, she spent the summer at her sister’s home here. She got a job shaking crab at Nelsons Cannery for 4 cents a pound. Basically, she never left. Three years later, she married Jack Brockhoff, a commercial crab fisherman. While raising their five children and working at the cannery, Loretta was also a charter member of the Tokeland Mother’s Club, (a precursor to the PTA). Somehow, she also found time to write. The subject matter was her life.
One of her poems, The Tale of the Barbara Lee, gives the tragic account of a crab boat that sank while attempting to aid the coast guard boat Invincible.
It happened on January 29, 1960. Loretta listened to it go down on Hallicrafter radio in her kitchen, hoping it wasn’t her husband’s boat in trouble. She wasn’t the only one:
The wives along the coast set their hallicrafters
Ship to shore on the marine band channel
For each lived her own nightmare
Of having her world ripped asunder by one call
It wasn’t something you were ever prepared for
It was just the way you lived, praying and hoping…
In 2020, Loretta read her poetry at Astoria’s iconic Fisher Poet’s Gathering to standing ovations. It was great to see this (then) 90-year-old poetess get some long-deserved public recognition. Loretta hopes to return this to Fisher Poets this year. “If I’m still alive, I’ll be there,” she promised.
To read more about the upcoming Fisher Poets Gathering (February 24-26) and Loretta, check out Hipfish Monthly, Astoria’s alternative newspaper.
Home from the Sea
The old hallicrafter radio, ship to shore,
Sits on the kitchen shelf.
Our lifeline—our contact
It cuts across the kitchen,
It cuts across our lives!
You so seldom speak on the radio
But I track you thru your running mates
As they banter back and forth.
Limey had tuna signs offshore
Hear the fish are hitting off Blanco
Awful long haul down there
Rumors of tuna 200 fathom straight out
Aw getting dark—better pack it in for the night!
They come home from the sea,
They smell like dead fish, rotten bait,
They smell like dried saltwater
Like diesel, oil, life and death!
Oh God, we’re glad to have them back!
Life goes on; summer is underway
Beach fires, hot dogs and swimming
With the kids at the Davis swimming hole.
Trip should be winding down
Fuel and supplies running low.
Will they head home or for another port?
The old hallicrafter cuts thru our lives
As we wait some more!
You catch your breath,
Your heart skips a beat!
You plaster your ear to the speaker
As you scream at the kids
Be quiet! Someone’s in trouble
Whew! Not one of ours
Earl is the closest—heading their way
Three men aboard—taking on water
89 to 90 miles to Newport!
Rumors are flying—the boats are heading home
Maybe the hatch is loaded, maybe not.
Radio says they should make the dock around six.
As the boats slip around the corner onto the dock
I spot your blood-spattered cap cocked over one ear.
That stupid grin lights up your blue eyes
As they momentarily meet mine.
Go get me a beer, I hear you yell;
As the cannery crew arrives,
The work of unloading begins
One trip safely over,
Another soon to come!
They come home from the sea
They smell like dead fish, like rotten bait;
Like diesel oil, like life and death.
Oh God, we are glad to have them back!