By Clark Fair
Dave Hutchings could keep a secret — for as long as he wanted to. He had made a promise in his youth, and he kept that promise, but when he reached middle age he had to decide whether remaining silent was still necessary.
The “summer of the secret” began in the spring of 1959, and Hutchings, a 13-year-old Kenai lad from a family of 10, was beginning his usual rounds as a garden-tilling specialist. His mother had helped him to purchase a Sears and Roebuck rototiller, and he was working off the expense by tilling for his mom and about a half-dozen other women gardeners in the area.
One of his most important clients was Ruby Coyle, known throughout the area as a terrific gardener. As neighbor Henry Knackstedt put it, “Ruby and Waldo had a very large and perfect garden. Everything was spaced just so, and there were no weeds to be found due to their continual maintenance. They also maintained a very nice greenhouse and several cold frames. I think they had the largest lawn in Kenai when I was a kid.”
Unfortunately for the 44-year-old Ruby, when Waldo’s need for a new deckhand coincided with his sudden realization that the Hutchings kid was a good worker, she wound up having to finish her own tilling — and she was not pleased about the turn of events.
“I think Waldo saw a little bit of potential (in me),” Hutchings said. “And he had lost a deckhand who had probably gotten old enough to go on to a bigger and better job, and so he kind of stole me from Ruby that year, and Ruby wasn’t real happy with him.”
In the middle of his rototiller work, Hutchings was whisked away down to Waldo’s boat, and he worked on the boat all that summer.
Waldo’s commercial fishing vessel was a converted sailboat, which Hutchings called a “double-ender” and a “planker,” meaning that it was pointed at both ends like a typical sailboat, and it was constructed of wooden planks. Its mast had been removed and replaced with a power unit designed to release and retrieve the fishing nets. It had a generous amount of room below deck, containing a fish hold, an engine bay and some living quarters.
Painted white and with a clean design, the 45-foot craft was called The Crest, and the 48-year-old Waldo proved very finicky about his boat.
“You learned on different boats what the captain likes,” said Hutchings. “The captain in this case, Waldo, was kind of a clean freak. You’d get on-board, and you’d take your boots off, and you would wear a deck shoe or a tennis shoe. When you were on-board, you cleaned up behind yourself. The boat was pretty much immaculate.”
And there was one more important rule that Waldo made clear to young Hutchings: “You do everything that I do when you’re on the boat, and I want you to do it well.”
Later that summer, Waldo almost came to regret that advice.
Waldo Coyle stood about 5-foot-6 and was bald on top with “a little skiff of hair around the edges,” Hutchings said. Stocky and often appearing stern-mouthed, he had “smiling eyes” that could belie his apparently taciturn nature. He was usually plainspoken, even blunt, and he was more often down-to-earth and practical than fanciful.
According to Knackstedt, both Waldo and Ruby loved politics and attended most Kenai City Council meetings.
“Waldo would stand up in the back of the room and say his mind. Often Ruby and Waldo would sort of feed off each other,” he said.
Ruby Coyle stood about as tall as Waldo but was wider, Hutchings said. She had short, curly, gray hair, and Hutchings called her “happy” and “noisy” and “just a fun lady.” She balanced out the quieter Waldo, he said.
Just before the fishing season, Hutchings helped Waldo prepare The Crest for the round of fishing periods. Waldo put him to work mending and hanging nets, and he expected his young charge to measure everything correctly, to do all his work according to exact specifications.
When they headed out across Cook Inlet, they cruised at about 6 or 7 knots, aiming at Kalgin Island or Snug Harbor, where they’d drop anchor and await the start of the opening.
On the day the secret was revealed, Waldo called Hutchings to his side and explained their plan of attack.
“Okay, here’s the deal. This is going to be a long 24 hours, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to go take myself a little nap, a two-hour nap. I’ll be up on my own; you don’t have to wake me up. But if the fish start showing, if the cork line starts turning white (with splashing fish), wake me up,” Hutchings recounted.
If the fishing during Waldo’s nap was uneventful, they’d reassess their situation, Waldo informed him — perhaps pull the nets and move to another location — and then it would be Hutchings’s turn to take a two-hour nap, and so forth, until the fishing period ended. Hutchings said he understood the plan, and then he watched as Waldo headed into the boat’s cabin.
“Just to the right was the galley, along with a sink and a two-burner-top stove,” Hutchings recalled. “And he opened the cabinet and reached down under the sink and grabbed a little whiskey bottle and pulled it out and poured himself just about half an inch in a glass and put the cap back on and put the bottle back underneath the counter. He took a swig and then set the glass on the counter.”
Then he went on inside for his nap.
When Hutchings’ turn to nap arrived, he remembered Waldo’s admonition to always do as he did, and so, upon entering the cabin, he opened the cabinet and extracted the whiskey bottle, never intending to drink any of it and knowing that Waldo would be watching.
The result of this action was mostly predictable.
Waldo: “Hey, I’m going to feed you to the sharks, and then I’m going to tell your dad that you fell overboard.”
Hutchings: “I was just doing like you told me to.”
Waldo: “Except for that!”
Hutchings, laughing: “OK, OK!”
At the end of the fishing period, while they were cruising back to Kenai, the conversation continued.
Waldo: “Hey, I’m not going to tell your dad about what you did with that bottle.”
Hutchings: “Well, he knows I wouldn’t use any of that.”
Waldo: “No, what I’m getting to is, Ruby don’t know I have that on the boat. And I don’t want her to know. And it’s really none of her business. And I’d just as soon her not know anything about it, so don’t say anything to Ruby.”
Hutchings: “That sounds OK to me.”
Waldo, sternly: “Look at me!”
Hutchings: “I won’t say anything to Ruby.”
Waldo: “I’ve always had it on here, and nobody knows it.”
And he wanted to keep it that way.
So Hutchings kept his word, for at least a quarter century.
Then came the 50th wedding anniversary celebration for Waldo and Ruby. Hutchings just happened to be strolling into the Elks Hall in Kenai with a couple of friends when he saw a group of tables pushed together, with Ruby seated at one end and Waldo seated at the other. He said he looked over the scene, remembering the promise he had made so many years before, and thought: “What an opportunity! Do I, or don’t I?”
He pondered the problem for about 20 minutes and then approached Ruby.
He said hello, squeezed her hand and gave her a little kiss on the cheek, and then he picked up a glass and clinked a utensil against its side a few times to get everyone’s attention.
“Waldo, a hundred years ago you and I fished together. I was your deckhand,” Hutchings said.
Waldo interrupted: “Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re that Hutchings kid.”
Hutchings continued: “And do you remember what you told me to never, never tell Ruby?”
Waldo was grinning, but his face was flushing scarlet.
“What are you talking about?” he said.
“Well, what if I tell you in front of everybody?”
Hutchings asked with a smile. “That way, I’m being true to my word.”
It was Ruby’s turn to interrupt: “Oh, is this about him having a little bit of whiskey on the boat back in the day?”
Hutchings was caught by surprise. Waldo, if possible, had grown even redder.
“Yeah, how did you know?”
“I knew all the time,” Ruby said. “Why he thought he was being sneaky, I have absolutely no idea.”
The audience burst into applause. Ruby, it seems, could keep a secret, too.