SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska
Column - Commentary

The Three RCMs


September 21, 2019
Saturday AM

Ketchikan, Alaska -
With the recent passing of Francis Charles "Sonner" Murphy Jr, I can't help but ponder how he, his son and his father have all intersected with my life.

jpg  Dave Kiffer

Actually, our family intersection with three Francis Charles Murphy's goes back before me. 

Yes, there was a before me. I had a uncle who once insisted that life did not exist before he did. When confronted with "history" he claimed that it was completely made up - Uncle Milt would have loved the phrase "Fake News."  Uncle Milt's simple response to anything that happened before him was "I wasn't there, so I don't believe that ever happened.:" He died a couple of decades ago. And life has continued on. Go figure.

But I digress.

The Murphys and the Kiffers were both old local fishing families, so they were certainly familiar with each other. As familiar, I guess, as seiners and trollers could be in those days. It wasn't quite like the Hatfield's and McCoys, but generally seiners and trollers didn't spend much time together and they really only agreed on thing. That gillnetters were idiots. So it goes.

But at one point my family lived not far from the Murphys. The Murphys had a young Irish setter that seemed - for reasons known only to it - to keep running off and ending up at our house. At some point, my Dad got tired of returning the dog and just kept it. I don't know if money exchanged hands or what, but we had an Irish setter that my Dad promptly named "Murphy." I think it was just a bonus that he enjoyed shouting ""@!#$&*!@#$&*!@# Murphy get the ~@!#*&~!*@#~!(@# back over here, you @~!#@!(*@#!@(*# dog" at the top of his lungs.

So when I was born and attainted consciousness, I learned that we had a dog named "Murphy" and he was named after the "Murphys."

Moving ahead, I remember Francis Charles "Spike" Murphy Sr. as one of the grizzled old folks of my youth. He seemed older than my father but not old as my grandparents. He was the captain of the "Rio Grande." To me the "Rio" was the most glamorous seiner in the fleet. A gracious old wood boat with gorgeous lines, always steaming around the Narrows heading this way and that way looking for fish. That was in the days before seiners became giant, top heavy, steel monstrosities. But even when amongst the mostly wooden fleet, the "Rio" stood out. 

Especially on the day when "Spike" Murphy saved my life.

I was with my boy scout troop on a hike from Settlers Cove to Orton Ranch and then back. My father always muttered about me being in Boy Scouts because he considered it "amateur hour" and in this case he was right. We had made it safely out to the Ranch, spent a couple of days there (set a cabin on fire, but that is a story for another time) and then headed back. Naturally, the weather turned questionable as soon as we left Naha.

At some point, the troop split up into two groups of seven. One group went inland while the other went along the shoreline. To this day, I don't understand why the scoutmaster and his assistant thought it was a good idea (they will occupy a special circle of hell in my memory ever more). Anyway, they both stayed with the group that went inland (another violation of sound Scout practices.) The inland group proceeded to get seriously lost and ended up spending several days in the woods before the Rescue Squad located them.

I went with the group along the shore because I knew there were cabins along the beach where we could always get shelter if necessary. The beach group quickly broke into two groups, three of the boys charged on ahead and three fell behind. I was concerned about the stragglers, so I stayed back with them.

Meanwhile, the rain continued to pour down and soon the tide came in and we were struggling through waste deep water around some of the points where it was too steep to go inland.  It was looking grim and getting dark, when we found a cabin. It was empty of anything to make fire with, but there was a boat in the woods behind it.

We took the boat. Yeah, yeah, I get that boy scouts are supposed to " trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty , brave , clean and reverent." "Felonious" does not make an appearance in Scout Code, but neither does dying in the wilderness.

We took the skiff and began rowing into Clover Pass. Unfortunately, the wind and tide were against us and we made less forward progress than desired and were quickly heading back toward Moser Bay. We were also so cold as to have stopped shivering. It was hard keeping each other awake and it was not looking good.

That was when the Rio Grande appeared out of the gloom and rescued us. I remember no meal ever tasting as good as the Campbell's soup that "Spike" made us drink as we sat in the pilot house and he motored us back into town.

The second Francis Charles Murphy, in this case Francis Charles Murphy III, was the one that I knew the best. He was the grandson of Spike and the son of Sonner (that sounds like a movie sequel) and one of my best friends in junior high and high school. He went by "Chuck."

Chuck was a great friend in many ways. We bonded over our fishing families. We chased after some of the same young girls. We enjoyed getting into the liquor that always around our houses. Chuck was that one friend who was up for anything and was frequently suggesting activities that I now get mad at my son for taking part in. Probably the less said about those the better.

He was responsible for me getting suspended from Kayhi for three days. We were at the back to school dance the first week of Senior year. For some reason he and I were out in the hallway near his locker. He opened his locker and took out a can of coke, which was obviously mixed with something else. At that moment the principal arrived on scene and we both got the boot. I tried to argue that I had just been standing there, which was true. But I was obviously guilty by association. Or at least proximity.

Over the years, there were a few other similar incidents and then, like most people, I kind grew out of them. Chuck, on the other hand, never did. Several times I encouraged Chuck to make some different choices, but he didn't.  Eventually he died, far too early. I regret not doing more to change the arc of his life, but the older I get the more I realize that people have to make those choices for themselves.

The third FCM, "Sonner" Murphy, was Chuck's dad. Actually, I never called  him Sonner. He was the father of one my friends so he was always "Mr. Murphy." I don't remember him being called "Sonner" that much in the old days, most people that I knew referred to him as "Frank."

As recently as a couple of years ago, I still called him "Mr. Murphy." At one point, he said, don't call me "Mr. Murphy, we're both kinda old for that."

I nodded.

"Okay, Frank."

He grimaced. I guess he didn't like Frank much. And, like FCM 1 and FCM 3 he probably really disliked Francis.

Anyway, Frank and I would speak on occasion. Like everyone else, I loved his stories and I felt his pain over passing over the passing of both Spike and Chuck. 

In the last couple of years, I most frequently saw Frank on my morning walks down town. It got so I would alter the original route several times a week so I could swing past Annabelle's on Front Street at 6:30 am because I knew that Frank would be holding court every morning with several old timers. He would wave at me, sometimes flashing a peace sign or a "hook em horns." 

Having Frank's benediction every morning was important.

And now the absence of it is another sign that our life becomes emptier when others leave it.

When I drive out past Murphy's Landing on the way to Ward Cove, I always take a look down to see the final berth of the Rio Grande, which Sonner beached a few years back. It is still there, gradually rotting away. Much like the old net shed next to it, seemingly on its last legs but still there.

Just Like the memories.



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Dave Kiffer is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.

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