Cordova Chronicles: Order in the court

From left, Randy, David and Jackie Bruce. When Randy wasn’t busy fixing Johnson’s at the Cordova Outboard Shop, he was having fun operating them for cruises down the Eyak River to their family duck cabin. Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

It was late May in 1969, and the hinges to the Cordova Outboard Shop door were getting a workout.

A line of fishermen, many still in rain gear bearing a slight salmon ambiance, exchanged tales of misadventures while waiting near the counter, as owner Johnny French patiently listened to the one in front describe the mechanical aliments that had plagued his craft in the latest Copper River opener.

Not one discussed big catches, for such violation of fishing etiquette would seem immodest, and also possibly lead to a fleet of colleagues at his secret hot spot in the next opener.

French had served in the Marine Corp in World War II, and one late night at the Elks Club quietly described his experience on Iwo Jima as “bad, very bad.”

Now, he probably wished he was down at his duck cabin on Eyak River, rolling ivories with the boys at his shack, which was nicknamed “The Pair A Dice Inn”.

Fishermen in the quay were exchanging potential remedies for their vessels’ ailments, many of course which stemmed from the fact that they had arrived just days before the season started, and dumped their crafts in the same salt water that over the winter had naturally caused corrosive impact on their ability to perform.

French wore hearing aids, due the ear-splitting impact of fierce combat on that sandy volcanic Pacific island 24 years earlier. They were turned up full volume, but even that couldn’t help him understand some of the complaints.

On a few of the work orders attached to clipboards that would head back to the repair shop, he just scribbled a big “DNR,” which was code for “Does Not Run.”

And then said, “Next.”

Needless to say, in the backroom, surrounded by rows of broken-down outboards of all brands and horsepower, mechanics Al Jardinski and Randy Bruce were swamped.

Back in those days, the majority of the fleet fished in cabin skiffs powered by Johnson’s or Evinrude’s, and perhaps their one grace was that they could be detached and hauled up to the shop with relative ease.

Although some didn’t make it that far. Legend has it that crusty old-timer John Goeres threw his cranky motor overboard and rowed to town after screaming “If you won’t run, you won’t ride!”

The entrance to the Cordova Outboard Shop is conveniently located 50 feet from the ramp leading to the small boat harbor, so fisherman still in rain gear can walk right off their boats for mechanical help following Copper River openers. Dick Shellhorn/for The Cordova Times

Over the irregular roar of a 40-horse that Jardinski was trying to fine-tune in the test tank, Randy mentioned to Al that he had just received a jury summons.

The pair was already working 12 hours a day, six days a week, and Jardinski hollered: “Just throw it away. That’s what all the fishermen do, and nothing happens to them.”

Oops. The next morning, during a lull in the backroom action, they heard someone at the front counter holler, “Hey, here come the cops!”

The quick-thinking Jardinski yelled at Randy, “Quick, hide under the bench.”

Ah, what are friends for?

The room was so cluttered there was no place to run, and the next thing you know Randy was in the back seat of the local police cruiser, headed to jail.

“There were only two cops in town at that time, and here I am with both of them, headed up Council Avenue to the slammer,” Randy said.

At least it was only a short three-block drive. Back then, the jail was located in the back of the old City Hall, which was in the bottom floor of what is today’s Bidarki Recreation Center.

The doors to the cell slammed shut; Cordova Outboard Shop was down to one mechanic; and word of the bust spread throughout town faster than the speed of a Tiedeman work skiff powered by Johnson’s latest model 120 horsepower V4 giant.

While being escorted out of the shop, Randy had hollered at his workmates to call his wife Jackie and let her know he might not be coming home for dinner that night.

“I didn’t know if they would give me my one phone call,” Randy explained.

Jackie called my sister Sharon to come over and babysit their two little boys, and then roared downtown to the Club Bar, five blocks away, not for a drink, but to find Kenny Van Brocklin, a co-owner and Randy’s uncle.

The race was on to find some way to get Randy sprung, and what better place to find a lawyer than at a pub.

Meanwhile, Randy was examining his surroundings: “I remember the jail was made out of metal sheets with big holes in them, like they used in WWII to make runways.” (Called Marston Matting, in honor of its inventor)

The jail-keep was tiny Helen Grindle. She ran a tight ship. Grindle worked many shifts at local canneries, usually up in the can loft, wearing pristine white gloves. She was well known for her meticulous attention to detail, for without the cans shooting down, the cannery didn’t can.

When Jackie showed up to check on Randy, Grindle told her she should be home watching her kids, a rejoinder Jackie still remembers to this day. As Jackie and Helen heatedly discussed this issue, Randy pondered the possibility that he might have a cellmate, albeit a very familiar one, for the night.

After the Outboard Shop closed late that day, young Rick Weinrick, who worked at the front counter, stopped by with donuts and a deck of cards for Inmate Randy, to help him make it through the night.

Grindle refused to allow Randy to have the contraband until it was inspected by a police officer. 

“Maybe she thought Rick had slipped a hacksaw into the pack of donuts,” Randy surmised.

Finally, Kenny found a retired lawyer named Judge Collins, who was in fact an ex-judge. Evidently, he held court late in the day at the far end of the Club Bar. Collins submitted a hastily scribbled appeal to Magistrate Rod MacDonald, who had sentenced Randy to two days in jail.

Late that evening, Randy was notified that as soon as the clock passed midnight, he was considered to have served his two-day sentence.

The next morning, cleanly shaved and well rested, he received a hero’s welcome back at the Outboard Shop. It included fresh donuts and rousing applause. 

“I spent more time in jail than the guy that was on trial for stabbing someone at a local bar,” Randy quipped.

Did you ever get a jury summons again?

Yes.

Did you report?

Yes.

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Dick Shellhorn is a lifelong Cordovan. He has been writing sports stories for the Cordova Times for over 50 years. In his Cordova Chronicles features, he writes about the history and characters of this Alaska town. Alaska Press Club awarded Shellhorn first place for Best Humor column in 2016, and third place in 2017 and 2019. He also received second place for Best Editorial Commentary in 2019. Shellhorn has written two books about Alaska adventures: Time and Tide and Balls and Stripes.