I struggled this month to come up with a topic about which I had something to say. I tried two or three and ended up erasing them all. I sat back and let my mind wander. What had I been thinking about lately? And then it hit me.
For the past few years, I've been a big fan of the Discovery Channel's reality show Deadliest Catch. Unlike many low-brow garbage reality shows, Deadliest Catch actually has a ring of reality to it. Each week, we're taken on a journey into the deadliest job in the world, crab fishing on the volatile Bering Sea. I'm amazed at what these guys face just to keep the world in crab legs. They fish in hurricane force winds, huge seas that will tip a boat without thinking twice, and crippling ice that can sink a boat in no time flat. They haul up crab pots while it's way below zero and they're soaking wet. It looks like my idea of hell, quite frankly.
But it's not the crab that interest me so much but rather the people who go out in search of them, their very human stories. We see so many sides of these guys -- the utter fatigue after working for 20 hours straight, the frustration when the crab pots come up empty and they're basically working for free, the jubilation when a crab pot comes up full, the thought and effort that goes into some of the best practical jokes on the planet, the grief when they lose one of their own (at a staggering rate of one person per week during crab season). We are witnesses to fights among the crews, injuries, near-death experiences, the stress captains constantly live with, family dynamics since many of the boats have multiple family members on board, and the sort of wild cowboy mentality many of these guys have. It's obvious from the start of the theme song -- Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" ("I'm a cowboy, on a steal horse I ride") -- to the shots of the chain smoking and bleeped words.
To be honest, I probably don't have a lot in common with these hardy fishermen, and I think that's part of what makes Tuesday nights fun. I get to watch a slice of life I'll never experience, get glimpses into the lives of people who aren't just characters, who haven't gone soft with the ease of modern society. They're real, and over time you grow to feel like you know them even though you've never met. Sig Hansen of the Northwestern's hard-driving fishing style, Johnathon and Andy Hillstrand's hilarious senses of humor aboard the Time Bandit, the Harley-driving/rock-and-roll listening/tell it like it is lifestyle of Phil Harris on the Cornelia Marie and his insistence that he could smell crab farts (which met with much teasing). I can't tell you how many times I've laughed out loud at Johnathon's crazy jigs in the wheelhouse when the fishing is good or been on the edge of my seat as the Coast Guard races into horrendous weather to rescue a crew in trouble.
I'm the kind of person who gets attached to fictional characters even though I know they're not real. When Buffy killed Angel in season 3, I bawled like a baby! So when it's real people, it's even harder to watch -- and yet you can't stop watching. There have been deaths on Deadliest Catch through the years, but they were never among the featured crews. The boats going down emphasized that this is, indeed, the deadliest job in the world. You saw how it affected the crews we did see each week. And you prayed that this never happened to them. So far, it hasn't, thank goodness. But this season suffered a major loss anyway. In January, while in port at St. Paul Island, Alaska, Captail Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie suffered a major stroke and had to be flown to Anchorage. He pulled through the initial surgery to relieve pressure on his brain and looked to be on the mend before he suffered a second event and passed away in early February, leaving his sons Josh and Jake, deckhands aboard the Cornelia Marie, to keep his legacy alive. For a guy who wasn't hot on a cameraman in his wheelhouse in the early years, it was amazing that he asked to see the cameraman who'd become his friend while he still couldn't talk. He wrote on a piece of paper to keep filming, that "you have to get the end of the story." And thus, we witnessed the final days of Phil Harris and all the raw emotions felt by family, friends, his crew and fellow captains. Just thinking about that makes me want to cry.
And I'm not the only one who felt this way. Millions of people love this show, these crews, Phil. They've converged on memorial services and shed tears, filled online message boards to bursting, and watched Phil's final few episodes to the tune of 5 million viewers -- astounding numbers for a cable show. Phil provided endless hours of entertainment, but perhaps one of the most important things he left with viewers was the knowledge that we should cherish every day because we never know when it might be our last.
Rest in peace, Captain Phil.