Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Meeting Captain Phil Harris

I'm a big fan of the documentary program Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel, which documents crab fishermen at work in the Bering Sea off the Alaskan coast. I love every one of the captains covered in the show -- they're a pretty fantastic bunch of guys -- but my favorite right from the start has always been Captain Phil Harris of the Cornelia Marie. I got to meet him briefly a few years ago. Like many of the captains, Phil is a local, from the Seattle area. He is a serious Harley fanatic, and on August 11th he made an appearance at the Harley Davidson shop in the town of Burlington, 30 miles south of me. I grabbed my camera and drove down that day for the chance just to see him and say hello. I arrived fairly late in the event; the live music was done, and it was clear that many people had already gone home. The place was fairly quiet, and I didn't see Phil around. I got nervous that I was too late, but I hung around a bit to see if there was still a chance to meet him. After a few minutes, a door opened on an R.V. parked nearby and several guys stepped out, engaged in conversation. Among them was the immediately-recognizable, oddly charismatic Captain Phil. He talked with a couple of guys from the R.V. and stood around the parking lot for a few minutes, and I debated whether I should approach now or wait for a better chance at the risk that he could suddenly leave. I waited, and after a few minutes he was approached by a couple biker guys, a couple of women, and a few kids. He was friendly to everybody, but was also entirely true to the gruff personality viewers know and love. After a couple minutes he walked over to the side of the Harley building and sat at a table where there was a stack of fliers and some silly ocean-related decorations in the background. The few people who were still left at the event gathered around and each got a chance to meet him, have a few words, and get an autograph. There were only a few people still around, so my turn came quickly. He signed a flyer for me, and then I asked he he would sign another for my friend Piper who is also a big fan but is in California and I figured would never get a chance to meet him like this. Captain Phil Harris autograph (Also, here's the flyer he signed for Piper.) "So are you taking your sons out again next season?" I asked him, referring to Jake and Josh, his two boys who have worked with him on the Cornelia Marie and seemed to be the apparent eventual heirs to the business. "Oh yeah, definitely," he said. I've since learned that Phil is a bit of a salesman ("he could sell a ketchup popsicle to a woman in white gloves," one of the guys said on After The Catch tonight), but I was surprised when he asked me, "You want one of the shirts?" and gestured over to the tee-shirts emblazoned with the Cornelia Marie logo. I had some cash on me and was already aware of those shirts -- I'd seen them online -- so I enthusiastically replied "Heck yeah!" I gave him my size, and he grabbed a shirt and started to hand it to me -- but then he paused and asked, "Want me to sign the shirt, too?" Redundantly, but even more enthusiastically, I replied "Heck yeah!" I handed over a few bucks and he signed the shirt for me. I thanked him and stepped away. While other people took their turns at gabbing and getting autographs, I remembered my camera. I snapped just a few shots. Captain Phil Harris Sure, I would have loved the meeting to be a bit longer. I wished I'd said something more substantial, and thought of things I wished I'd said. But I'd come down only to say hello and maybe get a photo, but I unexpectedly came away with two autographs, plus an autographed shirt -- and a terribly cool memory. Captain Phil fished three more seasons after that summer of 2007. During the 2009-20010 season, while the Cornelia Marie was just finishing offloading at the crab processors, Phil, who had already faced significant medical issues in the previous year, suffered a major stroke while still aboard his ship. He was flown to the hospital where he eventually awoke, and for a while appeared to make progress toward recovery. But in early February this year, Captain Phil Harris died. I feel very fortunate that I got to meet him, however brief and casual it was; he has many thousands of fans across the country and around the world who will never be able to meet him. I was lucky. Bless you, Phil, and thank you. You are missed.

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