The Big Piece
Doug types too much...
September 13, 2020
Labor Day weekends have been a bust for my wife Judy. Often. I say that, because in the 35 years we’ve been married, she has had to endure multiple Labor Day weekends watching things like James Bond marathons on TV while I pecked away. Or edited away. Or did something not related to relaxing.
On our 30th anniversary in 2015, we went to Vegas. Overall, it was a good trip, but we sometimes were overwhelmed by the bright lights and cacophony.
Highlights of the visit included a helicopter ride down into the middle of the Grand Canyon where we ate lunch, not to mention Judy getting stuck on a zip-line, suspended stories above Freemont Street crowds below who quickly fanned out in case her line snapped.
Judy doesn’t necessarily regard the zip-line part as a highlight. It’s been 5 years and she still gets a look on her face when I bring it up.
But the other notable highlight we definitely agree on was getting to be in the presence of “The Big Piece.”
“The Big Piece” is part of a Titanic exhibit showcased in the lovely Luxor hotel on the strip. When we paid our $19 each to go into the exhibit, we were unaware there even was a big piece. It was a surprise to us.
You get to see other stuff. Faithful recreations of areas of the ship including a replica of the Grand Staircase. There’s a fake iceberg. There are moments where it kind of crosses the line of being Vegas-y.
But then there are original deck chairs. Menus. Dishes. Watches.
The personal items are humbling. So much so, that when we visited (pre-COVID), people were mostly silent as they walked through. Much like it was hushed when walking the grounds of Dachau decades ago.
And then you get to the last room with “The Big Piece.”
It is the largest artifact ever retrieved from the ship which rusts away more than 2 miles below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. We are lucky James Cameron was able to film what’s left of the wreck when he made the movie Titanic over 20 years ago. Cameron says within another 10 years, there will be nothing discernable left.
Back in the late 1990s, an agreement was made to salvage a portion of the hull that broke off when the ship thudded into place at a depth of 12,500 feet way back in April of 1912.
A 26-foot wide section of the hull, 12 feet high, weighing 15 tons, perilously made its way to daylight. I say perilously because the first attempt in 1996 to hoist that 15 tons didn’t go well. After slowly pulling it up within 200 feet of the surface, ropes snapped and all 30,000 pounds went right back to the bottom, hitting with enough force to wedge the piece standing upright in the ocean floor.
In 1998, a second attempt was made to bring up the relic and remove the object from its lightless grave where the water manifests a cool 6,000 pounds of pressure. That’s per square INCH.
After a successful retrieval, the chunk then had to be specially treated in a laboratory for 2 years to prevent further erosion.
You’re not allowed to touch it. Its preservation is a delicate balance still. It’s hung from the ceiling facing you as you enter the room. The lighting is set to eerie. There are portholes, and at least one has had its metal frame cruelly bent by the pressure of the sinking. When you look at it from the side, the hull appears harrowingly thin. You can see how an iceberg would cut it like butter.
I wanted to touch it. And I can’t tell you why. Just like some jackass that wants to take a selfie with a priceless statue and then breaks off the statue’s toes or arm when he leans on it grinning like an idiot.
But I was good. I didn’t touch. I kept my hands in my pockets to check myself.
I was daunted. That’s a good word. After having knowledge of this iconic tragedy from a young age, it was an amazing full circle moment to be standing in front of a part of the real thing. Not a replica. You couldn’t touch, but you could stand inches away. And I did.
We were lucky that when we went into the room, we were alone. In between groups of people. It gave me time to savor. To reflect. To appreciate.
I have a fairly large lawn to mow. About an acre. Judy has transformed the yard from what it was when we moved in 17 years ago.
The house came with a John Deere riding lawnmower. Before Judy’s master gardener make-over, the John Deere made sense. But as Judy carved out more and more flower, bush, and tree beds, I found myself spending more and more time trimming around her developments with a regular push mower. Then it got to the point where I was not using the John Deere much at all, so we got rid of it. I now possess 2 push mowers – a Toro and a Honda.
Judy helps me mow sometimes. I frown on that and I welcome it at the same time. She is 68. I am a spring chicken at 65, yet she holds up much better than me. The last few mows this summer, I’ve done it myself. If you include weed-whacking, you’ll be out there close to 3 hours. I try to act brave. I do stupid stuff like waiting until I’ve stopped sweating and my forehead is cool, you know, bordering on heat stroke.
This year, the lawn is kicking my ass more than ever. On the last 4 mows, spaced roughly 10 days apart, I’ve mowed the lawn in sections, taking a day off in between – getting it done in 2 days rather than 1. The biggest section is what I refer to as “The Big Piece.” It’s mostly flat. Not too many things to mow around. But it still takes over an hour for that one part.
I am seeing my aging act out in front of my eyes when I look in the mirror each morning to brush my teeth. I have a right hip that likes to go out. When my hip is out, it likes to refer pain and swelling to my right knee. I haven’t seen my beloved chiropractor since March. I could go. She would take me in immediately. I’ve just decided to live with discomfort rather than exposing myself. And she totally gets that.
I like to push my limits. I’ve mowed more than once in over 100 degree weather. Ready to pass out at certain points, but doggedly putting one foot in front of the other.
Depending on the day, it’s not that bad, but there are definitely times where the experience turns out to be akin to being unceremoniously slid into a pizza oven. On those days, I find myself shedding my outer clothes on the back porch and going inside to collapse in my underwear under a ceiling fan, trying to drink in the cool of the house before getting cleaned up in the shower.
So here we are, barely a week after Labor Day weekend. Lots of people went to the beach, but not us. Nope. Our biggest event was our son Ivan and his wife Jenn and our granddaughter coming over for Sunday dinner. They are the only people we’ve socialized with since March.
Instead of relaxing and appreciating the fruits of our labors, Judy and I once again did the Little House on the Prairie thing. Well, at least on Saturday. Judy woke up that morning with a look in her eye.
“Let’s clean the gutters on the roof,” she said. “I’m feeling it today.”
I suffer from extreme vertigo. Afraid of heights. I was not always this way. In fact, I’ve stood on the observation deck of the Empire State Building and looked over without queasiness. And that’s tall. They say if you drop a penny off the top of that skyscraper, by the time it hits the sidewalk level, it is potentially deadly.
I was not afraid in the Big Apple. We even went and stood in the crown of the Statue of Liberty. It swayed in the wind. I thought it was my imagination, but then I saw a doc that mentioned the statue doing just that on windy days.
So heights were never a thing for me. But that all changed with a visit to a Savannah lighthouse in the late ’90s.
The lighthouse is 145 feet tall. 14 stories roughly. The observation deck at the Empire State Building is 102 stories. That lighthouse should have been a cake walk for me because it wasn’t my first time at the lighthouse rodeo.
Experience has taught me that anytime I or anyone else refers to something as a cake walk, the odds of that being a messed up stroll are high.
Ivan and I climbed the internal circular steps spiraling to the top of the lighthouse. When we stepped out onto the ledge at the top, the “fence” was a metal pole railing. That thin tube of metal was the only protective feature corralling you. I stepped out of the door and walked to the railing and grabbed hold with both hands.
That’s when I freaked. I froze. Immovable. And I still have no idea why God chose that moment to paralyze me with fear, but that’s when it happened.
Ivan saw the change in me.
“Dad, are you okay?”
“No,” I answered, white-knuckling, my hands fusing into the railing. “I am definitely not okay.”
Ivan calmly told me to back up the couple of feet to the door of the lighthouse.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t release my hands from the railing. I felt if I did, I would fall. And yet, there was no reason to think this.
My feet felt magnetized to the ledge like I wouldn’t be able to lift them if I tried.
Eventually, with Ivan coaxing me and holding one of my arms, I was able to moonwalk backwards to the safety of the lighthouse door leading back inside.
Releasing my iron grip on the railing took everything I had. It was totally irrational.
That shook me up. Took me a while to calm down.
Flash forward to the next time I attempted to get up on the roof to clear leaves out of gutters. Frozen. Vertigo. Alfred Hitchcock levels of vertigo. On top of a ranch house.
So far, Judy does not experience the anxiety I do about heights.
When it’s time to clear the gutters, if Ivan’s over, he gladly accepts the challenge. When he’s not around, Judy decides to take matters into her own hands.
On this past Labor Day weekend, Judy climbed on the roof and I mowed the big piece.
I filmed Judy up on the roof just in case it was the last footage ever taken of her. She looked good and she didn’t fall. Which is good, unless you’re holding out for an exciting tumble-off-the-roof ending for your video.
Sorry. I didn’t mean to type that out loud. That’s my filmmaker side coming out.
I was beat after mowing the big piece, but not as beat as I’ve been on other days.
I put fresh sugar-water in the hummingbird feeders. They’re diggin’ it. They’ll migrate in about a month.
So here’s to Labor Day. It was similar to others. I’m working on my 2nd book. Typing. Something totally different from my first one. We got yard work done. There is no rest for the wicked.
I am thankful for it all.
Although I do miss The Jerry Lewis Telethon. Maybe because it was around the whole time I was growing up. Plus as a young man, I answered pledge phones in Maine. More than once, actually. Jerry made you feel like you were doing something special.
Jerry is gone now.
Just like I’ll be gone one day.
So I try to be appreciative.
Fall is approaching. The hummingbirds will be gone. Judy’s flowers will all be dead. The bears around our area will go into hibernation. The grass will give me a break and not grow for a while.
I hope I make it to another Labor Day. We’ll see how I hold out.
Yeah, I’m not as young as I used to be, but I can weather through chores. I’m glad I can still mow the lawn without dropping over. Well, you know, so far.
I’m thankful for a lot of things.
We still have a roof over our heads. Climate-controlled home. Food in the cupboard.
Sometimes there are gin and tonics on the back porch while our Boston Terrier Sophie warms herself lying on the patio.
Hey, who knows? Maybe my second book will catch on, we’ll make a boatload of money selling the movie rights, and then we can hire young strong people to mow and get up on the roof.
Maybe. Or maybe there’s a warped satisfaction from getting it done. Knowing that despite the odds, you still got it.
Maybe we can get to a point where Judy just laughs and doesn’t give me the eye when the zip-line comes up.
You never know where you’re going to end up. Indeed, I’ve seen people go through character arcs that astonished – in ways both good and bad.
There’s a lot of craziness right now.
I’m trying to live in the present moment. Trying to do my best. Learning how to jettison negative vibes. And lemme tell ya, it ain’t always easy.
The Big Piece in Vegas was symbolic in many ways. You can’t have all of it, just a piece.
And that’s how I’ve had to adjust to life. Yeah, I’m not half the man I used to be, as Paul McCartney once lamented, but you know what? I’ll take what I can get. I’ll take what’s left and be happy about it.
I shouldn’t complain about cutting the grass.
I try not to.
‘Cause in the big scheme of things, you’re lucky to have a big piece to mow.