Thursday, April 28, 10:30 p.m., Victor Hotel, Miami Beach.
The only unknowns are the elements.
We are here to encircle 11 islands with pink polypropylene. The project has been beautifully engineered, every scenario calculated and considered. Except the weather . . .
I've been on Christo jobs before, and the prospect of coming to South Florida to work on "Surrounded Islands" was a pleasant one, indeed.
Project headquarters are at the Pelican Harbor Yacht Club. A perfect location. Islands to be surrounded are to the north and the south of us. I see lots of people from the "Wrapped Walkways" project in Kansas City. Sort of like a class reunion. I see Christo's wife, Jeanne-Claude, immediately. "Bill! You are finally here. Go straight to the staging area."
Security is tight. This is Interama, the staging area for the entire project. All the fabric--6 million square feet of it--and the Styrofoam booms that will encircle each island, are stored behind us. Christo asks that no one take photos here. "Is not my art." Makes sense.
Four groups of 100 or so workers have come through. Each gets CPR, safety, environmental and wildlife lectures. Then, we open a cocoon and "blossom" the fabric, to demonstrate what will happen on the islands. Seems simple enough, but we'll see. Friday, April 29.
We go to Pelican Harbor, our point of embarkation, this morning. The radio coughs. "Where is Beel? Beel Dawnlap." Christo is up at Interama, looking for me, and I'm in the wrong spot.
Get a boat to run me up there. He wants his son Cyril and me to co-captain Island 12. (There are 14 islands in the group, all numbered, but we are not covering them all.) We need to select our crew. We get 12 people from Ohio State, six from Birmingham Southern, and several area artists. And then Christo brings over four sturdy Haitians, because Cyril speaks fluent French. A good group so far. I note an unusually high proportion of attractive, nubile young water nymphs in our congregation of 35 or so. Must be because Cyril speaks fluent French.
Good humor prevails. The first day we will search for shore and land anchors, previously installed by project engineers. The anchors have been ingeniously hidden under crushed beer cans so as to blend in with the topography of the island. We will clean up the island and can expect to find anything.
Question from crew: What to do should someone find more copies of Hitler's diaries? We appoint island literary agent.
Cyril and I confer. We agree we must keep morale high at all costs. I haven't seen him since his freshman year in college four years ago. As Christo's son, he expects (and will get) no special treatment. Saturday, April 30.
Arrive Pelican Harbor Yacht Club 6 a.m. Assemble our troops. Pass out sandwiches, apples and official uniforms: long-sleeved, cotton, pink designer shirts and white, French Foreign Legion-type hats with visor and neck protector. Also large pink personal carry bags, containing gloves, sunscreen, garbage bag, toilet paper and one-gallon water jug. Everyone transported to their respective islands.
Half the crew polices Island 12. The other half searches for anchors with the aid of a topographical map. Fifteen bags of trash are collected. Among finds are an Orange Bowl seat cushion and remains of a standard poodle. There is some speculation that the dog may have been a victim of the santeria cult, which allegedly uses animals in its religious ceremonies. But I see no such evidence. A sad business. Pet lovers among us give it a proper burial. On with the anchor search.
There's not an awful lot to Island 12: coral rock, scrub pine. No wildlife, except a large colony of fire ants. Sunday, May 1.
At 5:30 this morning we return to Island 12. Purpose: to install underlayment--18 large sheets of pink mesh fabric that will protect the pink polypropylene from wear caused by rocks and tide. Good productive day.
We return to the hotel to a May Day celebration. Maypoles on the beach. Two-for-one drinks in the bars. The historic preservation people are in evidence. The Art Deco district on South Miami Beach is the project's residential headquarters. The year-round residents, like so many characters in an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, seem pleased but perplexed to have us descend on them. Relations are cordial, even friendly. "You all came down here for what?"
I saw Washington artist Rockne Krebs the first night. He's been down here all winter installing his "Transparent Paper Airplane Piece" in the Miami International Airport. Patti LaBelle and the cast from "Your Arms Too Short to Box With God" stroll into the hotel. To an ovation. Monday, May 2.
Everything on schedule so far. Our crew reports at 12:30 p.m. to put the perimeter booms and fabric in the water. They will be floated out to the islands and installed there by our boat crews.
We're the second shift. The first shift managed only 16 of the 72 booms, some of them 600 feet long. Lord have mercy. Procedure as follows: Pairs of people, equipped with nylon slings, are stationed along the boom at six-foot intervals. When the 200 or so people lift these large pink shafts and walk with them, the procession resembles a huge centipede. We walk into the bay, knee-deep, before releasing the slings. Then, the booms are pulled away. The work goes slowly. The sun gets hot. I don't think some of them have ever worked this hard in their lives.
It is after midnight when the last boom enters the water. In today's paper, our surrounded island shared headlines with a convention of Bataan Death March survivors. The irony is not lost. Tuesday, May 3.
Everyone sore and tired. Most of our crew takes the day off, and deservedly so. Cyril and I and a handful of other people go back to island to secure underlayment. Island 12 still unringed. We learn that near-fatal fatigue struck our boat crews last night and they just turned their radios off. Not a good sign. No booms, no blossoming tomorrow. And the weather is acting up a bit. Gin and tonic time. One can't be too careful in the tropics. Wednesday, May 4. Blossoming day.
Early call. The weather is very questionable. At 5 a.m., so am I. Arrive on Island 12 before dawn, only to discover our booms and fabric still have not been put in place. Angry weather has wrecked the underlayment. We spend several hours putting it right. Wind is billowing the fabric on the other islands. Only all-Spanish-speaking Island 14--we call it Salsa Island--is making progress. At 10:30 a.m., general orders go out to cease unfurling until further notice. It's no go for today. Back to the hotel.
We spruce up a bit and depart for Key Biscayne. There's an afternoon party at the Palm Bay Club penthouse. We'll be there. Thursday, May 5.
Arrive Pelican Harbor at 4 a.m. Little activity. Weather is wet and windy. Forecast is for clearing by noon. Attend island captains meeting. Listen to yesterday's disaster stories. Wind getting under fabric, uncontrollable, billowing like a parachute, ripping fabric from the booms, pulling the lines from people's hands. No one hurt, though. Possible solutions mentioned: Tie sandbags to fabric edge; put swimmers in the water; wait for the wind to die. Everyone seems pretty flat. I turn on the TV looking for weather report. I find only prayer sessions and test patterns. We could use the former.
I continue to flip through the channels until somewhere on UHF I come upon one of those borderline exercise shows, where several slender women contort while imploring their partners at home, "Come on, now, you can do it, now, don't stop now." As fate would have it, they were all in pink this morning. I flip through several more channels and suddenly, there we are. A nice overview of Biscayne Bay. More pink out than I thought. Salsa Island is complete. It looks terrific. Eleven, 12 and 1 are partial. The voiceover says, "Weary Christo art army hopes for better weather on Thursday."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude come in and listen to a replay of disaster stories. At the utterance of the word "problem," Jeanne-Claude says, "We have no problems. We have situations." She is just the sort you'd want next to you in a fire fight. Her attitude seems to say, "Danger is my business and I'm late for work."
My turn to report. The boat crews had been unable to ring Island 12 Tuesday. And two-thirds of our crew is leaving tomorrow. They're out of time and money. I'd call this a serious situation.
However, I add, some of our crew got a real morale boost yesterday. In the lobby of the Key Biscayne Sonesta Hotel, there's a huge Christo drawing of what Island 12 will look like when surrounded. It's a beauty. We all looked at it for a long time and decided that the drawing was more useful to us than most of the technical talk and radio instruction we'd been getting.
Christo smiles, ever so slightly. He says that sure, yesterday was terrible, but we shouldn't feel down. That he doesn't know how to surround an island, he's never done it. That none of us has. The island captains and crew must use their imagination. They must interpret his plan, fantasize solutions, improvise, be creative! (I jot down: "less concern with rules, more concern with results"). Then he says, "I go next door and give pep talk. I tell them to improvise, be artists, surround these islands!"
What happens next is a very moving spectacle. Christo goes into the next room. Scores of island workers are half asleep, lying on everything and each other. He speaks for a few minutes, there's applause. A few more minutes of pep talk. Then thunderous applause. I walk in about then. The kids are on their feet, pumped up, smiling, laughing, showing no signs of fatigue. They are ready to surround Guadalcanal, if so ordered.
Christo spends the rest of the morning a captive of his crew, signing postcards, hats, shirts, arms and legs, looking at drawings and generally being available. Gifts are offered him. An epic and seemingly endless poem is read in his honor. He endures it.
Finally, at 11, the weather clears.
Christo announces that crews from Island 11 will join with those from Island 12.
Around 6:30 p.m., we free the last fabric panel perfectly. The 18 pull lines attached to the fabric are held in the anxious hands of the island crew, a weary, sunburned, sore bunch of college students, Haitian laborers, artists, engineers, a professional hang glider pilot and a former Playboy bunny. On command they all start to pull, slow but steady. Pink polypropylene--120,000 square feet of it--slides sensuously through the water. No billowing all day! Specially trained lacers, using four-inch wooden dowels and links of pink nylon line, swim out on rubber rafts and deftly begin lacing together the pink skin that closes around this little pile of coral rock and pine trees like a collar.
After a week of exhilaration, frustration, fatigue and fellowship, Island 12 is surrounded. Friday, May 6.
I sleep late. Too much hot sun and cold water pour moi. Now I, too, speak fluent French.
11:30 a.m. We go around the corner to the Cuban cafe'. Order three cafe' Cubanos, that rich, syrupy coffee that acts on the system like a controlled substance. Am wired now.
Sid Bartholomew, one of the coordinators, calls to say come down for a helicopter ride. I do. It's truly spectacular. The scale--200 feet of pink beyond the island edge--is just right. The fabric rises and falls with the water, ripples and bellows with the wind, hard and soft, rigid and malleable, all at once. Lots of possibilities for all sorts of illusions.
Just as we were finishing up Thursday, a dozen pelicans in perfect V-formation came in at 30 feet from the north. As they flew into the island's "air space," the color was reflected on their undersides like a spotlight. They turned a hot pink before our very eyes. A chorus of "oh, wows" went up.
That moment was like magic. And it might just pass for art. Saturday, May 7.
I was in the headquarters trailer this afternoon when Christo came in, flushed from his first aerial view of the project. Three film crews were trailing him, and he was gesturing and smiling broadly. "Was beautiful, was beautiful. This," he said, "is my most painterly piece." I noticed his right thumb was bandaged. What happened? Jeanne-Claude replied incredulously, "He wrapped it!"
I am always taken aback by the sense of naivete' that Christo has maintained. Maybe it's more innocence than naivete', but whatever it is, it's totally incongruent with his awesome record of accomplishment in the hard-as-nails art world.
The press--foreign and domestic--is everywhere in evidence. The Miami area media have not so much covered "Surrounded Islands," as blanketed it. Hourly reports on local television. Helicopters hovering over every sign of activity. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are gracious interviews and any of us caught wearing a pink shirt or assuming a position of authority is likely to be someone's highly placed source. "Surrounded Islands" has monopolized the letter-to-the-editor section. Early coverage seemed to center on environmental issues, until it became clear to even the most skeptical that not only did the project offer no hazard whatsoever, it would in fact benefit the 14 islands by removing tons of garbage left by boaters. Local interest then turned to money--the often-mentioned $3.1 million price tag--all of it raised privately by Christo and spent in South Florida (except the $180,000 cost of the material which was imported from Stuttgart).
Surely the worst-headline-of-the-hemisphere award goes to the Miami News, over an otherwise informative piece concerning Christo's uncanny ability to negotiate the difficult waters of state and local officialdom: "The Clout of Jaunty Christo." Sunday, May 8.
Eastern Flight 190, nonstop to D.C. Am literally worn out.
After we take off and start to climb, the pilot banks to the left, and speaks over the intercom. "I just want to wish all you mothers aboard a happy Mother's Day." And then, in lieu of flowers, I suppose: "Now if you will look out either side of the airplane, you can see those surrounded islands down there in the bay. I think there are nine or ten of them."
Long pause. I am moving from one side of the plane to the other, shooting the last frames on my last roll of film. Pilot comes back on. "Not bad, huh?" he says.
Not bad at all.