Out Front, October 1997
"Back when I was single, if a date was beginning to bog down, I'd just slip in the fact that I was the Human Fly," admits George Willig, the renegade rock climber who in 1977 found instant fame by shinnying up the 110-story World Trade Center in front of a worldwide television audience, unwittingly paving the way for everyone from fellow building climber "Spider Dan" Goodwin to
professional "faller" Dan Osman and for everything from Battle of the Network Stars to ESPN's X Games. But when probing his memory for more tales from that heady time, the Human Fly, now 48 and living in southern California's San Fernando Valley as a remodeler of commercial buildings, seems to dredge up some demons. "That climb really heightened my neuroses," Willig says,
apparently still struggling with some unresolved issues concerning his inner fly. "It made me aware of just how lacking in self-confidence I really am. I mean, if you're Mr. Confidence, do you really
Not to imply that things didn't seem great at first. The stunt immediately landed him on The Tonight Show, Good Morning America, The Merv Griffin Show, and ABC's Wide World of Sports. Then the Fly scored stuntman gigs on such popular — and not so popular — shows as The Six Million Dollar Man, Trauma Center, and Hollywood Beat. But after about two years, Willig's gravy train ground to a halt, and he was left with no choice but to recede into private life. "My wife didn't even know I was the Fly until just before our wedding," Willig says. "I tried playing the videotape one night, but she just fell asleep." So does this mean we've seen the last of the Fly? "Not necessarily," he says. "Who knows, maybe some ad exec will read your article and say, 'Get me the Human Fly on the phone.'"
For three years, he was at the center of the maelstrom. Secretary of the Interior James Watt seemed to court controversy the way Warren Beatty courted starlets, moving from one brouhaha to the next with what could be termed dexterity — if trouble was indeed a goal in itself. Watt offered up the nation's old-growth forests for virtually limitless logging, pushed the biggest sale of federal coal in American history, and tripled the amount of government land leased for oil exploration. He referred to an environmental advisory board as "a black, a woman, two Jews, and a cripple." He even banned the Beach Boys from the National Mall. In doing so, he was at once both the best and worst thing ever to happen to environmentalism. His visage of smiling villainy proved the most effective marketing tool that mainstream green groups could imagine, helping membership rolls to swell by more than 50 percent. But he also gave new hope to ranchers and oilmen and loggers everywhere, and laid the groundwork for an anti-environmental movement, called Wise Use, that to this day remains perhaps environmentalism's most cagey nemesis.
Watt, of course, was ultimately forced to resign, felled, as seemed inevitable, by his uncanny knack for inserting his Tony Lamas firmly in mouth. He moved back to Wyoming in October 1983 and opened a law office in a log cabin near Jackson, where he would spend the next dozen years in relative peace. For upward of $5,000 a pop, he'd hold forth on the topic of capitalism in front of conservative groups and on college campuses. He wrote a regular political column for the Casper Star-Tribune. And he represented American Indian tribes seeking federal permission to drill for oil on public lands. (After all, he once compared the Indians' plight to "the failure of socialism.") Then, last year, Watt made perhaps his most disturbing statement yet: He confessed to bamboozling the United States of America. It seems he'd pocketed more than $500,000 in the mideighties to help clients obtain HUD housing contracts and then attempted to mislead a federal grand jury about his involvement. The guilty plea did, however, allow him to dodge a prison term; Watt was fined $5,000 and sentenced to five years' probation and 500 hours of community service. But for those who may think he got off easy, au contraire. Under the terms of his probation, the 59-year-old hunting enthusiast is forbidden to carry firearms until the year 2001. Said Watt, apparently oblivious to the irony he imparts on the clichë, "I would not wish this experience on my worst enemy."
THE DEVASTATION OF KUWAIT
As a parting gesture, it was a doozy. Late February 1991: the end of the Gulf War. Faced with overwhelming opposition, Saddam Hussein's Iraqi army beat an ignominious retreat from Kuwait. Before it bailed, though, it stole more than a million ounces of gold and ate the inhabitants of Kuwait City's zoo. Of course, the troops reserved their most malign destruction for Kuwait's oil fields. Bombing wells and opening valves at collecting stations, the Iraqis bled out an estimated 40 million barrels of oil, a dump more than 150 times as large as the Exxon Valdez spill. Much of this crude spread into a 300-mile slick in the Persian Gulf, while onshore it pooled into deep petroleum lakes. Most famously, some of the oil fields flared into hellish infernos, throwing a half-million tons of greasy soot into the air every day.
Capping those fires was the priciest of Kuwait's cleanup operations, ultimately costing the government $1.5 billion. It was also the showiest, thanks to the firefighters' chest-thumping front man, Red Adair. Still, with a lot less fanfare, other recovery operations in the region have been nearly as trying. The shallower pools of oil soon evaporated — revealing more than 530,000 land mines, which took ordnance teams, moving just inches at a time, about a year to detect and disarm. Meanwhile, the Kuwait Oil Company has begun the painstaking process of reclaiming crude from the deeper lakes, thus far salvaging about ten million barrels.
But plenty of devastation remains. More than 300 petroleum lakes still exist, and millions of barrels' worth of sludge lies atop the sand, poisonous to desert birds — and apparently also to humans: Postwar cancer rates among Kuwaitis reportedly rose so noticeably that earlier this year the government commissioned a major study of the war's health effects. A preliminary report is due in 2000.
In the meantime, environmentalists are hopeful that the damage will be repaired — though they admit that day remains distant. "Local populations of fish and seabirds are just now starting to rebound," says Paul Horsman of Greenpeace's International Oil Campaign. "But sometimes large stretches of beach can look like a tarmac road. That's how much oil still washes ashore."
THE COUSTEAU LEGACY
Jacques Cousteau had barely passed away before the knives came out. First his eldest son, Jean-Michel, 59, complained that his stepmother didn't call him with news of his father's death last June and said she refused to look at him during the funeral. Then Francine Cousteau, 52, the headstrong stepmother in question, fired off a press release stating that she was now "chairwoman and president of the Cousteau Society" and had "exclusive use of the Cousteau name."
Ah, the famous Cousteau name, the pearl at the oyster-heart of this bitter family feud. Who should carry on the legacy of the great undersea explorer: the former airline stewardess who married Jacques in 1991 after a 15-year affair that produced two children, or his less-than-favorite son?
Anybody who watched The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau closely knows that Philippe was the apple of Dad's eye, and not long after Philippe's death in a 1979 crash of the Flying Calypso, Jacques made it abundantly clear that he didn't trust Jean-Michel to carry on his life's work. Then, two years ago, things got ugly: Jean-Michel was sued by his father to stop him from calling his ecotourism venture the Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort (the dispute was settled out of court when Jean-Michel agreed to add his first name to the title). But to hear the son tell the story, the real problem was that Dad had fallen under the wicked spell of Francine, who married Jacques just one year after Jean-Michel's mother, Simone, died of cancer at 72.
Since Cousteau's departure at age 87, the battle for his legacy has only intensified. Just weeks after Francine's name-grab, the would-be prodigal son countered by creating the nonprofit Jean-Michel Cousteau Institute. Freshly inspired "to lead a global effort to halt marine devastation," Jean-Michel says he has received "an overwhelming outpouring of support" at his father's passing, which he says he interprets as a "cry out for someone to carry forward the irreplaceable work" of his father. Touchë. Your move, Francine.
Sometimes even hellions grow up. Or seem to. When Bill Johnson won the 1984 Olympic downhill, it was in the guise of the classic teenage rebel (though he was 23 at the time). He'd been pinched for car theft, had a history of overindulgence in consciousness-alterers, and did not lack for preening self-confidence. After the first training run, for instance, he proclaimed that "everyone else is here to fight for second place." The fact that he was right, becoming the first American male in 60 years to win an Olympic alpine event, did not endear him to his rivals. Some hinted his gold medal would soon turn up in a pawn shop. But Johnson had other expectations. Asked what winning the gold meant to him, he grinned into the camera and said, "Millions."
Now 37 and living in San Diego, Johnson has defied all predictions, hanging onto his medal and skiing on a made-for-TV professional tour, while also acquiring a wife, two sons, and a penchant for golf. In short, the brash young punk has become just as boring as the rest of us. "He's intimately involved with his family," gushes his mother, DB Johnson. "When the kids need something, he jumps right up and does it. He's a regular Mr. Mom." Adds wife Gina, "He's great with the kids. He takes them swimming almost every day. He's quite different, I guess, from how I hear he used to be." But does this mean the rebel has completely vanished? Thankfully, no. Asked whether he bagged those prophesied millions, Johnson grins just as mischievously as ever. "I've spent a couple million," he proudly declares. "And I had a good time doing it."
IRON EYES CODY
If you were around in the seventies, chances are you can't forget the TV spot for Keep America Beautiful: An American Indian in beaded buckskins paddles his birchbark canoe through litter-clogged waters past a smoking industrial eyesore. He takes out on a filthy beach and hikes to the shoulder of a freeway, where someone heaves a sack of slop that splatters at his feet. When he turns to the camera, grieving and proud, a tear wells in one eye and rolls down his cheek.
The Tear launched a thousand crusades on behalf of nature and made us turn from our garbage in shame (it even persuaded my cousin Mike to flick his empties into the backseat of his Fairlane instead of the Missouri River). The Tear also made Iron Eyes Cody's one of the world's most recognizable faces. When he was introduced to Hirohito, the former emperor reportedly exclaimed, "You Cry-Man!"
By the time he became a legend, Cody had already forged a career playing Indian roles in more than a hundred oaters, appearing with Roy Rogers, Gary Cooper, and John Wayne. He's been honored with a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame and received an award from the film industry's American Indian community for his charitable contributions. Keep America Beautiful even plans to resurrect The Tear in a new campaign this fall, though there's a whiff of scandal in the air. While Cody insists that his mother was Cree and his father Cherokee, a recent report in the New Orleans Times-Picayune suggests that this totem of Native American oneness with the land was in fact born Espera Corti in Vermilion Parish, Louisiana, the second son of Italian immigrants. Cody, now 93 and living in Los Angeles, vigorously denies the story. "All I know," he proclaims, "is that I'm just another Indian."
Ten years ago, Dennis Conner grabbed national hero status. Using gutsy racing tactics and a literal boatload of cash, he snatched the America's Cup back from Australia — avenging his loss of it three and a half years earlier. Fizzy adulation followed, of a nationalistic type seen only by Charles Lindbergh and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. Despite his decidedly unathletic physique, Conner became the prototype sports icon for the go-go age: the Corporate Athlete, flying a Fortune 500 flag.
Of course, Conner's he-with-the-most-money-wins approach would soon turn around and bite him. In 1992 Conner lost the America's Cup defender series to billionaire Bill Koch; three years later he was soundly defeated in the Cup finals by a $30 million syndicate from New Zealand. But no matter. Fittingly, on the day we track him down in San Diego, Conner is on the water, getting ready to try his hand at marathon sailing in the Whitbread Round-the-World Race, which commences this month. He has also filed a challenge for America's Cup 2000, though tellingly — in a sport that has come to seem as much a contest of fund-raising as it is a test of seamanship — he has yet to secure the necessary sponsorship to begin building his boat. "Since I've been sailing," he says, "there have been two great changes: in technology, which has enabled the boats to be built of much stronger and lighter materials, and in the effort that must be put forth by the competitors themselves. Sailors spend a lot more time planning their 'total sailing program' than they did 20 years ago."
As an antidote to the business of sailing, Conner says he's been spending a lot of time on his "personal sailing." Still, at 55, the man who made the America's Cup matter to every kid who ever rented a Laser has no immediate plans to retire — not when there's still money to be raised and races to be won.
Two decades ago, you could hardly go 24 hours without hearing mention of killer bees. Aggressive natives of Africa imported to Brazil, the bees had escaped their hives, bred with the locals, and lit out for northern climes, where it was frantically assumed that they'd rampage, sting, and yes, kill their way across America. Hysteria reached fever pitch; the phrase "40 stings per square inch" entered the common parlance. Killer bees were the yellow peril of the day, fretted over in the media, lampooned on Saturday Night Live, and exploited by clever entrepreneurs, one of whom promoted breakfasts complete with "Killer Bee Honey" slathered biscuits. "I suppose the alarm was somewhat understandable," says Glenn Hall, a bee geneticist at the University of Florida. "It sure sounds like a horrible way to go."
Well, in case you haven't noticed, killer bees now live among us. Thus far, Apis mellifera has set up housekeeping in Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California. The U.S. death toll? Enough to fill a basketball team, if you don't mind playing without substitutes. In other words, they certainly haven't proved to be the buzzy spree-killers imagined. "The name gives the impression that they intentionally go out of their way to sting," Hall explains, "but really they're defenders, not aggressors." Indeed, it also appears that the bees have spread about as far as they're going to, at least for now: Their eastward migration has been thwarted by the parasitic varroa mite (which is also responsible for the demise of untold billions of run-of-the-mill European honeybees, but hey). And as for the north, they've reached the limits of their climatic range. So St. Paul can rest easy. But you southwesterners, take heed: Killer-bee populations in your neck of the woods are growing as much as tenfold each year.
"I'm king of the Conch Republic!" proclaims treasure hunter Mel Fisher, referencing the title bestowed upon him by his fellow government-wary residents of south Florida — and seeming to actually believe he is some sort of monarch. Fisher, you may recall, came to international prominence in 1985 when he discovered $400 million worth of sunken treasure aboard the Spanish galleon Nuestra Se˜ora de Atocha off the Florida Keys. But today, the 75-year-old is ravaged with lymphoma and exceedingly tired from a seven-year battle against the federal government over the controversial Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. The preserve's establishment in 1990 brought with it strict regulations regarding the methods that can be used by treasure hunters and fishermen. Fisher and his cronies have argued ever since that the restrictions violate their civil rights. "The government wants everything," says Fisher, who spends much of his time lobbying politicians to kill the marine sanctuaries program and spewing antigovernment vitriol on his Web site (www.melfisher.com). "The salvage rights, the oil rights, the property rights, everything. They rammed this sanctuary down our throats."
But despite Fisher's most crotchety efforts, it doesn't look like things will be changing anytime soon. In fact, a federal judge in Florida ruled this July that Fisher's company must pay $589,331 to restore sea grasses damaged by his son while hunting treasure within the sanctuary in 1992. Still, both his illness and the verdict not withstanding, Fisher remains primarily obsessed with one thing: hunting treasure. Though his children now manage the actual salvaging — including the recovery of gems from Emerald City, a section of Atocha wreckage that Fisher claims holds smuggled riches not listed on the ship's manifest and worth upward of $2 billion — he takes care of his company's, um, vision. "I can tell you that we've recently discovered Atlantis," Fisher boasts, straight-faced. "I know no one will believe it until they see it, but for now I'll only say that it's in this hemisphere. We're going to pump out part of it, make it dry, and leave the rest underwater. We'll build cruise-ship docks." He pauses a moment and then resumes, lowering the volume a notch to convey the appropriate urgency. "Of course, it'll take some money."
It was 17 years ago, on a camping trip to the Mexican desert, that Dave Foreman, Mike Roselle, and Howie Wolke started laying plans for what would become Earth First!, America's most notorious environmental-activist outfit. Or so the legend goes. Followers waged war behind the rallying cry "No compromise in defense of Mother Earth," engaging the enemy through tree spiking, billboard chopping, bulldozer monkeywrenching, and the like. Such was the group's reputation that when the government exposed an alleged plot to cripple two nuclear power plants and a nuclear-weapons facility in 1989, the feds immediately accused Foreman, who was, by his own admission, "guilty of many crimes — but not this one." Ultimately he struck a deal in which he pleaded guilty to one conspiracy charge in exchange for a suspended sentence (he had been facing up to five years in prison). But the end for Earth First! was close at hand.
With Foreman enmeshed in his legal troubles and openly feuding with Roselle, feminist labor organizer Judi Bari was left to spearhead the group's high-profile 1990 Redwood Summer campaign. Still, despite the media attention it was getting, Earth First! was becoming increasingly factionalized — its monkeywrenchers and pacifists finding it ever more difficult to work together. Then, in May, a pipe bomb exploded in Bari's car, seriously injuring her. It was a seminal moment: The movement quickly lost whatever steam it had left. "We went from being a rednecked, uncompromising wilderness group to being a bunch of left-wing anarchist punks," says Foreman. "We lost our effectiveness."
Indeed, right about the time of Foreman's plea bargain, the group's founders parted ways, leaving Earth First! to become largely a youth movement, organized into regional chapters and focused primarily on local issues (Bari headed up the group's northern California efforts until shortly before she succumbed to cancer earlier this year at age 47). Foreman, meanwhile, has come to eschew the confrontational style of environmentalism. In 1990 he founded Wild Earth magazine and a year later started the Wildlands Project, an ambitious enterprise which proposes that national parks, wilderness areas, and other parcels of wild land be connected to one another in regional networks. He also sits on the Sierra Club's board of directors — a clear-cut tack toward the mainstream if ever there was one. Roselle, in contrast, has stuck to his roots, founding an outfit called the Ruckus Society to teach nonvioilent direct-action techniques to budding young pains-in-the-gluteus for the likes of Earth First!, Greenpeace, and Rainforest Action Network. As for Wolke, he now runs a backcountry outfitting service called Big Wild Adventures, which takes clients into remote areas of the West and preaches the importance of conservation. He remains friendly with both Roselle and Foreman, but the latter two don't speak. "He's a cowardly, lying little bastard," Roselle says of Foreman, as if no further explanation were needed. Apparently Earth First!'s spirit of confrontation lives on.
When we last checked in with Umbra, the most accomplished four-legged open-water swimmer on record, in July 1994, she was training for an English Channel crossing with owner Ted Erikson. Unfortunately, it seems the one great feat that would propel Umbra to fame and fortune just wasn't meant to be. "I hate to say it," admits Erikson, wistfully, "but I don't see any chance of going farther with our Channel attempt."
A 69-year-old retired science teacher from Chicago, Erikson once held the record for the fastest double crossing of the Channel and was hoping Umbra would become the first non-human ever to paddle across the famed 21-mile stretch. "Everybody wants to see her do it, but if you're not Tiger Woods, you don't get the big bucks," he sighs, explaining in frustrated tones that Umbra was foiled not by bone-chilling water and treacherous currents, but by the $10,000 expense, England's mandatory six-month quarantine, and objections from animal-rights groups and the ever-stodgy Channel Swimming Association. "It's all about money and politics."
Even without the Channel crossing, however, Umbra's swimming career has been an unparalleled success. The seven-year-old Labrador retriever-greyhound mix started out on the streets, but after being adopted by Erikson in 1990 and logging more than 600 miles of tandem swimming, she now holds four canine-swimming world records, including a crossing of the Bosporus in 1995 (two miles, 31 minutes). At press time, Umbra planned to end her competitive career with two more feats, highlighted by a re-creation of amorous Leander's ill-fated swim across the Hellespont that's scheduled to air this month on TBS's National Geographic Explorer. Don't recall a wet dog accompanying the protagonist en route to fair Hero? Well, it seems Erikson has taken some poetic license with Marlowe. "The new version is that Leander's black dog got lost in the night, and he and Hero met their end while looking for the dog in the water," he explains. "We're hoping to re-create everything except the drowning." And as for Umbra's retirement pursuits? "That'll be up to her," Erikson says, a bit forlornly. "But it'll probably be something involving birds, rabbits, and squirrels."
This June, Richard Leakey stood before a group of conservationists in Harare, Zimbabwe, clasped a fluffy stuffed animal to his chest, and proudly pronounced himself a "bunny-hugger." The gesture — a bit cutesy coming from a man regarded as the hard-nosed Eliot Ness of wildlife conservation — delighted the audience, which gave him a standing ovation. But it was a poignantly empty gesture. A week later, delegates at a UN conference voted to lift its worldwide ban on the ivory trade.
The decision dealt a blow to Leakey, who as head of the Kenya Wildlife Service for five years beginning in 1989 almost single-handedly saved the nation's elephants by enforcing a shoot-to-kill policy against ivory poachers. It was also simply the latest in a string of setbacks for the renowned 53-year-old paleontologist and former chairman of the nonprofit East African Wildlife Society. In June 1993, Leakey was so badly injured in a plane crash that both his legs had to be amputated below the knee. His lengthy recuperation afforded an opportunity for officials in the Kenyan government — who had long disliked the imperious son of renowned bone-hunters Louis and Mary Leakey — to move against him. Local bureaucrats publicly accused him of "racism, arrogance, and corruption," and Minister of Tourism and Wildlife Noah Katana Ngala launched an investigation into "mismanagement" at KWS. Besieged, he had little choice but to resign.
After the ouster, Leakey, who lives in Nairobi with his wife, Meave, took a year off to "think things over." Just when friends began to remark that he seemed to be mellowing, however, Leakey changed course again. He helped start a political opposition party called Safina, which promptly denounced the brutal regime of strongman Daniel arap Moi. In so doing, Leakey incurred Moi's considerable wrath.
For the last two years Moi's regime has conducted a campaign, waged unabashedly in the local media, to paint Leakey as an Islamic fundamentalist, a traitor, an atheist, and a Ku Klux Klan collaborator. The actions haven't merely been paper ones: Leakey was burned in effigy by pro-Moi demonstrators and beaten in the street by what he suspects were government thugs. Despite such trauma, Leakey continues to leave his considerable mark, both within Kenya and the natural world at large: He recently published his seventh book, The Sixth Extinction, a treatise on how half the world's extant species could be extinct by early next century. As for his feud with Moi, he has no intention of backing down. Still cantankerous and incorrigible, Leakey vows to "keep fighting until Kenya has been liberated."
Rosie Ruiz will forever remain a mythic American figure, and not merely because of that moment in 1980 when she wandered off the Boston Marathon course — some reports had her hopping into a cab — and then rejoined the race with about a mile to go. Bill Rodgers, the men's winner, was among many who couldn't help noticing that the cellulite hanging from her legs seemed a bit incongruous for the first woman to cross the finish line at a stunning 2:31. And Jacqueline Gareau, later declared the victor, thought it odd that the original winner didn't seem to know what interval training was.
Were such a thing to happen today, Rosie Ruiz would immediately appear on Oprah complaining of early-childhood trauma, and soon we'd be wishing she would just go away. But not long after her moment of infamy, the 26-year-old Cuban ëmigrë simply disappeared — and the few details of her life to emerge since have made her even more intriguing. She was fired from her job as a clerk for Metal Traders in New York City (the boss says he wondered what else she was lying about), arrested in Manhattan two years later for grand larceny and forgery (receiving five years' probation for swiping $60,000 from the real estate firm she worked for, subsequently revoked when she failed to appear for a court date), and then busted in late 1983 for attempting to sell two kilos of cocaine to undercover agents in Miami, an offense for which she received another three years' probation. Today she lives in a townhouse in West Palm Beach with her longtime companion, Marta Upegui, one of the women arrested with her in the drug sting — and steadfastly refuses to speak with the press.
Indeed, after all this time, we still don't know why Rosie Ruiz did it. Or precisely how. So we're left with a truly modern myth, a refreshingly blank slate onto which we can project our own fantasies of athletic deceit. Rosie Ruiz remains a hero to all weekend warriors with flabby legs who know there's only one goddamn way we'll ever win a marathon: Take a cab.
Updates by Kevin Fedarko (Richard Leakey); Amy Goldwasser (Umbra); Karen Karbo (Dennis Conner); Paul Keegan (The Cousteau Legacy, Rosie Ruiz); Paul Kvinta (Mel Fisher); Elizabeth Royte (Killer Bees, Earth First!); Bill Vaughn (Iron Eyes Cody); Donovan Webster (Kuwait); and Brad Wetzler (George Willig, James Watt)
Illustration by David Miller