For more than two years, every one of us faced an endless set of decisions about how we were going to navigate the pandemic — to go to the restaurant or not, to attend that wedding, to meet inside with a new love interest. As the pandemic has went on, that risk analysis has lost its sense of urgency for many of us, but not all of us. For the very old, the chronically ill, the immunocompromised, the constant weighing of what is worth the risk and what isn’t continues. Earlier this year, my colleague Cristal Duhaime met a man named Chillie Falls as he was about to return to doing the thing he loves most in spite of the possible dangers. From New York Times Opinion, I’m Lulu Garcia-Navarro. Today on “First Person,” Chillie Falls and the choice to keep cruising.
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Morning, welcome to “Travel and Cruise Industry News,” coming to you from Bedford County in Central Virginia.
I first came across Chillie on YouTube, where almost every day he does a livestream all about cruises.
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Got a lot of stuff on the agenda for this morning. Cruise ships sailing today from U.S. ports.
For more than a year, the cruise industry shut down because of Covid. But at the end of January, Chillie was getting ready to go on his first cruise since the pandemic started.
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In Miami, Freedom of the Seas, who I will be on. And what’s it now, 59 days or something?
Come in the house.
A few days before Chillie was scheduled to board the Freedom of the Seas, I went to visit him.
You don’t have to take your shoes off.
This is a farm.
Yeah, right, this is a farm.
This is my sister Jean, by the way.
Hi. So nice to meet you. He lives in Forest, Virginia with his sister and her family.
And if you hear the cats in the background, we have two cats running around. We call them our Covid kitties. We rescued them during the first part of the pandemic. And their names are Charmin and Cottonelle, so.
And then through here is my bedroom, actually. It’s also where I record all my shows. I have some lighting. I have — of course, I call it my big butt microphone. But this is where I do all my craziness from. And then, of course, I travel away from here whenever I can to go on cruises, which I’m getting ready to do. Probably need to stop —
— for a second. You could tell I was getting a little out of breath.
Aggravating part of being on oxygen. I do fine sitting. Walking, standing, 30, 40 yards total, I get out of breath, and I got to give myself a little jolt. And it takes, you know, a second or two.
Now, this was one of the four original rooms that was built in 1904. When my mother moved down — so you want me to go back to the I was born and raised, and things?
OK. Well, I was born and raised in Roanoke, Virginia.
OK, just a second. You just peaked there.
Oh, I’m doing it too loud?
Yeah, it’s a little bit too loud.
All right. Well, my real name is Charles Mason Falls Jr. Everybody’s called me Chillie all my life except for one teacher who refused to use nicknames. My dad was Big Chillie. My sister decided when I was born that I was going to be Little Chillie. So I was Little Chillie as long as my father was alive.
My father was a disabled veteran from World War II. He was one of the first people in the —
Chillie’s parents weren’t cruisers, but his mom did take Chillie on vacations to the beach.
I remember the first time we went to Virginia Beach, for instance, camping trips to Myrtle Beach, several trips in the summer up to New England. We were like friends. I mean, yeah, she was my mom, and she would fuss at me for doing bad things, but because of that travel I just loved being around the ocean.
When did you realize that cruising was not only something that you like to do, but maybe part of your identity?
That’s a very tough question for me.
Chillie went on his first cruise in 1978. A group of friends invited him and his second wife to join them on the Carnival Festivale.
It left from Los Angeles and went to the Mexican Riviera, which had three ports of call — Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta. We were into some rough seas a couple times on that seven-day cruise, but it didn’t bother me.
What was it about that first experience that you fell in love with?
The entertainment, the food, the bars. I have been just about everywhere that you can go in the Caribbean, from the Bahamas to all of Mexico East Coast ports, Panama, Colombia, Jamaica. I’ve been to St. Thomas, St. Kitts, St. Lucia.
I go to a buffet breakfast. And right after breakfast, I’d work on my vegetable level. I go to the first bar that’s open and get a Bloody Mary, which has tomatoes. And it’s usually got a stalk of celery. It might have an olive. It might have a pickle. And I like to take that and go get in a hot tub.
Grenada, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao. There’s always a new person to meet, something different on every port. Sitting in a hot tub with a priest, we talked about religion, and we talked about world — walked across the bar stark naked, sat on my barstool, and said, excuse me, bartender, may I have another bourbon and Diet Coke, please? Now, I may have had an adult beverage or two before I did that, these scrumptious piña coladas.
I ended up with a hot date. She was 96 years old. Turks and Caicos, Trinidad, Canada. Back in those days, it was just going — you’d party, and you’d come home with a seven-day hangover and not even think about it. I’m much better behaved now, sort of.
Bingo and trivia contests, game shows. So there’s something to do literally all the time. Art. Some people love —
Wait, we’ll wait. The cat.
Charmin, that’s enough, dude.
That’s a pain in the — art galleries. There’s an art gallery on almost every ship. They have fabulous art on some ships. The new Rotterdam from Holland, America —
Can you tell me the last cruise that you were on?
My last cruising was side to sides. I was on the Zuiderdam and then the Carnival Sunrise.
I got home on the second of March, and then everything shut down in the cruise industry because of the pandemic.
When cruising shut down, Chillie’s world got really small. He spent months at home in Virginia, watching cruise after cruise get cancelled. Then in November 2020, he started feeling off. He thought he had a urinary tract infection, and he went to his doctor. His doctor decided to check for prostate cancer. He ordered a PSA test. PSA readings over 10 often mean there’s trouble.
My first PSA test was 484. Yes, in fact, I had prostate cancer.
Mine had spread throughout my entire body. It was in some 60 different places, including my lungs. Because I was a smoker for 56 years, they wanted to do a test to make sure I didn’t have lung cancer. In fact, I had prostate cancer in the lungs.
Chillie started chemo. Within a few months, he was also put on oxygen and had to go to respiratory therapy three times a week.
I will never be cancer-free, but it’s under control because of the chemo that should hopefully keep everything in balance and the PSA doesn’t go up.
If I didn’t have a future ahead where I could get back on my boats, I could get back at sea, I’m not sure how I would handle it.
I’m happiest on a boat on the water.
Packing is something that I’m terrible at. I do it last minute. So I end up missing things, but basically I start thinking about what I have from the skin out. So the first thing I do is grab underwear. The second thing I grab is socks, pants slash shorts, T-shirts.
They usually have one and sometimes two fancy dinners where everybody on the ship will dress up a little bit. I got a new sport coat. That reminds me, I never got the shirt.
But yes, I ordered a new sport coat because it’s been years since I had a new one. So I called my friendly tailor. I went in to get measured because I had no idea what I would wear. My body has changed a lot this past two years.
So it’s over here in the closet, which is a disaster waiting to happen.
It’s a navy blue sport coat with a little hanky in the pocket.
Can you call Jimmy at his store and see if my shirt ever came in? And if it did, pick it up — two, three, four, five —
To get ready for cruising, Chillie had been working on strengthening his lungs.
Normally, he would have gone to respiratory therapy at the hospital, but there was a surge in Covid cases. So Chillie decided to do some of his exercises at home.
Got to switch legs and lead with the other leg. One, two, three.
I’m losing my breath. Four.
I think a lot of people would think, oh, Chillie, you’re probably the last person who should be traveling during a respiratory pandemic, given your needs for oxygen and your difficulties. Do you have any doubts at all about going onto a cruise ship in a few days?
None. I believe just as much as I believe my name is Chillie Falls that I will get on a cruise ship and be safer there than I am to go nine-tenths of a mile from my house to Kroger’s to the grocery store.
I’m curious — what does your oncologist say?
My oncologist, knowing my love of cruising, was all in favor of me going on cruises. My urologist, knowing my love of cruises, said, I have no problem with you going on a cruise. My pulmonologist and my pulmonary therapist have no problem with me going on cruising. They look at it and realize how important it is to my mental health when I can do what I love the most.
I don’t want to exist. I don’t want to live like I’ve lived a good bit of the last year.
How do you think about — how do you think about that tension between just existing and actually living?
Over the past year, existing got erased from my knowledge book because I couldn’t do things that I did for myself. I couldn’t go out to eat on my own. It was awful to me. It was awful to the people I’m around.
I had issues where, especially dealing with the catheter, which there were accidents. I couldn’t clean it up because I couldn’t take care of myself. I had to ask, you know, my sister, my brother-in-law, my niece to do things that a grown man just doesn’t want to do. At least I didn’t.
I couldn’t even remember how to use my phone because my mind was so muddled from the chemo.
The best part of a year was spent in there in much air with the television on, even though I couldn’t figure out how to change channels, till I could get to the point that I could come out to the dining room table and sit, and have meals.
So existing is not something I want. I want to live.
Let’s get started. To begin the testing process, go to eMed’s website and click Start Testing.
I am nervous. Wow, just — ah. Obviously, if I test positive, that’s the end of the ballgame for these cruises.
Even though Chillie was fully vaccinated and boosted, he also had to show proof of a negative Covid test taken within two days of getting on the cruise.
And I’m doing how many drops?
The test had to be verified in real time and on camera.
Two, three, four. Fifteen minutes and we’ll be here. All righty, thank you. Oy vey. I’m not even sure what I’m supposed to see, whether it’s a faint line or a — oh, positive is no line. Negative is a line.
No, positive’s two lines.
Oh, positive is two lines.
We’re down to nine minutes now. And I have nothing happening. I just have the control line and nothing below that. So I’m feeling a little bit better.
Six minutes and 35 seconds. Still the news is good. We’re down to five and a half minutes. Nothing, just the one line. It’s looking really good.
It’s looking really good, folks. There’s nothing. Four minutes and 50 seconds. Clock is ticking. It’s at two minutes now.
Is that a second line?
Don’t you tell me that. No, it’s not a second line. A minute to go. Do we ring a bell? I have a bell —
40 seconds. 20 seconds. Feel like the guy at NASA. T-minus 15. Put me on a rocket, and send me to Miami. Five, four, three, two, one.
[TIMER CHIMING] Timer is finished. I’m ready.
Can you hear me?
Yes, I can hear you.
I see one pink line and nothing else.
I’m going cruising! Cruising for a bruising! As long as it doesn’t snow on Sunday night into Monday morning would be the next possible issue.
On January 24th, I met Chillie aboard the Freedom of the Seas.
In the evening, he parked his rented scooter outside my cabin and joined me on the balcony.
The waves were calm, and the lights of Miami were getting smaller and smaller as the ship sailed out to sea. How was dinner?
Good, very good.
What did you have to eat?
I had a shrimp cocktail, a Caesar salad, prime rib, and key lime pie for dessert. It was very good.
It was getting dark out, and Chillie was clearly exhausted.
I could go lay down and fall sound asleep because that’s how relaxed I am right now.
I don’t worry too much anymore about where the ships go.
Just being on the ship and out here somewhere, it doesn’t matter to me where it goes.
This is it.
Two long years.
Yeah, it’s been a rough two years for me.
Over the next four days, the ship sailed to the Bahamas and back. Chillie went to bed at eight o’clock most nights. He didn’t go to a single show. He didn’t do the hot tubs. And the meet-ups Chillie had planned to attend just didn’t happen. The ship was probably half empty. And because of pandemic protocols, they didn’t sit Chillie next to anyone but me at dinner, which was the only thing he did most nights besides film stuff for his YouTube channel. Hello —
Ah, you’re wearing your suit for the first time. You managed to get the shirt too. But he did put on his new suit with the hanky in the pocket.
A Bloody Mary tonight.
And he did have a cocktail or two.
He went to a sushi and sake pairing.
I have a feeling the sushi here is going to be somewhat different than sushi from Lynchburg, Virginia.
And had a scooter race with a fellow passenger.
It was a tie.
You got to be from Massachusetts.
What gave it away?
Oh, no doubt about it.
Chillie wasn’t the same person he was two years ago, but he was cruising again.
Good evening. And welcome to “Chillie Falls Live” from the Freedom of the Seas, the last night here on board Freedom of the Seas. Yes. I decided, folks, despite the threat —
A few days after the Freedom of the Seas got back into Miami, Chillie got on the MSC Seashore, and then shortly after that the Divina, and then the Meraviglia. He has a total of 16 cruises planned for 2022.
Today’s episode was produced by Cristal Duhaime. It was edited by Stephanie Joyce with help from Larissa Anderson and Kaari Pitkin. Engineering by Isaac Jones. Original music by Isaac Jones and Carole Sabouraud. Fact checking by Mary Marge Locker. The rest of the “First Person” team includes Courtney Stein, Christina Djossa, Olivia Natt, Derek Arthur and Jason Pagano. Special thanks to Kristina Samulewski, Shannon Busta, Kate Sinclair, Jeffrey Miranda, Paula Szuchman, Irene Noguchi, Patrick Healy and Katie Kingsbury.