Chris Markham: Mississippi Odyssey, excerpt 4

A few hours before dawn, awakened by the rumbling of the Harriet M's engines, I found a serious Buddy Howell hard at work in the pilothouse. Working the engine control levers to command just enough power to hold the boat against the current, he was keeping the towboat's facing knees square against a four-barge tow.

"Check those facing wires, Walter," he comanded over the intercom. Light from the searchlamps poured across the barges, Jeff Mitchell, the relief mate; three deckhands and Walter, who was working into the next shift, strung a cat's cradle of inch-and-a-half steel cable to bind the barges into a single raft. This would be secured to the towboat's flat-nosed bow. "I think I want some stern wires, too, Walter."

Over the intercom came the cry of straining, steel wires; the click of ratchet gears; and the clatter of chains as the crew working the graveyard shift finished assembling the tow. From the darkened pilothouse I caught a glimpse of the mate as he went from rigging to rigging, double-checking the crew's work. And always he kept a watchful eye on the young deckhands.

"Lashing a tow or breaking one up is the most dangerous time for the deckhands," Buddy told me as he constantly scanned the barges' decks with the searchlight. "Sometimes a wire will snap, and if it hits a man right, it'll cut him in two where he stands. Or a hawser will pop and throw a man into the river. They all wear life jackets out there, but a life jacket isn't much good to a man if he gets caught in a strong current or an eddy."

Fortunately, I never saw a man get hurt while I was on the river. But stories of recent accidents and deaths were always with the deckhands. One man that Buddy told me about had recently fallen off a barge during a lockage and was crushed between a barge and the lock's chamber wall. Later I met a deckhand who had escaped with his life when a line had broken. It had only creased him, and he considered himself lucky because he had, "only got some scars and lost an eye."

"Working on the river is hard and dangerous work all right," Buddy said. "But I wouldn't want to work anywhere else. A man doesn't belong in an office, accomplishing nothing but wasting his silk for a few people he never meets, and who don't care to meet him."

Buddy told me that he'd graduated college and tried his hand in the cafeteria business with his father before he started to work on the river. That was 1952. And once, just a few years ago, he tried to leave the river.

"I guess every riverman tries to leave the river sometime," he said. "I left a couple of years back and started selling insurance. I did pretty good, too, but there wasn't a day that I didn't think about the boats; it just gets into a man's blood."

Copyright 2004 Chris Markham, All rights reserved.

excerpt 5