Chris Markham: Mississippi Odyssey, excerpt 6

A double locking operation is a long (about and hour and a half) and tedious chore, and at the shift-change the next morning some of the deckhands grumbled a little as they flocked around the pilot's maps and tried to estimate how many of the nine double lockings each shift might catch.

"You'll find what locks you gotta make when you get to 'em," Walter teased. "You'll have the boys back east thinkin' rivermen don't like workin', so stop pussyfootin' round them maps, and get busy soochin' them decks and these windows."

The men, still calculating mileages and possible lock delays, scrambled out of the pilothouse. Walter sat in the small, leather lounge at the rear of the pilothouse and spread a day-old Sunday newspaper across his lap.

"I wonder what they woulda done if they hadda go out on them barges with pound-and-a-half hail stones fallin' on 'em," he said, shaking his head, "like I done one day back in the fifties. Those hail stones were as big as cannon balls -- hit the trees on one of them islands and cleared a path so big you could take a boat through if it had water on it," Walter told me. Captain Hanks, pouring a cup of coffee, gave the mate a sideways glance, then screwed up his eyes. He'd heard this one before!

"I had to go out there and tie up the barges with one hand," Walter continued, "and hold a GI can lid over my head with the other to keep them ice balls from knockin' my head clean off." He then adjusted his small, wire-rimmed reading glasses and began leafing through the newspaper. "Yessir, wonder how much complainin' they woulda done then," he added. Soon Walter would be doing a little grumbling himself, though not because of the new size of our tow.

"D--!" Walter cursed a few minutes later. "First Sunday paper I take time to read in I don't know how long" -- he kept rummaging through the pages -- "and it don't have 'Snuffy Smith' or 'B.C.' Best two funnies there is," he declared, "and this paper don't have 'em. I gotta good mind to write this paper a letter," he said and stuffed that week's Des Moines Sunday Register into a waste basket, and stormed out of the pilothouse.

"Walter's getting Channel Fever," Captain Hanks told me. "Most likely he's gone to shave off his beard right now. Always does that when he starts thinking about home," he laughed, "because his wife won't let him in the house with it."

Walter would be clean-shaven at the evening meal that night, and very quiet. We would be eating in the Harriet M's kitchen, but his thoughts would be with his family in Mt. Vernon Indiana.

Copyright 2004 Chris Markham, All rights reserved.

excerpt 7