Last updated on March 27th, 2019 at 10:28 pm
In the summer of 1974 I worked for a month on a towboat, pushing barges up and down the Mississippi and Ohio rivers. This was just something to do for part of my summer between college terms. A friend had mentioned how much he’d earned as a deckhand, and that he’d been able to save virtually all of it. Room and board were taken care of, and there was no way to spend money on the boat.
However, the river had been the furthest thing from my mind during the years that followed. I’d graduated from university and had gone through some momentous experiences. I’d spent the last half of ‘77 and the first half of ‘78 receiving what I considered my “real education,” driving a taxicab in St. Louis, Missouri, where I’d grown up.
By that time, I’d been a devotee of Meher Baba for six or seven years (see “Coming to Baba”). I desperately wanted to make a pilgrimage to Baba’s tomb-shrine in India, but as experientially rich as cab driving was, I realized I could do it for the rest of my life and never save enough money for a plane ticket to Bombay.
After work one day, I took my cab to the garage to claim my weekly days off. Someone else would use the vehicle during my absence. Getting in my own car, I had a whim to drive to a nearby park. There, I sat down under a tree to relax. A moment or two later, a simple but significant thought slid into my head like magic: “If you get a job on a riverboat, you’ll be in India in a month.”
I’ve read that spiritually advanced people can “put a thought in your mind,” no matter what the physical distance is between you and them. Maybe someone on the other side of the world cared enough to help me—the experience felt that unusual! Or perhaps, less intriguingly, my subconscious mind had prompted me.
At any rate, considering the idea, I recalled that I’d earned $1,750 for my month of work in ’74, and plane fare to Mumbai was a good deal less than a thousand dollars back then. I’d be able to make enough for travel and expenses! Excitedly, I phoned the taxi company and told them I wouldn’t be back. The next day, after an excursion to the bookstore to buy a copy of Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, I went down to the National Maritime Union hall near the riverfront.
After paying dues, I sat in the hall and read for an afternoon. No luck. I came back the next day. Midway through the morning, they called my name! A few hours after that, my parents were driving me the hundred miles south to meet the boat in Cairo, Illinois.
I shouldered my duffel bag, climbed aboard, and asked the first hand I saw where to report. He pointed to the wheelhouse. I ascended the metal stairs and introduced myself to the captain, a man who was around 35 years old, and was dressed like a Sunday golfer. He gave me my room assignment and told me a fellow named Al would be my foreman. I could find him in the galley at dinnertime. When my shift started, he’d show me what to do.
It wasn’t long before the boat chugged away from the dock, heading south. We pulled a tow of 15 barges filled with corn and coal. I had the luxury of watching the shore go by for a pleasant hour before the dinner bell clanged and I went inside. The meal consisted of fried chicken, vegetables, and cornbread. Dinners on the river are legendary: lots of fried fish and chicken—of course, as much as anyone wants, as the work requires constant replenishment.
An hour later I went to work—swabbing decks, as they say. Al was a kindly middle-aged man who’d been working the river for a long time. I was fortunate to get him, as some foremen, to put it mildly, don’t say “please” when they ask you to do something.
All the way to new Orleans
We drifted downriver. The Mississippi below Cairo, known as the Lower Mississippi, is a bit less labour-intensive than the Upper Mississippi. Its banks are too sandy to hold the locks and dams that abound on the upper river. Going through these canal locks, in order to bypass stretches of dangerous low water, is a somewhat complicated procedure.
I watched the boat pass big cities like Memphis, Tennessee, and historic sites like Natchez, Mississippi. Finally, we were in Louisiana. We dropped a barge at Baton Rouge in stifling heat. The next morning when I woke up, we’d docked in New Orleans!
There was no shore leave in the French Quarter! Taking apart our whole tow and then assembling another, all under that blazing summer sun, took a long, long day. The labour of chaining barges together and then tightening ratchets—the metal connectors with springs that retain increased tension as you turn their handles—has to make a tow so tight that it will remain snug going upstream against the current. The ratchets seemed endless, even with a number of local workers supplementing our crew. We worked under the direction of a wiry, sunburned New Orleans foreman whom everyone called “Dago,” who curbed his abusive tongue for no one.
Of all things!
While we were working, news came that a hurricane was on its way up from the Gulf of Mexico! How exciting could life get? But I had to take it all in stride—or rather, while bent double. Work faster, we were told! Rather than wait out the hurricane in port, where heavy winds could wreak havoc even if our boat was tied up, we were going to try to outrun it.
We left New Orleans at around six in the evening. An hour later, as the sun (still shining in a clear sky) began its glorious farewell, news came that we were chugging upstream at three miles an hour and the hurricane was chasing us at four! This information “ratcheted up,” so to speak, the thrill. At 10 p.m., the captain decided we’d put ashore.
Almost unbelievably, to my landlubber sensibility, I was chosen to be part of a small “landing party” that waded into the river to carry a rope ashore and tie up the boat and tow by fastening it to a thick tree trunk. This primitive form of “technology” was how we secured our multi-million dollar tow! Throughout our stretch of wooded shore, there was no discernible sign of human presence. I felt like one of the Spanish conquistadors who had explored the region in the 1500s.
In the morning, we learned that the hurricane had veered off during the night. We were safe. We untied and continued our journey north in peaceful, placid waters.
The loveliest sight
When Huck Finn speaks about the beauty of the river in the aforementioned Mark Twain novel, even that “macho” character lapses into an almost feminine rhapsody, using the word “lovely” more than a dozen times in the book:
Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time. Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.
Many stretches of both the Mississippi and the Ohio rivers still retain these qualities. My single favourite activity was going out to the end of the tow in the middle of the night as the engine was cut and we crept toward a canal lock, back on the upper river. I would hold a rope that was secured to the barge. My job was to give the end of the rope to a man on shore, and he would then loop it around a thick post. The tow would keep drifting forward, but the rope would catch it, and after a mighty series of harrowing creaks, we’d be securely moored and everything would be still.
Stories made the rounds about legendary slip-ups, when even these special ropes would snap and cut a deckhand in half! But everything was so lovely during these times as to make worry impossible! Though the canal itself was manmade, Nature was in her glory there. The mist on the water, the million stars in the black sky, the fresh smells in the air, and the green of the grass and trees on shore were as close to an experience of pure beauty, pure heaven, as I’ve ever had! At night, it was so silent, you could hear the choir of stars’ song.
Another sight to remember
Going up the Ohio late one afternoon, I was working out at the end of the farthest barge, nearly a quarter of a mile out from the towboat, making sure the ratchets were tight and attaching a few more to secure a barge we’d just picked up. As we went around a bend, the city of Louisville, Kentucky came into view. This was another practically other-worldly sight! I stopped for brief rests from time to time during my intense labour, just so I could behold it again and again.
Uncannily, what I found to be the two most breathtaking views on the river were opposites: Nature at her most beautiful, and an urban setting seen “impersonally” as we slid by, its skyscrapers creating a new design every time our angle of view changed. Somehow, I felt—as a person does, even, driving past a large city on a freeway—that by seeing all this, I somehow contained it! And indeed, as Baba had said once, “It doesn’t require a large eye to see a large mountain,” for the soul is greater than all it perceives.
The city emerged as impersonal Beauty. As viewer and worker, I felt privileged and empowered.
The river people all run together in my memories: bosses, deckhands, foremen, cooks, and the chief engineers who mostly stayed in the deafening engine room. Many of them remain “flat characters” in my mind, but a few stand out.
Neither captain I met was at all friendly. Both appeared slightly surly. They seemed more like businessmen working for Chromalloy, the conglomerate that owned the operation, than old-time “skippers.” The chief, as a boat’s head engineer is called, had a wry smile and kept his own counsel. A college man with a Master’s degree, he seemed to feel somewhat set apart from the others on the boat.
My foreman Al was a greying, balding fellow around 55 years of age. I don’t recall him ever speaking harshly to me. He was avuncular, even fatherly, but I got the impression that like many who live the river’s month-on, month-off lifestyle, he drank away much of his shore time. Another young deckhand and I joked privately that he was of Polish ancestry and his last name was “Kohalek,” but this was more of a comment about what seemed to be a general tendency among tow workers, than about him personally.
John the pilot, Frank the foe
I made one actual friend on the boat: John, the pilot, who steered when the captain was asleep or taking a break. The pilot has the same navigational skills and knowledge of the river as the captain, but doesn’t bear the same legal responsibility for the tow.
As I was cleaning the wheelhouse one morning while John was steering, I noticed a guitar case leaning against the wall, so I asked John if he played. When he said yes, I mentioned that I did too, and had my own guitar on board. After that, he and I began to sit together from time to time and trade songs. Once, we took turns making up songs on the spot. He was pretty good at this. He told me he’d ghost-written songs for big rock bands. His greatest success, he said, had been the Eagles’ hit, “Lyin’ Eyes.” I was sufficiently impressed with his skill and creativity to believe he may have been telling the truth. I didn’t know the song at the time, but sought it out soon after getting back on land, and have felt a bond with it ever since. I especially like that one line, “She’s headin’ for the cheatin’ side of town.”
After John and I had gotten to know each other a bit, I told him that I was on the boat to earn money for a pilgrimage to India. He asked me about Meher Baba’s teachings. When I mentioned reincarnation as one of them, he told me he’d once had a very vivid dream of a dapper, full-mustached man in a Confederate army uniform, astride a white horse. He was pretty sure that figure had been himself in a past life. John gave me his address and asked me to write to him from India. Of course, I did.
There’s one other fellow I remember fairly vividly: Frank, a young man in his late teens. He may have been the only person on board who was anywhere near my age. He, too, played guitar and we also played together during off hours sometimes. We were bunkmates as well.
Frank was a temperamental person whom I believe used drugs. They may have exacerbated feelings of inferiority he had about his lack of education and his family’s social class.
We got along fairly well for most of the month. However, as I was about to leave the boat in Paducah, Kentucky, when my time was up, Frank suddenly became very belligerent. To hurt me, he told me that the captain had mentioned what a poor worker I was. Somehow, he reminded me of a cornered rat as he spoke, and I’m still not entirely sure what caused him to go off on me like that.
What he told me may or may not have been true. The words did sting a bit, as words easily do, but I’d done my best, and whether or not I was the greatest deckhand who’d ever lived, I would soon be off on my next adventure.
I got to have a bit of the “sailor in port” experience since something was wrong with our engine as we came into Saint Paul, Minnesota, another lovely sight with its cathedral atop a tall hill, and we had to go into dry dock for repairs. Although I still had to report for my shifts, I arranged my sleep so that I could roam a bit during my six hours of time off during the day. Walking the riverfront, I had breakfast at an old trolley diner with a “rogues gallery” of characters who seemed to have come out of a Diane Arbus photo album!
From the diner, I walked to the Radisson Hotel. I had a special reason for going there, as my river excursion had come during an intense period in my life. Just before getting on the boat, I’d written a lady friend to confess my love to her, and my letter had included a tape of songs that I’d recorded for her enjoyment. I’d just written one of them, about her! Its lyrics and melody had poured out of me, and I’d sensed that it would “turn the key” of her heart.
A packet of mail had awaited our boat in Saint Paul, including a telegram from my beloved that Dad had forwarded. Opening it, I learned that she really did return every bit of my love, and the song had been the catalyst! From the Radisson, I phoned her in Florida, where she lived. Together, we celebrated our union and made plans for me to fly out to see her after my river stint ended. Those were indeed heady times!
From Paducah, Kentucky, where I disembarked a week or so later, I caught a bus back to St. Louis and finalized my plans to go to my beloved. She fell into my arms at the Miami airport. We decided to get married and go to India together, for our honeymoon. A few weeks later, we walked up Meherabad Hill near Ahmednagar, India, and I prostrated for the first time before the shrine that contains Meher Baba‘s physical remains.