Finn Tames the Riverboat Rat

Sunset on the Mississippi

I like idiomatic expressions or, more simply ”sayings.“ Everybody knows, “Variety is the spice of life!” I always thought it referred to sex, but my sister says they’re talking about food. That one seems to have a universal application, but not all of them do. “Drunker than old Cooter Brown.” That one’s pretty local as far as I know, referring to a famous drunk somewhere around rural Missouri.

The Spanish “Cada loco con su tema,” means literally in English “Each crazy man with his theme,” kinda like “To each his own.” But the English one’s really a poor version of the Spanish saying which quite naturally equates craziness with life in general. That gives everybody a pass when they say or do something that’s really out of the ordinary.

People said and did some pretty unordinary things when I was working as a deckhand on a riverboat plying the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers. After getting a decent number in the draft lottery of 1970 to where I could tell I wouldn’t be headed to Vietnam in the near future, I’d decided to drop out of Amherst College after two years and see what the real world was like.

I had a couple of friends from back home who’d gotten work on riverboats. It was a great job for a guy who wanted to save some money and see the country. You worked thirty days on and thirty days off, maybe sometimes you could come back to work after fifteen or twenty days off, but most guys did the 30 & 30 when I was at it, and that kept the crews pretty stable. Those thirty days off I drove or hitch-hiked all across the U.S., and there’s some wild stories there for another day.

You didn’t spend a dime for the thirty days you were on the boat, and you ate like a king. I don’t recall exactly what it was, I just remember it was a banquet every meal. Country cooking, southern style. Of course, if you were a vegetarian or some other bizarre permutation unknown to the good ol’ gal cooking on the boat, you probably woulda starved to death, but for us deckhands, there was lots of tasty protein to keep the gas in our energy tanks. Because we had some pretty intense periods of work to get through, though it was nothing I hadn’t seen on the farm.

Six hours on, six hours off. That’s the way it was for thirty days. Two deckhands, a mate, a chief engineer, an oiler, a pilot, the cook, and the Captain. If you’re on the fore watch, you’re working from midnight to 6 a.m. and noon to 6 p.m. The aft watch is 6 a.m. to noon and 6 p.m. to midnight. I liked the aft watch, particularly in the summer. I saw every sunrise and sunset on the Mississippi River one summer month when we were doing straight St. Louis-New Orleans runs. Once on the lower Mississippi, I saw a deer swimming across the river at a place where it had to be a mile and a half wide. Like what was that deer thinking when it set out across the river? “I think I’ll take a little dip here to cool off….Oh what’s over there, maybe some grass that’s greener, if not I’ll just come on back. Oh shit, this river is really wide. Well I better keep on swimming or that towboat might run over me.” Well, stupid, deer don’t think like that, they just have instincts, at least that’s what we smart humans think about them. I wonder what they think about us — there must be a PhD dissertation somebody wrote about that somewhere.

Oh, back onboard the towboat. The two deckhands worked either the fore or the aft watch, one each, but the Captain, the mate, and the chief engineer all worked the fore watch. So it was nice to work the aft watch, along with just the pilot and the oiler. Things were a bit more relaxed there while we were between ports, which was at least half the time.

The hard work came when we hit St. Louis, Memphis, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, or Cairo (pronounced, Kay’-ro), Illinois. Cairo’s where the two largest rivers in North America meet, at the mouth of the Ohio River. These ports, or some smaller ones located next to large grain elevators or coal storage facilities, were where we had to make tow, which was the putting together or taking apart of the mass of 25 to 35 barges that were lashed together with heavy cables to make up a solid mass five or six barges wide and five to seven barges long. That mass, which was many times larger than the towboat itself, would be pushed up or down the river by our towboat and its twenty-cylinder diesel engine.

36 barges full of grain passing a shore boat and heading to New Orleans

At times you had to get a few barges out of the center of the tow, for which you required the aid of smaller tug boats. Those tugs came out from shore and were inevitably run by guys with an accent as thick as molasses, especially down in Louisiana. That Cajun accent was something that was melodically menacing, something I’d never heard before, and definitely an inside job. To those guys, members of the rest of the world were outsiders and barely tolerated. Our ignorant speech was a dead giveaway that we knew nothing worth knowing in their world. They seemed to be saying without saying, we’ll just do our job and you get on down the river and leave us alone, or you’ll be sorry.

We seldom got off the boat during a thirty-day ride. As a matter of fact, I only remember it happening to me once. It was on my 21st birthday, and I cut the hell out of myself with a pocket knife that wasn’t as sharp as it should have been. I still have the scar between the thumb and forefinger of my left hand. There was no chance to get a drink on this momentous day when I could have finally taken one legally, just went to a hospital, got it sewed up and went back to work. But I’ll always remember where I was on my 21st instead of it being a blur as it would’ve been if I’d been on shore whooping it up.

That’s pretty much why they didn’t let guys off the boat when we happened to be tied up overnight for some reason — they’d drink a bit and maybe have a problem getting back to the boat, or just as likely they’d get downright drunk, probably in a fight or arrested — in trouble in some way that would make them useless to the owner of the boat who had to wait until he could get a replacement onboard, screwing up the whole delivery schedule worked out by the office.

On rare occasions, the rules were bent for more senior or trusted crewmembers when it was obvious we were just going to be cooling our heels overnight near a town that was more than just a bridge over the river. So one night, when we were tied up just south of St. Louis, waiting for a big customer to get his 25 barges of grain loaded out of the elevators for the trip down to New Orleans, the Captain made the mistake of taking the mate’s word that he wouldn’t get drunk or in trouble if he could just “go to town” for the evening. He’d be back by midnight for sure in case something happened and the tow was ready to be hooked up early.

Our mate Bob was from Caruthersville, down in the boot heel of Missouri, smack dab on the Mississippi River, about a hundred miles north of Memphis, Tennessee. Much more Deep South than Midwest, Caruthersville had a hardboiled redneck reputation, being the only county in Missouri to go for the segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in 1968. Bob endeavored to uphold this reputation, despite a pretty slim build and a general good nature that sometimes made it hard to come off as a bad-ass.

He had some good stories about helping the county sheriff on his bootlegging runs into dry counties in northern Mississippi or pumping a shotgun blast into his girlfriend’s ex-husband for having the brazen temerity to knock on her door while Bob was there. He woulda been locked up for good that time if the prosecuting attorney hadn’t owned a cotton gin that Bob knew how to operate and offered to do for free that summer if they could just forget the whole thing.

Bob had a sidekick from Caruthersville, Wayne, who came on as a deckhand a short time before I did. He was a lot more fun than Bob and had even smoked pot one time when he visited his cousin up in Springfield, Massa-tusetts. That’s the way he pronounced it, with an accent on the “tu,” as it should be. One evening, Bob and his cuz drove out to a local park, “And by God, Finn, after we smoked that shit, we turned up the music on that there AM radio nice and loud, and I swear they weren’t a word said ‘tween the two of us for a good hour or two.”

Wayne could laugh at himself, too, when he was feeling good. He once told us a long drawn-out story about a romantic evening with his wife that ended up with her passionately spread in the corner of the bathtub, Wayne thrusting away with vigor, when his wife uttered memorable words of infinite love, “By God, Wayne, you DO have a peter!” That was pretty funny.

Bob, on the other hand, took himself too seriously and could turn nasty when he was drinking, trying to follow the principle of semi-random engagement in violence espoused by rednecks everywhere. If someone said something that rubbed you the wrong way, you hit ’em. If not, there was something wrong with you, maybe you were a wimp or a faggot, who knows? Or sometimes you just hit someone for fun. I think the most extreme version I ever heard was from a couple of brothers from Greenville, Mississippi, who commented casually on the sport of “barstooling” they engaged in when inebriated. “Barstooling” consisted of walking into a bar and seeing if they could knock an unsuspecting patron clear off a barstool with one punch. I guess that practice crosses over from “semi-random violence” to “random as hell violence” and would probably even have surprised Bob with its audacity.

Back to the night our trusted mate, Bob, was allowed to go onshore in St. Louis, after swearing up and down to the Captain that he’d be back by midnight, sober and ready to work if we had to get the tow underway. Well, guess what? He didn’t make it back by midnight and he wasn’t the least bit sober — you prob’ly figgered that out or guessed it, one of the two, unless you’re half brain-dead like Bob was when he got back on the boat. For some reason, I was still up around 1:30 a.m. when he got back, despite my watch having ended at midnight. I probably had smoked a little wacky tobacky out on the tow between a couple of towering barges where nobody could see me from the boat or smell that pungent, giveaway odor. I was heading back to my quarters to turn in when Bob spotted my long, flowing hair blowing beautifully in the wind (if I do say so myself) and commenced to lambast me with,

“Hey hippie, hey Mary Jane, what you doing up this time of night? Ain’t it time for all good girls to be in bed by now, baby doll?”

Not that used to the drunken, surly side of Bob, I realized something was wrong with him and answered quickly, “Oh shut up, Bob, leave me alone,” or something equally innocuous but basically trying to establish some manhood in an effort to keep him off my back, an effort which was entirely unsuccessful.

Bob now went into full drunken redneck mode and placed himself squarely in my path and said something like, “Well Mary Jane, I ain’t gonna leave your pansy ass alone now, so what you gonna do about it, sweetheart?”

I kinda brushed him back out of my face, defensively I thought, but unfortunately as I pushed him back I think I brushed his eye or somewhere on his face with my hand. And that definitely set him off into full blown semi-random violence mode. He produced a large flashlight from some back pocket of the blue jean overalls he’d worn to town, the height of redneck fashion I guess, and commenced to batter me on the head with it, or attempt to batter me I should say, as his drunken flailing was not all that difficult to block for a stoned hippie. I’ll always argue that driving under the influence of marijuana will not reduce your reaction time like alcohol, and here was proof. Bob wasn’t landing his blows as I kept blocking them, but he kept on trying and it was getting irritating. Any moment he’d get one through and that flashlight would crack my skull, so I decided to give him one on the kisser to stop the nonsense.

That blow knocked him back. He stumbled and fell to his knees, and while he was staggering to get up in his drunkenness, I walked calmly on by, down to the towboat’s side entrance and on into my sleeping quarters, wondering if he would come after me.

Fortunately, it seems I’d knocked some sense into him, and he never came. He blustered around a bit to the on-watch deckhand about how he was gonna kick that hippie’s ass, etcetera, etcetera, and when he’d finally spouted enough BS to try to at least self-justify the untenable position of having been knocked to his knee by a long-haired hippie, he wandered off somewhere to look at his lip and get it to stop bleeding.

Of course, word of the altercation quickly spread not only on our boat but throughout the crew of the tugs that were helping us put together the 25-barge tow there south of St. Louis. When I got up at 6 a.m. to start my watch, there was a tug bringing us a loaded barge to lash together with the ones already starting to make up the tow that would be heading south to New Orleans later that day. The pilot of the tug came out of the wheelhouse explicitly to tell me that he’d heard I’d had to punch out our mate to get him off my back. Simply basking in my manhood, I didn’t say much, and the pilot continued on to say that I’d been too nice. If it was him, he’d a pounced on the bastard when he was down and really let him have it with anything that wasn’t tied down on the deck.

I thought about the ratchets and metal cables that were always ready for use on the deck and couldn’t quite picture what I would have done to Bob with them as weapons. And I was pretty darn surprised that this offshore tug pilot, who didn’t even know Bob, was ready to pound him senseless with random metal debris. In retrospect, I think this guy was on the forefront of the movement of country boys growing long hair and smoking it up, and was maybe expressing solidarity for that lifestyle which I apparently espoused. Maybe. But at the time, it kinda seemed strange, so I just acknowledged his thoughts with a nod and continued working, as there was a lot to do.

It wasn’t until early afternoon, after the end of my watch, when the tow was all bound together and we were headed downriver, that the Captain turned the wheel over to the pilot and came out to find me on the tow. Strolling back toward the towboat with me, he told me straight out, “I’m glad you put Bob in his place last night, that drunken fool. Only thing I can say is, you were awful nice to him, maybe too nice. Next time that happens, go ahead and take a toothpick to his head and really let him have it!”

Now that really set me back. Without getting too much into the technicalities of the equipment we used on deck to put the tow together, a toothpick on a towboat is a long steel rod, about one-inch thick and four-feet long, weighing maybe twenty or twenty-five pounds. Used as a tool, it’s often a car axle salvaged from a junkyard, and deckhands are always carrying around two of them when a tow is being lashed together with heavy metal cables. The thought of pounding Bob’s head even once with a 1-inch thick steel rod hadn’t really crossed my mind before. But that’s what the ultimate authority on our towboat, the Captain himself, was espousing as the correct response to his drunken mate’s inappropriate behavior the night before. It probably woulda only been 2nd degree murder, at least the night before when I couldn’t have planned it out like I could now that the Captain was mentioning it to me, and I could pre-meditate my next response to Bob if he got drunk, making it full blown 1st degree murder when Bob’s brains splattered out all over the foredeck under the force of my toothpick.

I think maybe the Captain was a little upset with Bob. “How bad off was he, Finn? I heard he was drunker than old Cooter Brown.” I didn’t want to say something that would get Bob in any more trouble since he’d surely hear about it, and he might be better with that flashlight or his fists if he were sober, so I just mumbled some bullshit and kept walking. The captain just wanted to talk, and I gotta say his recommendations on maim or murder had surprised me. Holy shit, I thought, these rednecks will just let you murder someone out here on the towboats. That was a bit unsettling. But then again, I’d had some exposure to redneck culture previously, and I knew there was a bit of hyperbole involved at times.

Like barstooling: Did those brothers from Greenville, Mississippi, really do that shit?

I was wondering what Bob would do the next time he got drunk, but the next day, everything seemed to be back to normal, as if the whole incident never happened. That was fine with me, and the Captain wasn’t about to let him off the boat again until his tour was over. At least not until one lonely evening when he found out that his wife had been messing around with the donkey man back home, and the Captain gave in to his nearly tearful entreaties and let him jump ship at Memphis. I was hoping Bob didn’t have anything to drink on the way home to Memphis, because that certainly wouldn’t help him when he got home to Caruthersville.

Wayne got promoted on the spot to mate. Not wanting to be seen as taking advantage of his friend’s misfortune, he acted all worried even though I knew he was happy inside to be getting a raise.

“I sure hope Bobby don’t get drunk and go after that donkey man with his shotgun, but I don’t know. He’s kinda crazy, Finn, he sure is.” Yep, Cada loco con su tema, pretty much sums it up. “Each crazy man with his theme.”

Back to the sayings. I don’t know about the rednecks with old Cooter Brown, but the Latinos sure got the one about locos right.

And “Variety is the spice of life!” Which is it? Sex or food?

Maybe it’s a ménage a trois, over easy, with Ginger and Rosemary, Ha!