MOLINE — With its twin 250-horsepower Caterpillar engines roaring as if all the noise in the world were trapped inside, trying to get out, the James P. Pearson edges into the center of the Mississippi, bound for another appointment with 2,000 tons of sand and gravel.
One of the numerous river workhorses idled for weeks by the flood, the Pearson, a towboat, is now pushing barges six days a week, trying to catch up.
"We're only supposed to work five, but with the flood and everything, we're way behind," says Dave Williams, deckhand of the Pearson's two-man crew.
A self-described "river rat" with five years on the Mississippi at the ripe age of 21, Williams introduces himself as the fifth generation of his family to work the river.
At least a dozen relatives still do; one of them, his cousin, Shawn Olson, is pilot of the Pearson. He shows up for work with a bad cold, a briefcase filled with rock 'n' roll cassettes, "enough cigarettes to kill any man" and a supply of juice to combat the sweat-wringing 95-degree weather.
Unlike larger boats making the trip "from Saint to Saint," (St. Paul to St. Louis), the Pearson is a small boat making a local run - four empty barges to drop off at the Moline Consumer's sand dredging operation in Cordova, Ill., swapped for four full barges of new sand to be brought back to Moline and Bettendorf, Iowa, where it is made into concrete mix. Round trip is about 50 miles.
They are pleased as can be that navigation is still bottled up down river.
"We wish it would stay like that until next year," Olson says, not wanting his run to be delayed at Lock and Dam No. 14, the only one of the Mississippi's 27 locks that the Pearson needs to go through.
Going through the lock is fairly quick and simple: The boat and its barges enter the lock, the south gates swing shut, six feet of upriver water is allowed to flow in, the north gates swing open and the Pearson goes on her way on the higher portion of the river. It takes about 15 minutes.
On a good day.
But if there are any boats waiting in front of it, there is delay — sometimes for hours, even days, as the Pearson queues up behind larger boats maneuvering their big clusters of barges into the lock.
Because of flooding conditions lingering downriver, there are practically no boats on this part of theMississippi. There is no wait at the lock. In fact, the Pearson passes only one commercial boat in nine hours - the immense Conti-Arlie, pushing a dozen grain barges. "Fifty-six hundred horsepower," Williams says, reverently. "That's a real working boat."
Mostly the Pearson has the river to itself. The only sound, outside of the clangorous engine room, is the splash of the river against the barges and the sawing of cicadas in the trees lining the shore.
Olson steers casually between the wide channel markers, barely needing to touch the wooden and brass rudder controls.
Williams does his real work when the boat drops off or picks up barges, or goes through the locks. He scampers nimbly over the wet steel barges, securing ropes, winching steel cable. It is hard work in the hot sun, and Williams doesn't seem to have enough fat on his body to make a good butter pat.
"My job is hard to explain," he says. "People say, 'You're a deckhand? What do you do? My grandfather (Don Williams, captain of the Queen of Hearts casino boat) used to say he told people he was a trucker, so they won't ask any questions . . . the majority of people around here are just society. They don't know anything about the river at all."
Although both Williams and Olson complain about working on the river - Olson pointed out that "nobody got rich as a pilot" and Williams says he would like to find a "white shirt" job - they both obviously love what they do.
"Some of the nicest people you meet on the river," Williams says. "They'll take care of you, free of charge."
At Cordova, four barges containing 1,950 tons of sand and gravel are waiting in a large cove carved out of the shoreline by years of sand-dredging. Olson angles the empty barges next to the company's dredging machine as casually as if he were tossing cards into a hat.
"Look at that big old bird up there," he says, pointing to something flapping over the forest, just as the barges ease against the dock. "That must be an owl, I betcha."
Williams unleashes the barges, then takes time for a quick dip in the river, executing a neat jackknife dive into the cool water. "Ah yes," he says, breaking the surface.
The journey downstream is a lot quicker - about 90 minutes less than it took to fight the current. There is still plenty of time to sit on a timberhead and enjoy the warm, soft breeze (river life is filled with quaint, anachronistic terms. Timberheads are the capped pegs used to secure lines - once cut from logs, they are now steel. At the lock, the little tram used to tow barges, if necessary, is called "the mule," a nod to its animate predecessor).
A long Soo line freight train pulling auto carriers draws alongside at the river's edge and gives a few friendly toots.
"That's the competition," Williams says, and Olson says hello back with a few blasts of the air horn.
The James P. Pearson is almost home now. The sun is setting, a huge orange ball peaking out from behind the trees. "Is that beautiful!" Williams says. Olson opens the front window of the pilot house and turns up the volume on some vintage Allman Brothers Band.
"Lord, I'm southbound," sings an Allman. "Lord, I'm coming home to you."
In its final minutes, the sun puts on a display rarely seen outside of English Romantic oil paintings - bands of orange, blue, pink, purple and even green, radiating from the horizon. The gold light shimmers off the ripples, swirls and eddies formed by the barges cutting through the river.
Two barges are left at the Bettendorf dock, below the bucket crane which will empty them before the Pearson returns at noon the next day - gingerly empty them, because the sand is so heavy that, if not unloaded uniformly, they can easily flip over.
The other two barges are left at the Moline dock. The Pearson ties up at 8:23 p.m., about as early as she has ever returned from a full day's work.
"That'll do her, Dave," Olson says, and he gives the horn a few celebratory blasts.
Williams goes down to the engine room and shuts down the twin Caterpillars, which sigh to silence after nine hours of work.
The only sound now is the gentle lapping against the wharf of the mighty Mississippi, now tamed to a gentle purr.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 30, 1993