Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Barging Back onto the Mississippi

     Last year, I marked my anniversary on the staff at the paper by re-printing a favorite column about kids watching Park District mucky-mucks inaugurate the Washington Park pool. I thought about letting the anniversary slide by unnoticed this year—just cough into my fist and march on. More than a dozen colleagues recently took a buy-out and set sail; staying, and having been here a long, long time, somehow feels like a lapse, something that the prudent man should not ballyhoo.
    Of course, I've never been Mr. Prudent, and it's a bit late to start now. Besides, it's still a fun job, most days. It always has been. Seldom more so than this hot summer day in 1993 when I not only go to ride a gravel barge for nine hours but, very briefly, got a chance to pilot it down the Mississippi, recently re-opened to commercial traffic (thinking about river regulations, and not wanting to get my new river rat pals in trouble, I decided to leave that part out).
     Maybe nine hours on a gravel barge doesn't sound fun to you; but it was, at least to me.
     There was also a memorable moment with our photographer, the great Robert A. Davis, who would later travel with me to Lithuania and Taiwan. He remarked that we really should have a photo of the entire barge on the river, and I said, that's going to be tough Bob, because we're ON the barge. A few minutes later, a speedboat zipped by with Bob aboard, training his lens on the barge, snapping away as they passed. He had convinced a family on a river outing to let him aboard. Exactly HOW he flagged down a family on a speedboat and convinced them to dock with a gravel barge and let on of the shifty characters aboard it to join them in their boat is a mystery I never fully figured out.
     Anyway, happy anniversary to me, 28 years on staff at the Sun-Times.  The hoofbeats thunder, closer and closer. But they ain't here yet.

     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 the Mississippi. 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


  1. Congrats, Mr. S on your long journalistic career and hope you won't take a buy out.

    1. good color description contrasts, by the way

  2. Loved it, and the "quaint, anachronistic terms" of the river life are swell.

    As for the hoofbeats thundering, I'm sure that's a tough call for all of you in journalism. But you've got what's long been considered a dream job, you seem to enjoy it a lot (for the most part) and it's not like you're an aging fastballer trying to hang on for another year with a 7.25 e.r.a -- you're still at the height of your abilities. If "they" decide it's time to throw you out and/or close the doors, there'll be nothing to be done about it, but I think you're right (whether prudent, or not, I certainly don't know) to hang in there as long as you can. Longevity and experience don't seem to be traits that count for much, anymore, but some of us think it's impressive that you've been at the S-T for 28 years. Only knowing what I've read in the papers, it seems to me that Mr. Ebert would have approved, anyway, and he was nobody's fool...

  3. Congratulations Neil. It seems like a suitable gig for you, the Sun-Times allowing your beat to be whole richness of the human comedy in contrast to some of your fellow scribes, who always write out of their assigned pigeonholes. (One thinks of the colleague who puts out essentially the same column every day, requiring only a set of new pseudo facts he thinks will persuade us Mr. Obama is a terrible president and Israel must remain always above reproach.) You should stay as long as they keep paying you. Or at least until you strike it rich with a slim volume of best selling poems.

    Tom Evans

    1. I agree , Mr. Evans, if you are referring to that Steve Huntley columnist. He belongs at the Trib.

  4. May you stay at the S-T as long as you want, and leave on your own terms.

  5. All these hints, Sir. Is the ST folding up soon? hope not, love my ST


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