If the job was perfect, we’d all be deckhands
I’ll never forget my first towboat wake-up call. I think it’s fair to say that in more than 18 months of working at The Corydon Democrat, Randy West never once stuck his head in my bedroom and said, “It’s 5 a.m. Time to wake up.”
A green deckhand on a barge line has plenty of reminders that his world has been turned upside down.
The first time someone spends the night below a crowbar labeled “forced exit device,” sleep won’t come easy. I don’t care who you are.
Then there is the engine noise. The typical towboat has two or three gigantic diesel engines, some dating to the 1950s, pushing thousands of horses. It’s like trying to sleep in a geriatric beehive. I got used to it. Now I find silence annoying.
No one told me what kind of noise and motion fell within the boundaries of normal operation. Most of the cooks never shut up, and when I asked about seasickness, the mate told me a towboat is like a floating island. During the 45 days of my first trip, as the engines surged and the island lurched, I clutched my sheets tightly and stared wide-eyed about the room, waiting for us to hit an iceberg or something.
I have seriously had several bad dreams about the boats I’ve been on sinking. Some of my fellow deck crew decided to write Leonardo (DiCaprio) on my life vest. I saw him in “Man in the Iron Mask” and “Fried Green Tomatoes,” and I can’t remember a single boat in those films. Stranger still, some people see that life vest as a bad omen.
Aside from my vest, I’m also required to wear a back belt. The belt was specially designed to make us better workers. The wide, black-elastic band looks just like one of those girdles men wear to sweat off the pounds, and it works the same way. By giving us heat stroke and protecting our lower back muscles, the belts provide us with the weak minds and strong backs the job requires.
Also required is a two-way radio. I really wish people would key their microphones before they begin to speak. However, I could also do better. A deckhand informed me that he had difficulty understanding my accent. I asked where he was from. He explained that where he is from was not important; my accent was the problem.
Now I’ve spent three trips and about 120 days on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers, and some things you never get used to. For instance, waking up to a fire alarm and having a fellow crew member throw your door open and yell, “Wake up! There’s a fire.”
I’m not sure why they have fire alarms on the boats. The guy assigned to run around and let smoke into all the bedrooms does a much better job.
My first trip was on the lower Mississippi. That means everything south of St. Louis. It’s the one place I would have picked because of its history and distance from home. I thought it might be an adventure.
“All you new guys are the same. You think you’re going to be Mark Twain or something,” a grizzled old deckhand said after I shared my thoughts on the Mississippi. I’m pretty sure he meant Huck Finn. Many deckhands are barely literate, and I doubt they expect the river to transform them into a genius, 19th century novelist. In short, most deckhands prefer nudie magazines.
My mom once asked me, “What was Baton Rouge like?”
This became an ice-breaking one-liner I would tell on the river. The understood punch line is that no one ever gets off the boats on the lower Mississippi. They even have stores, aptly named “boat stores,” which motor out to the tow boats. They are like Theater X with groceries. A novel idea, really.
In fact, I have noted a lot of misconceptions about the river. For instance, despite the fears of my grandma, no one has tried to assault me. We don’t shower in river water, the lockmaster does not have a key to the locks, mail buoys do not exist, and taking a bucket to the stern for a wheel wash sample is both a bad idea and completely purposeless.
For more on tow boating, I recommend the film “Fried Green Tomatoes.”