The After Watch
This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 6 No. 1, "Packaging the New South." Find more from that issue here.
“I’ve worked on just about all the inland rivers,” he said, steering hard on the rudders. “Yes sir, the Missouri, the Illinois, the Mississippi, the Ohio, the Wabash, the Cumberland — now that’s a purty son of a bitch, that Cumberland River. Course, they say the Arkansas beats them all, but I haven’t been down there yet.”
“What about the Tennessee?”
“Oh yeah, made that run to Chattanooga many uh times. US Steel had us pushing acid up there about four years ago. That Tennessee River’s a good run. I tell you what’s a hell of a river, boy
“zzzHello all stations. Hello all stations. This is the United States Coast Guard, St. Louis For the complete marine information radio broadcast, please listen to Channel 22, Alpha.... Outzzz”
“Now, that Black Warrior River down Alabama, that little bastard’s as swift as the Missouri. One Captain said he had his deckhands trained to roll out of their bunks and into their life jackets whenever the boat bumped ground. Hell, that’s no place for me, wouldn’t work down there for a hundred and fifty a day. I’ll settle for a hundred and ten a day on this Mississippi and Illinois run any time.”
Having just finished checking the tow, I had come up to the pilot house to visit the relief pilot. We had made the noon watch together, but hadn’t yet talked. I sat on the bench beside the radar.
“You’re kinda green, ain’t you, boy?”
“Well, this is my second trip. I’ve been out eighteen days this time.”
“I could tell by the way you turned your line loose back there on the lock wall. Always work your line off fast in case something happens to cause it to foul down. You don’t want to be around that line if she fouls and breaks.
“Hell, that’s what happened to my leg. I was checking down the first cut of a double up at Lock 26 when my line fouled and snapped. Before I could move, it lashed back and caught me right under my knee and knocked me halfway across the tow. They said my foot was laying up against my shoulder when they got to me. Hell, all I know is if it weren’t for that surgeon there in Paducah, I’d have a wooden leg right now. Yes sir, he fixed it back right. I was in and out of that hospital over a year, but he fixed it right. Johnson’s his name. Dr. Isaac Johnson. Damn good surgeon.”
“Sure sounds painful.”
“They wanted to take it off but I told em I’d drag the damn thing around like a dead fish before I’d let em cut it off. I ended up having three operations on it, but at least it works, not good as new, but I can get around.”
Every few minutes, he’d spit tobacco in the trash can. After slowing the boat, he pissed in a small plastic bag, knotted it and flung it out the door into the river. He glanced down at the radar and talked as he steered.
“There’s supposed to be a black buoy out there somewhere.” He chewed and spat, and swept the search light from bank to bank. “Yep, there she is, right off that port barge, damn near didn’t find it....You know, boy, I reckon this pilot’s job is the most boring job on the boat. Out there on the deck you’re always doing different stuff, totin’ rigging, laying wires, tightening ratchets, working your line; why, hell, it keeps a man in shape. Up here behind these sticks, you get lazy. Aw hell, the money’s good, but you’re stuck up here six hours a watch. You can’t take a break if you want to, no sir, you’re stuck here the full six. I reckon that’s why we like to bullshit so much. It’s like entertainment, I guess. Some pilots will lay up nights, just thinking of lies that will —”
“zzzThe Hugh C. Green to the northbound boat below Goat Islandzzz ”
“Uh. WZC6031, the Frances-A back to the Hugh C. Green.”
“zzzYeah Skipper, I’m up here above Sellers Landing with eight loads of coal and I’s wondering if that two whistle would be all right with you?zzz ”
“That’ll be fine, Cap, I’ve just got four empties and that two whistle will be fine...uh, say, is ole Dodirty Red still cooking on that boat?”
“zzzNo Skipper. Dodirty got off... oh, about three weeks ago. He was mumbling about going to Mexico so I guess we won’t see him for another sixty days or so.... He likes them ‘senioreetas’zzz”
“Yeah, I gotcha, hey hey, he’s a good riverman all right; sure can fix them groceries.”
“zzzYes sir, Skipper, maybe it’s good he’s gone. I generally gain ten pounds when he’s on herezzz”
“You better watch him or he’ll start feeding you some of that Mexican stuff.”
“zzzRoger, Roger on that, Skipper.... Well, I better let you go and get on down the creek. See you on the two whistle, and WZY8811 the Hugh C. Greenzzz”
“Good morning to ya and WZC6031, the Frances-A.”
He was quiet for a long time. I made coffee in the galley for the six a.m. crew change, and it was daybreak when I returned. He was propped in the chair, feet on the counter, one hand on the rudders.
“Well shit, boy,” he started. “Tell me a good lie before we get off watch.” His eyes were smiling, adding, subtracting. For some reason my mind raced back to an old tale told by my granddad.
“All right,” I said. “But you better listen close. . . .
“Three men were floating down a river on a rock. One was blind, one was naked, and the other didn’t have any arms. Well, the blind man saw a silver dollar floating in the river, the man with no arms reached down and picked it up, then put it in the naked feller’s pocket.”
He almost spit out his coffee.
“Hey Lord, boy, that’s all right.” He was laughing all over. “That’s all right. With lies like that you’re bound to make a riverman, bound to.”
“I’ve been told that a man that don’t lie don’t have nothing to say.”
He steered and laughed.
“Damn right, boy, damn right.
Rod Stipe, whose home is in Knoxville, has worked the Illinois- Mississippi River run on the “Frances-A ’’for about a year. (1978)