Big Red and Driving the Bend

The year I met Big Red I was living alone in an ark under a bridge in St. Paul, Minnesota on the Upper Mississippi River. Dave’s Ark was a 42-foot home-built steel houseboat which, due to its ancient and long-ago seized-up Ford 302 engines, never went much of anywhere. But that was OK because I spent most of my waking hours running a 135-foot stern wheel cruise ship along the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. On the rare Saturday evenings I had off, I would climb over a tired security fence on the shore beside my houseboat, ascend the more than 100 rusty steel stairs that led to the top of the Wabasha Avenue Bridge, walk across the span of the Mississippi, and stand outside the World Theatre with a tall shy man in a white suit. Together, we would try to muster in enough people to generate audience noise for his local radio show. The year was 1978, the show was A Prairie Home Companion, and the tall shy man was Garrison Keillor. Later, he got real famous. I didn’t. But that’s OK, too, because in watching and listening to his mesmerizing monologues I truly learned to appreciate the art of story telling.

After one particular show and after an earlier incident on the river I’ll never forget, I walked back across the bridge, but didn’t descend the stairs to my houseboat as usual. Instead I continued on to a river bar called Awada’s. I was still jittery from what had happened that morning and thought a drink or two might calm me down. At this point I didn’t know many of the river pilots, as I was a new transplant from the ocean, and considered just a ‘cub pilot’– green, newly licensed and still learning the river. I functioned in a make believe, tourist-focused world, driving a recreated Mississippi River sternwheeler and narrating with authority about a river I knew little about. As a sternwheeler captain, I wore a uniform designed by the cruise ship’s marketing department and calculated to radiate authority and a sense of command. It consisted of white boat shoes, blue pressed slacks, a belt with a big brass buckle showcasing a Mississippi sternwheeler, a white shirt with four gold bar epaulets, and a name tag that said ‘Captain’. Thank God there was no hat. Believe me, I never wandered too far off the ship in this get-up. And the very last place on earth I would ever go in this rig was the world of Awada’s Riverfront Tavern, the domain of the hardscrabble commercial towboat pilots, whose uniforms consisted of what was closest to them on the floor when they got up each morning. Towboats, by the way, actually push rather than tow barges, and what they and their pilots do is extraordinary. Their emotions on the job fluctuate between complete boredom and total terror. Pushing barges with a million gallons of gasoline through steel bridge spans in a fast running river in the middle of a city in the dark of night is not for the faint of heart, especially when the bow or ‘head’ of the tow can be a couple of football fields in length ahead of you. In fact, the largest tow ever pushed on the Mississippi is eight barges long by four barges wide. That’s makes it a 1600 foot ship with a 200 foot beam on a narrow river. So next time you think you’re hot stuff docking your 30 footer with your bow thruster, think again.

So I wandered into the smoke-filled darkness of Awada’s in my jeans and tee shirt, took a seat at the bar, and ordered a Grain Belt beer. Before long, four men came in and grabbed a round table just behind my bar seat. I stole a glance at them over my shoulder, but the big one with the red beard caught my eye. “Hey,” he said, in a deep, gravelly voice, “I seen you from my pilot house today…can tell it’s you there, Cubby, even without yer little Captain America suit. You’re that new one runnin’ that silly paddle boat that looks like a wedding cake, ain’t you?” He stopped to wave over the waitress, then continued. “Passed you kinda tight in Monkey Rudder Bend while we was pushing a couple of empties down from Lock 1 this morning. ‘Nother few feet and I coulda squished you down through that Mississippi River mud right to China. Mebbe you happened to notice me.”
“You’re off the Sadie Mae,” I said. “That’s why I’m here drinking. That mud you mention was in my Captain America pants when I came around the bend with my 300 tourists and found you and your 400 feet of barges bearing down on us, taking up most of the river.”

“Yeah, I was drivin’ that bend with them barges there, Cubby. Some guys, they’ll back a bend instead of drivin’ it…let the currents pull their lead barges through while backing slow against it to try to get control.” He looked over at the other three pilots at the table, and they all smirked. “’Backin’ Jacks’…that’s what we call them guys. Backin’ Jacks waste time, stretch their tows across the whole river, backin’ and trying to line up for the next bend. Them’s cub pilots, like you. You got to drive a bend, son. Kind of like a car in a skid. Got to let go the brakes, put the hammer down on them 3000 horses, and steer through it… also maybe hope there ain’t nobody around the corner.” Red smiled. “Look here Cubby,” he continued, “you might as well come over and join us. Might learn a thing or two.”

So I grabbed my Grain Belt and moved over and met the pilots of the Sadie May, the Mike Harris, the Itaska, and the Bull Duram.

The waitress came by and stood next to Red, who clasped her tiny hand in his mighty paw, and then released into it a one hundred dollar bill. “Sweetie, I want you to fill the top of this round table with open Budweiser bottles ‘til you can’t see the top no more. Then kindly go away, cause we don’t want no interruptin’ as we got some cards to play and some stories to tell, and it’s been one long day on the river.”
Then he looked over at me and winked. “Ain’t that right there, Cubby?” he said, and, just light enough not to hurt me, my new friend punched me on the shoulder.

Night, Pop

’Night Pop, it’s your watch. I’m headed out,” I say aloud. Though it’s been three years since he died, I still do this sometimes at the end of my office day, and especially when it’s been a long hard one. I lean over the forward hatch of the model of Phyllis and peer down and say good night to Dad. I know he’s there, or some of him anyway, inside a silver thimble which serves as an urn and sits on a bunk in the miniature forward cabin of the model sailboat he built. When he had finally finished it, having worked in painstaking detail over the three years while Mom was bedridden and dwindling to nothing, he’d said to me: “Don’t know about what your mother wants, but I put a tiny thimble down there in the forepeak for me. Put a few of my ashes in it after I’m gone, will you pal? It’s a finishing touch that I can’t possibly do.”

And then he laughed, in spite of it all.*

* (from the Preface of my next book)

The Key to Unlocking the Guilt

When the boats were all put away for the winter, and before the crocuses broke through to signal the coming of spring, the grandfather decided to build a grandfather clock. “An old style clock, with a slow swinging pendulum just seems appropriate, given where your mother and I are in life,” he’d said. He’d built boats before and had a tidy workshop in the basement, so the project began easily and progressed well. It was a long, cold and snowy winter, so the grandfather clock maker was home a lot; besides, he had to tend to his ailing wife. He looked forward to the clock work and to the occasional visits from his grandchildren. His youngest, at 8 and 9, came by the most, as they loved the train set he had built in his sprawling basement. The landscape mimicked the town they lived in: the yacht clubs were there; their dad’s office building was there; even the grandfather’s house was represented there. And, of course, there was the harbor. The littlest grandchild, a girl of eight, typical for her age, lived through her fantasies, so this fit right in (though the world of Cinderella was always her favorite.)

But it was when the clock was finished, and grandfather had invited them to see it finally working, that she first saw the key. The tall clock loomed over the little girl and her brother, seeming to speak through the squeak of its giant pendulum, which swung from its place behind the mahogany door in the clock’s front. But what caught her attention was the giant brass key in the front. Grandfather turned the key and the door opened; behind was the swinging pendulum. It was magical.

A couple of weeks passed. On their next visit to the clock, grandfather knelt down in front of the children and told them something had disappeared, and now he couldn’t open his clock to wind it. The key was gone, and he asked if they would help him look for it. He would give a dollar to anyone who found it. The two children searched everywhere – under couches and behind tables – to no avail.

Months went by; seasons passed. A new year came. The little girl and her brother went with their parents to a faraway place called Lake Powell in Utah. They stayed in a strange spot called Wahweep, where they looked out on the mystical lake with its countless side canyons, inlets and coves sheltering Indian ruins and natural wonders. The little girl had never seen a world like this. But there was more. The next day, on a small cruise tour boat, they journeyed 55 miles through sandstone canyons hundreds of feet high, set amidst this mysterious lake world, which came from the damming of the Colorado River. The arrived at a place called Rainbow Bridge. There was a dock just big enough for the cruise boat to tie up. And there before them it loomed, the largest natural bridge in the world — something higher than the nation’s capitol building and nearly as long as a football field — a 290 foot tall and 270 feet wide arch formed by erosion of the sandstone by water flowing from Navajo Mountain. The little girl listened intently as the captain told them that Rainbow Bridge was considered sacred by the Navajo culture as a symbol of the gods responsible for creating clouds, rainbows and rain–the essence of life in the desert. Would the passengers like to take this rare opportunity to walk up to and under the bridge, the captain asked. Everyone did. Everyone except this one little girl with the yellow fanny pack and the Cinderella lunch box. She wanted to stay. So she, her father and the captain remained. Her father, who used to drive a cruise boat himself, engaged the captain, and they chatted away about the area and tour boats, while they looked forward at the departed tourists climbing toward the great Rainbow Bridge.

“Just a minute; please don’t interrupt,” the dad said as his little girl pulled on his jacket. The pulling stopped. But then there was another tug. It wasn’t like her; she was a well-mannered eight year old. And so, excusing himself from the captain, he turned to his wide-eyed daughter, whose face held a look that was somehow entranced and guilt-ridden at the same time. In her hand she held a key – a big brass key. The one from her grandfather’s clock.
“What’s that?”
“It’s the key. The key to Grampy’s clock.”
“What?… I’m confused. When and where did you ever find it Sweetie?”
“I didn’t find it. I took it. I’ve been keeping it in my fanny pack since last year.” Her lip began to quiver and big tears formed. “I was scared to tell Grampy. And I thought it was magic, and could unlock anything.”

Lost for words, the dad scratched his head. “But why… why now? Why here?”
The little girl looked up at the looming arch ahead of them and the sacred Indian landscape. “This seemed like a good place to tell somebody,” she said.
And to this little girl, my now 27-year old daughter, it was.

(excerpted from “Learning the Ropes”)