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.

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