Sunday, July 15, 2012

Home Port

I was born in Helena, Arkansas, a Mississippi River Delta town. We moved to El Paso, Texas when I was 10.
A little over a decade later, I wanted to find out what it’s like to work on towboats on the Mississippi.
More often than not, people would tell me one of two things: 1) “It’s hard work; you won’t like it.” 2) “Nobody wants to hire a green hand. I know guys been tryin to get on out there for years.”
I took all that good advice, weighed it, and went to work for a towing company out of Memphis.
I still had an apartment in El Paso and I loved the Chihuahuan Desert.
During the hiring paperwork, the HR guy asked, “What’s your home port?”
Not expecting to be taken seriously, I said, “El Paso, Texas.”
He looked up from the form. “Is there a river there?”
“Yes, sir, quite a famous one: The Rio Grande.”
“Is it navigable?”
“On foot. This time of year, you can pretty much walk across it in your good shoes and they’ll require little more than a cursory cleaning.”
Be danged, he wrote down El Paso as my home port. That obliged the company to fly me back to El Paso on my days off and to wherever the boat was when it was time to go back.
For every day we worked, we got half a day off with pay. Thirty days on followed by fifteen off and never miss a paycheck. A two-week vacation out of every 45 days. It was a grand life for a single person; it was a perfect setup for a disorganized one. For 30 days, I was working—6 hours on and 6 hours off, round the clock—with few distractions, followed by 15 days of wahoo with plentiful and most pleasant distractions. I loved being on the boat. I loved being off the boat.
We pushed 10 barges, each one the length of a football field and 50 feet wide. We’d load them with dry cement in St. Louis and drop them at various docks until we arrived in New Orleans with 2. We’d wait while they unloaded those two then head upriver, picking up empties all the way to Memphis, then on to St. Louis to reload.
We tried to arrange for crew changes in Memphis, but it didn’t always work out that way; sometimes it was St. Louis, sometimes New Orleans, once in Baton Rouge. Usually Memphis. I’d call the airport from Waterways Marine and ask for the next flight to El Paso.
It was fun getting on a plane in Memphis in July or August then getting off the plane a few hours later in El Paso. You can sweat in El Paso, but there’s not enough humidity to sustain it. Cools you off as it evaporates. Sweat will not, cannot, evaporate anywhere between St. Louis and New Orleans. There’s nowhere for it to go; the atmosphere won’t absorb it, it’s already saturated. I’ve observed donkeys during the dog days of a Delta summer. I have seen them weep. I have heard them curse. I have eavesdropped on their prayers: “Dear Lord, why durst thou treat thy humble servant like a waterlogged piƱata?”
My River pals said it many times and in many colorful ways: “I can’t believe they fly you back and forth to El Paso!” Perhaps the point here should be something akin to “You don’t know until you ask,” but the true moral of the story may be that one should never lead with a straight answer. Any River Man will tell you that there are times when the facts won’t quite fill the glass, so we are obliged to top it off with a little club soda in order that we might charge full price.