towboat

The sheer grunt of the giant MTU 16 cylinder diesels in the belly of the Steven J. Mason rattled the deck plates on Barge 210BZ. The slamming together of steel plating made an echoing boom off the opposing bluffs as 5,800 shaft horsepower muscled the tow of barges that were as long as two football fields headlong into the middle of the Ohio River.

The shelter of the bank, or the hill as boatmen called it, began to shrink away. Slim rocked slightly on his heels as the barge deck quivered in the path of the relentless river. The current began to maliciously grip the port side of the tow and the wires collectively groaned as the strain on the rigging exponentially increased. It was clear that given its way, the mighty Ohio had every intention of expressing the 25,000 tons of Illinois corn straight back to Cairo.

The captain of the Steven J. Mason had other ideas, however, as he advanced the port throttle to full ahead, leaving the starboard lever at the two-thirds position, and pulled the tiller towards port. Undulating pulses of black diesel smoke flowed with determination from the twin exhaust stacks as the engines answered the call. In turn, the superchargers on the giant engines began their asynchronous cacophony.

The steadily climbing howl from the big blowers was most evident amidships, near the two giant air plenums that fed them fresh atmosphere, and near the ever-open deck level hatches to the engine room. The whine pushed its way through the steel bulkheads and down every weld and was detectable in nearly every corner of the boat. The sound made visiting landmen grit their teeth almost immediately. After a day or two of continuous exposure, one could find them wandering the decks, zombie-like from lack of sleep. But to a veteran tankerman like Slim, the brutish howl of the engines was as pleasing as rain on the tin roof at home. Much like blood driven pulse, the unearthly alto whine combined with ultra-basso throbbing rushed through the welded metal skin of the Mason and gave the machinery underfoot a living, breathing presence. And when the Steven J. Mason sang her mechanical aria uninterrupted and in full voice, every exhausted hand off watch slept the unconcerned, dreamless sleep of the dead.

Just like the oxen of old, the Mason answered the lash, strained the yoke, and gradually defeated those forces resisting her mechanical might. Almost 600 feet away, the blinking bow strobe and its flapping white pennant with red piping gracefully swung a slow arc upriver, towards Louisville.

It was good to be moving upon the waters again, thought Slim. He reflected back to the pilot house recitations of the Challenger’s master, Captain Vic. Vic fleeted with the powerful Challenger. She and Vic were often a first stop for the green horn. A huge, brick wall of a man with no tolerance for clumsy green horns, Captain Vic had forgotten more about the river than most men professed to know. He also displayed a tender relationship with the fine arts; in particular impressionist paintings and romantic English poetry. True, even though he was so skilled with a towboat tiller that it seemed he might tie a brush to Challenger’s knees and render a passable canvas, he did not paint. However, he seemed filled to overflowing with memorized verse, and if you happened upon the pilot house while Challenger was under sunny skies on a wide pool, chances are you’d find a tall chair at the navigation table and listen in ignorant bliss as the good Captain narrated works by the likes of Coleridge and Von Goethe again and again.

Slim only remembered one, but he figured it a good one since it stuck in his head all these years. He silently ran the verse through his head as the dark water of the Ohio River sluiced around the barges and the lights of Cincinnati gave way to a bursting cloud of stars.

 

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

 

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the Milky Way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

 

The waves beside them danced, but they

Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:

A Poet could not but be gay,

In such a jocund company:

I gazed–and gazed–but little thought

What wealth the show to me had brought:

 

For oft, when on my couch I lie

In vacant or in pensive mood,

They flash upon that inward eye

Which is the bliss of solitude;

And then my heart with pleasure fills,

And dances with the daffodils.

He leaned back against the hatch dogs and the sweet smell of grain permeated the air. Slim drew in a piece of the chilled nighttime and exhaled gently. The moist fog condensed from his lazy sigh and hazily framed the lights of Sawyer Point as they began to slowly drift sternward.

 originally published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, January, 2009.

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