My post today isn’t specifically about writing or books, about finding ideas, or about any of the other things I’ve blogged about so far. Today, I just want to write about a group of people I have always had such respect for, and explain how I was reminded again today just why I respect them so much.

Those folks are the men and women working on river towboats, and those who fill that very special role as towboat “Captains”. I grew up in the house of a towboat “Captain”, and had numerous uncles, cousins, and other kin who were towboat “Captains”. It would be difficult to remember a family activity or event that did not, at some point, end up involving conversation and stories about the boats and the role of “The Captain”. Many of the stories were pretty wild, and it was always difficult to know what was true and what was just towboat-talk. Today, I was reminded of the “Captain” stories as I saw the news.

My dad used to describe rivers like the Illinois, Ohio, and especially the Mississippi as living things. Sometimes kind and beautiful, and sometimes evil and looking for the opportunity to, as dad would say, “Sneak up behind you and bite you right in the ass!”

Contrary what most folks believe, most of the river is not very deep, and is far too shallow for boats to travel through. It is a constant battle for groups like the Corps of Engineers to keep dredging the sand and silt from the bottom to create the “channel” deep and wide enough for the boats to use. And the constant currents keep moving things around again, which means you might travel the same spots on the river dozens of times and never actually have the same river twice. And then add the currents from the high water like we’re having now, and that river spends far more time as the evil, sneaking beast waiting for the opportunity to bite a Captain. And a ‘bite’ can end up with people hurt, or worse, and a long list of reports, lawsuits, and other things a towboat Captain wants to avoid.

So, picture that Captain sitting in a little room on top of a boat, looking out the window at what might be a quarter mile of barges filled with coal, or grain, or most anything else, maybe 100 feet wide, with that Captain’s hands on the controls of maybe 10,000 horsepower worth of push or pull. On one of those kind and beautiful rivers, it can be a joy. On one of those evil and “searching to bite” rivers, even the best and most experienced Captains can break a good sweat.

Yesterday for example, as I understand it, the boat came out of the canal above St. Louis in fine shape, but then the currents from the high water sneaked-up. As the currents pushed sideways, the Captain did his best to get the boat back in line to move beneath the old Eads Bridge, one of those older bridges originally designed for boats quite a bit lower and narrower than the modern towboat. He didn’t quite make it.

As I read the posts in the various towboat groups, some people blame the pilot for making mistakes, misjudging the current, and a long list of other things “they” would not have done as they safely watch the video from wherever they are writing. Others remind them that even the best and most experienced Captains are sometimes bitten by the evil and sneaky river, and quick blame is usually something offered by those who have never had their hands on the controls. But what struck me most was a note from the Captain of another boat that was nearby and saw the accident, and who pointed out that whatever had cause the problem, the Captain had stayed in his pilot house and did his best to steer his boat out of trouble as it went under Eads Bridge.

I re-watched the video. I looked at the photos. And I tried to imagine where that Captain stood to keep his hands on the controls as the pilot house came crashing down around him? I tried to imagine my doing that. And, once again, I remembered that look in my dad’s eyes when someone asked what he did, and he answered, “I’m a towboat Captain.” It wasn’t a boast, or an attempt to outdo someone. But it was the look of someone who understood that someday, as everything came tumbling around, him he might have to stand still and keep his hands on the controls to protect his crew, his boat, and anyone who might be out there in front of that quarter-mile of energy.

After seeing the news, I sat down and re-read some of the chapters of Disruption about Captain Charlie Graff, the Captain of the hijacked towboat. I think I understood even better what Charlie was thinking, and why he said and did what he said and did as his boat and crew was threatened.

I will write about Captain Charlie Graff again one of these days. And now, he will be even more real than before.

And dad, Uncle Ted, Uncle Art, Uncle Clyde, and all the cousins and other kin-folk, thanks for the stories!