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Rider on the storm

Emil Whitis • Jul 24, 2013 at 2:22 PM

The blunt-nosed boat frothed at the bow as she bulled her way upriver -- a speck of light in the black squall.

Flood lights beat down on the head deck where we stood in yellow slickers, heads lowered, squinting against the spray.

Out of nowhere, a familiar bass line prowled down from the wheelhouse loudspeaker and slinked on ahead, into darkness.

"There's a killer on the road," the late Jim Morrison droned. "His brain is squirmin' like a toad..."

I looked up to the wheelhouse. Ivar smirked in the red cabin light -- his hands at the controls - eyes fixed straight ahead. A green do-rag covered his head. 

"If you give this man a ride, sweet memory will die..."

"Riders on the storm."

"Where am I?" I thought when the strangeness of the scene hit me. "How did I get here?"

I half expected to wake in my cinder block burrow at the Sandusky Police department with a stack of reports spread in front of me.

I slapped myself in the face but nothing changed.

So I took stock of the situation.

I was riding a barge boat piloted by a well-spoken near-pirate in the middle of a thunderstorm, somewhere on the Illinois River listening to the Doors.  

A certain warmth flooded my soul as I realized I'd found my calling.

It was sometime after 3 a.m. on day six of my barging career and I was drenched. We all were -- except Ivar who just kept on grinning from his dry perch in the wheelhouse.

Minutes later the boat pulled up next to two rusted, half-sunk barges. The boat spotlights showed our pumps were right where we'd tied them and still spitting water.  

The orders were to resurrect the rickety 200-foot by 35-foot steel leviathans, wire them in between good barges then shove them back upriver where they'd be cut up for scrap.

And it would've been a great way to pass the time were it not for the thunderstorm and the fact that our holey, communal raingear did more funneling than shielding. 

"Yee-haw," I shouted over to Brett, the head deckhand.

"Yeah, this is great," he said. "Hope it keeps raining. Wish it'd rain like this all the time."

Yes, Brett was no stranger to sarcasm. 

A good-humored man, he went about 5-foot-10 and was stout with muscled forearms as thick as Popeye's.

"I was working on the river while you were still (expletive)ing your pants," Brett liked to remind me.

His math was a little off but I got the point.

There was a lot to learn and a whole glossary of foreign terms to go with it.

Timberhead, button, cavel, half cavel, courtesy cavel, quarter cavel, head, stern, port, starboard, wing tanks, tony, shackle, pin, links, strap, wire, ratchet, pike pole, cheater pipe, picks, c-bar, keeper, pelican, bumper, skiff,  towing lead, backing lead, upriver lead, downriver lead, sissor wires, lead wires, jockey wires, breast wires, fore and aft wires, leaving line, lock line ...

Yes, line--not rope. I'd learned that one a couple days prior after keying my radio to ask a question.

"Did you say rope?" Ivar said. "What are you a cowboy?" ...

... nose line, x line, safety line, head deck, jack staff, tanker barge, box-end, rake, duck pond, galley. And there were also strange phrases like "dog it off," "face up," "put a wrap on it," "foul down," "give me a bite of line," "set tow" and "top it around."

With 15 days left, all I had was time.

The pumps were still humming at 5 a.m. when I slopped to my bunk, unlaced my boots, flicked on my headlamp and opened up "the Deckhand Manual."

My pruned feet filled the wood paneled cubby with a heavy stench of ammonia as dawn broke outside.

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