A family story about working on the Mississippi River
| Memories of my dad on the river go back in my mind as far as my mind can go. My dad was a river man. The Mississippi River was his home. Once in a while or even now and then he came to stay with us until his next river run. He owned three barges and hauled freight up and down the river. We lived in a river-side city in Missouri, almost midway between the delta in Louisiana and the northern head of the river in Minnesota. I loved my father as did my sisters and brother. My mom did too. Dad was like an irregular fixture around the house. I knew he’d be there… some time. He made good money on the river but there were many times we wished he spent more time at our home.
Anyway, all that’s passed and what I have now are all the good memories of my dad… and the river.
Dad would take us with him during holidays and vacations on his runs both north and south. The lead barge, the one my father drove, was equipped with all the comforts of home, that is, except for his wife—our mother—and us kids. Dad had built a cabin on the barge for sleeping, sanitary facilities, cooking, even with television, a stereo system with speakers in the cabin and all around the barge so he could hear his music. And there were two types of music he loved: Country Western, mostly the oldies from the fifties, sixties and seventies, and unbelievably, Classical. There was enough room in the cabin on that barge to sleep the whole family. My dad and mom were also faithful followers of the Lord Jesus Christ. On the weekends he was at home, we always attended a church in town. On the weekends when he was on a run, he would find a church in whatever city he was near and we would attend church without him. The memories of my father wash over me like a warm shower, from the top of my head to the soles of my feet and the feeling is good… good… good.
During the times Dad was at home, he would take us places either in Missouri or Arkansas, or into Illinois, which was right across the river. Sometimes we’d go into Kentucky or Iowa. All these states were close enough to drive to in just a couple hours. We had a recreational vehicle with all the latest electronic luxuries. In the RV there was a table in the back where we four kids could sit around and play games while we traveled. There were beds we could either sleep on, rest on or horseplay when we traveled. When it came time for meals, we either stopped at the highway rest stops or Mom cooked lunch or dinner on our way to or from wherever we were going.
There were times when Dad had no commitments of hauling for a week or so. He’d call Mom and have us packed and ready to go by the time he got home. He’d take a shower and in about twenty minutes we’d be out the door on our way to some place, with the promise of good times ahead. On any unexpected hiatus, if it happened during school time, Mom would call the schools all of us attended and tell the attendance persons not to expect us in school for whatever length of time Dad thought we’d be gone. However, she did get our class and homework assignments, which Dad made sure we completed before we got home from our short vacations.
My name is Jared and I was the eldest of the kids. My sister, Erin was two years younger than me. David was the third in line, almost five years my junior and Christy was the last child, about eight years younger than me. My parents got exactly what they wanted; two boys and two girls. My mother had worked in an accounting office in St. Louis for a number of years before she met my dad. After their marriage, Mom took care of all the books of Dad’s business. To hear them talk about the romance that ensued after their meeting still brings tears to my eyes. Julie, my wife, and I would always attend every possible family event we could. Graduations, birthdays, any kind of anniversary, notable events at school for any of the kids such as plays or competitions of some kind. We were there in support of our family members to let them know that someone in the audience was rooting for them. We really had a close family and I don’t regret any of it.
Julie came from a small family. She had one sister, about five years younger. Her family wasn’t as close as mine. Her mother and father were not really cold, just a bit distant and a little standoffish. I remember approaching her father to ask for permission to marry Julie. I remember that afternoon well. It was about eight years ago. It was a quiet Saturday. I had dressed for the occasion, my suit and a dress shirt with open collar and no tie, expecting to answer a lot of questions that her father would ask me. Though there were many occasions we met when Julie and I were dating, we never really exchanged much. Her mother was a bit more conversant, even if conversations with her were somewhat stiff. But conversations with her father were like talking to a stuffed teddy bear. It had eyes, ears and a mouth, but said nothing. If I did not ask a direct question to the man, I was sure not to get a response from anything I said.
So when that particular Saturday came into our lives, I rehearsed over and over what I was going to say, making everything in the form of a question, rather than a statement. The interview started by my asking him how his Saturday was. After his very brief, “fine,” I asked him if I could have his permission to marry Julie. His, “yes” came so quickly, followed by, “Julie’s mother will coordinate all the arrangements with you.” I didn’t know if I had been brushed off. And to this very day, the man never says more than five words to me when Julie and I visit them. They did attend the wedding and when he walked Julie down the isle, he reminded me of a cigar-store Indian; stiff, rigid, no expression on his wooden face.
The addition of Julie into our family was more like the last piece of a jig-saw puzzle; she just fit right in. Mom was always mom to both Julie and me. Julie was just like another of Mom’s kids and both my dad and mom loved Julie. My folks were very demonstrative with their emotions. They never held back when it came to showing love to their kids. And talking with either of them was the most natural thing in the world. Conversations just happened. They didn’t have to be started. Communication was a natural thing in our house. Even conversations that parents eventually must have with their children were easy. That is, if children are to have any decent education about sex. When the time came, Dad just opened up and talked very plainly about the subject. My face turned beet red when he spoke so openly about reproduction and things young teenaged boys learn about around school, not in school. But that was Dad.
There was a warmth and comfort with him or Mom at any time. And that same warmth and comfort was all over the house twenty-four-seven. It was in the RV when we went anywhere as a family and everyone who came to our house could sense it. And I know it was all because of my dad. He could change the temperature of a room when he entered it. His compassion and understanding and love for the people he came across were the most obvious things about him. In many ways, he was like the Mississippi River he loved and worked on. Everyone had a place in her waters, as they did in his life.
When Dad was home he would to gather us kids around him on a winter night and tell us stories about his dad’s and his own work on the river and how he and the river talked while he traveled. His stories were fascinating as he described how the river told him about weather conditions he could expect in the next day or so. Being the eldest, I questioned Dad about the river “talking.” But when he added that local weather reports later that day on the news for the next two days coincided perfectly with what the “river told him,” I had to sit up and listen. I knew my father would never tell a lie. I was confident that if he said the “river talked,” well then, somehow it had to be true. We all asked how the river spoke to him. He said it was like messages coming across the waters. He would stand on the deck of his barge and listen to the water all around him. Then it seemed like the sound of the water lapping at the sides of the barge and frothing with the wind and the movement of the vessels in the water made sounds that could be interpreted in his mind like words.
He would tell us about his father, who was also a Mississippi river man. How the two of them would travel the river together, hauling freight from one city to another, to different states, and how they would meet people from all over the country who had something to do with the merchandise that was being transported from one location to another. Then he told us how Granddad had been lost in a storm down the river in Louisiana, close to the Gulf of Mexico. My father had been delivering a load of freight to Wisconsin. A bad storm came in from the Gulf and after it was gone, his father was declared lost. The cargo had been delivered and the barges were still intact, but his father had been considered lost at sea.
All of us kids would listen and remember every word. And I recall it was during my senior year in high school that I noticed for the first time David’s eyes watching my father as he spoke of his adventures on the river. There was something about that look I recognized in my own father’s eyes as he spoke of the river. I knew then that David would probably be the one to continue the family tradition and company of Mississippi River Transport. Dad was already taking David on short runs to ports close by in the afternoons during the week and on Saturdays. I was almost fully entrenched in the groove that would take me to my career in editing and publishing. One of my teachers had seen the penchant I had for reading, writing and editing. Through an associate of his in town, I was introduced to the field of professional editing and publishing. It was through this man’s son, Eddie, who later became my partner, that I had been introduced to the basics of the ins and outs of publishing. Before I left high school, my future was cast in concrete. I could see that David’s was, too.
Eddie’s father was the one who got our business going. He got us leads in publishing and editing and from there we developed a client base. Upon my graduation from the university, my father presented me with a check that set us up in an office, complete with furniture and the necessary equipment we needed to operate at full speed. The check was for thirty thousand dollars. Mom and Dad had been saving this money for me for many years, sensing that my life would not be on the river.
And it was at this point in my life that one day while we were alone, I asked my father about the source of his amazing wisdom. I told him that for years I had heard his insights and sage advice about this and that but never paid much attention to where this advice and insight came from. Dad’s response was no less intriguing to me as were all of his stories about life on the river. He said that when he was a boy, working with his father, the river began teaching him about life; the river gained its knowledge from the many who traveled it before him. I listened attentively as Dad told me about when his father was faced with a problem or needed to make a decision, that he would go out on the deck of the barge while traveling or down to the river bank at home and reason with the river. And that’s why granddad was so prosperous. His decisions and guidance came from the very river that gave him his livelihood. I looked at my father straight in his crystal blue eyes and knew what was coming next. He learned from his father how to let the river teach him about life, making decisions, and doing the right thing at work. It was from his lessons at church Dad learned the ethics that God wants every man to know. But it was from the river he learned how to apply those ethics that made Mississippi River Transport, or MR.T. as my dad was known, prosper after his father was gone. He told me the river even helped him with life on the hard ground. Towards the end of his explanation, he said that he felt his father talking to him from the waters. His dad was never found after the storm. And those clients who knew my father and his father personally said that Granddad had become part of the river he loved so much.
My dad took me in his arms as I sobbed uncontrollably, realizing how much he missed his father and at my sudden understanding of how this concept of the river so illogical and unreasonable could be true in the lives of the people who lived and worked on the river. If the angels of God could come from His throne and minister to men on Earth, why, then, couldn’t the river do the same thing for those who lived and worked so closely with it? I will ever be grateful for the time and love my father gave me while he was alive. It was all the experience I had with him that taught me how to be a good father to my own son. To be patient with him, to love him and try to understand him as the person God created, not to make him fit my idea of how a son should be. I’m certain that my father would have loved me no more than he did had I chosen to work the river with him. But my course had already been directed by the Lord our God from before I was in my mother’s womb. And Dad respected that path I was on.
I was in my office early one morning, preparing a proposal for one of our clients. Thoughts of Dad were on my mind as I had listened the night before to the weather reports of storms and hurricanes coming in out of the Gulf of Mexico, heading for Louisiana. I called Mom that early morning and asked her about Dad. She told me that he had to take an urgent load of cargo on two of the barges down to the Bayou state the night before. She said he told her not to be concerned about the weather, that he could probably beat the storm’s arrival by dropping the load and heading back up north. I asked her about David. She told me that Dad was going to take him but that he had a test in school the next day and Dad’s sage advice was for him to cram for that test and do the best he could. After Mom and I hung up, I couldn’t get the feeling out my mind and body that I should be there.
Something told me to catch the earliest flight and go. I called Eddie and woke him from sleep, gave him the news that I was leaving and would be in touch with him. He said he would handle everything till I got back. By two in the afternoon I was in St. Louis, leaving the airport in a rented car, speeding my way home, about a ninety minute drive from the airport.
When I arrived at home, Mom was not surprised to see me. She had the feeling that I would be on the way after she had hung up the phone. There was no other news from Dad. He had called the night before to let her know the load had been dropped and he was on his way. But he didn’t mention that he had been delayed dropping the load. Weather reports said a storm had come in from the Gulf but it was not as serious as the one coming after, due in later. Dad should have missed the bad storm from his schedule that Mom explained. Early evening the phone rang. It was one of the freight companies Dad frequented in Louisiana, very close to the Mississippi state line. They called to say that Dad’s barges had been brought in by a rescue tugboat crew. The hurricane had arrived that night and did a minimal amount of damage to the coast. There was no sign of Dad. The caller asked about his business in the lower region down the river and Mom told him where Dad was going and the load he carried. The caller said he’d check and call back. Mom’s silent tears streaked from her eyes, down her cheeks as she hung up the phone. It was the same area where Granddad went missing. Would it be the same river that claimed both men and the same water that would serve as a guide to my younger brother?
When the freight company called back about an hour later, they told Mom that the freight had been dropped safely but there had been a delay and Dad had to wait for several hours before he could drop the load. He didn’t make it out of the Gulf area before the hurricane arrived. The cabin on the lead barge had been severely damaged. There was no evidence of my father… anywhere. But rescue crews, mopping up the mess, would keep them informed and they would keep us informed. I held Mom in my arms with the other kids hanging on to both of us. We all cried. The knowledge of knowing that my father was in a far better place than us didn’t do a lot to console the grief we all felt at that moment.
After some time, I called Julie and gave her the news. At the other end of the phone, I heard her tears. She said to take as much time as was necessary, that she would call Eddie and tell him. After we hung up, I knew in my heart that Dad, like his dad before him, had gone home to the river that was so much of his life. He had gone home to be with his dad. And now the two of them, together, would help David be twice as smart, twice as sharp, twice the man Dad ever was with the voice of his father and grandfather guiding him on the Mississippi River.