Rollin’ On The Rivers

The sky was still dark and my head throbbed. I pressed my gray-gloved hand to my scalp. When I moved it into the beam of the arc light, the glove was bright crimson.

Working on the rivers was not what I wanted for a career, but in the spring of 1972 I found myself in St. Paul, Minnesota, beginning a new adventure.

It was my first day on the job for Capitol Barge Service, my Army buddy Dan’s dad’s company. I was learning my first task: to take the cables that bound barges together and stack them on the afterdeck of a towboat named Harry Harris.

Mike, the experienced hand who was teaching me “the ropes” peered down from the empty barge and said, “Sorry I didn’t expect that cable to uncoil like that. Uh-oh!” Then up to the skipper, “Hey, the new guy’s hurt. It looks bad.”

The boat was secured to the barge with a “breast-line” and the current held the boat firmly against the barge, so Paul, the pilot, was free to rush down to the main deck and check me out. He pulled me into the galley and shoved me down onto a chair before carefully peeling off my cap. The color left his face as he turned to the first aid kit, grabbed a handful of gauze pads and began pressing them to my wound. “Here’ hold these tight and sit still.”

He stepped back out onto the deck and called up to Mike, “Secure that line. I’m heading back to the office-barge.”

It was only a half-hour into our six a.m. to six p.m. shift and nobody was in the office yet, so he drove me to the Ramsey County Hospital.

At the E.R., a doctor peered into my pupils and asked if I’d blacked out. I said no, so he stitched my wound closed, saying, “You’ll be fine; scalp wounds bleed a lot.” An x-ray backed him up, showing no fracture.

A couple of aspirins later, I was back on the boat. I learned how to secure barges together and to a dock or anchorage, and how to maintain the equipment. When I saw Mike splicing two polylines, I remembered Dad teaching me how to splice rope, so I sat down beside him and began splicing too. Thanks, Dad.

I finished the shift with no further drama and learned much of the basics. At the end of the shift, Dan looked at my bloody clothes and said, “Heck of an initiation we have here, huh?”

“Yeah,” I replied, “but you know . . . chicks dig guys with scars.”

We laughed.

*      *      *

After a few weeks of working on the Capitol boats, Dan’s dad, Jim, called me into his office. “I’ve finalized a deal to start cleaning barges on the Minnesota River and I’d like you to be part of that team.”

I hesitated. The Minnesota was much further from the apartment I shared with Dan than Capitol Barge Service, where the boats, Harry and Mike Harris, were moored in St. Paul. “I only have a motorcycle.”

He said, “You can use my Cadillac when the weather’s bad.” He drove a new, leased Oldsmobile and his ten year old Sedan de Ville had been idle.

“I can’t turn down a deal like that.”

“Welcome to Dakota Barge Service.” He shook my hand and told me how to find the site.

*      *      *

The next morning I pulled my motorcycle off the freeway at an exit that quickly became a gravel road terminating at the bank of the Minnesota.

I found a respectable-sized crane by a box barge and what looked to me like a home-made towboat, the Dakota. I saw that two holes had been dug in the bank and filled with concrete, where a steel cable anchored each end of the barge.

Two men stood between their pick-up trucks. One waved to me. “You must be Dave.” I said yes and held out my hand. “I’m Ken. Jim put me in charge because I have a pilot’s license. This is Louie; he’s my number two and a welder. The other guys should be here soon.”

“Okay,” I said. “How do we get out there?”

“We’re going to build a ramp.”

When the rest of the guys arrived I met Donovan, Mark and Scott.

“Dave, you and Scott wait here to guide the beams.” He pointed out where he wanted them.

“Before we get down to business, we need to build the ramp from the shore to the work barge.”

The rest went down to the Dakota, from which Louie, Donovan and Mark climbed onto the barge. Ken directed everybody from the crane and Louie made sure each I-beam was hooked, one at a time, in the center so they balanced.

Ken hoisted the first beam out of the barge’s hold and paused while those guys scrambled out and grabbed two heavy lines attached to one end. As Ken began turning the crane, those guys separated along the narrow side-deck, keeping their end above the barge.

When our end swung over the shore we took the remaining lines and guided the beam to where Ken wanted it. With it in position, he lowered it into place and we removed the chains and polylines.

We repeated the procedure with the second beam, but as it touched the earth, Ken released the tension quicker than with the first one. The crane was still supporting most of the weight of the beam. When released, the middle sagged and rebounded. When that happened, the end of the beam bounced about a yard.

Not again

The end of the second beam bounced right onto the toe of my boot.

I sat down on the ground and pulled my boot off. My white sock was, well, you guessed it. I almost fainted, fearing that I’d lost a toe or more.

When I pulled the sock off, to my relief, I had only lost a toenail, but it bled for a few minutes. But, with some cotton, gauze and aspirin I was soon back to work.

With the excitement over, Ken and the guys repositioned the beam and we were able to place the decking that joined the two and Louie got busy welding. By quitting time, we were ready for business.

Well, almost.

*      *      *

The next day, Ken said, “I’ve got another easy job for you.”

I glanced down at my foot, “Sure. What do you need?”

He tossed me the keys to his company pick-up (a new 1972 Ford F-100 painted red and white, same as the company’s towboats). “I need you to go to (he named a company) in Shakopee, and pick up two more shore-anchor blocks for the barges we’ll be servicing. They have them ready, with a loop of one-inch cable cast into them. We’re being billed, so just sign for them.”

He lowered his voice, as if afraid he might be overheard. “Now you need to make two trips because each block is right at the truck’s load limit. You also need to follow this route. He gave me a hand-sketched map. It’s about fifteen miles and the only way to avoid the Highway Department’s scale — I can’t risk a fine in case it’s overweight, okay?”

“Uh, oh-kay . . .”

“Be careful, Just try not to take all day.”

Finding the business and getting the first load onto the F-100 was straightforward. The clerk said I didn’t even need to get out of the truck, but I did. I was learning to be extra careful in my new line of work.

I hoped the crane operator was gentler than Ken had been the day before, and he settled the half-ton of reinforced concrete in the Ford’s bed without damaging anything. I noticed that the rear bumper was quite a bit closer to the ground than when empty.

The first few miles were totally forgettable.

Ken’s detour was, well, a little more interesting.

I’d stopped at a four-way sign and turned left.

Remember, I’d driven his route going there, but with the load it seemed strange and terrifying. First off, I hadn’t noticed how poor the pavement was. The first pot-hole felt a lot deeper than it looked. I had to reassure myself that I hadn’t heard a tire or shock absorber explode or a spring break. 

I took a deep breath and told myself to chill out. I told myself to slow down if I had to, but get a grip and finish the trip. But the truck’s front tires seemed to float above the road.

I saw another bump in my path so I turned the steering wheel about one-tenth of its rotation. The truck kept going straight toward the bump. I turned the steering wheel further and watched the  bump continue coming straight for my tire. I let off the accelerator and felt the truck lurch to the side.

I broke out in a cold sweat.

I rolled to the shoulder of the road where I sat and shivered for a bit.

“Okay, David,” I said aloud, “You’ve survived so far — you can do this.” 

It took all day to fetch and deliver those two concrete monstrosities, but I did it — glad it wasn’t my truck and relieved I had managed to keep it on the road, if barely.

*      *      *

Soon we were ready for business.

Since four of us would be doing dirty work, Ken suggested we invest in rain suits and good rubber boots that evening. The next day, when we boarded our first “customer,” we saw why. There was coal dust clinging to the walls of the cargo hold and random piles of assorted lumps and piles of coal dust spread across the decks.

Those were swept, hosed and scooped to one corner where coal, rancid grain and water was vacuumed out. Luckily for me, I got to drive a Bobcat mini-tractor and push the piles of bigger debris. I still got dirty and sweaty, but I had a little status and learned what might have been a somewhat marketable skill.

Sometimes we’d have slow days and Ken didn’t mind if we went for a swim. “Just don’t drown.” None of us did.

*      *      *

If our workload was light and a deckhand was needed on a Capitol boat, I was asked to fill in there. That kept both jobs from becoming too monotonous. I enjoyed the Minnesota’s beautiful natural shores and the contrasting cityscapes of the Mississippi through the Twin Cities.

At St. Anthony Falls, I studied how the giant lock gates opened and closed, powered by large hydraulic cylinders. The upstream set let water flow in and the lower set let it flow out. Larry, the pilot of the Mike Harris, said, “If the gates were ever opened at the same time, the flow is so powerful they couldn’t be closed again.”

Next to each lock was a dam with vertically-movable gates that could be adjusted according to whether the river was high with spring floods or low during drier periods.

While researching this memoir, I learned that these locks were ordered closed to prevent further spread of an invasive fish species, but tours are still available and worth visiting by anyone in the Twin Cities area.

*      *      *

That December I got one final shift as deckhand. Ice was forming along the river banks and chunks were flowing through the locks from further north. There was one last tow (fleet) being assembled, bearing wheat bound for Russia.

The decks were treacherous and the wind was brutal, but as we finished that long day’s work I looked up. I felt hypnotized by the beautiful, bright green curtain of light shimmering in the sky — Aurora Borealis.

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