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It is near midnight on the Mississippi River, 100 miles south of Memphis, and a towboat pushing 35 barges creeps like a bead of sweat down America's spinal cord, this "strong brown god -- sullen, untamed and intractable," as T.S. Eliot once described the massive 2,350-mile-long waterway. Up above, the Arkansas moon shimmers off the river and a trillion stars faintly define a scribbled line of poplar trees rising from both banks.
Bloated with more than 60,000 tons of coal, corn, coils, sand and stone, the Christopher M. Parsonage directs the load from the rear. Eight thousand horses of pushing power kick up a never-ending vibration like a heavy-duty washing machine on spin cycle. A gently swaying community of eight men and a female cook live inside this eternal rumble. They are in the middle of 28 consecutive days aboard. Not once will they step ashore.
"It sure is hard on a family," says the Parsonage's silver-haired chief engineer, Randy Kent. "Some people say they just love it out here, but I don't know. After several years, you sorta get burned out. Trips get harder, especially when you have kids."
Bound for New Orleans, the Parsonage is floating down the Mississippi, each of its barges crammed with 1,750 tons of freight -- the equivalent of 70 truckloads or 17 rail cars. Five days prior, the towboat passed through Lock 27 at Granite City, Illinois, and now, with their loads complete, the barges plod southward at full throttle -- twelve miles an hour. Federal Express it's not. Lumbering upstream, the pace is achingly slow, peaking at 3.5 miles an hour.
The portion of the river south of Memphis twists like a yogi, and at night you're driving blind. "Last night we had a few turns where I had to really get on top of the buoys to stay off the bank," says Captain Doug Wise as he sits in the darkened wheelhouse. "Coming around a corner, the current can be on that side and set you on the bank. You gotta work the buoys hard. That's when you really use your lights."
The radar in the wheelhouse glows LCD green, offering a skeletal, bird's-eye view of the river. Joysticks direct spotlights that puncture the darkness from the roof of the vessel, illuminating a red buoy floating in the river a half-mile ahead. Hit the wrong side of that buoy, and the boat's likely to run aground. When the vessel is threading a bridge, the beams home in on the bridge supports.
At intervals along alternating banks, green lights blink twice, as does a single white light a mile ahead. A few miles downriver, another spotlight appears and begins scanning the scenery, looking for buoys. Over the course of the next 45 minutes, the beams will gradually, tentatively approach each other like two coal miners converging in an unknown cave. Wise points his spot at the head of his tow nearly a quarter-mile away. "It's a lot harder to control a southbound tow, because you've got a current on your stern," he says in a slow, Southern drawl that turns "current" into "kirnt." "You're making a lot better time, but it takes a lot longer to stop, and the current affects your movement a lot more."
For almost two decades, the 37-year-old Wise has been making this ponderous journey up and down the river. "I can't even begin to count how many times -- at least twice a month."
Wise wears his hair in a tight crew cut and sports a neatly trimmed mustache. A stint in the Navy has instilled a certain discipline that he brings to the Parsonage. He exercises daily by walking laps around the six-acre tow and insists on rigid meal times.
"We don't eat until exactly the times he says -- five-thirty, eleven-thirty, five-thirty," muses cook Peggy Rowberry. "One time one of them started eating their food at eleven-twenty-five, and the captain walked down and saw him, and looked at the clock, and looked at me again." Obey the clock, Wise commanded, and she has ever since.
The captain drags the spotlight past two workers, Scott Davison and Russell Sacra. They're roaming the rectangle of barges that the Parsonage is driving: checking for leaks, testing the tightened cable that knots each load with the others. The two wear flashlight helmets and sturdy neon-orange life jackets. Out on the tow, a life jacket is mandatory, as are steel-toe boots. Downstairs, Randy Kent is checking the engines. Everyone else is asleep.
When they're not working, they're sleeping. After a shift, they'll maybe watch a little TV, or read. There's not much else to do. Monotony sets in. It's a big day when the Mountain Dew, cigarettes and magazines arrive by boat from the Economy Boat Store. Smoking is permitted, but only on deck. Booze and drugs, though, will get you hauled off the boat and arrested -- one reason some potential deckhands sign on. It's like getting paid to enter a month-long rehab.
As watchman Randy Green explains: "They don't really keep vanilla extract, [Vicks] Formula 44-D, or stuff like that on the boat. They've had problems. I've rode with a guy before, he drank all the cough syrup and everything, then he got something, I don't know if it was Lysol or Listerine -- one of the two -- and he run it through the coffee filter, through the coffee machine and drank that. You'll see a few guys who get the D.T.s and stuff."