Mississippi Drifting

Twenty-eight straight days pushing freight up and down the Big Muddy -- and oh-so-slowly

"You kind of view the boat as a mobile city," explains Knoy. "They have everything on there they need. They have all their own systems. It has everything on board it needs to repair itself: the spare engine parts, generator parts, plumbing parts, electric parts, an element for the stove. The engineers on there can pretty much fix anything that breaks."


The journey from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico can be divided into two sections: the 165 miles from St. Louis to Cairo, Illinois, where the Ohio River converges with the Mississippi; and the 981 miles from Cairo to New Orleans. To Cairo's north, the scenery is filled with hills, a few bluffs and an occasional river town, the prettiest of which is St. Genevieve. It sits on a hill, and when the Parsonage glides past, its architecture and setting look positively European. Below Cairo lies a vast, open waterway only a few feet above sea level; here, it feels like you're traversing the Amazon.

Workers cram a year's worth of work into six months 
but pay the price with dense twelve-hour workdays. 
Deckhand Eric Raderstorf (left) and oiler Terry Holder.
Jennifer Silverberg
Workers cram a year's worth of work into six months but pay the price with dense twelve-hour workdays. Deckhand Eric Raderstorf (left) and oiler Terry Holder.
Pilot Henry Kelley has been on boats since he was 
thirteen, so he is used to the hours. "It doesn't bother 
me. It's been that way since boats have been boats."
Jennifer Silverberg
Pilot Henry Kelley has been on boats since he was thirteen, so he is used to the hours. "It doesn't bother me. It's been that way since boats have been boats."

Near Cora, Illinois, 75 miles south of St. Louis, the Parsonage stops for 10 more barges, mostly coal. Deckhand Russell Sacra and watchman Randy Green await the load from the towhead 75 yards in front of the boat. The tug glides headfirst toward the front of the lead barge, and the entire Parsonage shimmies as the barge hits the tip. Then the two deckhands, along with the tugboat's workers, tie it in with wire. About twenty minutes later, the little tugboat pulls away and heads north for more barges, leaving a solid wake in its path.

Then the Parsonage waits. And waits. It doesn't faze the crew; it's part of the deal. They're on for the duration, whether they're moored or moving. They say the 28-day cycle is the best part of the job. Workers cram a year's worth of work into six months but pay the price with dense twelve-hour work days, which add up to an 84-hour workweek. The crew is only able to sleep in five-hour stretches, maximum. The cost is half your home life, half your anniversaries, birthdays and Christmases.

Randy Green looks like a younger, chunkier Harvey Keitel. The Cape Girardeau resident has been working boats for seven years. A few years back he took a six-month sabbatical. "I wanted to try other things," he says. He got married, and his wife suggested a more normal lifestyle. "My wife was like, 'Maybe you should try to get a job at home so we can spend more time together.'" He tried the nine-to-five racket. "I didn't get no 28 days off, and that's the thing that I really love about the job."

Usually it's the first-timers who get stir-crazy during the cycle and decide to bail out. Chief engineer Randy Chambers of the Harry Waddington, which runs the Illinois River and upper Mississippi, recalls being on that boat with a novice who panicked a week into the trip. "He dove off wearing just the clothes on his back, and screamed back, 'You can keep my stuff!' [and] swam to the bank. He cut through the woods, then realized he was in the middle of fucking nowhere, and jumped back into the river and climbed back aboard."

"Just being out here is the hardest part," says Green. "You have to be able to deal with that mentally. As far as doing the labor, I like that. It keeps you in shape a little bit. I'd probably be really fat if I didn't work here."

"Keeps you in shape?" hollers Eric Raderstorf. "All the lead men [the deckhands' bosses] are fat. You're fat, Lenny's fat, Scott's fat, Chris is fat." He looks over at deckhand Sacra: "Russell, you're the next lead man, ain't you? I need to put on a few pounds. Maybe I'd get a damn pay raise."

The trade-off for the endless hours is a decent wage. "There's absolutely nothing wrong with the mate making 35 to 40 thousand a year," says MEMCO's Knoy. "Yeah, you can't live in Chesterfield, but you can live damn near anywhere you want in Arkansas, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia."

A deckhand starts at about $25,000 a year, a mate at $35,000, and an engineer at $50,000. After seven years, the captain can be pulling down $75,000. "Where I live," says deckhand Raderstorf, "everybody is like, 'Shoot, he's making more money than us and he's only working six months out of the year.' I'll say, 'Well, I work 84 hours a week. How many hours a week do you work?'"

The lifestyle does attract its share of characters. "I remember one guy came on the boat carrying this huge red cooler, and [he] immediately put it in his room," recalls the Harry Waddington's Chambers. "The guy would work, then go straight to his room until it was time for the next shift. We thought that he didn't know that he was invited to have dinner, to eat the food. So one day I went up to him and said, 'You know, you can eat with us.' And he said, 'I brought my own, and that's what I eat.' I asked him what was in the cooler and he opened it and it was filled with Reese's Peanut Butter Cups. That's all he was eating."

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