Mississippi Drifting

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

Cook Peggy Rowberry sits at the dinner table, a five-foot Masonite rectangle that butts up against the starboard side of the galley. As with the rest of the ship, the walls are beige wood paneling; the floor, a heavy-duty speckled black rubber. She's just finished cleaning up after a pizza dinner. Behind her, a window the size of a hotel painting overlooks the river and a retaining wall, which welcomes river traffic to Cape Girardeau, 111 miles south of St. Louis.

Rowberry gets up at 3:30 a.m. to start breakfast (eggs, bacon, potatoes, pancakes), and stays awake to make a big lunch (fried chicken, meat loaf, pork steaks, roast beef, pasta, cold cuts) and dinner (taco soup, steak, fish, hamburgers, hot dogs). "These guys, they won't eat pies, and very few cakes," she says with a Loretta Lynn twang. "About the only thing they'll eat is cookies and chocolate."

Captain Doug Wise: A stint in the Navy has instilled a 
certain discipline that he brings to the Christopher 
M. Parsonage.
Jennifer Silverberg
Captain Doug Wise: A stint in the Navy has instilled a certain discipline that he brings to the Christopher M. Parsonage.
The guts of the Parsonage, which 
houses two 4,000-horsepower engines.
Jennifer Silverberg
The guts of the Parsonage, which houses two 4,000-horsepower engines.

The crew's surrogate mama, Rowberry confides in the crew, listens to them, watches them. "I saw Scott and Russell eat both meals today," she says, "which is highly unusual. You may not think I'm noticing things, but I do." She has to. She is only budgeted $3.95 per worker per meal, so she has to have an intimate understanding of their eating habits.

The cook is the queen of the galley. There is no cussing. Workers clear and rinse their own dishes and place them in the washer. No one else is to use the stove. She makes the menu but will do her best to accommodate any request. Deckhand Russell Sacra, who looks like a young Randall "Tex" Cobb -- the same weathered nose -- walks in and smiles at Peggy.

"She's also the one that if you're feeling down, she'll always cheer you up," says Sacra. "Always has something funny to say. If it wasn't for Peggy, I probably wouldn't be out here. When I'm mad or something, and if the captain don't listen, Peggy's always there. You can always count on her. She's the one that makes the boat alive."

The back of Russell's XXL gray T-shirt is smeared with coal dust, and his blue jeans ride low. One of his nicknames is Meathead, he says, but only a fool or a friend would call him that. Rowberry, who's been cooking on boats for fifteen years, leans close and speaks quietly. "What I try and do is get them all involved a little bit in everything. Sometimes I'll say, 'Russell, could you fill this up for me,' just making them feel sort of like it's home."

The DirecTV in the lounge is more frustrating than it is useful. When the boat's running and the river is curvy, the old dish constantly loses its signal. Sacra's on the couch watching a motorcycle blooper show. Despite his size, the scars around his eyes and the banged-up nose that gives him a nasal wheeze, his demeanor is gentle.

Sacra loves telling the story of how he and his wife met. His parents were friends with her parents. One night six years ago they all went out to dinner. She brought her then-boyfriend, and sometime during the night the boyfriend hit the girlfriend hard on her arm. "I looked at him," recalls Sacra, "then looked around the table, confused, like, 'Did you all just see that?'" He told the guy if he did it again, he was going to take him outside. Later, the boyfriend hit her again, and Sacra guided him out to the parking lot and pummeled him. "A few days later, she calls me and asks me if I want to go out for coffee."

Tornado warnings in Cairo made the tow work a pain -- it took all night to load the remaining barges. But now the storms have moved on, and the boat's connected to its 35 barges -- the equivalent of 2,450 truckloads. It takes a lot of muscle and fuel (400 gallons an hour) to get the collection up to its maximum speed of nearly 13 miles per hour. Once it gets moving, though, the journey is nonstop. Later in the day, Memphis appears on the horizon. The Memphis DeSoto Bridge, which connects Tennessee and Arkansas at Memphis, twinkles with light.

Scott Davison chuckles when asked whether he's ever fallen in the river. He says he wouldn't be standing here now if he had. He stands five-foot-six and has a coarse, ragged head of sandy brown hair. A fraying ponytail hangs in back, and he wears a double-wide goatee. As mate, Davison is in charge of the tow workers: Sacra, watchman Green and deckhand Raderstorf.

Past Memphis and into the Mississippi Delta, the river is so wide at some points that it seems more like a lake than a river. If you didn't know that this waterway continued on to the Gulf of Mexico, you'd swear it ended just on the other side of that bend. Ahead, gulls move like fighter jets across the river as the Parsonage drifts like a blimp.

Working a tow isn't rocket science, but carelessness will send a clumsy deckhand over and under. If the winch he's tightening slips, he'll tumble headfirst into the river. Trip on a wire, and before he can start hyperventilating, the man is swept beneath acres of solid steel. Laws and common sense dictate that safety vests be worn whenever a worker is on the tow or on deck. But what good's a life jacket? Even if you retain your composure, the two ten-foot propellers will cut you into bits.

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