Mississippi Drifting

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

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."

One deckhand jokes that "a felony conviction is a prerequisite to work out here."

Alone and in clusters they work along the Mississippi, which stretches from the headwaters of Lake Itasca, in the vast pine forests of northern Minnesota, to New Orleans: loading and unloading barges, driving and maintaining the towboat, keeping it profitable, keeping it alive. And in clusters they eat and laugh and bicker, just like a family. They make it a home and follow a routine. Then they get off the boat and return to their real families for the next 28 days.

With so much river, power and weight at a boat's disposal, pulling into Lock 27 at Granite City -- despite the lock's 1,200-foot length -- is a delicate game of inches. Maneuvering a fifteen-barge load into a lock is a lot like pushing a thoroughbred into a starting gate, or a game of Tetris writ large. The goal is to carefully squeeze one 1,200-foot rectangular protrusion into a 1,200-foot rectangular hole. Then the hole will close, and the cavernous elevator will descend about twenty feet.

This southernmost lock on the Mississippi, like all others, regulates the flow of the river by preventing it from gaining so much momentum that it makes commercial use too dangerous. Locks can best be described as a long set of manmade stairs that descend downstream, and for the barge industry, they are a necessary evil.

Locks can only accommodate so many barges at a time (depending on lock size, from nine to fifteen), which limits the barge industry's delivery capacity to and from northern ports. The industry and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers are constantly jockeying for lock-improvement money but often come up dry. Environmentalists argue that these locks damage the river's ecosystem, and favor limiting barge traffic on the Mississippi.

Once the load is lowered in the lock, a steel wall swings open, and the boat drifts slowly out at a leisurely six miles an hour and continues along the Chain of Rocks Canal, just north of downtown, and under the Eads Bridge. It'll take the Parsonage a week to travel from St. Louis to the Gulf of Mexico.

From shore, the Mississippi River and the barges that float past downtown St. Louis seem nothing more than props commissioned by the city's tourism industry. The river disappears a quarter-mile either way behind a solid strip of industrial wasteland. For most, the Mississippi is largely ignored, a mere backdrop for the Arch, synonymous with nothing more than the Casino Queen.

Peering out from the Parsonage, though, St. Louis still looks and feels like the thriving river town it once was, this ant farm-active hub along America's dry-goods superhighway. The proof lies just south of the MacArthur Bridge, where tugboats work the river all the way down to the Jefferson Barracks Bridge. Around the clock, the boats deliver empties, swap for full loads and connect northbound and southbound towboats.

With the Budweiser sign glowing in the distance at Anheuser-Busch's headquarters, the Parsonage cuts its engines and drifts starboard toward a massive collection of barges moored along the banks. For the rest of the night, deckhands will work with tugboats that roam the river near south city, gathering and connecting seven barges to the Parsonage. The little tug that ferries the barges can only deliver a few at a time, and each must be individually secured, which takes about 40 minutes. Multiply that by a dozen exchanges, and before long it is past midnight.

In a generic conference room, Mark Knoy, president of Chesterfield-based MEMCO Barge, sits in front of a large easel and four markers and draws a rudimentary map of the entire inland river system. He enjoys creating diagrams to illustrate his points.

The third-largest barge operator in the country with 800 employees, MEMCO was founded by Noble C. Parsonage in the mid-1970s; in 1988 Parsonage sold the company to Progress Energy, which in turn sold it in 2001 to American Electric Power, a Columbus, Ohio-based multinational energy company, for $270 million.

Knoy has worked his way from deckhand to the president of a company that last year amassed $350 million in revenue. MEMCO owns 35 towboats that run the entire Mississippi Valley River system.

He points to a spot on his map near Kentucky and West Virginia. "This is coal country, and you have a tremendous amount of power plants built in the Ohio River Valley, because 1) utility plants need a lot of water, and 2) they need fuel. This is where Mother Nature put the fuel -- put all the coal."

He points to Pittsburgh, then to Chicago, where steel is made, then to the plains states: "Then we have the grain. Fertilizer goes up [the river], grain goes down." All told, roughly 600 million tons of material are shipped annually through the inland riverway system.

The Christopher M. Parsonage was built in 1998 and named after the son of MEMCO's founder. It measures 180 feet long and 48 feet wide. It's a three-story workboat shaped like an oblong pyramid. The top deck is the wheelhouse, a square room with a 360-degree view of the river. The guest quarters are below it: two separate bedrooms and bathrooms connected by a sitting room that faces the towhead, and below the guest rooms are the crew's quarters. On the main level is the galley, the TV room, two more bedrooms, the engineer's office and the hotter-than-Hell engine room. Below the waterline is a subdeck, where the engines sit.

"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.

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."

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."

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.

Davison and Sacra are out checking the tow. Each shift starts with the ritual of walking the gunwale -- the natural walkways created by the collection of barges -- to look for barge leaks. On each of the barges' four sides are two manholes covered with hatches. The men walk the expanse of the load, a 35-rectangle grid, lift each hatch with a T-shape tool that Davison calls the "backsaver" and peer down into what in barge terminology is called "the void" -- the space between the outer hull and the cargo box. The void creates the buoyancy that makes the steel barge float; it's like two shoeboxes, one inside of the other.

If Davison spies a leak, he'll drop a pump. If it proves to be a big leak, he'll climb down and wade around until he finds the hole, then use a hammer to bang in some shingles -- wooden wedges that he'll use to plug the hole. "You take a knife down there, and a hammer. Sometimes you can put a half a bundle of shingles in it and still not stop it. After a time, they'll swell up, and it acts like a cork."

Finally, after checking all the hatches, Davison is at the towhead, nearly a quarter-mile from the boat. Out here, he has an unimpeded view of the river. It's stumbling-distance away and there are no safety railings. In front of him, the river washes beneath the barge and a breeze hits his face.

"I like it out here," says Davison, looking out over the water plateau and the tunnel of trees in front of him. "You can't hear no boat noises, no engines -- especially in the summertime. It just makes it all worthwhile, right here." He pauses. "It gets eerie out here sometimes. Like that stick out there. You'll be walking by and something will jump up at you." Entire trees buried in the current get swept up by the barges, and roar out of the river like serpents. A few weeks back, one pushed up and out and scraped along the length of the Parsonage. "If someone would have been out there when it happened, he would have been dragged off the boat," says Davison.

At 3:30 a.m. in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, both engines abruptly stop. The silence is deafening. From outside the guest quarters on deck, you can't see anything along the river except for fog and night. It's like the surrounding world is an isolation booth. Time seems like it has vanished, and you're in the exact place where Walt Whitman wrote "Nights on the Mississippi."

"I hear the slight ripples, the air is fresh and cool....in the moonlight. I am out pretty late: it is so fascinating, dreamy. The cool night-air, all the influences, the silence, with those far-off eternal stars, do me good. I have been quite ill of late. And so, well-near the centre of our national demesne, these night views of the Mississippi."

All you can hear is the sloshing of water. In the wheelhouse, Henry Kelley is relaxing. Down below, Rowberry is fixing to start breakfast. Raderstorf and Davison are mopping the floors.

Dawn arrives, and with it a clear day and a big sky. Russell Sacra and Randy Green start hand-washing the upper decks. They scrub for the entire morning as Doug Wise watches in the wheelhouse. When noon arrives, Henry Kelley relieves him.

Kelley has been on the river since 1949, when he was thirteen, and has been piloting since 1960. He's bald, wears big, thick, wire-framed glasses, has an impressive belly that he'll rub after dinner, and always wears snug Dickies coveralls.

"You couldn't see," he explains of last night's pause, "and it's against the law to run in the fog." He's guiding the boat around a bend and heading toward the Greenville Bridge in Mississippi. Some pilots skirt the regulations and keep moving through the haze. "When you're southbound, you don't need to be doing it at all, because it's very unsafe," says Kelley. "You have to see what you're doing. If you happen to miscalculate, you done bought the farm. If you keep moving in the fog, there's always a chance of running aground. Of course, most of the bad wrecks are with the bridges, hitting bridges."

In his 44 years of piloting the Mississippi, Kelley brags that he's never hit a bridge. He taps his head with his fist. "Knock wood." Kelley sizes up what's in front of him and lines up the boat by looking at a marker behind him. The Greenville Bridge is at the foot of a river bend, so Kelley must simultaneously navigate the bend and the bridge supports.

Pilots are used to this, says Mel Adams, pilot of the Harry Waddington. "Every guy that ever built a bridge, the towboat captain must have been having an affair with his wife. They never put them on a straightaway."

The boat's flanking a little bit port-side, but the current pushes it back until it's aimed at the green light that hangs dead center from every bridge on the river system. "What makes this bridge so bad is you've got this real hard bend," explains Kelley, "and then when you get going down there, well, that current runs across the point and starts hitting you on the side and wants to put you down on the bank."

But he controls the towboat and its 60,000 tons like it's a john-boat, and rides it under the Greenville Bridge. "You can't get any closer to the center than that," he says proudly as he pushes south. In front of him, a long stretch of barges drifts south. When it gets to the Gulf, the Parsonage will unload. Then it will turn around, grab more loads and head back north, and Kelley and the rest of the crew will continue the routine, one that never changes.

Kelley pauses to adjust the wheel. "You get used to it," he says. "It doesn't bother me. It's been that way since boats have been boats."

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