Down on the Tennessee

Like Sam Clemens, RICHARD PIKE BISSELL holds a pilot’s license on the Mississippi, has made a living on our inland waterways, and whether as deck hand, mate, or pilot, has seen some amusing and some narrow shaves aboard the river boats and the barges which ply the Monongahela, the Tennessee, the Illinois, and the Upper and Lower Mississippi. He won the Atlantic “I PersonallyAward of $1000 with his first narrative,The Coal Queen.” He is now finishing his first novel, and we look forward to seeing more of his work in our columns.

WHAT, you mean to say you was on the old steamer Prairie Belle when she run up the Tennessee?” said the Second Engineer. We were waiting for our boat on the Robert Street landing at St . Paul.

“All the way, Greasy, all the way,” I said. “I was the big Mate on that famous expedition.”

“Was you there when the stacks come down?”

“I sure was. I was on the head of the tow hollering like a deck hand with his hand caught in the capstan.”

“ Why, man, I never knew you was on that boat.”

“I was there, kid. I was there all the time. I was there in capital letters, Greasy.”

That was a wonderful affair down on the Tennessee.

Sometimes you think and dream about something you want and then after you get it it’s all different than you thought it would be. That’s the way it was down on the Tennessee River when I was the Very First Mate on the stern-wheel steamer Prairie Belle. Yet in spite of the hell we had, and the girl with dirty legs, and the deck hand that carried a pistol, I was never caught up in such a riot of color.

Ever since I commenced hitting the river boats, I had wanted to work on one of these old-time, noncondensing, high-pressure, coal-burning, hand-fired, cinder-throwing, hard-puffing, back-breaking sternwheel steamboats. I thought it would be romantic. And so it was.

The story begins at the Paducah landing, with me standing on the foredeck of the high-pressure, coal-burning steamer Prairie Belle, which was one of the cutest little steamers ever made on the Upper Mississippi. Years ago the Henkel Brothers of St. Paul got tired of fooling around with motor launches and cramped-up cruisers, and had this full-size oldstyle stern-wheel steamboat built for their personal use. Look at some of the old houses in St, Paul if you think they didn’t have money in those days. This boat was built on the old traditional lines as to profile, stern wheel, and engine room smells, but had some extras never found on the old Grey Eagle or Key City — such as five thousand electric fans, two electric refrigerators the size of the St. Louis Union Station, tile-floored bathrooms with built-in tubs, curved plate-glass windows at the forward end of the main cabin, and mattresses without picturesque lumps.

The Henkel Brothers were gone, and the boat had knocked around, and finally it went on the block. Nobody wants these stern-wheelers any more, and our outfit — the Inland Barge Line out of St. Louis — got her for about fourteen dollars and a hundred cigar coupons. The steel hull alone would cost forty thousand today, without the electric fans and the tile floors. Oh but I wish I had bought that boat. With what?

So the company sent me down as Mate and we were to run empties and grain up the Tennessee to Sheffield, Alabama, and then run pig iron down to Paducah, and maybe take it up the Ohio to Evansville. The only reason I got. the Mate job was because I had a Mate’s License and on these steamboats you got to have licensed officers. Due to a humorous whim on the part of the U.S. Gov’t and a successful lobby of the shipping companies, you can operate the biggest Diesel boat in Christendom and suburbs without a single licensed man aboard, but if you power a little old sand and gravel boat with a steam engine you’ve right away got to have a licensed engineer and a licensed pilot or two, and they’ve got to have their licenses framed under glass aboard or the inspectors will tie the boat up and freeze it in as tight as New Year’s Day in Fountain City Bay. I, being an ambitious as well as a brilliant young man, had passed my examinations with the Bureau of Marine Inspection at the age of six and had a Male’s License Unlimited Tonnage with an engraving on it of a ship looking like the granddaddy of the Hudson River Day Line.

The company figured a Northern crew would be unhappy down here in the land of snuff dipping, so they had deck hands, firemen, cook, and mess boy shipped up from Alabama. It was a stroke of genius. Without that gang aboard I wouldn’t have had any fun at all.

The first ones I ran into were James Jess and Lee Roy Higginbotham. These two boys were about eighteen years old and had never even seen a steamboat before. They turned out in the end to be the two best deck hands I ever had work for me, and they sure didn’t back away from the work. James had on white shoes and a baseball cap, and tan shirt and pants.

“Boy,” I said, “those while shoes are gonna be an awful sight pretty soon. Ain’t you got any other shoes?”

“James he always wears them white slippers,” Lee Roy said. They call oxfords “slippers” down there. “Shoes” come up over your ankle.

“All right,” I said. “You boys got any gloves?” They didn’t have any gloves, so I lent them two bucks and sent them up the levee to the store. You can’t deck on a steamboat without gloves, the wires will cut your hands to shreds.

We were carrying a “roof captain” — that is, a company captain in charge, who doesn’t stand a pilot watch because he hasn’t got a license over that stretch of river; then we had two “trip pilots,” noncompany men hired from trip to trip, one to stand the forward watch, the other the after watch.

First the Captain arrived in a taxicab. I was glad to see it was Captain Warren, a good old boy — relaxed, and not jumpy like so many of the new young pilots. Then the first pilot came down the levee wearing a Panama hat, with a kid behind him struggling with his suitcase. The second pilot followed pretty soon, a huge tall man with white hair, looking like Old Man River himself. The cook and mess boy, wife and husband consecutively, came hunching down the cobblestones, with their traps in brown paper parcels, a sorry-looking duet, especially the man, who was half asleep right there standing up.

A police car arrived, and the two firemen were deposited on the levee in indelicate condition.

“What’s the trouble, boys, too much Bevo?” I said.

“Keep these two squirrels aboard,” one of the cops said. “We’d lock ‘em up, but after the riot at the dance hall last night we got no place to put ’em. Don’t leave us see these two admirals uptown again,” and the cops drove off in the squad car.

“What happened to Myrtle? Where’s Myrtle at?” says one of the firemen, grabbing me by the shirt sleeve.

“Hey, Dude,”the Captain hollered down to me from the roof. “Get those two college professors aboard and let’s go.”

James and Lee Roy came down the levee, all gloves, and I showed them how to turn the lines loose, and the bells began to ring in the engine room, oh what a beautiful sound, and we backed out into the stream.


WE WENT across the river to pick up our fuel flat and our tow. The fuel flat is a barge towed alongside full of coal for the boiler fires. The deck hands shovel the coal into wheelbarrows and wheel it up a plank and aboard the boat, and dump it in the coal bunkers, which are right up forward. After doing this for six months you can pick up Man Mountain Dean and throw him into the two-dollar seats.

When I took a look at our fuel flat I grew very sad, for with long years of experience I can spot a barge with a criminal record at a glance. I couldn’t even guess how many times this barge had been sunk, but the mud was a foot deep in the rake compartments, and I’ll bet there were soil specimens in there all the way from the black loam of Minnesota to the mountain silt of West Virginia.

“Watch her close,” the old landing watchman told me. “I been apumpin her pretty steady since she come in here.”

“Does she come in pretty fast, Dad?”

“You’ll see what I mean soon enough,” he said. “Where you bound for, Cairo?”

“Up the Tennessee,” I said. “Here’s your tieoff lines,” and I threw him his lines.

“Oh lordy,” he said. “Up the Tennessee.”

We picked up two loads of grain and five empties. That should take about twenty minutes, but with James and Lee Roy stumbling around and falling over the timberheads, and the pilot turning out to be deaf, it was a two-hour entertainment. The first thing that became apparent was that all our rigging — wires, lines, straps, ratchets—was intended for use on little old wood barges, and was way out of its class on these 175-foot standards. The second thing was that the more vivacious fireman was determined to help make tow. Finally, after cavorting around like the Great Nonesuch, he fell in an empty barge on Ids head and I thought he would lie quiet for a while, since his neck was obviously broken, but in three minutes he was up on deck again, and giving a demonstration of line throwing.

The Captain came out onto the hurricane roof. “Hey, Dude,” he hollered down. “Get that fireman off the barges before he kills himsell.”

“Another dead fireman is just what the world is waiting for,” I said. “Leave the silly bastard go.”

I was so blame mad.

“Bring me a lashing, James. Hurry, boy,” I’d say.

“What’s a lashing?" he’d say.

“One of those lines coiled up on the deck.”


“One of those ropes rolled lip on the floor. Go get one. Run! Fly! This ain’t a Methodist outing.”

We finally got the barges all trussed up with the steel and manila and I was checking things over ready to turn loose and start the big adventure up a brand-new river when the fireman fell in the river. We all stood looking at him as he was floundering around in the water. His old slouch hat was float ing away from him. He went down out of sight.

“My, look at the bubbles,” says Lee Roy.

“Can he swim?” I said to the other fireman, who had sobered up some and was staring popeyed with his coal scoop in his hand.

“Look, he just drownded,” he said.

“Can he swim?” I said.

“Don’t look like it.”

“No, it don’t,” 1 said.

Just then he came up about twenty feet downstream, gave some gurgles, and went down again. I kicked off my shoes and dove in and pulled him out.

We laid him in the deck room to drain and I went out on the barges and turned us loose.


I SET the boys to wheeling coal aboard, checked over my barges, and went up to the galley for coffee.

There was no fire in the range, no coffee, and no cook. The galley was piled up to the clerestory with groceries to be put away. I went and knocked on the cook’s door and pretty soon the man part of the team came and stuck his teeth at me.

“Listen,” I said. “You got to come out here and get a fire going. What if the Captain should send down for coffee?”

“Me an Birdie is takin a nap,” he said.

“That galley looks like the day after,” I said. “You and Birdie better shag ass in there and get organized.”

“Hey, Birdie, wake up, honey,” says the boy. “The man says we got to make some coffee.”

“Ah don’t care fer none,” she says. “It nerves me all up.”

I got them moving after a while and they came out groaning and began to stir around among I he cases and boxes of stores. Their idea was to lease the groceries piled up on the galley floor and when they wanted something, like the baking powder or vanilla extract, to hunt through the pile.

“What is this here?” says Birdie holding up the coffee percolator.

“My God,” I said, “that’s the percolator. That’s what you make the coffee in.”

“Down home we makes it in a pail,” she said. She meant a lard pail I suppose.

This man and wife were young, about twenty-five years old, but they looked and acted all worn out. The man was a sloppy, lazy dog with the ambition of a yellow pine stump. The girl was like one of those disheveled females always peering out of cabin doorways in photographic exposes of the South. She’d have been kind of pretty if she’d have run a comb through her hair and spruced up a little. And washed her legs.

Yes, boys, her skirts were mighty short and her legs were just plumb dirty. Not only that but she knew they were dirty and liked them that way.

“Now you’re on your own,” I said. “I’m the Mate here, not the nursemaid. The first watch eats at 5.30 and the second at 6.00.” And I went up to the pilothouse.

“Captain, we got a couple of real kangaroos down there in the galley,” I said. “I don’t think either of them ever saw more than a peck of blackeyed peas and a side of sowbelly at one time up to now.”

“Dude, you’re the most disconcerting man I ever knew,” said Captain Warren. “Relax, son. Things are just a little different down here from up in the famous corn and hog state.”

“Maybe so,” 1 said, “but I’ll bet dinner will be a sight for t he birds.”

“How’s that fuel flat?”

“A real old-fashioned dog, Cap,” I said. “Most of my time on this romantic run is gonna be spent trying to keep her afloat. I better go down and check again. We didn’t pump her for half an hour.”

“There you go again. Can’t you take a brighter attitude towards life?”

“Well, the bilge pump is about at the end of the line and needs a good overhaul.”

“Oh, my God. Get out of here.”

For dinner we had fried eggs and turnip greens, with some black-eyed peas. They got the bread on the table but couldn’t locate the butter. Captain Warren looked unhappy up there at the end of the table.

The mess boy nearly cut his arm off opening a can of plums for dessert. I Le had to go and lie down.

At the conclusion of the feast Captain Warren arose to a majestic height and gave me a very polite bow. “Mister Mate,” he said, “ I hereby tender you my most humble apologies.” And lighting an Antonio and Cleopatra he departed.

“Now what did he mean by that?” said James Jess.

“Another nutty captain,” mumbled the striker engineer. “Every boat I get on, the captains gels queerer and queerer.”

The next afternoon we ran aground and found out that when you’re aground on the Tennessee River you’re really hung up. Sixteen hours later we were off, after tearing up a lot of good rigging, and everything was swell—good weather, the deck hands were learning fast, and I showed the cook how to make pot roast.

Then we came up to a place called Duck River Suck. This is a narrow place where the whole river comes down at you like a rapids in the Colorado. We shoved about halfway into the Suck and then the old steamer quit shoving. The pilot hollered for more steam and we climbed up a hundred feet and then the current slowly shoved us back down again. For two hours we battled the current, and the smoke we threw can be seen down there yet, and we finally decided to double-trip up through. So we tied off at the foot of a big rough bank with a field of peanuts at the top and took the loads through one at a time and tied them off upstream.


I WAS October and the trees were turning and there was a blue haze in the hills and ravines. Once we passed an old-time saddlebag cabin right beside the river and it looked like a scene from the opening of the old West, with about six hounds sprawled around, two or three rangy-looking men leaning against a buckboard wagon, and a woman in a sunbonnet emptying a pail. And we passed Pittsburg Landing, and Shiloh Battlefield, and Mousetail Eddy, Petticoat Riffle, and Widow Reynolds Bar, and Gin Landing, and Fowlkes Tribble, and a lot of other places with names like that.

I was up sitting on the leather bench listening to the endless talk about steamboats and steamboating one afternoon and finally there was a lull in the torrent of river talk.

Captain Warren turned to me. “Dude, something has got to be done about that cook’s legs. You’re such a flash with the girls, now 1 want you to speak to her.”

“Aw listen, ( ap . . .”

“I mean it. You’re the very man for the job. I’m mighty pleased to have such a versatile Mate aboard.”

“All right, I’ll go in and say, ‘The Captain says your legs is dirty. Wash em!'”

“That’s fine. Go and do it.”

“Aw listen, Cap . .

“Go and do it. Now,” he said. “By the way. Dude, what in hell does that pair of groundhogs use their wonderful private bathtub for?”

“They keep their clothes in it,” I said.

I got up and went down to the deck room. Birdie’s husband, Vergil, was asleep on a pile of junk line.

I went up to the galley. Birdie was sitting on a chair eating peanut butter out of the jar, with a spoon.

“Listen, Birdie,” I said. “You ain’t supposed to eat that right out of the jar.”

“Ah lahks it,” she said.

The sink was all piled up with dishes, and two full garbage pulls were spilling onto the floor. Vergil was so thing lazy, instead of emptying a full pail he would co and sect another empty one.

“This place looks like hell,” I said. “Why don’t Vergil empty that garbage?”

“Vergil he’s around someplace. He says his hand hurts where he sawed it on them plums.”

“Birdie,” I said. “Come here with me.”

She got up and slopped after me and I w ent down the main cabin to her room and went in. You never saw such a mess but I’m not going to describe it.

I went in the bathroom and took a couple of cracker boxes and some wadded-up clothes out of the tub and turned on the water.

“What you fixin to do, Mate?” she said, taking out her Bruton’s snuff and helping herself.

The tub got pretty full and I tested the water and turned it off. I couldn’t find any soap, so I went out to the galley after some.

“You stay right there,” I said.

“Mighty strange goins-on,” she said.

1 came back with a big bar of Ivory. “Birdie, if you like your job on here, get in that tub and take a bath. It’s a rule. Maybe you don’t understand on account of never worldn on a boat before, but the cook gotta take a bath every day. That’s the state law.”

“What state?” she says.

“Tennessee,” I said.

“Ain’t no law like that in Alabama.”

“You want me to give you that bath?”

“Huh uh,” she says. “Go way, boy,” and she began to haul her dress off.

I went out.

“Especially the legs, Birdie,” I said. “Especially the legs.”

“Especially the laigs,” she said. “Mah God, what, a state.”

I went back up to the pilothouse. “Your cook’s in the bathtub, Cap. She looks just like Claudette Colbert,” I said.

Captain Warren reached in his breast pocket and handed me an Antonio and Cleopatra. “Have a good cigar, Dude,” he said. “You know, on deck you leave something to he desired at times. But, boy, 1 wouldn’t trade you for all the mates on the Mississippi River and Tributaries and the Red River of the North.”

“Thank you, Captain,” I said. “Perhaps my deck work will improve as I grow older. When do we get to Sheffield?”

“In a couple of hours,” he said, and commenced to roar. “In the bathtub! You better go down and see that our little Alabama rose don’t drown.


WE LAID at Sheffield for three days waiting for our pig iron to arrive by rail and be loaded, giving us plenty of time t o wash boilers, repair busted rigging, and the firemen to tie on a couple of good ones.

That was a nice landing at Sheffield, right under a wooded hill, with a little gravel road that wound up through the trees to town. As you got up the valley toward the top of the hill, a sidewalk appeared in the woods, and then houses set back in the trees, and pretty soon you were right downtown. You could play pool or go to the Avalon to the movies and see Cary Grant and you were right back in America again. Or you could take a bus and bang over to Florence and walk past the state normal school in the evening.

We were short one deck hand and had put in a call for one to the shore boss, and the last day in Sheffield I had the boys scrubbing down the texas cabin when Vergil came and told me there was a new deck hand aboard. I went down to the main deck and he was sitting on the capstan watching the river go by.

He was about nineteen feet tall and eight feet, wide amidships, with a big round happy face like the fat boy of the sixth grade.

“Well,” I said, “you look like you could handle this job without much help. What’s your name?”

“Roy B. Hopfield,” he said. “They mostly calls me Beehop.”

“Ever work on a steamboat before, Beehop?”

“I never work noplace,” he said.

“You’re in the wrong place, then,” I said. “Because you’re gonna work on here or you ain’t gonna ride. How come you signed up?”

“I’m paroled to here,” he said with a creamy smile.

“What was you in for?” I said.

“I killed a man down home.”

“Good God, what next!” I said. “Come on, I’ll show you where you sleep,” and I took him back to the deck hands’ quarters aft of the deck room and gave him a bunk.

With moral suasion I got him to wheeling coal and we faced up to our loads of pig iron and started down the river.

After we got squared away I was up in the galley at the coffeepot and James came to see me.

“Boss,” he said, “I ain’t ridin no boat with Beehop. I’m gettin off down at Pickwick Dam.”

“Oh, God damn it now, James,” I said. “Don’t tell me you know this Beehop.”

“I went to school with him and he’s the orneriest man in Alabama. I don’t like to be anywheres near him.”

“Listen, James, you’re picking up this steamboat in faster than any deck hand I ever had. Someday you’ll get a mate’s job if you hang around, and by the time you’re thirty you’ll be up in the pilothouse instead of pulling weeds back in the kudzu fields. Now you ain’t gonna quit, so don’t talk to me about it. Come on down in the deck room and I’ll show you some more about splicing.”

“This Beehop carries a pistol,” he said. “If it ain’t on him it’s in his suitcase. He ain’t, never been away from that pistol sence he was twelve years old.”

“Do me a favor and stay on till wre get to Paducah,”I said. “Will you do that?”

“All right,” James said. “But I’m doin the wrong thing, I know.”

For the next two days I treated Beehop just right. I worked with him and talked to him a lot. Ilis trouble was a big hot temper. A wild temper that ran away at all the wrong things, simple I hings; the psychologists would have had a swell time with him. Something way back had burned him and there was no cure.

But I got that pistol.

“Beehop,” I said to him one afternoon. “Come here with me.”

We went through the deck room and back to his cabin. “Now open your suitcase and give me your pistol,”I said.

“No, boss,”he said. “I ain’t agonna do that.”

“Beehop,” I said, “you outweigh me by a hundred pounds so there ain’t gonna he no fight, but I want that gun. When you quit, you get it back, but while I’m the Mate there’s no whiskey aboard, and no firearms.”

“I ain’t got no gun,” he said.

“Give it to me,” I said. “You know that ain’t right.”

By God, he opened up his suitcase and fished out a forty-five the size of a Gatling gun and handed it. to me.

“Thanks,” I said.

Beehop looked down at me and his black eyes took on that queer look that nobody liked, He could have picked me up with one hand and broken my back over the end of the bunk.

“Give mah ree-volver to a sawed-off Yankee,” he said. “Ah must be goin crazy.”

I walked out and through the engine room, and the engineer looked at the pistol in my hand and was about to say something but didn’t.

The Captain was in his cabin reading. I went in and laid the forty-five on his desk. “A souvenir I just took away from that new deck hand,” I said.

“It says here in this book there are over five hundred species of hummingbirds,” he said, looking at the gun.

“What a coincidence,” I replied.


THE pilot on my watch was an old man that could remember back to packet days. He had white hair sticking out from under a big black hat, was deaf, as I said before, and his eyesight was going fast. At night I stood beside him by the big wheel, hunting buoys for him with the field glasses.

“Dang that fog,” he’d say. “Now, son, here we are coming down on Petticoat Riffle. A bad place. A bad place. We got to shoot her right between a black and a red here. All rock bottom here. A bad place.”

“I don’t see ‘em yet. Cap.”

“All rock in through here. Tear the bottom right out of this fine steamboat.”

“There’s a red! Haul her over to starboard, Cap! We’re away out too far.”

“Dang fog. Cain’t see nothing. By rights should tie up.”

There was no fog.

We were coming out of the lock at Kentucky Dam, the last dam before Paducah, one morning at 4.00 A.M., and I was out on the head of the barges, where the Mate always stands to give signals. Right beyond the lock gates was a railroad bridge over the guide walls. This bridge only opened on signal from the steamboats.

I gave the signal to come ahead after the lock gates were open and we commenced to move out. I was two barge lengths from the boat, about. 350 feet.

“Boss, he didn’t blow for that trestle bridge,” James, who was out with me, said.

I looked back and turned to ice. I knew right away that, the old man didn’t see the bridge, had forgot it was there, hadn’t blown the whistle, wasn’t going to blow the whistle, was about to ring a full ahead bell, and that in one minute there would be a sickening crash.

I commenced to dance and holler like a crazy man. I gave the old man the go back signal and hollered till you could hear me in Memphis. On we came.

Now it. was too late. We would hit anyway.

“Come on, James, we got to break out the fire hoses,” I said, and I ran for the boat.

I was right on ihe foredeck when we hit. The old man never saw the bridge at all.

Crash! O hell kite! Clouds of smoke and soot! Cries of anguish and surprise! The big tall stacks fell down. One lit flat on the hurricane deck over the cabin where the Captain was asleep and he thought he was waking up in hell. The other fell on the pilothouse with a thunderous crunch, and bounced off and squashed one of the antique lifeboats.

“Oh my God, oh my God,” said the fireman holding his head.

As James and I got to the roof the Captain bolted past us in his long underwear bound for the pilothouse. We broke out the lire hose and sprayed the deck and looked over the destruction.

An awful sight. The stack guys had pulled down our precious Carlisle and Finch searchlight and it was lying on ils side with bad wounds waiting for the stretcher bearer. Smoke was pouring out of the stack stubs, and ihe roof was covered with soot and devast at ion.

The old pilot was standing by the wheel quietly. He had got her stopped. He was just standing there watching us play the fire hose.

I don’t think Captain Warren said anything to the old man then. But when I sent James down to stand by for fire on the boiler deck by the stub bases, I heard what they said. I was right in front of the pilothouse on the clerestory roof.

“Wouldn’t they open for you?” the Captain asked.

“ 1 didn’t blow.”

“Wouldn’t she back?”

“1 didn’t ring a backing bell.”

“Didn’t you know that bridge was there?”


“When was your last trip up here, Captain?”

“Ten years ago. There was no lock and no bridge then.”

“Couldn’t, you sec that bridge?”

“Captain Warren, I cain’t see anything. Don’t you know that?”

“Then why ...”

“A sordid story, Captain. I need the money.”

“Well, well,” Warren said. “Stacks have been known to fall, and rise again.”

It took three days to get ihe stacks repaired, another lesson in steamboating for me, and then we were shoving down the river and the exhaust was howling in the stacks the same as ever. And Beehop and James and Lee Hoy had worked out a new system for wheeling coal. And it. was Indian summer.

I sat in the pilothouse as we came down past Cuba Towhead into Paducah, and the sun struck the islands, and the trees lit up in the golden afternoon.

“Yes,” said the pilot, “the river is a sweet old girl, but I overstayed my welcome, son. Time for This old man to get his hat and go home.”

There lay Paducah. The cocktail lounge in the Irvin Cobb Hotel, and the supermarkets and the movies and the automobiles lined up at the curbs.

I could have gone uptown and gotten a good job in an air-conditioned office and taken the office girls to the shows at night. I could have been a salesman or an expert in plastics. I could have been a teller in a bank and handled the big bills. I could have boosted sales for a wholesale grocery house or deserted the human race and sold insurance.

Why didn’t. I do that?

The pilot reached up for the whistle cord and blew for our landing.

“It’s a beautiful evening, son,” he said. “A beautiful evening at the mouth of the Tennessee. And you’re twenty-five years old and a steamboat mate. How does that feel?”

I decided to stay.

Down beyond the levee was the wide Ohio sweeping past town. One of those big Pittsburgh sternwheelers was holding up in the channel, and their yawl was heading for shore to pick up a pilot, or sel one off.

“I wonder how that feels,” he said. “To be twenty-five years old again on the river.”