Backstory: Those whom the river beckons

Part 2 of three

At midnight, the deckhands going off watch and those just coming on meet in the deck locker to trade safety vests and barbs. In the corner, a boom box is playing Pink Floyd. It is Mike Evans's birthday, his 27th.

"Old man," jokes Cecil Ruddley, Mr. Evans's replacement on the towboat Patricia Gail's midnight watch.

Young as he is, Evans has already worked a decade on Mississippi riverboats. "I wish I hadn't lasted a year," he says, slumping in a metal chair.

Veteran river men will tell you: Towboat life is not for everyone. While the work pays better than most jobs a high school graduate can find, it is physically draining and its month-on, month-off calendar is hard on family life.

Despite the trials, life on the open river and the camaraderie of the men and women who work it have an appeal to which tens of thousands succumb each year. There's a saying: Once you wear out a pair of work boots on the river, you're here to stay.

At 17, Evans took a towboat job to prove to his future father-in-law he could support his new fiancée. After a decade of working away from home six months of the year, he vows this will be his last trip.

Mr. Ruddley, meanwhile, is new to tow life. After nine months, it has captured his imagination like none of the many military and civilian jobs he has held since high school. Now, he says, he plans to follow in the wake of generations of river men: work his way up from deckhand to watchman to mate; study for his steersman's license, so he can drive a boat supervised by an experienced pilot; and eventually complete the rigorous test for his pilot's license and be "turned loose" on the river.

"I used to think like that," says Evans, hunched over a cup of coffee. "Not any more."

Ruddley switches in a Marvin Gaye CD. He has heard this before. "Man," he says, "you gonna be out here 30, 40 years talking about 'This my last trip.' "

"You trying to curse me, man?" says Evans. "Then again," he concedes, "I quit twice before. Always come back. This is all I know."

***

In the century and a half since Samuel Clemens worked her length as a steamboat pilot, the Mississippi River has done nothing but change. She has been channeled, locked, and dammed; seen shattering earthquakes and awesome floods; and even indulged the whim to jump her banks, landing disappointed Mississippi towns, overnight, in Louisiana.

River work, though, has changed little in a hundred years. Though global-positioning systems, radar scanners, and electronic depth-finders now fill the pilothouses, signaling in high-pixel resolution the passing of Dismal Point or Vice President's Island #46, out on the tow the labor is much the same as it ever was.

There, men (and occasionally women) work hard six-hour shifts ratcheting barges together with steel wire as thick as a baby's wrist. The tools are substantial, a fact belied by their pet names: "jewelry" for the heavy link chains, "hula hoops" for wires that circle the massive barge cleats. The smallest, three-foot steel rods used to brace the straining wires, are called "toothpicks."

As in Mark Twain's day, too, much of the Patricia Gail's crew started working the boats out of high school; some even before. Capt. Robert Byrd took his first boat job at 13 - choosing the course followed by his uncle, a river pilot, over that of his father, who sold moonshine.

Today, towboating is one of the better-paid careers a high school graduate can find. Towboaters work six months of the year for a starting salary of $23,000. After seven years and receiving a pilot's license, they can make close to $70,000. Each year more than 30,000 men and women work these nonunion riverboat jobs. Another 800,000 positions depend on this waterborne trade.

Like West Virginia coal miners or Texas oil drillers, most of those who work the rivers have boats in their blood. "With a lot of river people, it's passed down," says H. Nelson Spencer, editor of The Waterways Journal, the industry's premier trade publication. "Their dads or grandfathers would've been in the river business, and it's just something they've grown up with."

Tricks of the trade are passed down from generation to generation, too. Melvin "J.R." Harville, the Patricia Gail's chief engineer, makes it his mission to be a mentor to younger men.

A 35-year veteran of towboat life, Mr. Harville remembers the river men who took him on as a kid fresh out of high school, and turned a restless job into a career he could be proud of.

They became like family: Old Tuggy Howe, who "couldn't read nor write, but knew the river just as good," and Charlie True, who joked to young Harville: "I've always ate the fish out of the Kentucky River. But when I die, the fish are gonna eat me."

Now, when he's not in his tiny office overlooking the engine room, its walls lined with switches labeled "Blower shutdown" and "Local Ack Panel," Harville watches the new deckhands, pulling aside those who show initiative. Sometimes they're intimidated by the prospect of working in the engine room, a job known to require mechanical and mathematical aptitude. He keeps after them.

"I get 'em in here, show 'em something, and leave 'em to study on it a while," he says. "I ain't gonna turn 'em loose with anything that's gonna hurt 'em. But still on, it'll be enough so they know they've really done something."

***

Down in the deck locker, Evans drains his mug. The good pay, the abundant time off - none of it matters, he says, when the cost to family life is so high. Back home in southwestern Illinois, he has a wife and a 2-year-old daughter. "I've gotten to see about seven, eight months with my daughter since she's been born," he says. "My wife's tired of it, and so am I."

"Well," says Ruddley, leaning back in his chair, "with kids it's different." His own children live in Indiana with their mother, and he rarely sees them. "That's what I'm-a do when I get off here," he says.

On the stereo, Marvin Gaye is singing about lost love. "I don't know," says Ruddley. "This job has a kind of excitement to me. I been just about all over. I'm kinda at that age where give me one something and let me do that thing and build on it."

Evans shakes his head. "I been doing this longer than I been married," he says. Whatever his daughter grows up to do is fine with him - so long as she doesn't become, or marry, a towboater. "I want something better for her," he says, rising to unstrap his orange life vest, flashlight, and radio. "I want her to go to college: doctor, lawyer, something where she's got a good stable life."

"Or marry a rich man, I don't care," he says, heading upstairs to bed.

Part 3, Friday: Navigating the 'wiggles.'

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