Tangling with Twain on the Big Muddy

Long years ago, now, I went out to St. Louis (by train!) and attended a poultry convention, exposing my effetely eastern limitations to the erudition of the New Civilization.

Among the instructive pleasures arranged for us was an evening ride up and down the Mississippi River on a picture-book river contraption called the S. S. Admiral. It had an air-conditioned dance hall below, and my wife got kicked out on the grounds of indecorous investiture. I am not ashamed of this, and she esteems it a distinct honor and has frequently bragged about it at Shining Light Club and Mizpah class.

The only other thing of note that adventured us in St. Louis came when I asked the taxi driver if there'd be a baseball game, and he said, "No, just the Browns." Soon after that, the Browns moved to Baltimore and became respectable as the Orioles.

It was clam bake hot in St. Louis, and a ride in the crepuscular coolth aboard the Admiral seemed like a sound plan. Now, we did approach this treat as you might expect a couple of down-Mainers would, displaying our saltwater ignorance in all directions. The Admiral seemed a proper vessel, perhaps excessive in the beam for her sheer, and designed, we could see, for the casino trade. Very good for her own "puppeses," but not for coasting down the Triangle.

I told the girl selling tickets we'd like an outside stateroom on the looward, and she turned to one side and said, "Next!"

Best of all was to find Mark Twain by the wheelhouse door, neat and trim, wearing a magnificent master's spangled uniform like Merle Evans with the Ringling Hippodrome band, and a mustache waxed like a boiled shirt just fresh from the Ling Fu Chou overnight laundry on Harrison Avenue.

I knew instantly that this beautiful man was not Mark Twain, because I had heard that the details of his de- mise had been greatly exaggerated, and I was not at all misled by this shabby commercial use of his personal appearance. To look like Mark Twain is one thing, but being Mark Twain is quite another.

I proved my convention by pausing on the inboard end of the gangplank to say, "Good evening, cap'n. Request permission to come aboard, sir." This is the shibboleth of true mariners, and whether it be the QE2 or a lobsterman's dinghy, it must always be spoken at the tumble-home before setting foot on deck. Our sham captain in St. Louis didn't know about this.

Not only that, but when I asked, next, "When does the tide serve, sir?" he looked at me in full disdain, saying without saying a word, "Why don't you go back where you came from?"

Did you know that a person nurtured along our northeastern coast can tell when the tide turns even if he's back 200 miles into the woods? Yes, he can! As the gravity of sun and moon shift, a silence falls upon the world. It is but a moment in duration, and often is perceived without being noticed. But it is there, and deep in the oceans everything going one way turns and goes the other.

This happens twice every 24 hours, and every ebb and flow begins and ends with a mini-second of stability. If you pay attention, you'll see that the breeze goes still, and then a sudden stir will rustle the bedroom curtains and the leaves on the trees will slightly move. The tide has turned.

Coastal people live by and with the tides, and gear the day to when the tide "serves." Between Maine and New Hampshire, in the Piscataqua River, is "pull-and-be-damned," where nobody can gain by rowing against the tide, and sailboats and even some powerboats wait. Fish come in with the rising tide, and cease to feed when the tide begins to ebb.

I'VE often toyed with the idea of a novel to be called, "The Day the Tide Failed to Serve." Something went wrong on the turn of tide (I imagine), and things went haywire in the little fishing village of Dingly's Cove, off Malaga Island Bight. It is a catastrophe too horrible to contemplate. The captain of the good ship Admiral, at St. Louis Hahb'h, will never know how horrible. But our Down-East tides run about 50 feet.

So in St. Louis we went to sail on the Admiral and found Jim Coleman and his wife from Maine also at the hen convention. They were cooling off by the hot exhaust stack, and Jim said to my wife, "Wanna dance? The dance hall is air-conditioned."

So off they went, and Jim's wife and I sat by the stack and wished we'd gone to watch the Browns, who lost, 26-2.

We were not alone very long. Back came Jim and my darling wife, and shame faced said, "They asked us to leave!"

Which they did. Jim and his partner had barely stepped onto the parquetry when Jim was tapped on his right wing and given the get-out thumb. He was not, the attendant said, wearing the polite jacket of gentility suitable for correct good breeding on a Mississippi riverboat out of St. Louis Cay with Mark Twain for a master.

We couldn't go ashore in a huff until the vessel docked for debarkation at eight bells, and while I shook hands with Mark Twain when going ashore, I never learned when the tide serves in St. Louis. I think it will not do the city one bit of harm. Also, a warm jacket in St. Louis heat is superfluous decorum.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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