Mark Twain – Learning the River (Ch. 6 from Life on the Mississippi)

  • Somehow the “Paul Jones” lost 2 weeks of our travels from Cincinnati to New Orleans. But that gave me a chance to speak with one of the pilots who taught me how to steer. This got me hooked.
    • I got to know a youngster. I lent him $6 that I’ll never see again. He said he’d pay me once we got to New Orleans but he probably died or forgot – probably died because he said his family was wealthy…
    • But I learned 2 things:
      • A vessel like this probably would take 10-12 years getting down to South America.
      • The $9-10 I had in my pocket wasn’t going to be enough to get there.
    • I decided I was going to be a pilot. I harassed the pilot until he agreed to teach me the Mississippi River from New Orleans to St. Louis for $500 that would be payable out of my wages once I graduated.
    • I started the 1200-1300 miles between New Orleans & St. Louis with great confidence. But if I had know what would be involved, I probably wouldn’t have even tried. I thought you just had to keep the boat in the water. I didn’t realize just how hard that would be.
  • The boat left New Orleans around 4 p.m. & our watch was until 8. My chief, Mr. Bixby & I passed other boats by the levee. He asked me to shave them like an apple.
    • I was scared out of my mind of how close I was to those boats. My heart raced as I passed the other boats. I had the wheel for less than a minute before Bixby took it back, chiding me for my cowardice. That hurt but I still admired his confidence in how he navigated the boat so close to disaster without doing any damage.
    • Later he explained the calm water by the shore but the current was in the middle of the stream. So it was best to hug the bank upstream to get the benefit of the calm, & to stay out in the middle downstream to get the benefit of the current. I wanted to be a downstream pilot.
    • Now & again Bixby point things out to me. He pointed out 6-, 9-, & 12-mile points. I couldn’t understand why that was important. He pointed out where the slack water ended & then gave me the wheel. I’d either come close to crashing into a sugar plantation or veering too far from shore.
  • After our watch, we had supper & went to bed. Soon, the watchman woke us up. I asked why he’d woken us up. The crewed all laughed at my calling me a little cub. On the way to the pilot house, Bixby explained that boats ran all night & someone had to pilot them. I began to realize that piloting was hard work.
    • Bixby held the boat up the middle of the river where the shores were about 1/2 mile apart, but vague & indistinct. The mate came up & told them they had to land at the upper end of Jones’s plantation. I felt certain he’d never find it in the dark, let alone be able to dock there. Bixby told him he couldn’t do it on the upper end because the stumps were already out of the water. He could only do it on the lower end.
      • I was amazed that not only was he going to try to do it because he could find a specific end of the plantation. I really wanted to ask him if he was really dumb enough to try to find it when all the plantations looked the same at night – but I held my tongue.
      • Bixby found the shore by scraping it. I feared for my life but he turned & asked me what the 1st point above New Orleans was. I said I didn’t know. He was shocked & asked what the next one was. Again, I didn’t know. He asked me what I did know. I said “nothing for certain”. He said the idea of me being a pilot was insane. He asked why I thought he was telling me the names of points earlier. “Entertainment?” I said.
      • That got him so mad that he ran over the oar of a trading scow. The traders cursed at him & he cursed back. He had gotten it out of his system & spoke to me gently.
      • Then he pulled a rope & a bell rang. The watchman called up asking where they were – Jones’s plantation. All I could hear was someone climbing aboard. I believed that finding that plantation was blind luck.
      • 800 miles further upstream, I started to make the tiniest bit of progress piloting in the dark. My notebook was full of information but I realized that our shifts were 4 hours on & 4 hours off. I’d only seen half the river.
  • Bixby was hired to go on a big New Orleans boat & I went with him. Standing in the pilot house felt like standing on top of a mountain. The Paul Jones was comparatively minuscule.
    • There was not one aspect of this boat that wasn’t larger, newer or nicer than on the Paul Jones.
    • The romantic notion I had before I had started learning came back to me. The servants even called me “Sir”. I was definitely hooked.

Leave a Reply