TIGHT-ASSED RIVER; PEKIN; Open Sleeve; HENNEPIN; CALLING TRAFFIC; Empty Pockets II; Call Me Tom; ANNALS OF TRANSPORT

By McPhee, John | The New Yorker, November 15, 2004 | Go to article overview

TIGHT-ASSED RIVER; PEKIN; Open Sleeve; HENNEPIN; CALLING TRAFFIC; Empty Pockets II; Call Me Tom; ANNALS OF TRANSPORT


McPhee, John, The New Yorker


The "Pekin wiggles" are halfway up the Illinois River, between the Mississippi River and Chicago. On the radio, other tows tell us how they are doing in the Pekin wiggles. During the forward watch, on this tow, the captain mentioned them when they were still three hours upstream. They would not be his to negotiate. Two in the afternoon and the pilot, Mel Adams, of the back watch, the after watch, is addressing them at the moment. He has made a sharp turn to the left followed by a bend to the right, and is now going into an even sharper turn to the left that will line him up with the Pekin railroad bridge, of the Union Pacific. There is not much horizontal clearance under the Pekin bridge.

Mel is tall and lanky, fed in the middle but lithe in the legs. He has a sincere mustache, a trig goatee, and a slow, clear, frank, and friendly Ozark voice. He lives in southern Missouri, on Table Rock Lake, which has seven hundred miles of shoreline. The eight other people in the crew of this vessel all call him "Male." They are from Kentucky, Tennessee, Oklahoma, southern Missouri, and southernmost Illinois. They work twenty-eight days per stint. When they report for work, they show up in Paducah and are driven in a van from Kentucky up into Illinois or anywhere else this towboat happens to be. Its name is Billy Joe Boling.

Over all, the Illinois is a fairly straight river, only ten per cent longer than its beeline, the fact notwithstanding that the bends at Pekin corkscrew like fishing line that has come untied. Mel understands monofilament. He is wearing shorts, sandals, a cap with the word "fishing" sewed into it, and a T-shirt covered with fish. Each morning, before he goes off watch at five-thirty, he cell-phones his wife, Aurora, and gently awakens her. When he is at home, he routinely gets up at four-thirty, goes fishing, is off the lake by nine, and by nine-thirty has cleaned his fish and put them in the freezer. He says his personal best is a twenty-eight-pound flathead catfish. In his Bayliner Trophy 1703 with center console, he penetrates the bays and skims the shoals of that seven-hundred-mile shoreline, his touch grooved with experience.

A lot of good that will do him here. This vessel is no Bayliner with center console, and the Illinois River is not a big lake in the Ozarks. The mate Carl Dalton has gone up ahead with his walkie-talkie to serve as a pair of eyes for Mel in the pilothouse, near the stern. Carl is a tall guy who played Kentucky high-school basketball, but when he was halfway up the tow, near the break coupling, he was already a tiny figure, and now, all the way up at the head, he is an ant. This vessel is a good deal longer than the Titanic. It is thirteen feet longer than Cunard's Queen Mary 2, the longest ocean liner ever built. It is forty-four feet longer than any existing aircraft carrier. It is a hundred and five feet wide. And with Carl calling off numbers--"twelve wide on the port . . . two hundred below . . . twelve wide, a hundred and fifty below . . . eight wide on the port, a hundred and twenty-five below . . . seven wide on the port . . . six wide on the port"--Mel is driving it into the crossing currents of the hundred-and-fifty-foot gap between one pier and the other of the bridge's channel span. It helps that the railroad tracks have been raised. In their normal position, they are three feet lower than the Billy Joe Boling.

The Illinois River is in most places a little more accommodating. With exceptions here and there, the demarcated channel is three hundred feet wide. But you are not going to do a doughnut with this vessel. You are not going to do a Williamson turn. Both maneuvers describe closed three-hundred-and-sixty-degree circuits. This vessel is nearly four times longer than the channel is wide. The entire river in most places is about a thousand feet from bank to bank. Our bow wave quickly spreads to both shores. We could not turn about if we had all of the river to do it in. …

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