The Boat (part 1)

Remember when we filled that coffee mug with beer and played quarters?

La Crescent, MN 55947, Summer 2007

I worked on a steamboat.  Nothing interesting ever happened, but it was better than working at a grocery store.  I was a deckhand.  I caught lines.  I wore maroon and black and the steamboat I worked on had “logged well over a million miles.”

*            *            *

I started in May after I quit my job as a pizzeria chef.  I quit. I walked out.  No call.  No show.  Loosely.  I hated it there.    After that I was an elementary school tutor, and a teacher I worked with offered me a job. I said yes, although I had no idea what I was going to be doing other than working on a boat.

The boat:  The Julia Belle Swaine is out of service now.  She’s at a dry dock covered in a quilt of oddly colored dusty tarps, dirty, and in need of attention.

*            *            *

La Crosse, WI 54601, Summer 2007

The interview was on a stormy day in downtown La Crosse.  There are many bricks in the architecture.  Ominous.  Wet sidewalk.  Neat, yet damp.   Through the flawless interview and then mention of a drug test, I have a liar’s smile.   Handshake.  Goodbye.

The first day was nothing I had expected.  I arrived to a man in a mask, long blond hair protruding on both sides of the fake visage, his head and face covered like a polar bear.  He’s covered in dust and chipped paint blown by the wind to his clothes from a wire-wheel brush.  I say, “Hi, I am Terry I am here to work.”  He looks at me with a face of confusion and says, “Who are you?”  I am like, “what the fuck?”  He didn’t hear me, but he starts to laugh and tells me to get up here.  Our tacit agreement of playing lame jokes on each other almost kills me mentally of attrition by the end of the summer.[Daniel Ch1] His jokes are not funny and he does not get mine, but I am his subordinate.  I obey his commands and the smile on my face means fuck you.

I am a deckhand. I catch lines and work in the hot sun on the banks of the Mississippi, at the port of La Crosse.  I guard this boat with my life (laughable).  It is dangerous, scary, and difficult work, but at times amazing.  Catching lines:  Simple.  Guarding the bar:  Simple.  Someone, maybe God, made me for this.  Doing these tasks in between a cement pier and a 150 ton boat:  Tricky.  My first guard-watch was lonely, creep inducing, and wracked with vulnerable tensions.  Four PM to Twelve AM on a port known for numerous murders, mysterious drowning, and arrests…  This area makes me the man.  At times I wouldn’t stand on the boat after dark, but eventually I got over it.  Pilot house, 3rd floor, 2nd floor, Main deck, and below deck, those are my babies.  I mostly read and stood guard at the bar, so this was a great job for me.  Four PM I arrive, park in the hot summer heat, with clothing grabbing at my skin like wet hands.  The sun high above and sand from the last adventure stuck to my shoes.  People are around during the daytime hours; Riverside Park is full of people.  A night you would think, aside from the lights, that the park was empty.  The light before dark would always be amazing, yet they bounced off the black cloud of the night rising.  Light off the water called to me bouncing up and down with the rise and fall of the waves.    The lights before dark would always be aglow, light beaming off the water.  The sun was running away.  Co-workers leave at 4 PM and from then on til midnight it’s me and maybe a surprise visitor.  She’s a girl probably, or Dave.  Ha, ha.  Pink Floyd couldn’t have summarized it better, I needed a dirty woman she needed me too.

Usually, at Four PM the temp is high, 80’s maybe 90’s, with a wet humidity that only a riverbed could host.  Being three feet above the water is dead heat central, dead sweat, all precipitation encompassed.  No other name to call it.  Free cola as a relief, although no mixes… Until after dark.

My task is to clean the boat when it is not on a cruise, its mundane and if it rained I had to pump out the engine wells.  I pray for clear skies.  The grease clung to the components of the engine like glue.  The shapes and positions I have been in would make me a good candidate for a yoga class.  The support is my job.  I caught lines and locked them down.  Sometimes I sealed them tighter than a coffin.

The boat goes out mostly on dinner cruises.  50 to 70 people tops.  I click the people counter:  click, click.  I drop lines, read and relax for the trip as a whole, wash some dishes, and then when the cruise returns I reach for the lines again-at dusk.  Catching lines of a steamboat is easy.  I may have been the best.  Just in case you missed that.  I may have been the best.  I went would go on most of the trips and when I left they were sad.  After dinner cruises I am alone from Nine PM until Midnight.  I typically read and took in the beauty.  The lights of the city were bright and amazing, burning in the dark, not unlike the cigarettes I smoke.   I am on the river, underneath the Cass Street Bridge, just up by Riverside Park, on the border of Minnesota and Wisconsin, below Winona, Across from La Crescent.  I love dropping names and places.

*            *            *

Prairie Du Chien, WI 53821, August 2007

Roughly translated Prairie Du Chien means Prairie of the dog, given by French fur traders to represent the sort of individuals who resided in the area before the French themselves discovered it.  This description gives no justice to the prairie now.  I see no dogs nor have I seen a prairie.  I see no more than three people and an antique house from the Victorian period- The Ville Louis.

La Crescent, MN 55947, August 2007

Beep-beep, wake-up, a typical Six AM wake up session.  I slap the clock.  My mom hardly asks me if I am coming home anymore.  It was a 24 Hour a day job and it was mediocre for me.  It was a dry summer day, breezy and bright.  I love the clouds that come with these days; high, thin, transparent, and white in color, the sky background can be seen through them.  Ma wakes up and says, “Hi”, I say, “I love you, bye.”  I walk across the street and start the car and I am on the road listening to music for the five to ten minute ride to La Crosse.  I feel sick arriving in the park, stomach sickness in the morning from the break in my fast.  I brake the car and get out.  I leave my car near a hotel.  There is no parking limit.  I need this.  I am leaving for what seems like for good.

The brick path along the port t, to me, does not represent salvation, but oppression:  I owe my amazing day to this job.  This job is easy though.  I grab the second deck floor and lift myself off the ground and over the Main deck railing.  I float and then I let go and drop onto the light blue painted deck.  Time to work.  Everyone is trying to make this boat a well-oiled machine.  This antique boat comes alive again for one of my final journeys with her.  Bring the alcohol up from below deck, light the boiler, swab the decks, and ready for the guests.  I lower the bride with Ben.  Ben is an English grad and is extremely funny, thin, bearded, and as sarcastic as me if not more so at times.  We joke incessantly.   We have a large crew today and I had a coffee:  Captain Eric, Dave, Nora, Ed, Neil, Mara, Anna, Ben, Chef Charles, and myself holding coffee.  I may have missed someone.  We had a small group of guests, I think, 30 maybe.  Ben clicked them in today and I welcomed each and everyone with a huge smile, this time it is sincere.  All aboard!  Everyone is on hit the engine.

I get ready to drop the lines and we are off.  I am on a platform maybe a foot wide-one side is a brick port with rusted metal guarding the bricks from boats and waves-the other side is a 150 ton steam powered paddle wheel vessel-its pretty hot where I stand.  The stern line is dropped first.  Throw it far because if that line gets in the 30 ft diameter bright red wooden paddle wheel we have an expensive problem.  Bow is released a minute or two later.  Today the wind helps we are fast.  The boat turns on the water, slow.  I flip the oil switch on the starboard and port sides of the wheel.  A man lost his arm in the paddle wheel a year ago.  Careful.  The sight of Riverside and passing under the Cass Street Bridge brings me to feel that I am a man alone.  Standing on the very edge of the boat above the water, it swirls below (I could jump).  I feel I am an island.  I already miss my mother and family.  The day I am gone is eternity in real-time.  These thoughts are trivial, this is the beginning, I am stuck here for a bit.  Off to the Galley, the steam is rising.  The sun catches the mist and I can see it glowing to the east through slits in the galley wall.  Cold-water splashes onto the hairs that grow out of (stand on) my arms, I shiver.  It is summer now and I am cold.  Morning is cold, but the days get warm fast this time of year.  I walk to the front for a short speech from Dave (it makes him feel special) about the crew, the guests, the food and our duties for the day.  We are going south slowly, I may die of attrition from the long hours of being on the boat.  Guests pay for the same experience.  I am a pantheist and an agnostic all at once.


About Terry Scott Niebeling

Hello, My name is Terry Scott, a human being with flaws. twitter: @sirterryscott Buy my ebooks:
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