For now, the doin’ is done. The tow’s locked through, northbound on the Illinois above LaGrange. The deckhands on the front watch, finally, catch a break.

The boat is pushing 23,000 tons up river. She’s got stops and drops in Peoria and La Salle, Lockport and Lemont. She’s hauling salt, molasses and chem — styrene and benzene and don’t smoke out on the tow, boys.

The deckhands keep it all together — cranking it down, cinching it up, pumping out the holds. And they bust it down, too — locking through on a double down, banging metal, cutting loose, checking off. And then they put it all back together.

Life is a whisper out there on the tow. You can trip and fall and drown in a minute. A line can slip and snap and take your leg clean off. You thank your god for good boots and steady feet and a pair of White Mule gloves. Your muscles and ropes and these steel cables are your stock in trade, and you get used to the grease in your jeans and the rust and the oil in your skin.

But when the doin’ is done you can catch a break, and have a smoke and a Coke and maybe lie for a minute among the ropes. Your luxuries are counted that way. And you wait for the shift change. Six hours on, six hours off; thirty days on and not enough off; and the days on the boat, they never really end.

—  30 —

Night Watch

James Ellis (from left), Mike “Ranger” Riley and Kevin Cluck aboard the Orleanian just north of LaGrange Lock and Dam, August 2001.

Daniel Overturf

Collected written works  |  Gary Marx