On a cool, crisp October night in 1972 I found myself in a situation in which I was literally seconds away from a certain and painful death.
Here’s how it happened.
I worked on the Inland Waterways, specifically, the Upper and Lower Mississippi as well as the Illinois rivers from October 1972 through April 1976. I started off as a deckhand “tripping” (i.e. working one trip at a time for various towboat companies).
Eventually, I accepted a position as a “regular” employee with Midwest Towing Company as an “oiler” in the engine room. My very first trip as a deckhand was for 33 days on the M/V (Motor Vessel) W.S. Rhea. I don’t have the exact days, because at that time I didn’t keep a journal.
After this first trip, I decided it would be a good idea to keep a journal and I maintained the journal from December 1972 until I became disillusioned at the end of 1975.
On the first page of my journal, in the margin above the first regular entry is the simple entry “33 days W.S. Rhea Oct – Nov 1972”.
So, this story is based on my memory. You might ask how in the world anyone’s memory could be accurate after more than 40 years. I assure you that details of such a horrific event are very clearly etched in my mind. I’m sure the reader must have some traumatic events from your life experiences you can relate to today.
The W.S. Rhea was owned by Valley Barge Lines and was rated at 5,000 horsepower, making it one of the most powerful towboats of that era. The dimensions were approximately 35 feet wide by about 175 feet long. The crew of 12 people included four deckhands, one mate and one 2nd mate or “watchman.”
Deck crews worked two deckhands and one mate per watch; forward watch from 6 a.m. ’til noon and again from 6 p.m. ’til midnight, while afterwatch worked from noon ’til 6 p.m. and again from midnight until 6 a.m. The work was very hard and extremely dangerous, especially so for the deck crew. Deckhands could count on the backbreaking work of picking up and dropping off barges plus “making locks.”
Here’s a simplified description of how you “make” a lock. Lock dimensions for all the locks except No. 19 at Keokuk and No. 27 at Granite City are 110 feet wide and 600 feet long. A typical tow of 15 barges plus the towboat passes through the lock by getting the first nine barges inside the lock, then disconnecting the deck rigging at the “coupling.”