The Big “O”

I met Orlando seven years ago when I first crawled onto my summer job as piano banger on the Spirit of Peoria riverboat. Everyone called him “Big O” for short. I’m sure that the O has a last name, but in seven years I’ve never learned it. Orlando’s an African-American, perhaps fifty years old and built like a small tank. We have a crew of about 12 who work the riverboat, but no one, including the captain, has logged the miles on the river that Orlando has seen. He can tell you tales of riverboats past, including the days when he was a mate on the Julia Belle Swain when the famous John Hartford was the resident musician.

Orlando’s education didn’t extend much beyond grade school and all the lessons he’s learned have been hard earned. Working on the river is not for sissies, and O’s been in his share of brawls over the years. We have three captains who are qualified to guide our ship up and down the Illinois River from Starved Rock to St. Louis, and even though Orlando has the most experience, he’s never taken the test. Stricken by sickle cell anemia at a young age, he’s lost his sight in one eye and the authorities frown upon one-eyed pilots ferrying passengers on the river.

The guy is funny. Last week I arrived early at the port of Peoria to find O standing on the deck, hosing the boat down to rid the ship of an infestation of mayflies that had completely covered the vessel. I asked him what he was doing. He winked at me (and when one one-eyed guys wink, they go momentarily blind), then said, “I’m drowin’ these flies then I’m gonna stand on the deck and do a little racial profiling.” Keep in mind that Orlando is the only person of color on our crew. I asked him whom he was profiling. He said, “White folks. But with only one eye, I might miss a few.” And that, in a nutshell, is what I love most about the guy … rough and tumble as his life has been (he rides his bike to work, unable to get a driver’s license with his failing eyesight), his attitude toward race relations is more mature than almost anyone I know. He’s found the ultimate way to combat racism: humor. He told me, “If you can’t joke about it, Ken, then hell, you still got a problem.”

I love to hear Orlando’s tales of the river. He’s a quiet man by nature, and will only give you the narration of his life’s experiences when prodded. But when encouraged, he’ll tell you about the previous captain of the boat who quit the job forever the day the Spirit was pulling into the dock and saw his own son, a deckhand, fall into the water and be nearly crushed by the boat. Orlando said the captain was so shook that he never stepped into the wheelhouse again. He tells of the times the boat’s been struck by lightening and not a passenger knew it due to the zinc discs that are welded to the boat below the water line, thus dissipating the electricity into the water, of the races with the Queen of Louisville (“We didn’t even have to use our top gears to beat them.”), of the captain that Orlando had warned about the river being too high to get the boat under the bridge and after the ship had lost the top of its smokestacks, the captain agreed. Stories of hard-drinking roustabouts, randy waitresses, trouble-makers tied to the paddle wheel and taken for a few revolutions through the river … all grist making up a storehouse of knowledge that I’ve been eager to mine from this intelligent fellow who has trouble writing his own name.

But again, it’s Orlando’s attitude toward race that I’ve come to admire most. “Folks get on this boat and see a black man in charge of their safety and some of think, ‘uh-oh.’ I’ve found that like white folks, all you gotta do is gain their respect.” In a world that’s often afraid to even discuss racial matters, the Big O is a breath of fresh river air. “We’ll get it all sorted out some day,” he muses. “And until then we all gotta do our part to get along and make it work. It takes time, man. Everything takes time.”

I love watching Orlando work the lines when we dock. He puts on his lifejacket, sticks the stub of a cigar in his mouth (never lit), and does an intricate ballet of a two-step along the lower deck’s outside ledge to take his place at the stern line, walkie-talkie to the captain in one hand and his other hand deftly Tarzan-ing itself from one ledge to another. And if things get dicey and we’re docking against a stiff breeze, he’s not beyond shouting into the microphone to his employer in the pilothouse, “Too damned fast, you idiot!”

Sail on, Big O! Sail on!

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