By Ken Bradbury
Bob was without doubt the most authentic looking riverboat captain I’d ever met. A shaggy mop of white hair that was always trying to escape from under his skipper’s hat, a broad nose that split his weathered face in half, and a gorgeously white mop of a moustache that when combined with a slightly humped posture made him the spitting image of Mark Twain. In fact, in retirement he is now a Mark Twain impersonator and has absolutely captured the essence of America’s greatest writer. And Bob did love to pilot paddleboats … until the day he walked off the job, never to return.
The Spirit of Peoria paddle wheeler was pulling in to the dock at Grafton and the wind was blowing an ugly gale from the west. Riverboats always dock pointed upstream no matter which way their journey is taking them. Our boat has no props or thrusters underneath the waterline, just that big red wheel and three rudders so you don’t want the Illinois River pushing behind you when you dock. So on our way to St. Louis we make a big circle in the Mississippi then head upstream to toss our lines at Grafton. Bob was fighting a west wind intent on crashing us into the dock as the deck hands stood ready, ropes in hand to secure us to the shore, and that’s when the cry went up … “Man overboard!”
One of our youngest deck hands had been tossed over the side, right between the dock and the steel-hulled boat as the vessel came crashing in. The boy was caught between two forces intent on crushing him to death … except for one vital thing: the ship’s hull and sides are slanted inward to prevent just such a thing. The boy was hauled out of the water, a bit wet but thankful and smiling, and that was Bob’s last day on the Spirit of Peoria. The boy was his son.
When passengers board the boat the captain gives them a short speech on the in’s and out’s of river travel along with the history and workings of his paddle wheeler, but after a few seasons banging on the ship’s piano keys I’ve picked up a few facts that the opening orientation doesn’t cover … like why you can’t be crushed when you fall overboard during docking.
Another little known tidbit: most boats have fire hoses on both sides of the boat along with a fire ax, but when a college fraternity books the boat for a late night excursion the fire axes are hidden away. Since I once belonged to a fraternity, the reason to me was obvious.
The red wines are stored in the hold, the lowest point in the boat. Reds need a home with no sunlight and a coolish temperature so if you want to get a snortfull of merlot or cabernet sauvignon you need to go deep into the bowels of the boat.
Don’t stand on the first deck when the ship nears a dock or a bridge piling. The infamous Asian carp can weigh over a hundred pounds and nothing makes them more nervous than to feel vibration from two directions, and when a carp gets nervous he leaps out of the water, often landing on the first deck and occasionally landing on whoever happens to be standing on the first deck.
Folks on overnight trips are friendlier than day trippers. I don’t have that one figured out yet.
When you play the calliope while people are sleeping on the top deck, you soon find out why the boat carries defibrillators each level.
The guy who runs the lift span bridge up and down at Florence won’t raise the bridge for you unless you play “Dixie” on the calliope. There are some things of which the Army Corps of Engineers aren’t aware of.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I think that the guys who run the locks just north of St. Louis take bribes. At least I know that we can magically sneak ahead of a flotilla of awaiting barges.
The captain can add all the gold stripes he wants onto his shirtsleeve, but it’s the chef who runs the boat.
Our top deck stands 27 feet out of the water and we have many binocular-toting passengers, meaning that the riverbank residents of Chillicothe, Illinois, really should keep their drapes pulled in the morning.
There’s some sort of federal or at least moral limit on the number of times you can request that the piano player play “Bye Bye Blackbird.”
Australian tourists are noisy people. Canadians are not. The British spend a great deal of time being amused at both.
None of these facts are particularly important if you want to take a cruise on the river but knowing a bit about what goes on below the water line might prevent you from getting that sinking feeling.