National Geographic : 1958 Nov
The Upper Mississippi radar platform on top, the pilothouse level, the texas deck, the boiler deck, the main deck, and the below-water, engine-room deck. But she has to be big and powerful to push the equivalent of a loaded freight train two miles long, and that's only a modest load for a modern tow. In the pilothouse I picked up a newspaper and saw an item concerning a tow of 24 barges, 126,000 square feet or almost three acres, being pushed on the Tennessee River by the towboat Robin. Three acres on the move! I read the item aloud to the pilot. He said: "Imagine how hard it would be to stop it." He was peering anxiously ahead; it was Sun day, and the small boats were out in force. They skipped in front of our tow. "They have a lot of confidence in their motors," remarked the pilot. "If their power failed while they were ahead of us, nothing in the world could prevent us from running them down. We could reverse our engines, but we couldn't stop in less than a quarter of a mile." Hapless Skier Falls in the Way Half an hour later the pilot's fears were borne out. A water skier lost his balance and fell in the path of the oncoming barges. The pilot immediately threw the engines into re verse and blew a thundering blast on the whistle. There was nothing more he could do. The raft of barges plowed on remorselessly toward the struggling skier. To the people in other boats, it must have looked as if we were deliberately running the man down. They blew their horns and shouted at us, the men angrily, the women hysterically, unaware that the boat's engines were doing their best, though vainly, to stop the raft. The skier swam hard, but he would never make it; the oncoming barges were too broad. But a man in one speedboat did something besides blow his horn and shout. He roared into the path of the tow, seized the swimmer, and hauled him aboard. The boat shot across the front of the barges and into safe water. Onlookers cheered the rescuer and jeered the towboat pilot. The floating skis disap peared beneath the raft. They would not look much like skis after a quarter-mile of pummel ing under the barges and towboat. The pilot's face was tight and white, but he said not a word. Now he flipped the engines back to full ahead and called for a cup of coffee. He smiled. "Nearly got into trouble that time." "Who, you? It wasn't your fault." "The law doesn't look at it that way. The least that could happen would be a hearing. A pilot I know has been waiting trial three months for running over a motorboat. Last week he had the bad luck to run over another. I'd hate to be in his shoes when he goes to court." Old Man River Takes a Toll There is always the river to reckon with, and Old Man River has many moods. He builds up a sand bar; the front barges run up on it, break the huge ratchets and steel lines that bind them together, explode in all directions. A gasoline barge wraps itself around a bridge abutment and blows up. A barge breaks loose and slips into a side bayou, and you search for it until a helicopter pilot reports its location. The steering gear goes dead as you try to make a bend, and you go into the rocks with a crash like the end of the world. A snag pokes a hole in a gasoline barge, and the river is covered with gasoline, and that's a bad time to light a cigarette. At mealtime we sat down with the men who had just come off watch to a table groaning with great bowls of steaming food. The barge lines are like the old-time lumber camps, where men were fed well so they could work well. The big boat trembled with power. A diesel towboat can push its enormous load upstream against a strong current at about four miles an hour and twice as fast downstream. With the master pilot's permission, we re turned to the pilothouse. Here he reigns supreme and tolerates no distractions. A high degree of concentration is necessary in piloting a big tow on this winding river. At times the tension lets up, and the master settles in his chair on the small of his back, puts his feet up on the controls, and starts a conversation with his guest. He does not need a guest to have a conversa tion. Even when he is alone, he is not alone. Over his radiophone he chats with the master Nonchalant King Boo Leaps Through Fire: Showtime in the St. Louis Zoo Summertime visitors to the Zoological Garden in Forest Park watch chimpanzees ride bicycles and twirl on roller skates; elephants in grass skirts dance the hula. SUPER ANSCOCHROMEBY NATIONALGEOGRAPHICPHOTOGRAPHERROBERTF. SISSON © N. G. S.