Friday, August 28, 2009

New Orleans to Natchez V: Captain Shinley

After a few minutes with Captain Dwight “Fred” Shinley in the wheelhouse of the Marty Baskerville it made sense why this tow was so well run. Shinley was a good commanding officer, a guy who is comfortable giving orders and maintaining authority in a friendly non-nonsense sort of way. A good manager can define expectations and then get out of the way while the people under him do their jobs.

His accumulated experiences on the river help Fred be such a comfortable manager. He knows every job on the boat outside the kitchen because he has done them. Fred has spent his working life on the river and worked his way up from being a deckhand. He knows what it is like to work out on the tow under a scorching August sun or with a February wind lashing his bones, and when a mate asks a deckhand to scrub a toilet for the first time, he remembers the humility involved. The instruments in the wheelhouse were just an extension of Shinley’s instincts, the river is constantly shifting and the maps drawn by the Army Corps of Engineers are only an approximation of what lay beneath the murky brown waves.

Knowledge and experience helps a good commander, but it also takes people skills. By all accounts this seems a genuinely happy crew, there is family warmth in the rhythms of their day.

When he was a boy, my father took a trip on a tow boat up that was supposed to take them St. Louis until a death in the family cut the trip short. The detail he remembers most clearly out of the machinery and all the sights and smells of the river were the hands of the river boat men. Almost all of the crew was missing a finger or two.

“There was a time when this used to be one of the most dangerous jobs in America,” the Captain said, “now it’s one of the safest. There used to be a lot more people falling off the boats.”

I asked him if that’s why they prohibited alcohol on riverboats. He remembers a time before the regulations.

“Twenty years ago there’d be a bottle of whiskey in wheelhouse and cases of beer stacked up to ceiling in the galley,” the Captain said.

Then they started clearing out the drunks by banning booze on the river and through a rigorous testing.

For a time the cook was exempt from the tests. Shinley recalls his boat’s cook from that era.

“You picked up her suitcase and you could hear the empty bottle clinking around. She’d come out of her room in the morning with a big smile and an ever bigger glass of OJ.”

Now, when a deckhand is injured on the job, the first thing a captain must do is administer a breath test or alcohol swab.

“Someone could lose an arm and I’d be out there with alcohol kit. It’s probably not something that would hold up in court, I’m not an expert with those things.”

Medication is also strictly regulated on the river. I filled out the standard forms when I arrived on the Baskerville and for some reason I listed a couple of tabs of Immodium that had been with me since Mexico that I had forgotten about until then. Ricky asked me if I had declared them before getting on the river. I hadn’t. He immediately called the dispatcher. He made it sound like he was covering for me on a potentially serious screw up. “He has a tablet of Immodium… you know what that’s for… he does not plan on taking it.”

I wandered up to the wheelhouse after breakfast to check when we’d be passing by Angola. I had wanted to see if Walker Percy’s descriptions still rang true. Shinley told me that unless the river was extremely high, you couldn’t see anything above the banks, the levees were a half-mile from the river in most places. A few towns and bridges, and Old River Control Structure were among the few sights on the Lower Mississippi.

Fred was right about Angola, there was nothing to see except a few rooftops and a tower that could have been anything. There were no prisoners sweating in between rows of cotton. The April fields were patched green and brown, and there was no sun to sweat under, just and endless leaden sky.

Fred did not try to sell me on river life. The tow was hard work, monotony and lonely nights away from your family.

“It’s kind of a double life out here. You have your life at home and your life on the river. You can do what you want back home but out here it is serious,” Fred explained. “There are always jobs for deckhands, most don’t last too long. It’s tough. It can be 110 degrees out on the tow during the summer and cold in the winter. Some will quit the first time they are asked to scrub a toilet, things they don’t do at home and have a hard time accepting the job.”

Captain Shinley leaned back in the command chair and looked out on the drab brown and gray horizon, another overcast morning on the river.

“The toughest part is accepting that this is your life, this is what you’ve chosen for yourself. You’ll be out here for a month away from home, your wife might call because there’s a water leak, what can you do about it on the river? Then one day you’ll wake up and there are your kids, older than you remember them,” the Captain said.

Then he almost betrayed a smile.

“My wife doesn’t call me when there is a water leak. She fixes it herself.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I liked your description of August sun, 'scorching'. As always, I enjoy the images you create in mind, using nothing but your words.