When I see a photo of the Mississippi River around St. Paul it very often brings back a towboat memory. The view from Dayton’s Bluff in winter makes me remember a big adventure that lasted an extremely short amount of time. Right down there late winter or early spring of 1992 the towboat Lois E and the Sadie Mae were rafted alongside a tow of barges that had arrived in that fleet below the Lafayette Street Bridge.
The deckhands were taking a break to warm up in the galley of the Sadie. I had come down from the pilothouse of the Lois E to join the crews for a few minutes and check on their condition. I made a mental note of the speed with which the current was gurgling around the boat hulls and the large chunks of ice spinning down river headed for St. Louis.
Once the break was over and the stiff frozen fingers had warmed a bit big Nick clapped his hands together and announced “Time to get back at her boys. That rigging ain’t gonna strip itself.”
The other three deckhands slowly gathered up their gloves and wool caps and made their way out the door onto the 3-foot wide gunwale a mere two feet above the cold river. Emil was first then me and then Nick. As soon as Emil’s feet hit the cold steel deck outside he floated away from me.
Well, at least it looked like he was floating. He experienced one of those slips where his feet went up in the air almost level with his head. A micro-second later he was gone. Nick and I went right to our knees on the deck and looked into the murky water and a cloud of steam where Emil had gone under.
It was probably less than another second and his head popped up. Together we snatched him out of the water and threw him back into the galley where he landed with a soggy thump on the floor. Someone slammed the door closed and five of us set to work getting his wet clothes off and a warm emergency fire blanket around him. One of the boys set a milk house heater in front of him and cranked it up to high heat.
No one said anything. We were waiting to hear from Emil who had come so close to becoming a short paragraph in the newspaper. Finally, he managed to sputter “D…d…d…damn. I l… l…l…lost my Sorrels.” He didn’t quite get why we all laughed. “They were b…b…b…brand new.”
Nick just slapped him on the back, “But at least you got a shot at getting old.”
The rest of the guys went out onto the tow to work in the freezing temperatures and, later, Emil went down to the engine room and put on his nearly dry clothes and soon after was back at work alongside his crewmates.