“…it was a wide open time on the river, and Bob’s stories and characters reflect the attitude of the era. His ’nuff-said yet poetic style speaks to me of deck-burned elbows and knees, ratchet grease and steel-toed boots boldly tramping through coal and sour mash on the barge decks…Bob’s knack for character portrayal is the best reason to buy this book. The reader may never have worked on the river, but he or she may have known someone like Steamboat Bill or Big Red… “
– Captain Lee Hendrix
Big River Magazine
“If you have ever crossed a bridge over the Mississippi, and wondered about that other world, this book is your boarding pass.”
– Scott Benson
“Deck’s stories of life on the river have a romantic aura that seems to have vanished from American life. The characters aboard the towboats on which Deck served come across as pungent, neurotic, noble and as swashbuckling as in any book about pirates.”
– Bill Stieger
“Bobby this is great …you have captured the time , the men (you left out the women) and the great adventure of working the river.”
– Jimmie Lee “Big Red” Coulthard
Retired Towboat Captain
From Big River Reviews
Author, teacher and riverboat pilot Capt. Bob Deck spent 25 years on towboats in the St. Paul harbor, wiring barges together, switching local docks, chasing the occasional runaway barge and, thankfully, remembering a lot of the stories that made it interesting and exciting work. In his new book, the vantage point from which the stories are told is truly “Between the Sticks” (referring to the steering levers in the pilothouse of modern-day towboats). It is part history, travelogue, personal journal and boat’s log, and all of it is an interesting journey.
As the book begins in 1976 with 18-year-old cub pilot Deck on the Tennessee River, we are launched right into the non-stop action that defines the rest of the book. We are immediately introduced to a cast of rough-around-the-edges, colorful characters who all have nicknames. The boat crews and their daily activities establish the basis for the majority of the book. Except for brief trips to the Illinois River and Lake Michigan, most of the stories take place in and around the St. Paul harbor.
Towboats are the workhorses of the inland rivers. The smaller harbor boats that Deck piloted are sometimes referred to as “lunch bucket” boats because crew members generally don’t live aboard; they work a shift each day and go home at night. His crew shuffles barges around the harbor, makes up tows for southbound line-haul boats and maintains large fleets of barges in various locations around town. The boats aren’t glamorous or comfortable, the days are long, and the work is hard and dangerous. There is a lot of close-quarters maneuvering in all kinds of weather and river conditions, as the boats operate routinely in high water, low water, shut-out fog and high winds. They sometimes work with equipment with a questionable maintenance history. The reality of the industry is eye-opening to the uninitiated. As Deck illustrates, there are many things that can – and do- go wrong, bringing ample opportunities for misadventures, near-misses and calamities. Even on good days, operations can go so wrong and take so much time they lead the good captain to mutter wryly “this was looking bad on the logbook.” Doing this job requires a natural confidence, but Deck isn’t averse to admitting when he has made a mistake or learned a good lesson, or even when he feels nervous or scared.
Through it all, Deck is observant enough to enjoy the sunsets, and he is obviously proud to be making his living on the Mississippi River. He accurately describes the unique nature of his work and the people attracted to it. Their workplace meanders right under the noses of rush-hour commuters driving along the blufftops and river roads, but couldn’t be more removed from the urban routine. He astutely relates instances of river politics, incompetent managers and sometimes “psychological warfare” used by other pilots, who have “mastered the art of innocent-sound sarcasm.” He bluntly shares his opinion of ignorant pleasure boats and so-called river improvements.
Along the way, we are given front row seats to several events in St.Paul’s recent history, such as the Flood of 1993 and the 2008 Republican National Convention. As always, the viewpoint and perspective is from the river. As the book closes, we are treated to a trip down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
For people who have always been curious about the workings of towboats and barges on the river, this book will answer many of their questions in a lively and informative way. Deck knows how to construct an entertaining story, and the book includes an abundance of interesting photos. At 410 pages, it’s a little long for the subject matter and a bit disjointed, as the chapters are initially presented as chronologically but the narrative jumps all around within that framework. Many of the stories are similar and start to blend together. Readers may also struggle with errors in grammar, changing verb tense, punctuation and spelling, which interrupt the flow and phrasing of the stories and threaten to detract from the lively narrative. Hopefully these can be addressed in future editions.
Particularly heartwarming is the chapter near the end of the book where Deck talks about coming “full circle,” reconnecting with his now-grown son, which brings us up to the present-day. The elder Deck has successfully passed along his knowledge and love for the river to another generation, as both father and son now pilot passenger boats together in the St. Paul harbor. This bond as it should. Deck is happiest when he is on the river, and it truly shows.”