Barge Right On Ahead!

It was our second date, and Jeff suggested we take his boat out for a ride on the Mississippi River. I’ve always loved taking to the water, but I admit I was nervous about Old Man River. I grew up with lakes surrounding me, and I learned to fear the currents of swift rivers. I’m no speed freak. I’m more comfortable in a row boat or canoe than behind the wheel of a boat skimming and bouncing through waves. So when we hooked up to his runabout, I wasn’t sure what to expect—from the river or the old man.

Just who was this guy, and how would he deal with the inevitable trials that I’d learned are part of boating? It seems no matter how prepared a boater is, a floating vessel with a motor that runs only occasionally is prime for challenges. Would Jeff be the kind of guy who would cuss, throw and kick things? I figured it wouldn’t be long before I knew. We’d not more than backed the trailer down the ramp when Jeff leaned over to unhook the rope from the bow. The contents of his shirt pocket spilled into the shallow water.

“There goes my wallet!” he shouted. So I jumped in and started pulling credit cards and receipts out of the water and gravel. First thing learned? Jeff has no wallet. He carries a bundle of cards, license, bills and receipts in his shirt pocket instead. No leather, no money clip, not even a rubber band around it. Second thing? So far, not a swear word was uttered. He just chuckled as he let me pick up the cards while he guided the boat off the trailer and around the dock to get out of the way of waiting boaters at the ramp. Who IS this guy?

Once we had the truck and trailer parked and supplies for the day stowed aboard, my date attempted to start the motor. I stood on the dock and watched (“OK, now we’ll see the real temper,” I thought.) A few adjustments, a sheepish smile, an “I just got this boat,” and a spray or two of starting fluid, and we were off. We chugged down the slough to the main channel while making small talk.

This was my first boat trip on the Mississippi. As we left the closed-in mud and tree-lined slough, I saw the horizon open up onto a wide expanse of churning water dotted with boats, wave runners and passing barges. Jeff, half standing and half sitting on the back of the driver’s seat, pointed the bow north and grabbed the throttle to speed up. As he pushed the lever forward, the box that attached it to the side wall came off in his hand. He looked down. He glanced at me. “Oh shit!” He tried to put it back on the wall with one hand. That didn’t work. He looked at me. He looked back at the throttle. I grabbed the wheel of the boat so he was free to handle the handle. After slowing the boat to a troll speed, he found a couple wire ties and reattached the box to the wall. “That’ll do for now,” he said as he showered down on it again, and we took off upstream once more.

I said something, and he turned to me to answer when the wind caught his cap and sailed it out over the water. “My hat!” he yelled and made a quick 180-degree turn. I hung on as the boat tilted into the turn and yelled back, “It needed washing anyway!” It was a well-worn baseball cap that he wore every day onto worksites, and it showed. He inched the boat close, and I reached out and pulled it from the water.

We cruised upriver to a shore side restaurant where we enjoyed a late lunch before heading back out onto the river. Jeff kept up the conversation as he maneuvered the boat through the traffic. It dawned on me that he’s the guy who turns to talk to you as he drives. I listened and nodded while I kept an eye on the river ahead. This water highway gave me a case of the nerves, so I was determined to watch for danger even if he had no worries. (Now that I think back, that could very well be the theme of our entire life together!)

Jeff was now enjoying the ride, and he was trying to impress me with conversation. He was facing me now more than he was ahead. For the life of me, I had no idea what he was saying, as I realized we were gaining on a long barge in the middle of the channel ahead of us. The tow boat at the back of the monstrous floating train was throwing up a wake that looked to be about ten feet high, and we were heading straight at the wall of water from the side.

I didn’t want him to jerk the boat, so I calmly nodded again and said, “Barge.” To which he nodded and kept talking. So I sat up straighter, and I said loudly, “Barge!” He nodded again. I guess he thought I was agreeing with whatever he was saying (good little date?). What was he saying anyway? I had no idea, but I now started to feel the panic rising. I stood up in the boat (Yes, Dad, I’m sorry, you always told me to never stand up in a moving boat, but I did.) I pointed emphatically at the now looming wall of water and yelled, “BARGE!!!!” He finally followed my gesture and turned his head around. “Oh, THAT barge!” He swung us around in another 180 degree turn, tipping us inward and away from the wake just in time as I clung to the edge of the seat fighting the g-forces, trying to sit back down before I was tossed into the water and swallowed whole by the Old Man.

The boat leveled out, and he turned back the other way again. (I may not have known this guy well, but he sure liked half-circle turns.) Once I regained my composure, we both laughed as we followed the river back to the slough where we put in just a few hours before. I was relieved when we slowed below wake speed. But the boat didn’t just slow down, it sputtered and stopped. Now what?

I asked, “Did we run out of gas?” Jeff replied, “No way, the gauge says we have a quarter tank yet.” He checked a couple things and tried to start it again. It wouldn’t start. He went to the back and opened the gas tank and said, “Yep, we’re out of gas.” I could see his face turning red as the steam inside rose. Yet he didn’t completely blow. A woman in another boat came to our rescue just then and towed us the last length back to the boat ramp. He could have let his pride get in the way, but he didn’t. He thanked her very sweetly and offered her money for gas.

Now I guess you’re wondering, “When did he lose it?” Oh, he has….many times since that date, but I knew then that if he really needed to watch his manners he would. Even a redneck can hold his temper when trying to impress a new woman in his life. I matter enough to him that he’d care about how he appeared in my eyes. While he may lose his temper–and yes, he does throw things and cuss–on the truly important matters, he comes through with flying redneck colors.

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