WHEN I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my
comrades in our village on the west
bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman.
We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient.
When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns;
the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us
all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope
that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.
These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a
steamboatman always remained.
Once a day a cheap, gaudy packet arrived upward from St. Louis,
and another downward from Keokuk. Before these events, the day
was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and
empty thing. Not only the boys, but the whole village, felt this.
After all these years I can picture that old time to myself now,
just as it was then: the white town drowsing in the sunshine
of a summer's morning; the streets empty, or pretty nearly so;
one or two clerks sitting in front of the Water Street stores,
with their splint-bottomed chairs tilted back against the wall,
chins on breasts, hats slouched over their faces, asleep--
with shingle-shavings enough around to show what broke them down;
a sow and a litter of pigs loafing along the sidewalk,
doing a good business in watermelon rinds and seeds; two or
three lonely little freight piles scattered about the 'levee;'
a pile of 'skids' on the slope of the stone-paved wharf,
and the fragrant town drunkard asleep in the shadow of them;
two or three wood flats at the head of the wharf, but nobody
to listen to the peaceful lapping of the wavelets against them;
the great Mississippi, the majestic, the magnificent Mississippi,
rolling its mile-wide tide along, shining in the sun; the dense
forest away on the other side; the 'point' above the town,
and the 'point' below, bounding the river-glimpse and turning
it into a sort of sea, and withal a very still and brilliant
and lonely one. Presently a film of dark smoke appears above
one of those remote 'points;' instantly a negro drayman,
famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up
the cry, 'S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin'!' and the scene changes!
The town drunkard stirs, the clerks wake up, a furious
clatter of drays follows, every house and store pours
out a human contribution, and all in a twinkling the dead
town is alive and moving. Drays, carts, men, boys, all go
hurrying from many quarters to a common center, the wharf.
Assembled there, the people fasten their eyes upon the coming
boat as upon a wonder they are seeing for the first time.
And the boat IS rather a handsome sight, too. She is long and sharp
and trim and pretty; she has two tall, fancy-topped chimneys,
with a gilded device of some kind swung between them;
a fanciful pilot-house, a glass and 'gingerbread', perched on top
of the 'texas' deck behind them; the paddle-boxes are gorgeous
with a picture or with gilded rays above the boat's name;
the boiler deck, the hurricane deck, and the texas deck
are fenced and ornamented with clean white railings;
there is a flag gallantly flying from the jack-staff;
the furnace doors are open and the fires glaring bravely;
the upper decks are black with passengers; the captain stands
by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes
of the blackest smoke are rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys--
a husbanded grandeur created with a bit of pitch pine just before
arriving at a town; the crew are grouped on the forecastle;
the broad stage is run far out over the port bow, and an envied
deckhand stands picturesquely on the end of it with a coil
of rope in his hand; the pent steam is screaming through
the gauge-cocks, the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings,
the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam,
and the steamer is at rest. Then such a scramble as there
is to get aboard, and to get ashore, and to take in freight
and to discharge freight, all at one and the same time;
and such a yelling and cursing as the mates facilitate it all with!
Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again, with no flag
on the jack-staff and no black smoke issuing from the chimneys.
After ten more minutes the town is dead again, and the town
drunkard asleep by the skids once more.
My father was a justice of the peace, and I supposed he possessed
the power of life and death over all men and could hang anybody that
offended him. This was distinction enough for me as a general thing;
but the desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding, nevertheless.
I first wanted to be a cabin-boy, so that I could come out with a white
apron on and shake a tablecloth over the side, where all my old comrades
could see me; later I thought I would rather be the deckhand who stood
on the end of the stage-plank with the coil of rope in his hand,
because he was particularly conspicuous. But these were only day-dreams,--
they were too heavenly to be contemplated as real possibilities.
By and by one of our boys went away. He was not heard of for a long time.
At last he turned up as apprentice engineer or 'striker' on a steamboat.
This thing shook the bottom out of all my Sunday-school teachings.
That boy had been notoriously worldly, and I just the reverse;
yet he was exalted to this eminence, and I left in obscurity and misery.
There was nothing generous about this fellow in his greatness.
He would always manage to have a rusty bolt to scrub while his boat
tarried at our town, and he would sit on the inside guard and
scrub it, where we could all see him and envy him and loathe him.
And whenever his boat was laid up he would come home and swell around
the town in his blackest and greasiest clothes, so that nobody could
help remembering that he was a steamboatman; and he used all sorts
of steamboat technicalities in his talk, as if he were so used
to them that he forgot common people could not understand them.
He would speak of the 'labboard' side of a horse in an easy, natural way
that would make one wish he was dead. And he was always talking about
'St. Looy' like an old citizen; he would refer casually to occasions
when he 'was coming down Fourth Street,' or when he was 'passing
by the Planter's House,' or when there was a fire and he took a turn
on the brakes of 'the old Big Missouri;' and then he would go on and lie
about how many towns the size of ours were burned down there that day.
Two or three of the boys had long been persons of consideration among
us because they had been to St. Louis once and had a vague general
knowledge of its wonders, but the day of their glory was over now.
They lapsed into a humble silence, and learned to disappear when the ruthless
'cub'-engineer approached. This fellow had money, too, and hair oil.
Also an ignorant silver watch and a showy brass watch chain.
He wore a leather belt and used no suspenders. If ever a youth
was cordially admired and hated by his comrades, this one was.
No girl could withstand his charms. He 'cut out' every boy in the village.
When his boat blew up at last, it diffused a tranquil contentment
among us such as we had not known for months. But when he came
home the next week, alive, renowned, and appeared in church all
battered up and bandaged, a shining hero, stared at and wondered
over by everybody, it seemed to us that the partiality of Providence
for an undeserving reptile had reached a point where it was open to
This creature's career could produce but one result, and it
speedily followed. Boy after boy managed to get on the river.
The minister's son became an engineer. The doctor's and the
post-master's sons became 'mud clerks;' the wholesale liquor
dealer's son became a barkeeper on a boat; four sons of the
chief merchant, and two sons of the county judge, became pilots.
Pilot was the grandest position of all. The pilot, even in those days
of trivial wages, had a princely salary--from a hundred and fifty
to two hundred and fifty dollars a month, and no board to pay.
Two months of his wages would pay a preacher's salary for a year.
Now some of us were left disconsolate. We could not get on the river--
at least our parents would not let us.
So by and by I ran away. I said I never would come home again till I
was a plot and could come in glory. But somehow I could not manage it.
I went meekly aboard a few of the boats that lay packed together like sardines
at the long St. Louis wharf, and very humbly inquired for the pilots,
but got only a cold shoulder and short words from mates and clerks.
I had to make the best of this sort of treatment for the time being,
but I had comforting daydreams of a future when I should be a great and
honored pilot, with plenty of money, and could kill some of these mates
and clerks and pay for them.