When I worked on the river, well it really wasn’t the river, it was the Chicago Area Sanitation Canal, fondly referred to as the Shit Ditch, I worked on a team that consisted of the pilot, the mate and two deckhands. We worked six hours on and six hours off. I was a deckhand, both of us were on our first trip. Our mate was this little hillbilly who had spent time in prison. Lot’s of river rats had, the union hall is in Joliet after all. Stories had it that he had once stormed the bridge an beat up the pilot. Many pilots packed heat in those days.
Other than cleaning the kitchen, we only worked when we were going through a lock or making or breaking tow. That is picking up or dropping off barges. Our job was to rig them, wrapping line and wire (rope and cables) around bulkheads and tightening them with giant come-alongs, using a pipe for increased leverage. The mate took pride in working fast and that meant getting to work quickly after the boat got into position. Getting into position meant sliding a tow of several gigantic barges into a tight area. That meant crashing into the bank (often a cement wall) or other barges. The impacts were heavy and put incredible stress on the rigging. The mate always wanted us to jump out and be ready to start working as soon as we came to. If a wire or a line snaps under that sudden incrediible tension, it could decapitate you so fast that it would make your head swim.
So picture two twenty two year old kids cowering behind the cover of the barges superstructure, being cursed by a red faced forty year old with the reputation of a violent lunatic. Each of us was about twice his size, but we were terrified of him. We were actually doing what we were trained to do, and we stood our ground. But I like to think we cranked like hell when things settled down enough to get to work.