American Impressions, Chapter 31: Arkansas
A River's Ebbs
After the guns of Georgia, the Confederates of South Carolina, the prisons of Tennessee and the dead of Alabama, I was looking for something a little less treacherous to navigate in Arkansas, something more tranquil, a lull for mellow summer nights.
The Mississippi River beckons as all of those things. It’s big, noble, indifferent, a sprawl of twists and turns that drains three-fifths of the nation, silting up sediment and stories in equal parts. America couldn’t do without it anymore than it could without Mark Twain: “Sometimes we’d have that whole river all to ourselves for the longest time,” I’d hear Huck Finn say. “Yonder was the banks and the islands, across the water; and maybe a spark—which was a candle in a cabin window; and sometimes on the water you could see a spark or two—on a raft or a scow, you know; and maybe you could hear a fiddle or a song coming over from one of them crafts. It’s lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.”
Irresistible—and long gone. But by the time I learned that life on the Mississippi Delta was as romantic as a pit of water moccasins, that the Mississippi itself could be more treacherous than an ocean, that people along its shores respect it as much as they fear its mean streaks (had the Great Flood of ‘93 not rung any bells?), I’d already set course for “Big Muddy.”
I had seen the Mississippi once before, crossing the country on my way to Alaska. I’d stopped on its banks at the foot of the Arch in St. Louis. But the river there is so constricted between concrete walls, highways, bridges, a floating McDonald’s and a fair amount of garbage on the cobbled wharves that it would be heresy to call it the same Mississippi where Lewis and Clark had been “met by all the village” on their way back from their voyage of discovery. So my first sighting really hadn’t taken place.
In Arkansas, finding it took some doing. The river twists along the length of the state’s eastern border with Tennessee and Mississippi, but it is an isolated giant hiding everywhere behind three barriers: the plantations of cotton and soybean and rice (the first rice paddies I’d seen not exploding under Hollywood napalm), the mound-like levees that form the Delta’s only hills, and finally, a band of trees that border the river thick as a jungle, clearing here and there for sandbars that appear and disappear like earthen clouds.
Naive as ever, I had expected the Mississippi to snake along the roads and be garlanded with boathouses and inviting jetties, maybe even a few rafts. But those are the preconceptions of a foreigner. Growing up in Lebanon, the most we knew of rivers were a few creeks and rustling trickles that muddied footpaths in rare places as we hiked in the mountains. The country’s most important river, the Litani, which became an honorable flush in spring as it took the mountains’ snowmelts to the Mediterranean, was only 50 miles south of where we lived. But the Israeli air force liked to practice its bombing runs there, preferably on moving targets. So we stayed away.
It was only in New York that I became intimate with a river, the Hudson’s castoff called the East River, on whose shores my high school was built. Aside from two mad boys who jumped in it for a quick yearbook photo, we never set so much as a toe in it. The toe might have dissolved. But its half-mile width, its currents, its endless Macy’s parade of unidentified floating objects, and its morbid depths, which we imagined littered with human debris from Mario Puzzo novels, gave us students a permanent imaginary escape from our teachers’ attempts to civilize us. It was our Mississippi.
Now that I was approaching the real thing, I was worrying that it would disappoint, that it would be nothing more than an East River without Manhattan and the the Puzzo bits. Zadock Cramer, writing in 1814 in “The Navigator,” a guide book for immigrants looking to trade along the river, warned that “To a stranger, the first view of the Mississippi conveys not that idea of grandeur which he may have pictured to himself: his first judgment will rest upon the appearance of its breadth, in which respect it is inferior to many rivers of much less note.” He was right. When I finally made it to the river in Southeast Arkansas, across miles of dirt roads and cotton fields, it appeared flat, calm, nearly blue under a brutal sun, and like any other river I’d seen.
But it wasn’t. It was the Mississippi, on its own terms, in its own element. It may be just one-tenth the size of the Amazon or carry a fraction of the commerce on the St. Lawrence, but it is also past, present and future flowing calmly through the heart of the country with reassuring continuity and certainty, something like a natural monument to the nation it has helped build. It didn’t look that fast or forbidding, and the Mississippi side of the river was less than a mile away, a mere workout for a good swimmer. But even in its dead summer calm, I could hear Huck say how “it was a monstrous big river down there,” and was about to learn why only fools would disrespect her.
Terry Ferebee’s daughter was seven days old and he was out of work when he got a call from the Helena Marine Service. They could use his help in their fleeting operation on the Mississippi—“a valet service for barges,” Ferebee calls HMS, which parks, loads and readies barges for transport on the river. Ferebee had grown up in a family of sharecroppers in the Arkansas Delta. He had no river experience. The river was of no interest to farmers. But Ferebee needed a job. “It’ll do until I find something else,” he said at the time. That was 21 years ago. He’s now a full-fledged riverman as HMS’ operations manager, with no intentions to leave. “I don’t know what it is,” he says. “The river gets into your blood.”
Ferebee educated me about the river as we sat in his Helena office overlooking the Mississippi, a wooden structure built on stilts, so the office doesn’t shut down during flood season, when the parking lot is part of the river and men come to work in boats.
The river has its moods. It can be dirty. It can merely live up to its nickname. It can be calm, and then it can surprise and terrify you. Storms can get so severe that even tows get lost in them. A bad summer storm can transform the Mississippi into a stretch of ocean that could split barges apart, snapping their steel cables and sinking a 14-foot skiff with a single wave.
Then there are whirlpools the size of baseball fields, boils that spring from the river bottom like liquid mushrooms, logs napping in ambush below the surface, sandbars that could as easily beach a barge as a whale. And when the river turns mean, it is wrath unleashed beyond its banks. The flood of ‘93 covered 23 million acres (36,000 square miles) north of Cairo, Ill., killed 50 people, caused $10 billion in damage including 72,000 homes, most of them belonging to poor people forced to live in the cheaper houses of floodplains. The river’s deeper channels in Arkansas helped keep the water within its banks.
My impression that the river is cut off from its surroundings wasn’t wrong. Rivermen are in a world of their own, speaking the language of the river and living along its schedule: it never stops. Neither do they. Rivermen typically work on barges 15 or 30 days at a time (then take an equal number of days off), making three round trips in 30 days from New Orleans to Cairo, Ill., living on tug boats with crews of eight or 10, never docking even to refuel. It has nothing to do with romance and everything to do with money. A river pilot can make $310 a day and up. Deck-hands (the river’s entry-level job) start at $50 to $115 a day.
The port towns along the way once dotted the banks, the bustle of their streets echoing the constant traffic of the 11,000 paddlewheelers on the river. No longer. The Mississippi has always been compared to a major highway, and it still is; but its character has changed from that of a state highway lined with towns and their myriad businesses to an interstate that bypasses most places and exits only at select, consolidated, major ports like Cairo, Memphis, Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Arkansas’ river days are over. Helena is an example.
Twain called it “one of the prettiest situations on the Mississippi” when he visited in 1882, when Helena was Arkansas’ second city. It is now a silent grid of antique shops and historic buildings on Cherry Street, and of skeletal, empty buildings on many other streets—“dirt and squalor all around, it looked like Mexico,” the writer Eddy Harris described parts of it when he canoed down the Mississippi in 1987. The Port of Helena still fills up barges with grain or fertilizer, but a week can go by without a single docking.
The town of fewer than 10,000 people has fallen back on history to make ends meet, successfully, at least for three days every October. It is the site of the King Biscuit Blues Festival, which pays tribute to the Delta’s blues and gospel music heritage (the contemporary music scene in the Delta is as inert as Helena). The festival attracts 100,000 people in a three day stretch every October. Bill Clinton was among the visitors when he was governor, in the late 1980s. He liked the backdrop of the main stage so much—a crumbling old railroad station—that he directed the state to fund its repairs and the creation of the Delta Cultural Center there.
Its curator, Nashid Madyun told me about a different sort of eddies and boils and cross-currents that chafe at the Delta’s culture beyond the riverbanks, in all seasons. He was putting together a seminar on the 1919 massacre by a white mob of 15 black sharecroppers trying to organize a union in the tiny town of Elaine, just south of Helena. There is no violence today. Just a very visible resurrection of separateness and unequalness. The Delta is heavily black ( Helena and West Helena each just elected their first black mayors), but few blacks work on the river. The communities beyond the levees are integrated in word only, and poor.
”I had thought even the most impoverished parts of this country were a zillion steps ahead of Third World poverty,” Eddy Harris, who is black, wrote after being shown around one of Helena’s black neighborhoods. “I was wrong. This was the Third World. And I was wrong too when I thought that my luck was bad, and wrong again if I ever considered a man’s fate to be entirely of his own choosing and making. Wrong and naive.”
I had one thing left to do: get on the Mississippi, and not by riding one of its monstrous tourist Belles. I had to do it on the sort of boat that most belongs to the river these days. So late one afternoon, with Ferebee’s help, I found myself in Memphis boarding Mid-South Towing’s Martha Lynn, a tow boat that was taking a 30 barge, 50,000-ton cargo of coal and grain to New Orleans at 9 miles per hour. It was pure coincidence that the coal would eventually end up in Tampa, with likely a few thousand tons of it burning in Tampa Electric Co.’s furnaces in Polk County (the tug belonged to a TECO subsidiary).
From the pilot house it looked as if we were barely moving. But below us three, 3,000-horespower engines were burning 3.5 gallons of diesel a minute (5,000 a day, southbound) and the churn of the river behind us was enough to sink a raft.
”What you’re seeing here now is a tranquil river,” Capt. Don Crosier says. “The lower the river gets, the less current it gets. Current is the big enemy around here.” But at 64 and a lifetime of piloting barges, Crosier has never had a serious accident. The pilot house is his Sea of Tranquility. There, with his cigarettes and his occasional radio communications with boats downriver in a language all to himself, he looks as much at home as if he were on his Kentucky farm, where he spends his 30 days off every other month with his wife of 41 years. The river is his other spouse.
”It’s kind of like driving to work,” he says of navigating the Mississippi, which he doesn’t fear. “We just seen this stretch of river so many times it’s a common sense profession. It don’t take no educational skill to amount to anything. If you got 50,000 tons of cargo moving at 10 miles an hour, you’ve got to be very careful moving between the channels because you can’t stop quick, especially when you’re going southbound. It’s a job that takes experience. You can’t teach it. The better pilots are very patient people, they’re very conscious of everything taking place around them.” After telling me his own life on the Mississippi, he invites me to make myself at home anywhere on the boat.
Near midnight, I sit on the tow’s upper deck, under a clear sky and a gibbous moon that silhouettes the jungle of trees on both banks and drops silver sparkles on the river. Only the occasional burst of casino lights on the Mississippi side interrupts the glide in the dark, around the same spot where Hernando de Soto, looking for his own jackpot, became the first white man to discover the river in 1541. It’s not exactly romantic: I’m sitting on top of the engine chamber, the rattle of metal is debilitating, the diesel fumes from three stacks not far in front of me are as thick as the mucky Mississippi air. But it is a perfect moment. I see the stars Huck and Jim saw, as fictitious in their layout today as Huck and Jim were in 1884, and wonder, too, whether they were made or only just happened. Huck thought they couldn’t have been made because “it would have took too long to make so many.”
Two hours later, a tug called “Big Daddy” picks me off the Martha Lynn and brings me back to shore at Helena. The lull was over.
ARKANSAS IN BRIEF
Total area: 53,182 sq. miles (rank: 28)
Population (1997): 2,522,819 (rank: 33)
State capital: Little Rock
Economy: Manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, poultry
Nicknames & Motto: The Natural State; the Razorback State; The people rule.
Entered union: June 15, 1836 (25 th)
Notable facts: It was roughly on the same spot in Arkansas that Hernando deSoto, who discovered Florida, became the first white man to set eyes on the Mississippi, that the missionaries Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet ended their mapping journey down the river in 1673, and that the French explorer Robert La Salle planted the stake claiming the territory of for France in 1682.
The Mississippi in quotes: “The face of the Mississippi is always turbid; the current everywhere sweeping and rapid; and it is full of singular boils, where the water, for a quarter of an acre, rises with a strong circular motion, and a kind of hissing noise, forming a convex mass of waters above the common water, which roll down and are incessantly renewed. The river seems always in wrath.”—Timothy Flint in “Recollections of the Mississippi.”
The literature of the Mississippi is vast, rich, and rarely disappoints. It includes Jonathan Raban’s “Old Glory: A Voyage Down the Mississippi,” and Eddy Harris’ “Mississippi Solo,” the memoir of his canoeing trip down the river in the mid-1980s. Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” is still the river classic, but his “Life on the Mississippi” is a rich blend of stories, history and folklore.
* Mississippi River Country: www.mississippi-river.com/mrc/index.htm
* King Biscuit Blues Festival, Helena: www.deltanet.org/kbbf/kbbf97/index.html
* Mid-South Towing: www.deltanet.org/kbbf/kbbf97/index.html
* Arkansas tourism: www.arkansas.com