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Only the River is Real — The Mississippi and the Flow of Time

By Vincent Kavaloski

Big River Magazine March-April 2014

I grew up high on the bluffs overlooking the Mississippi river, played in its floodwaters in the spring, and worked my way through college fueling towboats and charting parked barges for St. Paul Barge & Towing Company. Once, a grizzled line-boat worker, up from New Orleans or Baton Rouge, accosted me: “College boy, you don’t know nuthin’ until you know the river. ‘Cause only the river is real. You got that?”

Only now, after a half century of the river flowing through my life, am I beginning to get it. At least I think I am. “Only the river is real.” What does that mean?

Being a philosophy professor, my mind flows back to the ancient Greek philosopher Hericlitus, who claimed: “You can’t step into the same river twice, for the waters are continually passing by.” But his follower, Cratylus, went even further: “You can’t step into the river even once, because you, too, are constantly changing.” The “you” that steps into the water is no longer the “you” that began the step.

Is everything in continual change, endless flow and flux? Are stability and ­consistency just illusions? Does this make our lives mere flotsam and jetsam swirling along meaninglessly on the indifferent current of time? And yet the river — despite its irrevocable flow, twists and turns, moods and seasons — has one great constant: the direction of its current, always downriver toward the ocean. The “river of time” can be a discomforting and paradoxical image to contemplate.

Of course a real river can be many different things. For those down in the valley, the spring floods bring devastation and danger, angry waters washing away homes and lives. For me, as a child living safely up on the bluffs, the floods were an adventure, watching the waters rise, then walking barefoot along Concord Street dodging the floating debris. (What were our parents thinking? In those days, the 1960s, towns dumped their raw sewage directly into the river.) During one particularly heavy flood year, 1964 or 1965, my friend Tim and I got hired to pile sandbags on a big dike that threatened every hour to collapse, with sirens and floodlights all through the night wet, sweaty, exhausted, scared while piling sandbags ever higher as the river rose — what exhilaration! To pit our young, defiant bodies against the immense rage of the river! It was a kind of coming-of-age from naive boyhood to heedless manhood. And luckily the dike held.

Most of my boyhood, however, was spent playing in the little calm stream just down the ravine from our house. One memorable day, Dad nailed together some crude wood pieces that I named “Kon Tiki,” tied a string to it and let it bob down the stream, reeled back, let it go again until finally the string broke and Kon Tiki disappeared, rushing toward the river. For many years I fantasized about my little boat on a Huckleberry Finn odyssey down the river into the Gulf of Mexico and off into the Atlantic Ocean. It made me want to travel the globe, which I have done to some extent.

My most meaningful and extensive Mississippi experience was working on the river for St. Paul Barge & Towing Company in the mid and late 1960s, staffing the wharf barge — often for 24-hour shifts — fueling the big line boats from down South and supplying them with groceries, bantering with the river veterans who had been locked onboard for weeks. They invited me onboard for epic breakfasts of pancakes, sausages, eggs, coffee by the quart and monumental pies, but called me “college boy” and had a lot of laughs at my naivety.

In the evenings I had my own solitary adventures, taking my small metal boat out to map where the various barges were parked and to place kerosene lanterns high on the corners. To do this, I had to slowly steer the boat at an angle upstream rolling against the high barge side, motor idling just enough to stay steady, then climb up on the boat roof to slide on a burning lantern. No life jackets in those days. If I fell into the darkness between the barge and the idling boat … but somehow I didn’t, so here I am remembering how the river runs through my life.

Late at night alone on the wharf barge, I played my French horn, Borodin’s haunting “In the Steppes of Central Asia” reverberating up and down the darkened waters, the bittersweet evanescence of life and love merging into the lonely beauty. Reading Doctor Zhivago I felt the power and pathos of my own youthful yearning for love, dreaming relentlessly along on the current of time. All of our precious hopes, all our loves, all our families, all our struggles flowing down ineluctably to where? To the ocean of all being? Is there comfort in this moving unity, or only the tragic fatalism of looming death?

“The river is a strong brown god — sullen, untamed, and intractable.” (T.S. Eliot)

A powerful and untamed god, yes, but sullen? Not to me. Never.

On one of the most memorable nights, my good buddy Tim showed up with a fifth of whisky that we unwisely gulped down roaring upriver in the company’s old, rusty boat, appropriately named the Chicken Shit. Several miles later, under the Robert Street Bridge, the motor gave out and refused to restart. We floated back downstream under a canopy of stars, desperately bouncing off massive parked barges, dodging floating logs, dreaming of Huckleberry Finn and life’s adventures until eventually the wharf barge came into view. We jumped at it, roped a brace and pulled ourselves up to safety.

For many decades now, every summer I drive up the Great River Road from southwest Wisconsin to St. Paul to visit my shrinking family of origin. I stop often along the way to watch the barges and boats and the slow but relentless flow of the waters. I have left my worries, my exultations, my illusions along its green banks. I have grown old, while the river remains forever young. I have brought my wife and children to experience the impetuous power of ever-moving waters, and now I bring my grandchildren.

For them it is beautiful scenery, especially in the multi-colored frenzy of fall. But for me the river is an ancient mentor, teaching of endless change. All is impermanence — all except the river itself, flowing in permanent impermanence, flowing home to a distant unknown ocean.

And so do we.

Vincent Kavaloski lives in Dodgeville, Wis. This is his first story for Big River.

Copyright 2014 Big River Magazine