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Boats on the Riverr

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

We Americans have an awful time making up our minds whether to be rafts or towboats—whether to give in to the currents of life and let them take us where they will, or to take dominion over nature, as Genesis says, and shape the river to our own needs by locks and dams.<--break->Most of us end up somewhere in between. Among my friends and acquaintances are not only rafts and towboats. I know many canoes and houseboats, several steamboats, and one keelboat, but they have all chosen to meet the river of life in one of two ways: submit or control.

All the early boats on the Mississippi learned to submit to the power of the river. Rafts were completely at the river's mercy, drifting with the current. The canoe had somewhat more control, but its shape—long, low to the water, with a flat shallow draft—was determined by the river itself. Even the grand, graceful steamboat of the nineteenth century was a product of river necessities combined with human ingenuity. The shallow water on the Mississippi meant that there had to be a paddle wheel rather than a propeller. The narrow turning channel dictated that the steamboat be four stories high to give the pilot clear vision far ahead. In this way, the steamboat, just like the raft, submitted to the river. It was just a bit more clever.

Then, in 1930, members of Congress must have read Genesis. They decided it was high time to have dominion over the river, and they authorized 26 locks and dams to shape the river to human needs, deepening the channel to nine feet. The result was the modern towboat and its string of barges, propellers run by powerful diesel engines. In one trip, a towboat can carry the cargo of a hundred steamboats. It's all business.

My analogy between boats and people is a handy one, but I've discovered one flaw. Boats are easier to categorize than friends. Last week, for example, just when I had decided that a new colleague was definitely a tow boat, full of drive, working night and day, with barges of publications, propelled by engines that never rest, I found out over coffee that his secret ambition was to be a raft.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.