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River Rats

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

For the past ten years, Rock Island has suffered a plague of those silly signs now seen almost everywhere—signs with little red X's that say, "You are here."

Of course I'm here. A more difficult question is "Why?" Why are we where we are? Why do some of us end up in Moline, Illinois, or Fairbanks, Alaska, or Cutbank, Montana? Did you ever dream as a child that you would end up at 221 Elm Street, in Stillwater, Oklahoma?

For most of us Rock Islanders, as for you, perhaps, the reasons are accidental. We can afford the house on Elm Street, or it will impress our friends, or it happened to be for sale. Whether the landscape is flat or hilly, or wet, or cold, or wooded makes little difference. And so, we move restlessly, an average of once every five years, floating like dandelion seeds as jobs and fortunes change.

But there are men and women living on this earth who plant themselves deep. For them, place is everything. Those with mountains in their souls find rocky places; those in whom the ocean rolls come to live by shores.

More than a few with rivers in their veins have come to Rock Island to live in small cottages or cabins on the flood plain. "River rats," we call them, when we notice them at all. They have been called to the river, and they accept whatever fortune the river sends, fish and floods, sunsets and cool breezes, cakes of ice in winter.

If you watched the news media cover the 1993 flood at Rock Island, you saw these river rats confound the reporters who expected to record anger and despair and hopelessness. "Are you going to leave and never return?" a reporter asks. "Leave?" says a woman whose house along the Rock River had been flooded five times already. "Leave?  It's my home."

And you may have seen the old gentleman in his rocking chair on his front porch, water up to the rockers, holding his hands out across the record Mississippi flood, and say "Leave? Look at the view I've got."

That is a river rat.

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

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.