This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
St. Matthew may have known his lilies of the field when he advised us to be like them and "take no thought for the morrow," but he had almost certainly never tried out that wisdom in the pilot house of a Mississippi River steamboat. He would have been catfish bait. Even an apprentice cub knew enough to steer ahead—way, way ahead.
The Mississippi River might have been called a water highway, but it was nothing like that dependable concrete under your car tires. On Route 6, I need take no thought for the morrow. I come to a corner, move the steering wheel and the car turns. Turn the wheel in a pilot house, and nothing happens for five minutes or more. Then, that football field of a boat down below might begin to respond. Wait until the corner and it's too late.
That pilot house three or four stories above the water on a steamboat was not sitting there as a decoration atop a wedding cake. The channel of the Upper Mississippi was shallow and crooked, crossing from one bank to another an average of once every mile. Sharp bends or willow islands often hid what lay beyond. Meanwhile, the water itself was moving three to five miles an hour never straight, and often across rather than down the channel, while the wind pushes against the boat in yet another direction. In addition, no two boats were alike; each had a mind of its own as to how to behave. A river pilot had to be three stories up to see far enough ahead to take all these forces into consideration a block or two ahead of time. Then, performing some instant calculus in his mind, the pilot committed himself to turn the wheel and send orders to the engineer for just the right speed. A half hour later, he learned if those were the right maneuvers.
Now and then St. Paul gave out some good advice, but all of us who have raised children understand the pilot's mindset. We steer our children carefully until the age of twenty. Then there's a tense fifteen years or so of waiting to see if they make it around the snag or slide over the sandbar into safe water.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.