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Down-River Men

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Some of the finest schools on the Upper Mississippi River in the 19th century were the ten-acre rafts of Minnesota and Wisconsin white pine floating down to the sawmills of Rock Island, Davenport, and Moline. The twenty to thirty men who worked on these rafts and steered them down to the mills may not have diagrammed sentences or practiced their multiplication tables along the way, but they learned the habit of attention, and a philosophy of life likely more true than yours or mine.

Charlie Russell, a longtime rafts man, summed up a rafts man's education in a single sentence. "All rafts men," he wrote, "are down-river men." The rafts are long gone, but you can test the truth of that philosophy by dropping a paper boat or a leaf in the Mississippi. The current will soon catch it, and slowly take it out of sight, the only certainty that it will meet its fate downstream. Nothing can bring it back to try again for a better trip.

Rafts men floating down the Mississippi learned this lesson well. The raft had one chance of steering around the sandbar to avoid breaking up, a single opportunity to make the raft span of the bridge rather than hitting a pier, one attempt to land at the Clinton sawmill. There was no going back.

Regrets were not permitted on a raft. The raft pilot gave his orders to the steerers by looking at the channel ahead rather than back at where the raft had been. No rear-view mirror here. No erasers to blot out a misspelling, a wrong tense.

Charlie Russell knew that we are all down-river men and women, on rafts or ashore. We all need to steer carefully. There is no returning to take back an angry word or a broken promise. There is only one first kiss.

But there is always the journey ahead, new turns of the channel. Enjoy Bellevue as you pass by—in minutes it will be a memory. Here comes Dubuque, and there it goes. Cherish even your daughter’s terrible twos. The threes, the sweet sixteens, and the forties are coming up just downstream.

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.