This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
"Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me," we used to sing back at classmates who called us names on the schoolyard. It wasn't very impressive. If only I had known then how to talk like a Mississippi River rafts man, I might have gotten more respect.
The rough and tumble crew who steered the great log rafts down the rivers from Minnesota to the sawmills near Rock Island could likely not read a word, but their ability to handle the English language and their love of listening to it had few rivals. Huck Finn sneaks up on just such a raft one night just as two men have gotten into a fight: not with fists, but with words. "I'm the old original iron-jawed, brass-mounted, copper bellied corpse-maker from the wilds of Arkansas…I'm the man they call Sudden Death and General Desolation. Sired by a hurricane, nearly related to the smallpox on my mother's side. Stand back and give me room."
By now, his opponent has had time to regroup, encouraged by an appreciative audience. He raises his fists, circles three time, jumps up and cracks his heels together. "Bow your neck and spread, for the kingdom of sorrow's acoming," he says. "Smoked glass here for all. Don't attempt to look at me with the naked eye. I'm the man with a petrified heart and boiler-iron bowels. The massacre of isolated communities is the pastime of my idle moments, the destruction of nationalities the serious business of my life."
It's enough to make Shakespeare jealous. Cut these words, and they bleed. Actual fists would have been a letdown. If only the white pine forests in Minnesota and Wisconsin hadn't given out in 1915, and rafts men were still sound. My writing students could all benefit from an internship on the logs. One or two trips should do it. Never again would they open a theme by writing "Many people in the world today believe that taxes are too elevated.”
No, fledging writers would learn far more from the practitioners of the English language than they do now from mere professors of it.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.