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Mike Fink

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I'm disappointed that our Mississippi River heroes get no respect. Other rough and tumble American types – Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and even that gentleman, Mr. Al Capone—have their own movies and television programs. But where is Mike Fink, King of the Riverboat men?

Mike's life was the essence of American legend: he worked hard, played hard, fought hard, and drank hard. He was born in 1770 in Pennsylvania. Mike drifted into riverboating on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers in the age before steamboats and soon developed a reputation as the most skilled keelboat man on the river, commanding a crew that had to push its boat up the river with long poles—work that made keelboat men both ornery and thirsty.

Mike Fink was also a crack shot. He was famous for shooting tin cups off the heads of friends at a hundred feet. In 1823, as the steamboat began to replace the keelboats, Mike went west. Near the Yellowstone River, he killed his best friend during the tin cup trick. "I elevated the gun a bit too low," is how Mike put it. In retaliation, Mike Fink was killed by his friend's friend.

All the makings for Hollywood and television. But so far, not even a bit park in a B-movie.

The problem is Mike's language. We Americans love violence. Five or six murders? Fine, but try using the “F” word or the “S” word, and we turn Puritan. Mississippi riverboat men not only used the “F” word and the “S” word, they had several words for each letter of the alphabet—strings of words that hung in the air above the water for minutes afterwards, so one could stand back and admire them. Not like our pitiful teenage attempts at nastiness.

Mike Fink and his crew probably did not kill any more people than the average American hero, but their language had no rival. That's what's kept Mike Fink off television. It wouldn't work to clean that rich language up, either. Can you imagine Mike Fink in the middle of a good river brawl, having just gouged an eye out, and given three opponents a concussion with his pole, standing up, spitting a piece of ear out of his mouth, and saying "Merciful Heavens, must this carnage continue?"

No, river language loses something in translation.

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.