Heroes, American Style

Jun 30, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

No Rock Islander has ever searched for the Holy Grail, or climbed a beanstalk, or chased strange women with a glass slipper.

We have work to do. From Betsy Ross to Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, the cowboy, and our own Mike Fink, King of the Keelboatmen, Americans have become heroes because of their work, not in their leisure after hours.

I learned this several years ago by hitching a ride on the Julia Belle Swain, a brand-new sternwheeler with a real steam engine built just upriver at Dubuque. We came down the river on its maiden voyage bound for the Illinois River tourist trade, while carpenters and electricians worked at the finishing touches.

At the wheel in the pilot house was 78-year-old Roy Boyd of Rock Island, the only river pilot still licensed for steamboats. For this license he had had to learn by heart the entire Upper Mississippi and draw it on paper from memory. Here was a man who knew where he was going; he was all business. The channel twisted from shore to shore, close to Iowa, now to Illinois, and Roy had to pay attention all the time.

But business was beautiful, too. Roy had been retired for many years, and now he was back on the river he loved, hands steady on the wheel, responsible for a million dollars of boat.

I spent the late hours of the night in the pilot house. The windows were open, the better to see. The temperature was in the low 30s, and it was cold and crisp. It was quiet, except for the steam pistons pushing in and out fifteen times a minute. We heard people talking on shore. Now and then a searchlight came on to spot a buoy and keep us in the channel. Sometimes forms of geese and ducks flew across the darkness into the light.

Roy Boyd talked back and forth with men in passing barges by short wave. It was business talk, but it was also men talking to each other in the dead of night. Beautiful business.

I came to see that on the river at least, work and romance, time clocks and heroes, still mix. I hope they do where you live.

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