Pilot Know-How

Feb 17, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Take out a pencil and a piece of paper. A short quiz will do more than just my words to increase your respect for Tom Burns of Galena, Illinois.

Draw a line across the paper. Divide it into three sections. Those are the three blocks that run in front of your house. First, from memory now, put in the location of all the telephone poles and the road signs. Good. Now draw in your house, and then all the houses along the three blocks. Still good? Then put in the locations of trees, shrubs and hedges, and identify their species. Fill in some details about the houses, their siding, number of windows, the size of garages. Identify each by the names of the owners. Finally, put an X on the highest spot of land on the three blocks, and an O on the lowest.

Go outside and correct your quiz. Are you feeling good because you only missed two oaks, a gate and one hedge? Sorry, you flunked. You just washed out of steamboat pilot training.

Tom Burns was a 19th century steamboat pilot on the Upper Mississippi. He was better than most. His crew claimed he knew every treetop along the river. But any steamboat pilot before the coming of charts, buoys, lights, radar, short wave, and locks and dams to guide our modern towboats had to know all 729 miles of river from St. Louis to St. Paul better than you know the three blocks on your piece of paper. Besides, your street is straight, with dependable right and left lanes. And you only drew the surface of your street. Pilots had to know the river beneath the surface, too, following an unmarked channel that crossed back and forth from one shore to the other. And unlike your street, the Mississippi is moving, its channel changing constantly, forming new islands, raising or lowering its surface, altering texture and color from day to night and season to season.

I realize you can probably do things Tom Burns couldn't do—perhaps hum one tune and whistle another at the same time, but until you are prepared to act less like a tourist coasting through life and pay more attention to the world around you, I wouldn’t turn left instead of right some day on the way home, just to see what’s there.

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