The Sentinels

Jul 2, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Walk down to the river's edge anywhere near Rock Island and you’ll see them. Lone men and women standing or sitting along the shore facing the water.

From late April until mid-November, they line the Moline waterfront along Ben Butterworth Parkway or the wooded banks of Sylvan Slough. They congregate under the bridges and along rocky levees, never closer to each other than fifty feet or so.

Nearly all of them are fishing or pretending to. Each of them guards one or two fishing poled propped on rocks, the lines at the end curving out to tiny bobbers riding the waves, and then disappearing into whatever world is there beneath the surface of the Mississippi.

They sit as still as actors and actresses who have taken their positions on the stage and are waiting for the curtain to be drawn and the lights to come up. Their attire is proper attire for their calling: neither the suits and dresses of the work world nor the touristy safari clothes from the Banana Republic and Eddie Bauer, but scuffed shoes, overalls, blue work shirts, and worn hats.

And a calling it is, too. Our Rock Island fishermen and women are members of a fraternity of sentinels and seers who stand watch along all the world's shores. The poet Robert Frost saw them standing by the Atlantic Ocean in New England, backs to the land, and he wrote of them:

They cannot look out far,

They cannot look in deep,

But when was that ever a bar

To any watch they keep?

While the rest of us diaper our children, shop for groceries, wait for weekends, and buy new cars, these sentinels of the Mississippi follow their fishing lines down to where all the world's sacred waters are one, are connected, Ganges and Mississippi.

For this reason, in your stroll along the river, do not go up to our watchers and ask how the fish are biting. You would be interrupting church.

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