Life on the Mississippi
John Lyon holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of Pittsburgh. He has many publications, including Episodes in American History, Ginn and Co.; and From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again. (Translation, Etienne Gilson’s D’Aristote A Darwin et Retour), University of Notre Dame Press.
Yes, The Father of Waters flows yet unvexed to the Sea. “Unvexed,” in the sense Lincoln intended in his response to news from Grant of the fall of Vicksburg in 1863. In another and more general sense, however, the Mississippi is quite vexed, by a series of dams, locks, and other water control devices designed to prevent its more rapid erosion of the Midwest and its transference to the Gulf of Mexico.
Immense barges, unimaginable even in Twain’s age of steam, proceed with and against the current of the River (4 mph downstream) with their cargoes hatched in dual- or triple-width units extending as much as six rows deep. As one watches them from the shore, they appear like vast, semi-articulated schools of harnessed “Nessies,” shoved ponderously along the well-dredged and carefully marked channel.
Near us, the high bridge over the main channel, all steel frame and roadbed, built in 1917, has, we are told, been hit 22 times by such harnessed, fluvial monsters. Those who tell, however, do not specify if the collisions have been with the bridge abutments themselves, or with the poetically named “dolphins” — immense concrete pillars set directly upstream of the bridge’s immediate supports to prevent most direct disasters.
From the Iowa bluffs to the Wisconsin shore, the length of the bridge, its auxiliary bridges, and intermediate causeway, is 2.8 miles, by our auto’s odometer. The River is wide.
It is not, however, deep. The main channel, I am led to believe, is maintained at a minimum depth of seven feet, not quite the “mark twain” safety measure from which the author took his name. The constant dredging required for this minimal depth, however, plus the clearing of sand naturally deposited against the upstream side of the dams and locks, results in immense riverside deposits of sand, pumped there by hydraulic machinery, as well as the creation of islands of sand and “rip-rap” in the currents designed to maintain the channel and prevent predictable erosion.
Enough sand is moved along the River to readily fill the vast manmade hole in the earth created by the Hull-Rust-Mahoning open-pit mine in Northern Minnesota. Why not move it there? It could be transferred via barge, railroad car, and hydraulic pipeline, and would create an immense national sandbox, which could be dedicated to the children of immigrants separated from their parents by the machinations of that recent monster of executive iniquity. Surely ways would be found to fund such a sandbox in the next quadrillion-dollar executive-initiated diarrhetic flow of something resembling money. It could be sold to the taxed payers as a means of “restitution” for those inappropriately dispossessed of their rights to this side of the Rio Grande, and would provide an enticing item in the sales pitch of “Coyotes.”
Twain might reflect on our present widespread social and political self-abuse by means of expressed contrition for previous false consciousness, as only facetiously expressed above. And, from his ample ruminations on the eternal and near-infinite attempts of government to right all perceived wrongs of mankind against the universe, he would likely conclude once more that, “Yes. Just as I often noted. The key to successful government is to elect a legislature. And then see that it never meets.”
Despite bridges, megalosaurian barges, and dredging on the River, life today on the banks of the Mississippi might not dislocate Twain’s sensorium much, except that he would note that virtually no one walks, except out of necessity. But standing, sitting, or walking, they often hold flat, little rectangular boxes in their hands. These boxes often erupt with instructions from their Maker. He would of course note that people talk to these little boxes and that, in what might seem a schizophrenic’s dream, the boxes sometimes reply. After much observation of the operation of these boxes and the sometimes angry but generally euphemistic state they induce in their holders, Twain might well conclude that the euphoria they induce seems primarily to consist in transferring the here-and-now to the there-and-then. Thus, despite Newton, all the world consists in action at a distance.
Despite the concerted attempts of our electronic ephors to degrade our home places to as disgusting and unlivable places as the worst of our places, it is actually possible to enjoy living in our little River towns that Twain would have known.
Not long ago your correspondent was in a grocery store and meat market in a small town on the River when a small horde of children modestly invaded to do family shopping for their mother. When they corporately decided that their errand was successfully completed, they approached the cashier, who calmly asked to see their mother’s shopping list, compared the items therein with those in the grocery cart, and signified her approval. The eldest of the children then presented a signed, blank check to the cashier, who filled in the appropriate amount, and gave a cashier’s receipt to her. They departed in unselfconscious achievement.
Some people seem to live that way on the River. It still flows to the Sea. *