Book gives firsthand accounts of riverboat pilots

Scenes like these from waterways around the nation appear in the book ‘Life Between the Levees.’

Some of the world’s great novels are based on river yarns — think “Huckleberry Finn,” “Heart of Darkness,” “The African Queen.”

Well, a magnificent new book lets river men tell their own stories: “Life Between the Levees: America’s Riverboat Pilots,” by Melody Golding of Vicksburg, published by University Press of Mississippi.

The massive, 323-page, full-color coffeetable book contains numerous photos amid over 100 first-person accounts by riverboat pilots and captains, many now deceased. You can almost picture sitting out on the boat while the pilot reminisces.

Golding has plenty of experience herself.

“My husband, Steve, has been in the riverboat and barge business for more than 45 years, and our second date was a trip down the Mississippi River in May of 1979 from Vicksburg to Natchez,” she writes in the introduction.

“Steve has been a licensed pilot and gone from the company Ole Man River Towing to present-day Golding Barge Line, our family-owned business. Now our sons, Austin and John Reid, are businessmen following in their father’s footsteps.”

Golding took her personal knowledge and expanded it for the book. Her subjects’ territory includes the Intracoastal Waterway from Florida to Texas, and the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers and their tributaries.

“I traveled thousands of miles to interview my pilots and went all over the Inland Waterways System to many towns and ports in my quest, climbing aboard vessels, and carrying my backpack, cameras, recording gear, and lifejacket,” she writes.

The oldest pilot interviewed was born in 1915, the youngest in 1987.

“My name is Odis Lowery, and I’m 84 years old,” says one. “I was raised on a shanty boat on the river under the Vicksburg I-20 bridge. ... My dad was a logger.  He caught drift logs on the river, and he commercial fished. He was a boat pilot also.”

Lowery was old enough to recall having to shovel the coal that powered a steamboat.

“Back when I first started out, there was a lot more life on the river bank than what there is now. Much more. There were a lot of shanty boats, and there were a lot of shootings. There were a lot of killings on that river too. Those river rats didn’t get along with one another, and I tell you what, there were a lot of fights.”

Then there was Louis E. “Jackie” Neal, born in 1930.

“I was a bad drunk in Wine Haven, my hometown of Greenville,” he confesses right off the bat.

“I didn’t quit drinking whiskey until they put me in Winehead U they called it in Jackson, Mississippi, on State Street at Baptist. I was captain on the Valda. I’d catch that boat with a laughing half in each boot and one behind my belt. I’d taper down. I was tough. I could handle it then. I know some more captains the same way. But they said, ‘We need to get old Jackie sober,’ and Jackie needed to get sober because I was getting sick and crazy. They put me in for 61 days. I came out 34 years ago, and I’ve never had another drink.”

His advice to aspiring river men: “Learn how to do without your lady.”

Katherine A. Chaplin, born in 1969, is a lady who could hold her own on the river. Her brother got her a deckhand job as a teen, and she worked her way up to captain.

She recalls being in the galley when a new employee came in and asked her for coffee. He was shocked to learn she was the captain.

“The advice that I have for other women that want to make a career out on the river is you have to have a strong will and a strong mind,” Chaplin says. “Don’t let someone tell you that you can’t do something. I’ll prove anybody wrong.”

Jeffrey Orr, born in 1979, almost had his career cut short at age 18 when a fellow deckhand fell off the boat.

“Before we could get him, he went under four barges and had drowned,” Orr says.

Orr was so shook up that he quit and took a shore job. It didn’t last.

“There’s no way to adjust back to working on land,” he says. “I tried.”

So he went back on the river, planning to make it temporary. After three years, he decided to stay. And after seeing the pilot comfortable in the wheelhouse while he labored on a barge in the snow, he decided to become a pilot.

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