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the dishes she’d prepared since that morning: I ate while

Sheila told me about the crew.

Almost everyone aboard was relief crew, including her- self, filling in for the regulars who were taking their time off. They were a very quiet bunch, keeping to themselves, she told me. But the regulars she had met when she first came aboard were just as loud as the crew I’d met on the

Theresa Wood, “always laughing and carrying on and teas- ing each other.”

I understood then why my first day on the Thomas E.

Erickson was nothing like my introduction to the Theresa

Wood. It was the difference between a regular group of towboaters and a crew in transition; a group of people who knew what to expect from each other and their jobs and one that has yet to chart it all out.

Sheila was brand new herself, just finishing up her first trip on a towboat. Her husband, a preacher in Tennessee, had become very sick with diabetes. They knew she would need to find a way to be self-supporting as his illness pro- gressed, so she applied for a cook position with Marquette

Transportation, listing her qualifications as cooking for her family and working at a kindergarten. She was terri- fied at first, she said, especially of the Thomas E.

Erickson’s relief captain. “I was scared to death of John when I first came on,”

Sheila said. Captain John Towns looked to her like

Yosemite Sam with his great long beard and gruff appear- ance. Although the boat was a far cry from her kinder- garten, the job wasn’t much different than cooking for her family. And, she said, “John is really a very nice man.”

After a couple days of eating Sheila’s cooking, Towns said- he would have requested her as regular cook if he was a regular captain.

Unlike Sheila, Captain Towns has been on the rivers since 1971. He started when minimum wage was 90 cents an hour and came out on the river for $17.50 a day. Up in the pilothouse, on the last day of my trip, he told me he was born and raised in Southern Illinois and was in the

Army for four years and the National Guard out of

Paducah for another six. He traveled the world with the military and has driven the outer rim of Australia and all through Alaska on bikes (of the Harley Davidson persua-

Relief cook Sheila Prince in the galley of the Thomas E. Erickson.

Relief Captain John Towns in the pilothouse of the

Thomas E. Erickson. 44 MN October 2010

Captain Towns had been told there would be 12 boats waiting to get through the Melvin Price Locks ahead of us and we were in for a 16 hour delay. Each boat would have to break its tow to get through the 600-ft chamber because the 1,200-ft chamber was down.

Twenty-four hours later the Thomas E. Erickson held its position alongside the Issaquena, another Marquette Transportation towboat, at the edge of the river, still waiting to get through the lock.

Now we were told the 600-ft lock was also down.

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