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Mississippi Odyssey

We talk about river cooks aboard the Harriet M while working the river near Greenville, Mississippi:

And late one night Herbie came into the pilothouse with a box. Inside were plates and two fresh pineapple pies, Buddy's favorite desert.

"What's this for?" asked Buddy.

"Emma says this brings her up to date for last Thursday's game of rummy," Herbie said and passed out big slices of the cream-topped desert to Buddy, Walter, Willie and me.

"That Emma is one heck of a cook," Buddy praised, opening the door to one of the favorite rooms of stern line talk for rivermen: river cooks.

"Sure is," Walter agreed. "But she'll be getting off soon, and who knows what we'll get then."

"I sure hope we don't get one like that old gal that made nothin' but beans. . . . I never knew there was so many kinds of bean till that gal laid 'em out there. Five bowls of bean at breakfast, then six or seven at dinner and supper. I was sure glad to see her go."

"At least beans are good for you," Walter said. "Got protein in 'em. Take them over strawberries any day."

"Gee whiz, Walter, don't even say the word strawberry." Willie slapped his knee and laughed. "Just hearin' that word makes me break out all over again. That gal put strawberries in everythin'. Got rid of that gal fast. In Memphis, wasn't it, Buddy?"

"St. Louis," Buddy said. "I was calling in an order when she told me to get another case of strawberries. Fired her right there, helped her pack, even. Ate cold sandwiches for ten days and loved every one of 'em."

"That bald cook we had used to drive me nuts," Walter said. "I had to give her an extra closet just for all those wigs she had. I wouldn't have cared so much, but they was the real cheap kind and kept slippin' around on her head. Like to drive me crazy watchin' her cook and push her hair around. Fell over her eyes one time, and when she tried to move it, she got a fork stuck right in it and pulled it clean off."

Herbie handed out seconds and went on. "We had some real doozies all right. Remember that gal used to lick her lips all the time she was cookin',? It used to bother me a little, so I stopped goin' to the kitchen when she was there. But then I stopped eatin' any cooked food when we found out she had gotten out of some nuthouse for tryin' to poison her husband."

Willie spoke up. "I'll never forget that one. She almost caused me to give up drinkin'. I"d just come on the boat and I'd had a few before I reported. Well, she musta come on while I was sleepin'--"

Willie stopped talking then. Buddy had set aside his plate, sat up straight in the pilot's chair, and gripped the controls firmly. We were coming to the bridge just below Greenville, Mississippi, considered a danger to tows. It was this bridge that, on a cold night in March, 1948, had claimed the modern towboat Natchez and her 26-man crew. When divers were finally able to search for the boat and the thirteen men left on board, they were unable to find any trace of her.

Willie stopped his stern-line talk when Buddy began lining up with this killer bridge.

We made an easy pass between the piers, and every man breathed easier. They all knew why they had kept silent during the passing. buddy knew too, but no one even mentioned it. And Willie was eager to get on with his story.

"Well, sir, I went to the kitchen next mornin' and I was feelin' a bit cottonmouthed. I wasn't in condition for any shocks, that's for sure, but there she was . . . her chest big as milk jugs, wearin' one of them mini skirts and those red leather boots that went clear up to her kneecaps, and lickin' her lips at ninety miles an hour. I went to the hallway and thought about what I'd seen, then gave some thought, just a moment of thought mind you, to swearin' of the booze for good. But when I went back to the kitchen and saw her still standin' there big as life, I knew I'd need a drink the minute I got my next time off."

It was time for the shift change, and Shelden came into the pilothouse to take the controls. "That Emma is a great cook," he said and patted his stomach, which was juts beginning to tell of towboat cooking.

"She sure is," Herbie said. He got a second wind. "You wasn't on here then, but we had a cook one time . . ." Buddy left the controls and went with me to the kitchen. . . .

Post Your Review of Mississippi Odyssey

Dear Mr. Markham, Great book. I had a nice time reading it. I wanted to to tell you that I think those fish you were talking about your first night on the river were probably dogfish, like bowfin. (I sure wish I had found that pole.) I hope you don't mind but I e-mailed you at your riverhiker address and was hoping you could give some advice on how you did your research. Sincerely, Bob Weber


Wonderful story. I was wishing I could have traveled with you on the river. So I did the next best thing--I followed your adventure with a map... Thanks for the good time. Regards, Harry Clark


It's a great book and I would recommend it to anyone. It was very funny and touching. -Bill


I really enjoyed reading this book. I liked the fact that I was following the author along the Missippi and felt like I was actually there experiencing the events and learning about the river too. The book was funny at times and I found myself chuckling. I enjoyed this book immensely. It is a MUST READ. --dee


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