here's a cool and distant vision that comes up with the rain pouring down through the years between where I sit and where I sat. A thousand fractured memories each sweet and savory like some kind of French desert tray. Images coming up like the illegible name of a long gone riverboat captain etched in glass above the door to the decaying mansion set deep on the dark bluff above the ghosts of an ancient Mississippi River. Passing the house in the midnight hours when the rest of the town's population totaling 200 slept and nothing was open but Casey's General Store which was closing in an hour from which we smoked recently purchased cigarettes. The dark mansion loomed like an old uncle, terrifying in age and mystery. That quality gleaned from intense wisdom attained only through past folly. And not even knee level, the young nephew watches precariously, unsure of what it is they wonder at. The crew of the steam-driven stern-wheeler Julia Belle Swain, of which I was a member, was there for a nightly moment to take a bit of rest and take on diesel and water. Then we passed on with the morning light, on down the River. "Heading down into the mystery below," as John Hartford once sang. John was with us on that trip. A Grammy winning artist who wore second-hand vests without a tie, a bowler hat, and a shag dog look of friendly forethought. His last claim to fame was as the promotional force as well as performing on the "O Brother, Where Art Thou" sound track. He was a multi-millionaire who rolled out his sleeping bag on the hard steel decks of the boat with the rest of us 'cause he had the self-same love we did for that Boat. We were headed towards winter harbor for the Julia Belle Swain after the end of the season in late October 1988. And although the times may have been simpler, it sets to make something deep in me ring like a fiddle. John took his persona from those kindly gentle but infinitely dangerous waters. Besides his music, I remember him only in brief edits of full Summers and years. Dripping ice water down his shirt to cool himself in the deep Summer heat. Rifling through the kitchen looking for crackers and cheese. An odd duck, as I recall, and an ever-interesting bird.
I remember the first time we met. It wasn't on the River, but at a folk festival. I must have been no more than 12-years-old at the time. My father, Art Thieme, also performing at the festival, was a friend of the promoter. Well there was this stack of posters this friend had with every performer's signature on it but John's. Now John was none too happy when reality conflicted with expectations, and a few coarse discrepancies between the two men did not bode well for an autograph session of some twenty odd posters. I don't know where I got the gumption, but I piped in and said, "I'll do it. I'll get him to sign them." The incredulous face of my Dad's friend is there in memory yet. Then it was replaced by a quick "what the hell," and he handed me the stack. I walked over to John who was sitting out behind the main house. Stepping around the corner, I saw John on a low ledge tuning his banjo. He was near enough the corner that I was able to hide the stack from view while still keeping them in close proximity. I took just one of the posters and said, "Mr. Hartford, would mind signing this?" "Why sure," he replied pulling out his ever ready felt tipped marker. Soon as he finished with a flourish, I pulled the rest of the stack into view. "And these too," I said deadpan and straight. Well, John had a second's pause as the situation became clear to him. Nevertheless, he dutifully took the stack and began signing away. Without a look up, without missing a beat of the repetitive composition, he said, "You're Art's son, aren't you?" "Yes," I replied. "Wellp," he said, "it figures." After he completed his task, I quickly thanked him and proudly returned with my victory to my father and his friend. Years later when John and I met again on the Julia Belle, we never talked of that. I forgot about it myself until later years, as I'm sure he did as well. Even to me it's a copy of a copy of a memory. I'll think on it a dozen times more if that, then I too will close my eyes and remember to forget.
I remember watching the blue glow of a newly set sun bathing the Julia Belle Swain in a magical light as she lay nestled and tied to the island for the night. This stern wheel steamer, three stepped decks high with the pilot house set atop behind the two great black smoke stacks topped with bulbs of iron feathers. She watched us with that same damn intensity of age. I remember as two fellow crew and I slipped beneath her shadow in the canoe we set out floating into the water which was quickly turning to glass in the stillness of the evening. When her boiler brewed and her whistle blew and her engines cranked and clanged, she was so much less intimidating. You could tell her next actions and suppose her destination. But when she sat still and quiet, when she rested after the day's labor, this was when she exuded the most mystery. So too it is with John, now that he's gone. Now that he and his dear wife Marie lay deep beneath the green earth while the Cumberland River breeze comes to hint at a presence but never fully disclosing a validation. My memory seems like that dilapidated old mansion high on the bluff of some forgotten Mississippi River town. Ghosts flit behind dusty glass as the house settles. Termites feed on the foundation. It might on some chance be wondered at by some youngin' smoking a cigarette, passing by on some occasional midnight. But it will not be known. And it will be forgotten.
John's passing sealed off a door to a generation I knew only by hindsight. Captain Dennis Trone always at the helm. He was the wildest of the wise. He had a military sense from his days at Annapolis that he somehow merged with the uncomplicated audacity that building a steamboat might be fun. He came from Petersburg, Illinois where young Abe Lincoln first loved and lost and where the poet Edgar Lee Masters slipped a line or two in under the noses of those who don't ever seem to see the literary value of the Mid-West. After springing from the same sod that was populated by the Spoon River Anthology, he built himself two boats, the Twilight and the Julia Belle Swain, and a little world separated by two sides of water. And he let you visit now and then if you didn't mind a bit of work. Denny was tall and lanky, with a temper quick and hot enough to blow itself out by the time the day was done. I learned too much from the man to take up a novel let alone a paragraph. I caught Denny, John, the Julia Belle and the River at the end of an era that sailed on its laurels past the glory of The Vagabond River Days of the 1970's when currents carried a boat full of young and hopefuls into adventures beyond their wildest dreams. Those days when they'd pick a town on the river charts, set the steam calliope (that's "kaleeope" on the River) playing loud and strong to encourage the good towns folk to fork over a dollar or two to see their home in a different light. A light that some like myself couldn't just take one look at. I remember the sheer wonder as I first saw the small Illinois River town where my family and I lived through the pilothouse glass. I was just sixteen at the time, but I knew I had to come back. Set high in the pilothouse, the vantage somehow was able to take something so mundane as that small town and turn it into a Grant Wood landscape. I had to become a part of this world. There was so much dwelling deep beneath each of us that stepped onto the Julia Belle. And when we stepped off, a good solid chunk of us stayed behind.
there are stories I could tell, of the human nature that shows itself when you
live in such close proximity. Some are good for a laugh, some would make you
recoil and doubt your wonder. Stories about the greater and lesser deeds of
all of us, myself included. But they aren't the type of stories one shares lightly.
There are certain stories that are all right to tell among family at the dinner
table, but it isn't proper to go telling strangers. Some stories might just
die with me, and there's plenty to tell besides them. If on the off chance I
amount to anything anyone would ever want to find a piece of after my passing,
look there for me standing out on the open front of third deck, staring up into
the stars. And you might hear the faint echo of music, beautiful, sonorous,
sad, and yet you'll never be able to place the song. That's where you'll find
me, at least the case beyond the carcass. I too will have passed into a place
I can feel only in the darkest midnight after all my world has gone to sleep.
But I won't be alone. Already there's company I knew just so briefly. Denny's
brother, Moon Trone was also quite a character. An accomplished lawyer, he was
rarely seen in anything but his traditional mechanics overhauls that he wore
no matter what the occasion. He passed some years ago now, and I have it on
good solid word that the ghost of a stout
and tall man in a gray mechanic's jump suit has been seen treading the decks.
Those that see him often never knew the history behind the now missing "T"
still silhouetted in the filigree that binds the tops of the two tall stacks
together. Do to hard-times in no small part stemming from the introduction of
Riverboat gambling, Julia has passed out of Captain Trone's hands as he refused
to welcome slot machines on board. Still, he owns the Twilight and carries on
into coming seasons. The Twilight, although a younger boat by a decade, carries
her own set of stories and youthful dreams. And though Julia has passed into
other hands, she's got a crew that loves her dearly and watches out for her
with the tenderness of well-raised children. Sometimes in the darkest midnight
I can hear her multi-toned steam hissing whistle pulled long and feel her turn
against her own wake as we pull into port. I'm out on the starboard side, watching
the first stars break the haze of twilight. A shooting star cuts across to answer
my most recent question. We're coming home, but we never arrive. That's the
place of awful memory. A place where the loss of an age exudes mystery. A place
where silence replaces sound, static replaces kinetic, and all replaces I. Lost
in the memory of images, we are too often awed not by the presence but by the
shell, which, if held just right against the ear, can issue its memory of the
Images taken during a trip aboard the Twilight in the Summer of 2001.
John Hartford Web Site
River Cruises/Twilight Web Site
Julia Belle Swain Web Site
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