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Been thinking about…
The history of now.
Last fall I got to go aboard the permanently docked Mississippi IV, a part of the Jesse Brent Lower Mississippi River Museum in Vicksburg. The museum is free and it took several hours to wander through the whole thing, particularly the boat — a magnificently giant paean to post-WWII American industrialism.
The boat was launched in 1961 and retired in 1993. My short time aboard was unsettling, satisfying, warm and eerie, but not necessarily in that order. Here I was, looking at a museum ship. History. All in the modern-day of 2018.
And yet it wasn’t history I was looking at. It was a chunk of my own past.
My own past I hadn’t quite realized had… well… passed.
The overstuffed and shiny beige vinyl couches in the ship’s “lobby” where countless river commission meetings had been held? The furniture I grew up sitting on (and occasionally dismantling to play airplane) was likely made of the same stuff and possibly in the same year!
The shape and feel of the room? Something akin to Star Trek: The Next Generation sets except the windows looked out over historic Vicksburg instead of fictional Vulcan.
Downstairs in the cavernous engine room rested the “two 8-cylinder Nordberg engines, each capable of developing 1,860 horsepower.” The Mississippi IV was called “Big Shaky” for its engine vibrations that could never quite be resolved. The place smelled like oil and looked like Scotty should walk out from behind a bulkhead, muttering, “I’m givin’ her all ah’ got, Captain.”
Can you tell Star Trek featured prominently in my late childhood?
The expansive mess hall featured a bountiful array of tasty-looking display food. Here it was canned corn and fried chicken and apple pie and icebox rolls. This felt like home. Weirdly. Strangely. Again.
Had they checked with my mom on the recipes?
This was a boat built in the Midwest by Midwesterners. For river travel. These were my rivers. My people. I grew up in a small Illinois river town, watching towboats ply the river, barges loaded with grain and coal bound for Chicago and St. Louis and New Orleans.
And, though I never became an engineer like my father, I grew up understanding that some sort of industrial magic took place to give us the life we had. The industrial magic of our deep freeze — upon which I water-painted our names and whose manufacturing date was about the same as this boat! The industrial magic of Caterpillar tractors and great interstate highways and basements with sump pumps and old-fashioned wringer-washing machines where I helped my mom do the laundry and played Winnie-the-Pooh and StarWars.
Never thinking it would all end someday.
And yet there was always the long lappings of our great rivers — the Mississippi, the Missouri and the Illinois — upon whose faces the summer thunderstorms came down and upon which the winter ice piled up in huge, angular chunks. Those waters cradled this ship. And me, in my memories.
Time goes faster than you think. This history of now.