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They’d Do Anything to Help You Out
By Jack Knox
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“If you’re out there on the river in any kind of boat, or on a raft, every riverman will size you up,” said an old and grizzled river-dog who has spent the better part of his life along the lower Cumberland.

“A fisherman in his homemade rig will take in every detail of a big tow—and how the captain handles it,” he said. “And up in the wheelhouse of the towboat, the captain will give the fisherman the same kind of once-over.

“They don’t have to stare, for they can see it all in a glance or two, and they don’t miss anything that’s important to know. If they’re on this river much, they’ll come to know one another by sight and sound, and the way they do things.

“Let either one get into trouble and the other will go all-out to help. That’s the way with commercial fishermen and rivermen.

“I know of a couple of fishermen who had some kind of falling out a long time ago, over lines, or nets, or something. They may still be feuding for all I know.

“Well, one evening a while back, one of those fellows tangled with a drifting tree that dumped him in the river. The other one came out to his rescue, pulled him out, caught his boat, saved what he could of his gear, took him over to the bank, and let him dry out.

“Then he walloped the daylights out of him, and left him there on the bank. But he couldn’t leave him out there in the river to drown maybe.”

The comradery of rivermen out on the water may not always extend to land.

A couple of weekends ago, the Mate and I took our houseboat, Second Childhood II, down the Cumberland and 12 miles of Ohio River to Paducah.

There, we had to leave the boat and fly back to Nashville. We received word that our youngest son, 1st Lt. Britt Knox (reserve officer) was heading back to the Army, to the 101st, and to jump school at Ft. Benning, Ga.

He was reporting for duty on short notice, and we wanted to see him. The Mate was needed in Nashville to help his wife with their two little children in their move to Ft. Campbell.

So, with my traveling gear, a case of outboard oil and Mateless, I hitched a ride to Paducah with Capt. Latiolais on the towboat “Patsy Chotin.”

“Cap’n Blackie” Latiolais is a Frenchman of slight build, 5-7 or 5-8, I’d guess, who weighs about 135 pounds. He has the look of a man deeply suntanned and his heavy bear shows black even after a fresh shave.

He speaks with a slight, but delightful French accent which loses considerable flavor when run through a typewriter, so I won’t try to quote him. His home is Breau Bridge, La., and his last name is pronounced “latch-o-lay.” (Chotin, also French, is “show-tan.”)

“Cap’n Blackie” knows the Cumberland as well as any native of this river. And along the winding channel he handles the Patsy, pushing 500 feet of empty barges with greater ease than I can handle a 26-foot houseboat.

The barges are 50 feet wide and he slips them into a 52-foot lock without scraping the wall. That’s like driving a triple-length automobile through a garage door with a couple of inches clearance on either side.

The towboat trip from Nashville to Paducah—with five locks to negotiate—requires 24 hours. It was late afternoon when the “Patsy” passed Paducah’s waterfront and a small tug from Walker’s Boat Store took me off and put me ashore.

“Patsy Chotin” crewmen called me “Cap’n Jack” which is an honorary title like “Colonel.” But maybe I took it too seriously, for at 7:30 p.m., after sundown, I headed up the Ohio River for Smithland.

Trying to steer the channel of the Ohio, in pitch dark, against the rising wind, alone in a houseboat powered by a 40-hp outboard, requires considerably more than an honorary title.

Half way up the 12 miles of dark, rough river, the motor began to misfire and lost power, the wind blew Second Childhood II out of the channel, and I lost my bearings, temporarily.

But, luckily, I made Smithland by 10:30 on one cylinder, ate a good supper sacked in and slept until daylight.

But motor trouble continued to dog me.

At Dycusburg, 20 miles up-river from Smithland, I climbed the bank to Howard’s grocery for gas, spark plugs and a word or two of reassurance.

Carlon Howard, the proprietor, left his store and took to his car to find the plugs, which he doesn’t stock. Then he carried 20 gallons of gasoline to the boat—in five-gallon cans. He doesn’t have a big store, but he has a heart bigger than a supermarket.

Dycusburg is built on a hillside and is almost hidden by big trees. It is a friendly and interesting old river town. The landing is marked by a sunken barge at the bank, and an ancient loading pier.

Until 15 years ago, spar was mined a few miles east of the town, and shipped out by barge. Spar is used in steel making.

“Used to be a right lively place,” said an old resident. “We had lots of musicians around here, dancin’ and puttin’ on shows. They’d even pack up and take music and shows to other places from here…”

One of the last steamboats on the Cumberland, the “Grace Dever,” made daily round trips from Dycusburg to Paducah.

There is a framed picture of her in Howard’s Grocery. And her pilot, Newman Decker, 84, lives in retirement high on the hillside. The old riverman came down to the landing for a look at my boat and to look beyond it, at the river.

Some 50 miles and 24 hours later, I was working on the motor again when a smiling fisherman pulled along side to offer help. “I don’t know too much about them big motors,” he said. But in 30 minutes, he had found the trouble and fixed it.

Then, almost before I could say, “thank you,” he zoomed away in his homemade rig, down the river to tend to his nets and lines. He was still smiling!

There is a touch of pride that seems to be characteristic of commercial fishermen.

The fact that they have superior knowledge of the river, of boats, and fish, may have something to do with it. Or perhaps they think they are casually putting something over on us “city dudes,” for while they “work hard,” at fishing, they are having a wonderful time earning a living.

“I’ve worked a spell at other jobs and made more money, but I can’t find anything I’d rather do,” a commercial fisherman once said to me.

He had found money and dignity as a fisherman, and more important, he had found the “freedom” other men always talk about.

With the motor purring, I came 30 miles up river after dark—navigated, precariously, the rough, swirling water below Dam C and locked through after 8 o’clock.

The 170-mile trip from Paducah to Ashland City required two and a half days and two nights. My motor used 145 gallons of gasoline.

The trip was restful in spite of the work and troubles. The river is stimulating, and a man out on it can build a real appetite, so I broiled a thick rib-eye steak over the charcoal bucket on deck—then another one for dessert.

And crewmen aboard the Patsy Chotin know that’s no ordinary captain’s mess—even for an “honorary Cap’n.”

published circa August 1965, Nashville Banner