Feel free to read, to laugh with me, to cry when appropriate, and to, as Lil’ Abner (whom I quote often) says “angrify” if it fits.
Men for My Rivers – Part One
By Homer Hirt
“There was but one abiding ambition, and that was to leave home, and return…… as a river pilot” (Mark Twain)
Several years ago I went out to the Mount Pleasant cemetery near Chattahoochee for a graveside service. I stood about fifty feet back from the crowd, close enough to hear but far enough away to observe.
I felt something under my feet, and I looked down. Half-hidden by the centipede grass runners was a narrow marker with a name and a death date, and nothing more. I carefully scrubbed the grass back with the toe of my boot.
Here was the final resting place for Sam Cameron, although I am not certain that his spirit will ever rest while the Apalachicola, Flint and Chattahoochee Rivers continue their run to the sea.
I knew Sam, but he was old when I made his acquaintance. A lot of the stories of his deeds were the stuff of legends. They were told at the coffee tables in Chattahoochee and Apalachicola and Columbus and points in between. They were probably better told at the beer joints that opened at dusk to welcome men who followed the winding streams of the Tri-Rivers system, dredging rock and sand or moving cargo in barges.
There were two kinds of skilled leaders on early river boats and, indeed, even today. The first was the captain, who was in charge of everything, including the business end, and often had a share in the success of each trip. The other was the pilot, a man hired for his skill at the wheel and for his knowledge of the waters, the rocks, the shoals and the currents of whichever body of water his boat traversed.
Sam Cameron was always a pilot. He was hired to get a boat from one landing or port to another. He grew up on the Tri Rivers system, learning from older men the vagaries of each stream. He seemed to be born to be a pilot.
Sam would usually come aboard drunk and sleep until time came for him to take the wheel and move the boat from one side of the channel to the other at the right time. One night the junior pilot swept too close to some riverside trees. Among the bales and barrels on the deck were stacks of bee hives. A limb knocked the hives awry and the crew and passengers were thrown into a tizzy. Sam came on deck, naked, stuffed the bees back into their hives and secured them. No one knew how many times he was stung, but I am certain that the story got better with each telling.
On another trip Sam was aboard and sleeping as the boat dropped down the Flint from Bainbridge. Somewhere a few miles from the Georgia-Florida line he stepped out on deck, naked as usual, to relieve himself, slipped and fell over the side. He stroked to the east bank, pulled himself from the icy winter waters, and began walking downstream. He approached several houses, seeking succor, but no one would let him in. He finally filched a blanket from a clothes line, stood by the road until shortly after dawn. A school bus stopped and gave him a ride into Chattahoochee.
My favorite Sam Cameron tale was probably cut from the whole cloth, but it illustrates how a legend grows; how a story gets better with each telling. Sam had signed on as a regular pilot, with Florida Gravel Company at Chattahoochee. One night he came aboard and turned in to his bunk to sleep off the results of whatever kind of rotgut he had imbibed. The junior pilot got underway and, in the dark, moonless night, ran aground.
He sent down for Sam. Sam looked at the messenger, demanded a bucket of river water. The man complied, thinking that Sam wanted to wash his face. He put the bucket by the bunk, and Sam reached over, ran his hand back and forth in the liquid and said: “You are stuck on the bar on the left side descending just above Ocheesee Reach. Throw your rudder hard over to the left and back down”. The messenger went back to the pilot house, and the order slid the boat and its barge back into the dark channel.
The story quickly made the rounds of the bars and boats of the rivers. Then the captain of the boat decided to pull one on Sam. They got underway, as usual, and Sam, as usual, tumbled into his bunk. After an hour the pilot eased into the bank, sent a bucket of water that he had drawn from the public horse trough in Sneads, one of the river towns. Sam swished his hand back and forth a couple of times, sat bolt upright and cried out: “Good Gawdalmighty, we have done had another Noah flood. We are stuck over the horse trough in Sneads!”
I don’t know how Sam Cameron, the ultimate river pilot, spent his last days. He had no family, few close friends, and I suspect that he finally went down the gangplank one night and checked into a rooming house and died in his sleep. He was probably buried with money dropped in hats passed in the bars and cafes of his Tri Rivers.
I do know this: Sam died, but I hope that his deeds and his legend lives on while there are those of us who wish to tell them.