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Mark Twain, A Biography Vol I, Part 1: 1835 - 1866|
XXIII. The Supreme Science
by Paine, Albert Bigelow
|In his Mississippi book Mark Twain has given us a marvelous exposition of
the science of river-piloting, and of the colossal task of acquiring and
keeping a knowledge requisite for that work. He has not exaggerated this
part of the story of developments in any detail; he has set down a simple
Serenely enough he undertook the task of learning twelve hundred miles of
the great changing, shifting river as exactly and as surely by daylight
or darkness as one knows the way to his own features. As already
suggested, he had at least an inkling of what that undertaking meant.
His statement that he "supposed all that a pilot had to do was to keep
his boat in the river" is not to be accepted literally. Still he could
hardly have realized the full majesty of his task; nobody could do that--
not until afterward.
Horace Bixby was a "lightning" pilot with a method of instruction as
direct and forcible as it was effective. He was a small man, hot and
quick-firing, though kindly, too, and gentle when he had blown off.
After one rather pyrotechnic misunderstanding as to the manner of
imparting and acquiring information he said:
"My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, and every time I tell you
a thing put it down right away. There's only one way to be a pilot, and
that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like
A B C."
So Sam Clemens got the little book, and presently it "fairly bristled"
with the names of towns, points, bars, islands, bends, and reaches, but
it made his heart ache to think that he had only half of the river set
down; for, as the "watches" were four hours off and four hours on, there
were long gaps during which he had slept.
The little note-book still exists--thin and faded, with black water-proof
covers--its neat, tiny, penciled notes still, telling, the story of that
first trip. Most of them are cryptographic abbreviations, not readily
deciphered now. Here and there is an easier line:
1/4 less 3--[Depth of water. One-quarter less than three
fathoms.]----run shape of upper bar and go into the low place in
willows about 200(ft.) lower down than last year.
One simple little note out of hundreds far more complicated. It would
take days for the average mind to remember even a single page of such
statistics. And those long four-hour gaps where he had been asleep, they
are still there, and somehow, after more than fifty years, the old heart-
ache is still in them. He got a new book, maybe, for the next trip, and
laid this one away.
There is but one way to account for the fact that the man whom the world
knew as Mark Twain--dreamy, unpractical, and indifferent to details--ever
persisted in acquiring knowledge like that--in the vast, the absolutely
limitless quantity necessary to Mississippi piloting. It lies in the
fact that he loved the river in its every mood and aspect and detail, and
not only the river, but a steam boat; and still more, perhaps, the
freedom of the pilot's life and its prestige. Wherever he has written of
the river--and in one way or another he was always writing of it we feel
the claim of the old captivity and that it still holds him. In the
Huckleberry Finn book, during those nights and days with Huck and Nigger
Jim on the raft--whether in stormlit blackness, still noontide, or the
lifting mists of morning--we can fairly "smell" the river, as Huck
himself would say, and we know that it is because the writer loved it
with his heart of hearts and literally drank in its environment and
atmosphere during those halcyon pilot days.
So, in his love lay the secret of his marvelous learning, and it is
recorded (not by himself, but by his teacher) that he was an apt pupil.
Horace Bixby has more than once declared:
"Sam was always good-natured, and he had a natural taste for the river.
He had a fine memory and never forgot anything I told him."
Mark Twain himself records a different opinion of his memory, with the
size of its appalling task. It can only be presented in his own words.
In the pages quoted he had mastered somewhat of the problem, and had
begun to take on airs. His chief was a constant menace at such moments:
One day he turned on me suddenly with this settler:
"What is the shape of Walnut Bend?"
He might as well have asked me my grandmother's opinion of
protoplasm. I reflected respectfully, and then said I didn't know
it had any particular shape. My gun-powdery chief went off with a
bang, of course, and then went on loading and firing until he was
out of adjectives.... I waited. By and by he said:
"My boy, you've got to know the shape of the river perfectly. It is
all there is left to steer by on a very dark night. Everything is
blotted out and gone. But mind you, it hasn't the same shape in the
night that it has in the daytime."
"How on earth am I ever going to learn it, then?"
"How do you follow a hall at home in the dark? Because you know the
shape of it. You can't see it."
"Do you mean to say that I've got to know all the million trifling
variations of shape in the banks of this interminable river as well
as I know the shape of the front hall at home?"
"On my honor, you've got to know them better than any man ever did
know the shapes of the halls in his own house."
"I wish I was dead!"
"Now, I don't want to discourage you, but----"
"Well, pile it on me; I might as well have it now as another time."
"You see, this has got to be learned; there isn't any getting around
it. A clear starlight night throws such heavy shadows that, if you
didn't know the shape of a shore perfectly, you would claw away from
every bunch of timber, because you would take the black shadow of it
for a solid cape; and, you see, you would be getting scared to death
every fifteen minutes by the watch. You would be fifty yards from
shore all the time when you ought to be within fifty feet of it.
You can't see a snag in one of those shadows, but you know exactly
where it is, and the shape of the river tells you when you are
coming to it. Then there's your pitch-dark night; the river is a
very different shape on a pitch-dark night from what it is on a
starlight night. All shores seem to be straight lines, then, and
mighty dim ones, too; and you'd run them for straight lines, only
you know better. You boldly drive your boat right into what seems
to be a solid, straight wall (you know very well that in reality
there is a curve there), and that wall falls back and makes way for
you. Then there's your gray mist. You take a night when there's
one of these grisly, drizzly, gray mists, and then there isn't any
particular shape to a shore. A gray mist would tangle the head of
the oldest man that ever lived. Well, then, different kinds of
moonlight change the shape of the river in different ways.
"Oh, don't say any more, please! Have I got to learn the shape of
the river according to all these five hundred thousand different
ways? If I tried to carry all that cargo in my head it would make
"No! you only learn the shape of the river; and you learn it with
such absolute certainty that you can always steer by the shape
that's in your head, and never mind the one that's before your
"Very well, I'll try it; but, after I have learned it, can I depend
on it? Will it keep the same form, and not go fooling around?"
Before Mr. Bixby could answer, Mr. W. came in to take the watch, and
"Bixby, you'll have to look out for President's island, and all that
country clear away up above the Old Hen and Chickens. The banks are
caving and the shape of the shores changing like everything. Why,
you wouldn't know the point about 40. You can go up inside the old
sycamore snag now."
So that question was answered. Here were leagues of shore changing
shape. My spirits were down in the mud again. Two things seemed
pretty apparent to me. One was that in order to be a pilot a man
had got to learn more than any one man ought to be allowed to know;
and the other was that he must learn it all over again in a
different way every twenty-four hours.
I went to work now to learn the shape of the river; and of all the
eluding and ungraspable objects that ever I tried to get mind or
hands on, that was the chief. I would fasten my eyes upon a sharp,
wooded point that projected far into the river some miles ahead of
me and go to laboriously photographing its shape upon my brain; and
just as I was beginning to succeed to my satisfaction we would draw
up to it, and the exasperating thing would begin to melt away and
fold back into the bank!
It was plain that I had got to learn the shape of the river in all
the different ways that could be thought of--upside down, wrong end
first, inside out, fore-and-aft, and "thort-ships,"--and then know
what to do on gray nights when it hadn't any shape at all. So I set
about it. In the course of time I began to get the best of this
knotty lesson, and my self-complacency moved to the front once more.
Mr. Bixby was all fixed and ready to start it to the rear again. He
opened on me after this fashion:
"How much water did we have in the middle crossing at Hole-in-The-
Wall, trip before last?"
I considered this an outrage. I said:
"Every trip down and up the leadsmen are singing through that
tangled place for three-quarters of an hour on a stretch. How do
you reckon I can remember such a mess as that?"
"My boy, you've got to remember it. You've got to remember the
exact spot and the exact marks the boat lay in when we had the
shoalest water, in every one of the five hundred shoal places
between St. Louis and New Orleans; and you mustn't get the shoal
soundings and marks of one trip mixed up with the shoal soundings
and marks of another, either, for they're not often twice alike.
You must keep them separate."
When I came to myself again, I said:
"When I get so that I can do that, I'll be able to raise the dead,
and then I won't have to pilot a steamboat to make a living. I want
to retire from this business. I want a slush-bucket and a brush;
I'm only fit for a roustabout. I haven't got brains enough to be a
pilot; and if I had I wouldn't have strength enough to carry them
around, unless I went on crutches."
"Now drop that! When I say I'll learn a man the river I mean it.
And you can depend on it, I'll learn him or kill him."
We have quoted at length from this chapter because it seems of very
positive importance here. It is one of the most luminous in the book so
far as the mastery of the science of piloting is concerned, and shows
better than could any other combination of words something of what is
required of the learner. It does not cover the whole problem, by any
means--Mark Twain himself could not present that; and even considering
his old-time love of the river and the pilot's trade, it is still
incredible that a man of his temperament could have persisted, as he did,
against such obstacles.