Whenever the lakes and the quiet ponds and the shining rivers call me, like a fool I answer. Around water I have a bad record. In it, or on it, or anywhere near it, I usually get into trouble. When I use a motorboat, I often end up rowing; in rowboats, I lose the oars. My presence in a small boat is sometimes enough to make it sink without cause. When I dive into water, it is frequently less deep than I think and I leave skin on the bottom. As a boy, climbing a tree on a river-bank to examine a hummingbird's nest, I was stung by a wasp and fell 20 feet into the water. As a 13-year-old, swimming naked in a woodland pool, I was routed by a school of girls—25 of them shepherded by two Catholic sisters. They spent the afternoon picnicking beside my clothes while I hid in the shrubs, slapping flies.
The sum of all such routine grief, however, barely equals the succession of disasters that I suffered in 1927, when the Mississippi, father of all waters, beckoned to me for the first time. It was in the early spring of that year that I heard that great river calling me. The roar of the presses in the Chicago printing plant where I worked had become a song of slavery. As the call of the river grew stronger, I confided my restlessness to Ed Staff, a tall, laconic but stout-voiced fellow slave. Staff claimed he was suffering similar anguish, so we decided to quit and take a canoe down the Mississippi. It mattered little that neither of us had ever been on the river (or often in a canoe). Escape was uppermost in our minds.
We bought a pea-green, 17-foot canoe for $45 and stored it in my Uncle Jim's basement, where we outfitted it with a pup tent and other gear for the long voyage. It seems silly now, but we actually went over to Uncle Jim's at night, sat in our loaded craft and practiced canoemanship in the basement. We perfected our stroke (we thought) shooting imaginary rapids that flowed between the furnace and the coal bin.
"Watch out for those rocks!" Staff would cry out as we bent to the paddles there in the basement gloom. "White water ahead; take it easy."
On hearing Staff's shouts from below, my aunt formed the opinion that he was some kind of a nut. Nutty or not, the workouts in the cellar were the only real practice we got except for one Sunday when Uncle Jim took us and the canoe in his car to the suburbs, where we paddled for an hour in a drainage ditch.
Came the great day. Uncle Jim drove us 30 miles into the country, where we launched our canoe in the Fox River just below Aurora, Illinois. In the first 100 yards we almost crashed into the pilings of a low trestle. The river was high and we had to duck, but just before I ducked, I gave a hard push with the stern paddle. The canoe straightened and we shot through the trestle with our heads bent low in an attitude of prayer. Beyond, the stream widened; we moved along with the brisk current, paddling just enough to maintain steerageway. The sun was shining and the chill breeze of early April was invigorating. We exulted in our freedom from the printing plant, and I can remember shouting, " New Orleans, here we come." New Orleans is still waiting for us.
Progressing from the Fox into the Illinois River, we were dogged by rain and high water. Our camps were soggy and miserable. The situation improved slightly after we entered the Hennepin canal leading from the Illinois to the Mississippi. By this time I had come to live with both of Staff's addictions, the harmonica and Omar Khayyam. He didn't play the harmonica very well but he played it frequently. He had brought along what he called his "library," a copy of the Rubaiyat.
Each night after supper he would sit cross-legged before the fire, bending over the book to read a few thought-heavy quatrains. After each verse, for my benefit, he would interpret the words of the Persian tent-maker. During the sequence about the pots in the potter's shed, for example, he would say, "You see, he means these pots are guys like you and me. When he says 'a vessel of more ungainly make' he means some guy with a gimpy leg or something. And when he says, 'Fill me with the old familiar juice' he means he felt like tying one on. They didn't have much hard stuff in Persian speakeasies, mostly wine." (To this day, thanks to Staff, the Rubaiyat and the Prohibition era in Chicago are muddled up together in my mind.)
What with sunny days and Persian poesy at night, we were beginning to enjoy ourselves. But it did not last. On our third day on the canal, the weather took a sharp turn back to winter. We bucked wind and driving sleet that coated our ponchos as we fought to keep the canoe moving. We decided to wait out the weather in a small, neglected house we spotted 200 feet from the canal. There was no furniture in the house, but a sheet of tin propped up on four bricks served as a makeshift cook-in. We built a fire on it with corncobs and some coal we found behind the house.
For some reason the smoke refused to leave the building even though the windows were broken. It hung in a dense cloud which filled the room from a point three feet above the floor. For two days we lived under that cloud, crawling about like troglodytes, cooking and eating in a reclining position. To stand up meant suffocation. I can still see Staff leaning on one elbow as he read from Omar. By the morning of the third day we had no food for breakfast and were getting stir-crazy.