The metal that makes a man

My brother, Bob Walters, is 351 days younger than me. When my parents divorced back in about 1970, Bob chose to live with my mom and spent about a third of his childhood in Florida, the same in Louisiana and the rest at our family home in Poynette.

In mid-May I received a call that changed the lives of myself as well my sisters, Lynn and Chrissy, and brothers, Mike and Tom. It is very hard for me to write this but Bob is very sick and on that day in May the five of us did the first of many group calls and agreed to take care of our brother in all facets of his life.

We have been doing shifts taking care of him in Walker, La., and this past week I received word that I needed to get down to Walker ASAP. That call meant I had no time to do field work for a story so instead I am going to write about the river called the Mississippi that I followed as I did the 1,122- mile drive by myself to see my brother.

When I graduated from high school in no way was I college material. At the time, my brothers, Tom and Mike, sent me money in an envelope that said buy a one-way ticket out of Poynette – you can always come home.

I chose to hunt all fall in Wisconsin and in early December of 1979, and I flew to Baton Rouge, La., to spend the winter with my mom and brother, Bob.

One of my first thoughts was that I did not like the city or living in my mom’s duplex. My next thought was that I wanted to be a deckhand on a riverboat and work 30 days on and than have 30 days off.

For seven weeks each Monday I had a taxi pick me up at my ma’s at 7 a.m. and I parked my hiney on the steps of Choten Transportation which was a company that has several towboats that pushed fuel, grain and chemicals up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.

Six weeks in a row the personnel director, Roger Davies, walked by a skinny 18-year-old kid as he went up the steps of his building to work. Until the seventh week Mr. Davies always said, “no,” and then I guess you could say persistence paid off and I was granted an interview and hired.

Long story short I became a deckhand on board The Universal Trader and worked 30-day shifts that I extended to 90 and would work six hours on, six hours off. We pushed gasoline and lube oil barges that were full from New Orleans to Louisville, Ky., and the same barges, empty back home.

I had a ton of money, a very dangerous job and lots of time off, and the adventures were nonstop for a kid that was a senior in high school the January before.

Fast-forward eight years. I have made the decision that I am going to attempt to canoe up the entire Mississippi River. I am 26 and have a huge pull in my soul to do something very different with my life (at this time I was a steel fabricator).

I practiced on the Mississippi in Baton Rouge and let me tell you it is impossible to explain this part of the Mississippi. It is either 100-percent industrialized or as redneck and back-country as you will find in the USA.

My journey covered 980 miles (I blew out a wrist and elbow) and it was incredible. Danger was almost an hourly event and once I was sunk by a ship on The Gulf of Mexico.

Thunderstorms arrived almost every afternoon and I always ignored them. My friends piloting the riverboats learned of my story and always waved and often invited me on board for an awesome meal.

Once I was paddling upriver around a sharp bend that had almost more current then I had muscle. I was being hit by a storm that was so powerful that you could see no more then 50 yards.

Bad luck came my way when just like that a river boat headed south with empty barges and arrived out of nowhere and was on a dead-on collision to eat me like a whale consuming a minnow. I used every bit of my body and soul to pull right and the left blade of my kayak paddle actually hit the empty barges as they sailed by me.

At the very moment that the captain saw me a bolt of lightning hit the riverboat and myself, and changed my life.

I should have drowned or blown up and instead, just like that, the storm passed and my life changed as I swear to God that from that moment on I knew I would never settle for a normal life again.

The following year I took a job managing a fishing camp in Canada and the year after in 1989 I started writing this column and have never missed a deadline.

Make your dreams become reality!


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