March 2006 Issue #1
Last updated on 3/8/2006
Shifting Responsibilities & Fleeting Priorities #2
by Robert Rishel
Capt. Larry  Barks
There are moments of extreme intensity on a towboat. Times when your
attention is so focused and involved in the task at hand that nothing can
distract you; not the radio, not the deckhand; not the cell phone.  I can
remember one such moment involving a man for whom I had and still hold the
highest possible respect.  It was during a particular nasty bout of high-water,
in 1994 I think.  We were at Port Birmingham on the m/v
Sandra Sue. I was
enduring my first high-water as a licensed pilot and Capt. Larry Barks was at
the sticks.  My good friend, Bobby D. and I were in the wheelhouse, basically
watching the master at work.  Capt. Larry had taken the sticks from me as we
were about to make a tricky downstream landing onto a tow with loaded
regulation rakes facing us.  We were working in the W&GN loaded fleet at the
very north end of Port Birmingham.  Lock 17 had everything open and the
river was boiling in that narrow passage that is port Birmingham.  In slack
water our tow was nearly always 6 loads but even the guidance of corporate
greed relented to mother nature and we were about to have our hands full
with only two loaded barges.
Capt Larry pulled up alongside the area we would land, dropped off one of
the deckhands and issued an all hands up and on deck for the landing and
making up to the tow. He turned his ball cap around backwards, a kind of
bravado based superstition he had whenever he embarked on something
really hard; something that we all had to be awake for and really wouldn't  
miss for the world anyway.  He inspected the area for drift around the barges
and checked the lead of the bank lines above us to make sure we were not in
danger of tying up a wheel.  While steaming up river he called for traffic on
the radio and scanned the upstream trash line for anything nasty.  Capt.
Larry then cut the power and let the boat free fall south bound to current
speed and slowly rotated us around facing downstream.  This is the point
where the magic happens, to watch a guy like Capt. Larry work was always
amazing, it was to see a man pull off pure brilliance in action and
concentration.  We were now traveling about six or seven knots.  Capt Larry
then set about reining it in, checking up the speed through backing and artful
rudder work, always careful to control the attitude of the boat in relation to the
current, basically flanking it down on to the barges….It was a flurry of
movement that was clearly second nature, controlled by a basic brain
function, like breathing.  Larry used his entire body, like many pilots do;
bouncing his hips into the sticks, using an elbow to adjust a throttle and
generally contributing body-english.  Some of his movements were like a
bowler who has loosed the ball but still continues to manipulate or gyrate as
though it will have some effect. He landed flatly and smoothly but with
authority, no bouncing or rolling or half assed out of control panic. The
deckhands secured the boat with well practiced moves and we peered out the
wheelhouse windows in awe… and just at that moment when we landed, just
kissed the barges and right before anyone could really relax, Capt Larry said
“Oh damn will you look at this shit!”   Bobby and I stepped back from the
window to see Larry’s jeans down around his ankles. He had worked himself
right out of his pants! It was quite the tension breaker. Seeing Capt Larry with
his dungarees around his ankles!

Capt. Larry Barks in the wheelhouse of the M/V Sandra Sue locking up at 17 on the Black
Warrior River. Note the gates open at the dam: Not for the faint of heart!

Larry is gone now, he passed away a few years back and seemed to me to
take with him an era. Men like Larry Barks are a dying breed. Or at least a
retiring breed. It worries me sometimes. There are some values that may be
deemed as old fashioned or belonging to a past time. Capt Larry was a man
in charge of his vessel.  I do not mean on a “Super Capt” head trip; he was a
man who took responsibility, made decisions and commanded respect. When
Larry walked into a room he was immediately in charge, even in the presence
of the owner of our company! I have a feeling the President of the US would
defer to Larry, aboard his boat anyway.  He commanded respect and
deserved it. His crew loved him and whenever we got a new guy it did not
take long to find out if he was going to be staying or not. One of my favorite
Larry-sayings was “it don’t work, It don’t ride” often followed by a splash.  
Larry had values and he surrounded himself with men of integrity. His
authority was not oppressive; it was a matter of respect, earned respect.
When you worked with Larry you felt like the quality of what you were doing
was important. It was not that he was afraid he would get into trouble with the
boss or what other people thought, it was what
he thought. To Larry, shabby
effort was wrong, it was that simple. It was an issue of right or wrong. He took
pride in himself and his work. Larry defined himself by his actions. If it sounds
like I respected him, I cannot deny it. Larry became family.  Living and
working on a boat with a man like him was like stepping into an old western
movie like
Shane or the Cowboys. It was like stepping into another time when
men had a well polished sense of right and wrong, of craftsmanship and
honor. All manifested in their work and how they treated each other.  He
selflessly taught me a highly regarded and marketable skill all the while never
letting me get into trouble. I can remember times, when I was first turned
loose, times I got myself and the tow into serious trouble, Larry would step in
and not just take control but take
responsibility. He took up where my father
had left off and taught me how to be a man. Taught me a work ethic and the
importance of not separating your actions from yourself

I remember one time during my cub-pilot experience, newly licensed but
learning how to pilot; a long way from standing my first watch without
supervision.  I was entering Holt Lock near Tuscaloosa with 2 loads and 4
empties. I was at the sticks under the supervision of another pilot. Boy was I
under supervision! I felt like a remote control robot,”port rudder, starboard
rudder, straighten it out, back to port, more starboard, ok, itch your ass, drink
some coffee, more to port….”  It went kind of like that. In fact there were times
when I closed my eyes and just sat there for as long as I could stand it and let
him dictate corrections, he never new if my eyes were closed or not. That is
not exactly what I consider training… I came in along the long wall and
everything was going well, the deckhand cleared me of the short wall and the
pilot instructed me to flatten out he tow. When I made the dictated correction
the empty rake caught the corner of the short wall and stripped the string off.
My eyes were open! The lock tender called up and said he would need to see
us in his office when we secured to fill out paper work. The guy training me
turned to me immediately and said “you are on your own buddy.” He did not
even accompany me inside. I took it like a man and accepted the bruise.
Capt. Larry would have never hung me out to dry like that. He was not an
“everyman for himself” kind of guy.
When I was finally assigned to train under Capt. Larry, I was a bit nervous, he
had a hardcore reputation and I did not want to fail under him. During that
time I was reading Mark Twain’s novel, Life on the Mississippi. It was great
because so many things have not changed. Of course the technology is
different but the values and the techniques are timeless. I do not hate
change, in fact I embrace technology, and am very excited about its
application to towboating. What I hate to see happen is the disintegration of
integrity and respect commanded by a good Captain.  I hate to see men in
the position of Captain behave abusively and selfishly, without regard for the
men, equipment and environment under their responsibility.
I guess chivalry is dead, but it has really kept on kicking and screaming in
towboat circles. There are a lot of good Captains still out there, men
deserving respect, men like Capt Larry Barks.
-Robert Rishel
Monitor page
for changes
   it's private  

by ChangeDetection
If you would like to be notified
when this site is updated, follow
the instructions from the link
below. Your email will be kept
strictly confidential.
anchor US Inland Waterways Site Ring
Navigate on thru the ring!
This site owned by Your Name Here at Your Web Site Title Here.
< PREV?????? LIST????? RANDOM?????? JOIN????? NEXT >?????

Towboat of the Month
Tips & Tricks
Pilot Database
Who Are We?
Contact us.
An online magazine dedicated to the lifestyle and challenges
of professional towboating.