‘Reservations Knot Required’: Locking through with the Tennessee River Boys

 “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”—Benjamin Franklin (attrib.)

If ever you’ve been on a quiet lake in summer, late in the day when the sun is low on the horizon and your body and mind are at peace with the world, you might be privileged to witness the spectacle of thousands of shimmering diamonds of reflected sunlight dancing across ripples of waves on the surface. It’s a soul-mending suspension in time like a liquid dream. But let me stop you right there, because my dream of a trip down the Tennessee River began with a discussion about bologna and beer, not a crock of wimpy poetic stuff.

I had only contemplated the idea—just the possibility, really—of taking a long-range river trip before I got too old or too lazy. I started thinking about it after I discovered through my lovely, dear wife (she may be reading this over my shoulder right now) introduced me to Jack, the spouse of a former teacher colleague of hers. The introduction was well-intended as our wives knew we had a love of boating in common, but they later regretted it, because at every opportunity from that point on, we discussed boats and taking a boating trip ad nauseam. Jack and I had our first serious phone conversation about a trip down river several months after our first meeting. It occurred at the very end of winter at the height of our cabin fever and went something like this:

“How many days would it take to go from here all the way down the Tennessee and back, do you think?”

“Well, I don’t know. How many miles is it?”

“I’m not sure. You got a map? I mean, a chart?”

“Yeah, but I can look that up right here on my computer—on the TVA site. Hold on.”

“I’m holding. And how much beer and gas would we need, in that order.”

“Wait. I’m almost there. OK, it says here 652 miles from Knoxville up to Paducah, Kentucky, where it runs into the Ohio.”

“How fast is that little boat of yours?”

“Not very. Runs about 20 knots cruising on plane, but I’ve never pushed it that far over a long haul.”

“Alright, so 652 divided by 25 miles an hour is what, roughly 26 hours if we ran straight through?”

“I guess, but I’d run out of gas several times before then. The boat only holds 20 gallons and burns it at about 10 miles a gallon, so we can only get 200 miles at best before getting gas.”

“OK. That’s pretty good. So roughly speaking, we could make the trip in three and a half days if we were running flat out.”

“When you gonna sleep?”

“You sleep; I’ll drive. Then, I’ll sleep, you drive. Just kidding, I’m trying to figure out how many days we would need to make a trip like that.”

From these first wide-eyed guesstimates, the idea expanded quickly into a full-blown quest to conquer the Tennessee River across the boundaries of the state and back again. We were aging mariners out to check off a long-thought-about ‘Huck Finn’ trip from our bucket list (or teacup list in my case). Jack proposed the idea with some excitement: Take a boat downstream from Knoxville, on through all the locks on the Tennessee River, and back home again. I have to confess that the idea appealed to my boyish sense of adventure and challenged me to put to use my many years of experience on the lakes of East Tennessee. Jack’s enthusiasm was contagious, and so we set down the plan over the next several months and met periodically to assess the prospects.

Just a side note here for your information: Using the word ‘enthusiasm’ to refer to Jack in any description of our experiences on the river fails to convey the level and depth of his love for the water and for any foray upon it. To be accurate, I would need to write each time that “Jack’s explosion of mushroom cloud excitement and glee was felt far from the initial blast zone,” but that would eat up a lot of narrative and get to be fairly repetitive. So just recall the ‘atomic blast’ metaphor whenever I write ‘enthusiastic’ or ‘excited’ in reference to Jack. It’ll save us both some time later on in the story.

At first, the trip was planned for just the two of us guys, but it did occur to us early on that we might tire of one another’s company just a bit on a seven-day, 900-mile cruise in close quarters aboard a seventeen-foot boat. Not exactly luxury accommodations on anybody’s booking. “What if we invited another guy with a boat” was somebody’s idea proposed during one discussion. The thought—and it was a good one—was that we could trade out boating partners every other day and, that way, nobody gets clubbed over the head and dumped into a swampy part of the river on the fourth or fifth day of driving each other crazy, either by personality or body odor—or both. But that’s just one scenario, of course. And then there was the Deliverance factor. After all, we would be crossing over into the ‘heart of darkness’ during part of the trip—you know, Alabama.

It couldn’t hurt to add a big tough guy to the crew, so we invited Jerry, a former Marine and a marathoner. Jack, originally a California surfer dude, could be excused for his unknowing fear of the unwashed natives. (“Easy, now,” I had to explain to Jack, “That’s my family you’re talking about.”) But, I wasn’t overly concerned because I speak fluent Kentucky hillbilly and Jerry’s a wily old fox raised in Arkansas, so I figured we could operate as undercover agents, if necessary, and wouldn’t be forced to offer up Jack as collateral—but we might if it came to that.

Well, there’s a grain of truth in this part of my story. We did think it was a good idea to have a second boat and at least one other crewman for redundancy to make sure we didn’t get stuck on the river if our one boat conked out on us hundreds of miles from home. And then we realized it might be more fun that way, which is the real reason why we thought to ask Jerry to join us. Jerry, an engineer by trade and also the spouse of one of our wives’ former colleagues from school, was more circumspect about the whole idea when we proposed it to him, but, in the end, he too was won over by Jack’s enthusiastic urgings. (Or maybe he finally figured out we were not going to stop talking about it incessantly every time we saw him until he agreed to go along.)

After making his decision, Jerry got in touch with a long-time former colleague of his, Al, who just happened to own a very nice twenty-foot deck boat that sleeps two easily and could hold all the gear we could muster, not to mention a huge ice cooler. Al said he had nothing better to do at the moment, and with that we had our second boat and our fourth musketeer. We soon met for dinner and a planning session at Jack’s house and discovered that we all got along just fine—on land at least.

Jack and I weren’t the only two adventurous twelve-year-olds trapped in prematurely aging bodies. Al and Jerry turned out to be just as eager as we were once the planning got under way. In the end, four of us retirement-eligible ‘sailors’ lit out from Knoxville in two runabouts with as much gear as we could carry on board. If John Wayne, Steve McQueen, Paul Newman (substitute Bob Newhart for me), and Jimmy Stewart ever got together for a week-long boating trip down the Tennessee River, it might help you visualize the four of us in 2003 as we embarked on a week-long trek through eight of its nine locks. (We had to shave off the last hundred miles of the river to get back home in time to meet previous commitments to wives and employers, which are pretty much synonymous in my world.)

A considerable amount of planning went into this venture well in advance of our launch date on Memorial Day weekend. Jack and I, busy with our day jobs, stayed in touch by e-mail to keep the project on track. Boiled down to its common denominator, our plan had one essential element: fuel. We needed fuel for our boats and fuel for our stomachs.

You just can’t carry that much extra gas and beer with you on board. It would swamp the boat. And that’s where the charts came in handy for planning our supply stops. Jerry visited the local TVA office in Knoxville and procured charts for the entire Tennessee River system, including locations and phone numbers for each dam and lock and for each marina along the way. This information proved critical to the logistical success of our trip. I’ve been to college keg parties that required less beer than the four of us soaked up on this trip, but, then, keg parties aren’t conducted out in the 90-degree sun over seven twelve-hour days of boating and locking through dams.

Our plan for gas and beer was simple and effective: Calculate the distance between marinas and locks on the nav chart, divide by four six-packs (on ice), set the throttle at “hell or high water,” and go fast until one boat runs out of gas (leaving one available to tow the other to the next fuel stop). Probably not the way the Corps of Engineers or the Coast Guard does it, but we weren’t overly concerned about efficiency. In the end, we each put a couple of hundred bucks in the kitty and let ‘er rip. (I only hope nobody from the Coast Guard reads this or I may lose my safety certificate!)

When we finally got packed up and under way on Memorial Day, Jack and I pulled up to the Fort Loudon dam lock with Al and Jerry riding behind in the second boat. Like me, Jack was an experienced and avid boater—small craft for recreation and leisure in the local lakes—but when he discovered that I had studied how to lock through in my Coast Guard boating course several years before, his excitement grew exponentially at the prospects of trying it out for real. I was happy and proud to oblige, seeing as how I had never actually completed a lock-through either!

Now, as you surely know, every epic sojourner must have an appropriate nickname borne of his travels and adventures, and so we had ours. At the Fort Loudon dam, Jack earned his after mastering the fundamentals of the hand-held marine radio. He dialed in to the Lockmaster on the open channel, hailing him with our official request for passage: “Lockmaster, Lockmaster. This is recreational vessel Coastie Cadet requesting lock-through at Fort Loudon. Over.”

Obviously, Jack had learned the formal hailing method for the procedure from some bookworm (that would be me) and not from a working river captain on a tug or barge; otherwise, he might have known that the crusty, overworked Lockmasters were better known for their shorthand method of communication that didn’t include so much excess information. But this particular Lockmaster turned out to be a tolerant type who understood how few of the weekend boaters in his waters had experience locking through. His ‘customer service’ skills were to be admired: “This is the Fort Loudon Lockmaster. Go ahead, Skipper.”

Now for you landlubbers, this is the point at which experienced captains inform the Lockmaster of his desire to bring his boat upstream or downstream, as the case may be. With that information, the Lockmaster can judge the amount of river traffic on one side or the other of the dam, assess the maritime priority level of the vessel (law enforcement first, followed by commercial traffic, then recreational last), and determine an ETA for the captain—that’s estimated time of arrival at the dam to lock through, which could be minutes or hours, depending. But for a boat captain locking through for the first time in his life, it was just too much respect too soon. Jack dropped the radio straight down to his side as his eyes grew wide with excitement and yelled out to all within earshot: “He called me Skipper! The Lockmaster called me Skipper!”

The excitement in his voice and his unbridled enthusiasm to this day reminds me of that scene from “It’s A Wonderful Life” when Jimmy Stewart asks Donna Reed, “What do you want, Mary? Do you want the moon?” Jack stood tall and proud as any midshipman at the helm of a Navy cruiser, his chest puffed out with the unexpected honor, that is until at least two of us said in unison, “Hey, Skipper. He’s waiting for a reply.” What Jack—I mean, Skipper—didn’t realize is that he had depressed the PTT (push to talk) button on the radio in preparation for his response, so the Lockmaster heard his reaction to the accolade and we could hear him laughing through the speaker as soon as Jack let go the button. And that’s how Jack became known as Skipper for the remainder of our trip. Even to this day, over ten years later, I request permission from the Skipper to come aboard his boat, the Reservations Knot Required—a testament to his enthusiasm for sharing his spirit for adventure with all comers.

Now that you know how Skipper got his river name, you might wonder if others of us approached his high level of accomplishment in this regard. In point of fact, no we did not. Our own nicknames took a decided nose-dive from there. The ‘handsome bachelor’ among the four of us, Al Greene (no, not that Al Green), whom his girlfriend back on shore told us looked exactly like Steve McQueen, earned his river name ‘M&M’ simply by sharing a beer with a couple of women (actual age to be determined) by the name of Mary and Margaret at the Hard Dock Café—your groan goes here—just off the main channel in Decatur, Alabama. No real distinction in this assigned river name except that the rest of us were jealous. I will grant you that we three others had been married to lovely southern women for over 100 years, collectively (Is that even possible?) and should be ashamed for envying the one among us who attracted female attention the way we attracted flies…not by smell, though.

“Where’s Al?” became a standard refrain among the other three of us during the river trip. After a few instances, we finally learned that he was avoiding us at certain intervals in order to arrive at the marina restaurants in each port before the local women saw his entourage of ragtag old guys in tow. I’m not saying Al was rude in ditching us in favor of fairer companionship. I’m just saying none of the ladies showed the slightest interest in me at any of our many stops. I could not have smelled worse than he did, so what was it? The permanently embedded gold ring on my left hand? The total lack of pheromones emanating from my bald head? For god’s sake, the man only brought two changes of clothes for a week-long trip in the hot sun, and I, by comparison, brought a color-coordinated wardrobe suited for a prince…a scruffy old pudgy prince, but a prince all the same. But I’m not bitter. Moving on….

One of the rules of nature that we re-learned during our adventure is that men of a certain age must—and I emphasize must—evacuate their bladders and bowels as the need arises. This must be done regardless of proximity to appropriate facilities or present company. Our nickname for the ‘John Wayne’ among our small troupe— Jerry the former Marine—sprung to mind without much effort when he commandeered the second of our boats to the near shore one afternoon, drove it as close to the rocks and mud as he dared, jumped ashore and immediately ‘dropped trou’ to conduct his business. We two in the other smaller boat that day wondered why the sudden stop but soon regretted our decision to follow inshore to investigate. Because, almost at the same time we pulled up alongside the other boat, we spotted Jerry—forever after to be known as Squatter—just at the edge of the woods beyond the shoreline, and the full moon was definitely out early. “My god, man,” we yelled at him in unison, “turn around the other way, will ya?” Not a flattering appellation, I’ll grant, but descriptive and accurate all the same, especially taking into account the lanky, six-three, square-jawed size of the guy!

And that brings me to the final nickname in our foursome. I admit I was hoping mine would be born of an impressive accolade to my fashionable wardrobe, uncanny seamanship, or some other enviable attribute. It turned out to be one in which I could take a particular kind of pride, I suppose. You will note my earlier referral to the call of nature that men of our age must answer. However, I featured at the time an unusual and nearly uncanny ability to ‘hold my water’ as you may say, even after downing a considerable volume of liquids during a day’s run. It became evident even to my three compatriots, who eventually dubbed me Big Montana as a reference to the size of my bladder. I didn’t mind the ignominious nickname nearly so much as the embarrassment of trying to explain it to people we met during our long trek, such as the very nice server lady at the Pickwick Landing state park & inn breakfast bar.

She was an attractive, dark-haired lady in the ‘over forty’ club, and she greeted us with a polite smile and an unwelcome message sometime around eleven a.m. the third or fourth day of our trip: “Sorry, gentlemen, but breakfast ended at ten this morning and we won’t reopen until noon for lunch, after we swap out the trays of food on the buffet. I would be glad to let you go through the line right now if any of the breakfast food was still out, but the staff already moved it to the back.”

The nice lady, who by now we realized must be the cafeteria manager, had begun to let us down easy as Jack and I entered the doorway leading to the cash register up front, but then she caught sight of Steve McQueen, I mean Al, following up behind with Jerry in tow, and she changed not only the message, but also the lilt in her voice and the sparkle in her eye. It was the quick hand sweep to her brow to adjust her flowing hair that gave her away.

To say that we were scruffy and bedraggled would be a compliment to our appearance that morning, and her greeting us as ‘gentlemen’ may have been a result of her southern charm, possibly poor eyesight, or maybe even an ironic observation. We had all slept roughly after a summer squall the night before at the Jackson State Park marina near Scottsboro, Alabama, and were a bit behind schedule locking through Wilson Dam as a result. Regardless, our hostess changed her mind on the spot and told the four of us to have a seat at any table (we were the only potential customers in the place at that hour on a weekday) while she double-checked in the kitchen for any edible leftovers from the breakfast buffet. Without taking her smiling eyes off Al, she pivoted on one heel and sashayed back in the direction of the kitchen. Within three minutes, she returned smiling and pushing a cart loaded with pancakes, bacon, scrambled eggs, and blueberry muffins. It turned out to be one of the best breakfasts of the trip. Thank you, Al, I thought to myself. I forgive you now, you handsome devil.

We kidded Al incessantly (and jealously) during the trip about his bachelor status, his magnetic attraction to women, and his ability to strike up a conversation with a woman anywhere, anytime. You know how it goes among men of any age: “Hey, Al, there’s another one. Why don’t you see if she’ll buy you a beer?” Or, “Hey Al, you want us to come back and pick you up in the morning?” Apparently, Al was fully accustomed to both the attention and the kidding at this stage in his life. He took it all with a grain of salt and earned my grudging respect by keeping a humble good humor. Damn it, you’d think a guy like that could at least be egotistical and insufferable about it so that we could resent him for it!

It was the last night before the end of our river trip that I learned why Al’s character and attitude did not match my stereotyped expectations for him at the beginning of our trip. Normally, we were tired out by the day’s travel and ready to bed down for the evening at twilight. On our last night, returning up river, we pulled into a private marina just downstream from Chattanooga. But instead of quickly tying up our boats and bedding down, we felt compelled by the circumstances of our itinerary to spend some time recapping our adventures of the previous week. As you might expect, we spent most of the early evening kidding one another about exaggerated exploits and adventures along the way. But as the light-hearted banter wore down and we each retreated into our own mellow thoughts about the metaphorical river and our journey in life, Al suddenly began to talk quietly about his late wife who had died from a terminal illness many years before. Jerry had known her, and so her name came up naturally enough in conversation. Based on his wistful words and far-off look, it was clear to me that the wound remained open in Al’s heart. The two of them had started a successful business together, building it from scratch. They had shared a bond that only couples can forge who marry young and succeed in spite of the intense risk and effort of it all. Incredibly, in just those few calm minutes of listening to Al speak about the bond that had existed between them, I learned more than I had ever known before that night about what it really means to love unselfishly and wholeheartedly to the end. It seems to me now that only a man who has suffered the loss of someone he truly loved can make sense of it and express it in a way that another man can comprehend. Many others may love their wives in just such a way and to such a depth, but Al’s expression of it in that moment and in that setting conveyed more to me than the sentiments of love songs or Valentine’s Day cards, which frankly seem uninspired to me now.

We four slept soundly and comfortably that night across the plush transom seats of a couple of thirty-foot weekender boats docked at a private marina in Chattanooga. It was definitely trespassing, but our justification to ourselves was that we would pay the dockmaster tomorrow for our own overnight dockage and buy gas for both our boats before pulling out on the final leg of our journey home, so we weren’t river rats in our own minds. It was tortured logic, but we were tired enough to make it work to our advantage. I’m fairly certain the owners of the two cruisers would have taken a different view and sworn out trespass warrants had they known about it. I hadn’t slept so easily or so well in years, though. It was like being a twelve-year-old boy on a camping trip with his older brothers, Skipper, Squatter and M&M.

Speaking of twelve-year-olds, we others thought Skipper had been video-recording the highlights of our trip for posterity, and he did manage to capture some of the more challenging lock-throughs, epic scenery like Lookout Mountain, and impressive marinas along the way. But we also discovered after we got back home and met at Al’s house for the pizza-and-beer viewing on his big screen TV that Jack had also been making fools of us (not hard to do) while asking mundane “how you liking it so far?” questions which we had tried our best to answer with enthusiasm, bravado, and humor. Our comments were there alright, but Jack had been zooming in on various unflattering body parts (hairy navels, hairy ears, fat noses, toe fungus—you get the picture, but wish you didn’t) as we seriously discussed such seaworthy activities as tying the boats off to bollards inside the locks or reading charts before entering a new cove or stretch of narrow channel on the river. It was a fitting and hilarious satirical treatment of subjects like me who have grown accustomed to giving boring lectures when asked simple questions like “What are you studying on that river chart?” Need I confirm for you that our wives completely got the irony and humor of it when they saw the video?

On one such occasion in particular, Jack caught me changing out the prop on the seventeen-foot boat at the Pickwick Landing marina. I thought he was filming my engaging and masterful instructions for raising the engine and managing the prop wrench while the boat remained docked alongside and in the water. Little did I suspect that he only actually filmed two parts of the action: first, my foul-mouthed description of the prop before I got started (“This damn thing is dinged all to hell.”) and a very unflattering butt cleavage shot that resulted when I slipped on a wet spot on the dock while trying to lower myself down to the level of the propeller. Thanks a lot, Jack! So glad you documented what I look like in a pair of bright yellow swim trunks, grunting and straining like a plus-sized plumber working under the kitchen sink.

But Jack’s insatiable diversion of capturing our venture on video had its advantages when we happened upon two unrelated but unforgettable scenes at one of the locks—Nickajack, in the Chattanooga area, I believe it was. It began while we were waiting down-river to lock upstream through the dam. We had not been on this side of the dam while the water was lowered to the downstream level, so we were not aware that the weight of the water in this particular shallow lock caused a sudden rush of outflow water,  resulting in a waterspout some ten or fifteen feet high adjacent to the lock. While we waited for the Lockmaster to sound the horn for us to enter the lock—which we knew could take twenty to forty minutes, depending on what craft were locking downstream at the time—Al and Jerry slowly motored around the shallow water and marshes near the lock. Without warning, the sudden down-rush of water through the lock caused a roar and grumble that might have been the start of an earth tremor for all we knew. A moment later, Jack and I in the other boat spotted the fountain of white water exploding into the air in the general direction of Al and Jerry behind a marsh. We couldn’t see them from our vantage point below the lock, so it was unnerving for a few moments as we rushed into the shallow water to find out if the waterspout had capsized them. We know very well that rushing water around the lower end of a dam has taken many a small boat asunder, so we had cause for alarm. Luckily, no such danger threatened our friends, and we were treated to a close-up encounter akin to whitewater rafting that turned out to be a highlight of the trip.

Oddly enough, and to our joint disbelief after the loud rush of spewing water ended, we distinctly heard what sounded for all the world like a calliope playing circus music somewhere high above us in the lock. No surprise to those who have experienced it, the music was coming from the Southern Belle out of Chattanooga—a three-deck, period-authentic riverboat for vacationers and visitors on the river. We sat slack-jawed for a bit below the lock as the riverboat cruised out high above us in our little runabouts and the folks on board waved enthusiastically to us from on board. Just like kids at the circus, we were thrilled and amazed all at the same time.

We did have our misadventures and mishaps, but overall it was smooth sailing with plenty of support from other boaters, marina owners, and restaurant staff along the way. It actually did not occur to us until the second or third day on the water that folks at the marinas did not often encounter boaters who are on a long-distance trek covering nearly 500 miles of the river. Of course, their level of interest in our trip may have been somewhat motivated by the knowledge that we would be returning for gas and beer again in less than a week. Not having taken such a trip prior to this one, we each expressed some concern that we might go hungry after running short on supplies. After all, it would require quite a bit of space on board to store enough food for more than eighty meals among us, and we sure weren’t going to use up valuable beer space in the cooler for useless staples. As it turned out, though, we each probably gained five pounds after a week of hamburgers and fries or catfish and hush puppies at the marinas, pancakes and maple syrup at the state park restaurants, and snacks at the gas docks. We even found one marina serving up hand-made fresh pizza—that’s right, oven-baked pizza pie—on site. Holy manna from heaven! The food was so good and so plentiful that Jack and Jerry started feeling guilty and told army stories about K-rations and marching on empty stomachs and such.

“We never ate like this back when I was in boot camp, I’ll tell ya,” Jerry reminded us as we got our second helping of banana pudding on “fish fry” Thursday at the Jacksboro State Park restaurant. “I was never so hungry in my life as in basic training. They’d give you all the food you want but only ten minutes to eat it. Problem was, you had to eat everything you had on your plate—no waste—or face the consequences. First day, I piled up my tray like a farm boy, but I couldn’t get it all down before they blew the whistle and my sergeant started yelling at us to drop off the trays on our way out of the mess hall. I was so green, I didn’t know to get rid of the ball of butter I had left on the tray. The sergeant pulled me out of line: ‘Son, what’s that on your tray there? You take all you want, but you don’t waste nothin’, got it! You eat what you take.’ And then he made me the object lesson for that day by making me eat that whole ball of yellow butter right there standing in line. I nearly spit it up but somehow choked it down, and I guarantee you it was the last time I left any kind of food on my tray after that.”

“Same thing happened to me,” Jack added to the story line. “Only I got caught with a pear in my pants.”

“Do tell,” I piped in as a challenge to Skipper to explain that last odd remark.

Jack took the bait: “Well, I mean I was trying to get out of the mess hall with a pear to eat later on in the evening, which we were not supposed to do, and I got caught at it by this sergeant I didn’t know. Problem is, he had a speech impediment. Well, not an impediment so much as he was buck-toothed and missing a couple of teeth on one side and talked through one side of his mouth so that he had trouble pronouncing some “p” words like pear. He was dressing me down in the mess hall and I was having trouble keeping a straight face, especially when I noticed several other recruits snickering behind their caps so they wouldn’t be seen:

‘That a phear in your phocket, boy?’

Yes, sir.

‘Don’t call me sir, son. I work fer a livin’.’

Yes, sergeant. I have a pear in my pocket.

‘Well, you get that phear outta yer phocket and throw it away or eat it standin’ right here.’

Yes, sergeant.

Of course, I had to throw it away and get out of the mess hall before I got put on KP for laughing out loud in the sergeant’s face. I barely got away in time.”

By now, we were all howling at Jack’s pear story and the way he told it, talking out the side of his mouth in the same way his sergeant had. Days later we were still asking as we ate lunch or dinner if he had a phear in his phocket, in mock recollection of the unfortunate sergeant’s orders.

Jack later shared another funny episode from his early enlisted days in the 1960’s—just after he reported to duty for basic training: “The drill instructor lined us all up in our civilian clothes before we got sheared and outfitted. After roll call, he asked if any of us had any special skills or civilian occupations. I was so green I didn’t think twice before I stepped forward out of line along with four or five other recruits. I realized my mistake after the boys in front of me called out their special skills: truck mechanic, diesel, the first one said; then, electrician, called out another. When the sergeant got to me, it was too late to step back in line: licensed masseur, I choked out. The DI snapped his head up from his list and looked me dead in the eye for a second to find out if I was making fun, but he could see I wasn’t.

‘A WHAT?!’

‘I worked at the YMCA. I have a certificate as a masseur,’ I said as quietly as I could, but I’m sure several guys in line heard me because I heard them laughing behind my back. But, all the sergeant did was give me a disgusted look and tell me to get the hell back in the line as he moved on to the next guy. Luckily, most of the grunts who heard me ended up in different barracks from mine, so I didn’t have to take too much flack about it all the way through basic training.”

“Yeah, I learned the hard way about volunteering, too,” Jerry added. “I qualified for embassy duty with the Marines and put in for Scandinavia because I had heard they had beautiful blond women there. Naturally, they sent me to South America instead. But, I got the last laugh because that’s where I met Gail, the best lookin’ blond I’d ever seen, and I’m still married to her!”

Speaking of sex (or was I just daydreaming again?), you might think that four good-looking older men with hair—OK, three with hair—might attract the attention of at least a few beer-soaked, sun-addled, parchment-skinned, barely clothed bar flies at the marinas on our route. We even showered every couple of days to get the stench off, and we changed out of our bathing suits and tee-shirts a couple of times so we could get into the park restaurants; so you would think that ol’ M&M might be able to stir up some business for us as our de facto ‘CEO of love’. Truth is, we were more like dumb dogs that chase cars up and down the street: What’s he gonna do with it, if he catches one?! But old men and dogs are alike in that regard. We’re not so much interested in the catch as we are in the chase. Ancient genetic codes drive us to test our attractiveness to women until we are no longer upright on the earth (feel free to interpret that any way you want). As dedicated and true to our wives as we are, it does no real harm to get the motor started as long as we don’t run off with the car. I took some solace in the fact that even M&M, the very namesake of feminine encounters on our trip and a bachelor, did nothing more than share a couple of drinks and some small talk with Mary & Margaret—the Decatur twins, as I like to refer to them—back at the Hard Dock Café before joining the rest of us boys for a cheeseburger and fries. I shouldn’t have been surprised that they weren’t interested in hanging around with four old guys who called one of their own Squatter. Truth is, we would have scattered like squirrels if we really thought anything would come of a harmless flirtation.

For sheer embarrassment—beyond making a fool of your old self with women—nothing beats the scene we created inside the Chickamauga Dam near Chattanooga. It may be the busiest commercial and recreational lock on the river. At the time we were locking through, a considerable amount of construction was going on above and below the lock to shore up some aging concrete and metal structures. That meant more than a few ‘hard hat’ guys in blue overalls were scurrying about with backhoes, wheelbarrows, and shovels all across the top walkways and at each end of the lock. Our two small boats were allowed inside the lock almost as soon as we arrived at the dam, but we got stuck in there for little as the Lockmaster waited for workmen to clear away from the down-river lock doors. As you and your boat sink down inside a deep lock with the descending water level, the steep concrete walls surround you and shade you from the hot sun. After we were in there for ten or fifteen minutes, I noticed that Jerry had stripped down to nothing but his swim suit and a red scarf around his neck to catch the sweat. At first, I thought he might be going to jump in the water to cool off while we waited—which is strictly prohibited, like fishing inside the lock, which he had already gotten in trouble for at the Watts Bar dam.  Instead, he decided to take advantage of the break to put on more sunscreen before heading back out into the open sun. Seeing this, Al (in the same boat) and Jack (in our boat), apparently thinking it was a good idea, stripped down and did the same. No big deal, right? But then I look up from the river chart I was studying to see Al rubbing sunscreen on Jerry’s back as they stood up in the open runabout, and I could see four or five of the construction crew standing some twenty feet above on the side of the lock, arms folded over the railing, peering down at the two men rubbing lotion on each other like they were vacationing on Fire Island. I was close enough to see the smirks on their faces as they nudged each other and pointed with their chins in the direction of the boat. To make it worse, Jack in our boat already had his own shirt off and was holding out a tube of sunscreen in my direction.

There was nothing I could think to say or do to stop the debacle. If I whispered loudly across to Jerry and Al some fifteen feet away, the echo in the lock would have magnified it ten times right up to the roughnecks on the rail. And I couldn’t call quietly on the radio because the other boat didn’t have one, and even if they did, the Lockmaster would have heard it all. And what would I say: Hey, guys, stop acting all ‘light in the flipflops’ over there, will ya?

Jack, however, knew exactly what to do. He picked up his video camera and started filming the whole scene from top to bottom while narrating for future viewers: “Here we are inside the lock waiting to lock through down river. Construction workers leaning over the railing above have been watching Jerry and Al rub sunscreen on each other for several minutes now, but neither one of them has noticed the men standing right over their heads. Let’s see how this plays out, shall we…?”

Now that Jack was filming the scene, I began to see the humor in it and had to stifle my laughter. And it was not long at all until Jerry and Al noticed that they were in the line of sight of Jack’s camera. But they thought he was filming the work going on at the lock doors behind them. They never noticed the hard hats hovering above them until the lock finally opened and we began to power out. That’s when the workers above doffed their hats and called out after us in near-falsetto voices ‘Bye-bye, fellas. Have a nice trip’ and burst out laughing. Not until Jack replayed the video for us at the end of the trip did Al and Jerry realize what had been going on above their heads inside the lock and why the workers there had been so damn friendly that day.

Another ‘hall of shame’ moment in our trip occurred at the Hiawassee River split on our way back up the river on the sixth day of our venture. We had gotten pretty cocky by now about our navigating skills and spent less and less time studying the charts. After all, how lost can you get between two banks of a river? At the same time, we had perfected the two-beer hand-off maneuver in which Al or Jerry, who had the beer cooler on their boat, would hold up a can of beer to the length of their arm, wave it in the air, and wait for one of us on the other boat to notice. If we waved them in, they would speed ahead of our boat, make a U-turn and come alongside to pass off two beers without stopping. We could not have been prouder if we had mastered a somersault off the high dive. These two ‘achievements’ came together without plan at the confluence where the Hiawassee splits off innocently from the Tennessee and heads southeast down toward the mountains and Georgia. As anyone who has traveled a river—or a country road, for that matter—knows, the way down doesn’t look the same as the way back up. Tributaries barely noticed going south, look large and inviting on the way north—inviting enough to mask the route of the main channel. The stage was set after a successful hand-off of beer for the supply boat to make the turn around our boat just as we were coming up on the split in the river. As we continued on our northern bearing, Jerry and Al were lulled by the water and the waves into a lapse of attention that led them off into the other river. Not needing a beer or snacks for the time being, Jack and I sped on up river on our path for almost a mile before we noticed they were missing.

“Hey, where’re Al and Jerry? Where’s the other boat?” There was no alarm in Jack’s voice, just confusion. It’s not like we were in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico. How far away could they be?

“Maybe they ran out of gas or stopped to fish a bit,” I pondered. “I’ll turn around and head back that way.”

It was a logical move on our part, but this is where I will remind you that they had no radio on board the second boat and, to make it worse, we had the river charts on our boat. The result was that Al and Jerry cruised down the Hiawassee at the same time we continued north on the Tennessee. They, too, discovered their error and turned back around, as you might expect. Any rational person would say, “Well that works. They’ll run right into each other.” And that’s what should have happened if physics and math had not gotten in the way of a simple solution. To find each other with no radio and only one map, each boat would need to turn around at about the same time and run at about the same speed on the return trip: Speed x Time = Distance. We knew we were in the main channel, but we didn’t know they had sped up the wrong one. They thought they were in the main channel, but they didn’t know where we had veered off behind them. So, each of us in two boats continued to run back and forth up and down the ‘main channel’ but missing each other at the obvious but unrecognized confluence of the two rivers. From the air, the result would have been comical. From the water, it was just crazy. Finally, after nearly half an hour of chasing our own tails, we came to our senses, returned to the point of origin where we last saw the second boat, and sat dead in the water. Sure enough, within just a few minutes, Al and Jerry came speeding up out of the Hiawassee and spotted us floating out in the channel. By the time they got to us, Al was holding up two more cold ones and Jerry was yelling out to us: “Where ya been? Did you two get lost?”

In the end, we were each of us a tired but proud ‘Ulysses’ returning at long last to our home port near Knoxville, where we raised our last beer of the trip and headed back to the boat ramp to pull our well-used boats out of the water. We shook hands all around, and returned to our loved ones to report in great detail to all within earshot on the great adventures of the Tennessee River Boys. We, the bold four, attacked and twice defeated each of the eight gargantuan concrete beasts that spewed maelstroms from their bowls in a turbulent roil that lifted us dozens of feet into the air and dropped us an equal distance on the opposite side. One after the other, for seven days and seven nights, we made way through the locks of the Tennessee River on its relentless destination, where I confirmed for myself that life has a sublime beauty built into it, if you can find and accept it. If not, then you can never be happier or more content tomorrow than you were yesterday.

One Comment on “‘Reservations Knot Required’: Locking through with the Tennessee River Boys

  1. Kyle,
    This is a classic! I laughed so much as I read about the crazy antics you so vividly described. Knowing the ” characters” as I do, I can say you captured them completely — physically and emotionally. You should submit this to several magazines; I really think it would be a hit! In fact, adding it to Jack’s video, it could well become a movie! Now– consider a title!

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