Chapter 8 – Beginning of the Trip – May 1944
The first few hours of the trip were very steady, and Ray and Tony took turns at the helm, getting the feel of the boat. There was some food in the cooler and at mid-day, Tony made sandwiches for lunch and he opened a couple of bottles of cola. The Clinch river wound its way around some beautiful, peaceful countryside but in terms of time, it took much longer than they had anticipated. As a result, that first night they didn’t quite make the convergence with the Tennessee River and because of a distinct lack of marinas along the Clinch, they were forced to dock against an abandoned jetty that they came across just before dusk.
Over a spartan dinner of cold meats and a salad, they speculated on what they could possibly be transporting that necessitated such a covert journey. It begged the question, why on earth were they being dispatched to take a package to St. Louis in such a circuitous route when it would have been so much quicker to transport by road or rail? And more significantly, where was the package? They had both unsuccessfully scoured the boat in search of anything remotely important. But of course, they both agreed, they were in the military, theirs was not to reason why, theirs was but to do and die. After dinner, they cleared up their few dirty dishes and plates, spent an hour or two swapping stories before having an early night.
The next morning, they were back en route, and it wasn’t long before they did indeed join the Tennessee River, which was going to represent the majority of their time on this trip. Along the river, Tony decided to buy various kinds of pasta and vegetables at stops along the way and he spent a lot of time in the galley preparing meals while Ray navigated the boat around the bends and eddies of the river. It took them almost a month, but eventually, they reached the convergence with the Ohio River and that evening they managed to dock at Paducah in Kentucky. They went through their normal ritual of dinner, clearing up and swapping stories before getting to bed, happy in the knowledge that in the morning they would be on the Mississippi and only one more sleep from their destination.
They were up with the dawn and on the river at first light. With Cairo, Illinois on their starboard side they knew they were rapidly approaching the Mississippi, which also signaled the imminent completion of their river trip. Up until now, except for a few rain showers, the weather had been kind to them, but as they turned to go upstream on the mighty river it was obvious that a major storm was on its way. They had a choice to make, if they gunned the boat they could make St. Louis that evening, the modified gas tanks were full, so they had sufficient fuel to make the trip. Alternatively, they could continue at cruising speed and be forced to stop for one, possibly two nights. They agreed that the former option was the one to take.
They were making good time but as the day progressed, so did the ferocity of the storm and they were beginning to have doubts about arriving in St. Louis before dark. Just ahead on their port-side was a marina and they decided to pull in to take a break and once more consider their options. The river had gotten very choppy and the swirling winds made docking extremely hazardous, but they were assisted by a man and what they assumed to be his young son. As Ray tried to keep the boat steady, Tony threw a bow line to the young boy, he thought he would pass it to his father to tie up but instead, the young boy adroitly tied up the line to a cleat on the dock. Meanwhile, the man had grabbed the stern line and tied it to a cleat. Ray turned off the engine and both Tony and he climbed from the boat to the dock.
“Thanks, guys, it’s getting pretty rough out there,” Ray said, pretty much stating the obvious.
“Sure is, but I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.” The man replied.
“We’re supposed to get to St. Louis this evening, what is it another twenty miles or so?” Tony asked.
“It is, but you may be better off staying here the night.” The man said. Ray and Tony exchanged glances but neither said anything.
“Mister, that’s a fine-looking boat, can I have a look inside?” The young boy asked, he was staring at the boat in awe and was dying to climb aboard. Ray smiled and was about to say ‘sure’ until he remembered his instructions.
“’Fraid not son,” Ray said, maybe a little too abruptly and he tried to make amends, “I think we’re going to push on. But thanks for all your help.” Ray felt bad about the disappointed look on the young boy’s face if only he could explain, instead he turned and got back on the boat. Tony untied both lines and he too climbed back onto the boat leaving the poor boy almost in tears at their refusal to let him go onboard and his father shaking his head in disbelief.