Life on the Mississippi: A Pilot’s Needs

by Mark Twain

BUT I am wandering from what I was intending to do, that is, make
plainer than perhaps appears in the previous chapters, some of the
peculiar requirements of the science of piloting. First of all, there is
one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has
brought it to absolute perfection. Nothing short of perfection will do.
That faculty is memory. He cannot stop with merely thinking a thing is
so and so; he must know it; for this is eminently one of the ’exact’
sciences. With what scorn a pilot was looked upon, in the old times, if
he ever ventured to deal in that feeble phrase ’I think,’ instead of the
vigorous one ’I know!’ One cannot easily realize what a tremendous
thing it is to know every trivial detail of twelve hundred miles of
river and know it with absolute exactness. If you will take the longest
street in New York, and travel up and down it, conning its features
patiently until you know every house and window and door and lamp-post
and big and little sign by heart, and know them so accurately that you
can instantly name the one you are abreast of when you are set down at
random in that street in the middle of an inky black night, you will
then have a tolerable notion of the amount and the exactness of a
pilot’s knowledge who carries the Mississippi River in his head. And
then if you will go on until you know every street crossing, the
character, size, and position of the crossing-stones, and the varying
depth of mud in each of those numberless places, you will have some idea
of what the pilot must know in order to keep a Mississippi steamer out
of trouble. Next, if you will take half of the signs in that long
street, and CHANGE THEIR PLACES once a month, and still manage to know
their new positions accurately on dark nights, and keep up with these
repeated changes without making any mistakes, you will understand what
is required of a pilot’s peerless memory by the fickle Mississippi.
I think a pilot’s memory is about the most wonderful thing in the world.
To know the Old and New Testaments by heart, and be able to recite them
glibly, forward or backward, or begin at random anywhere in the book and
recite both ways and never trip or make a mistake, is no extravagant
mass of knowledge, and no marvelous facility, compared to a pilot’s
massed knowledge of the Mississippi and his marvelous facility in the
handling of it. I make this comparison deliberately, and believe I am
not expanding the truth when I do it. Many will think my figure too
strong, but pilots will not.
And how easily and comfortably the pilot’s memory does its work; how
placidly effortless is its way; how UNCONSCIOUSLY it lays up its vast
stores, hour by hour, day by day, and never loses or mislays a single
valuable package of them all! Take an instance. Let a leadsman cry,
’Half twain! half twain! half twain! half twain! half twain!’ until it
become as monotonous as the ticking of a clock; let conversation be
going on all the time, and the pilot be doing his share of the talking,
and no longer consciously listening to the leadsman; and in the midst of

this endless string of half twains let a single ’quarter twain!’ be
interjected, without emphasis, and then the half twain cry go on again,
just as before: two or three weeks later that pilot can describe with
precision the boat’s position in the river when that quarter twain was
uttered, and give you such a lot of head-marks, stern-marks, and side-
marks to guide you, that you ought to be able to take the boat there and
put her in that same spot again yourself! The cry of ’quarter twain’ did
not really take his mind from his talk, but his trained faculties
instantly photographed the bearings, noted the change of depth, and laid
up the important details for future reference without requiring any
assistance from him in the matter. If you were walking and talking with
a friend, and another friend at your side kept up a monotonous
repetition of the vowel sound A, for a couple of blocks, and then in the
midst interjected an R, thus, A, A, A, A, A, R, A, A, A, etc., and gave
the R no emphasis, you would not be able to state, two or three weeks
afterward, that the R had been put in, nor be able to tell what objects
you were passing at the moment it was done. But you could if your
memory had been patiently and laboriously trained to do that sort of
thing mechanically.
Give a man a tolerably fair memory to start with, and piloting will
develop it into a very colossus of capability. But ONLY IN THE MATTERS
IT IS DAILY DRILLED IN. A time would come when the man’s faculties could
not help noticing landmarks and soundings, and his memory could not help
holding on to them with the grip of a vise; but if you asked that same
man at noon what he had had for breakfast, it would be ten chances to
one that he could not tell you. Astonishing things can be done with the
human memory if you will devote it faithfully to one particular line of
At the time that wages soared so high on the Missouri River, my chief,
Mr. Bixby, went up there and learned more than a thousand miles of that
stream with an ease and rapidity that were astonishing. When he had seen
each division once in the daytime and once at night, his education was
so nearly complete that he took out a ’daylight’ license; a few trips
later he took out a full license, and went to piloting day and night–
and he ranked A 1, too.
Mr. Bixby placed me as steersman for a while under a pilot whose feats
of memory were a constant marvel to me. However, his memory was born in
him, I think, not built. For instance, somebody would mention a name.
Instantly Mr. Brown would break in–
’Oh, I knew HIM. Sallow-faced, red-headed fellow, with a little scar on
the side of his throat, like a splinter under the flesh. He was only in
the Southern trade six months. That was thirteen years ago. I made a
trip with him. There was five feet in the upper river then; the “Henry
Blake” grounded at the foot of Tower Island drawing four and a half; the
“George Elliott” unshipped her rudder on the wreck of the “Sunflower”–’
’Why, the “Sunflower” didn’t sink until–’

’I know when she sunk; it was three years before that, on the 2nd of
December; Asa Hardy was captain of her, and his brother John was first
clerk; and it was his first trip in her, too; Tom Jones told me these
things a week afterward in New Orleans; he was first mate of the
“Sunflower.” Captain Hardy stuck a nail in his foot the 6th of July of
the next year, and died of the lockjaw on the 15th. His brother died
two years after 3rd of March,–erysipelas. I never saw either of the
Hardys,–they were Alleghany River men,–but people who knew them told
me all these things. And they said Captain Hardy wore yarn socks winter
and summer just the same, and his first wife’s name was Jane Shook–she
was from New England–and his second one died in a lunatic asylum. It
was in the blood. She was from Lexington, Kentucky. Name was Horton
before she was married.’
And so on, by the hour, the man’s tongue would go. He could NOT forget
any thing. It was simply impossible. The most trivial details remained
as distinct and luminous in his head, after they had lain there for
years, as the most memorable events. His was not simply a pilot’s
memory; its grasp was universal. If he were talking about a trifling
letter he had received seven years before, he was pretty sure to deliver
you the entire screed from memory. And then without observing that he
was departing from the true line of his talk, he was more than likely to
hurl in a long-drawn parenthetical biography of the writer of that
letter; and you were lucky indeed if he did not take up that writer’s
relatives, one by one, and give you their biographies, too.
Such a memory as that is a great misfortune. To it, all occurrences are
of the same size. Its possessor cannot distinguish an interesting
circumstance from an uninteresting one. As a talker, he is bound to
clog his narrative with tiresome details and make himself an
insufferable bore. Moreover, he cannot stick to his subject. He picks
up every little grain of memory he discerns in his way, and so is led
aside. Mr. Brown would start out with the honest intention of telling
you a vastly funny anecdote about a dog. He would be ’so full of laugh’
that he could hardly begin; then his memory would start with the dog’s
breed and personal appearance; drift into a history of his owner; of his
owner’s family, with descriptions of weddings and burials that had
occurred in it, together with recitals of congratulatory verses and
obituary poetry provoked by the same: then this memory would recollect
that one of these events occurred during the celebrated ’hard winter’ of
such and such a year, and a minute description of that winter would
follow, along with the names of people who were frozen to death, and
statistics showing the high figures which pork and hay went up to. Pork
and hay would suggest corn and fodder; corn and fodder would suggest
cows and horses; cows and horses would suggest the circus and certain
celebrated bare-back riders; the transition from the circus to the
menagerie was easy and natural; from the elephant to equatorial Africa
was but a step; then of course the heathen savages would suggest

religion; and at the end of three or four hours’ tedious jaw, the watch
would change, and Brown would go out of the pilot-house muttering
extracts from sermons he had heard years before about the efficacy of
prayer as a means of grace. And the original first mention would be all
you had learned about that dog, after all this waiting and hungering.
A pilot must have a memory; but there are two higher qualities which he
must also have. He must have good and quick judgment and decision, and
a cool, calm courage that no peril can shake. Give a man the merest
trifle of pluck to start with, and by the time he has become a pilot he
cannot be unmanned by any danger a steamboat can get into; but one
cannot quite say the same for judgment. Judgment is a matter of brains,
and a man must START with a good stock of that article or he will never
succeed as a pilot.
The growth of courage in the pilot-house is steady all the time, but it
does not reach a high and satisfactory condition until some time after
the young pilot has been ’standing his own watch,’ alone and under the
staggering weight of all the responsibilities connected with the
position. When an apprentice has become pretty thoroughly acquainted
with the river, he goes clattering along so fearlessly with his
steamboat, night or day, that he presently begins to imagine that it is
HIS courage that animates him; but the first time the pilot steps out
and leaves him to his own devices he finds out it was the other man’s.
He discovers that the article has been left out of his own cargo
altogether. The whole river is bristling with exigencies in a moment; he
is not prepared for them; he does not know how to meet them; all his
knowledge forsakes him; and within fifteen minutes he is as white as a
sheet and scared almost to death. Therefore pilots wisely train these
cubs by various strategic tricks to look danger in the face a little
more calmly. A favorite way of theirs is to play a friendly swindle upon
the candidate.
Mr. Bixby served me in this fashion once, and for years afterward I used
to blush even in my sleep when I thought of it. I had become a good
steersman; so good, indeed, that I had all the work to do on our watch,
night and day; Mr. Bixby seldom made a suggestion to me; all he ever did
was to take the wheel on particularly bad nights or in particularly bad
crossings, land the boat when she needed to be landed, play gentleman of
leisure nine-tenths of the watch, and collect the wages. The lower river
was about bank-full, and if anybody had questioned my ability to run any
crossing between Cairo and New Orleans without help or instruction, I
should have felt irreparably hurt. The idea of being afraid of any
crossing in the lot, in the DAY-TIME, was a thing too preposterous for
contemplation. Well, one matchless summer’s day I was bowling down the
bend above island 66, brimful of self-conceit and carrying my nose as
high as a giraffe’s, when Mr. Bixby said–
’I am going below a while. I suppose you know the next crossing?’
This was almost an affront. It was about the plainest and simplest

crossing in the whole river. One couldn’t come to any harm, whether he
ran it right or not; and as for depth, there never had been any bottom
there. I knew all this, perfectly well.
’Know how to RUN it? Why, I can run it with my eyes shut.’
’How much water is there in it?’
’Well, that is an odd question. I couldn’t get bottom there with a
church steeple.’
’You think so, do you?’
The very tone of the question shook my confidence. That was what Mr.
Bixby was expecting. He left, without saying anything more. I began to
imagine all sorts of things. Mr. Bixby, unknown to me, of course, sent
somebody down to the forecastle with some mysterious instructions to the
leadsmen, another messenger was sent to whisper among the officers, and
then Mr. Bixby went into hiding behind a smoke-stack where he could
observe results. Presently the captain stepped out on the hurricane
deck; next the chief mate appeared; then a clerk. Every moment or two a
straggler was added to my audience; and before I got to the head of the
island I had fifteen or twenty people assembled down there under my
nose. I began to wonder what the trouble was. As I started across, the
captain glanced aloft at me and said, with a sham uneasiness in his
’Where is Mr. Bixby?’
’Gone below, sir.’
But that did the business for me. My imagination began to construct
dangers out of nothing, and they multiplied faster than I could keep the
run of them. All at once I imagined I saw shoal water ahead! The wave
of coward agony that surged through me then came near dislocating every
joint in me. All my confidence in that crossing vanished. I seized the
bell-rope; dropped it, ashamed; seized it again; dropped it once more;
clutched it tremblingly one again, and pulled it so feebly that I could
hardly hear the stroke myself. Captain and mate sang out instantly, and
both together–
’Starboard lead there! and quick about it!’
This was another shock. I began to climb the wheel like a squirrel; but
I would hardly get the boat started to port before I would see new
dangers on that side, and away I would spin to the other; only to find
perils accumulating to starboard, and be crazy to get to port again.
Then came the leadsman’s sepulchral cry–
’D-e-e-p four!’
Deep four in a bottomless crossing! The terror of it took my breath
’M-a-r-k three!… M-a-r-k three… Quarter less three!… Half twain!’
This was frightful! I seized the bell-ropes and stopped the engines.
’Quarter twain! Quarter twain! MARK twain!’
I was helpless. I did not know what in the world to do. I was quaking
from head to foot, and I could have hung my hat on my eyes, they stuck

out so far.
’Quarter LESS twain! Nine and a HALF!’
We were DRAWING nine! My hands were in a nerveless flutter. I could not
ring a bell intelligibly with them. I flew to the speaking-tube and
shouted to the engineer–
’Oh, Ben, if you love me, BACK her! Quick, Ben! Oh, back the immortal
SOUL out of her!’
I heard the door close gently. I looked around, and there stood Mr.
Bixby, smiling a bland, sweet smile. Then the audience on the hurricane
deck sent up a thundergust of humiliating laughter. I saw it all, now,
and I felt meaner than the meanest man in human history. I laid in the
lead, set the boat in her marks, came ahead on the engines, and said–
’It was a fine trick to play on an orphan, WASN’T it? I suppose I’ll
never hear the last of how I was ass enough to heave the lead at the
head of 66.’
’Well, no, you won’t, maybe. In fact I hope you won’t; for I want you
to learn something by that experience. Didn’t you KNOW there was no
bottom in that crossing?’
’Yes, sir, I did.’
’Very well, then. You shouldn’t have allowed me or anybody else to
shake your confidence in that knowledge. Try to remember that. And
another thing: when you get into a dangerous place, don’t turn coward.
That isn’t going to help matters any.’
It was a good enough lesson, but pretty hardly learned. Yet about the
hardest part of it was that for months I so often had to hear a phrase
which I had conceived a particular distaste for. It was, ’Oh, Ben, if
you love me, back her!’

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