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Mark Twain
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Old Times On The Mississippi 1857-1860
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Learning the River
 
 
Illustration from Life on the Mississippi
Illustration from
Life on the Mississippi
Commissioner, John Clemens. Notice for the Salt Flat Navigation Company, 1837
Commissioner, John Clemens.
Notice for the Salt Flat
Navigation Company, 1837

Courtesy of Brown Brothers
Illustration from Life on the Mississippi
Illustration from
Life on the Mississippi
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Hamlin Hill, “His Harvard and His Yale”


Now and then Mr. Bixby called my attention to certain things. Said he, “This is Six-Mile Point.” I assented. It was pleasant enough information, but I could not see the bearing of it. I was not conscious that it was a matter of any interest to me. Another time he said, “This is Nine-Mile Point.” Later he said, “This is Twelve-Mile Point.” They were all about level with the water’s edge; they all looked about alike to me; they were monotonously unpicturesque. I hoped Mr. Bixby would change the subject...

[Clemens and Bixby moved up the river and on the next watch, Bixby decided to quiz his young cub:]

“What’s the name of the first point above New Orleans?”

I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.

“Don’t know... What’s the name of the next point?”

Once more I didn’t know.

“Well, this beats anything. Tell me the name of any point or place I told you.”

I studied a while and decided that I couldn’t.

“Look here! What do you start out from, above Twelve-Mile Point, to cross over?”

“I—I—don't know.”

“You—you—don’t know?" mimicking my drawling manner of speech. “What do you know?”

“I—I—nothing, for certain.”

“By the great Csar’s ghost, I believe you...The idea of you being a pilot—you! Why, you don’t know enough to pilot a cow down a lane... Look here! What do you suppose I told you the names of those points for?”

I tremblingly considered a moment, and then the devil of temptation provoked me to say:— “Well—to—to—be entertaining, I thought.”

This was a red rag to the bull. He raged and stormed so (he was crossing the river at the time) that I judge it made him blind, because he ran over the steering-oar of a trading-scow. Of course the traders sent up a volley of red-hot profanity. Never was a man so grateful as Mr. Bixby was... He threw open a window, thrust his head out, and such an irruption followed as I never had heard before...When he closed the window he was empty. You could have drawn a seine through his system and not caught curses enough to disturb your mother with. Presently he said to me in the gentlest way:—

“My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, and every time I tell you a thing, put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.”

Mark Twain, “Old Times on the Mississippi,” 1875. Later reprinted in Life on the Mississippi, 1883

 
 
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