Ricky Harpole column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ice storm anniversary stirs memories of river boat Ashley Jones

 While celebrating the snow we got, and the ice we missed,  I was reminded of the Great Catastrophe of ‘94.

Some of y’all might remember suffering thru two weeks to a month in the conflagration and aftermath of nature on a rampage in North Mississippi. Power lines down, busted pipes, telephone communications denigrated to prayers punctuated from time to time by cuss words (It was the first time since 1964 that the weather got cussed more than the government).

While I was not a witness to the storm itself I got a “full bait” of the results. If it hadn’t a been for than mean wife I’d afflicted myself with I might have seen it all.

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You see she had got so mean and ornery I’d decided to take a chance on drowning myself, and signed on a leaky old tub of a riverboat known as the Ashley Jones.

Now the history behind that old rust bucket goes way back to 1945. This is our story.

When World War II ended the whole country reverted to civilian scale. Ford and Dodge and Chevy had then been making tanks, jeeps and boats for the last four years; Singer Sewing Machine Company made pistols and machine guns. That helped win the war.

Happy Days.

The boys came home and President Truman showed us where the buck stopped and the yellow ribbons and old oak trees got a break.

There was also a lot of military surplus stuff to be had. Stuff like dependable EMD Detroit built engines, suitable for freight locomotives or riverboats and also pumps, winches, generators, barracks, bunks, bells and whistles. (Heck — not Harpole’s first choice of expletives — that’s a boat right there).

Thus was the Ashley Jones born. She was referred to by rivermen as a craft of the “Jack in the Box” design, that being a tow boat consisting of a single deck above water with a pilot house mounted on hydraulic stilts. That was so the pilot could see the river when he needed to (stilts up) and duck underneath bridges in times of “high water” (stilts down) and slapped together by a post war economy.

In the spring of 1960 she suffered a benzine explosion on the three fuel barges she was in process of delivering on the White River, killing the pilot and cook who were in the wheelhouse. (It was suggested that they were working on the menu).

Well, they patched her up and she limped along until she was moth-balled. About 10 years later she was recommissioned. She was leakier, uglier, rustier and twice as dangerous as ever.

Since the explosion had leveled the wheel house along with the CEO and cook, the owners decided it was a good time to replace the engines, a job much simplified by the fact that they were conveniently protruding from the hull.

For reasons never clearly explained, only one engine was replaced. As of the day in 1991 when I signed the ship’s articles, that unreplaced starboard engine was older than I am now.

In 21 days on my watch it blew 8 cylinders, sometimes singly and often in pairs and triplets. She burnt a clutch two miles above the Vicksburg bridge and set the bilges ablaze at two in the morning.

Dead in the water, in the dark, and on fire, this all happened on the trip down.

Coming back up from Lake Charles was the same but slower. Finally I came to conclude that suicide by boat was too painful.

I disembarked at Greenville to die in peace of natural causes. The first thing I noticed upon coming ashore was the absence of light. There wasn’t enough electric power in the entire Delta from Vicksburg to Memphis to light up a Budweiser sign.

The Ice Storm of ‘94 had struck a week earlier and there would be no juice for a beer cooler for another 10 days. As y’all can tell I’ve still got a lot to say about that wreck and didn’t even get a good look at in in the makin’.

Seen enough,

Ricky Harpole

P.S. During the subsequent 10 days without power, the temperatures and climate were mild. Mild enough to spoil meat. The camp at Moccasin Bend literally saved our bacon. We had acquired, years before, a WWII-era military surplus generator that was as old as the boat, and lo and behold, could and did still function as designed.

We loaded it on the back of an old Ford truck and made a daily circuit among the neighbors for a couple of hours each to keep their deep freezers from thawing out. Ain’t that something? The thaw was as rough as the freeze.

Coolin off