My brother Bob Walters is 351 days younger than me. When my parents divorced back in about 1970, Bob chose to live with my mom and spent about a third of his childhood in Florida, another third in Louisiana and the rest at our family home in Poynette.
In mid-May I received a call that changed my life, and lives of my sisters Lynn and Chrissy, and brothers Mike and Tom. It is very hard for me to write this, but Bob is very sick, and on that day in May, the five of us did the first of many group calls and agreed to take care of our brother in all facets of his life.
We have been doing shifts taking care of him in Walker, Louisiana and this past week I received word that I needed to get down to Walker ASAP. That call meant I had no time to do field work for a story, so instead I am going to write about the Mississippi River, which I followed as I did the 1,122-mile drive by myself to see my brother.
When I graduated from high school, in no way was I college material. At the time, my brothers Tom and Mike sent me money in an envelope that said “buy a one-way ticket out of Poynette, you can always come home.”
I chose to hunt all fall in Wisconsin and in early December of 1979, I flew to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to spend the winter with my mom and brother Bob.
One of my first thoughts was that I did not like the city, or living in my mom’s duplex.
My next thought was that I wanted to be a deckhand on a riverboat and work 30 days on, and than have 30 days off.
For seven weeks, each Monday I had a taxi pick me up at my mom’s at 7 a.m. and I parked my rear on the steps of Choten Transportation, which was a company that haD several towboats that pushed fuel, grain and chemicals up the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers.
Six weeks in a row the personnel director, Roger Davies, walked by a skinny 18-year-old kid as he went up the steps of his building to work. Up until the seventh week, Mr. Davies always said “no,” and then I guess you could say persistence paid off, as I was finally granted an interview and was hired.
Long story short, I became a deckhand on board The Universal Trader, and worked 30-day shifts that I extended to 90, and would work six hours on, followed by 6 hours off. We pushed full gasoline and lube oil barges from New Orleans to Louisville, Kentucky, and then returned those then-empty barges back home.
I had a ton of money, a very dangerous job and lots of time off. The adventures were nonstop for a kid that was a senior in high school the previous January.
Fast forward eight years, and I had made the decision that I was going to attempt to canoe up the entire Mississippi River. I was 26 and had a huge pull in my soul to do something very different with my life. I practiced on the Mississippi in Baton Rouge, and let me tell you, it is impossible to explain this part of the Mississippi. It is either 100 percent industrialized, or as redneck and back country as you will find in the United States.
My journey covered 980 miles. I blew out a wrist and elbow, and it was incredible. Danger was almost an hourly event, and once I was sunk by a ship on The Gulf of Mexico.
Thunderstorms arrived almost every afternoon, and I always ignored them. My friends piloting the riverboats learned of my story, and always waved and often invited me on board for an awesome meal.
Once I was paddling upriver around a sharp bend that had almost more current then I had muscle. I was being hit by a storm that was so powerful that I could see no more than 50 yards.
Bad luck came my way when just like that, a river boat headed south with empty barges arrived out of nowhere and was on a dead-on collision to eat me like a whale consuming a minnow. I used every bit of my body and soul to pull right and the left blade of my kayak paddle actually hit the empty barges as they sailed past.
At the very moment that the captain saw me, a bolt of lightning hit the riverboat and myself and changed my life.
I should have drowned or blew up, and instead, just like that, the storm passed and my life changed as I swore to God, that from that moment on, I knew I would never settle for a normal life again.
The following year I took a job managing a fishing camp in Canada. The year after that, in 1989, I started writing this column and have never missed a deadline.
Make your dreams become reality!