Dennis Shannon: The Great Party Barge Battle
"A foul night such as this preceded one of the greatest battles this countryside was ever to know.”
With that and a free round of drinks we decided to wait out a storm.
We were sitting at a table at Ray’s Riverfront Tap. The three of us, me, Lonnie and Pete, were just starting our Friday night. As we worked odd days, it was actually Monday night meaning we had the place to ourselves. So we drank a round to celebrate our continued, stable employment and then a second to celebrate the next two days avoiding it.
We were thinking of making it an early night. The place was slow, a storm was coming in from the west and while we had no problems waiting it out, there were no ball games on and none of us felt like drinking to the point where we would enjoy reality television.
That’s when Ray himself lumbered over to the table with a
free round of drinks and laid that line about some kind of battle on us.
“What battle?” I asked.
Pete looked up at Ray and gave an understanding nod.
“What?” said Lonnie, sensing an impending burst of ignorance.
Pete obliged. “During World War II the Germans sent U-boats up the Mississippi and into various rivers to plant bombs and destroy our lock and dam system. Hitler wanted to cripple all river traffic and hurt the war effort.”
I considered politely bouncing a bottle off the side of his head, but Ray pulled a chair up to our table and gave him a stare that shut him up from then on.
Ray then began, “It was 1978, the Fourth of July.”
The three of us smiled, imagining all sorts of disasters involving fireworks and alcohol while Ray continued.
“Though it actually started when some of our more promotional-minded officials thought it would be nice if we had some kind of Fourth of July attraction. We couldn’t compete with the big firework shows in the larger towns and any carnival ride company had long since been booked. Someone suggested a Civil War re-enactment which seemed practical and best of all cheap. A bunch of guys bringing their own uniforms and muzzle loaders to someone’s field, then facing off and creating one hell of a racket. Then we found out there are certain groups who do that sort of thing and they were just as booked as the carnival ride people.
“No way to do it yourself?” Lonnie asked.
“We just didn’t have the resources or the time for anything very big.” Ray said. “We would have had to involve a lot of people and there were worries about some of the less responsible members of the community getting their hands on that much black powder.
“Then someone had the idea of staging a re-enactment of the famous battle of the Civil War ironclads the Monitor and the Merrimack. And as no one else had come up with anything and it seemed like a long shot idea, the town council agreed to stake a little money to help fund such an event if two suitable water craft could be found to represent each side.
“Now Mitchell Dugan happened to be the foremost builder of party barges at the time. He’d get his hands on some barrels and planks and in no time create something like a floating back yard patio, sturdy enough to last almost until fall. Dugan figured with just a little extra work he could add a few trimmings and turn this year’s barge into something resembling an ironclad, especially if the town were kicking in a few extra dollars for the project.
“At almost exactly the same time, a challenger was found. Gus Reed, a farmer from the other side of the river, had collected on a lawsuit involving a near-sighted deer hunter and one of his prize cows. Long story short-- he bought a brand new Sun Tracker party barge and was looking to do some serious boating. As I remember, the thing was sharp. It was smaller than Dugan’s creation but faster and more maneuverable. It’s very presence was a challenge to Dugan’s hand-crafted work.
“There were a few grumblings. Some local historians thought if Reed’s Sun Tracker was going to represent the Monitor, it had to have a turret with twin guns. Reed squashed the idea, refusing to take off the canvas top to put on a half-assed cardboard turret, then for good measure told the historians where to put their twin guns. They agreed to quit complaining but hoped he would at least wear a uniform or something. Reed did show considerable interest in a photo of Admiral David Farragut.
“Dugan wanted himself and his crew decked out in Confederate Navy uniforms but made the mistake of calling an expert. The guy went on about how they were different from Army uniforms and about the Confederate Navy and different types of ships and battle tactics and ironclads and technology of the time and the only reason Dugan’s interest was kept was that he had put the phone down, grabbed a good-sized, plastic Viking helmet and stuck a wooden rod with an attached Confederate flag through the top. I was hanging out in his garage at the time with his son. I still remember the lecture continuing from the ignored phone receiver while Dugan put the helmet on and declared himself ‘Olaf, Viking mercenary for the South!’”
At this point we ordered another round. Ray got up to fetch three more beers and I wondered if the storm or the story would clear up first.
Ray continued as he brought over the beer. “Yeah, things were a little weird, but us kids were anxious to see what would happen next. Dugan just picked up the receiver and interrupted the guy in mid-sentence to invite him to ‘come witness some staggering authenticity.’ Then he straightened his horns and snapped us a salute.
“At high noon on July 4th the barges set off from opposite sides of the river. To everyone’s surprise, Reed had gotten into the spirit of the thing with a uniform that could be seen from anywhere along either riverbank. He was wearing an exact replica of David Farragut’s Admiral’s uniform- precision-tailored Union blue jacket, twin rows of twelve brass buttons reflecting the sun, service stripes on the cuffs and shoulder boards denoting his distinguished rank. Unfortunately his crew completely misunderstood what was going on and showed up dressed like pirates.
“Just as they started to cross, there was a boom from upriver and Dugan’s barge drifted into view- a massive overbuilt sight of angled boards on a platform barely helped along by a single motor. Dugan stood at what might have been the controls, his twin white horns distinguishing him from the rest of his crew. My Mom was impressed that he got the name Merrimack right, painted in elegant white letters on the side. My Dad was impressed that the thing floated.
“As the boats approached each other to recreate the famous Battle of Hampton Roads, we all noticed two things. The Merrimack, while large and imposing, was too big to control very well. The Monitor on the other hand was being helmed by someone either incompetent or drunk and was not being controlled at all. And in ten seconds the famous standoff became a spectacular collision.
“What resulted was about what you would expect from a North versus South, brother against brother, Viking against Pirate fistfight.”
Ray leaned back on his chair and stared at the ceiling. “Things on the water got completely out of hand. Luckily, both boats caught fire.”
“How’d that happen?” I had to ask.
“Well, they figured the grills got knocked over in the collision.”
“Grills?” Lonnie asked.
“As I said, the town council agreed to help fund this project and there happened to be leftover money for vital provisions for the crews like food, beer, cigarettes. So both boats had barbecue grills. At least it stopped the fighting.”
Ray continued, “I was standing on the bank with my Dad and Uncle Henry. Uncle Henry was chief of our volunteer Fire Department and an island of sanity this particular day. He planned on doing a show for us kids and was dressed up as Mark Twain- white suit, white mustache, full head of white hair. He put a hand on my shoulder and said in a slow Missouri drawl, ‘Raymond, my boy. Never underestimate stupid.’ Then he sauntered over to the fire engine he had standing by for just such an emergency.
“The current was now bringing the boats closer to shore, turning them slowly as it did. And standing there to meet the disaster was Mark Twain, plopping on a Fire Chief helmet and personally manning the hose that extinguished both fires and blasted the entire collection of shouting idiocy into the water.
“What was left floating of the boats was tied up while some guys in john boats and bass boats picked up both crews, except for Reed who they refused to rescue until he agreed not to sue anyone.
“And the Fire Department was declared the winner of the first and last annual Civil War naval reenactment.”
Ray got up and slipped into the back to do whatever bartenders seem to do when it’s time to close up. The storm had passed for the most part. All that was left of the evening was a steady rain and a suddenly sizeable bar tab.
Pete spoke, “That was the most ridiculous thing I ever heard.”
Lonnie and I finished our last beers.
“Yeah,” Lonnie said. “But well told.” DSS
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