It took author, photographer and artist Melody Golding more than 10 years to put together her new book, “Life Between the Levees: America’s Riverboat Pilots.” During that decade, she interviewed more than 100 river pilots and the book is a collection of their first-person narratives along with 130 of the author’s, sometimes stunning, photos.
This is more than a compilation of interesting, historical and often laugh-out-loud recollections of “river rats”. It’s a love story from a woman who is the wife of Golding Barge Line’s Steve Golding. In fact, the book is dedicated to him. She writes, “This book I affectionately dedicate to my husband and true-life river man, Steve Golding, without whose expertise, unending support, and encouragement, it would never have been written.”
The book includes stories from the 1920s until today, with remembrances from towboat, tug and passenger vessel pilots, the oldest of whom was born in 1917 and the youngest in the 1980s.
Perhaps the book’s most endearing quality is the authentic storytelling of these pilots. One gets the sense the stories would be told the same way in a barroom or at a kitchen table.
Capt. Gene Neal started his career in 1956. At 15, he worked during his summer vacation aboard a boat called the Templeton, owned by Capt. (no first name given) Templeton. “He was a tremendous size man. He was tall and wide and thick … so big he couldn’t get on the boat like other people. The last time I remember him getting on a boat, he went down on the old wharf barge…. He was so big they had a seat made for him on this crane, and it would pick him up and then sit him over on the front deck of the boat.”
The book, available this summer, is almost the size of a coffee table book. It’s not something one would take to read on the beach. Instead, it’s a great companion to have around to pick up and read an entry or two at a time. “I traveled thousands of miles to interview my pilots and went all over the Inland Waterway System to many towns and ports in my quest,” Golding writes in her forward, “climbing aboard vessels, and carrying my backpack, cameras, recording gear, and lifejacket. It has been well worth the trek.”