RED RAFT PART I
This was the first image to come to me, in this series, after I was reading about Capt Shreve, who opened up steamboat traffic on the Mississippi and cleared the Red Raft, a 150 mile log jam clogging the Red River with his invention the “Snag-boat”. Shreveport was named after him. What’s also interesting about him is that he played a part in the Battle of New Orleans in 1814. He piloted the Brownsville, Pennsylvania built “Enterprise” delivering guns and supplies to Andrew Jackson and the troops defending New Orleans against the British. Because he violated inventor and artist Robert Fulton’s Monopoly of steamboat traffic on lower Mississippi he was put in jail. When he was released he piloted the Enterprise back up to Brownsville. After returning to New Orleans with a new double decker shallow draft steamboat In 1816 (after Robert Fulton’s death ) he broke the Fulton-Livingston monopoly and opened up the Lower Mississippi to more steamboat traffic, with all the myriad opportunities for trade, commerce, entertainment and even steamboat racing.
In 1986 when I had first started on painting like I do now, I was offered a trip to be the “artist ” on a steamboat trip up the Mississippi from New Orleans .I was very poor at the time and any change of pace was welcome. So I got in my old blue truck and made my way to New Orleans to get on the steamboat. I had made an appointment to show my work to a gallery while I was there and when I arrived at my appointed time, I was pretty much rushed out the door as soon as I arrived. So much for the Bienville Gallery. I licked my wounds and made my way to the boat and my contact there- a cruise director of some sort. She had a younger assistant Cheryl who would be handling my situation. I was hired to be the artist for the cruise and I was to show my paintings and give a painting demonstration that Saturday at noon though the early afternoon, about 3 hours. We left on a Friday, so that would be the next day.. In return I was to get my $150.00 or what ever the amount was and I could eat and drink as much as I wanted ,watch as many movies as I wanted in the theater ,and sleep as much as I wanted in my 3rd deck berth. If there were any sales I would get all the money. The steamboat would slowly make it’s way up river stopping at plantation homes and points of interest along the way and in the course of the week we would turn around and make our way back to New Orleans.
When I arrived at the opening cruise dinner party that evening I was seated next to a genial geriatric group at my table. I looked around and to my surprise most of the people there were retirees. There was no one younger than 70. The main tour director took the podium and started talking about the boat , safety issues, the itinerary ,entertainments on board, the 7 different buffets that were laid out during the day and night, then finally the personalities. He started with the captain and crew. The actress Helen Hayes was on board, was introduced and took a bow. Eventually after introducing seeming like everyone even the bathroom attendants, I was introduced and took my bow. I felt like an oddity, a curiosity, like an ostrich at a zoo. I guess it didn’t help much that I had long hair and a beard. Helen and her party seated at the next table turned and looked at me. I slunked down and tried to hide. I felt like a grandchild. The food was put out buffet style, with a wide variety served and was rather rich. I had been on the rice and beans diet, and probably showed it, weighing in at 145-150. I wasn’t drinking much alcohol at the time so after I ate my little portion I excused myself and disappeared out on the deck to catch the evening air. We had departed and being on the rear deck , near the paddle wheel, on the Mississippi River was in retrospect the best part of the experience. After the sun had set I made my way in the shadows through the gambling parlor where old men were piling up plastic chips and pretending they were riverboat gamblers. In the distance there was music. I walked back on deck and was looking through the portholes as I passed each one. There was a dance- big band music in the main salon. Elderly couples were cruising about. Dinner had been cleared and the orderlies were laying out the mid evening buffet. I got bored and figured I would go see a movie. I looked at my map of the boat and the theater was on the 5th deck, in the bowels of the ship. When I finally negotiated the maze of tunnels I found the door – a hollow core door with a gold anodized plate spelling out “THEATRE” in black caps. there was no marquee, no posters with coming attractions. I opened the door and sat down in one of the 10 seats and started to watch the John Wayne movie already in progress. I was alone, I felt alone. In the back corner there was a self serve popcorn machine.I made a some an sat through the end and start of the movie again. After the movie had arrived back at where I came in, I retired to my stateroom and crashed.
When I got up the next morning I did some yoga and meditated a while, then figured I would get some breakfast. The buffet line was long and I was informed this was the midmorning buffet , the early morning buffet had been cleared and this was just laid out. There were every kind of breakfast food and drink I could imagine. I had some orange juice and whole wheat bagels and hid in the corner and planned out my presentation later on in the day. Helen Hayes and her hanger ons arrived and sat in their reserved breakfast seating. The orderlies were deferential to her and even the other passengers moved out of the way to let her pass. I lurked in the corner and slipped out when I could. “Oh, Mister Pavy !” the assistant tour director “, Cheryl ,who actually was around my age, flagged me down, came running up and told me that my job started at noon and If i wanted to eat before, the late brunch buffet started at 11 in the ballroom.She was standing a little close. I had just eaten breakfast and now she was planning for more food for me. I nervously smiled and mumbled something about getting it all together for my “gig”. She looked puzzled and asked “a frog gig?” .
I gathered up all my paints and some canvases and made it up to the top deck where I was to have my demonstration.I had tucked my blonde ponytail in my shirt in the back. Starting time was at noon, so the traffic passing by was heading to the noon buffet in the dining room that had just replaced the mid morning buffet. I put my paintings on the easels supplied to me and started to paint. I was pretty much ignored my everyone. After a while the assistant cruise director came up and asked how it was going. I gave a golden evaluation of the trip and the many interested parties that had stopped by and engaged in art appreciation. It was about that time I saw the Hayes Group approaching. Slowly they walked, talking, enjoying the shade and when they were close Mrs. Hayes actually started to look at my work. She moved from canvas to canvas scrutinizing the images. I had a chance to examine her too. Her raiments were updated 80′s version of 20′s fashion. Old lady clothes, but done stylishly. Her carriage was one of poise. Her companion tugged on her sleeve and pointed to a painting of mine. “OH, look Helen, a bucket of fish” the words just fell out of her mouth slathered in a southern drawl. Miss Hayes nodded and glanced my way and nodded again. They walked off. I felt like the 4th stooge. I went back to painting a gate scene to a plantation I was doing. ” Look Wilfred it’s the Ar-tist!”. I turned my head to face a slightly portly couple. The wife was younger ,50′s I mused ,I had missed her in the sea of 70 years olds. She had a bright red buffont, football helmet type of hairdo, with big glasses and a lilac polyester suit/pants. She had what looked like diamond rings on every finger. The husband was smartly dressed in a light yellow polo shirt with stripes and kaki pants. Crewcut, cologne,red neck, gold rings, gold chains with gold pendent, I recognized the type; Oil field Trash. He was chewing on a toothpick and sizing me up. The wife was digging through my sketches and prints eagerly like a hamster. He just keep chewing, squinted at me, spit, and finally looked out over the water. I swallowed and started to sweat a little. She started looking at the paintings. “How much is this one?” she was pointing at the bucket of fish. Apparently this was a hit with the elderly. Why didn’t I paint two? I asked myself. “It’s $200.00” I said. In those days $200 was what I was charging for a small canvas. I could squeeze $800 of living out of that $200. “Wilfred!?” she whined. “Two Hundred Dollars!?” He looked at me like I was robbing them at knifepoint, then turned his head to her. “Irma, I can get you a bucket of fish for free”. His head moved back and forth, but his body stayed in one place. He kind of looked like a southern Cracker Max Headroom the way he moved his head. When he made a point, he would tilt his head and the words would pour out. “How about $50.00 Blondie?.” My ponytail had slipped out. I got a little angry. “Oh, Wilfred! , you are just too Rude.” She looked at me and repeated ” He is just too rude” shaking her red football helmet hairdo and fingering my drawings again. Wilfred got a little closer. His head tilted again and the words came out: ” I need my house painted” he said dryly. I looked at her and back at him. He smiled and playfully hit me on the shoulder, although it hurt a bit. ” Just pay him the money, I want it” she was shrill at this point and was staring at him. The “want” sounded like “wont” with an o. I rubbed my shoulder. I felt embarrassed for him, and scared of HER. It’s funny how your adversary becomes your friend in the face of a common foe. Sheepishly he took out a large wad of bills and peeled 2 100′s off the top. I wrapped the painting as she was jabbering something about the plantation. As I handed the painting and thanked him, she told me I reminded her of her nephew, Jessie, who lived somewhere in Alabama. After all that excitement I went and got a beer to celebrate. I painted my time out with a few more viewers . Then the assistant tour directer showed up again, and told me that my time was up. She was chatting me up a bit as I packed up. ” You know, there’s not a lot of younger people on board this boat” she said. This caught my radar. I took a good look at her : Loose Perm,brunette, kind of plain in a plain way, not my type at all ,but she was right, there was nobody young on this float. She smiled and walked off saying ” I have to work the Ballroom tonight”. Was that an invitation? I asked myself? Is she checking me out? I was puzzled.
to be continued………..