THE SUPREME SCIENCE
In his Mississippi book Mark Twain has given us a marvelous exposition of the science of river-piloting, and of the colossal task of acquiring and keeping a knowledge requisite for that work. He has not exaggerated this part of the story of developments in any detail; he has set down a simple confession.
Serenely enough he undertook the task of learning twelve hundred miles of the great changing, shifting river as exactly and as surely by daylight or darkness as one knows the way to his own features. As already suggested, he had at least an inkling of what that undertaking meant. His statement that he “supposed all that a pilot had to do was to keep his boat in the river” is not to be accepted literally. Still he could hardly have realized the full majesty of his task; nobody could do that —not until afterward.
Horace Bixby was a “lightning” pilot with a method of instruction as direct and forcible as it was effective. He was a small man, hot and quick-firing, though kindly, too, and gentle when he had blown off. After one rather pyrotechnic misunderstanding as to the manner of imparting and acquiring information he said:
“My boy, you must get a little memorandum-book, and every time I tell you a thing put it down right away. There’s only one way to be a pilot, and that is to get this entire river by heart. You have to know it just like A B C.”
So Sam Clemens got the little book, and presently it “fairly bristled” with the names of towns, points, bars, islands, bends, and reaches, but it made his heart ache to think that he had only half of the river set down; for, as the “watches” were four hours off and four hours on, there were long gaps during which he had slept.
The little note-book still exists—thin and faded, with black water-proof covers—its neat, tiny, penciled notes still, telling, the story of that first trip. Most of them are cryptographic abbreviations, not readily deciphered now. Here and there is an easier line:
1/4 less 3—[Depth of
water. One-quarter less than three
fathoms.]——run shape of upper bar and go into the low place in
willows about 200(ft.) lower down than last year.
One simple little note out of hundreds far more complicated. It would take days for the average mind to remember even a single page of such statistics. And those long four-hour gaps where he had been asleep, they are still there, and somehow, after more than fifty years, the old heart-ache is still in them. He got a new book, maybe, for the next trip, and laid this one away.