The Steamboat Apprentice Engineer
Excerpt from Mark Twain's
Life on the Mississippi



The desire to be a steamboatman kept intruding on me. I first wanted to be a cabin-boy, so that I could come out with a white apron on and shake a tablecloth over the side, where all my old comrades could see me; later I thought I would rather be the deckhand who stood on the end of the stage-plank with the coil of rope in his hand, because he was particularly conspicuous.  But these were only day-dreams,—they were too heavenly to be contemplated as real possibilities.

By and by one of our boys went away.  He was not heard of for a long time.  At last he turned up as apprentice engineer or 'striker' on a steamboat.  This thing shook the bottom out of all my Sunday-school teachings.  That boy had been notoriously worldly, and I just the reverse; yet he was exalted to this eminence, and I left in obscurity and misery. 

There was nothing generous about this fellow in his greatness.  He would always manage to have a rusty bolt to scrub while his boat tarried at our town, and he would sit on the inside guard and scrub it, where we could all see him and envy him and loathe him. 

And whenever his boat was laid up he would come home and swell around the town in his blackest and greasiest clothes, so that nobody could help remembering that he was a steamboatman; and he used all sorts of steamboat technicalities in his talk, as if he were so used to them that he forgot common people could not understand them. 

He would speak of the "labboard" side of a horse in an easy, natural way that would make one wish he was dead.  And he was always talking about "St. Looy" like an old citizen; he would refer casually to occasions when he "was coming down Fourth Street", or when he was "passing by the Planter's House".

 

When there was a fire and he took a turn on the brakes of "the old Big Missouri"; and then he would go on and lie about how many towns the size of ours were burned down there that day. 

Two or three of the boys had long been persons of consideration among us because they had been to St. Louis once and had a vague general knowledge of its wonders, but the day of their glory was over now.  They lapsed into a humble silence, and learned to disappear when the ruthless "cub"-engineer approached. 

This fellow had money, too, and hair oil.  Also an ignorant silver watch and a showy brass watch chain.  He wore a leather belt and used no suspenders.  If ever a youth was cordially admired and hated by his comrades, this one was.  No girl could withstand his charms.  He "cut out" every boy in the village.

When his boat blew up at last, it diffused a tranquil contentment among us such as we had not known for months.  But when he came home the next week, alive, renowned, and appeared in church all battered up and bandaged, a shining hero, stared at and wondered over by everybody, it seemed to us that the partiality of Providence for an undeserving reptile had reached a point where it was open to criticism.