A love story and a ghost story

For three years, Barry was my crew chief aboard a 135’ Mississippi sternwheeler I used to captain on the Upper Mississippi. But he was more than that. He was an incorrigible practical joker and a daredevil. He rode his 1000cc motorcycle at insane speeds, pulling the occasional wheelie. He made up outlandish stories about our stretch of the river and fed them almost daily to our 300 enthralled tourists. Did they know that the Sasquatch was once seen in those woods by Monkey Rudder Bend? And that Mark Twain himself had lived in a cabin near Fort Snelling? And that those large electrical wires strung across the river near the airport – the ones that had those huge orange balls strung through them so planes could see them – well, did they know they were filled with helium to help keep the wires up? It went on and on.

Happy-go-lucky Barry, with his delightful, infectious laugh. He just had fun with people.

He had also fallen in love with a charming young crewmember named Lisa. He smiled even more often. And, finally, Barry had realized his dream of buying Dave’s Ark, my houseboat, as I was planning a move back to the ocean. We consummated the sale, though he told me to keep the deal secret; his parents probably wouldn’t approve. All in all, things were going pretty well for this young man.

But life can be fleeting. On a hot summer day that year, between cruises, I had to drive by car to Minneapolis for some supplies. Barry was left in charge of the crew who were washing down the ship. I returned a couple hours later to find the wharf filled with police cars, fire engines and an ambulance. Terrified, I shot down the stairs and across the gangway. One of my crew, a young man of perhaps 21, stared at me, a shattered, distraught look in his eyes.

“Barry slipped, Cap. From the third deck. Tried to dive off. Slipped. Tried to push away on the way down. I was right there. Hit his head on the main deck guardrail. Disappeared into the river. God, they just found him.” He started sobbing.

And so came the mourning. The funeral. I gave the eulogy, looking at Barry’s girlfriend, Lisa, and his parents in the front row. And slowly, the healing began. I knew Barry was often in our heads, all of us in the crew. And now he owned my houseboat. After the reception, I told his parents about his secret, and that I would give them his money back. “We want to keep it, rename it the Barry D in his honor,” they said.

“That may not be practical; maybe that’s just an emotional response right now,” I said.

“No,” they replied, we’re going to name it after him.

A tribute. And that’s what happened.

The season wound down. There were only a few charters left. I began to pack up the things from my houseboat. That night there was a wedding reception on board the ship. It was a late one, and passengers finally finished disembarking well after midnight. From the pilothouse, I put on the music the crew liked, turned up the master amplifier to the standard level of #2 (though Barry had always wanted it LOUD). I locked the pilothouse as required and headed down to the main deck bar to grab a beer.

Down on the main deck, I watched Barry’s girl Lisa restocking the bottles at the bar, occasionally stopping to wipe tears away from her eyes. The other crew were busy vacuuming the carpet in front of the bar and around the tables, seeming to move with the music piped in over the 20 overhead speakers. And that’s when it happened. The volume shot up five times its level. Everyone stopped. The vacuums stopped. Lisa looked up at me, as did the other crew members.

“Who’s been in the pilothouse?” Sean, the new crew chief asked.

“No one,” I replied. “It’s locked.”

The music was blaring.

I shot up the port-side stairs of the first and second decks, unlocked the pilothouse and, not bothering to turn on the light, grabbed the flashlight on the console and shined it up at the master amplifier. It was pegged at #10. I grabbed the knob and shut it down to 0.

Now, I’ve never SEEN a ghost, but right then, as sure as I’m writing this, I FELT one.

Barry’s infectious laugh invaded my whole being, my body tingling from head to toe.

I shot down three flights of stairs to the live world of the main deck.

All the crew were staring at me. “Who turned it up?” Sean asked.

“Barry,” I said. They all looked at me. Strangely.

All except Lisa. Who just smiled.

And I knew she’d felt him, too.

Dave Roper’s novel, “Rounding the Bend: The Life and Times of Big Red,” was released last June and is available from Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.