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A river that commands truth

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I used to live near the Mississippi River. In fact, I lived there longer than Mark Twain did, and like him I have seen the great waterway in a constantly varied array of moods. I have seen it so smooth a passing swallow would perturb its surface with the slight wash of its wings. At other times it surges with churned whitecaps. I have seen vague wisps of mist rise from its surface and huge rolls of steam fog boil out of it into the morning sun when a sudden cold had come in the night.

I have seen the sun set across it, striping a path of yellow, or fuschia, or dull red, or if the ice covered it, staining the whole river surface with its juices. And I have seen it shrouded in bales of fog that only island treetops faintly surmounted.

I have seen a mayfly hatch of hundreds of millions lift out of its moiling waters and weigh down the trees and bushes near its banks. And when all such creatures are snug in its chill mud, I have seen barge tows bull through ice more than two feet thick and push huge chunks, strangely clear, into windrows near the shore.

I have floated on my back in the river in starlight, felt the shoulder of its current in flood, boated quietly behind wooded islands that let one set aside all of present-day America, and return to a world of fish, herons, and the heavy green of viny trees.

But I never knew the river anything like the way Twain did. Not only did he spend a boyhood near it, and in a river-centered society, but also he became a riverboat pilot. It is the people who guide the big boats on the river who know its depths and sinuosities as the rest of us cannot as we look at it or glide in small boats through its channels and shallows without great concern for its underwater nature.

Weekend water-ski boats will swing around the foot of an island, even leaving plenty of room, and drive into a mud bank, unaware that every island tails off in a bar downstream, often one longer than the island itself. No towboat operator would be so silly.

In reading Twain's river novels we sense the exact rightness of each slight evocation of the river, and in his nonfiction masterpiece, ``Life on the Mississippi,'' which preceded ``The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn'' and perhaps stimulated its completion, we learn in humorous but telling detail of Twain's schooling as a pilot, learning the shape of a thousand miles of ever-changing river in all kinds of weather and states of light, holding it all in memory.


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