Life Near the Mississippi

…or Bumbling Ineptitude

Mark Twain did a remarkably clever thing when writing the memoirs of his youthful riverboating days, Life on the Mississippi, recapturing that long absent and nostalgic time when he was learning the multiplex and intimidating skills required of a riverboat pilot. The writer “invented” a “character,” the naïve and bumbling Sam, his younger self caught in the coils of his apprenticeship. (At least this character creation gimmick is what the critics frequently say.) Sam really is a goof, constantly missing the point of his pilot mastersʼ instruction, doing the wrong thing (almost inevitably), and suffering immense frustration at the overhwhelming quantity of learning being imposed on him. Sam is pretty comical, which is of course Twainʼs point, and the young manʼs scatterbrained ineptitude is good for plenty of laughs in the book. (And as I have myself demonstrated on this blog, it is the lot of younger selves to be mocked by their older versions in the good fulness of time.)

Actually, although I have read the book twice, my favorite and most familiar connection to the story is the John Deere-funded movie adaptation on public television from back in the early Eighties, which I showed annually to the American Literature and English III students as part of their Mark Twain units just before they began reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The screenwriter did an incredible job of boiling down Twainʼs meandering and often disconnected recollections (with quite a few supervising pilots) to a straightforward story of the youthful Sam irritating his master Horace Bixby, originally just one of the many pilots from the book. And the actors, exceptionally well cast, did a wonderful job bringing the late 1850s and Twainʼs treasured recollections to life (which is the reason I liked to show it to the students, other than the fact that I love the movie — to permit them to visualize and perhaps even participate in that historical past).

Anything by Twain is highly recommended, Life on the Mississippi ranking very high among all the rest of his writing, right up there with Huckleberry Finn itself, the book Hemingway said was the original source of all American writing. But I bring up the character of Sam for a mostly nonliterary reason. Undergoing training as a novice, even at my doddering and hoary age, for my current job with USDA APHIS PPQ, I notice my behavior and incompentence mimicking the bumbling young Clemens. And I begin to wonder if a halting and frustrated inadequacy isnʼt the rightful and unfortunately necessary lot of trainees.

What the possibly semi-fictional Sam and I have in common is learning by doing on the job under the tutelage of experts who are not themselves teachers. Teachers get trained to be aware of the need to explain (and re-explain and even explain again in a whole different way) concepts and skills to their youthful charges. Workers assigned to train a newbie donʼt have that educational expertise, and so their explanations tend to be slight and even vague. As Mr. Bixby says, both in the book (I think) and the film, “I canʼt explain how, but someday youʼll just know the difference naturally.” That same point covers my training in the recognition of ash trees — a few details (like the tight diamondness of the bark, the opposite branching and not much else) and reassurances that with experience “youʼll just start to get it.”

Iʼm not complaining about the instruction I received, although I am fairly sure my supervisors and partners may have some complaints about my level of acumen and skill (just like the nebbish Sam). I simply recognize what I first experienced in literature being absolutely true in real life. Absolutely and sadly true.

And tomorrow my big boss from Des Moines is coming out to “ride with me.” I am sure thatʼll be an eye-opening experience for him…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

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