Around the Institute

Walter Isaacson Recalls the Summer He Spent Working and Reading on the Mississippi River

June 27, 2014  • Walter Isaacson

The first time I spent a summer reading for pleasure was right after I graduated from high school and was thereby liberated from those required summer books such as “The Catcher in the Rye” and “A Separate Peace” that our angst-ridden teachers mistakenly thought we’d relate to. I had a summer job working for T. Smith & Sons Stevedores on a derrick barge unloading freighters on the Mississippi River wharves of my hometown of New Orleans. I took the job partly with the romantic view that a working-class gig would be good for me. It also paid a lot; the port was thriving, and there were days I could make not only time-and-a-half but even double-time if I worked overtime on weekends. But mainly I took the job because I wanted to write a novel about the river, a hazard of being a wannabe writer in the South.

I remember most the brutal heat. The black metal deck of our derrick barge got so hot that you had to wear thick-soled boots so your feet wouldn’t burn. I also remember the coffee. It was dark roast with chicory made in a big percolator, and every time the electricity went off and on, it repercolated until, by midday, it had the consistency of (and no doubt tasted a bit like) the creosote we used to tar the deck. The saving grace was that my stint on the river came soon after the advent of container ships, so there were many hours when our barge’s crane did its work with little need of help from our six-man crew. In whatever shade I could find, I caught time to read. And every now and then, we needed to move upriver to Baton Rouge or back, which took a few hours, and I could read in the corner of the air-conditioned wheelhouse of the push boat.

Continue reading in The Washington Post.