Chicago, My Brother

Chicago, My Brother – Watercolor – 7.5 x 11 inches.

His name is Daniel. It’s the name he was christened with, the name known by all of our sisters and brothers, cousins, aunts and uncles, family and friends. However, during the years he worked as a deckhand on towboats that transport thousands of tons of cargo up and down the Mississippi River, his name was “Chicago.”

I drew this portrait of him when we were on board the Twain Marengo, a twin-engine 5,600 horsepower vessel on its way upriver from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to St. Paul, Minnesota. I was a guest passenger; he was working as part of a crew of nine bargemen. (By the way, the vessels are called ”towboats” even though they push the barges ahead of them rather than pull them behind.) On this voyage, the Twain Marengo was towing/pushing 15 barges loaded with 22,000 tons of coal, road salt, wheat, paper, corn and tinplate. Each barge measured 33 ft. wide and 200 ft. in length. When they were all yoked together with steel cables and cabled to the Twain Marengo, the whole lot measured nearly a ¼ mile in length, longer than the length of the Queen Mary. And all of this tonnage of boat and cargo was pushing against the flow of one of the most relentless forces on Earth, the Mississippi River.

In spite of the massive sizes of the boat and the barges, a malfunction of one of the smallest components can shut down everything. In this watercolor, my brother is repairing a small part of one of the diesel engines. The painting is only a small memory of our time together on the River. I intend to write a longer story of that voyage. The first part, of course, will be an answer to the question: Dan, how in the world did you get the name, “Chicago?”

One thought to “Chicago, My Brother”

  1. I am always interested and take delight in finding the relationships between form and function in art, in all the arts, really, whether visual, verbal, musical, theatrical. This propensity probably comes most especially from having studied poetry, where nothing is superfluous. Everything (rhyme, rhythm, word choice, metaphor, grammar, sight and sound) everything functions to convey the feeling, the beauty, the art. And John Michael in this sense never falters, certainly not in “Chicago, My Brother.” Note, for example, the contrasts between the human and the mechanical: steel versus flesh, the suppleness of the hands versus the rigidity of the machinery. But then, also, the similarities: the angle of Dan’s elbow and angles of the apparatus he is working on; Dan’s erect, straight back and the rigid straightness of the vise handle. So, the forms convey the functions: similarities, differences, comparison and contrast. A balance of dynamic elements in play. Then again, the title of the work does that too: the rough, tough, glass and steel of the big city, Chicago, versus the softness, the caress of “my brother.” One need not recall Carl Sandburg’s ode to the city in “Chicago,” but it is apt: “Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.”

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