Carl Schurz, Pilot

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Carl Schurz, Pilot  (1906) 
by Mark Twain
From Harper's Weekly, May 26, 1906, p. 727.


CARL SCHURZ, PILOT



By Mark Twain



We all realize that the release of Carl Schurz is a heavy loss to the country; some of us realize that it is a heavy loss to us individually and personally. As a rule, I have had a sufficiency of confidence — perhaps over-confidence — in my ability to hunt out the right and sure political channel for myself, and follow it to the deep water beyond the reef without getting aground; but there have been times, in the past thirty years, when I lacked that confidence — then I dropped into Carl Schurz's wake, saying to myself, “he is as safe as Ben Thornburgh.” When I was a young pilot on the Mississippi nearly half a century ago, the fellowship numbered among its masters three incomparables: Horace Bixby, Beck Jolly, and Ben Thornburgh. Where they were not afraid to venture with a steamboat, the rest of the guild were not afraid to follow. Yet there was a difference; of the three, they preferred to follow Thornburgh; for sometimes the other two depended on native genius and almost inspirational water-reading to pick out the lowest place on the reef, but that was not Ben Thornburgh's way; if there were serious doubts he would stop the steamer and man the sounding-barge and go down and sound the several crossings and lay buoys upon them. Nobody needed to search for the best water after Ben Thornburgh. If he could not find it, no one could. I felt that way about him; and so, more than once I waited for him to find the way, then dropped into his steamer's wake and ran over the wrecks of his buoys on half steam until the leadsman's welcome cry of “mark twain” informed me that I was over the bar all right, and could draw a full breath again.

I had this same confidence in Carl Schurz as a political channel-finder. I had the highest opinion of his inborn qualifications for the office: his blemishless honor, his unassailable patriotism, his high intelligence, his penetration; I also had the highest opinion of his acquired qualifications as a channel-finder. I believed he could read the political surfaces as accurately as Bixby could read the faint and fleeting signs upon the Mississippi's face — the pretty dimple that hid a deadly rock, the ostentatious wind-reef that had nothing under it, the sleek and inviting dead stretch that promised quarter-less-twain and couldn't furnish six feet. And — more than all — he was my Ben Thornburgh, in this: whenever he struck out a new course over a confused Helena Reach or a perplexed Plum Point Bend I was confident that he had not contented himself with reading the water, but had hoisted out his sounding barge and buoyed that maze from one end to the other. Then I dropped into his wake and followed. Followed with perfect confidence. Followed, and never regretted it.

I have held him in the sincerest affection, esteem, and admiration for more than a generation. I have not always sailed with him politically, but whenever I have doubted my own competency to choose the right course, I have struck my two-taps-and-one (“get out the port and starboard leads”), and followed him through without doubt or hesitancy. By and by I shall wish to talk of Carl Schurz the man and friend, but not now; at this time I desire only to offer this brief word of homage and reverence to him, as from grateful pupil in citizenship to the master who is no more.


Note. — Leadsman's cries: “quarter-less-twain,” 10½ feet of water; “mark twain,” two fathoms (12 feet).


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923. It may be copyrighted outside the U.S. (see Help:Public domain).