Tuesday, November 29, 2022



The first time I worked for ACBL, I received a message that I was to report to the engineering office in Louisville, Kentucky before I went to catch my boat. This message set the whole alarm panel off, all lights were flashing, and the siren was in full howl. I hadn't done anything (at least, nothing that I was aware of!) to rate a private audience, so I gave Chuck Miller a call to see if I could get some inside information.

Chuck had been my boss at Valley Line, and we had had an excellent rapport ever since the Valley Transporter had burned up underneath me. He had come over in the transition after ACBL bought us, and he was based in the engineering office in Louisville. I got him on the phone at the first opportunity, told him what the message had been, and asked what was up, specifically if I was in any kind of hot water. He laughed and said, no, no hot water to worry about, but he couldn't tell me what it was about. He just assured me that it was nothing bad.

A few days after this conversation, it was time to leave for Louisville. I had a ride from the boat store in Hennepin to the Peoria airport to pick up a rental car for the trip; once settled in the rental, I pointed it southeast for the long drive to Louisville and got a hotel room near the office. The meeting was scheduled for ten the next morning, so I was able to have a good breakfast out with the company picking up the tab, always nice.

At 1000 the next morning, I arrived at the office and was taken to a meeting room. Already there ahead of me was Tim Robinson, an engineer from Sioux City & New Orleans, Kenny Eads, an ACBL engineer, and Lance Jones, a young Valley engineer. Everybody said hello, and I poured a cup of coffee, had a seat, and asked what this was all about. Nobody had any idea, they were all equally mystified.

Shortly afterward, Butch Barras walked in. He was the head of engineering at that time and a very bad boss. Sneaky, underhanded, and arrogant, he was somebody best avoided. (More on that later.) He opened this with a speech the likes of which I've never heard: everything said and done in this room, stays in this room. When we are done here, we will take a thirty minute break for you to think it over, and then you are to tell us yea or nay. You are not to discuss this with anyone, including your family. We're sitting there all wondering what in the hell this is all about.

He finally got out of secrecy mode and got down to it. They were going to start an operation on the Orinoco River in Venezuela. It was to be a 300+ mile run, from the coast to an inland mine, to move bauxite for export to the coast for transshipment. We were to keep the boats running, and train locals for the job at the same time. The work cycle was to be sixty days on, and thirty days off. The Orinoco was an unmarked river, so there was that to add another element of excitement to this. He droned on for a while, and when we got to a Q&A session, Kenny Eads was the first to ask the obvious question. He looked at Barras and said, "This is all well and good, but what's the pay going to be?" With a straight face, Barras replied, "The same as you're making now. We feel that the prestige and the challenge is sufficient compensation."


The rest of what he was droning on about faded to background noise. C'mon, nobody goes overseas for the "prestige", that's just nuts! And Venezuela isn't exactly a politically stable place, either!

When the break came, the four of us had a private powwow, and the vote was 4-0 on the pay issue alone, and it didn't even rate five minutes, let alone thirty, to mull it over. The whole thing was sketchy enough, but "prestige & challenge" pay was more than enough to say no to this all by itself. When we reconvened in the meeting room, we all politely declined and were admonished yet again to keep our mouths shut. We left, and I departed for my boat.

Fast forward a couple of weeks. I've been on the Rusty Flowers since the meeting. After lunch one day, I decided to hit the lounge for a little bit of TV news to keep up with what was going on in the outside world. The TV lights up and I find a channel with the news on. The first thing I see is the video of M113 armored personnel carriers rolling through a city. The narration kicks in, and the announcer is reporting on another military coup in Caracas, Venezuela...

Uh huh, vindication. Made the right decision.


A couple of years later, more information about the "Venezuela Deal" began dribbling in via the grapevine, and everything heard about only served to reinforce the decision to not do it. Chuck told me that twenty two engineers turned down the deal on the "prestige" pay, and they had to offer more pay before anyone would take the offer. Twenty to twenty five people were living on a boat, where we normally carried a crew of about ten. Running low on groceries turned out to happen a little too frequently, never mind the fact that the galley and food storage was built for American rivers (and a much smaller crew!), where replenishment was relatively easy. Spare parts were a big problem; there wasn't a lot available in the country, and much of it had to come from The States. Don't fall overboard, the Orinoco had piranhas! There were stories of watching cattle being herded across the river; they would get the oldest/sickest cow to go in first, and while the piranhas had a feeding frenzy on it, the vaqueros would herd the rest of the cattle across. There were some salacious stories, too, which may or may not have been true about some of the Americans having a family at home, and a side family in Venezuela. The work cycle was a mess, it didn't work out to be 60 on and 30 off; the length of the "commute" made it wildly variable, and of course, the traveling was entirely on your time off. All of this is on an unmarked river seven degrees north of the equator. No thank you very much!

ACBL started up another run in Argentina after I quit to go to the gambling boat in Joliet, Illinois. An engineer friend of mine, Ed Russell, took a boat down there. I asked him why, and he said that the main reason was that it got him as far away from Butch Barras as he could possibly get. I couldn't fault him for that.

Speaking of Barras, here's an example of why we basically agreed with Ed. Some years farther down the road, when I was on the Joy Anne Keller with MEMCO, Chuck Miller was out on the Keller on one of our stops in Saint Louis, and he was telling me about a tale that had been circulating in the management ranks about Barras.

He was firing one of the engineers. Barras had called him into his office, sat him down opposite, and told him, "You're fired!" That was the conversation opener. The chief stood up to leave, and Barras told him, "Sit down, I'm not done with you yet!" Chiefie said, "Yeah, we're done here. You fired me, this discussion is over." Barras told him to sit down again, but the chief refused again and it got really heated and ended up with Barras punching the chief in the mouth!

Chuck said that the engineer got legal representation, and sued ACBL. He said that they settled out of court, reportedly for $750,000! Chuck was grinning, and I asked him what he was thinking. His reply was why couldn't that have been me! (He had many go rounds with Barras, and had left engineering to run purchasing at Jeffboat, on the other side of the Ohio, just to get away from Barras.) I replied, "Same! Either one of us would have gladly taken one punch for three quarters of a million!


  1. Great storytelling, Tom. Loved every word of it. Now over to the other posts I’ve missed. Oh and thanks for drawing our attention to your blog!

  2. Hi Tom, Val here, sorry it’s taken me so long to get to this. I was open-mouthed at this story, especially the awful bit about the piranhas. I think I would also have taken that punch to get away from that guy!
    BTW, for some reason I can’t sign in here, hence the anonymous comment, but at least this works ValP.


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