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Water ways
River vocations awash in dedication and danger


Big River Shipbuilders & Salvage
The late Jinx Peterson Smith, Jr. of Big River Shipbuilders & Salvage, Vicksburg, Miss., walks along side of a damaged barge to prepare it for removal from the Red River, in central Louisiana. In late 2004, Smith and his twin brother became pinned against the lock and floodgate, as rising floodwaters threatened to further inundate Alexandria, La.   (Big River Shipbuilders & Salvage)

Last July 25, along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, Coast Guard vessels lowered their flags to half-mast, honoring a towboat captain who had died the week before. Never before, according to officials, had such a fitting tribute been paid by the governing body of our inland waterways.

“It was a huge honor, along the same lines as the salutes given in the Army or Marines,” said Lela Flowers.  “I lost my brother, but so many other people lost their brother, too – the proof was in that line [of people] that wrapped itself around the outside of the church.”

Flowers’ brother, 37-year-old Jinx Peterson Smith Sr., drowned while working in the Vicksburg (Miss.) Harbor three days earlier, leaving behind his wife, three children, a grieving family and a community reeling with shock.

Smith, along with his father, J.O. Smith Jr., twin brother, J.O. III, and brother, Patrick, operated family businesses that include towing, shipbuilding and salvage operations.  His loss is not an unfamiliar story in an industry fraught with danger and uncertainty.

“The death of a young married person as vibrant and well known as Jinx in a small Southern town such as Vicksburg is similar in my mind to what would happen if an asteroid hit a fishing hole.  The ripple effects on family, friends and an entire community is astronomical,” said the Rev. Michael Nation, rector of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church, where the family worships.

“A crucial task of a priest is to try to keep the boat, in which a divergent group of people suddenly finds themselves, on an even keel in the midst of a huge tidal wave of grief and loss,” Nation said “Not only do you call upon every pastoral care resource you have learned, but even more so, you call upon the guidance and the support of the Holy Spirit, who you pray will in that hour of crisis flow through you to touch the people across from you.”  

When news of Smith’s death reached beyond the port and his immediate family, the congregation of Holy Trinity and many alumni of All Saints’ Episcopal School in Vicksburg drew close to mourn with the family.  Members of Christ, St. Mary’s and St. Alban’s churches came to the visitation; many stayed until well after 10 p.m. to serve and minister to the more than 1,700 other people who came to share their own grief.  Several took turns through the night to stand vigil with Smith’s mother and sister in the nave of the church.

The next morning, many more members came to care for the family and to be with another 1,000 people who came to pay their respects before the service.

Vital but demanding jobs

“It’s a tough job, for tough people,” said his brother, Patrick. “If you’re scared of getting dirty or hurt or of hard work, then this is definitely not the job for you. “Work out here for us is a 24-7-365-day-a-year business, and it doesn’t stop on Christmas and Easter; it doesn’t stop when somebody dies or when somebody gets married.  We don’t put the closed sign on the front door at 5 p.m. and go home.” 

“The biggest impact,” Flowers said, “is the dedication that is required from the family of the person that is on the river, as well as the dedication of the person on the river to industry.  That is a big demand on a family.”  Smith’s widow, Lyn, said men who work on the water know their obligations.

“It is not as if he would get a call and be able to decide not to go,” she said. “It didn’t matter if the barge was full of gasoline and worth a million dollars or empty and sinking and worth scrap; that’s how the business is.

“One minute you’re planning a birthday party, and the next minute, he was gone for a month. It is a lot like having a spouse in the military. But once you’re a part of it, once you’ve been in it and develop a love for the river, you’re in it forever.”

Dan Wilkes, a long-time family friend and verger at Holy Trinity, said the outpouring of support at the funeral spoke to Jinx’s life and the path that he and his wife had cut into the community. Both had graduated from All Saints’ Episcopal School in Vicksburg in the mid-1980s. At the time, Lyn’s father, an Episcopal priest, was the head of school. Just before his death, Smith and his wife joined other family members in starting construction on a new facility for the Vicksburg Montessori Christian School, of which Lyn is now the director.

Wilkes said the Smith twins always had been generous with their time, talent and resources. “One reason the response was so great from the community was the fact that both lived what they preached and what they believed. That overwhelming turnout spoke volumes of encyclopedic proportions, of what the people in the community and those involved in that business thought of both …from the department heads at the Corps of Engineers to the deckhands on the barges.”

Close-knit community

“River people” tend to be reserved and independent; they reflect the intense demands of their work and know the true meaning of the words “loyalty” and “dedication.”  They do not like public scrutiny. But on the hot summer day of Smith’s funeral, those attending the church service overflowed into the streets. 

“Being close is a good thing,” said Smith’s twin. “In Vicksburg, you know pretty much everyone you see.  Nine out of 10 times, when you look up, you’ll see someone you’ve worked with or been around your whole life.

“We work a lot with the government here, with the mat sinking unit, integrators and Dredge Jadwin – we have boats that we contract out to help maintain the depth of the river crossings.  And we draw the people who do that work from the community.” In a homily at the funeral, Smith’s mother challenged all those attending to give back as Jinx so often had given to them.

“We are a family of strong faith, but today we need your help,” she concluded. “Please sing for us when we can’t; pray for Lyn and the children and the rest of Jinx’s family.  Share the “Peace” and meet us at the Communion rail.  Really take into your hearts the words of Amazing Grace and Chapter 13 of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians.

“Practice random acts of kindness and go into the world in peace and do your part to keep Jinx’s light shining. Amen.”