"Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, god would permit us to be pirates"-Mark Twain
They are out there. I know this because they have always been there. Doing what they do, while most of us are caught up in the trappings of day-to-day survival in the suburban jungle. Most of the time, we just aren't paying attention. Or...more likely...those of us living our cozy suburban lives simply don't associate with them.
But...they are there. Always there. Proving that pirates are alive and well, and living among us. Sometimes hiding in plain sight.
This is especially pleasing to me since I have always loved pirate stories and the idea that people can live outside of the rules.
Last weekend, my son and I took our annual camping trip. ManCamp 2014. The rules are simple: (1) You do not talk about ManCamp. (2) You do not talk about ManCamp. (3) No girls allowed. (4) No agendas allowed. (5) Whatever happens, Happens. And finally, (6) You do not talk about ManCamp.
So as we drove back to our campsite after a bike ride around the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge, we decided to check out a potential fishing spot below Mississippi River Lock and Dam 5A.
In doing so, we did not find the fishing area we were looking for. Instead, we were at a floating saloon in the fast water below the dam. Complete with a bartender who's skin looked like it has been treated with formaldehyde from years of soaking up nicotine and alcohol.
Oh, and two drunk Amish guys who were fishing for panfish from one of the floating barges. (I did have to clarify to my son that NO, they weren't leprechauns--which opened up a whole sidebar conversation about whether or not the Amish were allowed to drink at bars...)
Gaining access to the bar was an exercise in balance. Literally. As my son crossed the railroad tracks and looked down the slope to the water, he asked (prior to walking the first plank) "Dad? Is this safe?" With the grin of a man who just realized what we had found, I said "NO. Not even a little bit. Keep going and DON'T FALL IN".
As soon as we were in view of the back window of the bar, we were under the watchful eye of the bartender. I had the distinct feeling that she carefully watched to see who might be coming over the hill so as to give advanced warning if needed. The bar, turned out to be several barges, lashed together with a shack on top of the largest one. Each barge moves independently due to the turbulent current. Traveling from barge to barge was accomplished by crossing a piece of steel grate, old wooden dock, piece of plywood between them to create a "bridge" or simply just jumping.
As an act of courtesy, we went into the bar to ask if it was OK to look around. Inside the bar was exactly like you would expect. Dark. Dingy, Dirty, and with the character that only an outlaw saloon can provide.
As we entered, the few patrons sitting at the bar stopped their conversations and watched to see how this would play out. The barkeep, already clearly uncomfortable with the presence of a minor at the bar, was curt and direct.
Me: Is it OK if we look around a little bit?
BarKeep: He got a life jacket?
Me: No. Sorry. He will be right at my side and I will be careful with him.
BK: Well I guess....you are already here...
At this point, I figured that I should buy a drink. All things considered...it only seemed right.
Me: Can I get a Bud Light?
BK: (Leveling a cold stare at me) Miller Lite or Busch Light. PICK.
Me: (Suddenly feeling intimidated by her) ...Uh...Busch Light.
The bartender set a can of Busch Light on the bar in front of me--never said a word.
Me: Thanks. Um...I don't suppose you have a rootbeer for my boy?
BK: (Leveling off on my son) Coke or Diet Coke. PICK.
Gabe: (In an almost imperceptible whisper) Diet Coke. Please.
As we checked the place out and stayed long enough to watch a grain barge pass through the locks on the opposite side of the channel (and finish my Busch Light), it occurred to me that that we were at a modern day pirate bar.
This saloon exists on the fringes. In a place (physically detached from land and metaphorically detached from the norms associated with land based civilization) where rules and regulations simply don't exist. It appears to be run by people who are clearly not interested in attracting the mainstream public. My hunch is that most of the local population knows it is there, but choose other, more homogenized establishments to have a casual cocktail. I also suspect that what happens at the Dam Saloon stays at the Dam Saloon, and if those walls could talk--my gawd the stories they could tell...
I feel lucky to share this short chapter of my life. Not only did I get a (needed) re-confirmation that pirates and pirate bars do exist. My son also realized that he was visiting a place that is completely off the grid he has known all his life. And...he loved it.
Because of the Dam Saloon...ManCamp 2014 goes into the books as the year I was able to take my son to his first pirate bar. I am proud to have exposed him to the type of place he doesn't normally get to see. (I also think his immune system is now just a bit stronger...) It gives me hope that places like this will continue to exist and with a little bit of luck, he will have an appreciation of the places most people wouldn't think of frequenting.
Maybe, when he gets old enough he will seek out other pirate bars every once in a while. And wouldn't it be great if someday he introduces his own kids to the places nobody talks about.