Every once in a while we meet people that are different. Just not the regular person a guy meets in their day to day business dealing. I'm talking about the people that when you talk with them, they just stand out as people that truly care about other people. I've met 10 people like this in my life.
It was back in about 2001 I locked through all the locks in the Mpls/St Paul area taking a tour of the Mississippi River. Then I came to Lock and Dam #3. It was about 11 in the morning. I didn't know it at the time, but I was about to meet one of those people that made a difference.
His name was George Mead, US Army Corp of Engineers.
I'm in my fishing boat heading down stream, while waiting for the water to drop in the lock chamber, this white haired lock operator leans over the rail above me and starts talking. He asked about how fishing was and talked about the water levels. Small talk, but until that time no one had talked to me in a lock besides for giving out directions. I remember thinking "well he sure is a friendly guy". I left the lock and didn't think much more about it.
Fast forward a few years and I started my guide service that brought me to the lock around 7 pm and then again sometime between 1 and 3 am. Sure enough, when that white haired guy was working and the time allowed he would come out of his big glass control room and chat. Always having something positive to say. Heck even when a boater did something that wasn't so smart, he could correct them without injuring their self esteem. Once when a boater was giving him a hard time, I heard George say over the radio in a very firm but calm voice "if you would like to argue I would be happy to have the sheriff stop by and you can argue with them". End of that conversation.
Now I'm not knocking any of the other lock operators I've met. Far from it. They do their job well and always have a friendly "HI!" or "Catch Anything?" It was just that George would stop what he was doing to come over to the wall to see us or it might be just a friendly "good night" over the radio but he always made a person feel welcome. Speaking of the radio, he would kid with me about calling the lock to let them know I was coming. He wanted me to call in as Captain Catfish. I did it once or twice. When I went by the lock control room windows, I could see his big white smile and a friendly wave as the lock gates opened.
Although most of us think being a lock operator is all fun and games watching the pretty ladies in their warm weather gear as they passed through the locks, the job does have its dangers.
It was a windy day when a tow was being pulled through the lock by cable. That cable snapped and almost took of George's ankle. When I heard about it I called the local hospital thinking I would get the nurses station and find out how he was doing. To my surprise I was transferred directly into his room and George answered the phone! Turns out I was the first person to talk to him after his surgery although he wasn't in much of a condition to chit chat considering the medication he was on. It took George a good while to heal up and get back to work after that, if that cable would have been higher, well lets just not think about that.
So why am I talking about George Mead? Well today, Friday, November 21, 2014 along with the last barge heading down stream and the Corp unofficially closing the Upper Mississippi for the 2014 navigational season, George closed the lock gates for the last time. Today George Mead, arguably the friendliest lock operator on the Upper Mississippi River retired.
In 17 years I've given out 8 Starfish Awards. This one is engraved #9. What is it? It goes like this...
Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. It look like the boy was dancing along the beach but as he drew closer the old man could see he paused every so often, and he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing lad?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!”
That friends, is what George Mead did to each person he had contact with..."he made a difference to that person."
Best wishes to you and Sue in your retirement George. The Corp is losing a 'ell of Starfish Tosser. You'll be missed.
Captain Catfish South bound out of Lock #3.