From the first sweet strains of clarinets and saxophones laid over a distinctive jaunty beat there's no doubt the man lives on in his music. It takes me back to my childhood when those same syrupy sounds came sliding from the radio as my parents prepared to go out for New Year's Eve. And now I'm dancing to them!
I, who never liked the music of Guy Lombardo and his Royal Canadians, who hated dancing, am moving my feet in a vague recollection of the box step. My partner is humming along, lost in the rhythm, a smile on her face. Dancing is in her blood though it's certainly not in mine. Then why am I foxtrotting with this 88 year old woman?
Where I come from you do what your mother tells you.
It all began when Mom was 84 and as a supposedly once-in-a-life-time treat I took her ballooning in Switzerland. Almost as soon as her feet hit the ground she said, "Where should we go next?" and I knew the die was cast. Our second adventure found her swimming with dolphins in the Bahamas. Now, one month shy of her 89th birthday, my
mother has me dancing on a paddlewheeler in the middle of the Mississippi.
The American Queen is no ordinary river boat. The latest in a fleet of three, including the historic Delta Queen and the elegant Mississippi Queen, at 418 feet long, 90 feet wide and over 100 feet tall, she is the grandest of the lot. Her six decks are frosted with long white porches punctuated by dozens of delicate arches. Two great smoke stacks rise over an elevated pilot house and at the stern a colossal red paddlewheel churns the water. According to Mark Twain, and he should have known, steamboats are like wedding cakes without the complications.
Because we arrive late we hurry straight to dinner, which on the American Queen is served at 5:30 and 8. Years in Florida have attuned mother's appetite to the call of the Early Bird, so 5:30 it is. "That'll take the creases out of your stomach," says Joe, one of our six dinner companions at the large round table to which we've been assigned. He's just tucked away the last of his bread pudding with bourbon sauce, the culmination of a meal that began with black bean soup, fried oysters, "steamboat" salad and an entree of crab-stuffed catfish. Enough to hold him until the nightly moonlight buffet.
After dinner we have a chance to examine our cabins. Immediately to the right of each entrance is a very large bathroom with a free standing old-fashioned sink, a full tub and shower. A hallway covered in period wallpaper leads to a bay window with lace curtains that looks out at the river. Against the walls are two wicker chairs and a reproduction antique secretary topped by a Tiffany style lamp. Facing the window are two single beds under a carved wooden arch. Surely this is a room in a fine bed and breakfast rather than a ship's cabin.
As luck would have it, the door to the balcony of the Grand Saloon is just across the hall from Mother's cabin. The sounds of music lead us in. On the stage of a turn-of-the- century opera house the Jan Garber Orchestra is playing a medley of hits from the '40's. Couples gracefully two step around the dance floor while on our level others watch sedately. Not my mother. In seconds she is swaying to the music. A minute later she's dancing in a small carpeted space between the door and the backs of chairs. Another minute and I am dancing with her. Don't ask.
During the break we continue our exploration. Walking toward the stern we discover the extraordinary Mark Twain's Gallery, a huge Victorian library of rich dark wood, bookcases full of river memorabilia and nooks with overstuffed chairs for quiet reading. Large windows overlook the chandeliers of the double height dining room with its tall gold-framed mirrors. In contrast to the grand size of these rooms, the Ladies' Parlor and Gentlemens' Card Room are small gems full of beautiful antiques, old games and tables for card playing and jigsaw puzzling. Taken together it is a stunning evocation of 19th century Americana at its best.
"You wouldn't think we were moving at all," Mom says next morning as we sit in our rocking chairs on the wonderfully casual Front Porch of America, a gathering place at the bow of the Texas Deck for those who want to relax and watch the Mississippi roll by. Ahead float a string of red buoys while green markers line the shore. Behind us in the chart room passengers track our 659 mile river route from St. Louis, Missouri to Minneapolis, Minnesota. As far as the eye can see a thick mat of trees runs to the horizon without a sign of habitation.
The smoothness of both river and boat provides an almost motionless ride. Perfect for passengers, most of whom are well past retirement age and for certain dancers whose two left feet need all the help they can get. It also makes operating the boat appear like a piece of cake. I know it isn't so I pay a visit to the captain. Big and blond, 39 year old John Davitt is unshaven and bleary-eyed after a night of navigating the numerous locks of the upper Mississippi. "I may go 20 to 30 hours without sleep," he says. "The greatest challenge is putting the biggest riverboat ever built into narrow slots. When you get a strong wind she moves sideways. Some of the bridges we only clear by three feet. When people don't know they're on a boat, we're doing our job."
That night Captain Davitt snugs the American Queen to a concrete dock in Hannibal, Missouri, home of Mark Twain, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. "What an operation!" Mom exclaims admiringly as the crew tosses huge ropes around stanchions. "And they've got all the townspeople out to see it!"
Sure enough, we are the evening entertainment for hundreds of local citizens. "Welcome to Hannibal," they call to the hundreds of us for whom they are the entertainment. "Where are you from?" "Should we look from a lower deck?" Mom asks. When we get there most of the townfolk are beginning to leave, but from a parking lot a
loudspeaker is blasting rockabilly music. We have arrived, it seems, just in time for a three day rally of some 2,000 Harley Davidson bikers. Hearing the motorcycles rev up and the crowds cheering, I can't help thinking that if Tom and Huck had been created a century later it would have been as Hannibal's premier juvenile delinquents. Next morning even some of our squeaky clean waiters and waitresses look a little the worse for wear.
As on all Delta Queen Line river trips, ours has a theme: "The Year That Was, 1945." Hired for the occasion are three famous bands of the era, with younger leaders but the original musical arrangements. To Mom's delight there is dancing every night.
But not only. Each evening the "Steamboat Times" is laid on our beds listing activities for the following day. Among them are tours of the boat and lectures by the "Riverlorian," Clara and "Steamboat Vacation Consultant," Mariam. On one trip Mariam was introduced to a woman celebrating her 50th anniversary. After congratulating her, Mariam
asked where her husband was. "Why he's back in Fort Myers," the lady replied. "You don't think I'd bring that old coot with me do you?"
The Grand Saloon is the venue for nightly shows and concerts, usually at 8:15, followed at 9:30 by dancing to the big bands. In addition there are shore excursions, movies, kite flying, singalongs, parties, riverboat music - on one day's calendar I count 26 separate events.
With all that there is to do, sometimes the simplest pleasures are best. "We're in the middle of the Mississippi River," Mom marvels late one afternoon as we stretch out on the Promenade Deck. While the sun sinks lower and clouds pink up over the bluffs, a man passing by smiles and says, "You have a fine evening now."
"Everyone is so friendly," Mom whispers. "I think it's nice."
The American Queen has a small swimming pool that is seldom used, but one day we stroll by and see a man enjoying the water. "How is it?" we call. "Great," he answers and I am promptly dispatched for a bathing suit. In no time Mom is into her exercise routine: the hand paddle, the upraised arm, the rotating leg, the hippity hop, followed by a long massage in the pulsating jets. "Thank you, honey," she says. "Now we'll know what to do every morning."
That evening we are curious to see if the Russ Morgan Orchestra, led by his son Jack, will sound similar to Jan Garber's. It is, after all, the same 4 saxes, 3 trumpets and one trombone setup. Then Jack Morgan sticks a mute into his trombone, goes "wah, wah, wahhhhh," and we knew we're in for something different.
"We take requests," Morgan says at the end of the number. "It costs a little more but they'll put it on your account. You'll never know the difference." Soon the dance floor is filled with couples having a wonderful time. At dinner a man had said, "You see the guys roll up, their wives right behind. They don't walk too well but as soon as the music starts..." It's true. These couples are swinging.
On the last day Captain Davitt "chokes a stump," as they call unscheduled moorings on the river. We wake to find the American Queen draped in fog sitting 15 feet from an island, a wrist-thick bowline looped around a tree. At 3 A.M. he'd given up trying to find channel markers with search lights and radar and had taken recourse to the same remedy used in Mark Twain's time. By late morning the fog has burned off and the rest of the day is bright and clear but Mother Nature has made her point.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it's the sweetest music this side of heaven," intones the M.C. of the Grand Saloon as a group of red-jacketed musicians launch into their first tune of the evening. Guy Lombardo is gone, replaced by Al Pierson, but finally, on the last
night of our trip, I understand the man's popularity. The sound is rich and smooth, each number eminently danceable, the songs - "I'll Be Seeing You," "Sentimental Journey," "In the Mood," - classic. Whenever possible I steer one of the three gentlemen hired to dance with single ladies to my mother, but for the most part it's Mom and I tripping the light fantastic.
"Tell me the truth," I say. "Am I as good as they are?" "Of course you are," she lies.
After a glancing blow at the moonlight buffet, a tired son escorts an equally weary mother back to her cabin. Before wishing me goodnight Mom says, as she has several times before, "We had fun today, didn't we, dear?"
And to tell the truth, we had.
THE AMERICAN QUEEN and her sister ships, the Delta Queen and Mississippi Queen, cruise year long on ten different mid-western rivers, stopping at and between New Orleans, Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Pittsburg, St. Louis, Minneapolis/St. Paul and other cities. Almost all trips are theme oriented: musical, seasonal, special interest and special events. Trips vary in length from 2 to 14 nights. There are 8 classes of cabins and a multitude of fares.
ACCOMODATIONS: Cabins on the American Queen are like rooms in a bed and breakfast with tasteful furnishings and fixtures typical of the turn of the century. All except the least expensive feature large bathrooms with tubs and showers. There are 9 wheelchair cabins. The American Queen carries 436 passengers and 170 crew.
MEALS: Three complete meals, a moonlight buffet and snacks are included. Breakfasts consist of a hot and cold buffet with eggs, grits, ham and sausage, pastries and fruit as well as menu items (pancakes, omelets, etc.). Lunches offer sandwiches and hot dishes. Both are casual dress. Dinners are only slightly more dressy offering 2 or 3 appetisers, soups, salads and 5 main dishes (including one low calorie item) and numerous desserts. Cuisine is not gourmet but generally acceptable and certainly plentiful.
CLIENTELE: Most passengers are over 50, often considerably so. Many appreciate the elevators on the American Queen and Mississippi Queen (missing on the Delta Queen). There were no children on our cruise which was just as well because there would have been little for them to do.
ACTIVITIES: Lectures by the "Riverlorian," boat tours, shore excursions (at extra cost), shows in the Grand Saloon, games, nightly dancing and movies are only a few of the almost constant diversions offered. Equally appealing is simply relaxing on one of the 6 decks.
RESERVATIONS: Booking is through travel agents or by calling 800 543-7637.
Delta Queen Steamboat Company at 800 543-1949. Be sure to inquire about special packages.