So it was that several years ago, I was hired to speak on a few occasions for riverboat cruises on the Mississippi. Paddle boats that hearkened back to the days of Mark Twain moved lazily yet with determined purpose through the waters of my favorite large river.
It was magical.
In those years, three boats — the Mississippi Queen, Delta Queen and American Queen — hauled passengers on unforgettable trips, and I was blessed enough to spend a week on each.
The Delta Queen, a wooden structure, was allowed to sail through special congressional order. With deep, rich woods and expert craftsmanship, she was a beauty to behold. Her longtime captain, Buddy, and his wife, Miss Alice, became friends and even came to spend a few nights in my home. He was proud of the Delta Queen, which is now owned by an investor who hopes to return the majestic boat to duty.
The Mississippi Queen, sadly, was scrapped but the American Queen still reigns supreme on the Mississippi.
“You have to experience a riverboat cruise on the Mississippi,” I said enthusiastically many times to Tink whenever the subject of the Mississippi arose.
He wasn’t convinced. He would raise a skeptical eyebrow and cut his eyes toward me. This is Yankee speak for, “I don’t think so.”
Oh, but how a man can change his tune.
When the opportunity arose to take a Christmas cruise aboard the American Queen, he was lukewarm but he agreed.
“I trust you,” he said.
Earlier in the year, we had taken a Footsteps of Paul cruise that followed the preaching trail of the Apostle Paul from Rome to Greece to Turkey then back to Rome. John Tinker, who had loudly proclaimed he would never take a cruise, followed along and became a convert. Who wouldn’t? Just the view of the Amalfi coast would have turned any nonbeliever into a disciple.
The Christmas cruise aboard the American Queen left from New Orleans, where we had spent the previous evening dining on Cajun-flavored seafood near the French Quarter and listening to a musician who put a jazzy spin on Christmas favorites. Tink began to relax — it’s been a busy, stressful year of deadlines peppered with the heartbreak of losing loved ones — and I, too, began to melt into a mellowness that had been too long gone.
This is a world of coincidences, a place where lives intersect in the most interesting way. As we started to board, I caught a glimpse of the woman in front of me. I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t seen her in seven years, but she is a woman to whom I owe so much — Mary Gay Shipley, the bookstore owner from Blytheville, Arkansas, who once invited me there for a book signing.
It was that trip to Arkansas that inspired me to write a best-selling novel, “The Town That Came a-Courtin’.” I dedicated the book to Mary Gay and the people of Blytheville, then kicked off my book tour in her store. Last year, it was a television movie.
When I saw that dear woman, I knew it was going to be a great trip.
The American Queen was decorated festively while carolers sang and adventures happened. We stopped at the Nottoway Plantation — the largest plantation house in the South — for a tour, then dinner that night. As the boat pulled out, a large bonfire burned on the shore. This is a Louisiana tradition. Bonfires are built along the banks of the Mississippi so that “Father Noel” can find his way.
There were other stops in St. Francisville, Natchez and Greenville before the weeklong trip ended in Memphis. Quickly, Tink became a riverboat convert.
He loved the quiet, rolling river, the boat’s timeless design and the peace both wrought.
His tune changed all right. By the time we left Nottoway, he was, as we like to say in the South, whistling “Dixie.”
Figuratively, of course.
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