• Image about Mississippi River
The American Queen powers down the Mississippi River.
Courtesy American Queen

Morning broke early. The large, lumbering ship made port somewhat sooner than expected. While my brood continues to slumber through the first winks of the sun, the sound of the vessel’s bottom scraping shore rocks jolts me. And once jolted, I can’t return to repose.

I take my place in a patio chair beside my oak French doors on the fifth floor of the ship. Since my room is on the starboard side, the sun is beginning to blaze out of my sight. With no shimmer on the water and no glare on five deck, I seize my book from the nightstand and engross myself in my tome of choice for this particular journey: Mark Twain’s 1883 masterwork, Life on the Mississippi.

There is something lasting, something quixotic about a read that was written with the same trees and ripples in sight as those flanking me now. Ah, to be a steamboat pilot in the post–Civil War days, when the country was struggling to reacquaint itself and the river relinquished its role as a tactical military vein and reverted to being a commercial artery. I read and think and look and consider how dreamy it might have been to be a Victorian riverman, and the river beneath me was a cha …

“What you doin’ here?” a voice questions from blind sight. I look around, startled, and reconcile that this question is not for me. So I return to my reverie of a bygone time on a contemporary river and put myself in the past when …

“Come on, son, you’re the youngest guy on the ship, but you’re hard of hearing.” This comment I know is for me, as I am indeed the youngest guy on the ship, and my children are younger than most of my fellow? ?passengers’ great-grandchildren. Just then, I notice a figure of striking build, albeit of only notable features. He is barrel-chested? and thick-necked. His skin has been weather-?beaten and permanently tanned by the sun. His hair is long gone, and even though he is clean-shaven, there is a remnant of a decades-worn mustache that has forever bleached his upper lip. He looks angry, and I automatically know why. My children had been quite ornery the night before, and my neighbor most likely wants to set me straight in anticipation of the remaining five nights, which will undoubtedly result in his sleeplessness.

“I’m sorry if we kept you up last night, sir,” I reply. He ambles over to where I sit and begins to ease into the seat beside me, slowly? at first, and then all at once. “What the [heck] are ya talkin’ about?” he asks. “I can sleep through anything. I’m askin’ you what you’re doin’ here, on this ship. What, you make the wrong reservation? You think this was the Carnival line?” His is the first candid conversation I’ve had about the obvious in two days. My family and I stick out on this boat like a boatload of sore thumbs.