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The majestic grand staircase on the American Queen.
Courtesy American Queen

The man introduces himself as Old Tom. It is a moniker that is most likely self-?imposed, for when I ask him who Young Tom is, I’m told to mind my business. Needless to say, I like him immediately.

Old Tom is an 80-year-old retired pig farmer from Connecticut. He and his second wife, of 46 years, are on this particular voyage because they used to sail on the Delta Queen back in her day, a majestic ship that retired in 2008 after 81 years of faithful service. They booked passage on this inaugural voyage of the American Queen in part to relive the glory days, and in part because once you’ve sailed the Mississippi, there’s a tendency to want to return.

“I’m here to retrace Twain’s steps, same as you,” I reply. “And if this river learned my family some, then all the better.”

“Ah, that fake period talk don’t fool me,” he replies. “But I can tell you’re sincere. This is a helluva river and a helluva country, so you go ahead and teach — or I should say, you go ahead and learn them — all you want.” We chat awhile longer and Old Tom’s frosty demeanor melts away. As do his inhibitions. By and by, Old Tom, much like a steamboat man from Twain’s day, is rather sublime in his mastery of profanity. We cut the conversation short because it is time to disembark for St. Francisville, La., once one of the richest neighborhoods in the antebellum South and now a smartly reconstructed model of her former self.

The pilot of our boat is a man named John R. Sutton. He is a stately man of arresting presentation, commanding attention as much by what he doesn’t say as he does with his spoken word. He looks resplendent in his captain’s uniform, his hair parted perfectly and his push-broom mustache coiffed ever so neatly. He is in charge, to be sure, and I have no trouble fully realizing the marvelous precision with which he commands his vessel. Sutton will get us to Vicksburg, Miss., and back, some 600-plus round-trip miles on the crooked river, and he will deliver us from the shallow reefs and the shoals: He’ll avoid the bars and the eddies that allow the sediment to sink; he’ll spot the fine lines on the face of the water that branch out like the ribs of a fan. The Mississippi River is nothing if not constantly reshaping and reforming herself, her banks continuously altered by man and by time.

But Sutton knows this. A second-?generation riverman, he knows everything there is to know about river systems and tributaries. A man could receive a higher education just by spending an afternoon with him. And as a learned man myself, I have a longing desire to inquire on a few minutes of the captain’s time. But I don’t. I steer clear of Sutton, engaging him only in proper courtesies when we pass each other on the hurricane deck or in the dining hall.