Americana

Avast, Me Hearties! Luncheon Is Served

There’s still life on the Mississippi. 

By From the January-February 2014 issue

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Except for two weeks aboard ship in the Naval Reserve, chipping paint and swabbing decks, and a three-day movie junket to Acapulco promoting Valley of the Dolls with Jacqueline Susann and Patty Duke, I have neatly avoided taking any cruises, a major pastime of the retired, or just plain tired. 

For decades, luxury cruises were the playground of the aristocracy, the rich and the famous. One read of celebrities hopping aboard ocean liners for Europe the way the hoi polloi hopped on buses. Thanks to Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movies set aboard posh liners; F. Scott Fitzgerald, Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham stories; and even The Love Boat, the vacation at sea has acquired an elegant, dreamy, romantic glow.

Today, your average realtor has sailed the seas, but not me. “You’re a prisoner,” warned a well-traveled friend—and it is indeed difficult to jump ship without causing a stir. Lately, cruise ships have been front-page news. Carnival Cruise Lines has turned their vessels into a reality version of “The Wackiest Ship in the Navy,” with passengers stranded at sea for days. Not long ago two folks fell overboard. Any day, I expect to read that a Carnival liner has been attacked by gunboats or a giant sea monster.

Despite all that, for my maiden voyage I set sail down the Mississippi on a paddle-wheeler called “Queen of the Mississippi” with 187 other mates, mainly fellow geezers. Nobody fell overboard, and we did not run aground. Neither were we assaulted by Somali pirates. And we somehow failed to crash into any of the giant barges floating alongside us. The only thing that befell me was a bad case of laryngitis.

I had heard such cruises were not for everyone, and that sounded like me, but when friends Al and Pat, veteran voyagers of cruises from the Danube to the Hudson, invited me to join them on a journey down the Mississippi, from Memphis to New Orleans, I was sufficiently intrigued to consider a late-life adventure for this most earthbound of landlubbers. It would be an experiment that, at the very least, I could write about, assuming we didn’t strike a glacier and sink to the river bottom.

Al assured me there are no icebergs on the Mississippi and that, even in the worse case scenario, we were only a few hundred yards from land: cold comfort when I learned that the shallow waters near the banks are swarming with alligators—one of the cruise’s major draws, as it turned out. I never glimpsed an actual ’gator but others who did were thrilled at the sight. I did see two dead wild pigs that had washed ashore in Natchez. 

After flying to Memphis, we grabbed a memorable dinner at the Cozy Corner, a funky hole-in-the-wall barbecue with meaty ribs, sweet-potato pie, and banana pudding served on paper plates with plastic utensils—a highlight of the trip even before boarding the…ship—boat? (I never did figure out what to call our vessel.)

As a solo passenger I was awarded a small stateroom on the bottom deck, across from the dining room, with the scent of dinner wafting under my door each day. I worried that, on the bottom deck, I’d feel the boat rocking, and it did take 24 hours to get used to even a gentle sway under my snazzy new deck shoes. When I walked across the room I felt a little woozy, but the next day I scarcely knew whether we were moving or not.

The good ship itself, an American Cruise Lines’ paddle-wheeler (which, I learned, is mainly propelled by water jets—the paddlewheel is pure theater), was a year-old vessel; the board games and books looked unopened. We played Scrabble in the evenings while down the corridor the official entertainment was rolled out—a Dixieland band one night, a blues duo the next evening, gospel singers the third night.

On our last night out we were treated to the Victory Belles, a trio dressed like the Andrews Sisters who sang tight harmony and closed with a finale that included an unfurling of the Stars and Stripes and singing of all the Armed Forces hymns as the crowd obediently clapped along; a few vets even stood. The Belles knew their audience of conservative middle-Americans: One Belle solemnly folded the flag and handed it to a sister Belle, as at Arlington Cemetery. To spice things up, the girls sat on codgers’ laps and crooned to them; I crossed my legs to prevent any such intimacies. Despite fantasies of shipboard romances, that was as sexy as things got. My most titillating moment was winning a cap and T-shirt at Bingo.

Just the words “The Mississippi” are so awash with literary and cinematic lore that it seemed an appealing prospect. I was no Huck Finn or Gaylord Ravenal, but I figured I could fake it for a few days. I considered growing a riverboat gambler’s pencil-thin mustache and duding up in a top hat and natty striped suit and bolo tie, but I settled for a short-sleeve shirt, fearing intense humidity that happily failed to materialize. 

The weather turned out to be mostly cool and overcast, just like the climate I’d left behind in San Francisco. Only two sunny days and one blustery day at the Oak Alley Plantation, one of three plantations available to us en route to New Orleans. One was enough to get the idea. Oak Alley near Baton Rouge was like a Gone with the Wind location, with mighty, gnarled, 300-year-old oaks that form a canopy leading to the main house; I was disillusioned to hear that the dramatically arched trees are bent artificially.

Our matronly house guide, cinched into a wannabe Scarlett O’Hara gown, delivered historical data on the plantation like a wind-up doll: “On yoah left of the stay-uhs is the mastuh bedroom, built in 1867 fo’ Ho’ace Bixby and his waff Mahgret, who had thirteen children of whom eleven survahved. The home was latuh sold to Edwahd Lewiston, a wealthy Jojah attorneh. On yoah rat, in the ho’way, kahndly notice the banistuh, made of mahogany impo’ted from the West Indies in 1862…”

I have a pretty low tolerance for historical house tours—10 minutes is my limit before I want to raise my hand and ask, “May I leave the room, teacher? I have a bad headache.” 

I didn’t have a headache but I did come down with a cold, yet when I asked a cruise director for cough drops she didn’t have any and could only come up with a handful of Jolly Ranchers. The next day, I asked for an aspirin. “I don’t think so,” she said, but finally fished two aspirin from her personal supply and said, “I’ll give these to you but you take them on your own prerogative,” strange legalistic wording.

It appeared the boat had no medical supplies on board—much less a nurse—and that we were on our own in case of a physical emergency, peculiar on a ship loaded with elderly passengers, including one 100-year-old guy. Even so, I felt taken care of by the crew. But it’s lucky nobody had a stroke. Curiously, they had a red emergency alert button in every room—but no cough drops.

We stopped at historic Vicksburg, which included a battlefield tour that I skipped (my tolerance for battlefields is even lower than for house tours) in lieu of walking down a dreary two-block main street whose star attraction was the Coca-Cola Museum, two gloomy rooms with Coca-Cola knick-knacks and an early bottling device. Yes, Coke was invented in Atlanta but the first bottling plant was in Vicksburg. Betcha didn’t know that.

The next stop was Natchez, known to me only from Johnny Mercer’s lyric to “Blues in the Night” (“From Natchez to Mobile, from Memphis to St. Joe…”), and a tour of a large octagonal house, which I endured grudgingly. Then we set sail for dinky St. Francesville, whose main attractions were curio shops named “The Shanty Too” and “Grandmother’s Buttons,” as cute as their names, with matching proprietors. I bought a small alligator memento that I later lost and a bag of pralines; I went on a weeklong praline kick. 

Our official onboard hostess was Toots Maloy, who knows everything you need to know about the Mississippi River (and much maybe you don’t). Toots was determined to make sure we were fully informed with a week of lectures in the Magnolia Lounge, with sightings along the river bank. I liked Toots more than the lectures, packed with facts and figures that failed to dazzle me, my fault more than hers. Most passengers were willing students, but I wanted more literary lore of the River. There was scant mention of Mark Twain or Showboat, two major sources of the romance of the Mississippi, and probably the reason most of the passengers had signed up for the cruise.

Toots did, however, give talks on Huey Long and on the River’s “Cut-Throats, Thieves and Pirates,” but I nodded off—mainly because I didn’t sleep too well at sea. You could ask Toots anything about the Mississippi and she would happily provide an answer. She and the captain mingled easily with everyone. The captain said he had pretty much memorized Twain’s Life on the Mississippi, and Toots knew all about the early black-and-white movie version of Showboat, yet neither topic came up in her talks.

The best lecture was a standard city bus tour through New Orleans, our only chance to see this bizarre and rococo city, all of whose hotel rooms were snapped up six months earlier because of the New Orleans Jazzfest. Nonetheless, I got a rich sense of the city through the bemused eyes of our driver, Henry, a burly guy whose spiel was laced with wit, insight, and layers of deep-fried Southern attitude. He was funny but gave you a sense of what it’s like to grow up and live in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina. Henry took gentle shots at Northerners (and Southerners) in informed, colorful patter that was more of a conversation than a canned lecture, as warm and digestible as the beignets I wolfed down at the century-old Morning Coffee rest stop.

Easily the highlight of the trip was meal time, when all 187 geezers and geezerettes stampeded the dining room for sumptuous feasts, superbly prepared, presented and delivered by scores of eager high school and college waitresses scurrying between tables to satisfy every passenger’s whims. They were unfailingly perky and smiling—not a frown among them. If I had requested three bowls of ice cream and six slices of red velvet cake, they would have arrived without a blink. When a waitress asked, “Is everything OK?” she truly meant it and defied you to say everything was less than perfect.  

We sought out new dining companions at every meal, but the table conversation was made up of three main areas: (1) Where You Folks From? (2) Have You Been on Other Cruises? and (3) Grandchildren. We met a lively retired veterinarian with amusing animal tales (like being batted about by a semi-sedated ape), a sassy teacher from Texas, and an Australian cattle rancher and Al Jolson fan. They were nice folks all, friendly and chatty, but at times it felt a little like a weeklong floating Elks Club banquet.

Dinner was preceded by cocktail hour, an open bar with hot hors d’oevres, plus a mid-morning snack of warm cookies lest you need replenishment after a huge breakfast with every known choice of eggs, pancakes, and pastries. For someone who breakfasts on a small OJ, decaf, and a slice of toast, our morning smorgasbord seemed lavish. I rediscovered poached eggs, waffles, and bacon, while sailing straight for cholesterol hell.

At breakfast (as in a hospital), we checked off what we wanted for lunch and dinner—always three entrées and two dessert choices, accented with a Southern flair, like gumbo, jambalaya, collard greens, black-eyed peas, chess pie, grits—ingredients I knew only from pop songs of yore (“Shrimp Boats,” “That’s What I Like About the South,” etc.). The bread basket itself featured an array of rolls and muffins.

I had heard all about the generous meals served aboard ocean liners 24 hours a day, but this was a less decadent version. You ate well but not into obesity, although my pal Al had to push away his lobster at our final dinner and wound up with gout anyway, limping back to his cabin and forced to call for a wheelchair to cart him to the bus and later to the plane when we headed home. By then, laryngitis had reduced me to a squeak, Pat was still recovering from a mystery allergy, and Al was wheelchair bound.

These luxury cruises can really do you in. 

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About the Author

Gerald Nachman is the author of Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s, Raised on Radio and Right Here On Our Stage Tonight!: Ed Sullivan's America. He is currently working on a book about the great Broadway musical show-stoppers.