Sunday, May 4, 1997
Her majesty's loyal
subjects bow, curtsy


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Delta Queen, ever classy, didn't stick around Louisville to gloat. Pausing briefly to clobber that city's Belle in Wednesday's Great Steamboat Race, she continued majestically, bound for Cincinnati. Heading for home.

She made her way up the Ohio River with her usual deliberation, steaming quietly past Little Huckleberry Creek and Big Rusty Gut and Hog Trough Creek, all well-behaved now, innocently making their modest contribution to the great water. They looked nothing like their muddy, mean, March selves.

There were, in fact, few signs of the flood. And no sign at all of urgency.

No hurry, no cable

The TV guy who covered the Louisville race and combed his hair a hundred or so times in-between takes was gone. So were those who boarded the boat as a mere preliminary to the Kentucky Derby. The calliope, which I assure you sounds much better from shore, was silent.

Erik Apland, who studied classical piano at UC's College-Conservatory of Music, cheerfully took out his earplugs and put aside Stephen Foster for Mozart. Closing the brass lid on the two-and-a-half-octave calliope keyboard, he headed for the dining room's baby grand piano.

Passengers leaning over the polished wood railings were in no hurry. Good thing. The Delta Queen was built for comfort, not speed. And beauty, not convenience.

You want a Jacuzzi and a phone next to the toilet, try a hotel. Despite milled soap and lace at the windows, this is a boat, not a Marriott. In a world of faux everything and colorized everything else, she is real.

Her senior crew is not just dolled up in Disney maritime costume. They've earned the stripes on their crisp white shirts and navy blazers. The pilot has been on the river as long as the Queen. Fifty years. She came here from California as a sprite of 20.

And I'm happy to report, if you have seen this floating piece of history at a distance, she looks great in the close-ups. There's no rot, no peeling paint, no plastic. Beautiful old wood and brass, buffed and polished. Nameplates on stateroom doors announce the celebrity of guests: Van Johnson, Princess Margaret, Jimmy Carter, Roberta Peters, Helen Hayes.

Remembering Betty Blake

An oil portrait of Betty Blake, ''Queen of the River,'' hangs in the lounge named for her. She is legendary, as well she might be, after mounting a rescue for the vessel when wooden superstructures were outlawed in the late 1960s.

The painting, like everything else on the boat, is quite fine. Anybody who knew Betty would recognize her. She died of cancer in 1982, a dozen years after President Nixon signed the Queen's exemption and a half-dozen years after Betty took the helm of the steamship line. Think of it. She became president of a company during the days when women still weren't allowed in the Grill Room at the Queen City Club.

She'd still be proud of her boat. There are some new showers, and a television behind polished wood doors. An old-style wood telephone has been updated, with buttons where the holes were in its rotary dial. The Delta Queen is just as old as she needs to be. And not a minute older.

Officially she is 70 this year. Her plumbing is certainly better, and the pilot house has a radio. But pilot Milford Lawrence says riverboats still exchange some information about water levels and sandbars the way they did when he started as a deckhand 50 years ago.

''We talk to each other.''

At the celebration when the Queen arrived here Friday, a man from Iowa called her ''America's boat.'' Ha. She belongs to Cincinnati, and we have never needed to see her more. We are a river town. This is what we have that suburbs and exurbs cannot duplicate.

The Delta Queen came into town, passing industries that the river built, past barges that still compete with rail and trucking, carrying people who have made their fortune on the river.

Her old face with its still lovely complexion reminds us that this river has been good to us. And will be again.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU (91.7 MHz) and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

PULFER ARCHIVE