Editor’s note: Listen to the audio version of this column.
The river runs through my blood.
Partly because my great-grandfather was a riverboat captain, partly because Grandpa Happy seemed drawn to it like a frog to a lily pad and partly because of my intrigue with Tom Sawyer’s adventures.
My childhood home stood along the banks of the Ohio. As a girl, I’d sit on the railroad track and watch the river run south, imagining I was drifting downstream with ole Tom, the trickster with an ornery edge. We’d float on a raft and fish all day then finagle ourselves into and out of a mess on shore. I felt like life was indeed happening places other than my limited view of the stationary land.
When I wasn’t on a fantasy trip with Tom, I’d imagine how my great-grandfather felt as he navigated the waterway for weeks on end and wonder if he had any adventures of his own — if a group of thieves or river pirates had attempted to take command of his ship.
What I remember most is perking up when I heard the calliope music signaling the arrival of the Mississippi Queen. Grandpa Happy would pull out his Polaroid One Shot and shout, “Whose going?” Grandpa never missed snapping a picture of the grand vessel no matter that he already had hundreds. He’d grab his keys from the hook and scamper out the door to a car full of whichever neighborhood kids happened to be visiting.
I carried on the tradition. When my boys were toddlers, I’d rush them to the river upon hearing the familiar tune. On the way, I’d describe how I had inherited grandpa’s infatuation for the iron giant playing the unique jingle.
Standing there with my boys, I was tiny again and watching through their eyes as the contraption carried souls from one place to another. I daydreamed of foreign lands along the ship’s route that were flooded with people and creatures I’ve never met.
To me, the four-story high party ship was more than a floating hotel — it was an American icon that looked like it sprang out of a Mark Twain novel. With my automatic camera, I’d capture the passing ship with people on board waving their arms like dandelions in the breeze. I’d imagine Grandpa Happy standing on this same bank as a boy, watching the spectacle and I’d wonder if he was ever a passenger on the grand vehicle or if he was content to observe her majesty from shore.
As for me, I’ve never boarded the sternwheeler, but I have sailed toward my dreams.
There’s water in these veins of mine, and I’m still running to the river. Something about the movement of the boats and the waves makes me feel unstuck and able to travel into my own adventures — that is when I’m brave enough to dive in.
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