Wednesday, July 14, 2010

All Aboard! Cruisin' Past the End of an Era

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me
What the time was that was on my watch, yeah
And I said
Does anybody really know what time it is?
I don't care
Does anybody really care
About time?
Chicago, "Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?"

It is a hot July day. There is a band playing this song at full volume. I am in a ballroom and I am dancing.

I like this song. I even know some of the words. I sing the ones I know. Wait. What is the time on my watch? I glance down at Cinderella, strapped to my wrist. The little hand is on the 5. The big hand is on the 6. I think. Or is it the other way around? I glance again. Yep. That means it’s time to go up on deck!

I am surrounded by cousins on all sides as we look out over the railing and take turns with the giant viewer scope. We are cruising along the Mighty Mississippi. Look! It’s the Arch! We all run to the fence that bordered the deck and point excitedly and yammer on like the 3- to 7-year-olds we are.

I am 6, nearly 7, and I am aboard the S.S. Admiral.

It was not my first visit. That had been a few years earlier. Of course, the mother had appropriately slapped a sailor dress on me for that occasion. And, we took advantage of a fairly recent addition to the Admiral: the photo booth. (See right)

June 22, 1940

Franklin D. Roosevelt is President. France has fallen to the Nazis.

But a world away, a steamboat that spent more than three decades hauling railroad cars along the Mississippi river is getting a new lease on life. The Albatross, a 1907 sidewheel steel-hull railroad transfer boat, is fresh from a two-year, million-dollar renovation that beefed up the steamer and finds it clad in gleaming steel.
They’d gutted it after the Streckfus Steamer Co. purchased it in 1937 and its art-deco style, both in and out, is already gaining legendary status.

But today, there she is in all her glory. At 374 feet, she is longer than a city block. She is billed as the first "all-steel inland steamer" and she has air-conditioning!
While they weren’t on the maiden nighttime voyage, my beautiful grandmother, along with her parents and a cousin, did visit during that inaugural season. I don’t know the date. But I know that it was during the summer of 1940.
I know because within just a few months, my great-grandmother would become ill. She would die in March 1941. She would not see the United States enter World War II. She would never meet the mother or the godmother.

Yet on this summer day, Julia is very much alive. There she is with my great-grandfather standing on the Admiral's deck.

And there’s my grandmother with her cousin who was nearly a decade older. (I’m not sure if Young Tom was on this little excursion or not. He’s not in any of the photos. He and my grandmother would have been just exiting the “honeymoon phase,” having just marked their second anniversary. Maybe he took the photos? Or perhaps it was my late great aunt, my grandmother’s younger sister, who is behind the shutter as she is also noticeably absent.)

July 2010
It is another July day, far removed from my childhood memories, and farther still, some 70 years, since that first summer. It’s been more than 30 years since the Admiral last sailed. She’s been docked here and then there, changing ownership a few more times and undergoing yet one more renovation during that time. (This one, in the late 1980s, preceded riverboat gambling legislation in the early ‘90s that transformed her into a floating casino. Henceforth, she is tethered to the riverfront.)

I was on the renamed President Casino exactly once. It was in late 1996 or early 1997. I lost my $20 and went home. This boat held none of the magic or charm I’d felt so acutely in my childhood. It was as if the slot machines and gaming tables had desecrated it somehow.

The Admiral lost its gaming license earlier this year and was scheduled for closure this month. It ended up closing a few weeks early as the rising waters of the Mississippi flooded its entryway.

While I was on the Admiral a few more times before it stopped sailing in 1979, no visit is as vivid as the one just prior to my 7th birthday. Maybe it’s because of the pictures. (I can’t find the one of us kids all together or of me scanning downtown with the giant viewer scope. But, they’re just as flat and blurry as this one, so you get the idea.)

Maybe it’s because it’s the first time I am old enough to amass such vivid a memory. And maybe, just maybe, it’s to remind me nearly four decades later as I stand before this hulking boat, how lucky I was to have experienced it, as a fourth, and final generation of my family.

I don’t know what the fate of the Admiral is. More than likely, it’s a scrap heap.

And while the magic has long since died aboard this vessel, as I carefully trod along the overrun banks of the Mississippi, for just a second, I swear there is music accompanying the ripples of the water …


Ty'sMommy said...

Awesome post, NV! Love the "then and now".

MonkeyGirl said...

How cool to have something like that in our backyard! I remember going on the Admiral when we were slightly older but I doubt there are any photos of the trips at my disposal. Very cool pics - I love the photo of you and the mother! Your expression is priceless!

Kate R said...

I really like these mini history lessons. And the mother was a beauty!

Vicki said...

Lovin' the picture of you and your mom. That's teaching me that I need to take more of myself with my girls, individually.