Wednesday, August 6, 1997
Capt. Al keeps smiling
at life, river's romance

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The retired riverboat captain knows the secret to a long and happy life.

''Enjoy everything you do.''

Capt. Al Helfrich flashed a toothy grin when he said that Monday. Then, he followed his own orders.

He savored the sights, sounds, sensations and smells on board the River Queen as he celebrated his 80th birthday.

Capt. Al chuckled no matter what went on during the two-hour lunch cruise. His mid-river midday meal was another installment of Lunch with Cliff. That's where it's my treat in exchange for people putting their thoughts into words.

The captain had one thing on his mind: Enjoying life. On this day, it was life on the river.

Love affair

When the boat's diesel engines woke up with a deep, bone-rattling rumble, his blue eyes lit up. As the boat started to slip away from its dock at Covington Landing, his eyes danced with anticipation from port to starboard.

When lunch was served, he moved across the main deck with the polished grace of a ballroom dancer.

''A year ago I couldn't walk,'' he said, stepping lively. ''Arthritis had me messed up. Now look at me. It's a damned miracle.''

His doctors can't say for sure what cured him. But he has an idea.

''I have a positive attitude and a good sense of humor. I never tell myself I can't do something. And I love to laugh. Sometimes that combination works better than medicine.''

Capt. Al's diagnosis was interrupted by an announcement over the boat's public address system.

From the pilothouse high atop the River Queen, Capt. Bob Spriggs told the passengers:

''We're honored to have a special guest on board, Capt. Al Helfrich. He's been on the river for many, many years.''

Make that 35 years as Capt. Al. And 75 years as a river rat.

''When I was 5, my dad took me down to the river to take the Island Queen to Coney Island. He walked me to where the boilers were, and I saw guys shoveling coal. God! Was it hot.''

Sparks flew in the air like fireflies. The long, grease-covered pistons that drove the paddle wheels gleamed in the light of the boilers' fires.

The future captain took a deep breath and, for the first time, came up with the smell of hot steam.

''There's nothing like it,'' he said. ''Hot, clean, sweet.''

The aroma was intoxicating. Mix that with the smells of river water - oily, earthy and wet - and those are the scents that have been drawing Capt. Al to the Ohio for seven decades.

He has a river of memories to show for it. They are over and above the ones he willingly shares from his other life as a mechanical engineer.

River views

After lunch, Capt. Al scampered to the River Queen's bridge.

''Feel the wind?'' he asked, facing the breeze. The boat was going downriver, past the bend that is Dayton, Ky.

''That wind tugs at the river right here,'' he said. Flexing his fingers as if he were at the helm, he added, ''you have to hold her tight.''

And watch the river.

''There are eddies that want to take the boat too close to shore.''

The wind ruffles the water, making ripples shaped first like feathers and then like smiles. Up ahead, fancy houses with their pricey views dot the hills of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky and peer into the river valley.

The retired riverboat captain smiles at the ripples, the wind, the hills and the sky.

''You should see this at night,'' he said. ''The river is as smooth as a sheet of glass. Lights twinkle in the distance. The only sounds you hear are waves lapping at the side of your boat.''

Before lunch, I used to think that the only place to see the Ohio was from a hilltop home with a spectacular river view.

After lunch, I knew better. The best view is in the middle of the channel, aboard a riverboat and seen through the eyes of Capt. Al.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.