Tuesday, October 23, 2001

Delta Queen symbol of our values

        Word comes from New Orleans of another casualty in the War of 9/11. American Classic Voyages, owner of the Delta Queen, is going belly up — bankruptcy protection, in more polite parlance. Jane Greene, whose family brought the legendary steamboat to Cincinnati, is in no mood to be polite.

        “Bin Laden has us by the paddle wheel,” she says, adding she has been fielding calls since the announcement on Friday from people who want her to “do something.”

        Nothing much she can do besides wring her hands. Her grandfather's company, Green Line Steamers Inc., was sold in 1969, including the Queen, Jane's favorite, I think. It also appears to be the fair-haired watercraft of the parent company. Of the firm's seven steamboats, only the 174-berth Delta Queen will continue operation.

Bingo with Helen Hayes

        Purchased in 1946 by Jane's father, Tom, the paddle wheeler built in 1927 never pretended to be a floating motel. You want HBO in your room, try a Holiday Inn. The Delta Queen's lounge has the latest in jigsaw puzzles. Nameplates on stateroom doors commemorate previous tenants: Lady Bird Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Princess Margaret. Jane remembers playing bingo on-board with Helen Hayes, “friendly as a basket of chips.”

        A transport ship during World War II, this boat carried thousands of soldiers through San Francisco harbor to troop ships. After she was towed through the Panama Canal to Cincinnati, she carried three U.S. presidents and more than half a million vacation passengers.

        Jane's grandmother, Capt. Mary B. Greene, died aboard in 1949, and some people think Capt. Mary is still — how shall we say this? — around. Jane laughs. “Grandma hated drinking and never would allow a bar in the boat. After she died, one was put in. A towboat crashed into the Delta Queen, right into the bar. The towboat's name was Mary B. So who knows?”

        Besides a ghost and a towboat, the Delta Queen has survived storms, tornadoes, politicians and various other high winds. And she keeps chugging along.

Stripped to her skivvies

        She was stripped down to her skivvies in 1997. “After all these years and all the coats of paint, the smell of the oak was amazing, like the wood had just been cut,” said one of the crew. “And the grain is straight and true.”

        To their everlasting credit, they did not discover this wonderful foundation, then cover it up with mauve semigloss paint.

        Now, American Classics, which spent $3.3 million to preserve the Queen's dignity, is cutting 2,150 jobs and closing offices in Hawaii and South Florida. People who have paid cash for cruises on any of the company's other boats will have to file a claim with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Delaware, according to the company's Web site (www.amcv.com).

        Bookings declined 50 percent and cancellations increased 30 percent after Sept. 11. CEO Phil Calian, said, “We will focus on our Mississippi River cruises, which have been the historic core of our company.”

        And so are we. Back to our core, I mean. The Delta Queen, a symbol of Americana, is just the right boat to keep. Layers of cupidity and trivial pursuit were seared away by the events of 9/11. And we found our grain to be straight and true.

        We'll keep chugging along.

        E-mail lpulfer@enquirer.com. Past columns at Enquirer.com/columns/pulfer.


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