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On the American Queen: Getting ready for her big day

When the American Queen's engine went still -- or at least relatively still -- about 1:30 this morning, I suddenly realized what was happening: We were starting our dress rehearsal for the morning's arrival at the unfinished Beale Street Landing in Memphis.

I put on a coat, grabbed my camera and ran up to the top deck.

Indeed, we were slowly, very slowly, lining up next to the floating dock at the new landing that the city is building specifically for the American Queen and another riverboat due to start operating in August, Queen of the Mississippi.

 Beale landing

(A note about Beale Street Landing, above: The dock -- readied with red carpet for the christening ceremony -- floats so it can rise and fall with the river. People will walk up the spiral walkway at right, and exit through the building at left, which will eventually have a restaurant and other amenities. The new landing was scheduled to be completed in time for the American Queen's arrival, but, uh, it didn't happen.)

Memphis is the American Queen's home port, but it had never docked at the new landing. The crew was practicing now, after the city had gone to sleep, for a docking that would be recorded by television cameras in the morning. Or at least most of the city had gone to sleep. A couple cars had pulled over on the otherwise empty street above the landing, and the occupants had gotten out to watch. A little further down the street, half a dozen people lined up behind the construction fence.

Two searchlights, one on each side of the boat, played their light over the water, the landing, the foot of the DeSoto Bridge. The boat was skewed so that its right front side would gently kiss the landing, then the rest of the boat glided smoothly into place. No bumps. I stood at the rail of the top deck with a few crew members, who grinned.

After much conferring between the boat crew and the land crew, we backed out and headed upriver. About 2:15 a.m., just before we got to the DeSoto Bridge, I heard a voice on the radio crackle "Better get those stacks down." The top of the stacks is about 100 feet above the surface of the water. Then I watched one of the eeriest sights of the trip. First one, then the other smokestack tipped forward, dropping 90 degrees until they were parallel to the deck, then just a few more degrees forward until they had settled into cradles. It reminded me of a slow-motion scene from the disaster movie "Earthquake," scary but impressive. A little smoke burped out of the open stumps of the stacks as we glided under the bridge.

When I woke up not too many hours later, the boat was docking again at the end of Beale Street, this time in daylight. The mayor and other local dignitaries were on hand for the grand arrival, as were executives of Great American Steamboat Co., plus the media. Travis Vasconcelos, one of the boat's riverlorians, played the calliope to tell the town the boat had arrived. The calliope, like the accordion or bagpipes, is an acquired taste that I have not acquired yet.

Peabody ducksAnthony Petrina, the Duck Master from the Peabody Hotel, arrived with a covered crate containing five ducks. The ducks, who march through the Peabody's lobby every morning and afternoon, were there to "inspect" the boat. Petrina let them out of their crate and onto their circular red carpet at the foot of the main staircase. The ducks scurried about on the red carpet, Petrina herding them back anytime one tried to step off. Passengers crowded around but stayed clear of the carpet. The ducks didn't look all that comfortable, but when the Duck Master tried to guide them back into their crate, they refused to go. One turned and fled into the crowd, to the delight of the passengers. Eventually the Duck Master, with assistance from a couple bystanders, got all five back into the crate.

After that, I took off to explore Memphis with a friend. Later, while I was visiting the Rock and Soul Museum and Sun Studios, where Elvis recorded his first album, Priscilla Presley, godmother of the ship, came aboard for a celebratory brunch. Priscilla
The Great American Steamboat Co. supplied this photo of her with the company's CEO, Jeff Krida. Friday, she will crack a bottle of champagne on the boat at its christening ceremony.