This week, the Delta Queen offered Nooga.com an exclusive interview after years of silence. At 89, she is spending her golden years docked to Chattanooga’s North Shore in Coolidge Park as a floating hotel. A law passed in 2007 forced her to find a resting spot, and investors decided to bring her to Chattanooga. Many local news organizations have attempted an interview with Her Majesty, but until now, she has refused. Full disclosure: I bribed her with my autographed copy of John Hartford’s "Morning Bugle." She really likes John Hartford. We met in Coolidge Park (she can’t move), and I was shocked at how much she’d aged in just a few years. Her paint was peeling, and she was desperately in need of some TLC. Her spirits were up on this day, though, and we began our interview as the sun began to recede behind the Market Street Bridge.
Do you like it here in Chattanooga, Your Majesty?
Please, child, call me "Delta." I’m not into all that mess about being a queen. Lordy, what a question you have proposed out of the gate. Let me see, how do I answer this? Let me put it to you like this: I AM here. Chattanooga is a beautiful city and I see many smiling faces every day and that, in turn, makes me smile. My job is to make my passengers happy, but to also keep them safe on the river, which is what I was constructed to do. So my current predicament has not a thing to do with Chattanooga, which is a place I’ve frequented many times, though not for such a duration as this. Let me, instead, tell you what I long for the most: the freedom of movement. You might be thinking up there in that head of yours, "Boy, that Delta Queen is looking like an old so and so these days." And you’re right. I am not myself. It’s a very difficult reality to realize you cannot do what you were born to do. "Restless" is the word I would use.
So you don’t want to be a floating hotel and tourist attraction?
I just want to be happy. And nothing would make me as happy as the opportunity to roll down the river like I did for 80 years. People tell me I’m a "historic landmark" that needs to be preserved, but I also believe there is something to be said for over-preservation ... How would you like to live a long, healthy life of freedom only to be tied up and gawked at in the end? There’s a book that one of the serving boys has been reading in the Texas Room by a fellow named Hunter S. Thompson. There is a quote about death that I relate very much to. He said, "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well-preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming, 'Wow! What a ride!'" That’s what I want for myself. I want to ride until I can’t ride anymore. And believe you me, I still have plenty of ride left if they’d just cut me loose.
What do you miss the most about being on the river?
Ah, you’re trying to make me weep! There are so many fond memories. Did you know that three presidents slept with me? THREE! Mr. Jimmy Carter was my favorite. He was so kind. Mr. John Hartford—thank you for the record, by the way—was just playing his little banjo and singing them river songs. Did you know he wrote me a song? Ah, what a guy he was! I think I miss the action. You just don’t know how much fun we had on the river, Sean. Everything is different now. I feel as if I’m only giving people half of myself. The other half is out there in the water, just waiting for me to return. We saw a lot of things along the way, a lot of cities, animals—and there were some tough times, too. I’d like to think anybody who stepped on my deck might be able to forget about their troubles for a few days. Those poor men during the attack on Pearl Harbor, I’ll never forget them. But there were more good times than bad. I miss the conversations and the way the sun reflected off the water in the morning, the way the blue herons would take flight in the morning, the dirty jokes the men would tell after a slug of whiskey …
You’ve been given a six-month extension in Chattanooga. Anything you want to say about that?
Sean, I’m at peace with my situation. I learned long ago that I don’t necessarily have control over where I am or what I’m doing. Now, I can dream, of course, but dreaming doesn’t change anything. I’m just an old riverboat. I’ve seen a lot, and as long as people keep coming aboard, I don’t think I’ll mind where I am. My only wish is that somebody would let me ride every once in awhile. These old bones need exercise. If it’s not meant to be, it’s not meant to be. But ... I guess ... and I apologize for being so long-winded with my responses ... the point of me telling you this is this: If another city would let me ride, I would gladly go. I just don’t want to die here all tied up and lonely.
Many people have commented on your condition. Some have even called you an "eyesore." How does that make you feel?
Hell, maybe I am! Look at me. My paint is peeling off. I probably stink something awful. I’m a mess right now. My hope is that with this conversation somebody will notice my current condition and do something about it. Sean, I don’t get to pick who takes care of me. But to say the bare minimum has been done would be an understatement. I don’t care who calls me what as long as a plan of action is put into place. They have me on life support right now. That six-month thing is a bluff. The one thing I’ve learned about Chattanooga and politics is that there is a whole lot of caterwauling but very little action. If I’m not wanted here, I would rather just leave. Is that too harsh to say?
This column, in particular, is 100 percent satire and/or absurd, nonsensical ramblings from a completely strange individual. Realize this before you get too upset. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.
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