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The River: As a young boy, loving sights, smells and sounds of the river and learning lessons for a lifetime

(The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders will be sharing the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life. The is the third of a long and continuing story.)

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Walter Hoffmeier’s houseboat, the PAL-O-MINE, appeared nothing like the mass-produced, molded fiberglass look-alikes of today. The PAL was hand-built from the keel-up, board by board, of natural woods. The hull had White Oak frames with Douglas Fir, the next most durable wood after Cypress, planking.

Overall, the boat measured 52-feet from the overhanging forward deck, beyond the stem, to the last plank of the enclosed back deck. What distinguished this home-built boat from all others, was the raised bow and stern sections and the lower center component of the cabin giving the PAL somewhat the look of a floating castle – or at least it seemed to a ten-year-old boy on first seeing it afloat.

PAL-O-Mine, winter, 1958

When other boats of its style were painted “steamboat white,” the PAL-O-MINE was trimmed in two shades of gray. On either end of the boat were ample areas surrounded by stout, steel railings covered from from top to deck in a narrow mesh fencing for the protection of the most inquisitive kids or dogs.

The back deck, protected overhead from the sun and rain by a roof, was where a collapsible table could be set in place that transformed the deck space into the setting for many sumptuous meals brought aboard in the picnic hampers Mother and Lorraine Hoffmeier had carefully prepared beforehand.

The PAL-O-MINE was at home at the Newport Yacht Club, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River upstream and opposite the Cincinnati Public Landing during the era when Newport’s soiled reputation for gambling and prostitution was years, yet, from reformation.

The yacht club enjoyed it own notoriety. Once when reading aloud the boat club’s name set in bright red, neon letters displayed on the outside of the huge, wooden harbor boat, as we drove across the Central Bridge, my father warned, “Don’t let anyone know you know where that place is!”

Headboat of the Newport Yacht Club

But in spite of Dad’s warning, I felt immediately comfortable, and at home, the first time I walked across the swaying gangway and stepped aboard the harbor boat where musty smells of stale beer, hemp rope, open bilges, and long-since fried greasy, steaks greeted me.

The harbor was owned and ruled-over with an iron sway by a determined woman named Helen who was as interesting a character as any nautical setting ever produced. She was aided by her brother Dewey. Both Helen and Dewey, as I found over the years, were true and genuine river people of the type not generally understood by the public ashore, but who were held in a notable regard within the river community. It wasn’t long before I yearned to find my own niche somewhere within this odd, yet exciting, congregation which found comfort and contentment on the water.

The PAL was berthed at the far, downstream end of a long line of “floats” at “Helen’s”, as the yacht club was commonly called; a preferred dock space easy to get the heavy, 55-footer in and out of without the added concern of bumping into one of the fancy yachts moored closer to the head-boat, but it was a long way from the parking lot to haul a cooler full of cold drinks and overloaded picnic baskets.

Soon as we assembled on the boat, Walt laid down his orders, “You kids have to wear lifejackets. No running on the boat. Don’t throw stuff in the river,” and so forth.

Walter and Loraine Hoffmeier, at the lower end of the floats at Newport Yacht Club, 1952

The PAL’s single, four-cylinder, gasoline engine was started, lines were cast off, and the boat pushed upstream toward the golden, yellow sands of Dayton Bar, or sometimes all the way to Lock and Dam #36 at Brent, Kentucky, opposite the Coney Island Amusement Park.

Walt habitually left a gift box on the cement wall for the men who operated the lock – and it was sure to contain something especially desirable… perhaps, even, a fifth of smooth Kentucky Bourbon.

The PAL-O-MINE was always warmly received at the government lock where the lock men knew Walt by name.

Though Walter normally “handled” the PAL during departures and landings, he preferred to join his guests while the boat cruised, so he handed the steering duties over to Lorraine’s nephew, “Swope”, a fellow just a few years older than I.

Swope, I concluded, was the luckiest kid alive, and I was determined to learn everything he knew so that I would, someday, be piloting the PAL-O-MINE like him. Swope, it turned, out, was more than happy to start breaking me in on the techniques of steering the boat, and over the course of the next couple summers, I was getting more and more wheel time as he began fading out of the picture.

The PAL, I learned, “handled like an old-time steamboat”, that is, when the steering wheel was turned, the stern, and not the bow, swung to one side or the other. Consequently, it was as important to look out the rear pilothouse window as it was the front, to know exactly what the boat was doing. This is an attribute of boat-handling that always seems foreign to novice steersmen, something I have pointed out to new generations ever since.

What I learned most about Walt Hoffmeier, was that if I demonstrated my willingness to work and help him with the boat, he reciprocated by teaching me more about the operation and care of his vessel as well as sharing secrets of a river upon which he was born, grew up, and was growing old on.

Little did I know, then, but Walt’s teachings and training would guide me for a lifetime; something he had no intention of consciously doing, but when I opened myself to him, a lifetime of knowledge instinctively flowed from one generation to the next.

Jess Sanders Jr. and Walt Hoffmeier were close friends.

Please do not misunderstand, Walter harbored no special sympathy or affection toward me; if I had not been useful to him, he would not have paid me one iota of concern other than I was my father’s son, as he had only the highest regard for my dad.

Overall, it was a fair trade.

For three consecutive seasons, my family was invited to ride the PAL-O-MINE nearly every weekend. My brothers, Bob, Dick, and I were becoming seasoned river boys, something that did not escape the notice of our parents. Houseboating was honest family fun.

Soon, my folks began a search for a boat of our own that ended on the banks of the Great Miami River near Hamilton, Ohio, only 35 miles from home, where repeated visits to the Hamilton Boat Club netted the Grand Prize – the most lovely thirty-eight-foot paddlewheeler named the SHANGRI LA which my parents bought, brought overland by trailer to the Cincinnati Public Landing, launched, and paddled it under its own power to the Covington Boat Harbor, immediately below (downstream) the south pier of the Roebling Suspension Bridge, where they renamed it for themselves, Marge and Jess, the MARJESS.

Could life get any better?

Captain Don Sanders is a river man. He has been a riverboat captain with the Delta Queen Steamboat Company and with Rising Star Casino. He learned to fly an airplane before he learned to drive a “machine” and became a captain in the USAF. He is an adventurer, a historian and a storyteller. Now, he is a columnist for the NKyTribune and will share his stories of growing up in Covington and his stories of the river. Hang on for the ride — the river never looked so good.

See Part II here.

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