A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Moving ‘uptown,’ a rambunctious mud-ball skirmish leads to finding Paradise Lost on Licking

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

(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 sixth of a long and continuing story.)

Soon after Grandpa Jesse died and we were spending our weekends on Walt Hoffmeier’s PAL-O-MINE in early 1952, the family moved to a two-story brick on Sterrett Avenue, four houses off Wallace Avenue in “uptown” Covington.

Wallace was where the elite of the city had migrated to, two generations earlier, from what would be later called the “Riverside Area.” There they built palatial homes with spacious yards. Though their children and grandchildren had gradually moved beyond the bounds of the town, remnants of the old guard were still tended by colored yardmen who cared for the lawns, and older Negro women dressed all in white who looked more like hospital attendants than they did cooks and housekeepers.

Paradise Lost Found (Photo by Paul Richardson)

Of a morning, the “help” were seen stepping off the #8 Eastern Avenue bus before they ambled off to their respective places of employment. The small knot of workers were but a shadow of those who once served in, and about, the homes when they were filled those who had moved away.  Now, the opulent palaces were populated by but one or two elder owners.  The stately home of steamboat captain and coal baron, Captain James T. Hatfield, had only his two spinster daughters living quietly within the frame walls once noted for the gaiety of their father’s festivities.

The same year we moved into the neighborhood, Mother began working as a medical secretary, a career step that would eventually find her retiring as a Licensed Practical Nurse.  She should have, and could have, been a doctor.

With both our parents working, Bob, Dick, and I became “latch-key kids,” but as I was nearing adolescence and had been “watching” my little brothers for several years, our folks felt we all were in good hands with me in charge as long as I followed their command to “Stay in the yard.”

But after a while we started playing with kids on the other side of the street whose backyards fell off into a broad inner city valley so vast that the Holmes High School football stadium and adjacent practice field occupied but a part of it. The lower backyards of the homes on Eastern Avenue formed the eastern slope of the depression.  At it lowest point the valley was marshy and murky, with gray water standing on the surface of the ground.  The neighbor boys simply called the area, the “Swamp.”

Map of our area

Immediately, the Swamp became our favorite playground to escape the confines of our monotonous yard.  As it was within calling distance of home, our boundaries were extended to include the Swamp. “Calling distance” in the early 1950’s meant a spatial range close-enough to home, so that when Mother stood on the front porch and hollered for us, we could hear her call.  Cell phones and other such electronic devices were two generations, yet, into the future.

In those days with memories still fresh of the Second World War and at the same time the Korean War was winding down, playing “Army” was a popular pastime for boys our age. The Swamp became the perfect battlefield. Instead of bullets and bombs, mud balls were the ammunition of choice.  For a time we warred among ourselves with me opposing my two younger brothers until our cousin Ray Cooper moved next door and we had equal sides.  Our rules of combat included: “No rocks; mud only. No throwing at the opponent’s head, and no throwing too hard.”

All that warring on the property of others soon caught the attention of Mike Coors, a neighbor-boy, around our age, who lived on the Eastern Avenue side of the hollow; whose backyard encompassed much of the Swamp. Though Mike was the son of the Reverend Morris H. Coors, pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church, he, too, had a taste for war games.  On the hill behind the white, frame rectory where the Coors family lived, Mike dug a deep foxhole large-enough that he and his ragtag troopers had shelter from the barrage of mud balls we rained down upon them.

Dick, Mom and Bob in the backyard at Sterritt Avenue.

Ever-so-often, we heard the sound of a round striking Mike’s plastic helmet liner. A charge up the steep hill by our “gang” always drove Mike and his boys inside an open basement door where they sought shelter in an area forbidden for us to enter. Usually this meant coaxing and begging Mike to come back out and play Army some more.  “We won’t throw so hard,” I promised.

On a warm sunny Saturday in early May of 1955, Mike eagerly accepted another challenge to make war in the Swamp.  Perhaps he seemed a little too exuberant to get the battle started, but it was fine that our foe was so excited to play.  As always, the battle began with an exchange of clay missiles.  Before long, the cry of “CHARGE!” rang out from our side as we sprinted toward the enemy fox hole.  As if on cue, the Coors army abandoned their position and raced for the safe haven lying within the basement door.

As we boys crested the top of the embankment and onto the flat ground behind the parsonage, an angry roar erupted from beyond the cellar door.  Like a swarm of seething hornets, three roughneck, hooligan boys Mike had recruited from around the slaughterhouse area in Helentown, a neighborhood further north, and secreted within the basement, flew at us howling and screaming with intentions beyond the genteel regulations that normally governed our rules of war.  So, we brothers executed the only reasonable maneuver possible. . .We Ran!

Palatial homes with spacious yards from bus stop.

Instinctively, we knew that if we ran back into the Swamp we would, as they say, “get the hell beat out of us,” so out to the street I ran as Dick and Bob followed.
Turning right we flew toward the earthen levee we had watched being built since moving into the neighborhood; overtop we went with our pursuers close behind.

Behind the floodwall stretched an open field ending at the Licking River.  Down we went to where we could only turn left or right.  Going to the left led toward the mean boys home territory; to the right was a unfamiliar forest of tall trees that darken the shores of the river we were forbidden to go anywhere near.

Choosing the forest we ran towards it  and found a narrow path leading through the trees and underbrush, so slender it may have been trampled out by animals.  Later, we called these paths,  “dog trails.”  On we ran in hopes of eluding our pursuers, but they doggedly hung onto our footsteps, so determined were they of their mission.

After what seemed a considerable distance, we brothers were tiring, but, too, I sensed our stalkers were falling further behind. At the same time, we were abreast a rift in the earth alongside the trail. “Down here,” I whispered, as I dropped off the path, and together we tightly hugged the ground alongside the small escarpment. Moments later, the heavy footfalls of of our adversaries clomped by on the trail above. They were never heard from again.  After a reasonable wait we stood up and surveyed the expanse of the beautiful river, below, and the woods surrounding us.  It was as though, I was convinced, Paradise Lost had been found!

We promised ourselves that we would return and explore what we just found.

Three Mile Creek Landing, Licking River

After school was out for the day, on Thursday, May 19th, 1955, Dick, Bob, and I, in company with a  neighborhood friend, Larry Baldwin, returned to area of the Licking River we had “discovered” only a few days before.  This time were left the woods and walked among the broken jumble of flat, sedimentary rocks along the river’s edge.  A natural outcropping of stone made the perfect campsite and there we built our first campfire.

On a sizeable sheet of shale rock I inscribed with a harder stone, “Claimed by Don Sanders. May 19, 1955,” and this claim-marker was placed beneath a sheltering outcrop of limestone until the river reclaimed the inscription during the next highwater.

Thus, my brothers, Bob and Dick, and I claimed a stretch of the Licking River as our own and began series of summers in the sun and a love for the river that continues to this day.

May 19th became our Camp Day, marking the beginning of another summer on the Licking River full of swimming, riding passing “blue logs”, diving out of overhanging willows, potatoes roasting in a bed of red-hot coals, and all other forbidden delights that we boys could contrive on those long-ago shores.  We were able to keep our Licking River escapades from our parents until I was well into my thirties when Bob spilled the beans, and even those many years later, my dad was upset that I had led my little brothers into such a dangerous territory.

Looking back, it seems we spent our entire youth swimming and frolicking on that ancient waterway, besides our times on the MARJESS, but I left town on the steam excursion boat AVALON in June of ’59; so simple arithmetic tells me it was just four summer seasons, including 1959, spent in the sun, but to the young, four seasons can seem forever.

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 5 here.

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  1. Connie Bays says:

    This is my favorite story yet! I can absolutely see in my mind a group of young boys battling with mud balls and frolicking in the water! A truly talented writer and what an amazing life he’s had to tell about!!

  2. JoAnne Harmon says:

    I love this story. Since I am familiar with the area I can almost see in my mind exactly what the author experienced.
    I cannot wait for the next one!

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