A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Can’t stay away, and second season on AVALON is reconnection with old friends and new

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 15th of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Admittedly, I was blessed with the serendipitous opportunity to “deck” on the steam excursion boat, the AVALON, for two of the last three seasons she tramped from town-to-town, from one end to the other, on the Mississippi River System.

After a year of college, where I spent most of my time miserably wishing I was back on the river, my parents and I, again, bickered over my yearning to return to the steamboat rather than obeying, staying home, and working a respectable job over the summer vacation before college started the next fall. Dad even found a job for me with a small construction outfit owned by a friend of his. I worked until the first check came and then announced I was going to catch the AVALON at La Crosse, Wisconsin on the Upper Mississippi.

Dad dropped me off at the Art Deco-style Greyhound Bus Station on East Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati.

This time there wasn’t the intense parental opposition to my leaving as happened the year before. The bulky army footlocker was again crammed full of stuff I believed would be vital for sustaining me for another term on the steamboat. The only item missing this time was the beautiful Elgin watch Grandmother Edith had given me for high school graduation that was plundered from the unsecured locker stowed beneath the bottom bunk in Room 12 on the port-side-aft where three fellow deckhands and I slept.

Traveling back and forth, from home to a job on the river soon becomes another aspect of the life of a young boatman. Without the resources to fly, so I, too, like others of my lowly station, became familiar with the ins-and-outs of traveling by bus. Dad dropped me off at the Art Deco-style Greyhound Bus Station on East Fifth Street in downtown Cincinnati after reminding me that I was returning to the AVALON unannounced. “What if Wagner won’t rehire you,” he cautioned? “He’ll take me back – I’m positive. ”

The station, built about the same year I was born, was bustling in 1960. Train travel, like steamboats in their day, had seen its zenith during the Second World War and was quickly being replaced by another technology advanced and perfected during the war, airplane travel.

Every town worthy of the name had a bus terminal, and practically every terminal had a bar.

Yet, because of the high cost and scarcity of air travel to the masses, buses remained a convenient and economical means of transportation. Most young rivermen I knew from my previous year of steamboating prided themselves in knowing the virtues of traveling by bus and what vices the bus station also promised.

Every town worthy of the name had a bus terminal, and practically every terminal had a bar. As the use of alcohol by crewmen aboard the AVALON was as carefully monitored as possible by a prudent staff of officers. The first place many a hand would seek immediately after stepping foot on dry ground was the closest beer joint. Quite often one was located at the local bus station.

Where, too, the station was also the hunting grounds for errant women by love-starved men isolated for most of the time away from the opposite sex. Even when the steamer had women excursionists aboard, the crew was kept separate from most intimate interactions with them during the cruise, although relationships, at times, began with a chance encounter between passengers and “the help.”

However the friendships started, with few exceptions, the interaction between the parties took place ashore and, assuredly, not aboard the boat. For getting caught in an indiscreet circumstance o n the steamboat meant the loss of a paycheck, one’s own bunk, and three squares a day shoved out the cookhouse window. For many of the men, the boat was the only home they knew. Besides, “another was always waiting at the next landing,” was a general feeling. With few exceptions, a boatman’s job was his life and meant more than an occasional tryst with a stranger met on the ride only an hour or so earlier.

Eskers, kames, and kettle lakes, remnant deposits from the glacial era dotting the countryside, got me out of my seat and looking around at what I had seen only before in Miss Edward’s tenth-grade science textbooks.

My ticket was paid through to LaCrosse, Wisconsin, a medium-sized river town on the Upper Mississippi, with a layover and a change of busses in Chicago. I chose a seat on the window side toward the rear on the left-hand side of the Greyhound, across from, and a slightly forward of the bathroom that made it convenient to heed nature’s call on the long trip.

No sooner had I made myself comfortable in the reclining chair, a scrawny, boy of about my age slid into the seat alongside me and straightaway commenced a chatter that aroused me from the euphoric comfort I had fallen into. A sudden movement beyond my window caused me to look that way as a horrific profusion of indescribable gore, worse than any spew I’d witnessed within the cuspidor on the AVALON’s pilothouse floor, erupted from the mouth of a twin-like duplicate of my seatmate who had been standing in the small knot of well-wishers outside the bus, covered the outer glass in such a corruption, the sight of which was as revolting as it was puzzling as to why my window was targeted.

“That’s my buddy,” was the only explanation my fellow passenger offered as the sound of the diesel engine behind us whined to a start and the door, up front, closed. The bus backed away from the curb and turned toward the general direction of the Windy City, some three-hundred miles, or more, to the north and west as roads went in those days before the expressways were completed.

The motorcoach stopped at every tiny berg, it seemed, between Cincinnati and Indianapolis. After a thirty-minute break, we were back on the road toward Chicago across a prairie as flat and smooth as a pool table top. And the whole while, my closest traveling neighbor kept up a lively banter about just every subject I had no interest in hearing. The early summer sun radiated in a cloudless sky with such a ferocity that the dazzling glare made the bus seem to
stand motionless on the broad, expansive, treeless plain. After what seemed a lifetime, the coach pulled up to a final stop at the Chicago Greyhound station, and verifying that my footlocker would be checked through to our destination, I approached the ticket counter only to find the next bus to LaCrosse was leaving early the following morning. All I could do was wait.

The Steamboat AVALON lay tied to a mooring ring at Riverside Park and looking not much different than when I last saw it on the Missouri River a year earlier.

The long eight-hour bus ride from Chicago to LaCrosse was made easier by a more
eye-appealing view and an empty seat alongside me. Instead of the endless monotony of the Indiana prairie, the Wisconsin topography became more impressive the closer the coach approached LaCrosse. Eskers, kames, and kettle lakes, remnant deposits from the glacial era dotting the countryside, got me out of my seat and looking around at what I had seen only before in Miss Edward’s tenth-grade science textbooks.

As much as I wanted to talk about what I was absorbing, no one else on the bus seemed excited. They were either sleeping, reading magazines, or staring out the front window at the road ahead. Around 2 p.m., the bus pulled into the LaCrosse station and the river was but a short walk away lugging the heavy footlocker.

The Steamboat AVALON lay tied to a mooring ring at Riverside Park and looking not much different from when I last saw it on the Missouri River a year earlier. A couple of the boys splicing a line on the bow stood up, shook my hand, and welcomed me back.

“You should’a been on the boat, yesterday, coming up from Dubuque,” Bobby informed me. “Wind wuz blowin’ a hun’erd miles ‘n hour… lucky we got tied-up good ’n tight.”

After hearing the news about the close call the AVALON experienced the day before, I asked where I could find Captain Wagner and learned he could be found on the dance floor on the Boiler Deck, the level above the boilers.

Setting the faithful locker inside the ticket booth inside the sliding front doors, I climbed the stairs to where the polished Maple floor stretched nearly the entire length of the steamboat cabin. At the far end stood a familiar, giant figure of a man who turned and faced my way as I strode across the wooden planks.

Stretching out my hand I looked the Captain In the eye, “I want to come back.” To my relief, Captain Wagner shook my hand and answered, “You always got a job with me, Don.”

Fortunately, an empty bunk was waiting in my old room, and soon my footlocker and I moved back into Room 12. Cap even increased my last year’s wages from $19 a week to $35 – room and board included.

E. P. Hall, Purser and Captains Hawley & Wagner – The regular Mate, Captain Clarke Campbell “Doc” Hawley had returned after a year spent on the overnight passenger vessel, the DELTA QUEEN.

Over the past winter’s layover, several changes were made to the steamboat. The original, ornate wire fencing with the lovely metal rosettes surrounding the Hurricane Deck was removed and replaced with a stronger, more sturdy all-steel successor. And the “bridge,” the small booth-like boxes where the Captain stood during landings, departures, and lockages were rail-enclosed platforms were constructed on the roof above – an amendment that should have logically been done years before. Appearance-wise, the AVALON looked, smelled, and felt the
same as I always knew the old gal.

Many of the old die-hards were still aboard: Besides the venerable Master, Ernie Wagner – Chief Stewart Amol Warner, Purser A. J. Hall, Firemen Ed Smith and Bubba Smith, Watchmen, “Big Bill” Willis, Blackie, and “Dirty Shirt Harold,” and deckhands Jackie, Bobbie, and Shorty were all familiar faces. But, Mate “Red” Wilke was gone and the regular Mate, Captain Clarke Campbell “Doc” Hawley had returned after a year spent on the overnight passenger vessel, the DELTA QUEEN, where he was earning the extra tonnage requirement needed for an Unlimited Masters License he tested for and was awarded, before returning to the tramp excursion steamer of his river origin.

Life aboard the AVALON for the deck crew also changed under the leadership of Captain Hawley. Whereas we had the run of the boat with passengers aboard when Doc’s predecessor, Red Wilke, was the mate, we were now restricted to the Main Deck unless duties required our presence up top. Without today ’s electrical gadgets to keep us occupied during the two-hour cruises, at least one of the boys played the “harp,” and a “geetar” magically appeared at the first note. Jackie sang “Lonely Boy,” but the words came out, “Wone-we boy, wone-we an’ boo…” Lacking the ability to carry a musical tune, I found the chain hanging across the sliding front door readily transformed into a rhythm instrument when a stick or the side of my pocket knife handle was strummed across the links. We formed a deckhand band. A unique musical treat was whenever Bubba Chin, the fireman who played saxophone in the Rhythm Masters Band before manning the fires beneath the boilers, joined in and harmonized with our little group.

But as soon as the thunderous whistle sounded for a landing, the deck gang was up and at their duty stations on both ends of the boat.

(To be continued…)

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.

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