A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Summers are scorchers on the Upper Mississippi; mayflies add to misery; Tommy’s story

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 a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NkyTribune

Summers on the Upper Mississippi River can be scorchers. Adding to the misery are the bugs – especially, nasty, fish-like critters known by several names – “Mayflies, Fish Flies, Canadian Soldiers, Ephemeron,” or more commonly, “Willow Bugs.”

Summers on the Upper Mississippi River can be scorchers. Adding to the misery are the bugs — especially, nasty, fish-like critters know by several names – “Mayflies, Fish Flies, Canadian Soldiers, Ephemeron,” or more commonly, “Willow Bugs.”

These aggravating creatures, cousins to the dragonfly, surface in hordes from the muddy bottom of the river where they’d been napping for several years before emerging on the river’s surface. Opening their cellophane wings, they dance in swarms above the water with hopes of attracting a partner before mating and dropping their spore into the cradle of the Mississippi to aggravate folks in the future.

“Willer’bugs” were the nightly bane of the steamboat crew. Several years before I joined the deck team, the AVALON was approaching a town to load a pre-sold charter ride, but to everyone’s bewilderment, every lightbulb in the burg was extinguished. Before the first line was run out, the entire crew, from the captain to the pot washer, soon found out why as a living cloud, denser than an October lower river fog, descended upon the brightly illuminated excursion boat.

Immediately, the steamboat was enveloped in countless insects latching onto every exposed surface. Worse, they blanketed the hundreds of searing, incandescent light bulbs in thick layers that soon started smoldering and emitting foul fumes of burning bug flesh.

Mayflies: Opening their cellophane wings, they dance in swarms above the water with hopes of attracting a partner.

Unshaken, the townsfolk piled aboard carrying brown paper sacks concealing the valuable liquid contents hidden within with hopes of discovering what adventures lie ahead they had been anticipating since their tickets were bought and paid for long before the boat and the bugs arrived.

By the time I was serving aboard the boat, lessons learned earlier taught the crew to extinguish as many lights as practical.

The hordes of swarming bugs and the oppressive summertime heat made me wonder why anyone would pay hard-earned money to isolate themselves in confined spaces on a riverboat so far from the safety of the shore. There was no escaping the insect invasion. Even the walk-in chill box was, somehow, thick with them. The Mate eased his restrictions on keeping his boys on the Main Deck. Instead, we were pressed into service on the upper decks assisting passengers trodding perilously on the greasy carpet of slime created beneath the soles of a thousand pairs of feet mashing the fishy-smelling bugs into the canvas-covered decks.

Meat Packing Plant. Tommy started bragging about his girlfriend’s daddy being a “big man” at the Swift & Co. slaughterhouse and packing plant in South St. Paul near where the AVALON turned around below Pig’s Eye Island on afternoon trips.

The Hurricane Roof canted steeply from the skylights under the stairs, coming off the Texas Deck, to the new steel railings. Many a reveler’s feet flew from under them as they stepped onto the steeply-inclined deck, fell on their backsides, and slid all the way outboard. They would have flown into the river had it not been for the stout railing.

Everyone, though, it seemed, picked themselves up after slamming against the barrier and laughed. Apparently, after enough alcoholic infusions, it was great fun to butt-slide across a slimy deck covered in bug mucus on a sweltering night aboard a steamboat on a dark, featureless, and frightening Mississippi River. Watching them, I must admit, was hilariously entertaining.

As the summer passed, the AVALON played all the stops I was familiar with from the previous year. We made our way upriver to St. Paul for a two-week stay where one of our boys met a girl on a Moonlite Ride. Within a few days, they saw each other every chance they could, and their relationship quickly grew.

Tommy started bragging about his girlfriend’s daddy being a “big man” at the Swift & Co. slaughterhouse and packing plant in South St. Paul near where the AVALON turned around below Pig’s Eye Island on afternoon trips. Next door to Swift, the equally monumental Armour meatpacking plant adjoined the St. Paul Union Stockyards. The pungent fumes from the slaughterhouses and animal pens enveloped the boat as soon as we drew within sight of the towering smokestacks of the Armour plant and penetrated every space, no matter how remote or enclosed.

Unloading cattle. An endless parade of railcars brought countless numbers of animals to slaughter. But the cattle cars required sanitizing before returning to wherever they were reloaded to fetch another batch of critters to be killed.

There was no escaping the foul atmosphere, and the stench was impregnating. But in spite of all the evidence, Tommy gave notice to the Mate and quit the crew. After packing his small suitcase and collecting what little wages he had coming, he scoffed and mocked the rest of us for staying on the boat and working too many hours for low pay and simple meals. Tom boasted of possibly making twice, maybe more with overtime. than what the steamboat paid. And after he was secure in his new job at the slaughterhouse, he was, he boasted, marrying his girlfriend and settling down in South St. Paul for a long career at the meatpacking plant.

Tommy left the boat without looking back. But whenever the AVALON approached the putrid stench that hung over the river like a rancid cloud, I wondered how my friend was doing at his new career and if he and the meat packer’s daughter had yet married.

The next to the last day the AVALON was in St. Paul, before we packed up to head downriver to the Mouth of the St. Croix River, I noticed a dirty, scruffy, skinny kid standing by the head of the stage pleading with the captain and the mate. A beat-up suitcase was on the ground next to the boy’s feet. It was a curious sight, and the longer I stared, the more the fellow began to look familiar. It was Tommy! Several minutes later, he picked up his grip and carried it back to his old room next to mine. He never looked happier! After Tommy had an opportunity to clean up and eat a couple chicken legs left over from lunch, he told an eager audience his tale.

AVALON 1960. The AVALON made the rounds of the towns along the Upper Mississippi, St. Croix, and Illinois Rivers, that summer.

He recalled looking forward to a whole new life away from the steamboat and the river where he could enjoy a more comfortable, cleaner, and respectful life shared with the young woman of his dreams. The dream, though, began to fall apart soon after arriving at the girlfriend’s house in a seedy neighborhood not far from the slaughterhouses.

Instead of a room in the home with or close to his girl, he was directed to a hot, dusty attic with one musty bed overtop a ramshackle garage in the side yard. The girl’s father, the “big man” at the Swift & Co. slaughterhouse and stockyards, was actually in charge of a peculiar squad at the stockyard complex that was always short of manpower. Tommy became the old man’s latest recruit.

An endless parade of railcars brought countless numbers of animals to slaughter. But the cattle cars required sanitizing before returning to wherever they were reloaded to fetch another batch of critters to be killed and processed into steaks, roasts, chops, weiners, and other sorts of meat products and by-products to satisfy the endless appetites of meat-eaters, everywhere. Tommy’s new job was to shovel and remove the thick carpet of cow and hog manure from each car.

New Orleans Steamboats. Departing St. Louis for the final time, the bow was pointed downstream toward the South as excitement grew among the crew. We were heading for New Orleans!

Because the cattle car cleaners were always running short-staffed, he was marinated in cow and pig crap for ten hours a day, or more, in the stifling South St. Paul summer heat. Tommy never saw the girlfriend, much, once he started working on her father’s crew. He was, he said, “too tired and worn out” after a day buried to his knees in animal excreta for a love life.

Most of his first paycheck went to the old man for room and board. Finally, realizing the AVALON, his only escape from his new life, was leaving town, Tommy grabbed his battered suitcase and fled to Lambert’s Landing and begged his way back aboard.

But it would be some time later before the ribbing stopped and all the scoffing and mocking words he spoke before leaving that were repeated back, over and over again, ended. Only then, was Tommy, once more, accepted as a full-fledged member of the deck crew.

The AVALON made the rounds of the towns along the Upper Mississippi, St. Croix, and Illinois Rivers, that summer, but the steamboat stayed away from the mean Missouri. Instead, after departed St. Louis for the final time, the bow was pointed downstream toward the South as excitement grew among the crew. We were heading for New Orleans!

(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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