A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Tarzan, Lester, a snake, an ill-conceived prank marked the AVALON’s trip to Bayou Sara

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 Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

On one typical hot and humid afternoon between excursions, a fellow deckhand, everyone called “Tarzan” because of his love for nature and the great outdoors, invited me along on a hike up Bayou Sara to see what there was to see. No sooner had we gone a short distance along the brush and sand-choked stream, an unfriendly snake hiding in the grass along the pathway took a swipe at my companion’s tough, leather logging boots.

Mississippi River c. 1846-1848. Location “Bayou Sacra” is probably town of “Bayou Sara” in West Feliciana Parish; St. Francisville on the bluff in background.

In a flash, Tarzan wiped out what looked like a machete, and with a single swipe, dispatched the reptile into whatever realm deceased snakes go. The poor creature’s head was hanging by a thin sliver of skin. Tarzan scanned the bayou and found a discarded cardboard box of just the right size and coiled the dead snake inside it so it couldn’t have looked any more natural had the critter crawled into the box, itself. With the trophy in hand, we retraced our path back to where the AVALON dozed below the ferry.
 
Tarzan had a grand time opening the lid of the box and showing the freshly dispatched reptile to anyone, and everyone, whether they were interested, or not. At the head of the steamboat’s landing stage that stretched from the sandy shore to the gunnel, a small crowd of crewmembers and Louisiana fishermen gathered to stare into the box. After a while, the onlookers faded away, their curiosities satisfied.

So Tarzan asked, “Here, you want this thing?”

“Sure,” I replied. “I know someone who hasn’t seen it yet.”

Hefting the closed box for the first time, I felt the weight of the dead reptile move as it slipped within the cardboard container as I accepted it one-handed. Holding my newly acquired curiosity tightly like a football under my left arm, I crossed the stage and hurried toward the rooms on the starboard side where the Steward’s gang bunked.

 No sooner had we gone a short distance along the brush and sand-choked stream, an unfriendly snake hiding in the grass along the pathway took a swipe at my companion’s tough, leather logging boots.

Lester, a city-bred kid, perhaps two or three years my senior, carried his cheap suitcase aboard the AVALON for the first time before the boat left Peoria, but he told everyone he was from St. Louis. Lester was the paragon “cool cat” of his age.

He embodied Bobby Darin, Elvis, and Little Richard in one rock n’ roll-style package – complete with greasy ducktails, pegged britches, pointy-toed shoes, and a shirt unfastened down to the third button. But ever since the steamboat left the Upper Mississippi and was paddling on its southern counterpart, Lester was reluctant to leave the safety of the vessel unless it was tied-off where he could feel cement sidewalks beneath his feet once he stepped ashore. But at these dirt bank landings, like where we were moored below Bayou Sara, his outspoken excuse for not leaving the boat was, “Ain’t getting me out there – whole damn place is eat up with snakes.”

“Hey, Lester,” I shouted as I thrust the open box toward his face, “Tarzan’s sent you a present!”  

The horror that masked the face of the unfortunate fellow should have been sufficient to end the mischief then and there, but he started screaming and cussing both the bloody contents of the box and its presenter. That was, in itself, a reason to continue the sport.

Lester, all the while, was back-pedaling toward the tables in the open Deck Room, when, suddenly he turned and broke into a sprint, leaping over the first line of the wooden picnic tables with the snake and me in close pursuit. The chain blocking access to the engine room was down, so Lester ran into the restricted area toward the gorilla cage jail, furthest aft, where there was no escape.

Lester was the paragon “cool cat” of his age. He embodied Bobby Darin, Elvis, and Little Richard in one rock n’ roll-style package.

“I got him, now,” I thought, almost out loud.

All the commotion in the pristine engine room promptly caught the attention of Engineer Ray Gill, a veteran steamboatman best known for having been the Chief Engineer on Captain Fred Way’s BETSY ANN and the recently-retired steam paddlewheel towboat, the GEO. M. VERITY. Chief Gill, a man I admired and had stood watch for as his Striker on several watches, was a no-nonsense steamboatman noted for the absolute cleanliness of his engine room.

He had, he told me, once slipped on a drop of spilled oil on the deck, and as he fell, his arm caught in the spinning flywheel of an electric generator. His boat was in a remote area of the river, and in those days, he related, it took several days before another man could get out to the steamboat to relieve him; so the dedicated engineer stood his watches with the badly broken and swollen arm until he was finally discharged from duty. Based on that experience, Chief Gill was a zealot for the engine room perfection he expected, and received, from his subordinates. A Striker better never be caught without a wiping rag hanging out his back pocket, and woe be to him should the Chief spot a drop of oil on the deck his wiper overlooked.
 
Lester, with his back to the iron bars of the gorilla cage and the dead snake and I blocking his escape forward, slipped his hand into the right back pocket of his rolled-up jeans and pulled out something dark and menacing. With a loud “snap” the dark object sprang alive, and I was now staring at the point of a six-inch stiletto switchblade knife. Suddenly, the tables turned!

I was glancing over both shoulders quickly calculating my own egress out of the engine room until the loud voice of Chief Gill unexpectedly startled us both. “Get the hell out of my engine room right now!” I figured the Chief was directing his anger toward Lester, the one with the open switchblade knife until I saw the heavy, menacing Louisville Slugger baseball bat the Chief was wielding; ready to knock us both out of his park.

Torrent and debris – Everyone ran to see what Ed was shouting about. Above the ferry landing barge, Bayou Sara was “running out” in a continuous wall of water.

Chief Ray repeated his order, but this time he included, “… the both of you! Exit we did, and fast! The snake was taken ashore and received a deserved burial below the mouth of Bayou Sara. Lester beat a retreat to his room on the starboard side where he had been so rudely interrupted just a short time earlier. Nothing more was said about the prank-gone-wrong. Lester and I tolerated each other until he got off at Memphis on the way back up the Mississippi and returned to either Peoria or St. Louis and dissolved into the mists of time as far as steamboating was concerned.
 
The next morning at Bayou Sara was as pleasant and sunny as any Southern summer day could be. Off into the distance a line of low clouds hung close to the horizon north of us, but otherwise, there wasn’t another cloud in the sky.  Most of the crew was finishing breakfast when a shout was heard from Ed Smith who was relieving Bubba Chinn outside the port door of the firebox. Everyone ran to see what Ed was shouting about.

Above the ferry landing barge, Bayou Sara was “running out” in a continuous wall of water racing across, and higher, than the surface of the wide Mississippi River. When the boiling water neared the far shore, the force of the river’s robust current forced it downstream, but soon the waters of the run-off turned upstream again and traced a path back toward its source, creating a monstrous whirlpool-like “eddy” of over a mile in circumference. Captain Hawley had just come on watch and was, fortunately, on the bow. He raced to the controls operating the steam hoist engine beneath the deck and raised the stage before it, and all the rigging supporting it were twisted and destroyed.

The eddy-current rushing against the stern of the AVALON would have crashed the steamboat and crew against the ferryboat and its barge had not the doubled-up spring lines held. While the deck crew raced to their stations, Captain Wagner alerted the engineers as he took off running up the stairs to the pilothouse. A few minutes later, frantic engine room bells pleaded for steam to the engines as the paddlewheel backed hard into the flood.

Thankfully, no snakes slithered in the debris of the runoff. The AVALON had its share of snakes and needed no more. The next morning, we departed Bayou Sara for Baton Rouge.

The surging stream was choked with logs, stumps, and debris both natural and from the civilized world. As the minutes passed, which seemed more like hours, the runoff from the bayou ran its course and gradually calmed again. But along the shore of the expansive river where we had narrowly escaped disaster, a mass of floating detritus remained following the rampage of the angry, subsidiary stream.

Staring into the mass of waterborne debris, I detected the movement of living creatures swept away during the temper-fit of the bayou. Much to my delight, scores of small green turtles of the sort sold in the “dime stores” back home were scurrying about the driftwood. But trying to catch one without a net proved impossible.

Turtles, I learned, could be fast if they sensed danger, and none of us, on deck, snagged a single baby turtle. Later, we learned that the low, gray clouds on the northern horizon, seen earlier, were the source of a gullywasher flash flood that raced down the course of Bayou Sara and nearly washed the AVALON and the St. Francisville Ferry, and its landing barges, along with it. Thankfully, no snakes slithered in the debris of the runoff. Evidently, they were there in significant numbers, but cleverly hiding from sight. The AVALON had its share of snakes and needed no more. The next morning, we departed Bayou Sara for Baton Rouge.

(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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