A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Getting Night Watchman duties, wearing shirt too big, hat too small and missing New Orleans

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

One hot afternoon after lunch, a couple of days after arriving at the Harmony Street Wharf, Captain Wagner called me aside and told me to get some rest. Dirty-Shirt-Harold was spending the night at the merchant marine hospital, and Cap wanted me to take his place as Night Watchman that evening while most of the crew slept. He emphasized the responsibilities of the assignment and concluded by asking, “What would you do if the boat caught-fire?” “Why, I’d wake you,” I answered. “First thing you’d do,” Cap corrected, “is sound the General Alarm bell!” Advice I would remember the rest of my days – Sound the General Alarm – let everyone know trouble is brewing aboard the boat!

Besides a reliable flashlight, a circular Detex Watchclock hung by a leather strap from around the neck and shoulder of the patrolman. Inside the clock, a spring-driven mechanism kept a record of whenever a key, dangling from a brass chain at assigned stations, was inserted into the keyhole of the punch-clock and turned

Aboard any vessel where crew or passengers are sleeping, the Night Watchman may be the most critical person aboard. According to the “CFR’s,” the Code of Federal Regulations, “Between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., a supervised patrol shall be maintained to completely cover all parts of the vessel accessible to passengers or crew.” Also, “The Watchman, while on duty, shall wear a distinctive uniform or badge, and shall have in his possession at all times an efficient flashlight.” The regs go on the specify that his cap shall have letters spelling WATCHMAN no less than one-half-inch in height.

Not only did Captain Wagner understand that the job of patrolling the steamboat while most of the crew slept, a vital assignment, but Uncle Sam, himself, spelled out in the law the specific associated duties of a Watchman and what he should wear and what equipment he carried. Besides a reliable flashlight, a circular Detex Watchclock hung by a leather strap from around the neck and shoulder of the patrolman. Inside the clock, a spring-driven mechanism kept a record of whenever a key, dangling from a brass chain at assigned stations, was inserted into the keyhole of the punch-clock and turned, leaving an impression on a round piece of paper as evidence of the presence of the Watchman at that station at a specific time. Captain Wagner made me feel I was someone important to the AVALON as I stood ready for such an important assignment.

Cap’s favorite New Orleans haunt, Felix’s Oyster Bar, where the Skipper was lionized for sucking down dozens of raw oysters and washing them down in a flood of pitchers of cold Jax Beer.

Decked out in a borrowed white shirt two sizes too large, a “high-pressure” officer’s cap a size too small with WATCHMAN emblazoned in gold letters on the band pinching my temples, and the Detex Patrol Clock proudly displayed across my scrawny chest like an Army bandolier, I reveled in the trust the Captain bestowed in me though I was one of the youngest of his steamboat crew.

Although it was past midnight, and the night still ruled by the heat and the swarming mosquitoes, several of our steamboatmen were off the boat and likely carousing on Bourbon Street or in one of the sordid seamen’s bars on Lower Canal where their chances of returning to the vessel were just better than even. Captain Wagner and the Purser, E. P. Hall, arrived earlier from Cap’s favorite New Orleans haunt, Felix’s Oyster Bar, where the Skipper was lionized for sucking down dozens of raw oysters and washing them down in a flood of pitchers of cold Jax Beer. A couple of the engine room boys brought back sacks of boiled crab wrapped in newspapers they unfolded on a picnic table in the crew’s mess and invited me to eat a few crustaceans as I passed by on a round. Over on the wharf, a knot of returning Limey neighbors where boasting in loud voices of their exploits in town. By nearly 4 am, two of our deckhands stumbled across the walkway by my post at the gate when I wasn’t patrolling the boat. They were drunk, bloody, beaten, and excitedly recited a tale of “gettin’ our ass whipped” in a dive on Decatur Street they should have never entered.

I warned them to get below before they woke that grouchy old bear of a captain and they would be wishing they were back on Decatur battling lesser adversaries.

A rowdy, boisterous crew of rugged newcomers gathered on the dock. One unusually assertive muscular fellow shoved his way onto the deck, followed by several of his companions and demanded that I allow them to walk around and “have a look” at the steamboat.

The few hours remaining until my stint as Night Watchman were over, passed slowly while the darkness gradually turned to dawn as the sun rose in the direction of the French Quarter, the scene of so much revery and misery of the fading night. Just minutes before 6 a.m., a rowdy, boisterous crew of rugged newcomers gathered on the dock. One unusually assertive muscular fellow shoved his way onto the deck, followed by several of his companions and demanded that I allow them to walk around and “have a look” at the steamboat on which I was charged to safeguard the order of the vessel while my companions slept until I was relieved of duty. The leader, or at least the most outspoken, was a few years older than I but appeared much stronger than I could dream of being. My first instinct was to submissively step aside and allow the longshoremen, as they were, to trespass and violate my area of responsibility. But immediately, the image of my Captain and his voice of authority gave me courage, and I stood in the path of the intruders and informed them that the AVALON remained restricted to visitors, and they could venture no further.

Still, the young leader insisted, but I would have rather faced a dozen of him than one Captain Wagner, and I stood firm. Finally, one of his companions, an older and, apparently wiser, man spoke up, “Com’ on – lez go. Dat man jest doin’ his job.” Much to my relief, the stevedores, including the one leading the pack, turned and returned to the wharf and about their intended business, leaving me alone to enjoy the rosy, red sunrise. Before long, I replaced the borrowed cap and hung the clock by its strap to the knob on the Purser’s office door and went below for my share of breakfast and then into bed for a well-deserved rest. By the upcoming afternoon ride, though, I would be back on deck hard at my deckhand chores.

By the time the AVALON packed up, departed New Orleans, and turned its bow into the swift current of the Mississippi River for a long trip that would eventually take boat and crew to the Golden Triangle of Pittsburgh at the source of the Ohio River, I had yet to set foot past the Harmony Street Wharf. It would be seven more years before I returned to the Crescent City for a first glimpse of the French Quarter with all its sights, sounds, smells, and excitement. But, then not aboard a riverboat. Instead, I returned as a “special agent’ of the government on a classified training mission that I swore the specifics to secrecy. Even at this writing, over half a century later, I remain hesitant to divulge details of that secret assignment.

(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.

By the time the AVALON packed up, departed New Orleans, and turned its bow into the swift current of the Mississippi River… I had yet to set foot past the Harmony Street Wharf. It would be seven more years before I returned to the Crescent City for a first glimpse of the French Quarter with all its sights, sounds, smells, and excitement.

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