A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Now aboard DELTA QUEEN, mischievous pranks continue; the story of ‘missing’ motorcycle

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

Captain Joseph Theodore “Ted” Davisson, a native of New Orleans and a celebrated ship pilot of renown, started his distinguished career on the Mississippi River aboard the steamboat DELTA QUEEN, in 1970, as a “linen boy” taking care of all the incoming and outgoing laundry belonging to the boat.

Captain Joseph Theodore “Ted” Davisson, a native of New Orleans and a celebrated ship pilot of renown, started his distinguished career on the Mississippi River aboard the steamboat DELTA QUEEN. (Photos provided)

Ted had to sort, bundle, inventory, and stack all the sheets, pillow slips, tablecloths, napkins, aprons, and so forth, that needed to be taken off the QUEEN and sent ashore to several laundries along the route. Just before the linen was ready to go ashore, he had, literally, tons of soiled cargo stacked in huge bundles that left only a narrow passageway to navigate through his Linen Room on the starboard side of the Main Deck, just ahead of the dining room.

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the Grand Master of the DELTA QUEEN, took a liking to Ted and permitted Ted to keep his “chopped” Harley-Davidson motorcycle, that sported an extra-long extended front fork, aboard the boat. Wagner had been a biker, himself, during his youth, and the Skipper had a soft spot for motorcycles and those brave enough to ride them.

At about that same time, there was a rash of housekeeping machines disappearing from their storage areas in the few open spots around Ted’s linen bundles. The buffers, sweepers, and other electrical aids for keeping the inside of the boat clean were mysteriously vanishing.

Ted Davisson with a bird mascot on the DELTA QUEEN where he had humble beginnings.

They were, with little doubt, being cast into the mighty Mississippi River at night when everyone was asleep except for a few of us who keep the boat running between midnight and six am. Ted remained in an anxious state of alarm that he might come into the Linen Room, one morning, and find that his precious bike had followed the buffers into the maul of the Mississippi. Ted’s fears quickly fueled a prank engineered on our watch while he fitfully slept.

Ray Wanstrath could have become a captain had he wanted, but as a deckhand, there was none better on the DELTA QUEEN. So Ray, Ernest Veasley, Tommy Turtle, and I slipped into Ted’s Linen Room during the middle of the watch when we were least likely to be discovered hatching our sinister prank. While two of the guys pulled aside enough bundles of soiled sheets, large enough to make a cavern within the pile, another deckhand, under my direction, wheeled Ted’s beloved metal monster into the hole.

Quickly, we pushed the bundles back into place and buried Ted’s motorcycle deep inside the mountain of dirty linen. Finished, we went about completing the remainder of the watch. At 6 a.m. we were relieved by the oncoming crew, ate breakfast, and eventually drifted off to our respective bunks for a few winks before the routine began again at noon, as we were on duty for six hours with an equal amount of time off before returning for another six-hour stretch. We called this regiment, “six over six.”

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the Grand Master of the DELTA QUEEN, took a liking to Ted.

Once I hit those cool sheets, the prank was the last thing on my mind, for things happen fast on a steamboat that swaps crews every six hours, so a boatman has to grab some rest whenever the chance arises.

I must have been in the most enervated sleep when I began dreaming that I heard the booming voice of Captain Wagner calling me to wake up. Was I also imagining the thunder of Wagner’s great paw’s pounding on the yielding panels of the heavy wooden door of my room? Whether a dream or not, whenever I heard or believed I heard, Captain Wagner’s summons, Promptly, I responded. Out from between the sheets I bounded and flew to open the door before it came off the hinges. Standing carefully aside as I unbolted the lock, the door flew open as the Captain got in one last lick.

“Something the matter, Cap?” I asked, trying to keep my knees from knocking, for meeting the Captain under these circumstances was unnerving, even for someone like myself who had known and worked for Captain Wagner since I was a teenager.

“Ted’s motorcycle is missing,” he said. “You or the boys know anything about it?”

“No-o-o …” I muttered, remembering our little innocent prank from the night before.

Captain Wagner permitted Ted to keep his “chopped” Harley-Davidson motorcycle, that sported an extra-long extended front fork, aboard the boat.

“Well, get dressed and come on down to the Linen Room and help us look for it,” the menacing Captain commanded.

Ted was in a frenzy when I arrived on the frantic scene. If I remember correctly, he may have even been in tears.

“They threw my bike over last night,” he lamented.

“Oh, maybe it’s still somewhere on the boat. We’ll all pitch in and help look for it,” I tried to assure Ted.

The other fellows from my watch were there, too, and we were both delighted that our stunt had succeeded, but at the same time, we felt terrible because the experience so visibly shook Ted to the core.

“We’ll find that bike,” Ray said confidently.

Of course, we couldn’t go right to where we knew the motorcycle lay buried, but for 15 or 20 minutes we pretended to look behind every nook on the bow of the DELTA QUEEN.

Finally, someone shouted, “Here it is!”

Just before the linen was ready to go ashore, he had, literally, tons of soiled cargo stacked in huge bundles that left only a narrow passageway to navigate through his Linen Room on the starboard side of the Main Deck, just ahead of the dining room.

Ted saw a glint of chrome shining from between the soiled sheets, and with the strength of two cotton packet rousters, he flung the heavy linen sacks aside as though they were balls of fluff.
 
Everyone was delighted!

Ted got his beloved bike back, and Wagner was pleased that the phantom of the buffers had not struck again. We were relieved that the “Mean Old Captain” didn’t know, at least for the time being, that it was his First Mate and boys who buried Ted’s motorcycle in the mountain of dirty linen and left everyone believing the fancy bike had joined the other machines on the bottom of the Mississippi River.

Eventually, I “fessed-up” to both Ted and the Captain, but by that time, the prank had gone into the annals of practical jokes that make up the rhythm of life aboard a steamboat. Over the years, since, everyone involved has had many hearty laughs retelling the story.

Deckhand Ray Wanstrath could have become a captain had he wanted, but as a deckhand, there was none better on the DELTA QUEEN. So Ray, Ernest Veasley, Tommy Turtle, and I slipped into Ted’s Linen Room during the middle of the watch when we were least likely to be discovered hatching our sinister prank.

One late evening, soon after the DELTA QUEEN motorcycle caper, a loud splash was heard coming from the vicinity of the Linen Room as the last floor buffer joined its comrades on the sandy river bottom. But this time the mystery of the disappearing floor-care appliances was solved when the culprit was caught standing all alone by the Main deck railing from whence the sound of the splashing buffer had emanated. The man promptly confessed his guilt and was put ashore at the next landing.

He was none other than Charles, the trusted Housekeeping Steward, who fallaciously believed that if he got rid of all his machines, he could ride the boat without doing any work.

Dream on, Charlie… for labor is the exchange we crew pay to ride the steamboat.

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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One Comment

  1. Joey says:

    Nice river tale.

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