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The River: Remembering Camp Day — and my first excursion onto forbidden shores of Licking River


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. This a part of a long and continuing story.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Forgive me if I repeat myself if I talk about “Camp Day” remembered every May the 19th as the beginning of another glorious summer season since my brothers Dick, and Bob and I, along with Larry Baldwin, an older neighbor-boy, made our first excursion onto the forbidden shores of the Licking River exactly 64 years ago, today.

Only a week earlier, some midtown toughs secreted inside the basement of our mudball war rival, Mike Coors, son of the Reverend Morris Coors, chased us from the rectory yard, down Eastern Avenue, over the floodwall to the Licking, and then a ways upstream until our gang found refuge against a small clay cliff alongside the trail. Our breathless adversaries plodded by overhead, disappeared up the path; never to be seen by us again.

Forgive me if I repeat myself if I talk about “Camp Day” remembered every May the 19th as the beginning of another glorious summer season since our first excursion onto the forbidden shores of the Licking River, exactly 64 years ago today.

When finally we summoned the nerve to come out of hiding, we discovered a boy’s paradise in an impermissible land. By the following Wednesday, we returned, but went further down along the broken layers of sedimentary stones and found a likely shelf of undisturbed rock where I scratched on a tablet of shale:

“Claimed by Don Sanders. May 19, 1955.”

I’d heard stories my father, Jess Sanders, Jr., a well-knowing Covington police officer told of his younger days venturing on the banks of the Licking River, and how, when his father, my Grandpa Jesse, discovered his misadventures, he was severely scolded and made to promise never to return. He obeyed his dad and chose to play around the stables on the old Latonia Racetrack, instead. But my father made the misty shores of his boyhood memory all the more inviting with each telling, and when my opportunity came to explore the most enticing discovery I’d ever found in my young life, I answered the wild call in spite of stern parental warnings to the contrary.

Of course, it wasn’t long before the chill, pleasing waters of the Licking River enticed us boys closer and closer until we became wholly immersed although neither of my younger brothers was swimmers, and I was but a novice at the skill of surviving in perilous waters with a reputation for treachery. But by the end of the summer, we were swimming back and forth to the opposite shore we called “Ohio,” in spite of it being in Campbell County, and our Kenton County side we said was “Kentucky,” though both riverbanks were well within the borders of the Commonwealth.

Our Licking River was wet, cool, and deep; a perfect playground in much the same way the remnants of the Miami & Erie Canal in the west side of Cincinnati was to our Great-uncle Henry Luckhardt at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Two-thirds of a century ago, the Licking River was considered little more than a dumping place for the effluents of communities and industrial sites along its shores. Upstream from Camp, a cavernous sewer flushed the nastiest of nasties into the river after a heavy rain, while the river often smelled of gummy, black oil washed down Banklick Creek from the SOHIO Oil Refinery built on the former race track site during the Second World War.

Regardless of what would be considered offensive intrusions today, our Licking River was wet, cool, and deep; a perfect playground for my brothers, Cousin Ray Cooper, and I in much the same way the remnants of the Miami & Erie Canal in the west side of Cincinnati was to our Great-uncle Henry Luckhardt at the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Our parents both worked. We boys could be called “latch-key kids.” I doubt if any progenitors were ever more inventive than they to attempt to ensure their children were safe and protected during their absences. They went as far as establishing a complex system of chores and restrictive rules designed to keep us busily occupied at home while they were away, but we found ways of complying while also escaping to heed the siren call of the river. Mom expected to see potatoes peeled and boiling on the stove with the table set and ready for our father’s appearance for supper at six when she returned from work at Doctor Charles Baron’s office.

Mom expected to see potatoes peeled and boiling on the stove with the table set and ready for our father’s appearance for supper at six when she returned from work at Doctor Charles Baron’s office.

Rarely, if ever, did we fail our mandatory obligations in spite of earlier hours spent swimming, diving out of overhanging willows, riding passing buggy “blue logs,” and any, and all, other summertime pleasures that drifted our way on that forbidden waterway where the sun was our only timepiece.

For at least three glorious summers, we brothers enjoyed our days in the sun without our folks discovering their sons’ clandescent rendezvous on the Licking River. But nearly two decades later, Bob, in a moment of frivolity, disclosed the whole affair to our parents. On my next visit, I was scolded nearly as soundly as though I was still the oldest child in charge of the well-being of my younger brothers while our parents were both working to provide comfort, food, and shelter for the three of us. I would have never said a word… until now.

In the intervening years, these past sixty-four years since I inscribed my claim written with a rock upon a sheet of shale, my brothers and I have yet to fail to wish each other a “Happy May 19th” no matter where in the world we were. And with us, especially Dick, or “Richard,” since he’s grown up, that’s saying a mouthful.

It wasn’t long before the chill, pleasing waters of the Licking River enticed us boys closer and closer until we became wholly immersed. By the end of the summer, we were swimming back and forth to the opposite shore.

Dick’s lived all over the world, but, one way or another, with few exceptions, he has sent his May 19th greetings from the North Slopes of Alaska, Pakistan, Venezuela, New Zealand, and lately, somewhere in middle-eastern Kazakhstan. Of course, cell phones and the internet have revolutionized exchanging greetings, but one-way-or-another, we still managed to communicate well-wishes back in the dark ages of landline telephones and “snail mail.” Today should be no exception.

Strangely, Camp Day on May 19th never became a family holiday and the day only recalled by Dick, Bob, and I. Even our youngest brother Jeff, or sister Mary, have never participated in the remembrance of the beginning of happy summer days ahead, as they were born after our Licking River escapades.

As the clock ticks with only so many seasons allowed under the sun, each passing Camp Day becomes a milestone coming closer to the end of time on my earthly path. Will this be my last Camp Day to recollect youthful days long past? As there are no guarantees, each May 19th will be a reminder of the dwindling years and of a time when young boys rejoiced in the passage of seasons and the return of summer days to the Licking River.

HAPPY MAY 19TH – EVERYONE.

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.

Click here to read all of Capt. Don Sanders’ stories of The River.

Bob, in a moment of frivolity, disclosed the whole affair to our parents. On my next visit, I was scolded nearly as soundly as though I was still the oldest child in charge of the well-being of my younger brothers while our parents were both working.

Licking River Ramble by Aaron Richardson – HAPPY MAY 19TH – EVERYONE!


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5 Comments

  1. Heidi English says:

    Another captivating story from Captain Don.
    Makes me recall my wonderful summers along the shores of the mighty Ohio at Rising Sun in the 70’s at Magic Valley.

  2. Bob says:

    As always, you have told the story artfully and well, my Brother. Reading your account brought tears to my eyes as the memories came flooding back, accompanied by the emotions of my love for you, Dick, Patty Boy, and our cousin, Ray.

  3. Jessica C Yusuf says:

    Any place in time “where the sun was our only timepiece” sounds like a good place to be. Happy Camp Day!

  4. I love this. You see my father grew up in Anderson township and he and his best friend also played on the river banks. His name was Jesse Field Jr but he was called JP. He told us some stories of date he got into before he died of cancer on 1974. I am currently working on a project to share some of these.

  5. Donald Sanders says:

    Thanks for the comments, friends.

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