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The River: The Crack(ed) Crew of the Delta Queen, 1970, and sketches by the self-taught Bob Sikes


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

Robert “Bob or Bobby” Sikes, a dark Herculean specimen of a young warrior was fighting in the jungles of Vietnam only a year, or so, before he found his way aboard the DELTA QUEEN at Memphis.

When the DELTA QUEEN left the New Orleans harbor in the early Spring of 1970 for the long, slow haul up the Mississippi River headed for the Ohio River and her home port of Cincinnati, the crew on deck was a mix-match of characters drawn from differing backgrounds, ages, and for the first time, only two years after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, racial diversities.

Whereas the deck force was traditionally African-American since the “Golden Age of Steamboats,” this composite group also had one man of Hispanic origin, and for the first time, several “white dudes” rounded out the crew roster under the direct command of Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley, First Mate serving under Captain Ernest E. Wagner, Master of the DELTA QUEEN. On Cap’n Wagner’s watch, I was his Second Mate apprenticing without a license after recently returning from four years of military service in the U. S. Air Force I had joined after leaving the QUEEN in 1965.

In spite of the variety of the crew, everyone cooperated as a team, yet each had a different story to tell:

Robert “Bob or Bobby” Sikes, a dark Herculean specimen of a young warrior was fighting in the jungles of Vietnam only a year, or so, before he found his way aboard the DELTA QUEEN at Memphis, where he returned home after his discharge from the Army. Just a couple of years prior, Bobby and his best friend enlisted in the service on what the recruiters touted as the “buddy plan” where the government promised the naive youngsters they would stay together throughout their time in the service.

Bob Sikes was also a talented, self-taught artist who sketched a large pencil drawing of his fellow crewmen that was framed and hung in the crew’s mess, entitled, “The Crack(ed) Crew of the DELTA QUEEN.”

This pact between boyhood friends ended in the streets of Hue City in early 1968 as the two Memphis buddies were battling should-to-shoulder and Bobby was suddenly covered in hot blood and brains as a bullet exploded his best friend’s head. Bob was never the same afterward, especially if alcohol was involved. Otherwise, Robert was an amazingly gifted, powerful, and loyal deckhand; always the perfect man to have at my side in times of trouble when his exceptional strength made a difference.  

In total contrast, Bob Sikes was also a talented, self-taught artist who sketched a large pencil drawing of his fellow crewmen that was framed and hung in the crew’s mess, entitled, “The Crack(ed) Crew of the DELTA QUEEN.” The title of which lent its name to that first gang of men I served with on the deck of the celebrated sternwheel steamboat. Through this rare artistic rendering, we will look with Bobby’s eyes at the rest of the crew he captured with pencil on paper.

Rooster and Johnson. Lewis “Red Rooster” Bayless and Ernest Johnson were long-time deckhands on the DELTA QUEEN, and it’s quite possible both worked for Captain Tom Greene when he first began sailing the QUEEN on the Mississippi and tributary rivers in 1948. Johnson, for sure, knew both Captain Mary Becker Greene and her boys, Chris and Tom.

Lewis “Red Rooster” Bayless and Ernest Johnson were long-time deckhands on the DELTA QUEEN, and it’s quite possible both worked for Captain Tom Greene when he first began sailing the QUEEN on the Mississippi and tributary rivers in 1948.

Lewis acquired his unusual nickname soon after Captain Wagner assumed command of the DELTA QUEEN when Wagner was seated at the heel of the stage on “gate watch” at the bow as Mr. Bayless attempted to slip aboard carrying a paper sack concealing something he wanted to keep hidden from the eyes of “Big Cap.”

Captain Wagner: “Whata’ ya got in that sack Lewis?”

Lewis: “Ain’t got nuthin’ in this sack, Cap’n.”

Captain Wagner: “Come over here and let me have a feel…”

Meanwhile, several waiters, maids, and porters were watching the proceedings from close by as the beloved Captain stuck his brawny paw deep into the paper bag and extracted two bottles of Red Rooster Wine.  Unmercifully Lewis’ fellow crew members began taunting the old deckhand for foolishly believing he could pull something over on the vigilant Captain who knew nearly every trick in the riverboatman’s handbook while inventing a few, himself. From that day, until the day Lewis Bayless died, everyone knew him as “Red Rooster,” or just simply, “Rooster.”

Rooster and Johnson were also the DELTA QUEEN’s resident “Ghost Busters.” On stormy nights, they often declared: ”Them ghosts is walkin’ ta’ nite.” Though one, or both of the pair, likely worked for Captain Mary B. Greene, the so-called “ghost of the DELTA QUEEN,” neither men ever mentioned Mrs. Greene as a likely spectral apparition haunting the boat. That is sufficient evidence, I’m convinced, to refute the “Ma Greene’s Ghost” malarkey so often ballyhooed about phantasmic apparitions scaring the bejesus out of old tourist-types aboard the QUEEN.

Wild Bill claimed he served time in Chicago’s notorious Cook County Jail 19 different times for assault.

For much of the time I knew Ernest Johnson, an alcohol-induced haze softly enveloped the old steamboatman. But when Captain Wagner asked for my suggestion for a candidate to fill an open Night Watchman’s position on the steamboat, I recommended Johnson. When Cap questioned why I endorsed a man known as a boozer, I answered:

“No one knows the DELTA QUEEN any better than Ernest Johnson, and if he gets the job, he will surely be more careful about his drinking – especially while he’s on duty.”

Ernest Johnson immediately became the QUEEN’s first black Watchman, a junior officer’s slot with areas of responsibility to help safeguard the vessel when most passengers and crew were sleeping. Johnson served the DELTA QUEEN well, and he took his duties seriously. Alcohol never interfered with his fidelity.

“Cap’n” Johnson stayed on the DELTA QUEEN for a few more years until a much younger woman in Vicksburg, Mississippi, believing Ernest’s tales that his family in Atlanta owned a string of funeral parlors and that Johnson was entitled to a piece of the ownership pie, enticed him to leave the DELTA QUEEN and marry her. The last anyone heard of “Cap’n Johnson,” he was reading water meters in Vicksburg.

Ernest V., a young black man, was the grandson of Miss Ida Mae, a beloved housekeeper on the DELTA QUEEN since the boat began operations this side of California.

Wild Bill claimed he served time in Chicago’s notorious Cook County Jail 19 different times for assault. Bill, like others on the “Crack(ed) Crew,” came onboard as ManPower temporary workers after a few lazy hangers-on lost their jobs in New Orleans. Wild Bill, like so many of the deckhands, hired off the street, had a mean side to him once alcohol took control of his brain cells. He graciously warned us that once he passed out and was safely in his bunk, not to attempt to rouse him lest he committed another act similar to the ones which made him the guest of Cook County, Illinois on nineteen occasions.

When sober, Bill became an accomplished “capstan man” hauling tight the lines on the fearsome steam-powered machine on the bow. Though the crew extricated Wild Bill from wherever excessive drinking had laid him low, we respected his warning and allowed him to recover naturally. Once he awoke from his near-death-like slumber, Bill appeared no worse for his misadventures and immediately went about his steamboat chores until he announced somewhere along the way up the Ohio River, he was getting off and returning home to the Windy City.

Ernest V., a young black man, was the grandson of Miss Ida Mae, a beloved housekeeper on the DELTA QUEEN since the boat began operations this side of California. Ernest showed his entrepreneurial spirit on paydays when he was first in line at the Purser’s Office for his week’s pay that he took all in quarters (not hard when a deckhand made thirty-five dollars a week plus bunk and beans).

Quickly, he scampered to the crew’s mess where a vending machine dispensed cans of cold beer for twenty-five cents apiece. Buying every beer in the dispenser, he had them neatly stacked on a dining table waiting for the rush of his thirsty crewmembers who begrudgingly forked over a buck a can for the brew. Soon after I came on the scene, Mr. V.’s enterprise came to an abrupt halt.

L’il Owen, the only deckhand of Hispanic background on the mixed deck crew, was also hired from the ManPower people in New Orleans. Again, Owen was a hardworking hand, but like many of the others, alcohol played strange tricks on the little fellow.

Ernest was also proficient on the steam capstan, a job that took as much courage as it did strength to wrestle the heavy, stiff rope lines. Stories of deckhands severely injured and even beheaded by a broken line elsewhere on other boats, added to the anxiety of the man handling the ropes on that powerful mechanism. Ernest, though, never flinched when the headline started popping and jumping on the slippery steel cylinder. There were times when I was operating the controls of the steam monster that I stood behind the protection of the stout metal mast lest a capstan line break and snake across the bow like a scythe cutting wheat.

Not long before Ernest V. last days working on the river, the DELTA QUEEN lay secured to the riverbank at Madison, Indiana. A young fellow working as a fireman in the boiler room had a custom motorcycle aboard with the permission of Captain Wagner. The fellow’s dad was the lockmaster at Markland Dam, and the Captain wishing to maintain a friendly relationship with the head lockman was pleased to allow the boy to keep his fancy bike on the boat.

The father, a rather severe, no-nonsense sort of man, ordered his son to let no one other than himself ride the motorbike. Ernest, however, was determined to drive the bike and ceaselessly nagged the young firemen for his blessing to take the ornate motorcycle for a spin.

Andy Estaber was the “hippie” on the crew. A broad-billed cap kept Andy’s long sandy-blond hair out of his face as he worked about the deck.

While the QUEEN’s passengers were touring the historic town, Ernest’s persistence paid off, when the owner caved-in and granted Ernest his wish. As the nervous owner watched, Ernest kickstarted the bike to life and roared off in a cloud of dust and thrown gravel.

Approaching departure time, at least two members of the crew nervously scanned the street along the riverfront for the return of the ornate motorcycle. Ernest V.’s grandmother paced about worried that misfortune had befallen her grandson. Meanwhile, the young fireman, so sick with anxiety that his beloved bike had gotten into trouble, become terrified at the thought of facing his angry father after disobeyed him; possibly resulting in the loss of the prohibited machine.

Just before I was supposed to ring the DELTA QUEEN’s great bell nine times to announce the preparation for departure, an Indiana State Police Car pulled up alongside where I stood by my anxious crew. Stepping out of the vehicle and onto the asphalt road, the impressive-looking lawman inquired in a voice comparable to that of Captain Wagner:

“Does a young fellow named Ernest V. work on this boat?”

Pandemonium broke out between the two anxious parties.

“Is Ernest alright – is he hurt?”

“What about my motorcycle – is it okay?”

Preston “Red” Lunsford came to the boat with a ManPower group sent to the shipyard to get the DELTA QUEEN ready to start the 1970 season. When I first saw that grizzled old man with one leg shorter than the other, I was prepared to send him ashore.

The Trooper informed the boy his bike was a total wreck, and he told Miss Ida Mae that her grandson, though in the hospital, skinned-up, and shaken, had no life-threatening injuries.

After we all piled into the DELTA QUEEN’s VW and arrived at the emergency room of King’s Daughter’s Hospital, we found Ernest, lying on an observation table looking as pink as a salmon patty considering all the skin he left behind on the highway, was answering questions from another police officer who inquired:

“Did you see what kind of automobile ran you off the road, Mr. V.?”

Pondering for a moment, Ernest replied:

“I really can’t say for certain, Officer… it was either a Cadillac or a Volkswagen!”  

Captain Harry Louden made lots of hay off that story once it got back to the DELTA QUEEN’s pilothouse – “either a Cadillac or a Volswagen….” as Harry often told and retold.

L’il Owen, the only deckhand of Hispanic background on the mixed deck crew, was also hired from the ManPower people in New Orleans. Again, Owen was a hardworking hand, but like many of the others, alcohol played strange tricks on the little fellow. After he had a few paydays under his belt, he bought an elaborate stereo system for the room he and Ernest Johnson shared in the front hold.

Captains Wagner and Clarke “Doc” Hawley. Over the many past columns, I had written in length about these two extraordinary Captains who mentored me when I was a rookie apprentice aspiring to be like them.

One evening, I received an urgent message that L’il Owen was threatening to kill Johnson; and immediately I hurried to the deckroom outside Owen and Ernest’s room where loud shouts threatening to kill and maim Johnson in the worst, most conceivable ways emanated from behind the locked door. Just as I was about the have the door smashed in following L’il Owen’s refusal to open up, a familiar voice came from the stairway behind where several of us gathered:

“Hey, what’s going on? Don’t kick down my door. Here’s the key!” said a dumbfounded Ernest Johnson who wasn’t even in the room with Owen who continued to rave on:

“I’m going to kill you, Johnson… cut you up into little pieces and throw you out the porthole in the river!”

The next call summoning me to L’il Owens and Ernest Johnson’s room came a few days later when it was Ernest, himself, who alerted me the terrible racket going on inside his room prompting a call for reinforcements before he opened his door. Once we all assembled, Johnson carefully unlocked the door, and throwing it open; we discovered Owen stuffing the last of his expensive stereo he’d broken into small pieces, through the small round porthole where they disappeared, forever, beneath the brown crest of the muddy Mississippi River.  

Andy Estaber was the “hippie” on the crew. A broad-billed cap kept Andy’s long sandy-blond hair out of his face as he worked about the deck. But unlike some of the other fresh deckhands, Andy neither came from ManPower nor was he a “drinker.” Usually, he had little to say, and he was a gentle sort of good-looking young man approaching his twenty-first birthday. From someone who Andy must have confided in about a personal matter, I learned that he was on the DELTA QUEEN for something interesting to do until his 21st birthday when he would, supposedly, inherit a great deal of money. Until that day appeared, never did Andy shirk his deck duties no matter how difficult or unpleasant, but as soon as his birthday arrived, Andy came around to say farewell and he left the boat at the next stop.

Preston “Red” Lunsford came to the boat with a ManPower group sent to the shipyard to get the DELTA QUEEN ready to start the 1970 season. When I first saw that grizzled old man with one leg shorter than the other, I was prepared to send him ashore. Soon it was apparent that the old fellow could outwork at least three much-younger men. Though we weren’t supposed to hire any of the temps the labor force provided, we informed the ones we wanted that the boat was leaving New Orleans at a particular time on a specific date and if they were aboard with their suitcase, they could go up the river with the boat.

Red often told he injured his legs when he was working on a scaffold laying bricks, and the walkway collapsed sending him landing at an odd angle and permanently deforming his legs so that he walked with a limp. Red Lunsford stayed for many years on the DELTA QUEEN, but I knew him for but three. While I was studying for my Mate’s, and later my Unlimited Master’s examinations, Red understood my ambition to succeed on the steamboat, and he often gave me these encouraging words that I took as good advice:

“You can go as far in this old world as you want to go.”

What I, and many others who have viewed Robert’s drawing, wonder why Ernest Johnson is sitting atop me patting my butt while muttering, “Get out Slim.”

No guarantees, but any person can go as far as they have the desire and determination to go.  

Some years later, after Red Lunsford disappeared from the river scene, another story unfolded concerning how he injured himself and why he spent so many years on the DELTA QUEEN. In the second telling, it went basically like this:

Preston Lunsford, as the new version goes, was a star bareback rider in the circus. Within his small troupe, there was a beautiful young lady whom he loved, but another of the riders was also in love with her. Somehow, Red was injured when he fell while standing on the broad rump of a horse cantering around in a circle inside the Big Top. Red’s severe injuries caused him to have to leave the horse-riding group with the girl favoring his rival following the accident. Apparently, in a fit of jealousy or rage, Red murdered the other rider-fellow and went on the run after that. If there is any truth in the more glamorous rendition concerning Red Lunsford’s injuries, he must have been on the lamb for many years, as he was well into his sixties when he arrived ready for work on the QUEEN.

That leaves Captains Wagner and Clarke “Doc” Hawley and me in Bobby Sike’s memorable drawing. Over the many past columns, I had written in length about these two extraordinary Captains who mentored me when I was a rookie apprentice aspiring to be like them. Captain Wagner will be gone forty years this coming October. Cap’n Hawley though retired, still plays the steam calliope on the Steamers NATCHEZ and is often a guest speaker on various overnight passenger boats on the river.

What I, and many others who have viewed Robert’s drawing, wonder why Ernest Johnson is sitting atop me patting my butt while muttering, “Get out Slim.” But after carefully analyzing the picture of Ernest and me, and knowing the words are but half a saying that Johnson often muttered in certain stressful situations, I am now certain of the allegorical comparisons Robert Sikes was alluding to in his interpretation of the “Crack(ed) Crew of the DELTA QUEEN.” Some secrets need not disclosing, and this is one that should remain know but to the few of us who remember Cap’n Ernest Johnson.

The “Crack(ed) Crew” drawing remains a vision of a moment frozen in time almost half a century ago as seen through the eyes of a multi-talented young man who saw too many troubled scenes in his short life. What is the symbolism of the fire-breathing Dragon that has the crew riled into an uproar? Only Robert Sikes would know for sure, and like any gifted artist, he left it up to his audience to decide.  

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.


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4 Comments

  1. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    Thanks again Captain Don for another great story. Even though I did not know any of the crew in this story you certainly bring them to life. I can’t wait for the next installment.

  2. Ann Perry says:

    great story! The beer vending machine was still on the boat when I started working there in 1976, but it finally disappeared away when crew members were no longer allowed to drink onboard. (Despite that rule, I don’t think any crew members actually stopped drinking onboard.) The deck crew worked 6 on and 6 off and probably worked harder than the rest of us.

  3. Heidi English says:

    I am so engrossed in Captain Don’s river stories. It’s like you can hear the steamboat playing all her sounds through his words.
    Wonderful reads.

  4. Kellie Falls says:

    I had the pleasure of spending a weekend in the Captain’s Quarters on the Delta Queen while it was still docked in Chattanooga, TN. What a great story, thank you!

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