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The River: Ah, the sweet remembrances, of old river friends and tales to be told; always good to meet up


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

The big fellow in the check-out line in the big-box store ahead of me looked familiar, so I blurted, “Mike, is that you”? He quickly answered, “Cap, I thought that was you, but I wasn’t sure.”

Never mind that I’ve gained who-knows-how-much-weight, am ten years older, and my aged face lies disguised behind a grey mustache and long goatee whiskers.

Never mind that I’ve gained who-knows-how-much-weight, am ten years older, and my aged face lies disguised behind a grey mustache and long goatee whiskers. Mike Goodpaster looked somewhat different, but his proportions haven’t changed as much as mine since I last saw him decking aboard the GRAND VICTORIA II casino boat on the Middle Ohio River at Rising Sun, Indiana. He waited until I checked out and we walked toward the parking lot where we paused to reminisce.

Mike had been an enthusiastic deckhand of the sort who wanted to learn all he could. The first memory he recalled once we stopped to talk, “Remember when you had me up in the pilothouse steering the boat?” I’m sure I remembered, but unlike many captains I’ve met, I enjoy teaching interested newcomers how to steer a boat. Many in charge seem afraid to share the experience for several reasons. One which appears prevalent is the fear of a youngster “rolling them for their jobs,” as I’ve often overheard said in wheelhouse conversations.

For whatever reasons, I enjoy teaching others how to do my job and have often likened it to the story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. I’ve built my whole life around that tale, and Mike was but one of many who have “whitewashed my fence,” figuratively-speaking. In the process, I unearthed several good pilots who might have remained undiscovered had I not put them to work doing what I was supposed to be doing, myself.

Tom Sawyer Whitewashing The Fence Painting by Norman Rockwell. For whatever reasons, I enjoy teaching others how to do my job and have often likened it to the story of Tom Sawyer whitewashing the fence. I’ve built my whole life around that tale.

Mike could have gone far in the boating field had not he and the Lead Deckhand got into a sudden and vicious fight one night shortly before watch change. Both men were far above the average when it came to those candidates Human Resources sent to the Deck Department. Soon after they tore into each other while still on the boat, the company let both go. The marine industry lost two bright and industrious young men who might now be commanding boats anywhere on the river instead of working ashore.

Whenever talking to someone who once worked on the river, but left for any number of reasons, they usually retain fond memories of their days on the water. Mike was no exception. Soon we started a rollcall of many comrades we remembered from the time Mike worked on the gambling boat. I told him where the other three Captains went after the licensed officers and the Certificate of Inspection were dropped from the rolls of the “Grand Vic.”

“Captain John’s on the Great Lakes, and Cap’n Sue’s a nurse, now. Captain Dave disappeared from sight, but I’ve heard he’s towboating on the Mississippi somewhere above Cairo.”

Mike mentioned Captain Sandra, the lovely, gifted Mate and Relief Captain the deckhands idolized from the first minute she stepped on deck. I assured Mike she was doing well since she left the boat; married with two beautiful daughters, and is a champion body-builder with trophies galore!

Mike mentioned Captain Sandra, the lovely, gifted Mate and Relief Captain the deckhands idolized from the first minute she stepped on deck.

Mate Frank Jones, the most-outstanding deckhand the GVII ever had while I was the Senior Captain, and perhaps one of the boat’s best mates once he got a license, is still in the Cincinnati area, but he is off the river but talks of coming back to where he best belongs.

“Many of the marine engineers, with the exceptions of Chief Rickie and Chief Tiny, are at General Electric in the marine engine department, or so I heard someone say,” I informed Mike. “Chief Lafollette’s still at Belterra, but, sadly, Chief Terry died over a year ago.” Others of our crew who passed away, all as young men, we remembered; namely, deckhands Jim Cunningham, Joe Connelton, and David Eagan.

We could have talked an hour just with stories of any of them. I was about to tell the tale of the time Eagen chased a runaway wheelchair with a screaming elderly lady aboard down the loading ramp. Without hesitating, Dave executed a daring, heroic leap, threw himself between the speeding chair and disaster, and saved the terrified chair-bound rider. But Mike said something that distracted my train of thought and the story remain untold.

The two of us talked until the heavy plastic bags started tugging painfully at my arms, so Mike and I made our last recollections and finally, our good-byes. Then we turned and went our various ways after ten years of separation and a few moments of reunion. Such is the way of river friends meeting, rehashing old times, and then parting – sometimes for the last time.

LST 235, a decommissioned Landing Ship Tank of the U. S. Navy on display at the Aurora city front waiting for public tours. The last time the LST was in town, it set attendance records. (Photo, Mike Perleberg. Eagle Country, 99.3)

As I drove toward my boat, the CLYDE, at Lighthouse Point Marina, west of Aurora, I came abreast of LST 235, a decommissioned Landing Ship Tank of the U. S. Navy on display at the Aurora city front waiting for public tours. The last time the LST was in town, it set attendance records for the number of visitors coming aboard to see the World War Two naval curio. With only one road through the Aurora – Lawrenceburg communities and not even a parallel sidestreet, the local traffic should be more hellish than usual while the relic remains moored at the old ferry landing.

At the same time, the LST is in town, downriver at Rabbit Hash, across from Rising Sun, the strange-looking fleet belonging to the “Living Land & Waters” riverbank cleanup crew is geared to do some “industrial strength” scouring of the shoreline of the Ohio River. The Living Lands & Waters fleet includes five barges, two towboats, six workboats, two skid steers, an excavator, five work trucks and a crane. Volunteers make up much of the workforce to supplement the regular crew that includes four handsome dogs named Bailey, Kota, Travis, and Pork Chop. No word came from the Rabbit Hash City Hall if Mayor Brynn is joining his fellow pooches during the clean-up around his area of authority.

By the time this column is in print, another annual convocation of the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen will be breaking up at Marietta, Ohio at the juncture of the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers. Last year, Phillip Johnson and I made a mad dash there to hear Captain Clarke C. “Doc” Hawley speak.

This year, Phillip is returning to give the keynote address. By the time these words are readable, folks should have a better idea concerning the health of the future of the old steamboat DELTA QUEEN. Phillip has an ownership in the steamer, and no one knows its prospects better than he. By next week, we should have more to report.

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.

The strange-looking fleet belonging to the “Living Land & Waters” riverbank cleanup crew is geared to do some “industrial strength” scouring of the shoreline of the Ohio River.

This year, Phillip is returning to give the keynote address at the annual convocation of the Sons & Daughters of Pioneer Rivermen.


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5 Comments

  1. Connie Bays says:

    I always enjoy reading these stories. Can’t wait to hear a report on the meeting Phillip Johnson spoke at regarding the Delta Queen. I’m waiting with anticipation!

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Captain Don has unique talent of putting his Experiences to Paper in an almost ‘You are there’ Manner. Happens to a lot of us; meet an old Shipmate, and are taken back in time.

  3. Jessica C Yusuf says:

    Thank you again for another fascinating insight into life on the river!

  4. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    I have heard over and over “there will be no one to replace us”, in relation to crew and passengers on the overnight passenger boats. I agree with Captain Don. The young folks I have met are bright, talented, and dedicated to their chosen profession and love of hobby! I can name several, from Captains, pilots, engineers, etc. The love of the river, history, boats will call new passengers to the river as their families grow and more free time and funds to travel reach this younger generation of today. I hope they enjoy it as much as I have! Keep on sharing these wonderful stories. You never know what might click with that student in the class room doing an assignment.

  5. Todd Hanson says:

    Captain Don is a great storyteller and quite a historian. I always look forward to reading his column and sharing in his experiences.

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