A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Becoming friends, building relationships across river and airwaves means suffering loss too


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

“Where does an old-time riverman go after he’s passed away…” JH

People working on the river develop relationships with their fellows independent of the kinships they have ashore. Although the folks back home are related by consanguineous linage, the connections born afar from the hearth are often as intertwined and intense as those sharing comparable genes. Frequently, either group may only become aware of the other at the loss of a constituent sharing membership within both breeds.
 

Riverboat pilots born of the age since two-way radiotelephone communications between the wheelhouses of meeting vessels quite frequently develop intimate friendships as close as had they grown up in the same household.

Riverboat pilots born of the age since two-way radiotelephone communications between the wheelhouses of meeting vessels quite frequently develop intimate friendships as close as had they grown up in the same household. Curiously-enough, though these rivermen often know the innermost details of each other’s lives, they may spend decades conversing on the radio-phone without ever meeting in person. Some years ago aboard the DELTA QUEEN, I enjoyed getting together two steamboat pilots who’d mutually grown old on the phone but had yet to press the flesh. As I escorted the relief man to the wheelhouse, I asked him to keep quiet until his pardner spoke first. Without an introduction, the two pilots just stared silently and suspiciously at the strangers standing before them. Eventually, the fellow who’d been waiting to meet the oncoming riverman spoke first. At the familiar sound of the first pilot’s voice, both men excitedly began hugging and slapping each other on the back and shoulders while breaking into the familiar cadence they’d begun years before over the airwaves.

Captain Michael Coyle, a veteran towboat pilot from St. Louis who captained a boat for the Luhr Brothers, Inc.

With the introduction of the internet and social media, this familiar exercise now extends far beyond two boats meeting somewhere on the Mississippi River. Such a friendship I cultivated a couple of years ago, maybe longer, with Captain Michael Coyle, a veteran towboat pilot from St. Louis who captained a boat for the Luhr Brothers, Inc., one of the largest and most well-respected marine contractors on the river.

Captain Mike enjoyed chatting on Facebook while he was “behind the sticks” of the M/V TWYLA LUHR, shoving a tow of rock down the river towards a project where the stone was needed to revet a riverbank or fill-in as needed on a job. Mike often added photos taken out the front window of his boat, creating the illusion that I was sharing the experience from his line of sight.

Sometimes we talked about John Hartford, another St. Louis lad who influenced Mike and encouraged him to become a riverman. The first time I heard Cap’n Mike’s voice, I was surprised how much he sounded like our mutual musical friend. Of course, I spun a few recollections that I had shared with Hartford, and if I repeated myself, Mike didn’t seem to mind.

Mike often added photos taken out the front window of his boat, creating the illusion that I was sharing the experience from his line of sight

When the Rafter CLYDE was looking for a new owner, Mike asked for many details about the paddlewheeler. Several inquirers living on the Upper Mississippi seemed interested, but getting the underpowered, 53-foot, 35 h.p. sternwheeler to St. Louis from Cairo Point, at the mouth of the Ohio where it joins the Middle Mississippi, would be especially vexing. Captain Coyle gladly advised several potential buyers concerning the challenges of that particularly-rugged stretch of river. At one time, we talked about him acquiring the CLYDE for a fun riverboat after he retired from the towboat trade. Mike enjoyed a special relationship with a yacht club at Alton, Illinois, not too far from his home in St. Louis. But after a spell, my friend pleaded, “Stop talking about the CLYDE before I write you a check.” If I had known the sternwheel boat’s ultimate fate, gladly would I have given it to him for the taking.

Captain Mike and his bride, Vera, were a great help last February when I wanted copies of the DELTA QUEEN Logbooks for the years 1970, 1971, and ‘72, which someone donated to the Herman T. Pott National Inland Waterways Library on the campus of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. Those years were the ones most closely associated with my affiliation with the DELTA QUEEN when I rose from Head Watchman to Captain in that short span of time aboard the steamboat. Cap’n Mike photographed hundreds of pages in the logs and sent them my way through the Facebook chatbox. Though it took some arranging to get the pages in their proper sequence, I had all three years in order in no time; saving me hundreds of dollars and several days in time by circumventing a long round trip, motel fees, meals, etc. that I did not look forward to experiencing at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Mike shared his strong feelings for the Pott’s collection and suggested that he looked forward to the time after he fully retired from towboating when he could volunteer at the library and pursue research into a favorite subject, or two, in steamboat history.

Sometimes we talked about John Hartford, another St. Louis lad who influenced Mike and encouraged him to become a riverman.

Captain Coyle was the sort of guy I could leave a message if he was offline and ask, “Hey, Mike… where yat?” If I were away from the internet when he replied, an answer would be waiting after I returned. It was more fun, though, when the little green light glowed next to his profile picture, and we could settle-in and jaw for a spell.

Captain Mike was fond of relaying humorous anecdotes featuring his witty wife, Vera Coyle, a native of Gorki, Belarus, formerly the smallest of three Slavic republics included in the erstwhile Soviet Union. It seemed that Mike had quite a following on social media besides me, and his “Vera stories” were always a favorite with their fans.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, politics, and the recent presidential election were topics Capt. Coyle and I chewed over, but those discussions will remain between us and are no one else’s business but our’s. At 1:27 PM on Saturday, 07 November 2020, I received a chat message from Captain Mike and answered it at 12:40 AM the next morning. Several days passed, but I was involved in other matters, so I patiently await Capt. Mike’s reply that I knew would eventually show up in my chatbox. I didn’t give Mike further concern until, after several more days, I began to miss hearing from him.

Exactly a week after the Captain and I last traded messages, I stared in disbelief at a posting by Erich Mische, a fellow who piloted an oddball craft down the length of the Mississippi River to raise money for a charity, and whom he credited Mike for being, in part, “responsible for helping me survive my journey down the lower Mississippi River.”

Mische’s startling message read:

“I just learned that Captain Michael Coyle… passed away last week.”

Mike shared his strong feelings for the Pott’s collection and suggested that he looked forward to the time after he fully retired from towboating when he could volunteer at the library. (WWJ Photo)

Captain Mike was fond of relaying humorous anecdotes featuring his witty wife, Vera Coyle.

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. 


Related Posts

3 Comments

  1. Pete OConnell says:

    I’ve been to Marine events and heard a voice that I’ve only heard on the VHS radio. It was always a surprise to match a face with a voice.
    Condolences for Captain Mike’s family friends and associates.

  2. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thank you Capt Don for sharing such pougnant memories of past & present friends. It made me remember when dad passed all the condolences i received my men who missed the “Arthur Godfrey of Channel 16″but had never actually met him. Capt Mike in nany ways reminded me if Dad.

  3. Ronald Sutton says:

    Deep Sea, I have posted elsewhere, you can have a close friend on a ship, together for a period of months. When the trip is over and one or both get off, you may not see each other for years, until meeting in some place like a Union Hall, or in one case the Baton Rouge launch landing, and taking up where you left off, new families, Homes and other milestone since. Great posting of those who knew each other in passing. Now trying to devise an accent for Mrs. Coyle….

Leave a Comment