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The River: Revisiting (and celebrating) three years of storytelling about a maritime life — and more to tell


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

Earlier last week, I could not contain my excitement, thinking this was my 156th edition of THE RIVER, my column for the NKyTribune, but a little voice told me to go back and count each story. When I tallied the numbers, I came up one week short. Actually, this is Number 155 all over again, which I will relabel “The River # 155 B.”

What so special about the number 156? Simple arithmetic says with 52 weeks in a year, three times that, or three years is 156 weeks. It’s well that I didn’t order a cake. If it wasn’t for masking-up for the COVID, I might have procured one with thick, creamy icing. But, now that I’ve tipped my hand and started the celebration a week prematurely, allow me to continue along that theme and return to serious yearnings about the river next week, the actual third anniversary of this hodgepodge of fluvial recollections.

Earlier last week, I could not contain my excitement, thinking this was my 156th edition of THE RIVER, my column for the NKyTribune, but a little voice told me to go back and count each story.

It was just over three years ago that I received an invitation from Judy Clabes, the Trib’s editor, to write a weekly, river-themed article for her online newspaper. Judy apparently saw some merit in my internet Facebook posts about the river and figured that I could come up with a thousand words, or so, each week about my maritime experiences; I accepted her request and became a volunteer writer.

Ms. Clabes turned me loose without any special instructions. I likened it to me, putting her into the pilothouse of a steamboat without even a simple, “Keep off the banks and stay between the buoys.” Apparently, I have kept within the parameters of her expectations, or else I would not be expending cyber “ink” within her jurisdiction. However, I’m still not sure when to properly use “that” or “which.”

I have covered a lot of territory in under three years. My earliest river mentor, Walter Hoffmeier, was introduced and talked about in-depth as the foremost influence on my early life who caused me to spend a lifetime of nearly 70 years doing what that old gentleman did with his own life on the river. Adventures of my brothers and I swimming and playing on the Licking River, our boyhood river of dreams, was described in depth from the day a gang of tough street kids chased us onto the wooded banks of that ancient river where we found refuge and a surprising introduction to a forbidden, but enchanted playground on May 19th, 1955, a date we brothers have affectionately remembered each year for the past six decades — and counting.
 

My earliest river mentor, Walter Hoffmeier, was introduced and talked about in-depth as the foremost influence on my early life.

Tales of nostalgic adventures aboard our family houseboat, the MARJESS, recalled fleeting memories of long-ago summer days on the Ohio River when life held the promise of many exciting exploits ahead in an enchanting world yet to be explored. Days that seemed to last forever without an end in the dimming memories of three aging brothers are now accessible for sharing with all ages as long as the pages of the TRIBUNE remain unfaded.

The story of my two seasons as a teenage deckhand aboard the Steamer AVALON is recorded in black and white telling the stories of several influential riverboat characters who helped shape my career in the intervening years since I starting steamboating during the last year of the fifties decade. Among those who helped shape the future of a young lad away from home for the first time were veteran steamboat firemen Ed Smith, Charles “Bubba” Chinn, and Robert “Preacher” Lollar.

All three men were “colored,” as was the polite word in those days to denote those of their race known today, in the 21st Century, as “African Americans.” In the years when Ed, Bubba, Preacher, and I served together on the AVALON, the nation, including our steamboat home, was racially segregated. Although the races aboard the boat slept in separate quarters and ate at different tables, they used the same toilets, washed in the same showers, and worked shoulder-to-shoulder at the same chores to keep the steamboat running smoothly. Quite frequently, as was the relationship among my three black mentors and me, bonds of friendship often developed that lasted lifetimes and beyond as long as at least one survives.

Tales of nostalgic adventures aboard our family houseboat, the MARJESS, recalled fleeting memories of long-ago summer days on the Ohio River.

Over the course of three years, THE RIVER column focused on at least three murders having ties to either steamboats or the crewmembers operating them. Who recalls the shooting of the forlorn deckhand who fell at the foot of the Stage Plank of the DELTA QUEEN at the foot of Silver Street in old Natchez-Under-the-Hill? Or what about the “Murder in the Mess” aboard the DELTA QUEEN? And then there was the chilling admission by a grizzled, elder pilot of the intentional killing of a “rouster” wheelbarrowing coal between a fuel flat and a steamboat on a pitch-dark night somewhere on the Lower Mississippi River long years before the telling.

The one account of the death of a steamboat deckhand I have yet to tell concerns the loss of Richard Bedard, a young Canadian fellow on my watch who disappeared from the bow of the DELTA QUEEN while the steamboat plowed against the floodwaters of the Mississippi River near Tiptonville, Tennessee. Was Richard murdered? If not, how did young Bedard die? Why did someone high within the company threaten that “it could be made to look like” I killed my deckhand, Richard Bedard?

The paddlewheeler Rafter CLYDE got its fair share of coverage over the course of my tenure with the TRIBUNE. The BELLE of CINCINNATI received at least three weeks of complimentary coverage. The new ferry running between Rising Sun, Indiana, and Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, the MS. LUCKY LADY was likewise featured in a full-length story.

The passing of Captain Charles Tandy Jones (1918-2019), the patriarch of the Amherst Madison Ltd. marine outfit in Charleston, West “By God” Virginia, was duly memorialized in the October 27, 2019 column. The erstwhile yodeling cowboy/deckhand, John “Cheyenne C. Cheyenne” Hess, received a full-length memorial on the 26th of January 2020. Overall, several otherwise forgotten steamboat contributors were immortalized on the internet within these pages.

Among those who helped shape the future of a young lad away from home for the first time was veteran steamboat firemen Ed Smith.

Several noteworthy celebrities connected to the river I brushed shoulders with were mentioned — notably, my friend John Harford, a steamboat pal with whom I shared many fine times along the river. Conway Twitty and I crossed paths at the Jackson, Mississippi Airport. His father, Captain Floyd Dalton Jenkins, piloted the steam ferryboat at Helena, Arkansas, and may have tried his hand behind the steering levers of the sidewheel steam ferryboat, the PELICAN, also at Helena.

Did I mention Grandpa Walton and admit I “threw him off” the Landing Stage of the DELTA QUEEN? Actually, I ordered actor Will Geer to get down off the gunnel, or outside, of the swinging stage as the QUEEN was barreling toward shore while landing at Cincinnati. Grandpa was plenty peeved, but I may have saved him for several more years on the earth before he finally departed in 1978.

President Jimmy Carter even had his moment in the spotlight. Still, as we were not on the DELTA QUEEN simultaneously, I only mentioned President Carter in connection with Captain Charlie Fehlig in the February 09, 2020 writeup. According to sources who witnessed them together in the QUEEN’s pilothouse, the ever-personable Cap’n Charlie and Mr. Carter hit it off right-nicely.
   

Did I mention Grandpa Walton and admit I “threw him off” the Landing Stage of the DELTA QUEEN?

Captain John Beatty received fair notice on several pages recognizing Cap’n John’s many contributions to the river’s history in the 20th Century. Though he had only a formal 8th-grade education, Captain Beatty was literally a genius in many ways, including mechanical and nautical engineering. Still, most of all, he possessed uncommonly brilliant horse sense. John and I had a so-called “love-hate relationship” over the years, but I can say I truly loved the man more than I didn’t. Captain John Beatty was a leviathan in a field of extraordinary colossal humans that seem to congregate on the river.    

By and by, these three years passed soon enough that I asked my editor what she thought about THE RIVER series. She expressed satisfaction with my scribblings but asked in return, “What do you think?”    

Frankly, I have yet to record the stories that I have been avoiding setting down in stone for the last 45, or slightly more, years. I’d like to have them in script while I still can. Nearing my eighth decade, I can no longer procrastinate as I’ve been doing for the past half-century. If I express what still resides in my clear and accurate memory, I will step on some toes if I narrate the accounts truthfully. 

At this writing, I have not made that fateful decision whether I will or won’t document those serious chronicles, but who’s to say I cannot continue with THE RIVER series?

John “Cheyenne C. Cheyenne” Hess, received a full-length memorial on the 26th of January 2020. Overall, several otherwise forgotten steamboat contributors were immortalized on the internet within these pages.

Captain Beatty was literally a genius in many ways, including mechanical and nautical engineering. Still, most of all, he possessed uncommonly brilliant horse sense.

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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6 Comments

  1. Pete OConnell says:

    If in you spin a yarn of or about me Captain Don, please be generous, for I only human, well as human as a river man can be.
    Thanks again for a good read of 155-B.

  2. Ginnie Rhynders says:

    Keep those stories coming, Captain. Always look forward to reading them on Sunday mornings.

  3. Jo Ann W Schoen says:

    If your reader’s get a vote I’m sure your writing the column will win by a landslide! Continue on!

  4. Ronald Sutton says:

    Great Look Back, Capt. Don!

  5. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Great Synopsis Capt Don. I’m looking forward to the 156th story and another 156 more.. You bring the river & the people associated with it to life for both river & shore persons..

  6. Judy Patsch says:

    Eerie in the section about murders, for tomorrow will be 25 years since the murder on land of Capt. Roddy Hammett in New Orleans…

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