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The River: Alcohol consumption happens; personal journey continued past ‘face down on the floor’


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 Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the legendary Master of the Steamer AVALON when I started decking on the celebrated steamboat some 62 years ago this summer, kept a tight reign on his sometimes volatile crew. Cap was most concerned with their alcohol consumption and the chance one of the rambunctious, amorous lads might slip a lady passenger into a quarters room or hiding place out of sight on the Main Deck.

Captain Ernest E. Wagner, the legendary Master of the Steamer AVALON when I started decking on the celebrated steamboat some 62 years ago this summer, kept a tight reign on his sometimes volatile crew.

Helping him keep an eye on any possible illicit female intrusion below decks, Captain Wagner had his informers who kept him appraised of any violations of the rules. Most notable were the Night Watchman, “Dirty Shirt” Harold, and Shorty, the deckhand. The penalty for infractions was an immediate dismissal once the steamboat returned port. With the rare exception of an occasional undetected tryst in the hot, malodorous quarters alongside the boilers, most crewmen waited until after the excursion to court their ladies ashore.

Practically every member of the crew consumed alcohol on varying levels. I was the exception, and quite possibly, the only aboard who didn’t drink during my first season. Even the Master enjoyed his beer in moderation. Still, some of the more alcoholically-inclined crewmen were habitual drinkers and would have preferred a state of perpetual stupor without the skipper’s tight reign.

Shorty Robinson, the deckhand

After each excursion, the deckhands were tasked with cleaning the refuse the passengers left behind. One of the newer hands saw an opportunity in the scores of partially-empty beer cans. Instead of tossing them into a trash bag, the old boy gulped the remaining dregs from several Burger Beer containers down his gullet until one made him run to the railing and hurl his guts into the river below. Instead of stale beer, the urine of a reveler from the previous night filled the steel can. Apparently, the party-goer found it easier to pee into the beer can rather than walk the long way to the “can” on the dance floor below.

Once ashore, though, the crew was on their own, and Captain Wagner had no control over their shoreside behavior. Most knew the limits their captain would tolerate once they returned. Although the AVALON paid low wages and the hours on duty were normally long and sometimes tedious, the steamboat provided an adventurous lifestyle that included “three hots and a cot.” To many on the crew, the old paddlewheeler was their solitary refuge, and the smart ones weren’t about to let either booze or babes cause them to lose their only home.

Captain Wagner had a way of appeasing the alcoholic desire of his crewmen. At the end of the last trip of the day, the crew gathered at the hotdog stand on the forward end of the Boiler Deck for what else but hot dog sandwiches and, quite frequently, Cap treated each member with two cans of cold Burger, the Steamer AVALON signature brew. Both the AVALON and the Burger Brewing Company claimed Cincinnati as their hometown. As long as the AVALON operated, she was the brewery’s largest customer.

The old paddlewheeler was their solitary refuge, and the smart ones weren’t about to let either booze or babes cause them to lose their only home.

As the only non-consumer of the alcoholic refreshment, I preferred a mixture of half-grape and half-orange soda from the five-gallon glass water bottles behind the counter where I worked the first day I signed on the crew as a “Cabin Boy” dispensing the soft drinks in cups generously filled to the brim with ice. 

My preference for the orange-grape concoction caught the eye of a middle-aged, crusty deckhand who, for whatever reason, decided to give me a few words of advise that seemed peculiar to a non-drinking seventeen-year-old youngster:

“I see you’re not drinking alcohol, boy, but if you ever start, you got to remember… when the barroom floor comes up and hits you in the face, it’s time to stop.”

For whatever unfathomable reason, I engraved my fellow steamboatman’s strange words of wisdom into the deepest recesses of my mind.

That fall, after I left the steamboat for my first college semester, I turned 18. To celebrate, several of my fellow dorm mates and I went to SPECK’S, the local Richmond student hangout that looked askance at Kentucky’s legal drinking age. By the end of the night, I was smashed for the first time in my life. It seemed I wasn’t the only thing smashed that evening. A tall ceramic cigarette urn in the dayroom suffered the same treatment. Consequently, I was rightly blamed and put on “social probation” for several months. Such was my welcome to the world of alcoholic consumption.

“… when the barroom floor comes up and hits you in the face, it’s time to stop.”

Over the course of the next quarter-century, I did my share of drinking. If it hadn’t been for starting consuming alcohol, I wouldn’t have had the girlfriend of one of the roughest, toughest football players at college sitting on my lap at SPECK’S when he came into the bar, found his Peggy S. on my lap, and challenged me to a fight at the new college track and field grounds. Though I refused to give up, the older Army veteran beat me practically to a pulp until he declined to pummel me any longer.

Although the next 23 years of indulging weren’t always as dramatic, I did some dumb stuff I wouldn’t have done otherwise. The first time my dad saw me drunk, he was certainly disappointed, and when sober, I was dismayed that he saw me that way. My father, Lt. Col. Jess Sanders, Jr., was a Covington Police Officer, so I took my local drinking to the bars high atop Mt. Adams, across the river in Cincinnati where several former crewmates from the DELTA QUEEN hung out.

Occasionally, returning home after a night “on the hill” often proved challenging, especially if I lost sight of the Carew Tower looming on the horizon. If there is such a person as a “good” drunk driver, I can at least say I was never in an accident or was stopped for driving under the influence. There were times, though, when I arrived without incident back home, as soon as I got out from behind the wheel, I fell to the ground before getting back up and staggering off to my front door.

I was off the river for a stint where I started my own business, Can-Do Recycling, that, for a short while, became ROBI Recycling.

It wasn’t until places in Covington opened to the type of young clientele I sought in Mt. Adams that I frequented bars in my hometown. About the same time, I was off the river for a stint where I started my own business, Can-Do Recycling, that, for a short while, became ROBI Recycling during an ill-fated partnership with the infamous “beer barons” of Northern Kentucky. On one frigid day at our aluminum can recycling center at 14th & Neave Streets, next to the Budweiser distributor, one of my helpers suggested:

“Cap’n, Kroger’s has a sale on peppermint schnapps. If you buy, I’ll fly.”

As we bundled aluminum scrap metal in the frigid air, several chugs of the thick, sweet liquor brought warmth to my bones. After finishing the fifth of booze, I suggested:

“How about another bottle?”

Though both my employees agreed they’d reached their limits, I was only starting. Again, I paid for the next round of schnapps, and my helper flew off for the second bottle, which I quickly consumed alone nearing closing time. After we closed, I was surprised when my coworker insisted on driving me, instead of me operating the company truck, to a bar down by the river where I was looking for more to drink.

Inside the popular Covington hangout called “CoCo’s” for an enterprising couple I knew from their antique shop on the north end of St. Gregory Street before they moved to East Second Street, the crowd seemed especially friendly as I sat on a high stool at the end of the bar. Soon, I had more complimentary drinks on the hardwood boards in front of my seat than I could ever drink, regardless of how hard I tried. I didn’t realize that these so-called “friends” saw how intoxicated I was and thought it amusing to see how much more drunk I could get with their help.

I recognized the gentleman as Mr. Don Reisenberg, once the Juvenile Officer for Kenton County and a Covington City Commissioner.

I, however, thought I was carrying on an intelligent conversation with those crowded around me until…suddenly, the room exploded with a jarring shudder and deafening roar as though a bomb went off beneath my seat. For a moment, everything got dark as night as my eyes closed tight as if to protect them from the blast.

After the noise finally abated, and the barroom became as quiet as a deserted church, I carefully opened my eyes. Above me, peering down, were several frightened, puzzled faces staring at me in the wonder of what had just transpired. As I looked into their eyes, I slowly understood what had just happened. Somehow, the advice given to me on the AVALON many years before I started drinking came back to mind, and I realized that the barroom floor had, indeed, slammed me in the face.

I knew almost immediately that I needed to get off the sauce, but I didn’t know to begin. During the following week, while I was still drinking, I happened to wander into a friend’s house where he and a nicely-dressed visitor were preparing to leave and go elsewhere.

I recognized the gentleman as Mr. Don Reisenberg, once the Juvenile Officer for Kenton County and a Covington City Commissioner. Until that evening, I never knew of his strong commitment to helping alcoholics with their drinking problems through the Alcoholics Anonymous program. Surprisingly, Mr. Reisenberg was taking my friend to a meeting at a church in a nearby community.

“Do you want to go?” I was asked.

I returned to the river a “sober and reliable man,” according to the old Coast Guard saw for qualifying a candidate for examination as a licensed maritime officer in the U. S. Merchant Marine.

At the meeting, an older man speaking broken English with a Germanic accent and I were ultimately paired together. Soon, I was to find he was “from the old country” and working as a carpenter with a well-known home builder in the Northern Kentucky area. After a while, the old Dutchman revealed he was sober for over 13 years, a fact that I found astonishing, as I could not imagine anyone going that long without a nip.

Whatever transpired that night at the AA meeting arranged by Don Reisenberg and orchestrated by the old carpenter-gentleman worked their magic on me. From that night until this day, Sunday, 28 February 2021, 39 years later, I have not had one drink of alcohol. Before Mr. Reisenberg passed away, I called him every February 28th to update him I completed another year of sobriety.

After ROBI Recycling and I parted ways, I bought Neinamer’s Cafe at 1510 Russell Street and converted the large commercial garages on the grounds into Can-Do Recycling. My wife Peggy and I kept the neighborhood bar open for several years, but we tolerated no drunkenness on our property. After a while, I had steered so many customers to AA for help with their drinking problems; we were down to one regular patron, a Mr. James B. who’d been coming to the saloon for most of his adult life. Once Jim took my advice and became a regular at the AA meetings, we shut down the bar and devoted all our energies to the business’s recycling side. 

After eleven years in the recycling business, we sold Can-Do, now Can-Dew, and I returned to the river a “sober and reliable man,” according to the old Coast Guard saw for qualifying a candidate for examination as a licensed maritime officer in the U. S. Merchant Marine.
 
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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5 Comments

  1. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Awesome share Capt Don. Again you vividly tell of life afloat and ashore and make us feel we were there. .I’m so proud of you.Althiugh I rarely drink, it’s not hard to imagine the challenge that must have been. It’s great that you have and are steering others to AA. God keep you strong.

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    I’m just a Long Term, 40+ years, ex-drunk. Going to sea, no way for meetings. AA has done a lot of good for a lot of people, just not for me. Most of the people who knew me when I was drinking are Dead.

  3. QueenAnn Baker says:

    Very interesting. I look forward to reading your article each week.

    • Connie Bays says:

      I am extremely proud and happy that you made that choice so long ago. Wonderful recollections in your story, tying water to land. I always enjoy your writings.

  4. Helen Newton says:

    Amazing story and happy for you, for now, you share so many amazing stories of life on the rivers with us. This is one of hopefully many to come.

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