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The River: 1952 started badly but ended up being the year a young boy really connected with the river

(Editor’s note: The Captain is taking a bit of a break and will be back soon. So we are sharing the beginnings of his tales of The River. This column was his second, in December, 2017.)

(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.)

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

Nineteen-hundred and fifty-two started abysmally. My beloved grandpa, Jesse, died in February. Soon after, my boyhood home in Latonia was sold and we moved closer to downtown Covington, a move that would eventually wed me closer to the river. In the interim, my separation with the river had been complete until the Spring of that year. Dad now commanded the traffic division of the city’s Police Department where their biggest challenge was on Friday nights.

PAL-O-Mine, winter, 1958

Before Interstate 75 mauled the West End of downtown Cincinnati and encapsulated the softball meadows of Willow Run on the Covington side of the Ohio River in cement, north and southbound traffic from Detroit, Michigan to Jellico Tennessee, and beyond, flowed on U. S. Route 25. Most people called this road the Dixie Highway, but to others, it was the “Hillbilly Highway.”

On Friday evenings, the road, jammed with bumper to bumper cars carrying Detroit automobile plants workers back to their ancestral Appalachian homes in rural Kentucky and Tennessee, crossed the river on a bridge that shared the same piers with a railroad and was simply called the C&O Bridge.

My father, Jess Sanders, Jr., was a Covington police officer and in command of the Traffic Bureau. Friday was also payday for the police department, so every Friday night, mother, my brothers Dick and Bob, and I would pile into our car and join dad where we found him busy at work on the southern end of the bridge with the men under his charge. Dad was due to end his shift by 9 p.m., but he never got off until well after midnight on Friday nights; not until the last of the long, homeward bound parade had finally crossed the C&O Bridge and cleared the far-most boundaries of our town.

The police had a small segment in the parking lot set aside for them at the Bridge Café and Liquor store, across from the ramp of the bridge. The rest of the parking lot was filled with the automobiles of “colored” men and women from Cincinnati. For it was their paydays, too, and the Bridge Café was a favorite place where they cashed their paychecks from which they spent liberally in the café before returning to their vehicles where their purchases were consumed from small, waxed paper cups provided by the café for that purpose.

Walter and Loraine Hoffmeier, 1952

Nothing was said about the drinking in the parking lot as long as alcohol was imbibed within the confines of the cars; so the parking lot had the frolicking air of New Orleans during Carnival. Rarely was there any trouble outside of an occasional shouting match, or the indignation of a man or woman who found his, or her, mate in the backseat with another, especially as the night wore on as the whiskey flowed. Perhaps the presence of my father and his men was enough to keep the peace, but everyone was there for fun at the end of a week of labor, and trouble with “the law” was the last thing anyone wanted, so generally, the crowd policed themselves.

To my brothers and me, the black men and women drinking and cavorting in the parking lot was frightening, but also exciting, and we dreaded, but also anticipated, Friday nights in the parking lot of the Bridge Café. We did have our father and his coppers to protect us, we felt.

Dad and his traffic troopers spent so much time around the Bridge Café that it soon became their favorite after-work place to stop for a beer, or two, and The Bridge is where, on Friday nights after the traffic had cleared, father bought his weekly case of Wiedemann Beer and a carton of six twelve-ounce bottles of Pepsi-Cola for us three boys.

That was two sodas, apiece, to last a week, and if for some reason any of us displeased our mother, her worst punishment was to open one of the bottles and drink the Pepsi while we watched. This meant that two of us would have to, as she liked to say with delight, “split one.” Those words still grate like grinding, broken glass when I hear them.

The employees of the Bridge Café were delighted to have officers of Covington’s Finest frequenting their establishment as great sums of money changed hands over the counter and the cashing of payroll checks attracted varying levels of the social ladder — much of it from the lower rungs.

The manager of the liquor store was another “dried-up, little old man” named Walter, and he was destined to inspire me and send me on a course that I have traveled for the rest of my life. His name was Walter, but, generally, everyone called him “Walt” … Walt Hoffmeier.

Walt was born on a shantyboat on the Licking River 50, or more, years before he and my father became pals. He and his wee wife, Lorraine, owned a 52-foot, wooden houseboat called the PAL-O-MINE, a boat well-known in the Cincinnati harbor long before the Hoffmeiers bought it at Henry’s Boat Harbor several miles upstream from the city.

Captain Jess Sanders, Jr.

One early summer day, in 1952, just a few months after my grandpa died, Walter and Lorraine invited the young cops who directed the traffic in front of the liquor store, and their wives, for an evening cruise on the PAL.

Again, the old fears returned when my mother and father were late returning to grandmother’s house where we boys were staying while they cruised on the Ohio. Tears streamed down my eyes as I stood on the bottom rail of the white picket fence that surrounded the front yard of the bungalow on 38th Street as I prayed for their safe return.

Two weeks later, mom and dad were invited to ride the PAL-O-MINE, again, but this time we boys were also invited, and whatever happened on that day changed my life, forever, and I am still riding that magical river spell over 65 years later.

And for better or worse, I have no regrets and fondly recall pleasant summer days when we cruised upstream to Dayton Bar aboard the PAL-O-MINE where a heavy anchor was run ashore and buried in the golden sands to hold the head of the boat.

A stern anchor was cast into the river keep the boat aligned at a right angle to the shore. The water was clear-enough to see for 20 feet, or so, underwater.

And after an afternoon of swimming, beachcombing, and gathering a tall mound of firewood, Walt lit a bonfire and we ate by firelight as the sun sank beneath the hills west of Cincinnati.

Dad with Dick, Bob and me alongside the PAL, 1952

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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  1. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Thanks for resharing Capt Don’s early tales bringing the river to life either to revive our own memories or to give a taste of the magical life.
    I pray all goes well & he may return soon,but in the meanwhile,how great to revisit the beginnings ( especially for those who missed them originally)

  2. Connie Bays says:

    This is a wonderful story of days gone by, in much simpler and happier times. I hope you continue writing, for many, many columns more! Very much enjoyed this story, and look forward to reading the next installment!

  3. Heidi English says:

    Captain Don’s story about his Pop being a policeman is a great part of Covington and Cincy history.
    Captain has a way of taking you back to simpler times. I too have missed his early columns, and look forward to catching up.

  4. Joseph Engelman says:

    I really enjoy your stories Captain don thank you for sharing them with us

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