A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: A young boy finds adventure (and life lessons) and meets some characters along the way

(The Captain is taking a bit of a break but is “itching” to get back to his writing. It’ll be soon. Meantime, we are sharing his earliest columns for those who haven’t yet read them. This column first appeared in January, 2018)

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

(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.)

The MARJESS bobbed calmly on the outboard side of the dock at the Covington Boat Harbor when I stepped aboard for the first time, afloat. Nothing belied the difficulty dad had, earlier, launching the paddlewheeler off the lowboy trailer across the river at the Public Landing and getting her to where she was now tied.

The boat harbor was situated immediately downstream of the south pier of the imposing Roebling Suspension; often called the “singing bridge” for the humming sounds that flowed like a siren song from the bridge’s expanded metal deck as cars, trucks, and busses passed over it. A concrete “floodwall,” tall-enough to protect that area of town from the highest of floods isolated the marina from view, except from the bridge, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River.

In Tex’s wood yawl with dad

A dusty parking lot was accessed from Front Street by a gravel drive filled with stones suitable for tossing tempted any boy within their reach. A long ramp stretched from the shore to the downstream deck of the “headboat,” a box-like, rectangular wooden barge with a one-story, white superstructure atop it that made it seem more like a floating warehouse than a boat. Inside was a cavernous room with a nondescript bar and plastic covered stools. Sparsely spaced tables and chairs were scattered about. Two small rooms, one with MEN, and the other with WOMEN painted on the doors housed toilets that flushed into the river. A brightly-lit jukebox alongside one wall and a pinball machine on the opposite side provided the sole sources of entertainment besides drinking. A quarter bought three tunes on the juke box, otherwise songs were a dime apiece. A game of Pinball was five balls for 25 cents.

Outside, on the downstream end of the headboat, at least five-hundred feet of wooden “floats” buoyed atop the tide by empty, steel oil drums, provided ample dockage. At the farthest end, faced-up to the last float, a dirty, hand-built, shantyboat, complete with all sorts of plunder, some floating, some piled atop the roof, was the home of the “harbormaster,” Tex Kitchaching, his wife Joy, and their toddler son with the bow-legs. On the river-most side of the same float, ahead of the shantyboat, lay our sternwheeler… a most-handy place to develop a friendship with Tex, a veteran riverman who claimed he “decked” for the Union Barge Line, and, as I soon found, was receptive to a gangly, teenage boy eager to help around the harbor and willing to work for free.

Among Tex’s river plunder were two 16-foot wooden skiffs and a smaller jonboat he, himself, built. A lattice fishbox floated partially submerged behind the shantyboat where live catfish and an occasional carp, recently caught on a long trotline, swam about oblivious of the knowledge their fate lie destined for the frying pan inside the boathouse galley. Before long, I was spending more time with Tex than I was with my family aboard the MARJESS.

“Here’s how you tie a headline to a post,” I was told my first lesson. “Take a bite of line and go, right hand under the left,” Tex instructed as he placed the bight, or loop of “line”; never “rope”, over the two-by two vertical post on the dock… and “do another one over-top that one, ” as the skiff was securely fastened. “The line’ll break before it’ll pull out,” he concluded. And so a simple secret, known to practically every riverman, but mostly a mystery to those of the pleasure-boat sect, was revealed and passed on to a young greenhorn aspiring to be like his teacher.

The Headboat of the Covington Boat Harbor

Flying around the harbor in Tex’s home-built, 16-foot, wooden yawl, or skiff, built with a pointed, model bow that set it apart from a flat, squared-off scow bow of a jon boat, was a great escape from the confines of the boat harbor. The old Johnson outboard motor drove the heavy boat fast-enough though the wind-whipped waves that a cool, refreshing spray of river water blew over the boat and crew on a hot summer day. From my narrow seat in the further-most forward thwart of the ark, I watched Tex sitting silently with one hand on the tiller as he gazed all around, from sky to water, as if he was viewing the river scene for the first time.

But suddenly, the motor would stop as the yawl coasted alongside a bobbing metal can with a thick, cotton cord attached to it, the first of several floating equally spaced together in a line. Reaching into the water, Tex took hold of the line running from can to can and pulled it up to check for any fish unfortunate-enough to bite down on the smelly bait that lured them to the sharp, steel hooks hanging from smaller lines tied to the heavier cord he called “stringers.” He was looking for “fiddlers,” Channel Catfish of a certain size. “Them’s the best eatin’,” he explained.

The more-fortunate fish not meeting the fiddler classification were freed and the empty hooks baited. Tex showed me how to fasten a hook to a stringer without going through the eye of a fishhook in a way it would not come undone. I also learned the way to fasten a stringer to the trot line using a slip knot that was easy to untie and remove from the trotline for servicing. Although it’s been many years since I last tied those knots to a hook and trotline alongside Tex, I can still tie them.

Every once in a while, Tex unexpectedly turned the skiff about and made a beeline upstream, about half a mile, to Dot’s Boat Club, the next closest marina on the Kentucky side. Dot’s usually had a few old coots hanging around the bar and most seemed to know Tex by name. If he was so moved, he might dig deep into his jean’s pocket, pull out a handful of quarters, slam a pile onto the bar, and call for a round of beer. Enough quarters could always be found to feed the booming jukebox. Dot’s place reeked of stale beer, cigarettes, and summer sweat. It reminded me of inside the headboat at the Covington Boat Harbor.

As I swigged a soda, I watched with a fascination bordering on amusement as an inebriated, middle-aged, overweight couple, barefoot and in bathing suits, staggered to the scratchy tune blaring from the music box. But it was a relief to hear Tex yelling in a voice louder than the music, “Time to get-on home,” and so we climbed into the yawl and plowed down-river until the sounds of the singing bridge, overhead, told us we were back.

Tex’s Shantyboat with the MARJESS alongside. Dad and boys making a tire bumper.

Covington Boat Harbor operated the bar without a license, so, consequently, the owner, a white-headed, older man named Charley, could not buy directly from the trucks that delivered beer and booze had he operated legally. A matter simply ignored, for whatever reasons, and why my dad never went inside the headboat. It befell upon Tex, as an added duty, to take Charlie’s “machine” and drive to a place in nearby Newport that had conspired with the boat harbor to sell them as many cases of Wiedemann Beer, at slightly below the retail price, as the car could carry.

A time or two, I slipped off with Tex who was delighted to have help carrying all those heavy cases to the car, and from the parking lot to a corner of the barroom where they were stacked until Tex or Charley stocked the refrigerated boxes behind the bar with the individual bottles.

The best fun-part of the beer run was the drive, there and back, alongside my river mentor who seemed like the older brother I never had. Tex tuned-in old-time country music on the car radio and sang along with the tunes.

During one of those times he revealed that, when he was a younger man, he wanted to be a country star and play and sing on the radio like his favorite, harmonica playing, Wayne Raney. “Why Don’t You Haul Off and Love Me” was Tex’s favorite Wayne Raney tune. He also mentioned liking the Delmore Brothers. But the craziest thing Tex did during the ride, was, whenever he saw a pretty gal, he would yell, “Hubba-Hubba!” out the window. “Hubba-Hubba!” Tex wanted me to try. “Girls like it when you yell, Hubba-Hubba,” he added, but I pretended to be shy and couldn’t get up the nerve. Actually it was too embarrassing to be seen yelling “Hubba-Hubba” from an open automobile window.

Wayne Ramey

Later that summer, when we arrived at the Covington Boat Harbor, the shantyboat and all the plunder were gone from the end of the fleet. Tex, his wife Joy, and their little boy with “the rickets” my mother had diagnosed and whose health she had improved with the vitamins samples she had taken from the doctor’s office, with permission, where she worked as a medical secretary, were all gone down the river.

Though I never saw Tex, again, and the only momento I have of him is the “Jones Book,” a book of maps and aids published in the 1930’s by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Many years later, I was telling the story in the pilothouse of Captain John Beatty’s CLARE E. BEATTY about my old river buddy, and when I mentioned Tex’s last name, the lead deckhand piped-up and declared, “Tex Kitchaching was my uncle.” When asked about his uncle’s whereabouts, the deckhand disclosed that Tex had eventually gone to prison and died not long after he was freed.

Tex’s replacement at the Covington Boat Harbor was another washed-up, old river rat; simply called Mac. Though I helped Mac with a chore, or two, he was more friendly with my father who seemed to want to keep me separated from the sun-beaten boatman who made chairs from water willows growing along the riverbank under the singing bridge he sold for extra cash.

But that was fine, not only did I spend more time aboard the MARJESS at the harbor, but at home, my brothers and I had only recently discovered the pleasures of the forbidden waters of the Licking River as our new playground within an easy walking distance of the house.

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. Joy Scudder says:

    Thank you for posting the Captain’s earlier column. I so enjoy reading about how he spent his youth on the river.

  2. Ron Sutton says:

    It is a shame that Friendship and Knowledge of a Character is denied to so many. Seems to help lead to success in our Marine Business, to have known someone completely out of the Book. Maybe why so many school grads don’t fit in, and are happier selling paint or insurance.

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