A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Old friends meet again to share a meal, music and memories; parting, they know there’ll be a next time


The riverboat captain is a storyteller, and Captain Don Sanders shares the stories of his long association with the river — from discovery to a way of love and life — every Sunday with the Northern Kentucky Tribune.

By Capt. Don Sanders
Special to KyForward

The last time Charlie Rafferty and I were together was atop the bonnet on the smokestack of the DELTA QUEEN over 41 years ago. John Hartford was aboard, too, and had brought the long, brass whistle from the U. S. MISSISSIPPI I gave him a few years before. I’d removed the QUEEN’s melodic, three-chime Lunkenhiemer and bolted the MISSISSIPPI whistle in its place.

After a couple of days, the skinny, tall screecher sounded worse each time the pilot pulled the cord to blow it, so I climbed atop the bonnet and swapped the whistles. Alongside, assisting me was deckhand Charlie Rafferty.

John Hartford was aboard, too, and had brought the long, brass whistle from the U. S. MISSISSIPPI I gave him a few years before. I’d removed the QUEEN’s melodic, three-chime Lunkenhiemer and bolted the MISSISSIPPI whistle in its place.

Forty-one years can be a large chunk of a lifetime, or it can be but, like John Hartford once lamented, “just a moment in time.” However put, those years flew by like the blink of an eye, and surely, Charlie and I would have lost track of each other long ago, had it not been for meeting again on a river-related Facebook page, the 21st Century equivalent of the ancient and much slower “sternline river telegraph.”

Charlie and his wife, Brenda Malone, live in Taos, New Mexico, now. They are musicians, too. Both play guitars and sing, but Charlie is best known as a player of the pipes – the bagpipes. The couple travel about the country performing at Renaissance Festivals, fairs, and the occasional wedding. If fact, they were returning to Taos from somewhere on the east coast when Charlie sent a message that they would like to stop by and visit aboard the Rafter CLYDE, my 53-foot replica of a 19th Century raft boat.

As I’ve been in the “shipyard mode” getting CLYDE ready to show to prospective buyers, the boat was a wreck inside. Charlie and Brenda’s visit, however, added the incentive to get the interior presentable before their arrival. By the time the couple appeared at the portside door, the CLYDE was looking like her lovely old self again, as she cleans up nicely.

Charlie and his wife, Brenda Malone, live in Taos, New Mexico, now. They are musicians, too. Both play guitars and sing, but Charlie is best known as a player of the pipes – the bagpipes.

Before we went inside, I gave Charlie and Brenda a close-up look at CLYDE’s authentic wooden paddlewheel and described how I painted it myself by removing a bucketboard, laying plywood scaffolding on the bottom of the inside of the wheel and crawled about with paint pan, bush, and roller until the job was finally finished. “I’ve slowed down,” I informed my guests, “I still get the work done, but it takes a lot longer.”

Next, we traipsed up the “Grand Staircase” to the roof. Inside the pilothouse, Charlie immediately recognized the “Old Crow,” CLYDE’s pilothouse mascot honoring Captain Ernest E. Wagner and his much larger Old Crow in the DELTA QUEEN wheelhouse. Charlie even remembered that Cap’s mascot stood on a platform by the aft, starboard window just to the right of the Lazy Bench. Brenda and her mate gathered at the pilotwheel for the obligatory photo of them “steering” the CLYDE.

When Charlie hung back, I ordered, “Get up here and act like you’re working.” He immediately stepped forward and got a chuckle out of my suggestion. “Act like I’m working,” he chuckled in a low voice as he grabbed ahold of the wooden wheel and scanned the horizon for snags and downbound barges.

Brenda and her mate gathered at the pilotwheel for the obligatory photo of them “steering” the CLYDE.

After several photos of Charlie and Brenda snapped with my camera and Charlie’s fancy smartphone, I led the way below to the forward cabin, where I’d spent the past couple of days preparing for their visit. Stepping inside the steamboat-looking space, Brenda noted the stove, oven, built-in dish rack, and the red checkered tablecloth on the oak dining table.

“All the comforts of home,” I hear her remark. Soon we sat down to get reacquainted and remember the past.

Charlie and Brenda, I soon found out, are both from cities on the Ohio River. Charlie, a Pittsburgh native, often traveled on the DELTA QUEEN as a passenger with his parents. There, he developed a love for the river, that, though he is far away, he still maintains a personal relationship with the fluvial waters of the Mississippi System. Brenda is a product of Ironton, Ohio, a small town on the banks of the Ohio River about fifteen miles northwest of Huntington, West “By God” Virginia.

Both my guests were dyed-in-the-wool river rats of the first-degree. But more surprising, Brenda was a professional river guide on white water rafting boats, both on the New River, a tributary of the Great Kanawha, and on rivers in New Mexico.

I led the way below to the forward cabin, where I’d spent the past couple of days preparing for their visit. Stepping inside the steamboat-looking space.

After a while, it was time to prepare our lunch of “authentic steamboat cooking” just like I so often ate aboard the Steamer AVALON when I was a teenage deckhand. A jar of white Great Northern Beans quickly opened and the contents warmed in the microwave oven. Next, a can of mixed greens got the same treatment, and once the beans and greens were on the table, the fried chicken, hanging on a warming bag of the bulkhead, was given a few minutes in the warmer before completing the meal I learned to love and forever associate with “steamboatin’.”

Nothing warms the cochleae cordis of the heart of a steamboat cook more than watching folks enjoying their fixings; though the chicken is store-bought and already cooked, and the beans and greens come pre-prepared in a can and jar.   

As soon as Charlie had his fill, he skinned a guitar from within a protective case and began tuning. Within a few minutes, the words and notes of John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” the first live music played aboard the CLYDE on my watch, filled the spaces within the cabin walls: 

”Well, I dreamt I went away
On a steam-powered Aereo plane
I went and I stayed and
I damn near didn’t come back again…”

As soon as Charlie had his fill, he skinned a guitar from within a protective case and began tuning. Within a few minutes, the words and notes of John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” the first live music played aboard the CLYDE on my watch, filled the spaces within the cabin walls.

When Aereo Plane sailed off beyond the horizon, the sad Hartford ballad lamenting the deaths of so many river friends John once knew, came alive again in Charlie’s voice:

“Where does an old-time river man go
After he’s passed away
Does his soul still keep a watch on the deep
For the rest of his river days… ” 

Once Charlie finished the stanzas of Hartford’s lamenting dirge as composed by one of my dearest river buddies, Charlie continued with the same tune, but in words, he’d written concerning his lamentations about the river and the fluvial life he certainly missed:  

“Where does an old-time deckhand go 
after the mate shouts ‘all gone’
Does he stand on the bank and watch her go ‘round the bend 
and with the rest of his life ramble on

But that sternwheeler steams right on through his dreams 
and he wakes with a tear in his eye
Thinkin’ maybe someday when his last line slips away 
she’ll whistle for him in the Sweet Bye and Bye…”

About the time Charlie finished his last tune, Alexander appeared at the door, checking up on his dog. “Come in,” I yelled, and my neighbor stepped inside, found a chair, and joined the chatter around the table.

All the while, Charlie and Brenda were aboard the CLYDE, another guest preceded them. Koal, the gentle, black poodle belonging on my neighbor’s boat, BETTY JANE, seems to like to be aboard my boat whenever his owners, Alexander Watson and Dale Harris, and I are at Lighthouse Point Yacht Club at the same time. Koal is such a well-behaved pooch his presence usually goes unnoticed as he seems to belong on the CLYDE as much as the mascots I wrote about recently.

About the time Charlie finished his last tune, Alexander appeared at the door, checking up on his dog. “Come in,” I yelled, and my neighbor stepped inside, found a chair, and joined the chatter around the table. Pretty soon, Alexander and Brenda found common grounds when she told him about her white-water river days. He, it turns out, was a frequent rafter, himself.

The next thing I knew, I was sat transfixed while the two across the table were rafting together on wild and tumbling waters upon a stream made the more furious with each embellishment of their tales. No longer was I safely aboard the CLYDE on gentle waters, but holding on for dear life as Brenda commanded:

“It’s getting late, and we best be getting back on the road. There’s still a way yet to go.”

“Paddle Right… paddle right with all you got!” 

Alexander’s eyes grew ablaze as he envisioned the breaking of high, white-crested waves while angry, dark, wet rocks reached up from the bottom of the roaring stream; threatening to rip the raft into pieces. A great rush of crashing, foamy water roared through the cabin of the CLYDE, it seemed, and I was relieved to discover it was all in the telling and not reality. 

After things dried out a bit, Dale arrived with a carafe of strong hot joe and cookies, and we enjoyed a cup of good coffee as shadows filled the cabin where none were before. Charlie, noticing the lengthening shadows, noted: 

“It’s getting late, and we best be getting back on the road. There’s still a way yet to go.”

Before I accompanied my friends up the steep ramp to their truck, Charlie wanted a photograph of himself holding his mandolin, back by the paddlewheel. Brenda and I obliged as we both recorded Charlie standing on the fantail alongside one of the few remaining authentic wooden sternwheels left on the river.   

Concluding an almost tearful farewell, Brenda, Charlie, and I said our goodbyes, for now, for we always know that we will eventually meet again… “somewhere on the river.”

Before I accompanied my friends up the steep ramp to their truck, Charlie wanted a photograph of himself holding his mandolin, back by the paddlewheel.

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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