A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

The River: Remembering loyal river dog ‘Boy’ and a young boy’s betrayal that won’t soon be forgotten

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 is a part of a long and continuing story.

By Captain Don Sanders
Special to NKyTribune

What I remember most about Sherry Johnson, a girl my brother Bob’s age who lived at the bottom of the bend where Sterrett Avenue plunged south off Wallace Avenue, was her dog “Boy.” Boy, a short-haired, mongrel, black and brown cur, loved nothing better than following my brothers, our dog Patty, and me to the Licking River on hot summers days for a dip in the refreshing, spring-fed waters of that ancient waterway. Boy also enjoyed little else more than being our companion on any wanderlust adventures we contrived, no matter the season or the setting.

Boy, a short-haired mongrel, black and brown cur, loved nothing better than following my brothers, our dog Patty, and me to the Licking River on hot summer days.

On the corner of Wallace and Madison Avenues in our hometown of Covington, Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, a drugstore whose name has blurred in the 60-plus years since those days of carefree youth, served “fountain cokes” in conical paper cups nestled in a metal holder for a nickel apiece. A splash of cherry flavoring was free for the asking.

Although nickels weren’t always readily available as none of us were afforded a parental monetary allowance, my brothers Dick and Bob Sanders, our cousin Ray Cooper, and I were industrious collectors of castaway empty beverage bottles worth two cents apiece at “Baldy’s,” the corner grocery opposite the purveyor of the fountain drinks. So that’s how we earned the nickels that found their way onto the marble counter at the soda fountain.

The twisted wire table and chairs where we sat while Boy, and we boys, enjoyed our cold, sweet libations together.

Of course, Boy-the-dog was with us, too. Much to our delight, the druggist always placed the pup’s complementary cherry coke on the floor beneath the twisted wire table and chairs where we sat while Boy, and we boys, enjoyed our cold, sweet libations together.

Patty, our mature beagle, was a bit overweight when our dad first brought him home from wherever he found him. The dog was a definite disappointment, for I was hoping for a pup. But it didn’t take long before the lonely pooch, eager for the loving affection of a new family, to win the hearts of us three brothers. After that, Patty and Boy were rarely absent from one of our forays, slipping away from home while our parents worked, and onto the forbidden banks of the primordial river bisecting Northern Kentucky while forming the boundary between Kenton and Campbell Counties of the Commonwealth. When swimming between the opposing shores of the Licking, we lads called Campbell County “Ohio,” while Kenton, our home county, remained “Kentucky.”

August was my favorite month for swimming in the cool, spring-fed waters. Something about those steamy ”dawg days” when the sun-baked the land and the wind refused to cool the air that was perfect for immersion in the leafy-green waters at the camp I first claimed on May 19th, 1955.

Patty-boy would never miss an opportunity to be with us on the Licking River.

During our initial intrusion onto the river, I was the only one of us who was a “swimmer,” and I wasn’t very skilled, especially in the temperamental waterway that claimed its share of intruders over the years. But as time passed, we boys became able Wasserkinder, skilled in the art of clandestinely enjoying our pleasure without disclosing our presence. The worst fear any of us had was not drowning, but rather that our parents would discover us playing and swimming in the waters of the forbidden river. I truly believe that the dread of discovery superseded the fear of death.. or at least it did as far as I was concerned.

Patty-boy would never miss an opportunity to be with us on the Licking River. Still, he wasn’t partial to swimming across to “Ohio” from “Kentucky” and back but chose to wade into the river until he could sit on the shale bottom with the cooling waters swirling gently around his neck. Patty would remain in the river until the lure of a rabbit scent on the shore beckoned him into the woods.

Boy, though, loved nothing better than swimming the width of the waterway to the far “Ohio” shore where he explored along the riverbank while we dove off the bluff bank into the deeper water on that side. Boy also joined us “dog paddling” wherever we went in the water until we swam back to “Kentucky” and readied ourselves to beat our folks home for the evening.

The L&N Railroad Bridge crossing the Licking above Three Mile Riffle.

Whereas Patty feared heights and refused to follow us across the L&N Railroad Bridge crossing the Licking above Three mile Riffle, Boy jauntily trotted the narrow wooden walkway and often stopped to peer into the 100-foot-deep abyss above the whitewater rapids below. But, of course, Patty wasn’t left behind but needed one of us to carry him across the broad span. Once across, Patty joined Boy. Together they explored the woodlands near where Fredricks Landing Park in Wilder, Kentucky, is these days.

Boy-the-pooch could doggedly (no pun intendedly) follow us on our jaunts that often covered many miles along the Licking River and its tributary streams. On one such exploratory adventure, one sweltering summer day, we trudged around three miles up the Licking and explored an additional mile up Banklick Creek near where Winston Avenue crosses the creek. Finally, after a day of slogging through the wilderness on those watery shores, we wearily returned home along the hot, cement streets of the town. About halfway home, Patty pooped out, so I carried him the rest of the way home. Boy, although tired and thirsty, padded along and braved the entire distance without complaining.

Although these may not seem like unusually great distances, they were traveled by kids with two dogs through rough riverbank terrain, uncut canebrakes and thickets, and over fallen rocks and timber on a scorching day without the benefit of a sip of potable water. When we eventually arrived home late that afternoon, our mother was found grieving over our precious parakeet, Sammy Blue Boy, who died in the afternoon sun, having no one at home to move his cage inside, off the blazing back porch.

Sometime later, the yelling and screaming coming from the street on the far side of the woods above our swimming hole sent our band of brothers and cousin into near terror. The voices were those of a woman and a man obviously shrieking the names of their children. I was certain I heard what sounded like “DONNIE…. DONNIE…WHERE ARE YOU, DONNIE.”

The anxious voices kept calling, but no one came thundering down through the woods as I expected my father would do. Instead, the voices kept yelling, and we were in a near-panic while still in the water close to the “Kentucky” shore. Finally, I went underwater and swam so far away from the direction of the callers that my brother was frightened for my safety. “Let’s get out and get our clothes on,” he nervously suggested.

The last time I saw Boy-the-dog, he had grown old with a gray muzzle as dogs quickly do. (Photo from Pet MD)

We found where we stashed our clothes, and once dressed, we snuck downstream among the broken stones that had fallen over the ages until the voices of those calling were muffled in the distance. In a state of near panic, we kept going in the hope that we could approach home from a direction far removed from that of our camp along the river.

Somehow on the way, the notion came into our clouded minds that Boy-the-dog would give us away and that he should not be with us when we wandered home with a hastily made alibi falsely contrived to hide our whereabouts when we would have to face the wrath of our progenitors. So I, and perhaps others started screaming and yelling at our friendly companion to, “GIT… GO AWAY… GET LOST… and be gone.”

No one hit or threw anything at the bewildered pooch who believed, until then, he was one of us, but the tone of our voices was so disgustingly appalling he turned and ran towards his home with his tail fearfully tucked between his legs. Boy looked back towards us in disbelief every once in a while, but he kept running until he disappeared.

After we slipped back home in an entirely different direction from our camp on the Licking River, neither of our parents was there. Both were still at work. The voices that caused the panic were not calling my name but were, apparently, those of other concerned parents who thought their children were playing on, or too close to, the forbidden waters of the Licking.

If I could, I would erect a bronze statue of Boy, that maligned river pup, along the River Greenway Trail. (Chris Baldwin, artist)

Boy, who’d been our close furry friend, never came calling again. We, with me the major perpetrator, broke his trusting heart. It was one of the meanest things I have ever done in my life to this very day, and I will never forgive myself for being so nasty and cruel to a loving, innocent soul. I’m truly sorry, Boy, and I will be for as long as I can still remember.

The last time I saw Boy-the-dog was a few years later, soon after my family moved from Sterrett Avenue. He had grown old with a gray muzzle as dogs quickly do. But when I called to him, he totally ignored me like an indifferent elder avoiding the queries of an unfamiliar stranger and slowly walked toward the home of his mistress, where he’d been living a quiet life.

If I could, I would erect a bronze statue of Boy, that maligned river pup, along the Licking River Greenway Trail in memory of the dog who yearned to be with his boys on that primordial waterway but, instead, was betrayed by those he loved the most.

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. Connie Bays says:

    Very touching story of your youth and your times with Boy. We have all done things that we’re not proud of having done, but integrity is found in the ownership of those acts, and the remorse for having done so. You sir, have more integrity than anyone I’ve ever known. Part of the reason I have always held you in such high esteem. Another good story. Keep them coming!

  2. Ronald Sutton says:

    Great story of a Boyhood, but can feel sorry for Dog, Boy, whose world was taken away. Never had a companion dog; our Chow Pogo ran away, never to be found, when we moved back to Detroit from Terra Haute, IN. 🙁

  3. Cornelia Reade-Hale says:

    Oh my. What a heart wrenching tale this is – yet a part of growing up. I’m sure your grief over breaking his trust has played a part in how you’ve treated friends 2 & 4 footed since.
    I can feel your ache. Thanks for making each step ,breath,fear & heartbreak come alive. My dad had a dog Smokey & I wonder if they shared adventures 109 years ago?

  4. Greg Nienaber says:

    Love the story,really hit home!

  5. Cap'n Don says:

    Thanks, everyone for your comments. This sad incident was one of those “if only I could have done things differently” moments. But rarely, do we get a second chance to right the wrongs we’ve caused. Or, as my mother, Anna Margaret, often said, “Ain’t that the truth…”

  6. Donna Sanders says:

    Always the best storyteller ! Plus a prankster too !
    Being genuine, his sights set on his love of the river.
    Our 4 legged friends teach us, you Don which has made you exactly who you were meant to be.

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