More Lessons of Life

The first day of law school orientation, the professor told us “The law is a jealous mistress.” At the time, I did not understand the metaphor, although I knew what a metaphor was because WSHS classmate Jimmy Thomas had distinguished it from a simile in English class in response to a question from Mrs. Munford when the class was studying figures of speech.
Writing is also a jealous mistress—always clamoring about being neglected and playing second-fiddle to mundane things like household chores, setting a new lamppost, appointments, root canals, watching TV, or web surfing. Her voice is persistent, passive aggressive, and annoying. “Do you have a topic for the next column?” “Haven’t you finished the research yet?” “Your deadline is Friday.” Yikes! The cacophony plays in the background of my mind, but the literary side of my brain flatlines, and a low-grade anxiety sets in.
Nearly always, however, while I’m engaged in something unrelated to writing, an idea arrives swaddled in layers that have to be unwrapped, sorted, and wrestled into something readable. This time, while watching “Downton Abbey” on TV (so there, Mistress) a poker game triggered a cascade of memories.
When my brother and I lived on the Montier farm in the 1950s, card playing wasn’t a common parlor pastime in the Shannon County community. My grandparents, while frowning on gambling, weren’t opposed to a social card game. When thunderstorms knocked out the electricity, which happened frequently, coal oil lamps were set on the kitchen table and the faded deck of cards was retrieved from a cupboard for a game of seven-point pitch. Grandpa and brother Jack against Grandma and me.
Grandma taught us the rules and point system—high, low, jick, jack, game, and two jokers. After college, some St. Louis friends invited me for an evening of playing pitch. I astonished them when I recited the point system as I had learned it from Grandma. To them, I was speaking a foreign language. They informed me the points were: ace, deuce, jack, off-suit jack, ten, high joker, low joker, and added the three-point tray. Enlightened, perhaps, but Grandma’s version had more style.
Before we learned to play pitch, Jack and I had picked up a basic poker game, which I thought was called “jacks or better,” but it was actually a version of five-card draw. We bet with pennies or just marked points on a tablet. That is, until we saw an old-time Western movie on TV with two drunken cowpokes playing poker in a saloon. Only a bottle of “red-eye” sat between them on the table—no poker chips or money. Whichever player won the hand got to take a swig of the hooch, and the loser could only sniff the bottle. With a bottle of Pepsi between us, “drink or smell” became our new card game.
After our mother married George Rothwell, our knowledge of cardplaying expanded. George was a formidable poker player. As Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War and a merchant seaman, he learned and refined his skill-set onboard ships and in ports around the world. 
Anyone who knew George, even his detractors, would admit he had a keen mind. He could calculate basic algebra problems in his head and had an uncanny knack of knowing which cards had been played, and which had not yet been dealt. 
More than a few times, I saw him in the early morning hours at the kitchen table dealing hands to imaginary players and figuring the odds. He wasn’t just passing time, but like an athlete, he practiced his craft. In the games he played, hundreds of dollars could be won.
He kept a few novelties of the gambler’s trade as collector’s items that fascinated me. An ordinary-looking fountain pen contained a teargas cartridge that could be fired in an emergency. He had several decks of cards known as “strippers,” because cards such as the aces were stripped from the deck and returned after the deck had been slightly trimmed. To the unsuspecting, the deck appeared normal, but a dealer with sensitive, trained fingers could surreptitiously slide out the slightly larger aces. 
For several years in the 1950s, George owned Club 60, a tavern on the eastern outskirts of Birch Tree on U.S. Highway 60. During this time, his first-cousin John J. Fair, popularly known as “Big John,” owned the Log Cabin Tavern in Winona. I only recall seeing Big John once, and his nickname fit. He towered over me. My brother says he was a solid six-foot-four, and “pro lineman big.” 
In July 1957, the Springfield Leader-Press reported that Big John “. . . previously worked at the Bockman Tavern in West Plains and gained a reputation as a rough and tumble fighter during his residence there. He was a star athlete at Willow Springs High School, which he attended, and was also a heavyweight champion in the Silver Mitts boxing tournament held at Willow Springs in 1936.”
Big John owned a unique pool table, which he kept in his tavern in Winona. The pool table appeared normal, one where good ol’ boys could play eight-ball while drinking beer. With the balls removed, the surface of the table had an alternate use—shooting dice. 
Moreover, the pool table had hidden magnets that could be activated by engaging a concealed switch. With “loaded” dice, when the magnets were turned on, the dice would roll to a seven, which I understand can produce a winning roll in the game of craps. 
According to both my mother and George, Big John showed them the power of the magnets by throwing three nails on the surface of the table. When John switched on the magnets, all the nails popped straight up to a vertical position.
Personally, cardplaying has never been of much interest to me. I didn’t play cards in college, and only played a few social games of hearts or pitch as an adult. As to gambling, I went to Las Vegas on business once and played a couple hands of blackjack; pulled the arms of a few slot machines; lost my predetermined paltry amount; and stopped. I had a similar experience in Europe at the casino in Monte Carlo. I have never even visited any of gambling boats in Missouri—I learned from a pro as a kid not to play against a stacked deck. 
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Howell County News

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