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Gristmill: In the Crib

Wed, 07/29/2020 - 19:36

When I dug deep into the simpler days of my past to conjure the card game cribbage in relation to my fantasies of quality family time during the lockdown months, one reaction I heard was disbelief, even ridicule (“That’s what the old farts down at the Legion would play at the bar!”). But then there was one Star contributor’s excited interest in finding a like-minded soul, or at least an old-fashioned one. (She’d learned the game on “epic rail trips” with her boyfriend.)

We met to play.

Or I should say we met with our quite distinct but similarly cute 12-year-old daughters so I could watch and try to relearn the skills I’d lost to the mists of two decades’ passage.

The setting? An umbrellaed table in a brick courtyard outside a coffee shop in the new and stupefying yet somehow here to stay Phoenix-style heat, my kid and I well outfitted with a $10 smoothie and, against my better judgment, because I know a hot beverage will counterintuitively cool you down on a sweltering day, an iced coffee made palatable by shoveled sugar and streams of cream.

The playing didn’t go down as well as the drinks. The game, for all the charm of its wood board and little pegs that chase each other around it, with its on-the-fly calculations emphasizing counts of 15 played off that overturned card in the crib, and then too your hand’s pairs and runs (“Was that a one-hole advance or two?”), is much more involved than I remembered, requiring further study and practice, like Zen Buddhism or the law.

I can’t claim anyone’s asking, but what the hell: My cribbage story involves long Alaska winters in a cabin without plumbing, contentedly downing pots of coffee and plowing through as many Elmore Leonard novels as I could to make up for the absence of a television’s entertainments. And playing cribbage. My tutor was my girlfriend at the time, the daughter of a mail order bride from Honduras, her tamales like nothing I’ve had before or since, and an airplane mechanic, a sourdough, the affectionate term for the old coots who’ve been around forever up there.

“Trying to beat the devil,” he’d say whenever I saw him, because whenever I saw him he’d be playing solitaire with cards so well used they’d turned half gray from the oil of his fingertips, which had also worn away all the wax coating.

That’s the essence of cribbage.

When that girlfriend and I broke up, I played against a computer for a time, then my favorite game fell by the wayside, just like the tai chi I used to get considerable benefit from in those days of isolation, in a faraway place.

This new coronavirus isolation, though, having been imposed rather than chosen, is as different as it is tiresome. You’ve got a family? Consider yourself fortunate.

Play to beat the devil.

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