Thursday, July 06, 2006

Point Arena Apprentice Poker Players

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The door of the Point Arena Hotel bar (now called the Sign of the Whale) still features the etched “girl in the champagne glass” window. Inside, the long bar on the right looks the same as when Pop and Mom, with Puddles hanging on Pop’s pants leg, would two-step through “The Blacksmith Blues,” or whatever else was playing on the juke box, early 1950’s. It didn’t matter the song or the beat, Pop and Mom with their versatile two-step were up to the occasion.

The Japanese glass fishing net floats still line the top of the mirror behind the bar. When we arrived in Point Arena in 1949, the time when glass floats were commonly found on the beaches had already passed. The hand-blown floats began their journey to the Northern California coast when they were torn or rotted loose from fishing nets in Japan. The floats entered the Humboldt Current and were carried north, then eastward below the Aleutian Islands, down the Alaskan and Canadian coast, and finally washed ashore on Manchester Beach.

The juke box used to be against the wall next to the restaurant entrance, just before where the shuffleboard table had been set against the left wall. That’s where brother Ron and I, still a couple of years from being teenagers, polished skills that few of the bar regulars could top, especially after they had a couple of drinks. In the center of the rear part of the barroom had stood a bumper pool table, another game that Ron and I soon mastered to the point we could easily beat most inebriated adults. And most of the sober ones too.

None of that is there anymore. The big fireplace at the back doesn’t look like it has been fired up since the law was changed and minors were barred from California bars in the mid 1950’s, about the same time it was made legal for Native Americans to buy booze.

A few years ago Alice and I watched a movie, "Life on the Rez,” made by local Pomo Indian high school students. One of the scenes was shot at the door of Sonny’s liquor store next to the Hotel bar. The film narrator, pointing at the bottles of liquor, says “look what the White Man has done to the Indian.” At that point I burst out laughing. The people around me probably thought, “What an insensitive White Man, doesn’t he realize how terrible alcohol is for Indians?” I laughed because I remember how the Indians and other do-gooders thought it was so horrible that Indians couldn’t buy alcohol, so they got the law changed. Bad White Man!

Lest I seem insensitive, I’m an alcoholic who hasn’t had a drop of alcohol in over twelve years, with no one to blame but me for my drinking, and I give myself a lot of credit for not drinking now. My mother died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 52, so I do give a damn.

At the back of the barroom is the door to the restrooms. Go through and down past the restroom doors to the door at the back. Go through it, then turn right, go in another door, and you’re in the worst kept secret of Point Arena in the 1950’s, the Point Arena Hotel poker room. It’s not much now, it wasn’t much then. Just a round table with a green felt top surrounded by half a dozen chairs. Gene Price, the son of the owners Fred and Flora Price, would invite me and friends for a game of poker whenever we had a little time on our hands. We’d come in the back way, through the door from the rear parking lot, and have a game of nickel ante, quarter limit, poker. Besides Gene and myself, nicknamed “Kraus,” the usual gang was Chuck “Chaswick” York, Dale “Dink” Withrow, Gene Bowman, and Lester “Fester” Ball. At times we were joined by Rick “Gassy” Arbogast, Bruno Fistolera, and others who I will remember and add as memory serves me. We spent many happy years playing poker to basically trade a twenty dollar bill amongst ourselves.

Each of us had our favorite game. Mine was seven-card stud, high and low hand split the pot. Dale was the youngest and most aggressive; he liked five-card, or seven-card, or nine-card No Peekee, where you got all your cards dealt to you face down, and played in turn until you beat the hand before you, or ran out of cards. A pair of aces early meant a lot of raises on every round. You could be into the pot for a lot of money before you saw your first card.

Some of the other favorites were the usual, like draw poker Jacks or better to open, five-card stud, five-card and seven-card stud roll your own hole card, and seven-stud low hole card wild. Some times we played games with an excess of wild cards, like Acey-Deucy or Dr. Pepper, maybe even draw poker with one-eyed Jacks wild, but for the most part we stuck to the basics.

Sometimes our games wouldn't last as long as we wanted. There would be a knock at the door, and a voice would announce, "The big boys are going to play now." Fred Price, Sonny Buti, John Wolstenholm, Spence Withrow, and others, would come in with a sack of silver dollars - Fred Price brought back silver dollars every time he went to Reno - give us a moment to finish and clear our stuff - see who was winning, razz us about something - then the big money would change hands. Before the first hand was dealt, we would be out and looking for our next adventure.

The purpose of our poker games was not to obsess over the twenty dollars we traded back and forth, but to have an excuse to sit down and needle each other and tell stories. We were already into reminiscences, even in our tender teens. We fished a lot together, so we had a lot of fishing stories. We all knew everyone in town, so it was easy to gossip. Our trips to the Garcia River to the good swimming hole at Franci’s were legends in our own minds.

The swimming, and diving from the trees, stumps, and rocks, was just a sidelight of our trips. The most important part was swimming underwater to catch a bunch of crawdads by hand, because that was lunch after we boiled them on the beach in a can we kept hidden in the trees, over a driftwood fire. And the most significant thing about lunch was that it gave us another excuse to sit around and tell more tales, after which we would have - another poker game!

One of the tales we told, and embellished, was about one of our younger days when we bicycled from Point Arena up Windy Hollow Road, and when we crossed the Garcia on the temporary summer crossing bridge, we decided it was too hot and that we needed a swim, even though we hadn’t brought our swim suits. We rode and walked our bicycles up the gravel bar to the Franci swimming hole, took off our clothes, and jumped in. We were soon splashing, diving, and having a great time, when I became aware of a strange sound – feminine laughter. It was easy to spot where the laughter was coming from. The open meadow on the hillside on the south side of the Garcia was covered with squaws and their children, who had walked over to the river from the Garcia Rancheria, the newer of the two Garcia River Indian reservations. They were sitting there on the hillside, pointing and laughing at us. Our bikes – and our now very important clothes – were on the gravel bar on the north side, about fifty feet across in the open from the river bank. Our frolicking and diving stopped. We thought it would not be long before we would have to make a mad rush in the nude across to our clothes, then into the bushes to get dressed. We didn’t know how long our spectators would be there. With us as entertainment, probably as long as we were there to amuse them. It was summertime, and it wouldn’t be dark for seven hours.

We quickly hatched a plan. We told Charley Van Horn’s visiting cousin, Tink, to run and get all of our clothes and bring them to us in a grove of brush we could crawl into from the river bank. Tink made it clear what he thought of our plan. We tried to convince Tink of the logic of our plan. He was the only one of us who didn’t live here, he would be going back home in a week, so he wouldn’t be around to suffer embarrassment like we would. Also, he was the littlest, so he wouldn’t be exposing as much as the rest of us. Tink, however, was inordinately proud of what he would be exposing, and felt in that regard he was as big as or bigger than any of us. Truthfully, at that time, at our ages, our exposure concerns were much ado about nothing. Which was probably why the squaws were laughing so hard.

It didn’t take long for us, lying there now feeling very cold because of inactivity, to come up with our next plan. Draw straws. But when the time came to draw for the short straw, no one would take the chance.

On to the next plan. Every man for himself! We decided on the count of “three” we would all make a mad rush for our clothes. “One, two, three” - no body moved. We counted again, same result. One more time – nothing happened.

At about this point, I realized it would not be long before I wouldn’t have to worry about exposing myself. At the rate my private parts were shrinking, the cold was either going to make them disappear or they were going to drop off. It was then I exhibited the leadership skills that are born of desperation. Under cover of river bank brush, I slipped from the water into the brush, accompanied by laughs and hoots from our audience. The rest of the guys quickly followed. We worked our way through the brush, which had a generous share of blackberry vines, to a point closest to our clothes. There, without too much hesitation, I ran and grabbed my stuff and ducked back into the brush. More laughing and shouting.

Then each of the guys did the same, accompanied by louder and louder laughter and shouts. When we were decently dressed, we quickly and quietly grabbed our bikes and pedaled furiously down the sandbar out of sight.

Once out of sight, it was our turn to laugh. At ourselves.

Even then, I think we all knew another legend had been made.

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