Monday, December 31, 2007

A Dog Named Rusty


This has nothing to do with growing up in a small town. We live in the 'burbs, now. Have since 1978. But dogs, and the children that love them, are universal, whether or not you live in the smallest city or the biggest village.

So here's the story of Rusty, the Wonderdog. No one knows how Rusty got his nickname. He never pulled Timmy from a well, barked until all the children fled the burning house, or crawled 1600 miles across the tundra to rejoin his family after being left for lost at a truck stop in North Platte.

He did, one Saturday morning, come get me out of bed when Jo, fetching the paper, slipped and fell on the ice and lay flat on her back on the cold driveway in her nightgown and twisted ankle. But that was long after he had the nickname.

Rusty was a found dog, which is the best of breeds. I was away on business one summer's day when the kids coaxed him out from under their cousin's porch over in DeSoto. I called home to tell Jo that I was going to find a motel in Rossville because the project was running a little long. The kids, then 7, 5, and 3, all shouted into the phone, "Can we keep him?"

Now, I had a cat or two when I was growing up. My wife had a dachshund named Cindy all through school. So, as grown-ups, we were at loggerheads over larger pets. (Much like the Methodist-Lutheran thing until that got resolved). But a found dog is a gift to children not to be trifled with.

When I got home from Rossville, the dog was still at our cousin's. I told the kids it was alright by me if they wanted to keep him. "We've named him Rusty, " they said. "That's good," I said, "because I had a dream last night about a dog named Rusty. "So we checked with the local vet in DeSoto and put up a flyer at the Post Office and grocery store. No one was missing a brown and white mutt.

He was just a puppy when we found him, grew up with the kids, and watched them all turn the corner into adulthood. Never much trouble, didn't bark much, didn't run away much, Rusty was not very social with other dogs but loved his family totally. Rusty's chief duty was to put each of the children to bed, staying with them until they were asleep and then moving off to the next staggered bedtime, finally at the end of the day, crawling under our bed and putting us to sleep.

I don't think that Rusty ever caught a squirrel or a rabbit. He certainly thrilled for the chase, up to the very end, when he was too arthritic to leave the porch. He had given up, some years ago, chasing the birds from the backyard when the crows retaliated with a dive-bombing campaign.

We cried at the end, as all good families should. Dogs are part of God's perfect creation. Rusty's loyalty and devotion, his unconditional love, was a revelation of that truth to us.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Honest John, The Coffee Game

The most long-lasting and recurring event of our almost 50 years in Auburn has been the daily (sometimes twice or more) game to see who buys coffee for the shopkeepers and businessmen who gather each morning and afternoon for a cup of Joe.

When first started in late 1959, the game was played mostly by downtown businessmen (many of them retailers) who opened their stores at 8 a.m. and by 9 o’clock were ready to get a cup of coffee on their way to or from the bank with their daily deposits. The merchant class has practically been eliminated in small towns and the retail establishments that remain are owned by women with a social fabric of their own. Moreover, the stores now open at 10 a.m. So the old pattern no longer exists and women have never been a part of Honest John. Consequently, the current participants are mostly morticians, insurance men, and retirees.

The game was introduced by an insurance man, Dick Miller, who has long since departed. It has been refined over the years, much like contract bridge, with strategies designed to improve ones chance of winning, or in this case, to improve ones chance of not losing.

The game is simple enough. One person writes a concealed number on a paper napkin. The number must be between one and five hundred. It cannot be either one or five hundred--the reason being lost over the years. Each player, starting at the writer’s left, guesses a number. The writer then says whether the number guessed is higher or lower than the one he has written. The guessed number then becomes the new outside boundary. The number-guessing proceeds around the table, progressively honing in on the written number. Assuming that no one makes an unlucky guess (and is “stuck”), when the guesser immediately on the writer’s right picks a number, the writer must take the next higher number (or lower, depending on which direction the guess is from the written number). Thus, if the guess on the writer’s right is one off from the written number, the writer himself can be stuck for coffee on his own number.

Over the years it has become a principle to make an effort to stick the writer. Because of this, the coffee drinkers became reluctant to write the number. So another rule was introduced. Now someone selects a letter of the alphabet and conceals it on a paper napkin. Another coffee drinker selects a letter at random and the alphabet is recited around the table until someone says the concealed letter. The one who picks the letter has to write the number.

This all may seem terribly time consuming but in point of fact it goes quite quickly. The narrowing down of numbers, particularly if the guesser halves what is left, speeds up the process and most mornings, the game takes only four or five minutes of the usual half hour allotted for the coffee time.

Many stories have come out of the coffee game--inept players, complicated strategies, intentional “sticking” of a player, and the like.

One of the earliest ruses was using a pre-set number to stick a newcomer to the game. For instance, the regulars knew that 123 would be used if an out-of-towner sat in on the game. They would then maneuver the guessing so that when the newcomer’s time came, either the next logical guess would be 123 or, better yet, that would be the only choice left.

Most of those who had to pay for coffee under these circumstances figured they had been “had” but they all took it gracefully.

During one political season a candidate for congress sat in on coffee and was promptly stuck with the pre-set number. He left thinking he had chosen the wrong number but happy enough to buy coffee for some potential voters. The next day his opponent was treated the same way. However, the opponent knew he had been hoodwinked and volunteered to pay for coffee the next day if he was told how it was done. It was generally agreed the second candidate would get our vote since he at least knew he had been duped.

The set up backfired occasionally and eventually caused the pre-set number to be abandoned. One day a county commissioner came to coffee for the first time. The pre-set number was invoked. Floyd Pohlman, now deceased but mayor at the time, wrote 123 and we proceeded to play the game. We were not able to arrange for the commissioner to get the number the first time around but sufficient room was left to do it on the next. However, Gene Ely, also now deceased, was sitting at Floyd’s immediate right and he guessed 122. That required Floyd to take 123 and he was stuck for the coffee. Obviously he couldn’t complain because that would compromise the set up. Later, Ely swore he was not aware of the pre-set number. He was not a regular regular but had been to coffee a number of times so we thought he knew the fix was in. His reputation as a practical joker did not help to convince us he was not trapping Floyd but he maintained his innocence to the grave.
As the years passed and participants changed, the pre-set number was used less and less. Our group had gotten the reputation for managing to stick a newcomer and so they avoided us. And some wags thought it would be funny to repeat the Floyd Pohlman ruse and intentionally force one of the regulars into paying.

A rule that developed over time was that if the writer forgot his number and the game proceeded past the point where the high or low designation was incorrect, the writer became automatically stuck. Further refinement decreed that the writer was allowed only one peek at his concealed number. Many players become flustered and do indeed forget what they have written. One man, Delbert Otis, also now deceased, was so concerned about forgetting the number he would always write easy-to-remember numbers such as 111, 222, 333, and so on. After a while his pattern became obvious and whenever he had to write, he would be easy to stick. He would play for days without writing and seldom have to buy coffee. But then he would get the letter and when he wrote would promptly be stuck. He would stay away for days at a time after having to buy but then would come back for free coffee until his well-known idiosyncrasy did him in, again. He never did catch on.

Delbert was not the only one to have difficulty in remembering a number. Roy Steinheider had a penchant for nines and sevens--mostly nines. If he wrote, most of the players knew the number would end in nine or seven and avoid them. After getting stuck several times in a row, Roy might rarely change but then he would soon revert to his old habits and we could rely on free coffee when he wrote.

In order to avoid being a victim of habitual tendencies like Roy, Floyd Pohlman used to select numbers from his surroundings. A number just rung up on a cash register, the phone number on a passing truck advertisement or last Saturday’s Nebraska football score would be things he used. His tendency to avoid tendencies hurt him in the long run since the group caught on to it and many times figured out what cue he had used for his number.

Even though there is honor among thieves, self preservation can be a factor in a player’s decision making. Many years ago, Roy Casey, the patriarch of the Casey Funeral Home family, had to write the number and he happened to be sitting next to his nephew, Fred Kiechel (an attorney, but at that time, I believe, manager of Auburn Machine Works) Roy was not too careful in concealing the number and Fred saw it. When the game progressed with no one picking the number and it was Fred’s turn, he chose the one that would require Roy to take the adjacent number and that was that. After Roy fumed a while about getting stuck, Fred admitted he saw the number. Roy indicated he was abashed to think his own nephew would take advantage like that but Fred answered, “I just said to myself, what would Uncle Roy do?” Both these gentlemen have passed on but the story is repeated as each new member is initiated into the unofficial coffee drinkers club.

Rev. Gordon Patterson, as did many ministers through the years, frequented the coffee hour. Dale Stuck, an employee of the funeral home, but now deceased, did not believe in following any guidelines with regard to honor. He maintained the object of the game was to not get stuck--not the time-honored tradition of sticking the writer or the out-of-towner. Consequently he might cut two numbers off in front of someone and stick them. This was considered inappropriate by most of the regulars.

Another unwritten rule was that a person with a birthday the day of the game would pay for coffee even though he did not lose. The birthday was not usually announced until the game had been played and the loser would be “taken off the hook.” Dale had cut off two in front of Rev. Pat and stuck him two days in a row and it was all the good Reverend could do to keep his temper. The third day, Dale did it again but this time the number he chose was the one written and he stuck himself. Rev. Pat was avenged, but only briefly, when he had to announce it was his birthday and had to pay. The minister was overheard to say, under his breath but loud enough for most to understand, “There’s no damn justice!”

On some occasions, elaborate plans would be made ahead of time by two players who would conspire to stick a particular individual just to listen to them howl.

With regard to buying on one’s birthday, a pattern began to evolve that added some interest to the game. The one with the birthday would play the game completely without honor, such as cutting two off in front of someone. After listening to the complaints for a while, he would then admit to the birthday and the required buyer would be relieved of the responsibility.

Some of the players were not as regular as others and they had a tendency to distrust the diehards who never missed. They thought they might be the subject of subterfuge so they devised methods of circumvention. One fellow, Dan Favero, who was an intern at the newspaper office, would go outside to write if he had to pick a number. Jim Grant Jr., was so sure he was being conned he wrote a letter and a number and put it in his pocket before he came to the café to insure secrecy.

Ross Speece, superintendent of schools at the time, got stuck so many times in a row he became desperate. He would deliberately try to get stuck by picking an obvious number, such as 250. He figured his luck was so bad there would be no way he could pick the right number. It worked. At least he thought it did because his streak ended.

Alan Casey said he lay awake one night and came up with a method that would make it impossible for the gang to stick him. He volunteered to write the number and he promptly got stuck in one round of guessing.

During one period the coffee group met at Smokey Briar’s cafe. There was a large table in the front with a huge wall calendar right along side. Whoever got stuck would be noted on that square in the calendar and at the end of the month a total would be taken to see who got stuck the most. As it turned out there was little difference in the number of times any one individual had to pay. The odds of being stuck pretty well averaged out evenly for those who played the game regularly. Bob Hemmingsen, a retail clothing store owner now deceased, had a terrible month, however, and at one point refused to come to coffee for a time because his luck was so bad. Even though he was a reasonable man and understood probability, Bob plainly became frustrated at not being able to be in control of this silly game.

At this same coffee shop Bob Blankenship, also deceased, set a record which stands to this day. It was common practice at the time to charge ten cents for the first cup of coffee and a nickel for a refill. Those who had time stayed for the refill and played another game to see who paid. Some, with more time on their hands than others, would even play a third game for a sack of peanuts. One day Bob got stuck for all three games but one wag claimed someone else had accomplished this feat so they agreed to play a fourth game for cigars. Bob got stuck a fourth time and has the distinction of holding the record for the most losses at one sitting.

Tom Adamson, another deceased player, was a regular but his insurance job moved him to Lincoln. He still had clients in Auburn and periodically would be in town and make it to the game. He also found himself on a losing streak and he got stuck four days in a row. He declared very seriously to the assembled group, “Actuarially, that’s not possible!”

As noted earlier, part of the fun was to get someone other than regulars to pay for coffee (known as “out-of-town money”). A newcomer happened to get the letter and was forced to write. Since the pre set number could not be used, a player next to the writer took a peek and signaled what he had written to the players on the opposite side. He did this by flashing the numbers one at a time behind the newcomer’s head. Dean Niemann, another deceased regular, took the number right next to the one flashed so the player next to the writer could force him to take his own figure. The best laid plans don’t always work. Dean either misread the signal or the sneak peek was not a good read. In any event, the number Dean picked was it and he got stuck. Again, no complaint could be made without disclosing the intended ruse. Later, when the stranger was gone, the argument over who as at fault raged for several sessions.

False signals again created embarrassment, this time between a high school principal and his superintendent. As it is customary to buy coffee on one’s birthday, one day Alan Casey announced (before most of the crowd arrived) that it was the birthday of a member of the group who was expected but had not yet arrived. He knew this, he said, because he had been invited to the fellow’s birthday party that night. Marvin Gerdes, principal at Auburn high school, was present for the announcement and later Superintendent Albert Austin (Marv’s boss) came in and sat next to him. The supposed birthday boy, a fund raiser for Peru State College, came in and the game proceeded. When it came Marv’s turn to guess he took two off in front of Albert, figuring to get a rise out of him but confident the Peru man would take the buyer off the hook because of his birthday. As it happened, the number did in fact stick Albert. Everyone in on the knowledge of the birthday let him stew awhile, waiting for the fund raiser to offer to buy. But that didn’t happen. We found out later his birthday wasn’t until later in the week. The birthday party was moved up since some invitees were unable to attend on his real birthday. He was oblivious to some of the strange looks around the table when he didn’t own up as everyone had expected. It is not known whether Marv’s later move out of the education field had anything to do with the incident.

Over almost 50 odd years the game has been played at some eight restaurants. It started out at Smokey Briar’s on the south side of Central Avenue downtown. The hotel coffee shop was used, mainly as an afternoon session but it burned down. After Smokey shut down, the group moved across the street to Marie’s Cafe and were there for a number of years. For a time the gang also met at Wheeler Inn when it opened as a drive-in but before it was converted to a steak house. When Marie’s went out of business, The Corner Kitchen became the meeting place but it also succumbed and Kelly’s Cafe became the site. All these locations, except for Wheeler’s, were within a couple blocks of each other downtown. After Kelly’s burned down in 2000, the game moved to Darling’s Cafe on the north end of town on Highway 75. At this writing the coffee group has returned downtown to a new place called The Avenue Cafe.

As observed earlier, many of the players are now deceased and the current membership is more diverse. At one time most of the coffee drinkers were from downtown businesses. That prompted the late J.R. “Red” Childers, an outspoken auto parts dealer located on the highway, to dub the group, “the Stoplight Gang.” The one and only stoplight in Auburn is at the intersection of two highways downtown. Red felt much of the politics of the city was handled by this group, as is the case in most small towns, because business owners held positions of influence in city government, chamber of commerce, civic clubs, and churches.

Today the remaining players are fewer and come from mostly non-retail establishments. It is easier to write about those players who have passed on since they can no longer object to what is said about them. The current crop is composed of two working and one retired morticians, a retired lumber yard manager who works part time at the funeral home, two insurance men who work in the same office, an owner of an office supply/computer business, and this writer.

These current players have many of the same idiosyncrasies exhibited by the earlier cast of characters. Many of them use a number derived from that day’s discussion to help them remember what number they wrote. For instance, the score of the most recent sports event talked about comes into play quite often. Another more obscure device was used by Rich Vlach. The talk was about construction work being done on Highways 75 and 136 so he added them together an used 211 for his number. Bob Engles, one of the insurance men involved, conforms to a different pattern. He always picks a number from 490 to 499. Everybody at the table knows he does this but even though his odds are one in ten for being stuck, he probably doesn’t lose any more often than others.
A recent incident points up how having to write the number can cause a person to become confused. Ben Hall, co-owner of the funeral home and a relatively recent player, was the writer and chose 112. The game progressed until only three guessers were left and the numbers 111, 112 and 113 remained. Rich Jansen (one of the insurance men) was the first guesser and he took 111. At that point, Ben handed the napkin, on which the number was concealed, to Bob Engles, the other insurance man, who was next in line and said, “One-twelve is the number, thanks Bob”. Bob, of course, pointed out there were two numbers left and he would choose 113, so Ben was stuck on his own number. Making obvious mistakes like that is not uncommon, even for old hands at the game.

Each player has his own method in an attempt to keep from paying. As a former Army artillery man I like to use the over and under style in guessing to “bring fire on the target” quickly and efficiently. I get razzed for it but using that method, which I think increases the odds of narrowing down the number and getting it back to the writer. I also espouse the theory that one should always split on the high side--never change ends if splitting is not feasible. All of these theories are just that--theories--and the real key is consistency. If you play the same way all the time the odds are better, much as a baseball manager uses his team’s tendencies in planning his strategy.