In the summer of 1948 I was eight. Older kids in my neighborhood used to play poker on the back porch of the clubhouse on Hano Street. The porch stood four feet above the ground, big enough for eight kids to sit there and play. Along with other brats, I’d stand on the ground and watch, enjoying the players’ antics as they grabbed their dealt cards and held them tight, squeezing them slowly apart, peering at them one by one, their faces showing a reaction as each card was revealed.
Some were good actors and their faces showed joy when they should have showed despair. I knew, because I’d walk around looking at everyone’s cards and knew who held the best hand. Sometimes the good actors would scare the one with the best hand into dropping out when they raised.
All the card players wore Wrangler jeans, called dungarees in those days. They were $1.00 cheaper than Lee’s. Cuffs were fashionable, so every kid had turned the bottom of their pants-leg up. Once the cards were dealt, the players intently watched the others to see if anybody cheated or tried to skim the pot. While they were distracted I watched my friend, Jimmy Bryant, place a lit cigarette butt in Franny Burns’ cuff, before long smoke billowed from his cuff. He didn’t notice his pants smoldering until sparks touched his skin because he intently watched the other players to be sure no one cheated..
He jumped up to slap out the sparks. All the players watched, except George Mc Donald who I saw reach into the pot and take out some money while everyone was distracted by Franny’s pants on fire. The players only made nickel and dime bets, but it added up to big money for the time, and I’d bet when George drew money out of the ante, he had at least three or four bucks in his hand.
Big joke. Everyone laughed. No one got mad at the hole burned into the bottom of Franny’s pants.
Joe Sutton played every time there was a game. He was smart, was overweight, had red hair, freckles, and was a little older and a little smarter, than the other kids. “Sucker,” he’d often say to the loser when he won after raising the pot.
No one got mad at Joe. They got even. He suffered from epilepsy. His eyes would roll up into his head;, and he’d shake all over, lose consciousness, fall to the ground and spasm when he won a lot of money. One of the older kids would stuff a spoon or a stick under his tongue to stop him from swallowing it. While he underwent his epileptic seizure, the other players would take his winnings and change the cards he held.
On this day, Joe slowly built his stake to where he almost cleaned everyone else out. The dealer dealt Joe four aces. He bet all he had in front of him, then began to tremble. His eyes rolled up as he fell and shook on the ground. Someone stuck a spoon in his mouth. Spittle ran down his chin as he almost choked. After a few minutes of thrashing around like he was swimming on the ground his eyes flickered and his eyes lit with awareness.
He stood and looked at where he had sat. It was bare of money, but his dealt cards lay there. “How much was in the pot, and how much did I bet?” he asked, looking at the few coins left on the floor where they anteed the bets. “Who won the last hand? Where did my money go?”
What he remembered was how he had to sell flowers to pay for a display case he had fallen through during a seizure, and how he used the money he had earned so far to play in this game. He remembered how much he had to have and saw he had a long way to go.
He picked up the cards he had been dealt and saw four kings. He shouted, “It don’t matter if I remember what I had. I’ll bet all I have here in my hand.” Joe threw two twenties into the pot.
“I’m going to raise,” Franny Burns said, and threw an additional twenty into the pot.
“I’ll double that,” Joe reached into his wallet and dug out two twenties he had folded up and tucked into a corner. A look of satisfaction washed over his face.
“Double you back,” Franny said. He dug money from his shoe and threw it into the pot.
Joe reached into his underwear, pulled out a fifty. “That’s half of what I need to pay my debt, but I’m so sure I have the best hand, I’m willing to bet every dime.”
“I don’t have that much,” Franny said.
“You lose.” Joe reached for the pot.
“Hold on. I’ll get the money.” Franny showed his hand to those with money to invest, and they did. He put up another fifty. “Okay, Joe. I call.”
“Read’ em and weep,” Joe laid down his four kings and reached for the pot.
“Hold on there buddy, I’ve got you beat.”
Franny threw the same four aces on the boards that Joe had been dealt before he had his fit and passed out. He remembered now, “Hey those were my cards, you changed my hand.”
“Prove it,” Franny said, and gave everyone a warning look that said there’d be hell to pay if someone told the truth.
“Come on guys, you all know he took my cards, and I really need the money to pay for damage I have done, so won’t anyone tell the truth?”
“I will,” I said, thinking no one should ever cheat.
Franny and Joe stared hard at me, but before I could say a word, my brother Tony took me home, he probably saved my life.