Woodcraft 22: The Poker Game

24 10 2014

“There’s no point driving to the house,” Grandfather announced. “That’s been sold.”

“Do you know who bought it?” I asked.

“One of my brother Heinrich’s men, an employee at the mill.”

“But you kept your forest.”

“Yes.  Almost all of it.  Ten acres went with the house to provide a decently shaped parcel with access to the road.”

“How much is left?”

“Not quite three sections.”

“Sections?” I asked.  “Sections of what?”

“Your mother’s father hasn’t explained that to you yet?”

“Not that I recall.”

“A section is a portion of a township.  A township is a portion of U.S. government land measure.  A township is 36 square miles in size, and it contains 36 sections.  Each section is a mile square.  Each section contains 640 acres.”

It took me a while to do the arithmetic in my head, but I was able to calculate the total.  “You have one thousand, nine hundred and twenty acres?”

“Not quite. Subtract the ten acres we sold.”

“Wow!  One thousand, nine hundred and ten acres!”  I looked out the window of the truck with a new interest.  “All forest?”

“For the most part, yes.  There is some marsh, a few ponds, and a number of meadows and glades.”

“How did you get so much?” I asked.  “Grandpa Smith’s farm is only two hundred and forty acres.”  At the time in Wisconsin, that was a pretty good size.

“A quarter section and an eighth,” Grandfather said.

“Yes,” I said, though I didn’t do the math for that one.

“My father won the land in a poker game.  That would be your great-grandfather Maynard.”

“A poker game?  Really?”  That sounded more like a scene from one of the many westerns I was still watching on television.  I didn’t know how to play poker.  No one in the family did, either.  We played canasta.

Ja, a poker game.  In 1878.  In Waupaca.  My father was in town with his father, Leupold, on business.  Leupold’s business was selling printing supplies and equipment, even printing presses, which was a good business for a German.  After all, we invented the printed word.”

Grandfather referred to the work of Johann Gutenberg in the 15th century, who developed a system of printing from moveable metal type.  The Chinese, of course, had long been using wooden blocks for printing.  And, nowadays, there is some doubt as to whether Gutenberg’s system originated with him or with the Dutch printer Laurens Janszoon Coster.  Gutenberg, however, had certainly revolutionized printing by proving that books — the Bible had been the first, of course — by proving that books could be machined.  It therefore can at least be said that Germans had developed and commercialized the machined word.

Leupold had been a writer back in the Fatherland.  He was also an Achtundvierziger, someone who had supported ideas of democracy and national unity back in 1848.  The revolutions in parts of German-speaking Europe failed, and he had to emigrate to avoid imprisonment.  To start his life over, he came to America and settled in Milwaukee.  He couldn’t support himself as a writer anymore, at least not fast enough to be able to meet his immediate cost of living, but he did find a job in the printing business.

Germans were settling throughout much of the state, as well as the Midwest, and they wanted to have their own newspapers, journals, and books for churches and schools, shops and farms.   Business went well.  Certainly Leupold’s part in it did.  Eventually, he attracted not only German customers, but also Dutch, Polish, Scandinavian, and even “American”.  As European-American settlements in Wisconsin grew, each developed business enterprises that needed advertising.  As these settlements grew, each developed communities needing access to news and views.  That fostered a demand for printing presses, which put Leupold’s services in demand.

So, as Grandfather said, Leupold and his son, Maynard, visited Waupaca on business.  The business of the day eventually had to end, though.  Evening came, and businesses closed.  Maynard and Leupold stayed at a hotel in town that also housed one of the many saloons in the community.  Leupold didn’t like American beer, and he didn’t like drinking beer the way Americans so often drank it: standing up.  He decided to go on a reconnaissance to explore more of Waupaca and search for more business prospects.

Maynard stayed in the saloon to have a beer.  He hadn’t experienced German beer brewed in Germany, only the brews made by German immigrants in America.  He would drink almost any brand.  So there he stood, drinking whatever was available, bored.

Now, back then, Germans liked to sit at tables big enough to accommodate as many as twelve people where they would sit and talk and argue.  It was said that Germans could not agree on anything, except that the American temperance movement was despicable.

My parents taught me that temperance denotes exercising self-control for the purpose of being moderate.  It means not being given to emotional extremes, and it means not being subject to gross ethical, moral lapses.  A temperate person restrains evil impulses.  A temperate person is even-minded and well-disciplined.  My parents taught me that temperance is a fruit of the Holy Spirit living within, and thus a spiritual person exhibits both strength and grace.

However, the temperance movement gave the word a connotation of abstinence.  Instead of meaning, “Exercise moderation,” it meant, “Don’t do it at all.”  Never ever to take another swallow of beer was a precept too hard for Germans, even many of the most religious, to swallow.

Germans were considered to be most intemperate when it came to the consumption of alcohol.  Making matters worse, they — both men and women — drank much of their alcohol on Sundays.  True: it was a German tradition for families to gather on the Christian day of rest.  On Sunday mornings, they gathered with other German families in church.  On Sunday afternoons, they gathered with other German families in such places as Turner Halls to visit, listen to music, and drink.

Maynard stood there in that Waupaca saloon, with his drink, without his family, on a Tuesday evening in June of 1878.

He saw a table with a number of men seated, drinking and engaged in a social activity.  He walked over.  If he couldn’t join them, perhaps he could just be near enough to watch and listen.

They played poker, a card game of American origin.  Maynard, though German, was also of American origin, having been born in Milwaukee.  As a child, he had many German friends.  As a young man, he had come to make many American friends.  It was, in part, part of doing business.  A few of these friends had taught him the game.

Maynard stood near the table, watching the men play several hands.  Eventually, one of the men asked, “You want to play, stranger?”

Maynard said, “Sure.”

“There’s room. Grab that chair over there.”

Maynard took a seat, and he played for an hour or so.  The men chatted.  They asked Maynard the usual questions: “What’s your name?  Where’re you from?  What d’ya do?”  Maynard answered.  Each of the others provided similar information.  One was a lawyer.  Two were merchants.  One was a land surveyor.  And one was a land speculator.

They played for coins.  That is, they played for coins that, back then, ranged in value from copper through silver to gold.  At first, they played mainly for pennies, nickels, and dimes.  As alcohol consumption waxed and as sense waned, the cents on the table turned to dollars.  And more dollars.

Maynard played well enough to keep in the game, despite having started with little.  Though they prospered, neither he nor his father had yet become prosperous.  But the game, it had so much potential.  These men all seemed to have money, and plenty of it — enough to keep playing hand after hand, win or lose.  If a person could play well enough, he could win far more than a week’s pay, maybe more than a month’s pay, perhaps even several months’ pay, once the contributions of all players were added together.

And then the cards came.  That hand.  That last hand held in both hands that Maynard struggled to keep from trembling with excitement.

Cards went to others that must have excited them, as well.  Table stakes shot up.  No one folded.  Men started betting more than they had in their pockets in the way of cash.  Rings and watches and fobs went onto the table.  The five men could refer to money they had in safes or in the local bank.  They could refer to valuables known to one another stored at home or in offices and shops.  They could write IOUs on slips of paper.

Maynard had nothing other than what had been in his pockets.  But he had the hand!

Leupold walked into the saloon.  Within seconds, he saw his son seated at the table with the five other men.  He walked over.  He looked.  He said, straining to control his voice, “Maynard!”

Maynard turned to look at his father.  “Hello! You’re just in time.”

Leupold leaned toward his son. “Maynard.  What are you doing?”  He spoke softly and in German.

“I am going to win this money,” he answered in German.  “That is, I will win if you will give me more to wager.”

“Gambling, Maynard.  It is not good business.  And these are Yankees.”

Germans used the word to identify and describe certain Americans.  More precisely, the word refers to people who live in or who have had homes in New England: Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut.  Germans used the word for American émigrés from anywhere back East, and that meant the part of the United States east of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Potomac River.  Many such people had moved and were moving to Wisconsin to establish new homes and enterprises.

That term enterprise particularly applied to Yankees.  Germans saw many of them as people wanting too much to get rich too quickly. They saw too many of them as impious villains, thieves, and scoundrels.  Of those who professed piety, Germans saw too many of them as frauds and hypocrites.

Yankees saw Germans as being stubborn and stuck-up: arrogant to the point of being imperious.

Germans saw themselves as being steady, meticulous, prudent, and hard-working.  Over time, they persuaded many Americans to believe the same.

Leupold saw that poker game, not as steady work, but as a get-rich-quick scheme.  It was not meticulous work, it was haphazard.  It was not prudent work, it was reckless.  It wasn’t work at all, it was gambling.

Then he saw Maynard’s cards.  Maynard explained, softly and in German, their significance.  Next, in English, he said, “Father, give me your ring, please.”

Leupold looked at his son.  He looked at all the men and at the cards they kept face down on the table.  He looked back at his son.  “Are you sure?” he asked in German.

“Most confident,” came the German answer.

Leupold removed the ring and handed it to his son.  Maynard held it for the others to see.

“What’s that?” the surveyor asked.

“Alexandrite,” Maynard said.

“What?”

“Alexandrite,” repeated one of the merchants, who worked as a jeweler.  “It’s a gem that comes from Russia.”

“I’ve read about those, I think,” said the lawyer.

The jeweler said, “If that’s what he says it is, it’s worth a lot.”  He held his hand out.

Maynard gave it to him for inspection.

The man studied it carefully.  It put it to his mug of beer and used it to put a tiny scratch in the glass.  He got up from his seat and went to the door of the saloon.  Leupold, of course, followed him.  They went outside into what was left of the summer day where the man held the ring up toward the sky.  Then he removed a small packet of paper from a pocket and held the ring next to it to compare the gem’s color against a white background.  He looked at Leupold.  He returned to the table inside the saloon.

“It sure seems real,” he announced.  He looked at Leupold.  “It sure seems strange, though, for a common salesman to have such a ring as this.  How’d you get it?”

“My mother got it as a young woman from a French officer during the Napoleonic Wars.  He had stolen it in Moscow.  A spoil of war.  That was in 1812.  The French army was in retreat from their disastrous campaign in Russia.  The officer had been wounded during the retreat, was sick, cold, and even malnourished.  There were so many casualties, the French army couldn’t take care of them all.  Somehow, the officer made contact with my mother, and she tried caring for him as best she could.  He died.  Dying, he gave her the ring.  Later, she gave it to me.”

“What’s it worth,” the surveyor asked.

“I don’t know,” the jeweler said.  “We’d have to take it all the way to New York City or Boston to have it assessed properly.”

“Really?” the other merchant said.

The lawyer nodded.  “I wouldn’t be surprised.  I doubt that any jeweler in Milwaukee, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, or Buffalo has seen anything like it.  Maybe Montreal; maybe somebody there would know what to make of it.”

“What do you think?” the speculator asked the jeweler.

“Hundreds.  Thousands of dollars.  Assuming it’s authentic, of course.”

“It is,” Leupold said.

“Then it’s worth more than I have.  An alexandrite that size is worth more than everything I’ve got in my shop.  Nobody around here can afford to even dream about a ring like that.  Most people around here can barely buy gold wedding rings.  Otherwise, it’s a little silver, a little copper, a little bronze, a little brass, some pewter.  Wealthier people buy silver tableware and gold jewelry.  But gem stones?  Mostly garnets and amethysts.”

“And you’re willing to bet that ring?” the speculator asked Maynard.

“What do you have to put up against it?” Maynard asked.

“Nothing,” said the jeweler.  “Not if it means my entire business. I fold.”

“Fold,” said the other merchant.

“Fold,” said the lawyer.

“I’ll see your bet,” said the speculator.

“What have you got to bet?” Maynard asked.

“How about three sections of land outside town?  Nearly two thousand acres.”

“Farmland?”

“Not that good.  It hasn’t been cleared yet.  But there’s timber.  Lots of timber.  And there’s a lumbering boom on, as you know.”

“Two thousand acres,” Maynard said.

“Not quite,” said the surveyor.  “Three sections.  Eighty acres shy of two thousand.”

“And you’ve seen it?  You’ve been out there?” Maynard asked the surveyor.

“Oh, yes.  I’ve been through there.  It’s timber all right.”

Maynard hesitated.  He had the ring right there on the table.  That land, though, lay elsewhere.  And there were many Yankees who would cheat a “Dutchman” and anyone else fool enough out of land or money or both.

The men at the table were really into the game, however.  They wanted to see the outcome.  And that speculator wanted the ring.  “I’m not afraid to go to New York or Boston with that thing.  Say, I’ll go to London to get my money out of it.  I wouldn’t mind traveling like a gentleman for a while.”

The lawyer said to the speculator, “This young man is from out of town.  He doesn’t know what’s here.  So, why don’t you write down your offer, to include the exact location?  Frank here will add to the description what’s necessary so that anyone in town will know what we all mean, to include the judge.  Right, Frank?”

Frank the surveyor nodded.  “Sure.”

“The other three men here will sign as witnesses.”  The lawyer looked at Maynard.  “And I’ll see to it that you get the land, all right.  All legal and proper.”  He reached into a pocket and pulled out a business card and handed it to Maynard.

Maynard looked at it.  He handed it to his father.

“Ah.  I saw this name on a window here in town,” Leupold said.  “When I was on my walk.”

The jeweler handed the speculator some paper.  The speculator made some notes, then passed the paper to the lawyer.  He looked at it, then handed it to the surveyor.  He looked at it, made a few more notes, then signed it.  He handed it to the jeweler, who read it, signed it, and handed it to the other merchant.  He read it, signed it, and handed it to Maynard.

Maynard read it.  He gave it to his father to read.

“In the Fatherland, this is an estate only those of the so-called nobility would have,” Leupold told his son, again in German.  “A baron at the least.”  He handed the paper back.

Maynard put it on the table underneath the ring.  He looked at the speculator.

The other men smiled and rubbed their hands in anticipation.  “Let’s see those cards now,” said the lawyer.

The speculator laid out one by one an ace, a two, a three, a four, and a five.  All spades.

The surveyor whistled.

Maynard laid out a seven, an eight, a nine, a ten, and a jack.  All hearts.

“I don’t believe it,” the surveyor said.

The speculator leaned back in his chair, put his hands to his face, took them away, and stared at the ceiling.

“Congratulations there, stranger,” the lawyer said.  “Now, I’ll be pleased to earn a little of my money back if you’ll come by my office tomorrow so we can draw up some real papers.”

“And I’ll be glad to earn some money back by surveying your new property,” said the surveyor.

Maynard took the ring and returned it to his father.

The other merchant said to Leupold, “You might come by my hardware store tomorrow, sir.  I could earn a little money back, and you can buy a gun to protect that ring of yours.”

Leupold’s eyebrows went up.

Maynard returned the rings and watches and fobs that were on the table.  He also gave back the IOU slips.  The paper from the speculator and all the cash, Maynard put into his pockets.

 

woodcraft 7

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