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THE WANN GAMBLER by Warren Washburn

© Warren Washburn

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WANN GAMBLER


I turned ten in the summer and spent a lot of time brooding since my Dad, when he was around, was always warning me to keep my mouth shut. I was becoming old enough to try to think about things in order to understand them. The main worry I had and it scared me and confused me was why, a few months past, our Mom had left us and never said goodby. It happened right after Easter in early April.

*****

We were just simple-minded kids living in a little village called Wann, Nebraska, so how were we supposed to know why mom left us?

Norman, my older brother, stumbled out of our small house, looked at me and said, “Mom’s gone; she left us.” His mood matched the gloomy April clouds. Damn, those words were hard to believe.

“Where to?” I said. I kept my distance, not grabbing his arms with fear since our family never touched, never. Except of course the yardstick or belt to the butt. We did have a family somewhat; dad was absent a lot, but Mom?

“Don’t know,” he said, and looked down to the outsized slab of cement which served as an entrance to our rust orange, brick quarters. On the cement slab sat a green paint-peeling icebox, a short red feed barrel, a baby stroller with two wheels missing, a cracked baseball bat, and a softball with its cover half off.

Norman’s statement ended the bounce in my walk home from the fourth grade. We attended the Wann Elementary three-room school. It sat about one block from our house which used to be the bank building in Wann. Wann’s population was about thirty adults and kids.

“Where, dammit?” I demanded, pushing past him toward the door ignoring some tears in his eyes. Where we grew up, it was easy and fun to learn to cuss and swear at an early age. Besides, other kids did it and we were ornery in that way.

I pulled open the rickety screen door, caught a whiff of kerosene from the heater, and looked in. There in the kitchen stood our pissed-off dad stirring a pan of tomato soup. Him and his gambling, he’s the reason she’s gone was the quickest notion entering my mind. He gave me a look that said keep my mouth shut unless I wanted a whippin’. Dad had light hair which was thinning out. He stood about six feet tall and had large hands and arms. And when he got angry, watch out! He was wearing his usual white shirt and faded blue slacks.

The whistle from the Puddle Jumper train racing south took my mind off the unfolding heartbreak. I grabbed a quick look at the short train until it disappeared behind a line of stationery boxcars. My gut felt queasy, it was always hungry, and now the kerosene and soup aroma mixing with the feeling of abandonment caused it to hurt like hell. I was too young to know how to handle the pain.

Our house (a step up from the shack we used to live in) was built of crumbling orange-red brick. You could open the front screen, step in, and see the entire house--see the ragged-edged linoleum, scum dirty in spots; see the icebox and wooden table and chairs; see the small kerosene heater which was suppose to provide warmth for the house. The heater where recently two stinkin' boxes of twenty-five chicks each had sat on either side of it. Yeah, we raised baby chickens in our house and they stunk and they peeped all night. Straight back was a small kitchen and back to the right was an area which held two beds.

“Where’s Mom?” I had spied my two little brothers sitting still at the table. By now there were four boys in the family. Maybe it was a wonder Mom survived twelve years of marriage—always scrounging for money, never a pot to pee in, four wild horse boys, no indoor plumbing, and at times very little food in the house. You would think we were living in the depression of the ‘30’s but, for crying out loud, this was 1950.

This woman, during her life, had continual reasons to shed tears and her four sons were to blame as much as anyone. We were sickly, lazy, given over to stupid things like eating x-lax because we were hungry and it tasted like candy. Once when my stomach was yearning for food, I nibbled some and then couldn't stop. Later I sat on the pot for a couple of hours.

Mom had told us that Dad was gambling before they were married but she hoped he would quit and get a job, he was smart enough. But he didn't get a job. He would go to the Omaha bookies, the horse races in Lincoln, and the Ak-Sar-Ben race track in Omaha. In the winter he would try to raise funds to go to Florida or Arkansas. Getting married and having kids didn’t change his habits.

One youngest brother just looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. Just like me, he was afraid to talk much in Dad’s presence.

“She’s in Omaha for a while; so you can all quit your damn whinin',” Dad said as he plopped the pan of soup in the middle of the table. Norman and I pulled up our wooden chairs and sat.

“What for?” I just couldn’t let it rest. At nine years old I was becoming a bit rebellious. I was starting to try to figure out some things on my own, like at the beginning of each school year what were we supposed to list on a card where it asked, “father’s occupation.”

“I said ‘shut up’ or I’ll give you somethin' to whine about!” That was one of his favorite sayings.

Watery tomato soup with no crackers was still better than nothing. Even one piece of toast at times was something. We had learned to eat slowly; it made food stuff last. Unless, of course, if there were six pieces of fried chicken feet for us four boys; then the first two eaters done could grab the last two feet; that was the way it was and no questions asked. We ate fried chicken feet, so what?

“You two oldest wash and wipe the dishes,” Dad said. It was our usual chore so we got to it after water was carried in from the outdoor pump. My usual envious thought was why the two little fartnhammers didn’t ever have to do any work.

Unlike the previous shack we had lived in, this building did have electricity. No indoor plumbing though, not even a pump sink which some of the hovels in Wann had—all water was carried in from the outdoors pump. The outhouse out back handled toilet requirements, unless no one was watching, then we could sneak up close to a tree and take a leak.

The April rain and mud kept us four boys in the depressing house that night. The radio was left off; no TV in this house by 1950. I thought, how could we live without the mother who fed, cleaned, and clothed us? Maybe that’s why she left, going without food at times, no indoor plumbing, no money--him and his dammed addiction to racehorse gambling! He wasn’t even playing his favorite Little Jimmy Dickens record.

Around seven pm, when Dad was studying the racehorse past performances in his racing form, we heard the screen door open; Grandma pushed in carrying a box. Our grandparents lived about two blocks from us; they usually had groceries and lived in a house with an indoor toilet. We were quietly sorting out our collection of soda bottle caps; they made great toys in the absence of the actual stuff.

“Wha’cha you goin’ do with ‘em?” This directed to her oldest son. He could sire boys, just had trouble feeding them.

I wanted to rush her to regain some stability, but I was afraid. We had learned that there was to be no free thinking or independent action in this house. I had learned to freeze up my mouth and thoughts to escape the yardstick.

“Step outside,” he said to her.

So, the relatives knew and now the whole damn town of Wann would know. Truth be told and no greater truth than this—everyone, and I mean everyone, “rubbered in” on the telephone party line. Yeah, this squat brick building did have a wall phone. What about the Wann Ladies Aid busybodies gathering and spreading the news? Of course, does anything take a trip quicker than small town gossip?

Norman moved fast to look in the box.

“Look,” he said, “four sack lunches with a sandwich and orange.”

“Think they’re for us?” I whispered.

Joy upon joy, maybe for one day we could be like other kids who brought their lard pails and paper sack lunches to eat at noon in the big room. What would be the use of taking a piece of toast in a sack to school? We always had to walk home to eat. A real sack lunch sorta took the sting out of going to bed with an incomplete family.

Two beds, dad in one by himself, two little brothers in the other. Norman and I unfolded the lumpy davenport, placed a sheet, blanket, and two pillows on it. Our “bed” extended into the main room, right next to the eating table. Covering dad’s bed was a blanket made from the hide of a horse. That’s right; someone had skinned a horse (spotted brown and white) and made it into a blanket. You could actually feel the horse’s hairs if you ran your hand across it. It was shabby and tattered, peppered by moth holes.

I had a sick feeling in my gut as I lay on the couch, trying to pass out to sleep and probable nightmares. The room was a lot quieter without the sound of peeping chicks. What we needed, I thought, was a real Joe Palooka, a real Steve Canyon to fight off dreams of Germans and Japs overflowing our Wann town. Where the heck was Dick Tracy when we needed him?

*****

The next morning brought the usual, a bowl of cold cereal with milk. It was better than poached eggs, I thought. Then Dad had a surprise for us.

“Leave the lunches here,” he commanded.

“Why?” See, I couldn’t control my disappointment or my smart mouth.

WHACK!! It was nothing, a sharp blow to my skinny shoulder.

“Cause I said so, that’s why,” he towered over me. “You boys come home for lunch and share with me,” he said.

Right then and there I quit looking forward to anything good. I knew damn well he would spoil it. I thought about crying to grandma but that would just get me into worse trouble. I wondered why he didn’t get a job instead of gambling at the horse races day after day.

As I emptied the remaining Wheaties in my bowl, I said, “It’s my turn for the gorilla mask.”

“No, it’s mine,” Norman said. “You got the last one, the Lone Ranger mask.”

“The heck I did.”

“Shut up, the both of you,” Dad said as he grabbed the box and sat down with a pair of scissors. “Take your shoes off.”

So what if our clodhoppers had small holes in their bottoms. A little wet spot on our socks didn’t amount to anything. He cut the Wheaties box top, the sides, and the mask into oval-sized shapes. These he placed in the bottom of our shoes. I was pissed I didn’t get the mask but my disposition was such that it was a victory over my older brother; he didn’t get the mask either. I had said we were ornery minded.

Another day of memorization at school. At noon we staggered home at different times. I ate my share, kept my mouth shut of comments, and then hiked back to school quickly just to get away.

A few guys were waiting for me by the storm cellar. Larry Everman came up to me and said, "Hey, heard your dad started a fight last week over at the General Store. What's wrong with him?"

"Shut up, you son-of-a-bitch." Larry wrestled me down and sat on my chest. He tried to slug my face a couple times with his fist but I was too fast. He let me up when the bell rang. My temper and mouth always got me in trouble. Then I had nothing but skinny bones for help which were worthless against farm boys. Never in my years at that school did I win a fight.

Grandpa came over that night. “Here’s three dollars for gas, go get her,” he said.

“Come out here,” Dad said, pulling Grandpa out the screen door while picking up the racing form. I heard him say, “Look, here’s a sure thing; can you spare five more dollars, I can pay you back tomorrow.”

It was another skimpy supper, but after going on short rations for a couple years, our stomachs were shrunk; living scrawny didn’t seem like a big deal.

“Boys, I’m going to bet on a winner tomorrow and bring your mom home." Finally he was in a good mood. Therefore, we had to be.

“Now, get your shirts off, and take turns sitting up on the chair,” he ordered.

Oh hell, haircut time. I have to tell the truth, usually we all cried. He didn’t put a cereal bowl on our heads, but the result made us look like hicks, like hillbillies. And the next school day was the time I had to wear overalls. Why was I born? How much suffering could a kid take?

He didn’t have electric clippers; he used a hand-operated one. And it pinched the hairs out of our scalp. If the pain caused us to snivel and sometimes sob, he would get pissed-off and call us crybabies. So, another night in a dark and lonesome house, with a slight smell of burning kerosene from the stove to further sicken my upset stomach.

*****

The next day when we came home for supper, he was waiting.

“Sit down, and shut up; get a piece of bread and a slice of minced ham.”

I sunk down in my chair, fearing the predictable, but still not able to resist really setting him off. “Where’s Mom?”

I could tell his face was flushing when he glared at me. "One more word out of you and I'm gettin' the yardstick. You think you could pick a winner? Just shut up about it."

Norman had some homework; I buried my head in a Bobbsey Twins book, and the two little ones played with Jigger, our family dog.

I watched dad walk over to the phone, racing form in hand. He pushed in the button and held it down as he gave the hand dial a few vigorous turns. Then he picked up the receiver and gave the operator a number.

“Bomber here,” he said.

“Yeah, I know, but you know I’m good for it; you’ll get your money next week.”

“You goin’ to take my bet or not?”

“OK, tomorrow at Santa Anita, second race, I want five on Little Red Man to win. That’s right, and quit worryin’ about it.”

It’s never going to end, I thought.

Now Dad was pleased, whistling around the room; he even turned on the radio. Maybe we could listen to Gunsmoke or Gangbusters. But no, it was just a music station. “Buttons and Bows” was playing, and then we had to listen to “Red Roses for a Blue Lady.”

Going to bed that night I felt that a sickness in the gut was worse than a hunger pang. I started thinking how he had lost grandpa’s money on his “sure thing.” He probably hadn’t paid the ten dollar monthly rent for a while, but he was still trying to pick a winner.

But before sleep it was time for memory homework.

"Okay, boys, what does Ak-Sar-Ben stand for?"

I was quick with the answer, "Nebraska, spelled backwards."

“Norman, what’s the best five card hand with no pairs?” Dad asked from his position at the table.

“Ace high, then king, then queen.”

“What’s the next best hand?” It was my turn.

“A pair of anything.”

“Wha’ll beat a pair?”

“Three of a kind?”

“Oh yeah, what about a straight or a flush?”

We didn’t know.

“Boys, what’s a flush, and you had better know.”

Neither of us knew. Hell, at this time Norman was starting to show an interest in the females, and I had my head in Bobbsey Twins books. If we got spanked for not knowing what the hell a flush was, we just figured the world was unfair.

“Maybe you boys can learn something about horses. Look at this program from Santa Anita. Who’s the jockey on Wingover?”

“Willie Hartack,” I was sure I got that right.

“Who’s the trainer?”

“Hurst Philpot.”

“What’s a maiden colt?”

We didn’t know.

“What’s a gelding?”

I ventured a guess. “A male goose?”

“Hell no!”

"Norman, what’s the purse?”

“$4000.”

“Ok, go to bed. One last one, where’s Santa Anita?”

“Mexico?” Norman guessed.

“Oh hell, hell and damnation,” Dad sputtered.

*****

“Get ready; you’re not going to school,” was all he said the next morning. He put on his gray hat, and we watched through the screen door as he walked the two blocks over to grandpas.

On a misty, gray morning we pulled on our threadbare jackets and trooped out to his black, stick-shift ’45 Chevy. He had bought it used a year ago. He stopped at the Wann General Store to pump in a few gallons of regular gas, and then off we went down the muddy roads for Omaha.

“Dammit, dammit,” he cried as the car slid sideways into a mud-spattered ditch. The steering wheel had locked up. Thirty minutes later, after old man Larson had pulled us home, Dad told him, “I’ll get you a winner at Ak-Sar-Ben next month.”

“Car broke down, maybe come and get you tomorrow,” we heard him say into the phone.

“You boys stay home till noon; then go back to school.”

By this time I could tell he handled problems by getting pissed off. A year earlier I had discovered a little secret. I would clam up until I could “take his temperature” so to speak. If he had won money, we could all be happy—laugh, raise hell in our words and actions, ask for a nickel so we could walk a block over to the General Store and get a soda pop. But if he had lost, he would walk in the house and cuss someone out because they had used or lost his lucky pen, or put a hat on a bed, or opened an umbrella indoors. These were all bad luck omens, and someone should catch hell over it. Get out of the house then was our best bet.

Dad was after-the-fact superstitious. Of course, a bird getting into anyone’s house was a definite warning of a death. Listening to the adult’s discussions on this, it could mean a family death in the past or foretelling one upcoming. Dread and damnation!

Another day of hell, but when we came home from school, there was Mom in her flowered cotton house dress. She was standing with her back to us, leaning against the icebox, and crying. We stood slack-kneed, mouths open, scared to say anything. And then I noticed the floor of the kitchen, almost so black with mud you couldn’t see the linoleum. I guessed we had been living like pigs.

After a few minutes she recovered and said, “Norman, go out and catch an old hen, I’m going to fry chicken for supper.” She fired up the old kitchen stove and started to heat water to scald the chicken; which would make the feather picking easier. Mom’s fried chicken, I thought. How could any meal be any better than that?

I went out back with Norman and watched him grab an old broom from the lean-to shed. Then we chased a white hen around and around until she tired out and just squatted by the backyard cottonwood tree. We grabbed her and fought off her struggling and flapping wings and feathers. Ten years later, on a friend’s farm, I was shocked to see that not all people killed their chickens the way we had been taught.

I held the hen down with one hand and stretched out her neck with the other. Norman laid the broom handle across her neck then stepped on it, one foot on each side of the neck. I let go, stood up, and moved away. He then grabbed each of the hen’s feet and gave them a backward jerk. The body separated from the neck, and he gave it a toss away from him. I leaned down to watch the hen’s eyes close; it always gave me a strange feeling. We watched as the now headless body jerked and jumped and kicked and spurted blood from the neck cavity.

Mom then appeared with the pail of scalding water. She held the chicken by its feet, and dipped it up and down in the hot water. We helped her pull the feathers off and scatter them in the yard. Her fried chicken pieces were manna from heaven.

I had frozen up my insides so bad I had been constipated for three days. Gradually happiness settled inside our house later that night. Before bedtime, she mixed us hot lemonade with baking soda so our glasses had fizz at the top. For the first time that week we could go to bed without fear; we could relax, forget about the kerosene smell and have a little skip to our hearts, inwardly at least.

*****

No school on Saturday. Dad got a call after eating his two poached eggs. Seems as if Little Red Man had placed, now he owed more. The house grew quiet as he slammed the door.

He returned in the early afternoon in a good mood.

“Get your jackets; we’re all going to town, I picked a winner!”

He had been to the bookies in Omaha and had won enough to pay his bills and more.

“Here, boys, you get a quarter each so you can go to the movie.”

Mom got twenty dollars for groceries, so at least for a week we would eat like we imagined rich people would. A week of nightmares had been erased; can you imagine what a silver quarter can do on a Saturday night in the town, in Ashland? God in his tender mercies sends down rain on the good and bad.

When Dad went out to start the car, it died. He walked over to grandpas and soon returned driving their old panel truck. The truck had only two seats up front. The four of us boys sat on two planks, each resting on two cement blocks. We didn’t care if it was a bumpy ride, we were going to town!

Just think--Ashland on a warm spring night! Silver Street crowded with cars, no place to park. Sidewalks full of people, clusters out in front of the hardware store watching the black and white TV through the window, beer joints waffling out the smoke of a hundred cigarettes and sweet beer smell, the sound of snooker balls banging into each other, carry-out boys hauling groceries from Harold’s Grocery in the middle of main street to the farmer’s car, the wife stocking up on another week’s food supplies. The farmers had been in earlier, exchanging eggs, milk and cream at the creamery near the railroad depot.

And now to spend the quarter; taking home any change for savings was unheard of. We lived for the moment and when the boom moments hit us, we knew how to make the most of them. First the movie--western, sci fi, gangsters, Fred Astire tap dancing—we didn’t care; magic was in the air. I sat with my two little brothers and Dude Vosler, a classmate from Wann. Norman hung back, talking to older boys, looking, looking, and looking at those giggling girls. I glanced at them once, but the mystery of what was under those skirts and blouses was more than I wanted to think about at my age.

Thirteen cents for admission, leaving twelve. Movie popcorn was too expensive.

After the movie, I cried, "Come on, Dude, let's go."

I hustled across the main street trying to ditch my little brothers. They could go find Mom, I wanted some independence. So Dude and I ran across the street to the old popcorn ladies’ stand, only five cents, and we could shake salt from her shaker. She lived on the outskirts of town in an abandoned gas station with about 20 dogs and cats.

Up and down the main street we would walk while we ate the popcorn, taking in all the sights. Hoffman’s IGA with a donut making machine, the barbershop open late for the fifty cent haircuts, and then, the last seven cents squandered at Harris’s Drugstore for penny candy to eat on the way home. It would take us a while to make our major decisions, since some candy was one cent each and some were two for a penny. We always went for quantity since we had the scant times forever marked in the back of our memories.

Finally, mom and dad would round us up. Mom had shopped for groceries and visited with friends and relatives. Dad had sat in the back of the Town Tap for poker or pitch games, for real money, of course. Then the seven mile ride back to Wann on the gravel roads crossing at least three old steel bridges. We would slowly fall asleep till a bump would jerk up our heads as the hard candy would start its business of rotting our teeth.

We would fall into bed at once in the bank building. Then Sunday we could do whatever. Sunday night Dad was in a good mood. When we were in bed, he allowed the family to play his favorite game. He would whistle a tune and we would see who could name it first. In the dark there would be the whistle and then quick calls from the first to identify it. I would lay there in a fit of tension since our family grew up on competition. I desired to beat my brothers and my Mom.

I didn't understand how Dad did it, but it seemed as if we competing for his attention. I know I wanted his approval even though at times he put us through hell. It seemed as if I would do something ornery at times, if I thought I wasn't getting enough attention. After the whipping, I had a strange feeling like I didn't despise him, but I knew I was on his mind.

By Monday with mom home, life seemed back to normal. The gambling man had taken off for some race track, and life was a bit calmer. By the end of a week and a half we were once again on emergency provisions. Norman and I would wandered over to see if a kind truck driver delivering supplies to the Wann General Store would hand out a free sample of anything to a couple of skinny boys with cereal bowl haircuts and wearing washed-thin overalls. It was great to see the look on Norman’s face as he would run home to Mom with an offering held in his hands and a wide grin covering his face.

So we were Wann kids once again with a mom as the earth continued its cycles. We existed in a poor man’s example of a fool’s paradise. Pitiable, hungry, impoverished in all things at times and then acting crazy and out of our ever loving-minds during the boom times. We would line up in order of birth for snapshots, and our faces, our clothes, our tricycles and bikes would be frozen onto black and white photos for all time. And when Dad bet on the phone or left every day, pretending ignorance of that reality was our only means of survival. We were just simple-minded little kids.



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