Friday, March 23, 2018

Playing poker with World War II and Vietnam veterans

NINE MILE FALLS, Washington — I enjoy a poker room. The stakes for which I play are so low, often as not everyone at the table cashes out within $10 of his buy-in. The players tend to be older men, retired, on fixed incomes, widowers or divorced and nowhere near getting on that horse again. The dealers call them by name; the waiters deliver their drinks without the bother of an order.

I hail from a small town and have lived much of my life in others, and these card games remind me of such places. Players scoot for wheelchairs and switch seats with those in walkers who can't get up and down for the restroom otherwise.

Recently, visiting my daughter in Las Vegas, I ventured into a poker room near our hotel. It was before noon, and four older fellows — three white guys, one African-American — and a dealer were waiting for enough players to make a game. One wore a cap that indicated he was a Korean War veteran. I thanked him for his service; it's a small, maybe stale habit, but military people tell me it is meaningful, so I continue.

Anyway, Korea thanked me and asked if I was a vet. I told him no but that my dad served between World War II and Korea. Korea said they dragged him back in when it all started again and he figured they wouldn't let him go until it was over, so he went ahead and won the war. It took a couple of years, though, and he had good help.

The table chuckled. Another player, older still, said he'd been a sailor in World War II. The greatest generation, Korea said. The rest of the table went quiet.

The World War II vet spat in a cup. "We were trying not to catch a bullet," he told them, "same as anyone with any sense."

"I hear that," the black man said. "Vietnam. I failed twice. Just like algebra. Except the teacher never shot me." He wore a flat newsboy cap — perfect for shading his eyes when the other players tried to read him.

Another fellow hobbled on a cane toward the table. Upon seeing him, Vietnam retrieved a pillow for his back from the pit boss while Korea helped the man stack his chips. Tanned, with slicked-back gray hair, our latest addition wore a hat showing that he, too, had served in Vietnam.

We remained short a player, so the vets talked on. In Korea it was always cold, Vietnam was a humid jungle, either raining or preparing to. A destroyer was as dull as a one-horse town until you heard an airplane's whir, then it was 20 minutes of anxiety while the observers identified the aircraft, and an indeterminate stretch of terror if it belonged to the enemy.

TVs lined the wall and the black Vietnam vet gazed at one turned to CNN. Donald Trump, arguing about immigration, appeared and repeated as if on a loop.

He said: "I didn't take two bullets over there for the government. I didn't take them for no president, now or then, Republican nor Democrat, whatever's between. I'm no hero. I was trying not to get shot." He nodded to World War II. "Just like you said."

He looked back to the screen. "If I took them for anybody, it was just people."

The men fiddled with their chips. They were accustomed to occasional moments like this when one revealed himself to the others. They knew such instances were awkward and painful and necessary.

"And those coming to the U.S. now to get away from some of this stuff are more like me than any god----ed politician."

Korea nodded. World War II declared he was 93 years old and everybody comes from somewhere else. Where you end up and what you did when you got there was what mattered to him.

Once enough players had arrived, a Filipino woman dealt the cards. She said her father had immigrated after World War II and fought in the United States Army in Korea.

The Vietnam vet with the cane inquired where she was from.

"America," she answered.

The man paused. He was in that linguistic minefield where words identify a person as ignorant and bigoted despite the best intent. It clearly troubled him.

The dealer recognized this and flashed him a smile. He meant no offense, he told her. He had spent six months in a hospital in the Philippines. He wanted to inquire whether it was near her family's home.

She described a place an hour north of the capital, where her grandparents still lived. The man nodded. He knew it. "It is beautiful," he said.

"Yes, it is," the dealer replied. "But I like it here."

I played cards with these people for several hours and no one said a hard word to another, even when Korea's full house was broken on the river by the black Vietnam vet's four deuces. "Deuces?" Korea cried. "Who runs a puny deuce to the river?"

Vietnam shrugged and built his newly won chips into towers. "One's little. Four's battalion strength."

Table 8: $2 and $4 limit, four-raise maximum, $25 buy-in. Soft drinks complimentary. Education, too. South Point Casino, Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S.A.

Bruce Holbert is the author of the novels "Lonesome Animals" and "The Hour of Lead."

© 2017 New York Times

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