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Ugly toe contest? Now that was a game

"Say it ain't so, George" I wailed the other night as a chef friend mercilessly assailed me with an unchallengeable example of the march of time, the cold winds of change and every other depressing cliche on a long list that guys his age and mine can think of.

"I'm not kidding," he said, "they were playing chess."

"Maybe it was checkers," I said hopefully. "The boards look a lot alike, you know. Or backgammon _ yeah, didn't the old checker boards used to have backgammon boards on them?"

"I know what I saw," George said doggedly, "and it was chess."

The shocker is that it was my favorite redneck bar in all of central Florida, a place where I used to spend hours on, sort of, business, a place where philosophical time stopped somewhere in the mid-1920s and most of the clientele thought that was a bit too progressive.

Citrus growers in overalls and lawyers in business suits (and, sometimes, overalls) would sit there and talk about a variety of subjects, but always with keen observation of two unspoken rules.

Every conversation had to consist of at least 10 percent argument over the relative merits of Ford and Chevrolet pickup trucks, with the only exception being that GMC drivers could substitute two hunting lies or one fishing lie instead.

The other rule was that the lawyers, some of whom are rednecks and some of whom like the place because it is close to a courthouse and, again, some both, treat all information exchanged there as privileged confidence; they have even cited that special privilege _ successfully _ in court before a judge known to have a sip or two himself from time to time.

It was the kind of a place where, one night in 1973, one of Dade City's leading citizens cleaned and skinned a rabbit, without looking at it, under the table and then flopped the bloody carcass onto the table to the delight of some and the instant nausea of other tablemates.

For all its unpolished exterior, it was a safe place where very few incidents involving law enforcement ever occurred, and where the regular patrons had their own way of keeping the peace. A CPA there once wrestled to the floor a bail bondsman who was about to sucker-punch me without even spilling his beer.

I've seen a lot of pool games at that bar, a few drinking games, an occasional arm-wrestling match and the tri-county public adultery competition finals for several years. And I actually ran screaming from the room one night in the '80s when the women at my table got into a contest to see who had the ugliest toes. (A Tampa Tribune reporter, I swear, won.)

But it's just not the kind of place you would associate with chess.

"There was," my friend, George, allowed, "some kibitzing going on things like, "That there's the king and he can do anything he wants and that there queen can do it faster.' And there was a hell of an argument once over whether the game had ended in a stalemate or a checkmate, but nobody pulled a knife or anything."

Shaking his head sadly, George added, "But there were also some "oooohs' and "aaaaahs' at appropriate times and crowds gathering to see really tricky move sequences."

"I'd like to go see that for myself," I said, "but I'm afraid somebody would order a glass of Chardonnay, and I would start crying."

"It hasn't gotten that far yet," he said, "but I did hear the word "fern' used out loud the other night, and you can't even get a good tobacco-juice-spitting contest going in the parking lot any more."

Another set of memories gone forever.

Another place overwhelmed by the advent of clean living where cucumber sandwiches will someday replace Slim Jims, and the graffiti in the bathroom will be polysyllabic.

Name the place?

Sure, I could.

But it's going downhill fast enough, and I'm not going to grease the slippery slide to quiche-eating hell.

Up next:OBITUARIES

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