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One Eyed Jacks

Author’s Note: This story was published in The Adirondack Almanack’s December 3, 2021, online edition.

     It was getting late. Time measured by the near empty whiskey bottle and battalion of “dead soldier” beer bottles standing in neatly rowed formation on the floor in one corner of the cabin. It was summer, 1982. The legal drinking age in the mountains was still 18 then. Which I was too, barely.

   We were young Adirondack men, sitting around a worn deck of playing cards at a table in a cigar smoke filled cabin after an honest day’s work.  Young men discussing recent adventures with women and fishing as we collectively evolved our individual world views.

     The Meadowbrook Campground caretaker’s cabin served as our headquarters. Every other Wednesday was payday. As was usually the case, the Caretaker, “Jake”, had taken the evening off and gone into town for the night.

     With slicked back hair, t-shirt clad, Jake was a throwback, straight out of the ‘50’s, with a vintage black two door convertible to match.  He was unmarried, a free spirit, and a bit of a character, to put it mildly.

     Always equipped with his tobacco and pipe, Jake was fully equipped with a sharp wit and ready smile. His bespectacled freckles belied the sharp tongue he held at the ready for those who dared cross him. Jake inhabited the caretaker’s cabin each summer. Once the campground closed in the fall, he simply got another job and pitched camp elsewhere.     

     I sat there in the cabin with “Danny”, our ringleader. Our fathers had both worked their way up through the DEC hierarchy, from which we had each somehow managed to finagle summer jobs. Seated around the table with us was some of our usual crew. We numbered half a dozen or so all told.  The rest were local area talent with credentials at least as dubious as our own.

     Danny and I were both Saranac Lake Redskins alumni. I’d graduated in ’81. Danny a year or two before that.  We were both working with the intention of putting away some money towards college.  At that particular moment, my part of that plan appeared to be in some peril.  But more about that shortly.

     For those unfamiliar, Meadowbrook was and is a modest DEC public campground.  58 rustic campsites with picnic tables, situated collectively just down the road from Ray Brook’s DEC Regional Offices, the APA Headquarters, and the then newly constructed State Police Barracks.  It was nestled comfortably in a big grove of pine trees, between a well-known area outdoor eatery, “Tail O’ The Pup” and a local Ford Dealership. Through trails in the woods just behind it lie the old train tracks, a low trestle, a good wild raspberry patch, and a swamp.

      Danny and I worked at Meadowbrook as DEC “Laborers”. It was my first full time job.

     At least at Meadowbrook, working for Jake, a Laborer’s job duties primarily involved staining fence posts and picnic tables, mowing campsites, cleaning bathrooms, processing campers’ comings and goings, and collecting garbage that Danny and I took turns driving to the local dump in a forest green DEC standard transmission mini dump truck.  Through thick clouds of burnt rubber and much grinding of gears, I learned to drive a stick on that truck. Danny found my apprenticeship hilarious. Jake-not so much.    

     Occasionally one or the other of us would get pulled to other duties, lending a hand to the DEC trail crew for a few days, or filling in at other DEC campsites such as Wilmington Notch. Mainly though, it was just the three of us, Jake, Danny and I, working together at our own little campground in Ray Brook along Route 86.  We spent a lot of time there together. The three of us got pretty tight.    

     Meadowbrook’s clientele was mainly of a mix of campers, RVs, and motorcycles, either just passing through, or in town for the weekend. Most weekends, especially during July and early August, we were generally full.  Weekdays were usually pretty quiet.

     Paychecks came every two weeks, on Wednesdays. I don’t recall exactly what a DEC Laborer’s hourly wage was in ‘82, but according to my W-2 from that summer (Yes! I still have it!), my gross wages that summer were exactly $3,170.13. Divided by the fifteen or so forty-hour weeks Danny and I each worked before heading back to school, that comes out to about $5.25 an hour. After taxes, I netted about $370.00 every two weeks.  A pretty fair wage in 1982 for a college kid living in Saranac Lake.

      We picked up our checks at the DEC office across the street, then took them to town on our lunch hours to cash at the local bank. This was a Wednesday. I had just cashed mine. So had both Danny and Jake.      

       According to my parents, MOST of that was supposed to go in my savings account towards college. Some of it did. But some didn’t. A young man home from college in the Adirondacks for the summer in the early 1980’s had expenses. I generally budgeted about seventy-five dollars for mine. Most of which, at the moment, was represented by my share of the collection of discarded Tail O’ The Pup’s Buffalo Chicken Wing bones, empty beer bottles, nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels, and the growing pile of cash sitting in the center of the table.

    Five Card Draw was the game. I don’t remember who dealt. We each anted a dollar. Five was the maximum raise.  I recall being dealt an ace and a jack. I’d been slowly losing all night. I had about twenty-five dollars left to my name. By the time we got around to the draw, I had just ten.

    I drew three cards, hoping for at least one more ace. I wasn’t quite that lucky. I found myself instead staring at a pair. One Eyed Jacks.

    The betting went around again, some stayed in, others folded. The bet came around to me. The pot had gotten pretty big, by our standards. The raise had gotten up to five dollars on the round, Danny was still left behind me to bet.

     I checked my cards. Put on my best poker face. Counted again what was left of my cash.  I sat back, tossed back one more shot of Jack and chased it with what was left of my beer. I took a breath, tossed my last ten dollars in the pot.  

     “I raise five more.”

     Everyone else folded. Only Danny was left.

     “I’ll see your raise and raise you five more on top of that.”

    At that point, there was a big pot of cash sitting in front of me. I had no more money. I was all in. I felt cornered.  I was holding a pair of One-Eyed Jacks, my beer bottle was empty, the whiskey was gone, the cabin was filled with cheap cigar smoke, all eyes were on me, and I was dead broke.

     I looked at Danny, sitting there grinning over the top of his cards. That lucky bastard had been winning all night. He thought he had me.

      “Not this time.” I thought.

     I could feel the sweat dripping down my back. I looked again at my cards. I took a deep breath. Then I looked down at my finger. My prized possession. White Gold & Garnet. SLHS Class of 1981 on one side, the Saranac Lake Redskins insignia on the other.  My high school class ring. I removed it from my finger and tossed it on the pot.

     “There. That oughta cover me. I call.”   

     I laid down my cards and exhaled.  

     “Pair of One-Eyed Jacks. Ace kicker.”    

     I looked across the table. My heart sunk.  Danny just grinned.

     “Two pair. Looks like I win.” Danny laughed. I did not.

     Danny swept up the pile of cash, my class ring with it.

I never saw that ring again. A hard lesson learned. Taught to me by a young man’s share of beer, wings and whiskey, a co-worker named Danny, and a pair of one-eyed jacks, right there in that Meadowbrook caretaker’s cabin.


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