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July 13, 1997

Family Reunion #2

"Alan," said Mary Ann, looking only slightly puzzled, "how did we ever manage to do all this outside?"

I knew what she meant. I had been thinking the same thing only recently. I finished shuffling the dominoes, pushed them into the center of the table, leaned back, took a long swallow of iced tea, and grinned.

We were sitting inside an air-conditioned building that felt like it was out in the more or less middle of nowhere, but was actually near the small town of Christine, about 50 miles south of San Antonio, just on the edge of where the south Texas brush country begins to turn wild. A few feet from our table, balls clacked as they ricocheted around a pool table. At the other end of this long room, a distant relative of ours had claimed the old piano, and my dad as well as several of my cousins, aunts, and uncles had gathered around her to sing. She had a nearly endless repertoire of gospel hymns and old country-western songs. A few minutes earlier the curious sequence of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" followed by "Amazing Grace" had almost brought tears to my eyes.

We were playing a domino game called "42." For the reader who may not be familiar with it, this is a game that--I have read--originated in Texas. I read that long ago, a Baptist preacher had some sons who learned to play Spades (the card game), but this preacher considered cards tools of the devil, and forbade them to play any card games. So they got out some dominoes and devised a game based on Spades. This could be true, I don't know. In any case, 42 is similar to Spades except that the high bidder for each hand gets to declare which suit is the trump for that hand, instead of being stuck with only one suit always being trumps like in Spades. My cousin Mary Ann was sitting to my right. To my left was her sister Carol, and across from me her husband Alfred. We had been doing this almost as long as we could remember.

To tell the truth, I do remember learning to play 42. I don't remember the exact year, but I suppose I was 12 or 13 years old, and it was at another family reunion--one of those outside family reunions Mary Ann was talking about. My dad's side of my family has been having these kinds of reunions for years--before I ever came along, I suppose. After so many years, they have tended to blur together somewhat, but the earliest ones I can remember were at a park on the Pedernales River in the hill country near Marble Falls. We camped out in tents, and our parents cooked for us on Coleman camp stoves. The smell of the stove fuel is still fresh in my memory, and the sound of my dad working the little pump to build up pressure in the fuel tank...the hiss of the fire as it ignited, and finally the salty smell of bacon sizzling in a frying pan. We usually managed to come up with a portable barbecue pit from somewhere, and on Saturday noon we would have a huge meal centered around barbecued meats of all kinds.

I mention Saturday noon because this shindig lasted three days. It was customary to take a small vacation for the reunion, get there on Friday and not leave until Sunday. So for two nights we slept in tents or, as I always did, outside on a cot with nothing but the sky for a ceiling, cooking on Coleman stoves. During the day we would swim in the river, at night we would fish in it. If the fish weren't biting my cousins and I might sit all crowded into one tent, telling ghost stories by the light of a flashlight.

Later we started meeting at a state park, also up in the hill country. This part of the state is a sort of meeting place for my family, because this is where my paternal ancestors settled when they first came here. My great-grandfather settled near Burnet when he came here, and many of my other older relatives and ancestors came from this area: Marble Falls, Travis Peak, Smithville, Lago Vista, and probably more tiny hill country communities than I can remember.

We always had our reunions where there was a creek or river so we could swim. After we moved on from this state park, we had our reunions for several years at a privately owned park halfway between Marble Falls and Travis Peak. Here we were still outdoors, sleeping in tents or on cots, but for the first time there was a small building that housed a deep freeze and a refrigerator so we had someplace besides ice chests to store food. It was a long steep downhill scramble to get to the creek, and a much longer uphill climb to get back to camp. By walking upstream perhaps a quarter of a mile, we could get to a huge, deep, beautiful swimming hole, where a waterfall drizzled a small but steady and wide stream of water to splash onto rocks about 20 feet lower, and over the years the waterfall had dug out an almost perfectly round hole wide enough for several people to swim in at once without having to worry about bumping into each other. This hole, however, was only for swimmers. The sides dropped off too abruptly to allow any wading. It was here that I learned to tread water, going for long stretches without ever touching anything but deep, deep water, and maybe occasionally brushing a fish. It was also here that I learned to play 42, under the attentive tutelage of my dad and my Aunt Betty (Mary Ann's mother).

We may have kept using this park a lot longer than we did, but there was a falling out between the part of the family that owned the park and the part that didn't, so we moved the reunions to Lockhart State Park. For the first time, we didn't have a creek or river to swim in. There was a swimming pool, but we had to share it with everyone else at the park, not to mention the residents of Lockhart itself. So we didn't do much swimming. But, it was here for the first time that we had a big air-conditioned building to stay in, nearby motels for anyone to stay in if they chose, and more than one refrigerator to store plenty of food. Since there was no fishing to speak of, and not much swimming, we spent lots and lots of time playing 42. Occasionally some of us played Dungeons & Dragons, but mostly we played 42.

And so we had it there every year for a long time, and eventually, we all realized that we could never go back to the old way. It was just too convenient, too comfortable. Eventually we found out about this other place near Christine, and here we've held the reunion for the past few years. Attendance was down this year, some people didn't come because of illness, some simply because they didn't feel like it, some...well, some you just never hear from, so you don't know what's going on with them.

It was a nice place. During the drive the day before, I had been remembering other times we came to this area, actually farther south past another small town called Charlotte, into the heart of the brush country on a 2,000-acre ranch where the owners had given us permission to hunt and fish whenever we wanted to. There it was common to have close encounters with javelinas and other wildlife, and it wasn't a strange thing to see at least one alligator during our stay.

But, this place wasn't quite so far into the wilderness as that. When we had arrived the day before, the first thing I did was pick up a basketball and shoot baskets for a while on the basketball court. I have never been very good at anything athletic, but I have always liked shooting baskets. In the background was the hum of the air-conditioner on the back of my dad's camper trailer, in the distance was the occasional murmer of voices as someone opened the door to the main building. Other than that and the sound of the basketball bouncing, it was very quiet.

So I grabbed my dad's bicycle and took off for parts unknown. The land in that area is fairly flat, with not too many steep hills to make bike riding difficult. Up the narrow one-lane road I went to the nearest highway, which was an only slightly wider farm road. I turned right and went to the top of the first hill, a long gentle hill that had me breathing a little hard by the time I got to the top. I sat there thinking that I really should do this more often as I caught my breath. As my breathing quieted and my heartbeat stilled, I looked around. It was just the familiar brushy surroundings that you find in that area of south Texas: mesquite trees, lots of prickly pear cactus, and the continuous runs of small brushy plants that I don't know the name of. A nice breeze was blowing, almost chilling me as the sweat evaporated, and I suddenly realized something. It was quiet. It was so quiet I could hear my own heartbeat. The nearest major highway, state highway 37, was so far away I couldn't hear the rumble of the cars that I knew should constantly be there. It had been a long time since I heard silence like that. As I rode back, I did hear a few more cars--other relatives coming to the reunion. When I got back I took a long nap and then started looking for a domino game.

So here we were. The lady at the piano had finished "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain" and launched right into "I'll Fly Away." Everyone else had finished drawing their dominoes, so I scooped up the leftovers, which is proper domino ettiquette for the shuffler to follow. In 42, the person to the left of the shuffler bids first, and so forth clockwise so that the shuffler bids last. If everyone passes, this means the shuffler has "forced bid." This usually means bidding the absolute minimum allowed and trying to make it, usually getting "set" (losing the hand) in the process. Some folks don't play with forced bid, if such a thing happens they just reshuffle and try again. I've found this to make a pretty boring game, some of the most spectacular playing comes when you can make your forced bid on a bad hand. A "good" hand could mean having a double and three or so more dominoes in suit, which you would make your trumps. A fair hand might be a double and only two more in suit, along with a few good "offs." An off is any domino you have which is not in your trump suit. Some of these offs can be very powerful without being trumps, especially if they are doubles. Even a low domino can "catch the trick" (win that particular play of four dominoes) if no one else can follow suit and no one plays a trump on it. A low domino that still catches the trick is called a "walker." There are also hands where you may be stuck with some decent trumps but without a double to support them. I have seen some people who just refused to bother bidding with a hand like this, but 42 is a game of partners, and I always remember what my dad told me when I said I was afraid to bid without the double. "That's what your partner is for." Of course, there are two people there who aren't your partner and could also have the double, but those are the breaks.

I studied my dominoes as I mulled over Mary Ann's question. Carol passed. Alfred passed. Mary Ann passed. I had forced bid. I rearranged my dominoes and studied them a few long seconds more.

"Because," I replied, and looked back at Mary Ann, "we were kids, and everything was just a big adventure." And I led in sixes without the double.