My family plays pinochle. No, wait. That wasn’t quite emphatic enough. My family lives and breathes pinochle. Pinochle is our family heritage.
There. That’s more like it.
For those of you have never played pinochle, here’s a brief description of the game: It is played using a special, 48-card deck with the four standard suits – hearts, clubs, diamonds, and spades – and twelve cards in each suit. But instead of the typical ace through king, in a pinochle deck, all the twos through eights have been removed. The remaining six cards – nine, ten, jack, queen, king, and ace – each have a double. Play consists of two parts: points given for random combinations called meld, followed by points for tricks taken during rounds of play.
I counted the number of pinochle decks we have in our home right now. We currently have seven unopened decks still wrapped in cellophane, and two used decks at various stages of griminess. But a new deck will not be opened before its time. There is a certain amount of ceremony required before one can open a new deck. It goes something like this:
A player will proclaim a misdeal after being dealt eleven, not twelve cards. Someone else at the table then counts thirteen in his hand. Someone else says, “But this is my best hand of the night!” All the players shake their heads and toss their cards into the center of the table with an obvious display of disdain. At this point, the dealer becomes defensive saying, “It’s not my fault! The cards are sticky!” which is more than likely true because it is impossible to play pinochle for hours on end without snacks. In order to keep the peace, a new deck is reverently brought from the “card drawer” and carefully unsealed, with the inside of the box lid hand-labeled “Born on (that day’s date)”. Inevitably, on the next misdeal the dealer will defensively proclaim, “It’s not my fault! The cards are too slick!”
Pinochle is challenging, addictive, and extremely satisfying. Yet I refused to learn to play pinochle until I was an adult. You will understand why after I describe a typical pinochle night during my childhood.
Our lone family phone, a wall phone in our dining room, would ring around 10:00 on a Saturday morning. Depending upon whether The Monkees or Superman was on TV, either I or my sisters would get up off the couch and answer the phone.
“Mom? It’s Aunt Millie,” would be yelled towards the kitchen where my mother had already begun working on the noon meal. It was at this point that I could feel the excitement building in my chest. A Saturday morning call from Aunt Millie, the wife of my dad’s brother, could only mean one thing: pinochle!
“Yes, we’ll be home tonight,” I could hear my mom say from the dining room. Of course, they would be home. There were only two things important enough to get my parents off the farm on a Saturday night – a wake or a wedding. “Visiting” was reserved for Sundays after church. On Saturday nights, it was Uncle Alvin and Aunt Millie who traveled the fifteen miles to our farm.
Popcorn would be in the kettle and cards on the table before Uncle Alvin’s car even made the turn into our farmyard. It wasn’t the pinochle that excited me, it was an entire evening spent playing in the basement with my favorite cousin, Kay Ann, having virtually no adult supervision because our distracted parents were consumed by pinochle in the kitchen.
Although Kay Ann and I tried hard to stay under our parents’ radar, there were times when a door would slam a little too loudly during a rousing game of hide-and-seek or tag, or a thump! could be heard all the way upstairs when our feet hit the floor after jumping off the bed.
A “WHAT’S GOING ON DOWN THERE?!” coming from the kitchen always caused Kay Ann and I to immediately freeze. This accusatory question always came from either my mom or Aunt Millie. Never our dads. Our dads couldn’t care less what we did as long as it didn’t interrupt The Game.
“Nothing!” we always quickly responded. Then we waited with wide eyes and bated breath until we heard either adult footsteps on the stairs which meant we were in so much trouble, or …
…a knuckle rap on the kitchen table hard enough to shake the basement light fixtures. Kay Ann and I smiled at the sound. It meant that pinochle play had resumed and we were once again off the radar.
My dad and his brother each had strong, thick, muscular hands and fingers. As they dramatically brought down onto the table a card that took a trick, particularly if it were a surprise to everyone else at the table, they loudly rapped the table with their knuckles. Until quite recently, I thought their knuckle rap was an ultra-competitive, “In your face, Suckah!”, type of endzone dance. Turns out, it’s quite possibly how the game got its name!
One online source on the history of pinochle suggests that the name derives from the German words “bis” meaning “until” and “knochel” meaning “knuckle”. A rap of knuckles on the table indicated the end of the game. Another source confirmed the game’s German roots. It stated that the game was brought to America by German immigrants and that during World War I, anti-German sentiment ran so high that Syracuse, New York went as far as outlawing the game of pinochle.
My dad’s overly-exuberant knuckle rap actually frightened me a bit as a child. That’s one of the reasons I didn’t want to learn how to play. My mom’s reaction to his knuckle rap was always an angry, “You’re going to break the table!” although I suspect her response was less concern for the table and more frustration at the lost trick since every match-up was always “guys against the girls”.
The whole idea of a game-ending knuckle rap intrigues me. Perhaps chess would be a lot more fun to watch if, instead of a polite “checkmate”, the victor announced his winning move with a knuckle rap on the table that knocked all his opponent’s pieces off the board. This would, of course, be even more entertaining if it occurred in combination with an enthusiastic “In your face, Suckah!”
Another reason I didn’t want to learn to play while I was growing up was because both of my parents were such amazing players, and they were both highly competitive. Quite frankly, I was afraid I would disappoint. My mother, if she were alive, would vehemently deny being competitive. My dad, on the other hand, would take it as a complement.
At any rate, I postponed learning to play until I married Danny. It was actually his family that taught me to play. (Of course, his family played. My parents would never have approved a mixed marriage.) They never yelled at me when I committed the unavoidable, rookie errors although I do recall occasionally seeing a vein or two pop out on my in-laws’ temples.
Years ago, when our brother-in-law arrived into our family, it was made very clear to him that avoiding pinochle is not an option. He is a native Texan and had never been exposed to the game before he married my sister. We all quickly forgave him for being Texan (one has no control over one’s birth, after all), but not for his reluctance to play pinochle. In recent years, I have been pleased to notice that, not only are his skills improving, but he appears to genuinely like the game! Another convert.
Since then, we have taught both of our daughters-in-law how to play and we taught our oldest granddaughter to play. They are all quite good at it. It occurred to me recently that it is time to start teaching our second and third granddaughters the game as well.
Because in our family, pinochle is more than a game. It’s a rite of passage, and it’s a bridge that connects the generations.
Next Week: Grandpa’s Still