Friday, December 3, 2021

One Eyed Jacks and a fateful night at Meadowbrook

“A crew of hardy young Adirondack men, a deck of playing cards, a cabin, a pair of “One Eyed Jacks”, a whiskey bottle, & a shot glass”

whiskey and one eyed jacks

     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.

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.

meadowbrook campground sign     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, pack of camels rolled into the sleeve, 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.

Jake had a sharp wit, a 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 his tent somewhere else.

I sat there with “Danny”, our ring leader. 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 in a moment.

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.

tail o' the pup

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 camper’s 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.

meadowbrook

According to my parents, MOST of that was supposed to go in my savings account towards college. Some of it did. Some of it 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 pile of 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. By the time we got around to the draw, I had 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 after me to bet.

I checked my cards. Put on my best poker face. Counted 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 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 back.”    

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

“Two pair. Looks like I win.”

Danny swept up the pile of cash, my class ring with it. I never saw that ring again. Sometimes life’s most important lessons get learned in an Adirondack cabin, with a deck of playing cards, a whiskey bottle, a shot glass, a pair of “One Eyed Jacks”, and a young man’s treasure on the table, the hard way.

Photos by Richard Monroe

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Lifelong NYS resident. Raised in Saranac Lake. Cornell graduate(ROTC). Army veteran, Airborne/Ranger qualified, 10th Mtn Div, stints in Honduras and with JTF VI. 3rd degree Black Belt; 3x cancer survivor; published writer with several featured stories in Adirondack Life Magazine. Residing in Watertown NY with wife Robin & our 3 adult children. Loving Life. Living in the Day I am in. Follow my adventures at https://adirondackoutlaw.com/




11 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Ahhhhh Born and raised in the North Country, wkend trips to camp at Cranberry Lk area, but left for bigger and better things. At present my residence is a state where palm trees replace the big pines, maples, etc. and sand is the “lawn.” Visiting Idaho for the holidays and to feel out what is prob going to be my new home come spring. Thanks for the great article. Makes me think I’ll subscribe to ADK Life.

  2. Boreas says:

    Often we learn as much on our summer “breaks” as we learn the rest of our lives. Great story!

    • Richard Monroe says:

      Thank you, Boreas! It’s comments & compliments like that that fuel my fire. I can find happiness for all the remaining days that God gives me, writing for folks who enjoy reading & sharing my stories.

  3. Richard says:

    Great story. Those summer job experiences can make strong memories. I worked as a seasonal during summer in college for the Forest Service in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in 1972. Mostly custodial work in the campgrounds, although I did get to assist with trapping and relocating a “nuisance” black bear. I was also an unwitting victim of the local initiation rite at the diner, which involved stirring my coffee with a bear baculum to the guffaws of the regulars. These are the places and times where we get some of our best stories

  4. ADKresident says:

    Ahh no- I was expecting the opposite outcome….I think I actually felt your disappointing loss when Danny revealed his hand and claimed his winnings. 🙂

  5. Ginger Henry Kuenzel says:

    This is a wonderful story, gripping right up to the last word. It took me right back to my summer jobs in the Adirondacks and the characters who surrounded me. I was hoping that Danny would shove the cash back across the table to you, or at least your ring. But that’s not how life generally rolls. You stuck to the truth rather than inventing a make-believe happy ending. Thank you for this wonderful story.

  6. Anita Dingman says:

    It would be nice if Danny is still around and still has the ring, he gave it back to you. It will never mean as much to him as it does to you.

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