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THOMPSON: A life lesson worth learning, even if it was the hard way

February 01, 2021 - 12:00 PM

 


OPINION


Some of life’s lessons you learn the hard way. It is always better that your education comes early in life.

After all, foolishness and bad decisions you can put off on the inexperience and lack of worldliness of youth. Do the same thing at 50, you’re just an idiot.

And so it was with me in 1972, as a 21-year-old Sergeant at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, FL. On a Friday night in March, nine friends - all Non-Commissioned Officers in the Air Force, Navy and Army - gathered on base in the day room of the U.S. Strike Command barracks at 9 p.m.

It was our more-or-less monthly poker game...a no-limit affair that involved a fair amount of smoking, drinking and off-colour jokes. The oldest of us had more time in the Air Force than I had on the planet...a Senior Master Sergeant “lifer” of 28 years who joined the Army Air Corps in 1944.

The others were combat veterans with anywhere from five to 20 years in service...guys who didn’t come down with yesterday’s rain...and knew a bluff when they saw it. We always had more players than spaces at the table, so a few set out the early hands...waiting for two or three players to “call” with too many losing hands.

I was one of the younger players...with just a couple years experience in high stakes games. But I was a fast learner and rarely lost at these monthly soirées. Often ‘cleave the table up a hundred bucks or so.

The poker that night was fun...we laughed, drank...and three hours later I was up almost four hundred dollars. The beer tastes better when you’re winning...and you laugh more. Then, in a five-card-draw...Jacks-or-better-to-open game...I was dealt a natural hand I’d never seen before...or since. I remember not wanting to even raise an eyebrow as I spread the cards in my hand...a King-high, diamond straight flush.

Just for the record...the odds of getting such a hand are 649,740 to 1. I didn’t change anything...my demeanour...my mood...how often I raised my beer to my lips...nothing.
As luck would have it...there were several good hands that deal...and five stayed in until the final two bets.

The pot held almost $2,000, when the grizzled Senior Master Sergeant bet $300. Without so much as a moment’s hesitation, I called...sliding my last $300 into the pot. Two players folded with full houses...another with a flush.

I don’t remember saying anything when the old Sarge fanned all five cards simultaneously...a Royal Flush...10, J, Q, K and Ace of hearts. The hoots and hollers were deafening...and only got louder when I turned over my King-high, straight flush. It was so loud, several soldiers came out of their rooms down the hall...most in boxer shorts...beers in hand.

I had lost - not only the $400 I had won earlier...but another $675. That is roughly $6,667 in today’s dollars. I couldn’t afford to lose that much today...and I sure as hell couldn’t afford it in 1972. I watched as the old Sarge gathered his winnings...a pile of crisp and rumpled Twenties, Tens and Fives...and a few Hundreds. I said nothing...stunned by my own boldness...my foolishness in thinking I had an unbeatable hand.

Most everyone was gone from the day room when the Sarge and I spoke...“Buy you a beer,” he offered.

“Sure,” I said, adding in a singular moment of self-pity, “But I can’t afford the next round.”

He managed a smile...and so did I. We talked for another 20 minutes or so...nursing
room-temperature beers...about life...where he’d been...where I might be going. He was a good guy...I wasn’t even thinking about how much gas was in my car or how I could eat for a week.

Then, he said something I didn’t expect...he felt my pain...even though I tried to hide it.

“I was you 25 years ago,” he said.

I looked at him quizzically before he explained.

“I lost everything in a poker game when I was an Airman Last Class...I held four tens...winner had 4 Queens,” he shrugged. “It was a week before pay day...and I had pocket change. The guy who won gave me $20 as he left the table...at least I could eat.”

The old Sarge grabbed me by the shoulder with one hand and slipped me $50 with the other...smiling.

“That was a quarter-century ago...inflation, you know,” he explained. “You’ll be smarter next time...good lesson to learn when you’re young.”

The old Sarge was right.

I learned a lot that night. For one thing, in poker no matter what hand you’re holding, there’s almost alway a chance - however slight - that someone at the table can beat you. That lesson spills over from card games into life, as well, and I never forgot it.

Also, I learned lessons in empathy and compassion that night...old Sarge didn’t owe me...he won fair and square. But, I appreciated his kindness and have tried to pass that forward to others when I otherwise held a fair advantage in any endeavour.

The Sarge and I worked in different areas, but when we saw each other every now and then after that...we’d always say hello, wave or just smile. When I got orders to ship overseas a few months later, we passed in a hallway at Strike Command and he stopped and shouted some advice, “Keep your head down, pal.”

Turns out, that was another life lesson worth learning early.

— Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines.


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