As a boy growing up on Dad’s Mississippi Delta farm in the 1950s, I looked forward to Saturdays, mainly because I didn’t have to go to school, but also because Friday’s paydays were always followed by Saturday’s dice games.
I watched and listened, crouched beside Jaybird, my best friend and mentor. After I grasped the fundamentals of craps, as the old black man called the game, he spotted me some change and let me join in.
“If you win, repay me and keep the rest,” he said. “If you lose, repay me from your allowance for doing chores.”
To win, Jaybird said I must “encourage” the dice, so I learned the gambler’s jargon, terms such as “natchul,” meaning that the dice turned up the same amount as the previous roll by landing with identical numbers on each die, e.g., if the first roll was four (three plus one), a natural — natchul — would be two plus two.
Other encouraging phrases were, “Come back, dice” (meaning, turn up the same two times in a row); “Four (fo’) — Little Joe from Kokomo”; “Five — “So Fine Phoebe”; “Six — Jimmy Hicks from the sticks”; “Seven come ’leven”; “Eight, skate, donate”; “Nine — Nina Ross ridin’ a roan hoss”; Ten — “Rake dat big pot in”; and my favorite, “’pologize, dice,” used when a player regains the dice, having rolled craps — two (snake eyes), three (acey-deucey), or twelve (boxcars) — his last turn.
Emulating Jaybird, I kissed the dice, bounced them off the wall, and shouted, “Seven come ’leven.” The dice obeyed, and I “raked dat big pot in” — all coins, since Jaybird made the house rules, and no bills could be anted.
For a while, I just kept on rolling and controlling those bones. This is easy, I thought; I’ll never earn my living sweating in hot cotton fields; I’ll just be a big-time gambler.
Everyone anted again, and with shameless audacity, I bounced the dice off the wall once more.
“Boxcars!” Jaybird shouted. “You done crapped out, boy.” That was the beginning of another life lesson the master teacher was planting indelibly in my brain: He taught me how not to indulge in vices by allowing me to indulge in them.
A good example of this occurred one day when we were fishing. Jaybird lit a cigarette. All of thirteen years old, I said, “Jaybird, I’m a full-grown man now, and I want to smoke like you.”
Without saying a word, he passed me the cigarettes and matches. I lit up, inhaled deeply on the first puff like Jaybird, turned purple, gagged, wheezed, and felt woozy the rest of the day. I never smoked again.
Like cigarettes, Jaybird knew gambling can be addictive, and he made sure I never became a gambler by letting me gamble. Before long, I was handing over all of my hard-earned weekly allowance to him.
Content just to watch the Saturday crap games from then on, I quit gambling. Never again would I say to those evil, spotted little blocks, “’pologize, dice!”
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