“Hat Night”

I don’t remember when it started, but the boys were still quite young.  On a rainy night, we’d find a deck of cards and a barrel of fun.  The boys were so little then, so Brenda and I would have to point out the difference between hearts and diamonds; spades and clubs, and that two cards of the same suit was not a pair.  Even if it was, a pair of deuces still beats a pair of clubs–I looked it up.  For those who would question my authority, please know that playing cards was what I did in college more so than anything else.

“Hat Night” was an innovation to get the children’s attention.  Rummaging around for a crazy hat may have been more fun for them than the card game.  No player was to be admitted to the game without a hat.  That was the primary rule, though there were others.

Sometimes, the family entertainment budget required creative management.  Sometimes, there was no budget.  A casual card game could be spruced up a bit by costuming the players especially when the was no money on the table to keep things interesting.

Ours has always been an interesting place where all manner of hats might show up at one time or another.  Marvelous chapeaus came to the game room along with laughs, pointing, and outrageous remarks.  Compliments were always tongue-in-cheek.  Guns and knives weren’t needed for the card game, but often appeared earlier at the dinner table where the competition was fierce and the stakes were real.  “Hat Night” was an event, but it could have been a song–still could be.

Caps seem to come from the cornucopia of a never-ending properties room staffed by eager and imaginative elves.  Sometimes players sported headgear that rivaled anything worn by any drum major; some that would put to shame the most outlandish adornment seen in all of military history, some fit for safari, some for fishing, some for high tea, and others Minnie Pearl would have considered tacky.  “Gimme” hats, party hats, cowboy hats, stocking caps with tassels and balls, clown hats–with and without feathers and plumes, and construction helmets all made their way to the table.  Players might resemble astronauts, archbishops, native American tribal chiefs, pirates, or the guards at Buckingham Palace.

To anyone else who might come by and see it, a congress of circus clowns might appear to be in session.  But once the games began, the intensity of focus was no longer on the hats, but on the cardboards, and mounds of plastic chips representing nothing other than chips except when imagination allowed them to be gold doubloons.

As a parent, you have to maintain composure.  More than just the rules of the game and how it is played, you have to remember that it is also a lesson in social interaction, posture, and manners.  For example, when dealing, you should sit up straight, deal to the left to each player and in order, and not peek at each card in such a way that others might notice.

The odds of winning in this kind of activity are usually against the individual player, and children need to hear that.  And to be mindful of what is at risk where “chance” is involved.  Never risk what you are not willing to give up, and never chance getting caught dealing from the bottom of the deck.

Seems as though each time we played, the boys had to suffer through some lecture about gambling.  At some incredible stretch, the difference between saving and investing was brought up.  Savings was low risk and low (but known) return, whereas all investments might be a gamble (are they not?) with high risk and a hope of high (but unknown) return.

While most of my analogies were fuzzy at best, once in awhile I’d say something that at least I thought made sense, and I’d stick with it.  Perhaps thousands of times, they all heard me say:

“Never take your grocery money to the poker table!” 

Some think the postulate too strong.  They might propose weakening it by removing the word “never”, and replacing it with “seldom” or “only once in a while”.  But I say those reformers have never bet their last turnip and lost it a week before payday.

After warning my sons of the weaknesses of gambling, and to be watchful for signs of addiction if they succumb to those weaknesses, I’d invite them to join me at the card table.  It is the least you’d expect from a responsible parent.  Mixed signals, yes.  But you have to mix the signals up a bit, or else children will never be able to adjust to our modern systems of business, politics, and social conscience.  They’d never find their places in proper society at all, much less at the blackjack table.

Best as I remember, my intention as the instructor of high moral standards must have been to beat the ever loving pants off of ’em just to show them the risk they take when placing wagers.  Morality is often like that: it can take on whatever value is assigned, and eventually becomes just as morally significant as blue laws–which do absolutely nothing moral at all.

Besides morality, we also covered some of the finer points of playing the game itself.  It was pointed out that if you held a strong hand and let others know it, they might back off, thus diminishing the potential size of the pot.  As everyone knows, it takes longer to steal a loaf of bread if you do it only one slice at a time.  But I guess it doesn’t matter if you’ve got all night.

The “poker face” is not as easy for small boys as you might think.  Eyes dart about here and there and the apparent size of eyeballs change drastically.  When matching face cards appear at the deal, the mouth often forms the shape of the capital letter “O”.

Sometimes, teeth would latch over the lower corner of a lip declaring no possible cards in the draw will help.  Noses wrinkle into snarls with bad cards, and sometimes ears and eyebrows wiggle when good ones are drawn–it varies from player to player.

To play cards close to the vest may be an idiom, but to a child with limited experience holding more than one card at a time it is an impossibility.  If a boy dropped a card on the floor, he was likely as not to lay the rest of his hand face up on the table while retrieving the dropped one.  To suggest it bad manners to look would be a waste of time.

With the luck of the draw, a child can come up with an unbeatable hand, but that they manage it well through discards, bets and raises is another thing altogether.  But if the child never wins, it soon becomes no fun to them at all.

So, there must be the parental charity of showing some enthusiasm when one of your small children produces the winning hand.  Let them feel proud, if only for a moment.  I always had trouble with this, especially when they would show their cards and ask:

“Is this any good?”

It is the pinnacle of success to the boy holding a pair of Jacks and a pair of sevens when here-to-fore he’d seldom managed to even have the correct number of cards in his hand.  The joy and anticipation of victory would shine brightly over his countenance, and approach being the greatest moment in his day, if not the whole week.

I knew the right thing for me to do was to let him win just this one time.  Without so much as drawing a card, I should fold my full house (Aces over nines) and let the sign of defeat show in my face.  Almost every mother and father would know when letting the child win is the right thing to do.  Almost every parent has that magnanimous part of their character deeply imbedded in their soul, and are made happy in their hearts to do it.

There is often a disparity between what we should do, and what we do.  I guess I must have thought the lesson: “life ain’t always fair” also needed to be pointed out.  So, with a loud “HA!”, I boldly spread my cards, and shoved my “I’m the winner” glare out where all could see.  The glow of the glare soon dimmed.

Brenda may have considered ditching her four Queens in order to let Mason win, but she would never do that on my behalf.  Additionally, she could stare across the table in such a way only a wife can do to let you know your point tally is much less than indicated by your stack of chips.  A man should be cautious of any poker game with his wife; exponentially so if her children are at the table.

To say “it’s just a game” tastes a little bit like somebody didn’t put enough sugar in the tea (or worse) when you are losing, and especially if what you are losing goes far beyond table stakes.  But as some of you know, everything tastes wonderful when you’re winning.  If I’d never had children, I might not have ever known how delicious it was to win at cards.  Yet I never saw a bumper sticker declaring: “I Beat my Six-Year Old at Blackjack!”  But I did look for it in several stores.

For those who think it mean to yank the rug out from under the dreams and aspirations of little children, please be reminded of the joy you took while setting the hook about the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and Santa Claus.  It is apparently so much fun, that often there are significant delays in letting them off the hook later.  Did you enjoy setting ’em straight on those matters?  What if you had never ever told them the truth?  What if nobody ever told them?

Just imagine the idiocy afoot if all children grew to adulthood believing in Santa, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny!  What a crazy world we’d have, where nobody ever got presents, and everybody felt guilty about it.

I draw no parallels here, should any of you have firm convictions about your politics.  I myself for years thought there was some substance in the term “honorable”.  I’ve found since that it is just an expression, but I’m not angry at my dad about it.

For a long time, I think he too believed that folks should act honorably if they accept and hold the sacred trust of public office.  I think he often presumed the same standards should apply to clergy.  Later on, he did explain to me that it was okay to know better, but to not let on in public, unless you are prepared to pay for it.

As a boy, I played cards with mom and dad.  Dad never let me win as far as I know.  But the certainty is, that if he did, he never let on.  Dad’s face was like a rock whenever he held a fistful of cards.  When it came to reading his expressions, I was illiterate.  Only years later when erosion was taking a toll on his memory, could I get past his mastery of the card table.  But the fun was gone in winning; then, only to be with him was pleasure enough.

Brenda and I enjoyed getting our boys involved with games the family could play together.  Sometimes boardgames; sometimes cards.  Over the years, we’d play poker now and then, and sometimes we’d play hearts.  With hearts, tears would often be a dead give-away that the queen of spades had been passed.

As the boys got older, wild cards were introduced to a few poker games just for variety’s sake.  Wild cards were always the dealer’s choice.

One time when it was my turn, I called “dealer’s wild!” Seems I recall that they all joined in to pick me up and carry me out of the room.  But that is just a recollection.  As you know from your own recollections, and from those of your friends, it may not have an ounce of truth in it.  Maybe they wanted to, but didn’t–maybe it happened to somebody else; maybe it was just a dream.

With the luck of the draw, David would sometimes win as often as the adults, but not due to any control of facial expressions.  He has amazing non-verbal communication skills.  As a parent, I’d learned a few things about when to call his bluff, but won’t betray them here.  This is prudent should you, the reader, pick up on it to his future disadvantage, or that he pick up on it to mine.

A very young Nathan enjoyed the colorful and exotic art of the face cards, but those representing bare numbers held no spell over him.  This was generally true about anything comprised of numbers, especially if it corresponded to school work while his mind was out building fortresses in treetops.  The eight and nine of clubs was a pair as far as he was concerned, and if  the rest of us couldn’t see it, he’d just as soon leave the table.

It is the kind of conviction we could be proud of, if our politicians didn’t mismanage it so much.  The more obstinate and pig headed they become increases the likelihood that they are terribly wrong about something, but cannot see it.  If they would just throw down their cards and leave the table it might be an improvement, but they won’t.  No, they stay and argue long past the time for the cows to come home.

Perhaps we should only elect children to congress.  Being wrong and not knowing it might be easier to stomach if innocence was attributed to equal cause.  Overall, It might not make things better, but it couldn’t make them much worse, either.

Many times, and for many years we played.  “Hat Night” always made it more fun.  Sometimes we played on vacation at the beach, and often at home while Kenny Rogers sang in the background (with our help):

“You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run…”  **

The years have passed swiftly, and the boys transformed into men.  I do not remember who said it, but boys become men often before their parents see it, and sometimes at a point beyond when the boys themselves think they’re already there.  I don’t think Anonymous said it, although he is credited with a lot of wise sayings.  I think he gave me a job reference once–which I appreciated since nobody else would do it.

My sons are fine men, and the best trophies I could ever want out of the game of life.  But the trophies are rightfully their mother’s.  I get to share them because she has allowed it.  Maybe I participated in some way with the establishing of their brotherhood.  My part was only introductory–the rest is up to them, and they seem do be doing well with it.

I often miss having my sons around here.  Everything I look at in this house causes me to think of them, but please know this is not a sadness–oh no, it is not that at all.  A sadness would’ve been for me to not let them grow up.  Even if I had been so evil, I still probably wouldn’t have been able to stop their determination.

David has developed an understanding of behavior far beyond what is required in a card game.  He can spot the goodness in a child when others cannot begin to see it.  He treats his own children in a loving way, as well as he does the children of others.

Sometimes very troubled children pick up on David’s sincerity, and know he wants to help them, and they believe in him.  They believe because he is genuine.  He lifts their spirits by knowing how to help them reach for something good in themselves when everybody else only sees their failures and handicaps.  Hope is a nice accent to something you want, but to something you need, it is the answer to prayer.

He knows you have to bend over now and then to help a child stand tall, and because of that deep understanding, he is one of the best things to ever happen to a school full of children.  He’s bigger and taller than me now (as are his brothers), so a wrestling match is out of the question.  But I’d still take him on in a card game.

He has always made an adventure out of knowing “the secret to survival”; when to hold, fold, walk away or run.  He could sing the song beautifully, but not necessarily in the same order Kenny Rogers sang it.  There are many songs in the heart of David Brown.

Should you meet his wonderful wife (also a teacher recognized for high standards and a talent for motivating children to want to learn), you’ll see right away why they care so much for each other.  She is the mother to my two grandchildren, and you know instantly they are in a good place at home.  I’ll bet someday those babies will both prove to be a fantastic and challenging addition to “Hat Night”.  Just the thought of it makes me laugh out loud.

Nathan could sing along with Kenny Rogers and never miss a word.  He was often quiet, and could go long periods without saying anything, which is a skill he did not pick up from me.  He treated words as if they were expensive paints to only be used when you wanted to create a picture.  Songs were often pictures too, and if he liked it, he’d be the first to learn it, and show it back to you in a beautiful way.

That he didn’t seem to care for numbers as a small boy, was not that he couldn’t see them.  Intuitively, he sees the world in terms of shape, texture and dimension.  Instinctively it seems, he can build with his hands to the envy of engineers and architects.  Beyond a master craftsman, he is an artist.  Even as a toddler, he took it for granted that he was already an artist, while others thought it was something you had to become.

He works with numbers all the time now, and associates them with tools.  He calculates angles and distance whether it is for lighting or scenery placement.  Nathan knows what to measure, and how to do it–not just for installation jobs, but for design and construction as well.  For a child that cared little for school book math and science, he operates daily with a fluid understanding of geometry and physics far beyond the functional capacity of many, and perhaps even beyond some of his best teachers.

Nathan often looks at projects and seems to understand the amount of materials that will be needed to complete a job.  All of this requires a concept of numerical values.  I’ll play cards with him as he doesn’t seem to mind if I win.  But I’m still not ready to let him do my taxes.

Several people speak highly of Nathan, and the words they use imply good qualities and character.  Some of what I’ve heard would only be said of me in my wildest dreams.  His nephew, my grandson, adores him.  Even my two dogs like him.  In fairness, the dogs like all of my sons, but are probably smelling something those guys have been eating, or perhaps rolled in.

Mason is way beyond the cards in some ways, yet still fun in any game.  He can visualize so much in many dimensions.  Beyond the visual, he has an ear for more than just the music.  He has a feel for the rhythm of sound; not just melody and harmony, but all of it.  Those who struggle to think outside the box should watch him work: he often starts outside the usual mindsets that make everybody look the same, and finds some angle to express diversities.

But this level of acceleration is not new to Mason.  He made up his mind before ever starting school that he would always run ahead of the pack.  He has been a leader in scholarship, sports, music, drama, business and common decency by wanting to do the right thing.  As well as his two brothers, he has a lot of good friends.  I won’t challenge him on a data-visual project, but I’ll take him on in a card game anytime.

Even as a baby, he always started each day with a smile (although prepared to throw it off quickly when needed), and sees opportunities with much greater clarity than obstacles.  Sometimes he’d trip and fall as a toddler.  Perhaps I didn’t realize his mind might be reaching for some higher goal that only he could see.  Also, I didn’t realize for a long time that he needed glasses.

I’ve often wondered if being able to see the cards on “Hat Night” would’ve made any difference.  The child took piano lessons, and we never knew he couldn’t actually focus on the sheet music!  But even now with corrected vision, should you see him coming at you on any two-wheeled vehicle, get the Hell out of his way!

His wife is a lovely child with a wit that challenges me.  They seem to be in sync, and are a powerful talent-based group even when it is just the two of them.  I respect her integrity, and appreciate the fact that she doesn’t speak meanly of others even though I have given her many opportunities to do so.

From time to time, one of my sons will do or say something that lets me know they must’ve been listening to some of the things I said when they were small.  Just recently, I saw where Mason had published:

“Never take your poker money to the grocery store!”

My heart swells with pride at such moments.  I won’t list them all here, as too much explanation might be required.  I’m not sure all of my lessons were as clear as I had intended for them to be, and I’m equally suspect of the results.  For the most part, my suspicions, if any doubt is involved, are more from questions of clarity in my lesson plans than for how my students have responded.  They have all accomplished much, and much of it was outside anything I ever taught them.

All three of my sons have faced challenges, and locked horns with issues when others (including me sometimes) may have run away.  While I still see them as my boys in a way that only a father can see them, I have to step back now and then to enjoy the wonderful movies they project as men onto the big screen in my mind.

It is a bonus that the main features are often preceded with wonderful cartoons–sometimes of their making; sometimes mine.   Sometimes just thinking about them is the best entertainment I can imagine, and intermissions are always too long.

Mark Twain, who studied on the thinking and the doing of boys in a deeper way than some, once said:

“There comes a time in every rightly constructed boy’s life when he has a raging desire to go somewhere and dig for hidden treasure.” 

Y’know what?  They still know how to play that way, and even how to work that way sometimes.  I’m not immune to it myself, but my methods have changed.  As a boy, you might have seen me digging for treasure, and know exactly what I was doing.

But now the treasures may seem more obscure, and observers might not even know I’m looking for anything at all.  “Hat Night” was always that sort of thing.  All you had to do was to believe in pirates just enough to know the treasure was out there somewhere.  It wasn’t that hard to do.  After all, we pirates were sitting right there at the card table using doubloons for chips, weren’t we?

Every man that can still find the boy within himself  still knows the spark of imagination that can go beyond mere illusion–all the way to magic .  And even mothers know what Twain was talking about when they really look at their man-child (it is often there in the woman-child too, though sometimes not in bold print).  Why, you’d have to be terribly busy, or teach Sunday School seven days a week to not see it!  How sad I feel for those so blind that they cannot sense the hearts of the children in their lives.

Well, I’ve run on a bit as usual.  I suppose the cards have been shuffled and dealt, and we all play the hands we hold.  For some of us, it is later in the game than it is for others, but I’m not ready to cash in the chips just yet.

It has been many years since we’ve had “Hat Night”, but it comes up in conversation once in a while.  It could happen again, maybe soon.  I’d like that.  Often, I long to have them all near me and to play again (as long as they let me deal, and name the wild cards).  Maybe next time, they’ll take pity on an old man, and let me win.  But, I wouldn’t bet on it, if I were you–I’m sure I taught ’em better than that!

In the game of life as well as cards, you can’t always see all the other hands, and you can’t always predict the draw in an honest game.  Sometimes a player will raise one, and lose.  I raised three, and so far, I think I’m winning.  But, best as I can tell, the game is still on. So in the back of my mind, I’m hearing Kenny Rogers again:

“…You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.  They’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”  **


**    From “The Gambler” sung by Kenny Rogers


© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., EMI Music Publishing, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC


15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Glenn on April 27, 2011 at 8:29 pm

    beautifully said Vandal.


  2. Posted by Betty on April 27, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Very entertaining…..I do know the boys grew up to be bright young men, in spite of the card games!!!
    Now, I know it was to get even with you!!!


  3. Posted by BB on April 27, 2011 at 9:03 pm

    What a beautiful tribute to our beautiful family. Thank you for putting down into words some of the wonderful things we are both thankful for.


  4. Posted by Lt. D. Company on April 28, 2011 at 1:35 am

    I know your son David. He has no tell. He only makes you think he has a tell. That lunatic has taken my grocery money more than once. Furthermore, he claims he has never been beaten… in cards. He’s probably wearing a hat right now sipping bourbon, scratching his beard , and chuckling about the confusion he will bring to young minds on the morrow.


  5. Posted by elisa on April 28, 2011 at 2:17 am

    Great tribute to your family. We too had a regular event with cards while I was growing up. Something my brother and I made up but great fun for us.
    I loved your remark about hope in reference to your son David and his work with children, “Hope is a nice accent to something you want, but to something you need, it is the answer to prayer.”
    Thanks for sharing.


  6. Posted by Helen on April 28, 2011 at 3:29 am

    I wish you could join us for supper tomorrow night. Afterwards, we’d play cards. Aces, kings and queens wild!


  7. This has to be one of your best, if not the best. Memories of time spent with children and grandchildren are surely one of the biggest rewards of one’s life. To be able to share so beautifully is indeed a gift. Thanks for the memories this brought back to me.


  8. Posted by Bonnie on April 28, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I absolutely love your writing. From the heart and so sincere. The home and love you and Brenda provided for your three boys is apparent in how they interact with family and friends. They are fine men.


  9. Posted by cheri lasher on April 29, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Very nicely said, as usual. But particularly good one from the heart, plus I like Kenny Rogers!


  10. Posted by TK on April 30, 2011 at 12:37 pm



  11. Posted by Mason Brown on April 30, 2011 at 2:51 pm

    Sounds like you just challenged me to a card fight. Bring it old man!

    ps. Nice read.


  12. Posted by David Alexander on May 1, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Great writing, Van. The part about the hats brought back a fond memory from my own childhood. At our church in upstate New York, they would have a yearly rummage sale in the church fellowship hall. After it was over, my brothers and I would “help” mom and the other ladies pack up the stuff that had not been sold, and each of us would end up toting home a box of the spoils for our own enjoyment. One year, we loaded up on hats: women’s, men’s, of all shapes and sizes. I don’t recall ever having a “hat night”, but we sure enjoyed hours and hours of parading around in those goofy-looking hats. Thanks for the memory jog.


  13. Posted by Robin on May 18, 2011 at 3:43 pm

    Dad taught David and me to play poker. I was terrible at it. I was much older than six and still couldn’t deal without fumbling, or shuffle without letting the faces of the bottom cards show. Dad’s response was “You can get yourself shot playing like that.” After a few years of putting myself in constant risk from gunfire, I pretty much gave up the game. Helped out on keeping control of the grocery money, though.


  14. Posted by Mickey Foster on February 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm

    Very nice tribute to your family as your boys were becoming young men! My special hat was a gift from one of my students, may your son receive many gifts from his students.

    In response to the Kenny Rogers quote..’on the day that I was born my daddy sat down and cried, had the mark just as plain as day it could not be denied, they say that Cain caught Abel throwing loaded dice, ace of spades behind his ear and him not thinking twice” the good old Grateful Dead


  15. Posted by Marlene Humberd on April 22, 2012 at 6:55 pm

    Thank you , Van , for such lovely words about your family .Sounds like your boys have grown into what you and Brenda had hoped they would be…the best of themselves. They have each carried with them the lessons, morals, and love they have learned from home, applied them in their lives , and have in turn passed them on to their family and friends with their own individual touches . I don’t play regular poker , but in video poker , you have won , Van , with a Royal Flush …and I’m so very happy for you.


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