The winning hand

Published 2:36 pm Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Ace of Spades. It was painted directly ahead at eye level as you walked into my room. It was a statement to all that came into my room at the fraternity house that the two inhabitants of the room considered themselves to be the best Spades players at the SAE House, if not in all of Auburn.

Actually, it was painted by a fraternity brother that owed me some money. He later became a very successful graphic artist. He wasn’t much of a card player though.

Spades on Thursday night. It was a college ritual that began my sophomore year. The same four guys played, usually for hours. We honed our skills until we each thought ourselves to be unbeatable. The teams were always the same and we learned to get inside each other’s head and to anticipate the next move of our partner and our opponent.

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We didn’t play for money. We played for something much more important that that—bragging rights. The ability to say that we were the best even if it was only for a week was priceless. Without realizing it, we each received an even greater prize. We became best friends. Not just the kind that had a great time in college, but rather the kind of friends that keeps in touch over the rest of their lives.

Bill was my roommate and card partner. He was a textile engineering major who later got a master’s degree in chemical engineering. He was strong as an ox. We spent dozens of weekends together at the beach and hundreds of nights at the library. We had three aquariums in our room. We had a fern that seemed to thrive on leftover beer and cigarettes and would sometimes grow 6 inches in a day. We had the best stereo system in the house and spent more money than we should have on albums.

Bill became a world-wide purchasing guy for Monsanto. He lives in St. Louis and married a girl even smarter than he is. They have a great kid. Bill was the first friend my age to retire.

Bill was analytical in his approach to cards. The later it got during the night the more emotional he would play. At first I thought he played to win. Later, I realized that he really played to beat David.

Brian was the on the opposite team. He was without a doubt the best piano player I had ever heard. He would infuriate me by asking me to play a piece of music for him once, then again. Then he would sit down and play it better than I could even though he could not read the music. “The Entertainer” was his signature piece and was played many nights after the crowds had gone home at the slightly out-of-tune grand piano in the living room. He had a gift.

Brian and David lived together in a trailer during part of our time at Auburn. Bill and I went out to visit one afternoon only to find no one home. In a sign of the times, the door was unlocked. Bill and I moved all their living room furniture and dining room furniture into the bedrooms. We then moved all the bedroom furniture into the living and dining rooms.

For weeks they left the furniture in its rearranged state rather than admit to anyone that someone had gotten the best of them. That is when I started locking my own door, knowing that retribution was sure to follow.

Brian became an executive with the largest zipper company in the world. He travels everywhere calling on customers who seem to only have the desire to play golf. He is good, real good. The best thing about Brian is he downplays his own talent to build up those around him. He has the biggest heart in the crowd. Brian lives in El Paso, Texas, also married well and has children and now grandchildren that fill his life.

David was the glue. He was the one that arranged the games and tried to change the rules. Winning was really important to David, which is why we liked to beat him so much. At the end, I think even Brian didn’t mind losing, because he got to see David get beat.

David was probably the smartest of all of us when it came to cards. His only problem was outthinking himself. He was a natural leader. He never met some situation that couldn’t be turned into something competitive.

“I bet you a quarter it rains before we get to class.”

David has a free spirit and isn’t afraid to march to a different drummer. He can open up his soul to let you in and in exchange you are welcome to share the joys and sorrows of your own life. He is a professor at Agnes Scott College, where my daughter, Catherine, found her way.

David found his true kindred spirit in his wife, Cathy, and together they have a wonderful child.

Like all three of my friends, I married well. Mary Lou was the only wife to attend Auburn and to know the guys while in college. Transferring her senior year, she was nervous about my friends. She knew she had finally been accepted, when for some reason I was unable to attend the Thursday night Spades game and she was called to be my replacement.

While in Monaco recently, I bought a crystal deck of cards depicting the Ace of Spades. Tonight David called to thank me for receiving them as a gift for his birthday.

One day as college kids we shuffled a deck of cards. Who would have known the winning hand would be friendships that have lasted a lifetime.