Fourteen years ago, the Grumpy Ol’ Men’s Poker Club was founded by a woman who had a good reason for doing it. June Peel Gray’s husband, Charlie, had been diagnosed with ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which is reason enough to make anybody grumpy. Formerly a healthy baseball star himself, Charlie discovered that life in a wheelchair was a real downer. His always helpful wife was determined to do something to cheer him up.
I’ve known June since we were locker-mates during the early fifties at Marianna High School. Because she is taller, I placed my piano books on the bottom of our locker, and June put her tap dancing shoes on top. We’ve been compatible friends ever since. As June is indomitably and generously kind, I was not surprised that she would find a way to keep her husband happy.
She knew Charlie enjoyed gambling for fun, so she helped him organize a poker club which he could enjoy with his friends, most of whom were Marianna expatriates who, like him, had worked for the state in Tallahassee. Charlie had a lot of friends, so she set up poker tables, prepared snack food, and organized games for three afternoons a week. After Charlie’s death in 2006, she decided to honor his memory by continuing to host the poker club, but in recent years, the club has been shrinking in size. All its members are career retirees, and others are now permanently retired from life itself. Last week, club members found themselves down to just three members available to play.
Andy McMullian, now a widower, remembered that he and his wife, Betty, had once played poker with Lowell and Shirley Gunter Dowling. Shirley is now a widow and it occurred to him that she might also enjoy a night of poker, so for the first time in its history, the Grumpy Ol’ Men’s Poker Club, invited a woman to join their group. June reported that in the past, the men were vehemently opposed to having women in the club, saying they needed at least one place where they didn’t have to watch what they said. (June normally takes herself off to the nearest Dairy Queen, where she watches TV and eats ice cream.) June thought it might look rude to leave Shirley as the only woman in the house, but as she doesn’t play poker, she decided to hang out in her bedroom instead. She said she heard a whole lot of laughing going on in the living room, so apparently, everybody was having a good time.
I was not surprised, because I knew Shirley when she was just a pretty, blonde five- year old. The Gunters were our neighbors, and Shirley and I sometimes played together, but there was only one thing she wanted to do. More than anything, she wanted to be a movie star, so she had us act out movies, such as Gone with the Wind. Neither of us lacked imagination, but we did lack a male lead. Not having a real person available, she assigned Ashley’s role to a tree, talked to the tree, and even hugged and kissed it. Unlike Shirley, I was too inhibited to ever make it as an actress, but I do enjoy being entertained, so I watched with great interest as she performed. As she was obviously a hit with the poker club, I would guess that Shirley enjoys being an entertainer at a poker table probably as much as June enjoys entertaining with her tap dancing skills.
Shirley said, “Those guys had more ways of playing poker than you could imagine, but I was determined not to let them beat me.” She said her uncle taught her how to play match-stick poker when she was ten years old, and she had been playing some form of poker ever since. Her much older sister and brother were grown and gone when she was still a little girl, so she spent a lot of time with adults. It seemed to her that men have more fun than women do, and during her very happy marriage, she and her husband enjoyed doing the same things. She said she hires a housekeeper but still cuts her own grass. She was a widow at the age of 57, but the men she later dated were usually older, so she began attending more funerals than she cared to. Now, just spending a little time laughing and joking around a poker table is enough fun for her.
June asked me if I thought the wives of the men would be jealous of having a woman playing poker with their husbands, and considering our “Waiting for God” age group, I sincerely doubted it. Even so, I checked with another old classmate of mine, Charlene Edris Wilson, whose husband, Eris, is a member of the club. She was surprised that I asked. “That never even crossed my mind,” she said. “These days women are doing all the same things men do anyhow, so why not?”
When Andy thanked Shirley for filling in, he said he hoped she would come back another time. “Just you try keeping me away,” she threatened him. “I’m a member of the club now!” She also insists she does not have a gambling addiction. She plays for fun, and prefers to spend money set aside for trips to a casino, never spending more than she can afford to lose.
“I’m leaving next month to go to Biloxi, Mississippi,” she proudly informed me.