If you deal the cards, they will come.
Fishermen fresh off the nearby lake, retired CEOs of large corporations, farmers enjoying a break on a Tuesday afternoon, musicians, judges, police officers, shift workers, social workers, teachers…if you deal the cards, they will come.
They’ll bring with them the memories of their fathers, who taught them the game 50, 60, 70 even 80 years ago; the taste of Sundrop (or a PBR) slurped right from the bottle; the crisp shuffle of a 32-card deck.
And they’ll banter, just the way Sheepshead players have for centuries.
Sheepshead is a Wisconsin rite of passage, a trick-based card game with a trump/point scheme that can baffle even the most earnest observer.
Here, though, we teach them young.
Lee Bergsbaken (Bonduel High School Class of ‘73) said his dad taught him the game when he was six-years old, but he likes to joke that he was born to play the game.
“The doctor slapped me on the butt when I was born and the first thing I said was, ‘who’s deal?’”
He’s a regular player on Tuesday afternoons at Take a Chance in Advance. Last week, the combined age of the six players assembled there was 435 years. The oldest, Kermit Morris, is 95-years old, salutatorian and class president of Oconto Falls High School Class of 1945.
He and Esther, his wife of 73 years who passed away last June, farmed just outside Advance for more than 50 years. They also served on the history committee for the Town of Green Valley and helped author two books on the history of the town.
He can pipe in on nearly any topic and has personal recall of almost anyone in the area.
At one point during the Tuesday afternoon game, Bill Raaths (Bonduel Class of 1964 and retired CEO of Great Northern Corporation) mentioned that his aunt Carrie Berg, who lived in nearby Green Valley, had recently died at the age of 106.
“I knew her well,” Kermit said. “And her husband Alvin, who ran the grain elevator.”
Dave Marcks (Pulaski High School Class of 1967) chimed in that he, too, knew Carrie and had a conversation with her just a few years ago.
“I asked her what the best thing about being 104 was and she said, ‘I don’t have to worry about peer pressure.’”
Peer pressure is, of course, a key factor in a good round of Sheepshead.
If you don’t lay a trump card when trump has been led or if you fail to follow a suit, you’re going to hear about it…for years.
Frank Maroszek (Pulaski High School Class of ‘76) is an area farmer and co-owner of Take a Chance. He and his brothers have been part of a famous polka band for almost half a century. During the most recent Tuesday game, he talked about learning the game from his dad by age 12. He and his brothers would enjoy playing on the bus ride to school each morning. “I alway like that we were an early pick-up spot on the bus route…it gave us time for more hands of Sheepshead each morning,” he said.
My father in-law, who lived by the old adage that you can take the boy out of Sheboygan but you can never take the Sheboygan out of the boy, taught all three of his sons to play Sheepshead at his dining room table in Naperville, Illinois and during summer visits to Sheboygan. He used to threaten to send the boys to “Sheepshead Camp” if they made a bad play.
Well into a painful battle with metastasized melanoma and just a month before he died, my father in-law asked his sons to drive his old friend John Debrauske from Sheboygan down to Illinois for an afternoon of Sheepshead.
The five men spent time playing cards, telling jokes and hearing stories about an idyllic Sheboygan childhood. It remains a fond memory and the boys still play Sheepshead with Mr. Debrauske, who will be 93-years old in March.
Like the image of Ray Kinsella playing catch with his dad John in the Field of Dreams, the Tuesday games help a sentimental group of old-timers transport back decades to simpler times with their dads…the shuffling of the cards…the popping of a cap off a cold bottle.
“Is this heaven? No, it’s Wisconsin.”