Tuesday, July 31, 2018

The Bocce Gamblers

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The Bocce Gamblers
The Bocce Gamblers

One of the first things my father did when he decided to build our house on Sutersville Hill was to construct a bocce court. He placed it right next to the arbor where he planned to grow his grapes to produce the best-tasting wine in Western Pennsylvania. I may be prejudiced, but I think it's a title Dad still holds.

Dad held only two jobs in his lifetime. He worked as a coal miner for Warden Mine, the largest producer of anthracite coal in Pennsylvania, and he made steel for U.S. Steel Corp. at its Irvin Works plant near Dravosburg, PA.

He was a lifelong member of the Loyal Order of the Moose Lodge in Sutersville, a mile away from where he built our house.

The only thing my father had built up to that point in his life was...

...a dog house. He had the help of several other people, including my Uncle Ott who was married to my mother's sister, Annie. But the major amount of labor was done by my Dad and he did the job well.

Like most of the other Italians who lived in and around Sutersville, Dad loved to gamble and drink wine with his friends. They played poker, euchre and slot machines at the Moose Club, and when the weather permitted, they gambled at bocce in the club's bocce court.

Dad didn't discuss his gambling with me or my two younger brothers or sister. But I knew he was a steady gambler at bocce. He was also an above average player, having learned the game in Italy where he lived before settling permanently in America.

My brothers and I would sometimes accompany our father to the Moose Club. It was located next to the river that ran through Sutersville. Our neighbors Bill Zachetti, Frank Popp and Blackie Campolli would join Dad in the competition and sometimes the gambling in the bocce court got pretty furious.

The men often made their wagers in Italian trading side jokes none of us kids understood.

But you could see the flash of money...

...changing hands as the players tried their best to place the bocce balls next to the smaller jack in order to score points.

When the miners at Warden Mine went on strike, Dad's income was cut off overnight. My brothers and I were working as caddies at Youghiogheny Country Club and for months we turned all our earnings over to our mother in order to buy groceries and pay the rent and utilities.

We never held back a dollar from Mom

That would be unthinkable. We gave her the money and she gave us back what she could afford.

Dad had one place where he knew he could make real instant -- and that was at the bocce courts.

The strike lasted for months and Dad won a lot more money than he lost playing bocce. Sometimes he would invite his friends to our house for a game of poker.

My brothers and I would serve wine from our wine cellar to the players. Dad wasn't much of a poker player, lacking some of the skill it takes, but he enjoyed the game and the comradeship of his friends.

He kept our bocce court next to the grape arbor in good shape and often held outings for our neighbors.

The women on our hilltop would prepare immense amounts of food:

spaghetti, meatballs, ravioli, lasagna, dumplings and I could go on and on. We kids would organize games ranging from tennis to ping pong and horseshoes. The feast would begin around noon and last well into the evening before the adults would call it quits. I never ate so well in my life and still miss those outings.

While the women didn't play bocce, they enjoyed playing the slot machines at the moose club. My Aunt Annie was quite a gambler who loved watching the dimes, quarters and nickles flowing out of those slot machines.

Mom and Aunt Annie, along with Aunt Gladys, spent many happy hours teaming up as slot players while drinking beer or wine at the club.

Sometimes when the club manager wasn't looking...

...Aunt Annie would let me and my brothers pull the handle to the slot machine. It was always a thrill when those coins started flowing.

Each year the volunteer Sutersville Fire Department held its annual firemen's fair next to the Moose Club. They brought in a carnival with a midway that included a Ferris wheel, bumper cars, the wild spider, pony rides, and gambling games, not all of which were honest.

I remember one night during the firemen's fair when things got pretty tense between my father and the operator of one of the cheating games. Dad had lost quite a bit of money and was becoming aware that the operator was not honest.

He and two of his friends were thinking of taking matters into their own hands when our town constable, Popeye, came by to see what was the matter.

Popeye listened to Dad's story. Then he ordered the game operator to shut down the game and return some of the money my dad had lost. The carnival operator didn't like it but he sullenly gave back the money.

After our parents passed away

It was then my brothers, sister and I sold the house that Dad built on Sutersville Hill. Sometimes when I am in Pennsylvania, I drop by the old house just to see where the grape arbor, bocce court, and our garden once stood. The memories that flood over me are real and will never go away.

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