I don’t remember when I first learned to play cribbage.
The game has always just Been There, in the way the sun has always just Been There. The earliest memory I have of the game is my father, a large Scandinavian man named Big Tim, slicing the air above the board with his Swiss Army pocket knife, blade out. We are at the old Wiklund family cabin in Gordon, Wisconsin, west of highway 53, about a 40-minute / 45-mile southeast drive from Duluth, MN (I once read that Midwesterners are the only Americans who measure driving distance in time opposed to miles, and because this seems by and large accurate, all readers should be covered). The cabin sat perched on the summit of a small hill above Thorne Lake, and we used to call it the Big Buck and Brook Trout Club, more for the pleasant alliteration of the title than for its accuracy (I don’t ever remember fishing for brook trout on the Brule River). The cabin was an American Four-Square, equally divided between kitchen-and-dining room, living room, and two bedrooms.
We had wide, sweeping windows that ran the length of the entire facade facing the hill and overlooking the beach, and we are seated there at the pock-marked and creaky dining room table, my brother, father, mother, and me, watching the sun recede into the horizon over the lake and warming ourselves near the wood-burning iron stove. My brother Jared and I cannot be older than 7 or 8, probably plopped in the tall-backed dining seats with nothing but our underwear on (don’t ask why, but this seems to be a recurring motif in those photos). So we’re plopped down, and fuzzy AM radio is warping in and out from the analog alarm clock, and Big Tim is so animated, hacking the air with his little knife, he could be slashing down the thick jungle foliage of an Amazon safari. “And that’s how the cribbage board got all those slash marks,” he says.
“Why?” we wonder, running our fingers over the sharp grooves from the knives and regular holes of the tracks, feeling the effects of the Swiss Army hack/slash.
“Because we were all enjoying a little John Barleycorn, and I got The Big One, 29, and blasted my way to victory. To mark the occasion, Crazy Doug and the rest of us whipped out our knives and cut the board.”
My mother, Michelle, smiles. The sun goes down. We look on in wide-eyed amazement.
I remember cribbage at the cabin the same way I remember Prairie Home Companion at the cabin; that I looked forward to it every time, and it never lasted long enough. Ours was a cabin in every sense of the word, replete with the rabbit-ears television, poor insulation and perpetually burning wood stove to fight it, sap-bleeding timbers inside and out, hand-operated water pump, an outhouse in one direction and the sauna in another. The dog (a Siberian husky named Tundra) was often found near the wood stove or not found at all, and you could fight the flies, but you’d never beat them. There was an intoxicating outdoorsy aroma at all times, and when the wind blew, you felt it.
In its later years, my father would wipe his head with a red bandanna while mom unpacked the groceries and say “it’s more work than leisure,” but that didn’t stop us from going. Those wide windows had to be covered and uncovered with massive OSB board as we came and went, the outhouse limed, the roof shingled, wood chopped, water boiled, supplies imported, chattel exported, the boys entertained. Of course the nature of a good cabin is that it’s never quite done; there’s always more to do, more to find, more to build, so Jared and I never complained for lack of stimulation (well, maybe when it rained). We’d bomb around the outdoors. We built more tree stands than we had deer, rickety things that sat no more than five or six feet off the ground, projects that were built, forgotten, discovered, modified (wider seat, better camouflage, secret hiding hole for Transformers and Ninja Turtles), and forgotten again. We had a large field perfect for baseball, football, soccer, capture the flag, day games, night games, riding bikes, riding wagons, riding sleds, riding four-wheelers, riding dogs, riding atop Dad’s broad shoulders. We drew imperfect circles on large construction paper, grabbed the air rifle and commenced target practice.
My brother now works for Pheasants Forever, promoting land conservation, responsible bird-dogging, and fostering an inherent respect for nature and the outdoors. The first time he killed a bird was at this old cabin; he waited all day in one of our custom stands, shivering against the wind and keeping a steady hand on a beginner’s bow. He didn’t see anything, but on the way back he was whirling an arrow in his hand and a small robin or chickadee actually collided with the shaft mid-flight. We put it in a shoebox and kept it warm all night–it was an accident, after all–but it died in the morning. Jared cried for hours.
Cribbage didn’t define or dictate how we spent our time at the cabin. It wasn’t regarded as the be-all-and-end-all of card or board games. It did, however, provide a past time of stability–a constant!–among the shifting variables of our lives, our parents’ and our own. Jared and I grew out of games like Tag, Mouse Trap, Transformers or Ninja Turtles. Mom and dad lost jobs and gained jobs, spending less time here and more time there. We traded in the air rifle for real rifles, beginner’s bows for much more expensive, high-tech, and dangerous adult compound bows. We built larger, more functional tree stands. We began to understand the obligations of a second family estate. Through it all, though, we kept the cribbage board, stashed it in duffel bags and crammed into cars, and we keep returning to the cribbage board. I can’t say the same for most of the other artifacts of our lives from then until now. And that, more than anything, is the real value offered, the real wonder conferred, by those knife-gouged grooves in the board: a constant. The promise of future memories past.