Kittie Howard

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Viva Louisiana: You Gotta Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em, Know When to Walk Away

Las Vegas hosts major poker tournaments, in step with the game's growing popularity. But, there was a time when Las Vegas was a twinkle in the desert, when Louisiana's open swamps and shrouded bayous hosted a tournament or two or three ...and, all the while, the brown pelican and the red egret feasted in harmony, more interested in the earth's hidden treasures than man's follies.

Pa's grandfather, my great-great grandfather, was a gamblin' man. Stilly couldn't resist a good cut of the cards. He especially loved poker. Actually, gamblin' provided Stilly and his family with a decent income, enough to maintain a small spread or farm near Ponchatoula in Tangiphoa Parish. Situated north of New Orleans, Ponchatoula provided easy access to the riverboat gambling in the booming port city and the numerous poker games that occurred in the East Louisiana backwoods, even north into Mississippi (where strict Protestants frowned upon poker.)

In 1857, Southeast Louisiana bustled with energy. Money or land lost one night reappeared in another jackpot. Gambling men like Stilly didn't care, didn't worry. Money flowed from the farmers, fishermen, fur traders, lumbermen, and merchants who had settled in Southeast Louisiana's flat piney woods, along riverbanks and streams or within scattered, one-horse towns like Ponchatoula. Catfish and trout, beef, vegetable crops, logs, and beaver pelts found an easy market in New Orleans, especially among the more sophisticated elite in the French Quarter or along St. Charles Street.

Stilly invested a percentage of gambling winnings in his spread, but saved the larger percentage for poker games, his real future, because ambition flowed through Stilly's veins. As such, he and his wife maintained a small herd of cattle, raised pigs and chickens, and otherwise enjoyed a respectable standard of living.

It was probably a good thing that Stilly's love of gambling conflicted with his English sense of frugality. Hard-nosed poker had tarnished his financial acumen. Without a self-inflicted kick in the ass, Stilly's family could have suffered hardship. But Stilly's English frugality kicked in often enough for the errant, but conscientious, husband and father to walk away from the poker table. An open, daredevil personality protected his manhood. Then, as now, the table got offended if a winning player left early; harsh words, and worse, often flew.

Stilly's forebears left England in 1700, more in search of adventure than quick money. But, marriage into like-minded Welsh and English families in the Colonies soon clipped wings and forced domesticity. Somehow, word had spread among the many Welsh and English adventurers that East Louisiana provided the best opportunity for advancement. And, so, pockets of very Protestant, very British homesteads and settlements sprang up, across the Mississippi River and a world away from the predominate Cajun culture to the west (and remain so today).

But the gambling maverick never heard this cultural drum, paid scant attention to his Protestant roots, and really didn't give a damn if others spoke Cajun French, French or Spanish. If living the dream meant learning these languages to enlarge his poker-playing sphere, so be it. But, Stilly being Stilly, he learned to speak Cajun French, French, and Spanish as if he'd been born into these languages. Stilly was shrewd, knew how to read people, and understood no one ventured onto another man's turf without knowing the house rules, in whatever language it took.

My great-great grandfather stood tall, about six-foot, four inches. Lean, but muscled and hardened, Stilly reacted with a cat's agility when threatened. Otherwise, he walked with a confident gait that both intimidated and impressed others. Somewhat of a dandy, Stilly meticulously groomed his half-beard and kept a shock of sandy brown hair under control. A wide-brimmed hat, won in a tournament in Vermilion Parish, shaded angular features and a weathered countenance, skin once fair but now tanned by the outdoors. But it was the eyes, though, Stilly's piercing blue eyes that became his calling card: These eyes held a glint of laughter or the promise of trouble if crossed. Stilly never shot a man, never had to, didn't want to. But a gamblin' man who lived by the cut of the card also needed a facade that kept others at bay.

In an era of bragging rights, Stilly maintained he could shoot off a mosquito's wing at twenty paces. When bystanders hooted, the master of bravado laughed louder. But if the ruckus grew too loud and threatened an undefined sense of respect, Stilly would pull out his pistol and make a rock dance, each bullet on target, dancing that rock along until the maestro stopped the music. Then, respect in hand, the cigar-chomping Marlboro Man from an earlier era would climb on his horse and ride away. It didn't matter where. Stilly could sleep just as good curled up under a live oak tree as he could in his own bed. Stilly may have been a God-fearing man who didn't believe in whoring around, but, when away from the family, his mistress was the Call of the Wild.

By his late twenties, Stilly had earned a reputation as a formidable poker player. As stakes had enlarged to include quit claims to land and livestock and logging rights, so had Stilly's lifestyle enlarged. His family now lived in an enviable house that was more in keeping with his reputation and status. Way Back Then, a gambling man in Louisiana enjoyed serious respect.

Stilly had also earned a reputation as one who could survive in Louisiana's deep marshes and cypress-studded bayous. Survival skills had enabled him to participate in poker games as far west as the Texas border. He rode his horse westward through the marshes and, sometimes, along what is today called the Creole Nature Trail National Scenic Byway, 180 miles of salt- and freshwater marshes locals have nicknamed the "Louisiana Outback". Stilly had learned how to navigate "cheniers" or ridges that rose up in the marshes for maximum speed, avoid the treacherous quicksand, and coexist with the aggressive Appalousa Indians.

And, like anyone else who ventured into swamps turned dark-as-night by gnarled cypress trees heavy with Spanish moss, Stilly coped with avoiding alligators. And the numerous black bears that populated the long expanse, more home to brown pelicans and egrets than man. And the mosquitoes and malaria. Thirty-nine types of mosquitoes inhabited the swamps, marshes, and lowlands. He survived on fish, small game, and ground roots, primarily the Jerusalem Artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus L.) This flowering tuber, with its bright yellow petals and orange center, dotted landscapes. The diced tuber turned into a quick stew or a calorie-rich gravy (that remains popular in Cajun country today.)

So, Stilly rode his horse with confident optimim when he left Ponchatoula and headed south, deep into Plaquemines (means "Persimmon") Parish. (Plaquemines Parish is the long toe of the boot that protrudes into the Gulf of Mexico.) A major poker tournament beckoned. The event was a three-day, best two out of three, winner-take-all-tournament. Players from as far west as Vermilion Parish, 150 miles away, headed in the same direction as Stilly and toward ambitious dreams. Days later, these swamp-hardened players converged outside Pointe a' la Hache, a town, but more of an outpost, that centered activity in Plaquemines Parish.

Players chose the Point a' la Hache area for its higher ground because water covered 60% of Plaquemines Parish. (Why the players chose this God-forsaken area from a list of challenging, swamp-infested contenders remains anybody's guess.) Nevermind. This was 1857, not 1869, when oil would be discovered up in Pennyslvania. Way Back Then, the Atakapa and Appalousa Indians, Cajuns, fur trappers, and poker players like Stilly hadn't a clue that liquid gold ran beneath the open marshes and thick bayous, out into the Gulf of Mexico, the world's seventh largest body of water. Stilly's grandiose future meant winning a pot-rich tournament, one of the largest ever.

And,indeed, Lady Luck had smiled upon Stilly. At the end of the first day of tournament play in Plaquemines Parish, my great-great grandfather had won a significant amount of gold coins and quit claims for marsh land and swamp that spread westward for 75 miles. Stilly went to sleep that night a proud man, a victorious man, the tournament's leading player. All he had to do was maintain his winning streak one more day. All that he had won and whatever else he could win would be his: As much gold as his horse could carry; as much land as the mind could imagine.

Early the next morning, though, someone shot Stilly while he slept.

Someone shot my great, great grandfather dead.

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