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Happy Birthday To You, The Hustler

Today is a very special day. Way, waay back in 1918, a pretty great guy began his life. October 17 is the day my Dad came into this world. Today is his 105th birthday! So, happy birthday to you, Dad!

My father was born on the prairie in Southern Saskatchewan, his family just arrived from North Dakota, looking for new opportunities. This was the land of possibility, and my Dad went on to make the most of those opportunities.

happy birthday to you Dad
Dad on the prairie-7 years old

His birth certificate was an interesting document. Most of us have a city or town as the “Place of Birth”. My dad’s birth certificate listed a set of coordinates as his place of birth. There was no town, no village, no hospital. Nothing but prairie. How’s that for a memorable “happy birthday to you”?

Welcome to Dog River

He did grow up in a small town, later immortalized in the brilliant Canadian TV show called “Corner Gas”. The town is not called “Dog River”, as it is in the show, but Rouleau, Saskatchewan.

Happy birthday to you Dad

Named after a judge from the Northwest Territories, Rouleau doesn’t really have a lot going on. It’s only national claim to fame was Corner Gas.

I made my way to Rouleau in the winter of 1986, about 7 years before “Corner Gas” was filmed. I wanted to see where my Dad came from. My timing wasn’t the best.

In fact, I had just been laid off from my railroad job for about the third time in 2 years, and I was tired of the same ole. So I had quit the CPR and packed up my belongings and dropped them at my sister Deb’s place in Calgary. And since I was collecting unemployment insurance, I decided to head back to Montreal until I figured out what was next.

Dad and Mom wedding day
Mom and Dad on their wedding day, 1942

Spinning My Wheels

On my second day out from Calgary, I awoke before the sun and continued east on the Trans Canada Highway. This particular stretch, east of Swift Current, runs almost dead straight. Every now and then, the road would shift slightly. But my car didn’t follow easily. It felt like my steering wasn’t responding when I turned the wheel, until I turned it sharply. Then the car would correct itself.

But even when I turned the wheel back, the car kept going in the other direction. Soon I was swinging the wheel wildly back and forth, and the car swung slowly to the right, then the left. What the Hell was going on?

And in no time, I was spinning down the empty highway, until my tires hit the gravel at the edge of the median. The car lurched to a stop off the left of the fast lane. My heart was racing. What had happened to my steering? Had the steering shaft come unfastened?

Beach Haven, New Jersey, 1965

I got out of the car and walked around to the front. The hood of my car was over the asphalt edge of the highway. When I came around the front and stepped on the grey asphalt, my foot slid out from under me. I grabbed the hood for support, narrowly avoiding a painful leg split. The road was a sheet of invisible ice.

I stepped out on the highway and slid across the lane, effortlessly. Holy crap!

An 18 wheeler drove slowly past, no more than 20 miles per hour. I laughed out loud, mostly from relief. Better to find out the road is a skating rink this way than wrapping myself around a light pole!

happy birthday to you Dad

The Road To Rouleau

I got back on the highway, cruising as carefully as I could to the next exit. With the roads coated in ice, I wasn’t taking any chances.

And the exit ahead indicated the road to Rouleau. Rouleau! My Dad’s (sort of) birthplace! Maybe I can make it there. If I do, I’ll sing “Happy Birthday To You” in the middle of main street!

And so, at a top speed of about 18 miles per hour, I limped into the little town of Rouleau, Saskatchewan, my engine overheating and my nerves frayed. A small motel next to the local ice rink had a room. Once checked in, I ventured out, gingerly and on foot, to find something to eat.

Happy birthday to you dad
Birthday party. I don’t know whose… whoever it was, happy birthday to you!

I spent that cold, grey day exploring the tiny town, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There wasn’t much to see. Vastly underwhelming, but hey! It’s where my dad came from! I was thrilled to see it.

So anyway… This has been an epic sideways turn from the subject of my post; my Dad. Sorry Dad…

I wrote about my Dad in a post some years back, called Who Is Your Hero? If you haven’t read it, I would appreciate your indulgence…

My Dad meant the world to me. As a man who grew up during the depression, and spent some unimaginable years at sea during World War II, he was inspiring. I was always a little in awe of my Dad. He did things I couldn’t relate to. He was a resourceful guy who did what he needed to do to get by and survive. Everything from Coca Cola salesman, to pool shark!

happy birthday to you dad
Dad with my sister Patti

The Hustler

I played pool with my Dad any chance I got. As a young kid, he would humour me and let me get ahead. He’d be 6 balls down, and then he’d beat me. Every time!

We used to play at my parent’s friends house, just up the street. The Pages. Nice people. Drinking buddies to Mom and Dad. Anyway, they had a pool table. I always liked going there as a kid, so I could play pool with my Dad. But in all those games, I couldn’t beat him. And in all those games, I’d be ahead, 3, 4, 5 balls. But then I’d miss a shot, and that would be it for me. Game over.

Happy birthday to you dad-50th anniversary
Mom and Dad’s 50th anniversary

Every time, Dad would suck me in. He’d tell me how much better I was playing, how this was going to be the time when the kid defeats his dad. My confidence would soar. And then he’d finish me off. Every time.

Things Go Better With Coke

One of his first jobs was Coca Cola salesman. His territory was the small towns and back corners of Southern Saskatchewan. He’d drive his little truck to a town and sell his wares to the local Chinese restaurants. Every little town on the prairies had a Chinese restaurant. Dad sold some of the first Coke machines to these little restaurants and grocery stores.

Sometimes he’d stay in the local hotel for the night, before going on to the next town. And he’d find his way to the local watering hole, where there was always a pool table. Those pool tables in those little bars in those little towns earned him a little extra dough. Because he would go in and hustle the locals. Just like he hustled me when I was a kid. At least it never cost me money…

Happy birthday to you dad
The Hustler

I wonder sometimes if he was ever chased out of town? Probably not, because he was a pretty charming person. His victims probably weren’t aware they were being hustled! At least I like to think so…

Passing The Torch?

I got to be a pretty decent pool player. Working on the railroad, I also saw my fair share of small towns. And each of those small towns also had a local bar or pub, also with the requisite pool tables.

happy birthday to you Dad

There were a few places we visited pretty regularly that had weekly local pool tournaments. Places like Yale, Boston Bar, Chase, and Spences Bridge. Three or four of our crew would play in the tournaments, and we usually took all the prizes. My foreman, Murray, was a pretty good player, as was my roommate, Mooch.

So between the three of us, we could easily take home a few hundred bucks for a night’s playing. We actually got banned from playing the tournament in Yale! Sore losers…

I bought a decent pool table when I rented an old house in Vancouver. The house had a large dining room that was a perfect space for a table. And so I played pretty much every day. I practiced double banks, different shots with different English on the cue ball, breaks, and trick shots. Anybody who came over and played a game, I would beat them. Consistently. I mean, I practiced. A LOT.

When I was in my thirties and home visiting my Mom and Dad, I had the opportunity to play some pool with my Dad. It had been years since we had played. Dad was in his 70’s, and I was in my prime. I knew this was my time.

Big family Christmas in Calgary, 1983
Christmas 1983 in Calgary

The Last Game

Dad asked if I wanted to break. I knew his strategy. Let me break, sink a couple of balls, and then he cleans table. But I figured if he broke, he’d probably miss a ball at some point to allow me to sink a few balls. Then he’d finish me off. At least that was what he thought. So I said, “No Dad, you go ahead and break.” He raised an eyebrow at me and lined up the shot.

A hard break and he sunk a solid. He lined up his next shot, and I could tell by the angle he was going to miss it. And sure enough, the next shot was mine. But this time I had a plan and a strategy.

And I ran the table, clearing off all my stripes, with only the 8 ball left. Dad smiled at me and said, “You’ve gotten pretty good!” I smiled back and said nothing. And, lining up my shot on the eight ball, I confidently stroked the cue. The black ball went straight to the corner pocket and didn’t go in! What!!?? Crap!!

Dad looked dismayed as he exclaimed, “Oh no!” But his eyes twinkled. He lined up his shot.

Six solid balls disappeared down the pockets, with just the 8 ball left, tottering on the edge of the pocket. I couldn’t believe it. And with the lightest of touches from the cue ball, he sunk the eight. Game over.

Happy Birthday To You Dad

I played pool with my Dad several times over the years, up to that last game, never beating him. But when we played, I always thought I had a chance of winning.

And then I practiced daily, honing my skills on my own table. Moreover Dad probably hadn’t played in 10 years before that last game with me. So I felt pretty damn sure I was going to beat him. As usual, he led me to feel that way. He was in control the whole time.

A hustler’s ability is letting his opponent think they’re in control. Let him think it’s a fluke that the hustler won. Because no one wants to admit or believe they were hustled. But playing that last game, I knew. And so, once again, he hustled me.

Good on you Dad! And happy birthday to you! I hope you’re still winning, wherever you are.

Happy Birthday to you, Dad!

All photos courtesy of my wonderful sister, Debbie

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8 months ago

That was a nice story.

8 months ago

very cool story – thanks!

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