The following was published in the The Big Bend Sentinel, 28 Sep 06, and posted here with permission from the author. Click here for 42 part.

The Rambling Boy

The merits of RC Cola, cold plums and playing Forty-Two

by Lonn Taylor

The summer after I graduated from high school I got a job as a rodman on a Texas Highway Department survey party and I started learning about life. I did not exactly have a sheltered childhood, but it was definitely a middle-class one, and I had never met anyone like the men I worked with on that survey party before. I earned $110 a month, which in 1957 was pretty good for a 17-year old kid who was living at home and had no responsibilities, but some of the men on the party were supporting families on that amount. One of them had a sick wife and baby at home, and our party chief, a good-hearted man called G.W. who was a Missionary Baptist preacher in his spare time, broke all of the Highway Department’s rules and let him bring a .22 rifle along on the job and shoot rabbits at lunch time in order to put meat on his dinner table.

Another fellow-worker, a tall, rangy old boy named Ferris Hendricks, supplemented his income by playing the guitar in a hillbilly band that played in bars and occasionally appeared in Cowtown Hoedown at the Majestic Theatre. He belonged to some Pentecostal church that did not hold with playing music in honky-tonks, and he worried a good deal about that, but he couldn’t keep away from them. Hendricks had long sideburns, which he claimed he had grown before Elvis Presley popularized them. He also claimed that he had written “Crazy Arms” and that Ray Price had stolen it from him, and every time we stopped in a café we had to play “Crazy Arms” on the juke box for him, usually several times.

We didn’t stop in cafes often, because we usually ate our lunches on the job. We spent most of the summer running a survey line for a new Farm-to-Market road that crossed the Trinity River west of Forth Worth, and we could usually find a big shady tree in the river bottom to eat lunch under. A morning ritual was stopping at a 7-11 store on the way to the job to pick out our lunchtime soft-drinks. I favored Dr. Pepper, but my colleagues all drank R.C. Cola. R.C. had just come out with a new bottle shape that summer, a sort of faceted bottle with about a dozen sides, and there was a continuing discussion on the survey party about whether R.C. tasted better in the old round bottles or the new faceted ones. Each member of the party would have to fish around in the ice-cold water of the soft-drink cooler at the 7-11 until they found the bottle that suited them, so it took us longer to get on the road than most parties. We also bought ripe plums at the 7-11, wrapped them in tinfoil, and dropped them into the water cooler that we carried in the back of the station wagon. I have never tasted anything since then that was as good as an ice-cold plum on a hot summer day.

I learned a great deal from the men I worked with that summer, some of which is best not retold in a family newspaper. I learned how to drive a stick-shift automobile, because the nearest pay telephone to our job was in a liquor store on the Benbrook Highway, and G.W. knew enough about human nature not to send an overheated man who was old enough to buy alcohol into a place that sold cold beer. So if a call had to made back to the resident engineer’s office I was the designated telephoner. I had learned to drive in our family’s 1955 De Soto, which had an automatic transmission, and the first time I got in the station wagon I was embarrassed to admit I didn’t know how to shift the gears, and so it bucked and stalled until G.W. showed me how to use the clutch and gearshift.

I also learned how to play a domino game called Forty-Two, and that is the real subject of this reminiscence. Every day at lunch we would take a square of plywood out of the station wagon, set it on top of a wooden crate that was also kept in there, and hunker down on our heels around it for 30 minutes of Forty-Two. Forty-Two was known as the national game of the Texas Highway Department, and there was something comforting in knowing that as we were shuffling the dominos survey parties and maintenance crews all over the state were doing exactly the same thing, much in the same way that all schoolchildren in France are learning the same lesson at the same time each day.

Forty-Two, for you new Texans, is a four-handed domino game that involves bidding, trumps, and taking tricks, a sort of simplified form of bridge. It seems to have originated in Texas in the 1880s, and while there are a variety of creation myths concerning it they all seem to agree that its beginnings have to do with the sinfulness of playing cards – the Devil’s picture book, as the hardshell Baptists called them – or the illegality of playing card games in public places. My mother told me that Forty-Two was invented because it was against the law to play cards on trains in Texas, and so certain wily Texans figured out a way to gamble on dominos.

Paul Proft, a San Antonio Forty-Two enthusiast who has a website about the game at (one of several such sites), told me about a 1985 story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that pinpoints its origin in Garner, Texas in 1887, when two boys were caught playing cards in the barn by their Baptist parents and, smarting from their punishment, invented Forty-Two. On the other hand Halletsville, Texas, about 250 miles southeast of Garner, claims to be the cradle of Forty-Two. It doesn’t really matter where it was born; it grew to be a robust adult and it’s a great way to pass a lunch hour or a cold winter evening.

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