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Wintertime Diversions

Farm families had strategies for dealing with cabin fever.

Back in the epoch known as B.C.E. – Before Computerized Entertainment – the human race had to create its own diversions.

It’s important to have diversions during our interminable northern winters, when cabin fever can grip an entire household. Cabin fever can raise stress levels to the point where a certain boy might be ordered by his parents to cool down by going for a long walk outdoors. The prospect of freezing one’s heinie has a way of swiftly cooling one down.

How did we entertain ourselves during long winters without the internet or even (gasp!) gaming consoles? When an outbreak of cabin fever seemed imminent, we would deploy a set of handheld analog numerical placards. That is, a deck of playing cards.

We at first learned games like Crazy Eights, Old Maid, and Rummy. Sensitivities were blatantly flouted back then. Otherwise, we would have played Psychologically Unstable Octo-Numerical Rectangles, Superannuated Matrimonially-Challenged Female and Sugarcane-Based Distilled Alcoholic Beverage.

We also played Go Fish (Ichthyoid Acquisition) and Slap Jack (Physical Aggression Involving Male Persons of Royal Lineage). But it was Dad who taught us real card games, such as Poker (Elongated Steel Fireplace Tool) and Blackjack (Jacques Noir).

One winter afternoon, after my seven siblings and I had wearied of our usual card games, Dad took the cards and began to shuffle them. He performed that sort of shuffle wherein you interlace two halves of the deck then bend them slightly upwards, creating a fluttering cascade. We hadn’t realized that Dad possessed such abilities. Until then, we’d assumed that his talents were limited to dairy farmer-related skills like catching a cow’s tail right before it smacked his face or squirting a stream of milk into a begging barn cat’s open mouth.

Dad dealt two cards to each of us, explaining that the goal was to get 21 points without going over. We quickly caught on, including those of us (me) who felt that all math was a form of torture.

After we’d learned blackjack, Dad showed us the basics of poker. As he dealt the cards, he told us how he’d learned to play during his stint in the Navy. After his discharge, he returned to the family farm. One day, he decided to teach his younger siblings how to play five-card stud. He’d just begun to deal when his mother scooped up the cards and summarily tossed them into the cookstove.

“We don’t gamble in this house!” Grandma admonished as the cards went up the chimney.

I tried to imagine how Dad may have felt. Perhaps he’d purchased those cards during a layover at Pearl Harbor and had carried them as his battleship toured the South Pacific. Maybe that deck of cards had helped alleviate seaborne boredom, the worst type of cabin fever imaginable. After all, you can’t go for a long walk at midocean.

On the other hand, maybe he bought the cards at a random gift shop on his way home.

We found the new card games deeply fascinating. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, Dad introduced another dimension: wagering.

We were each given a small quantity of matchsticks. If you thought you had a winning hand, you could place a matchstick (or several!) at the center of the table. This area was called the pot, although it bore no resemblance to cookware. The player with the best hand got to claim all of the matches in the pot. 

A big pot might involve enough matchsticks to create a Barbie doll-size campfire. For the first time ever, I didn’t get into trouble for playing with matches.

We learned that there was more to poker than having the highest hand. One also had to read one’s tablemates to determine if they were bluffing or if they held cards that could wipe out your fire-making capabilities for years to come. 

This was relatively easy with our two youngest sisters, who were grade-schoolers at the time. If they were dealt an especially good hand, they might smile and wiggle and exclaim “Oh, boy!” And if the little sister stared glumly at her cards, it was safe to wager your entire trove of matchsticks.

Once, our youngest sister picked up her cards and emitted a small giggle. If she were a puppy, her tail would have been wagging like windshield wipers set on High.

Everybody folded. Then little sister then plopped down a winning hand that contained – nothing! She had bluffed us!

I learned that creating your own diversions often involves the successful interpretation of interpersonal communications. And that a long walk in the chilly outdoors can ease the sting of losing all of your matchsticks to a second-grader.        

Jerry’s book, Dear County Agent Guy, is available at and in bookstores nationwide.

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