The National Game of Texas

In 1887, in the tiny North Texas town of Trappe Spring, two young boys had a problem. Twelve-year-old William Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl both really liked playing cards – not games of gambling, but trick-taking card games similar to Bridge, Spades, Whist, and the like. The problem was, both young men came from devout Baptist families, and playing cards was absolutely forbidden. What to do?

Playing dominoes was allowed in their homes, but the boys found regular dominoes to be, well, boring. So they set out to invent a new game, using the strategy and skill of their favorite card games, but utilizing dominoes instead of the sinful pasteboards. After a few months of trial and error, they had their game, which they taught to their families. Their families enjoyed this new game and taught it to their neighbors. They liked it, too.

When their families moved to Fannin County, they took the game with them, and taught it to their new neighbors. It caught on there, too, and gradually spread across the whole state. And thus was born “The National Game of Texas” – 42.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Texans of all backgrounds and social levels would meet to play. In rural communities and big cities, neighbors would bring covered dishes to someone’s house on Saturday nights after work and eat together. Then, after the dishes were done and while the kids played outside, the grown-ups would sit and sip their sweet iced tea (these are mostly Baptists, remember!), and play 42. The game was played in homes, at churches, on picnics, and around campfires.

When the Texas boys went off to World War II, they took the game with them. There are lots of stories about G.I.s teaching the game to their buddies from New York and California. But at its heart, it was – and is – a Texas game, officially recognized by the state legislature as the “Official Domino Game of Texas.”

And although some think of it as a game for older people, it’s actually making a comeback among younger players. In fact, every year in Halletsville, there is a state championship, to crown the best “42” player in the state.

Like many great games, 42 is easy to learn and hard to master. The game is played with four people – two teams of two people each. You draw seven dominoes, then you bid on how many “tricks” you can take for your team. There’s a total of 42 points for each round – hence, the name. Knowing how to bid well is the key to being a good player.

If you want to know more about the history and strategy of playing 42, you need to get a copy of Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson. There are also online versions of the game, where you can practice against computer-generated players.

The competition, skill and strategy of a well-played game is certainly enjoyable. But for many, the real pleasure of the game is the time spent with friends – the fun of getting together with neighbors to talk, to visit, and to share life together.

We played “regular” dominoes in my family when I was growing up, not 42, but a few years ago, I got to play a few hands when I was visiting a friend at her nursing home. I discovered how much I enjoyed the strategy of the game, along with enjoying the fellowship of visiting with friends, old and new. I’m still not very good at it, but I do like the game.

During the past year, we’ve all been forced to spend too much time apart from others, but as we go forward from here, maybe we need to re-discover the simple pleasures of good friends spending time together, enjoying conversation and a good game.

William and Walter would be proud.

Come Before Him with Thanksgiving

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;
Let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
Let us come before Him with thanksgiving
and extol Him with music and song. - Psalm 95:1, 2

Thanksgiving is one of my very favorite holidays, for a variety of reasons and sweet memories.

Some of my earliest memories of this day go back to my grandparents, Archie & Sallie McMillan. When I was a young child, for some reason, I wouldn’t call her “Grandma.” I heard other people call her, “Sallie,” which I tried to do, but she didn’t like that. I started calling her “Sa-Sa,” and the name stuck. So we would go to Sa-Sa & Pa-Pa’s house.

My grandmother, Sallie McMillan – “Sa-Sa”

I don’t really remember usually having turkey for that meal – I recall that she usually fixed a big hen, and usually in a pressure cooker to make it fall-off-the-bone tender. But what I REALLY remember about Thanksgiving at Sa-Sa’s house was her fruit salad. It had lots of big chunks of apples and bananas and fruit cocktail, along with chopped walnuts and coconut.

Of course, we had lots of other stuff to eat, and plenty of desserts, but I always loved her fruit salad. What was especially great was, if there was any left over, she would freeze it, and we would eat it at Christmas. Pa-Pa died in 1969, and Sa-Sa passed in about 1988, but I still remember them both, especially today. And I’m thankful for her, and for such sweet memories.

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: rejoice! Let your
gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious
about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with
thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,
which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your
minds in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

Thanksgiving also means football, of course; in our family, that meant the Cowboys. The greatest one was Thanksgiving, 1974, when George Allen’s “Over the Hill Gang” laid a vicious 3rd quarter hit on Roger Staubach and knocked him out of the game. The ’Skins were up 16-3 at the time, when an untested rookie from ACU came into the game as the Cowboys’ backup quarterback, Clint Longley. He had earned the nickname of “The Mad Bomber” from his teammates, because of his default tendency to throw deep in practice.

What happened next, Cowboys fans still talk about. And Redskins fans have never gotten over.

This rookie put together what might be the most improbably comeback in team history. After leading the ’Boys to two other touchdowns, with just 35 seconds to play, Longley found a streaking Drew Pearson racing down the sidelines, and he scored. We won 24-23. It’s still one of the greatest wins in Cowboys history.

Four years later, Kathy and I were celebrating our first Thanksgiving as husband and wife. I was a senior at Dallas Christian College, and she and I were in a singing group known as Revelation. Thanksgiving weekend, 1978, we were in the recording studio, cutting a record. (Do I need to explain what “records” were for any of the under 40 crowd?) Since we couldn’t go anywhere for the day, Mom & Dad came to Dallas, and we had Thanksgiving in our tiny apartment.

Fast forward to 2010. My mom had passed away just two months earlier, and we were sharing our first holiday without her. My brother David and his wife Gina hosted the whole wild & woolly bunch of us at their home in Spring. He fried a turkey, my nephew made some amazing cranberry dressing on the stove, and everybody fixed their favorite recipes. I made one of my Jack Daniels Chocolate Pecan Pies. We shared the day and the warmth of shared memories as we surrounded our dad and comforted each other and gave thanks for the legacy we shared and the sweetness of her presence still in our midst.

I am thankful for family, for friends, for sweet memories and for wonderful times together. I am thankful for my job and for all of the blessings we enjoy. I am thankful for Jesus. And I know that the blessings I have received are not mine exclusively to enjoy but have been given so that I can in turn be a blessing to others.

I hope your holiday is filled with everything wonderful, and that whatever the circumstances, you can give thanks with a glad and sincere heart. Happy Thanksgiving!

 Enter His gates with thanksgiving,
 and His courts with praise;
 Give thanks to Him and praise His Name.
 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
 His faithfulness continues through all generations.
 Psalm 100:4-5 

What’s Cooking?

Sometimes, if you stay open to trying new things, you’ll discover something about yourself that you never knew before.

Case in point: I’ve discovered that I love to cook.

Now, don’t get me wrong – I’ve always loved to grill. I think most guys do – there’s just something about an open fire, and being outside, and sizzling meat cooking on a hot steel grill that appeals to a lot of men. But I’m talking about more than that.

Several years ago, my family and I moved into a neighborhood ministry called “The Friendship House,” on Abilene’s north side near Hendrick Hospital. Part of my job was to host regular block parties and other get-togethers where we would eat and visit and get to know one another – and that meant I had to fix a main course, and the neighbors would bring the side dishes.

So I learned to cook. And in the process, I also learned how much I enjoy planning and preparing the meals, trying out new recipes, and experimenting with different ingredients and techniques. (I’ve also discovered that sometimes, even failures can still taste pretty good!)

Then a few years later, when I resigned from that job and moved back to Southeast Texas to be my elderly dad’s caregiver, I was able to fix his favorite meals and make his closing days a little more enjoyable. It was a real treat for me, to share those dinners with him.

Enjoying a meal with family and friends has a number of genuine benefits. For one thing, food creates community. I’ve seen it more than once – people arrive as strangers and leave as friends. There’s something about the act of eating a meal together that helps people tear down the walls they’ve built and get to know others in a way that few other activities can.

It should come as no surprise that, in the Bible, one of the most common images God uses to describe heaven is a fabulous feast. For example, in Isaiah 25:6, we read, “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine — the best of meats and the finest of wines.” The prophet goes on to say that in that day, God will “swallow up death forever,” and He will wipe away every tear from our eyes.

And speaking of creating community: in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.”

Here’s another reason I enjoy it: cooking links generations together. My mom has been gone for over ten years, but when I drag out one of her recipes, in her own handwriting, and make that special item, it’s like she is right there with me. And when my kids eat it, they know that at some level, it’s with love from Maw-Maw. The same with that Roast Venison recipe from Grandpa Garison, or Aunt Bib’s Christmas Divinity. We tell the family stories about those loved ones, and it’s like they are with us again, in a very special way.

I have an Hispanic friend who told me about growing up in a home where they always fixed tamales for Christmas, and how multiple generations would be working together in the kitchen. Everyone had a specific job to do, she said, and one of the ways you knew you were getting older was that you were given a more important job to do in helping make the tamales. And as she talked about working with her beloved “Abuela” (grandmother) and her precious “Tía” (aunt), both long since deceased, it was obvious that this was more than just something good to eat.

My wife and I were talking the other day about what a significant part food has played in so many of our family gatherings. Everyone has a favorite dish, and so as we fix that item, a little extra love goes into it while we think about that family member. Sharing together in a good meal makes for very special memories that can span generations, and even lifetimes.

One final blessing: food connects us with our Creator. When we are cooking a meal from scratch, we know that there is more to it than just opening a can or removing the plastic and sticking something in the microwave. When we have handled those raw veggies, just the way they came from a green plant – whether we picked them out at the grocery store, or the farmer’s market, or our own garden – when we have peeled it and put love and time into preparing it, then we are reminded of God’s gracious bounty. When we have cut and cooked that meat, or scrambled those eggs, or whatever we’re doing, it’s an opportunity to be connected more closely with the “Giver of every good and perfect gift.” It’s also a good time to be thankful to the farmers, the ranchers, the grocers and others who were God’s partners in helping to grow and provide that food for us.

The holidays are coming, and even in this season of a terrible pandemic, even when we can’t be together, we can still be thankful for the blessings of food, family and friends.

Sounds of the Season

Okay, it’s time for me to come out of the closet.

I love Christmas.

For years, I’ve enjoyed being a curmudgeon, wearing my Grinch tie, cheering for Ebenezer Scrooge when he says, “If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with ‘Merry Christmas’ on his lips, would be boiled in his own pudding.  And buried with a stake of holly in his heart!”

But the truth is, I love Christmas.  Not the commericialism, or the insane busy-ness of it, of course.  Those things, I did and do despise.  But I love the decorations, the family traditions, the get-togethers with friends.  Every year, we read the Christmas story from Matthew and Luke.  Every year, we watch “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “A Christmas Carol” (the 1984 George C. Scott made-for-TV version is my favorite).  Every year, we marvel at the miracle of the King in the manger, and share candlelit communion, and give thanks that the Word became flesh.

And the music.  The songs of Christmas may be my favorite part of the whole thing.

I have recently upgraded this blog, and I now have the ability to put music on here (and video, for that matter).  So, in celebration of the season, at the bottom right of this page, you will find ten of my favorite Christmas songs, in no particular order.  Some of them are sacred, some are not; some are traditional, others are new.

In my next column, I will tell the story behind my favorite Christmas carol, but meanwhile, from me to you, here’s some Christmas cheer.

Rejoice.