The Patsy … (Or a Full House on the Train to Notre Dame)

Back in the late ’40s and early ’50s, we would either hitchhike home from Notre Dame, or four or five of us would split the cost of a car rental. The rental cars had governors that restricted the speed to 60 mph. This was before interstate highways, so we started our drive in the evenings hitting cities and towns when traffic was light. The driver had the gas pedal to the floor the entire trip.

I remember the driver’s warning “Railroad Tracks,” and those who were awake would grab the shoulders of the sleepers to prevent them from bouncing off the roof as we hit the ramp approach to railroad tracks and bounced down the other side.

The car rental company soon stopped renting cars to students. My dad would send me money to get passage home by bus or train, but we hitchhiked and pocketed the cash. We always took the train to return to school in South Bend, Ind., ensuring that we arrived on time. We would depart the Wheeling station of the Pennsylvania Railroad in the evening and arrive early in the morning at Plymouth, Ind., to wait on the street for the bus to take us to South Bend. We got home for Christmas and Easter vacations, except for the boys from Kentucky who saved their “cuts” to attend the Derby.

During one of the train trips out, Bob Duffy, who was a real hot shot, wanted to get a poker game started, so he pushed a passenger seat back so that two seats faced each other. With a suitcase on our knees we had a “table,” and a fifth player sat on an upended suitcase in the aisle.

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Vernon Burkhart from Barnesville, Ohio, who was a quiet, studious fellow, later became a priest. He had his nose buried in a book. Bob thought he could gain a few bucks from this unsophisticated yokel, so he persuaded them to play.

Vernon says he didn’t know how to play poker, but Duffy, drooling, reassured him that he would teach him. Bob even wrote out a little crib for Vernon to use that described the various poker hands and their rankings.

The game began, and as time passed, Vernon did quite well with his play. I believe he developed a bluff by just pulling out his crib to make certain his hand was as good as he thought. His play was sprinkled with innocent questions like, “May I put more money in now?”

As luck would have it, most of the big pots ended up with Duffy and Vernon, the last two in. A gallery developed as the naive rube began to take the shark over the coals.

It was the final hand, and everything Duffy had was in the pot, when Vernon made the third and final raise, and Duffy called him.

Vernon said, “I have two pairs, a pair of jacks and a pair of sixes. … Duffy called a straight, laid down his cards and reached gleefully for the pot when Vernon finished his sentence … and another “jack high,” a full house, which, of course beats a straight.

I have always wondered what kind of priest Vernon became.