When I was about to turn 40, I was struck with a Great Certainty……..namely, that I needed to drag about six of my best friends down to a beach in Mexico and carry on as if we were all not nearly so long in the tooth as we were. Oddly enough, given their kids, jobs and various other commitments, I was able to get five amigos on board and a date was selected to fly down to Cancun and end up at a small German beach-side resort just south of the little town of Playa del Carmen.
Here we are in the Austin airport bar on the way down:
Sidebar:There is so much of this tale that I simply can’t relate in this forum, due not only to space but also decorum constraints, but one episode stands out in my mind to this day. It has a real David vs. Goliath aspect to it, and many of us are after all hard-wired to root for the little guy.
But first, a short prelude:
When I set up the trip, one stipulation that I was very serious about in talking to the guys (one in particular…..let’s call him Rosencrantz, whom you may remember from my previous “Lonely Hats of Doom” blog) was that there was to be NO dice games that involved penalty drinking. I felt, quite reasonably, that we had all put in sufficient time with that activity in our 20s and that it would not only be unduly damaging to the corpus to revisit it in our 40s but would also look pretty damn questionable to those around us (at the time, I didn’t know that “those around us” would consist entirely of newlyweds and large 90-year-old Canadian women wearing thongs, but more on that later). No dice were to be brought.
Spread across four cities, all agreed via e-mail to this condition. 1.5 of them were lying through their proverbial teeth, as it turns out.
Finally, the day came. We were seated in groups of twos, scattered across the small-ish charter plane as we winged our way over the Gulf of Mexico. We’d only had a couple of preparatory beers in the Austin airport, and so reason and propriety still prevailed. Until…….
Somewhere very far from land, I started to hear a commotion toward the front of the plane. Now, if any of you have every flown on one of these package deal, all-inclusive charter flights down to a Mexican beach resort, you can attest to the fact that the flight down is MUCH more festive and raucous than the flight back. Much. So when I first heard the surge in the already-substantial hubbub of merriment and good feeling, I didn’t consciously register any concern. But then, certain elements of the soundscape coming from up the aisle triggered deep sense-memories in the hindquarters of my brain. I began to feel signs of stress and queasiness that were not there a moment before.
Listening harder, I realized what I was hearing. Over the general anticipatory conversations and ancillary drinking going on all over the plane, I could distinctly hear the sound of a dice cup being slammed onto a flat surface, followed by spirited crowd reactions.
I had heard these sounds before. Hell, I had MADE these sounds before, a couple of decades back. On numerous occasions. And it was then that I knew, without even having gotten out of my seat,that The Covenant had been broken and that dice had indeed been brought on the trip. And not only that……they had already been broken out and put to their insidious use.
With a fatalistic flash, I saw how the entire tenor of this trip was going to change from the relaxing, not-too-punishing party on the beach with my friends into a retrograde revisiting of our, shall we say, “hard-charging” youth. But hell, it was literally my 40th birthday that fateful day in July, and so I ventured up the aisle to see what was going on.
Immediately I could see that many passengers had left their seats and crowded around one row near the front of the plane. I didn’t need to see past the crowd to know who was at the center of it all. If anyone was going to break the dice prohibition, it was Rosencrantz. And if it wasn’t done in active collusion with Holmes (we’ll call him…..), I was at least damn sure that he raised no objections to it. And sure enough, the two of them were playing a bold, two man version of the infamous dice game on a seat tray.
A short digression about the dice game: while it has many regional variations, the essentials of these games are the same—in that two dice are rolled under a cup onto a table, and the roller has to beat or tie the roll that came before. If you think a person is lying about a roll made to you, you pick the cup straight up. If you are going to believe the roll, you tilt the cup and retrieve the dice (or, if you’re an experienced player with great panache, you don’t look at the dice at all), following which you now have to beat that roll whether the person had it or not. If you get caught lying, you drink. If you call someone a liar who was not in fact lying, you drink. As played by this cabal of guys, the drinks were measured……no honor system based on sips. And if the roll in question is a 21(a 2 and a 1), then the penalty is a large shot of tequila (if a beer bong is not available, which it was not on the airplane as even Rosencrantz couldn’t sneak one of those into a carry-on). And of course the usual “off the table” penalties apply if someone loses control of the dice.
Anyone who has played this game knows that a two-man version of it is quite brutal, in that it would take one hell of a lucky streak to avoid getting quickly sauced. And anyone who has played this game with Rosencrantz knows what an inveterate cheater his is, having an astonishing ability to slip a pinky under the cup and alter the dice while distracting the other player(s) with crafty talk. Holmes, of course, had played this game with his row-mate many times over the years and knew very well how intent he was on cheating almost continually, and so he kept his eyes locked on the other man’s pinkies.
And so this two-man dice game was a heavyweight bout between two very wily veterans, and was being vigorously played as such. There was a great deal of gamesmanship (gratuitous lying, etc.) in evidence, as had always been the case in our particular cabal. And this style of play had attracted a large crowd of people who seemed to have gotten very emotionally involved in the various triumphs, tragedies and controversies of the game. By the time I got up there and leaned down to curse Rosencrantz for breaking the agreement and bringing dice, he merely responded that “We’ve already floated the plane of all its beer, and now we’re playing for tequila……with a 21, you have to do a shot of scotch.” Dead soldier little airplane bottles were piled up faster than the flight attendants (some of whom were in the cheering crowd) could clear them.
I watched a few rounds of the game until it came to an end because: a) we were getting ready to land soon; and b) the plane was now also out of tequila, and the players didn’t have the stomach to play entirely with scotch.
When we landed in Mexico, got our bags and found our shuttle van, the driver was induced by Aggie (let’s call him…..) to stop outside of Cancun and buy a 12-pack of beer at a small tienda next to one of the numerous (largely unmanned) machine gun posts that dotted the highway as it shot straight through the jungle. And so the game continued in the back of the van, played on the lid of a Styrofoam cooler that was purchased along with the beer. A koozie was used in lieu of a plastic cup.
But anyway, this was not the part of the story I wanted to tell you. What I wanted to tell you was THIS:
Our nice little German resort, which was made up of a series of two-story fourplexes that never rose above the level of the palm trees, was completely full of newlyweds on their honeymoons. The only exception to this (until the last night of the trip, which is outside the scope of this telling) was the group of 250 lb. (or should I say 113.398 kg.?) Canadian ladies who we guessed were all in their 90s and who (we did NOT have to guess) were all wearing thongs. Really. With no self-consciousness. Does it make us bad people to have avoided this sight to the extend we could each day? Maybe so, but we remain unrepentant. I suspect our beer guts were not aesthetically pleasing either, I will fully admit.
These preliminaries aside, what I am here today to tell you about happened on the second night of the trip. The first night was spent out under a palapa bar near the water, where the ongoing dice game and general rowdy style of play caused us to get a fair amount of attention from the other guests, but with any hard feelings being assuaged by Rosencrantz laying a heavy propina on the bartender when he tried the usual all-inclusive resort bar trick of closing the bar at 11pm. Suffice to say that it stayed open quite a bit later.
There was much rejoicing.
The next day, we fooled around in the water and got respectably sunburned. That evening, we were back at the palapa commencing the game, fueled by a large box of supplies that a contingent of our group had bought in Playa del Carmen late that afternoon via taxi.
As the game got going in earnest, a very large guy in his early 20s approached us, hand-in-hand with a blond cheerleader-looking girl of the same age. He somewhat formally introduced himself to our ragtag crew. It turns out that he was an offensive lineman for the UT Longhorn football team in Austin, and was on his honeymoon with his new bride (who was, in fact, a cheerleader). He very politely said that he had spent the night before watching our game, and was keen to play with us as “now I think I’ve got the hang of it.” Rosencrantz (all 160 lbs of him) immediately got a predatory glint in his eye that I had seen way too many times in years past, and as I looked back at the 280-lbs-with-no-fat Big Guy, I began to get nervous.
And well I might!
Rosencrantz quickly took control of the situation, introducing himself to the Big Guy and seating him on the adjacent bar stool. The new bride stood nervously behind, obviously not sharing her husband’s interest in the game nor his trust in those playing it. Smart girl. A quick (much too quick….) run-through of the rules ensued, following which play resumed. I noted that Rosencrantz had arranged the seating so that he would be the one rolling to the Big Guy.
The beer for ordinary penalties in the course of the game was supplied by the kegs behind the bar. The bartender seemed largely unalarmed as he kept the plastic beer pitchers filled. He had seen all this the night before, and had every reason to think another big propina was coming (it was). But when a 21 was rolled (or claimed to be rolled by someone then caught in the lie), special penalties came into play involving the supplies purchased earlier in the nearby town. In the large cardboard box were: 1) several plastic yard glasses, which had bulbs at the end and were about 3 feet high; and 2) several cases of airplane bottles of mescal (each bottle with its own little worm, which tells you something about the quality). The person faced with a special penalty could choose his method of execution, as it were. Equivalent amounts of tequila from behind the bar could also be selected.
As I had feared, Rosencrantz began cheating ruthlessly right from the beginning, with a clear aim in taking the Big Guy down. This surprised no one in our group. The fact that the Big Guy didn’t really understand the rules, with his understanding not being improved in the slightest by all the penalties, was not helping at all. I think it fair to say that the Big Guy had never, in what was undoubtedly a long and illustrious career on the gridiron, been so decimated by a another guy weighing over 100 lbs. less than him.
In our version of the game, if a 21 is rolled (or claimed to be rolled), the rolling of the dice reverses direction around the table. Because Rosencrantz was clearly seeking special penalties in his efforts to bag his big game target, the proceedings kept getting bogged down between the two of them, with the Big Guy desperately alternating between the yard glass full of beer, the airplane bottle of mescal (he was told eating each worm was a mandatory part of the penalty), or three shots of tequila from behind the bar. I heard him mutter, with increasing frequency as the night wore on, apologetic statements along the lines of “Oh, ok….I’ll drink…..I just thought the rule was…..but I see now what you mean…..”. I felt sorry for the guy.
Did I mention that Rosencrantz was, at the time, a high-dollar entertainment lawyer in LA?
The cheerleader was not amused, but was unable to get her new husband to disengage from the game (which he could not see was rigged, even though she very much could) now that his lifelong competitive instincts were aroused.
The rest of us drifted into our own conversations, since the dice never seemed to reach us. But we quickly turned around when we heard a high-pitched triumphant shriek from Rosencrantz. It seemed that the Big Guy had reached the limits of even his imposing physique. Throwing the half-full yard glass down into the sand,, his spine seemed to stiffen ramrod straight, and his eyes shot unnaturally open and stopped blinking. He then started to try to walk to a nearby bush, but was very unsteady on his feet.
Spontaneously, I pictured a scene from the Peter Falk/Alan Arkin movie “The In-Laws” and found myself yelling “Serpentine, serpentine!” as the big guy walked an invisible letter ‘S’ in the grass before spinning twice and falling dead to the ground with a thunderous crash that we could feel through the bottom of our feet. I would be lying if I said there was no regurgitation involved on his way down.
The cheerleader screamed and ran over to her fallen beau. She looked murderously at us, back on our barstools under the palapa, but before we could stifle our laughter and go help, a very efficient squad of resort employees appeared and grabbed various appendages of the Big Guy and hauled him off in the presumed direction of their honeymoon suite.
And then he was gone.
I couldn’t help but feeling a bit bad for the guy, and will confess to also having a thought about how he might react when he saw us the next day in what was, after all, a pretty darned small resort. Meanwhile, Rosencrantz seemed quite pleased with himself, and even cheated a bit less for the rest of the night (maybe having gotten it largely out of him system during the massive cheating earlier in the evening). And so we played on into the late night, to the strains of the music mixes I had brought down with me, flowing from the ancient boombox after sufficient propina had been delivered to stop the dreadful tourist music. The bartender might have liked the change from the usual tunes, but we couldn’t tell. He was fairly inscrutable, for which I don’t blame him a bit.